Transition of Leadership in Peoples Temple, the Branch Davidians, and Synanon

New Communal Studies Association Board Members Torang Asadi and Laura Johnston Kohl

(This article is adapted from a paper which Laura Kohl presented to the Communal Studies Association in October 2013.)

There are regulations and procedures for transitions of leadership in businesses, the military, politics, and mainstream churches. They existed as well – if in separate and distinctive ways – in three groups which are the subject of this paper.

The “Transition of Leadership” in Peoples Temple, the Branch Davidians, and Synanon each developed uniquely. Jim Jones was the first leader of his own church, and – from the first moment of its existence – fully intended to be the last. Jim’s path was to climb to the top of a mountain, which turned out to be a plateau rather than a peak. Once there, he met challenges he faced, as needed. Whatever he might have suggested along the way about passing on his role to a successor was never truly in his plans. David Koresh also found that he could use religion to begin his own journey to power, and he too never seemed to create a mechanism for passing it along to a successor. Chuck Dederich evolved with his organization, Synanon. At first, he was happy to have nearly total control, but as he grew with his community, he found that he loved a dynamic challenge. This allowed Synanon to develop vocal and strong leaders. It was this love of a verbal battle that saved his community from calamity.

Peoples Temple

Jim Jones’ journey began in childhood. He found that he could attract attention to himself through his storytelling and interesting projects. He moved on to observing different religious services, watching the dynamic attraction they held for different people in attendance, then applied what he learned as a pastor in the pulpit, gathering large crowds who came to hear him. From that position of nascent authority, he took a more controversial leadership role when he insisted on heading an integrated church. He would associate with important people as needed to further his goals for the church programs, but he was alone at the top of its leadership. He managed it, and manipulated those around him to maintain his exalted position.

In both Indiana and in his early years in California, he placed a few others into leadership roles. The Assistant Pastors, A. J. Ijames and Jack Beam, were visible parts of church hierarchy in Indianapolis, Indiana and Redwood Valley, California. By 1973, however, he worked hard not to share the podium – or the leadership role – consistently with any one person. He accomplished that by selecting a leadership corps which felt no need to share the limelight. The real power was there, behind closed doors. They knew a great deal about Jim, and they were sworn to secrecy about it. This – the power turned over to him by a compliant leadership and by the unadulterated worship of many of the followers – was what corrupted him. Those who did exhibit visible power in the Temple were often humiliated in public for any mistakes in judgment as Jim’s ace in the hole to keep them in line. He worked hard at being the one leader.

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As a child, Jim had visited different churches with his mother, with his neighbor, and then on his own. His behavior was eccentric, parading in robes, performing a show or experiment, showing injured animals, walking all around town just observing and investigating. He was raised in a poor household by a hard-working mother and alcoholic father. After the failure of his parents’ marriage, he and his mother moved to a nearby city. He was on a search for his identity, his way to be successful and to be appreciated. As he traveled around, he found his “calling” – or at least developed his method to achieve his goal.

Jim was very bright. He graduated from high school early, started college early, and was always keenly aware of human behavior. Just as he previously found a way to collect young children around him, he continued to find ways to draw crowds, especially with his use of religion. He would use the pulpit as the enormous magnet. He was a pastor with a Divinity degree, and was a member of the Disciples of Christ and other religious institutions. All that he really seemed to leave off in his plan was the role of God, or Jesus, or the Bible, or some heavenly entity.

Jim was always proactive in pushing for human and civil rights. He truly decried the racism so much a part of the American fabric. While I personally doubt that anything in religion actually spoke to him, I know that he never tolerated racism, or prejudice of any kind. Diversity and socialism were the lifelong commitments he pursued. But he was a spokesman for religion, and he took that responsibility seriously. He learned his Bible and could discuss any scripture with precision – that was his job – but that was not where his heart lived.

He began to build his membership and his organization. One strategy Jim employed several times was to move in on an already-existing place of worship. He tried it in the first church he preached in, which was all white, but left when church officials showed to him that they intended to remain segregated. He tried to co-opt Father Divine’s movement in Philadelphia as the aging leader of the Peace Mission neared death, but that also failed. When he came to California in 1965, he almost immediately tried to take over the leadership of the Golden Rule community in Willits. None of those encroachments worked. In a way, from the beginning, he operated in a back-handed way to achieve his goals.

His first church in Indianapolis welcomed an integrated congregation, and he knew he needed to integrate the pulpit. His own family was diverse – in addition to their own natural child, Jim and his wife Marceline had adopted a number of children from different racial backgrounds – but he needed to broaden out his appeal. He soon chose two Assistant Pastors: Archie (A.J.) Ijames, a devoutly religious black man; and Jack Beam, a white Indiana native who had joined Jim early in his preaching days. Both A.J. and Jack brought their families into the Temple and were part of the original Temple hierarchy. It was perfect for Jim to talk about integration and to show he believed in it.

