Why “the ordinary” is extraordinarily important: Researching Peoples Temple and Jonestown through the experience of the rank-and-file members

To date, most academic research on People Temple addresses questions about Temple history, Temple leadership, and how power was dispersed throughout the organization and the communities in which the Temple was located. This body of research is important because it highlights many of the characteristics that made the Temple successful in meeting its social goals and in constructing (and, ultimately, deconstructing) the organization itself.

Yet the Temple could only accomplish its goals through the members who are implied in Temple histories but never really heard from – the rank and file members, the people who were several layers removed from the inner circle of power. At the same time, it is these members who are potentially the most powerful allies in shifting the dominant popular view of Peoples Temple from that of a “cult” to a view that acknowledges its activist, social-justice imperative. Put another way, when we listen to the voices of the “average” Temple member, we may be less willing to view these members as unwilling dupes who simply followed their leader to their own demise.

What motivates my interest in Peoples Temple are the moments of excitement – of joy – that peek through the layers of history and silence and paperwork to remind us that the building and running of Jonestown was in many ways a great adventure undergirded by a sense of religious and/or social salvation. Consequently, the driving question (for me) is not so much “What was life in Jonestown like?” (the answer to that question has been partially explored, and it seems that the answer is, like the answer to most questions, “it depends”). Rather, my line of inquiry stems from the following broad question:

“(How) did the activity surrounding the proposal, building, and maintenance of Jonestown open up/close down the possibility of certain realities?”

To narrow that question a bit, one could ask,

“What opportunities did Jonestown – as a process and place – offer to rank and file Temple members?”

These general research questions suggest a whole host of follow-up questions, of which only a few are listed here:

      1. Did young adults in the Temple view their move to Jonestown as the next step in a lifetime of next steps (i.e., the way that college students view “going off to college”)? Or did they view Jonestown as a lifetime commitment or ultimate destination?

A follow-up question: How did the organization structure of Temple work (including the building of Jonestown) alter these members’ sense of self?

2. Did older members of Peoples Temple view the move to Jonestown as an opportunity to explore avenues they thought were closed off in their previous life? If so, did they find satisfaction?

In other words, did these members view Peoples Temple, and maybe more particularly Jonestown, as a second (or third or fourth) chance?

3. How was learning different in Peoples Temple with respect to job training and (how) did this impact members’ motivation, sense of self, and sense of community?

4. How did rank-and-file members define the Temple’s role with respect to local and global contexts? Further, can we identify trends, i.e. younger members holding a different view of the Temple’s mission versus that of older members?

The challenge in pursuing these and similar questions is one of data. The archival material available to researchers often merely hints at a partial answer to even the narrowest of questions. Still, the more I dig into the archival record, the more I am enticed to keep going. The records are endlessly fascinating because they speak of a time period when total cynicism didn’t reign, when social movements still had energy, and when groups of people took it upon themselves to imagine and build something they thought would be better than what came before.

(Heather Shearer is the Associate Chair of the Writing Program at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Her previous articles for this site can be found here. She can be reached at hshearer@ucsc.edu.)