(Emerson Maureen Stuckart submitted this thesis in January 2014 in completion of a requirement for a Degree of Master of Arts at the Heidelberg Center For American Studies at the Ruprecht-Karls-Universität-Heidelberg in Germany.)
TABLE OF CONTENTS
- Birth of the Reverend
- Peoples Temple Full Gospel Church
- The Exodus – California Dreaming
- God is Love, Love is Socialism
- The Jungle Paradise
- The Unwilling Boy Pawn
- Endless White Nights
- Let’s Make it a Beautiful Day
“The new heaven on earth represented by the Peoples Temple was first a church, then a subversive revolutionary movement, and finally a socialist utopia.”
Families lay next to each other. Mothers held their children tight to their chests. Friends and lovers of all racial backgrounds held hands. Almost all lay face down in the warm, tropic jungle, their bright and cheerfully colored clothing creating a stark contrast to the grim reality of the scene. This image, of almost 1000 Americans lying dead in the Guyanese jungle, has become synonymous with the legacy of Peoples Temple. On 18 November 1978, Reverend James “Jim” Jones systematically ordered the mass murder and suicide of his congregation. After the group and its demise was sensationalized in the American press, “Jonestown became a kind of lens through which the U.S. public viewed all new and alternative religious communities.” Peoples Temple would serve as a sort of litmus test, by which emerging new religious movements would be subject.
Peoples Temple was many things; new religious movement, socialist utopian experiment, and agricultural commune. The movement, which aimed to incorporate Marxist socialism within the context of Evangelical Pentecostalism, arose in the early 1950s. Under the leadership of ordained minister Rev. Jones, Peoples Temple transcended religious, social, and political ideologies. Originally, his congregation was strongly influenced by Evangelical Pentecostalism, as well as aspects of the Holiness Movement and the New Thought Movement. Peoples Temple did not begin as a deviant group, but as the movement grew and relocated, the ideological concepts evolved and the church began to move further from its roots – both dogmatic and geographic.
Rev. Jones began his movement as an attempt to combat growing racial tensions in Indiana. Disgusted by the fact that “Sunday was the most segregated hour,” Rev. Jones established his own racially-integrated church. The message was a combination of socialism and religious communalism. “He combined the Apostle Paul’s mandate for Christians to pool their resources and Karl Marx’s directive ‘From each according to his ability, to each according to his need,’ and called it apostolic socialism.” The goal was to create a safe, integrated place of worship, free from racial prejudice. Coinciding with his message of integration, Rev. Jones preached social awareness and the importance of creating a racially and economically equal community.
Peoples Temple is marked by three specific ideological phases, corresponding to the geographic locations of the church. The group began in Indiana but subsequently moved to California and then finally Guyana in South America. Each phase of Peoples Temple represents a dramatic shift in the ideology espoused by Rev. Jones, as well as a change in the lifestyles of members. Peoples Temple literally and figuratively moved further away from its Pentecostal roots with each exodus; Rev. Jones continually changed his message and created a fear of persecution, providing legitimacy for each geographic relocation.
As a small child, Rev. Jones was fascinated with religion. A poor boy seeking acceptance, he eventually found comfort and acceptance in a Pentecostal church. Religion consumed his adolescent years, and he began to preach equality and racial integration on the street corners of Indianapolis, Indiana. During the 1950s, Rev. Jones sought to provide a safe place for people of all ages and colors to worship. He began as an evangelical Pentecostal preacher, encouraging members to accept all members of society. As membership increased, Rev. Jones began to adopt apocalyptic millennialist tendencies, going so far as to suggest imminent thermonuclear war. Using this vision as justification, Rev. Jones encouraged the relocation of Peoples Temple to California, a place viewed as safe and accepting of all individuals.
In California, Rev. Jones and Peoples Temple continued as a religious group. He continued with his traditional Pentecostal practices, but slowly began to incorporate aspects of the social gospel and political Marxist theory. At this time, Peoples Temple evolved from a fundamentalist religion towards social activism. Marx and similar teachings replaced the Bible and the word of God. Rev. Jones became more politically active and encouraged members to live communally, sharing virtually everything in a cooperative, integrated social experiment. As the behavior of Rev. Jones became more erratic and members began to feel persecuted for their progressive belief structure, another exodus became necessary. By the middle of 1977, about 1000 members of the congregation, including Rev. Jones and his family, had moved to their own jungle paradise in Guyana.
Located on the coast of South America, Guyana represented everything Peoples Temple had been working towards. The country, once a former colony of Great Britain, had a majority black population. The government was socialist and the main language spoken was English. Members would not face persecution based upon their political beliefs and they would not have to learn a foreign language, though many had begun learning Russian. Guyanese officials were excited that such a progressive, integrated, and seemingly socialist group had chosen their country. Beginning in 1975, a select group of members began to carve a settlement out of the jungle, building a community space from almost nothing. Peoples Temple deemed their experiment an agricultural project, one they hoped to develop into a self-sustained utopian community. This phase of Peoples Temple is marked by more perceived cult-associated behaviors and activities, while outwardly projecting an image of socialist utopianism. Sadly, Peoples Temple ended abruptly in November 1978, when 918 people were killed or voluntarily committed suicide, what Rev. Jones claimed was a revolutionary act.