But the two men would never be more than assistants, and Jim never mentioned transitioning out of leadership. He never left anyone with the notion that he would step down. He never delegated any of the major decision-making to them. They were there to carry out his instructions, and nothing else. It was clear early on that Jim dominated the role as leader and was not about to either minimize or share it.

By the time Jim and his followers had arrived in California in 1965, he had experimented enough within the congregation to solidify his strategy about sharing leadership. In Redwood Valley, he gathered a small group for planning church growth, which became known as the “Planning Commission,” or “PC.”  Ideas were discussed and developed, but Jim always made the final decision, often taking credit for PC suggestions. He also ridiculed any who spoke against his own desires or opinion. He used the group as a sounding board, but he also used it as a way to control and monitor the actions of many of the hardest working, most loyal, and potentially most ambitious leaders in the Temple.

Once Jim and members of the Temple began to travel to San Francisco and Los Angeles on a regular basis, he assigned significant leadership roles to strong individuals, such as Leona Collier, Johnny Brown, and Kay Nelson. They were the public figures. The real power was with his secretaries and mistresses who were shadow advisors.

During all of this time, he was careful not to allow anyone in the congregation to rise to a position where they could threaten his power. He orchestrated events so that he would always gain our admiration and respect, sometimes by having his most gifted advisers restrict their expertise to one finite area, sometimes by publicly commenting on some mistake they made, sometimes by creating another “expert” to rival the first one. He was a master at “divide and conquer.” He might also keep a person out of the limelight for a period of time just to limit their role. And he made sure never to give too much unconditional praise for anyone who might take some of his glory.

The acquisition of the Los Angeles Temple presented a new challenge, since it was difficult to control a church so far away. Jim accomplished this by assigning different members to be ministers when he was up north. Again, these people were the “face” of Peoples Temple, but not the power. Jim was particularly reluctant to put men in roles where people might transfer loyalty away from him.

There were many lies that were part of the framework of Peoples Temple. One lie, from as early as 1970, was that Jim would actually pass on the leadership of Peoples Temple. Over the course of the Temple’s history, he mentioned – publicly and/or privately – his wife Marceline, his son Stephan, Dale Parks, Johnny Brown, Mike Cartmell, David Wise, and others. He tried to manipulate different people into being subservient to him, dangling the possibility of leadership positions to get what he wanted. But the reality was, not only had he eliminated God and Jesus from the exalted positions they held in most churches, he worked hard to eliminate human competition.

The most tragic of Jim’s decisions about his leadership and his role happened in Jonestown. He lived in an outpost some twenty-four hours by boat from Georgetown. He was surrounded by farm-workers, who were too exhausted at the end of the day to give him his proper adulation. He would have infrequent visitors from the Guyanese government and other nations. He was used to hundreds and thousands of people greeting him in meetings each week, worshipping him and mesmerized by his commentary. He rejected Leo Ryan’s request to visit Jonestown, but lost the dispute when the congressman decided to come anyway. And then, when people from Jonestown wanted to defect – which he interpreted as a total loss of faith in him – he chose to make a final statement. He wanted to let the world know that he, and only he, was responsible for all things that happened in Peoples Temple. He did not share that infamy with any God, with Jesus, with any human being. It was him, alone.

David Koresh

The Seventh-Day Adventist Church was founded in 1863. The ideas which became the foundation of the Church developed during the Second Great Awakening period of US history, when many smaller groups were participating in a revival movement.

From early on, the church believed in prophecy and in the imminent return of Christ to our world. As its website states:

Seventh-day Adventists accept the Bible as their only creed and hold certain fundamental beliefs to be the teaching of the Holy Scriptures. These beliefs, as set forth here, constitute the church’s understanding and expression of the teaching of Scripture. Revision of these statements may be expected at a General Conference session when the church is led by the Holy Spirit to a fuller understanding of Bible truth or finds better language in which to express the teachings of God’s Holy Word.

The Seventh-Day Adventist Church currently has somewhere near 16.5 million members, with many churches, hospitals, and schools around the world. It has an international reputation, and international membership. While Jim Jones worked within the framework of the Disciples of Christ denomination, David Koresh found his way to an offshoot of this large and dedicated organization.

The “Transition of Leadership” as it applies to David Koresh and his followers is similar to that of Jim Jones. Koresh wanted a following. He saw the schism that had developed within an already-estranged group of Seventh-Day Adventists, and decided he would adapt his leadership style to attract a group of these same members.

