Perhaps no question divides the surviving Peoples Temple community more than this one. There are many former members who not only believe Jim Jones had such a power, but who can testify to personal experience with that power. Others deny Jones’ ability in its entirety, insisting instead that he used manipulative but ultimately transparent methods to give temporary comfort to the susceptible and to draw in the vulnerable.
The division between former members does not correlate to what their relationship with the Temple was on November 18, 1978. Some of Jim Jones’ strongest critics at the time still hold to their belief in his healing; some people who were in Guyana that day disparage the claims.
Instead – and speaking in general terms, with notable exceptions – the belief in or dismissal of Jones’ power seems to depend upon when someone joined the Temple, with members from Indianapolis and Redwood Valley holding to the beliefs, and the relative newcomers in San Francisco and Los Angeles being more doubtful. Indeed, if there is watershed moment, it seems to have happened in 1968.
“Unfortunately most survivors lack any memory of Peoples Temple before its explosion in growth in the wake of Martin Luther King’s assassination and the opportunity that opened up for an evangelical mission to the black community of San Francisco,” one former member writes. “Their memories are limited to the period in which Jones, feeling himself increasingly overwhelmed by responsibilities, resorted more and more to faked healings in order to cement the loyalty of new followers.”
Beginning in the early 1970s – the period for which we have a much stronger documentary record in the form of audiotapes – more of the faith healings were faked. Eventually it seemed as if no one even made an effort to disguise how bogus they were, what with the regurgitated chicken livers, Temple secretaries dressing up as old women, and the same woman coming out of wheelchairs on different nights.
The leadership defended the change in tactic as a means to bring in newcomers who might stick around to listen to Jim Jones’ political message. On many occasions, the healing portion of the service was scheduled for the end of the evening, which would require any newcomers to hear what Jones had to say about racism and poverty before he moved on to the healings. As Jones says in Tape 1024, “If anybody gets me up and asks me any questions about, what did you do with your healing ministry? Were you using the church to lead people into socialism? I’ll say sure!”
But those who joined the church earlier recall significantly different experiences. “As one who was present from the spring of 1966,” the same former member writes, “I can ‘testify’ that Jim’s ability to heal, to reveal the future and to fathom the depths of one’s personal and our own collectively karmic pasts was evident a dozen times in any particular meeting and not open to question – public or private – by anyone I know of at the time.”
Some survivors who believe many of the healings were legitimate wonder about the psychological impact of their own belief in them. “Belief is a powerful force,” another member wrote, “and if one believes strongly enough, healing can happen. Is that what Jones was doing? Or were these really ‘miracles,’ healings effected by God? Perhaps we will never know.”
Finally, it is important to point out that every former member acknowledges, that while Jones was in the pulpit performing healings – whether they were faked or not – the Temple had tables set up in the back of the sanctuary to provide free medical services, and seniors were encouraged to avail themselves of the blood pressure checks and to receive immunizations and tests for sickle cell anemia. The Temple provided services outside its own doors, too, accompanying the elderly and sick to doctor appointments, following up with them to ensure they received proper – and professional – medical care for their illnesses.
For additional perspectives on this issue from former members of Peoples Temple, see “The Healings of Jim Jones” by Don Beck and “Temple Healings: Magical Thinking” by Mike Cartmell.