Comparable to other religious or social movements, Peoples Temple began to grow and change. Ideological rhetoric moved further away from the original Pentecostal liturgy and more towards a radical Marxist communal message. New religious movements often evolve as membership grows and the leader becomes more empowered. Public awareness, membership, even growth in the leadership contributes to the evolution of a given movement. It is important to analyze and understand Peoples Temple in the context of a new religious movement, rather than a cult organization. Use of the term “cult” encourages biased and negative opinions, as opposed to subjective and analytic ones. Peoples Temple was and will be considered as a new religious movement that experienced change and eventual devolution into a harmful organization that engaged in seemingly, but not necessarily, cult behavior.
Emerging during a time of intense racial segregation, as well as many burgeoning new religions, Peoples Temple attempted to create a colorblind, communal utopia. Rev. Jones was the harbinger of racial freedom, integrating not only his congregation, but his family. He attempted to revolutionize and radicalize race relations, religion, and socialism. The progressive nature of his message coupled with an integrated membership provided Rev. Jones with an adequate platform. Additionally, Rev. Jones’ multicultural family lent crucial legitimacy to his integrationist, equal rights message. As the adoptive father of both African-American and Asian-American children, his dedication could not be questioned.
To begin, this thesis will provide a brief background to both new religious movements and cults, as well as showing the importance of making an academic distinction between the two terms. Peoples Temple is often referred to as both, however this thesis will only consider Peoples Temple as a legitimate new religious movement. Chapter I will provide a background to Rev. Jones, focusing specifically on his introduction to religion. The chapter will then examine the creation and development of Peoples Temple as a Pentecostal church in Indiana.
Chapter II will follow both the ideological and geographic shift of the Peoples Temple. As the group migrated to California, Rev. Jones shifted his ideological rhetoric away from traditional evangelical theology and more towards socialism. The final chapter, Chapter III, will examine Peoples Temple in Guyana. During this phase of the movement, almost all traditional religious constructs were gone and Rev. Jones encouraged extreme socialist ideas.
Most literature focuses specifically on the time in Guyana, however this thesis will only examine the changing theological rhetoric, rather than proclaiming Peoples Temple as a cult organization. Specifically, the author hopes to provide insight into the purposeful transformation of Peoples Temple from a new religious movement into an aggressive agricultural commune located in South America. This thesis will examine the process of radicalization of Peoples Temple, looking at both the internal development of doctrines and the external context of the broader socio-political climate. Each phase of the movement, as well as their corresponding doctrines, will be analyzed, to show the progression from Evangelical Pentecostalism to extreme communalism.
The line between new religious movement and cult is frequently blurred and highly contested. While the terms are often used interchangeably, most scholars believe that the use of cult creates a negatively charged bias against any movement described in that manner. For the purpose of this paper, Peoples Temple will be referred to as a new religious movement unless the word “cult” is used in a direct quote.
During the 1960s and 1970s, the United States experienced a surge in new religious movements. A new area of study “arose in the context of the proliferation of countercultural movements…and the initial orientation of area of study was heavily influenced by the cult controversy of that era.” A major goal of this new field was to provide an academic definition for these new and continually developing movements. The objective was to avoid harsh criticism or a priori judgment of a particular new religious movement, but to provide an academic understanding and applications for society as a whole.
A new religious movement is defined as a religious community or spiritual group of modern, for the time of development, origins. They are markedly different from existing religions but are generally assigned to the fringe of dominant religious culture. Several current religious traditions, such as The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, began as relatively small new religious movement. As such religious movements become more popular and more mainstream, they are generally referred to as alternative religions. Scholar Eileen Barker notes that “no new religion would be regarded in quite the same light or treated in quite the same way after Jonestown.” Rather than utilizing Peoples Temple as a litmus test for emerging new religions, academics should understand the theological evolution, or devolution, of the movement.
On the other hand, a cult is defined as a deviant religious organization with novel beliefs and practices. Cults are often without a clear and consistent message. These groups are often spontaneous and short-lived. Cult is more often used to provide psychological or sociological analysis of a perceived deviant new religious movement. David Chidester, religion scholar and author, notes that, “The very notion of ‘cult’ seems to lead us to extremes.” Employing the term “cult” with regards to Peoples Temple marginalizes the members and ignores the theological foundation of the movement.
The distinction between a new religious movement and cult is integral to this thesis. Most available literature focuses solely on the tragic end of Peoples Temple. The ideological constructs present in Guyana are comparable with cult behavior and norms, but Peoples Temple did not emerge in that manner and certainly did not intend to evolve in that direction. By continually referring to Peoples Temple as a cult, scholars brand the movement as wholly deviant and disrespect both the original goals and those individuals who lost their lives. When Rev. Jones established Peoples Temple, it was characteristic of an authentic new religion, drawing on inspiration from Pentecostal teachings. As Peoples Temple grew in size and influence, Rev. Jones began to incorporate various religious and social doctrinal concepts. In this sphere, Peoples Temple meets the criteria for classification as a new religious movement.