Koresh’s path had its roots in California during the 1930s, when a conflict within the Seventh-Day Adventists arose. A Bulgarian immigrant, Victor Houteff, approached the church leadership with some new and controversial ideas. Although his ideas were rejected, and he was “dismembershipped,” he went ahead and published his book, The Shepherd’s Rod. By 1935, he moved to an area west of Waco, Texas and established himself as head of a splinter group. That group was named Shepherd’s Rod Seventh Day Adventists, which later became the General Association of Davidian Seventh Day Adventists. They based their religion – and changed their name to reflect it – upon their “Davidian” belief of the restoration of the Davidic Kingdom in Israel, before Christ’s Second Coming. Davidians believe that the president of the church must be endowed with the spirit of prophecy, so he can bring biblical truth to the church. Houteff confined the energy of his group to working with other Seventh-Day Adventists.

When Houteff died in 1955, two different factions of the sect pushed for predominance. The two groups were the Davidians, and the Branch Davidians. The larger of the two groups was headed up first by Benjamin Roden, and then his wife Lois. They each claimed to have received a message from God.

Lois Roden had created quite a stir when she introduced her own message from God, that the Holy Spirit was feminine.  She began on a path to open dialogue with other faiths, and published her magazine, Shekinah.  She invited both Christian and Jewish people of faith to engage in dialogue. Their son George tried to contest the leadership role his mother had taken over, but finally decided to wait it out.

In the early 1980s, Vernon Wayne Howell, who had been excommunicated from the SDA church earlier, returned, saying that he had a new message. He was not welcomed into membership, but did have intermittent contact with Lois Roden doing chores. In 1983, he was allowed to speak in the church, and within a year, he left the Branch Davidian church with his own followers. The same year, the Administration Building of Lois Roden’s Publishing offices and church were burned down, an act which Vernon Howell later admitted to, and justified it because God told him to.

When Lois Roden died in 1986, her son George did take over leadership of both the Branch Davidian church and the Mt. Carmel Center outside of Waco. The next year, Vernon Howell and some of his followers took part in a military-type assault on George Roden and his buildings at Mt. Carmel Center. Several of Howell’s followers were arrested but were found not guilty. Howell himself was also arrested, but his trial ended in a hung jury after he was able to persuade the courts that the Davidians were the ones who were mistreated. He and his followers moved into the Mt. Carmel Center. It was about this time that Vernon Howell became “David Koresh.”

David Koresh had successfully found his way to a position of power over a group of believers. When the U.S. government in the form of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms surrounded the property at Waco and initiated a 51-day standoff, they challenged Koresh and his followers. Even though David Koresh had changed the application of some of the tenets of Seventh Day Adventists, it is possible that his believers still expected Christ’s imminent return to gather his believers and take them to heaven for 1,000 years. A tenet of the SDA church is that there is non-immortality of the soul – that the dead have no consciousness. The standoff ended with a fire that burned the Mt. Carmel facility to the ground and killed more than 80 people, including 24 children, 4 ATF, and Koresh himself. Those Koresh followers who survived still wait for the return of their leader and the others who died during the siege.

There are many parallels between David Koresh and Jim Jones. They both looked for a way to enter a large, powerful organization and then carve out their own group of followers, while remaining nominally under the umbrella of the larger group. They each had disturbing personal relationships with members of their own groups. They kept their communities distinctly apart from the larger community and controlled the activity within the group. They were each corrupted by the power they had consolidated. And, they felt they were above or beyond negotiating to save the lives of those who worshipped them. At no point were they ready to lose face, even if it meant the death of everyone who remained with them.

The survivors of each group also have some similarities. Even with the horrific deaths, and with the loss of faith in many aspects of the leadership of both Koresh and Jim Jones, there are many regrets still. We lost wonderful friends. We lived harmoniously in a community unlike anything we have found since. And when we speak up for those communities, we are dismissed as apologists for the groups.


Charles E. Dederich – whom his followers called Chuck – started Synanon in 1958. As an alcoholic, he had participated with Alcoholics Anonymous and found that it left much to be desired. He opened his own drug and alcohol residential recovery facility in Santa Monica, California, so that both alcoholics and drug addicts could participate. Within a few years, many people joined to be part of the lively and dynamic community. Synanon continued to grow and buy additional properties around the country, including in Chicago, Washington, D.C., New York City, Marin County and San Francisco in California, among other locations. There continues to be a Synanon facility in Germany which recently celebrated its fortieth anniversary.

At the beginning, Synanon was run primarily to help drug and alcohol addicts stop using. It was a residential facility so that people could move in and establish a family and community in a clean, drug-free environment. Almost from the start, people who liked the idea of communal living flocked to the group. Just as AA assumes that an alcoholic will remain one for life, Synanon’s eventual position was that no one “graduated” but rather would always be an “addictive personality.” It was extremely successful over the years, with thousands of people coming through its doors and many of them leaving “clean and sober.” Others stayed within the group, adhering to the clean and sober lifestyle, while many of the earliest residents went on to form other drug rehabilitation facilities around the country, using some of the same practices. My brother-in-law was one member who came in as a long-time drug addict, and left never to use drugs again.

The primary therapy, aside from hard work and taking responsibility for oneself, was “The Synanon Game.” In this setting, eight or ten members would sit in a circle and talk, cajole, confront, scream and break through barriers with others in that setting. The most heinous charges, and the most miniscule, were handled with the same sledgehammer approach. People learned to say their piece and defend themselves, or counter-attack. One of my Synanon friends says that he found his voice by being in all of those sessions in which talking and communicating was actually possible. The Game cut through superficial issues, and we really got to know ourselves and each other.

A second, kinder Game was developed by Betty Dederich, Chuck’s first wife in Synanon. Even though she had come to Synanon as a drug addict herself, she was wise and intuitive enough to see the limits of that one Game. “Betty’s Game” sought to dig deeper into thoughts, reflections, and experiences, and wasn’t as accusatory or confrontational as the first game. Betty’s influence on Chuck and on all of Synanon cannot be understated. She brought depth and nurturing into the community. She could not only take Chuck on, and win, but she could sway the whole community to be more gentle and aware.

In the beginning of Synanon, Chuck was the dictator. He knew that dope fiends and alcoholics like him needed structure and rules – someone else’s rules – if they were to straighten out. He provided that, with insight, humor, and direct confrontation. Early on in his formation of Synanon, he admitted to filling the Board of Directors’ chairs with dope fiends who were easy to manage.

He had his own learning curve, and Synanon grew up along with him. The Synanon community became filled with addicts who had cleaned up, and with “lifestylers” who had used fewer, or even no drugs or alcohol. Strong egos developed in the Synanon Game. Chuck loved sparring with people, challenging and being challenged. Sometimes in a game, it would feel like two or more bull moose were butting heads against each other. That was the healthiest time in Synanon. For over a decade, Chuck and Synanon were part of a dynamic, interesting, and effective community.

In the early 1970s, some holes began to show in the governance. Chuck was involved in a number of bad decisions, beginning with one to pour a soda over a woman in the Synanon Game, which violated the most basic rule of the Game: “No violence, no threat of violence.” More bad decisions followed, exacerbated when Betty Dederich died. The next decade saw Chuck distracted by grief, and fighting to stay standing. But when Chuck and others introduced alcohol into Synanon, that was the beginning of his fall from grace.

However, where Jim Jones and David Koresh never allowed the rise of other strong-minded leaders, Chuck developed a real Board of Directors and a leadership group that had no interest in losing everything. When Chuck floundered, they took the control away from him before his own substance abuse and self-absorption led to irreparable or fatal consequences. It almost seemed that Chuck had schooled some community members to take over his leadership. He trained them in time of peace to be prepared for time of war.

Chuck was the leader. He started and then maintained the group for over two decades. Along the way, he had allowed – and pushed and prodded – others to share the leadership role, first with his wife Betty, and then with others. Chuck never saw his role in Synanon as being the final leader, and really counted on someone else – such as his daughter Jady, or his son DeDe – moving into the position.

Transition of power in Synanon was part of the process. Chuck swore by the independence of the individual as espoused by Thoreau and allowed it to bubble to the top of the community. Eventually, that powerful group – not so much an individual – did take on the leadership and make the decisions as Synanon emerged into its third decade. At the end of that third decade, the combination of the growing problems with the IRS and the evolution of Synanon residents led to the decision to close Synanon down.


The “Transition of Leadership” among the three groups discussed here depended mightily on the ego strength and the psychological health of the leader. In Peoples Temple and the Branch Davidians, the earliest bait was a relationship with God. Jim Jones became part of an established church – the Disciples of Christ – whereas David Koresh aligned himself with a splinter group of the Seventh-Day Adventists. Chuck Dederich first found some strength through God, as included in the Twelve-Step Program of Alcoholics Anonymous, but over time evolved into a belief that there is that of God in everyone, and that each person needed to be his own voice of reason and take charge of himself. Chuck modeled it for others once he saw that process. That allowed him to surround himself with others who could – and did – take charge when he lost his way.

(Laura Johnston Kohl, who had lived in Jonestown but was working in Georgetown on 18 November, died on 19 November 2019 after a long battle with cancer. She was 72. Her writings for this website appear here.)

(An extensive interview with Laura appeared in the March 5, 2017 edition of The Western Front, the news service of Western Washington University.)