Birth of the Reverend
“Reverend Jones described Peoples Temple as a church whose ‘door is open so wide that all races, creeds, and colors find a hearty welcome to come in, relax, meditate, and worship God.’”
James Warren Jones was born 13 May 1931 in Lynn, a small town in east-central Indiana. His mother, Lynetta, was considered to be progressive and crude compared to most women of the time period. Serving as the primary breadwinner for the family, Lynetta openly smoked, drank, swore, and wore pants almost every place she frequented. His father James, on the other hand, was ill and could not work. Instead, Mr. Jones visited the town pool hall on a near-daily basis. He was openly and violently racist; once, when his son brought home a young African-American boy, Mr. Jones became aggressive and threatened both children. Neither parent harbored any religious tendencies and often neglected their young son.
As a result of their neglect, and the lack of any brothers or sisters, young Jimmy, as he was known then, was starved for attention and acceptance. He searched for meaning and love, sampling a variety of religions present in Indiana. Thanks to his neighbor Mrs. Myrtle Kennedy, the young boy found his place in the church. Mrs. Kennedy saw that the boy had a gift for speaking the word of God and fashioned herself as “Jimmy’s spiritual mother.” Jimmy’s search for familial acceptance and love resulted in his visiting all the religious houses present in Lynn. He attended services frequently with Mrs. Kennedy, but also ventured out on his own. Eventually, Jimmy found his place at Gospel Tabernacle, a radical Pentecostal church located on the edge of town.
The already-marginalized Pentecostals represented the family and acceptance he was looking for. Jimmy was awed by the power the preacher held over his followers. Possibly, due to his need for a strong father figure, Jimmy saw the man as being a spiritual father for himself and the congregation. As a peculiar and solitary young child, Jimmy felt drawn to the enthusiastic and eccentric worship style of the Pentecostal church. Rev. Jones remarked later that he “joined a Pentecostal Church, the most extreme Pentecostal Church… because they were the most despised. They were the rejects of the community. I found immediate acceptance… about as much love as I could interpret.” At Gospel Tabernacle, his peculiarities were seen as a gift from God; here, Jimmy no longer felt marginalized or ostracized.
Pentecostal worship is marked by the presence of a charismatic leader. According to Charles Lippy, “charismatic characterizes any Christian in any church tradition who exercises one of the post conversion gifts of the Holy Spirit.” These gifts include prophecy, healing, miracles, discernment of the spirit, and glossolalia, or speaking in tongues. One who experiences any of these gifts is considered to be blessed by God. Pentecostals are also noted for their enthusiastic worship style. It is not uncommon to find worshippers speaking in tongues, falling to their knees, crying, yelling, or being healed by faith. Due to their enthusiastic and peculiar worship and belief styles, “Pentecostalism has always belonged to the marginalized.” Because Jimmy felt marginalized at home and by his peers, it is not difficult to understand why the Pentecostal church was appealing.
Even at a young age, Jimmy was fascinated with religion and death. He conducted religious services for neighborhood children and friends. After watching the Pentecostal preacher, Jimmy “set up a little church that he called ‘God’s House’ in the loft above the family garage.” In addition to proselytizing area children, Jimmy conducted funeral services for deceased animals. The services were peculiar and very ritualistic. One childhood friend believed that Jimmy had killed a cat, so that he could perform an elaborate burial service for the animal. Whether or not the killing actually happened is subject to debate, but what is evident is that Jimmy had a desire to completely engage in religion.
As he grew older, Jimmy began to hitchhike into nearby Richmond, dressed in a white robe fashioned from a bed sheet. There he would preach from street corners, drawing small crowds of both black and white listeners. “As he stood on that street corner waving the Good Book, he stressed the need for brotherhood and tied the message to the written word of God.” Prior to his street-corner preaching, Jimmy became fascinated with socialism and charismatic dictatorship during World War II. He was intrigued by the socialist constructs, but knew that they would never be appealing to a majority of Indiana residents, unless presented in a familiar manner. This intricate fusion of a socialist message cloaked in religious rhetoric would define the future Rev. Jones and Peoples Temple for many years to come.
During the early 1950s, Jim – the name he now preferred – worked as an orderly at a hospital in Richmond. Here he met a young nurse, Marceline Baldwin. “Marceline could not help but be drawn to the pure energy of young Jones. What she saw was a contagious personality trumpeting a wonderful dream…of making a better world.” Jim’s soon-to-be wife saw exactly what he projected to the rest of the world: a tenacious young man striving to combat racial and social injustices. Shortly after their marriage, Jim announced that he would be joining the ministry, believing “it would fulfill his personal need to lead people and would provide a forum, not to say a cover, for his controversial views.” With religion, Jim would finally have an acceptable and far-reaching platform through which he could spread his socialist and integrationist message.
Initially, Rev. Jones began studying as a Methodist preacher. In 1952, Jones became a student minister at the Somerset Methodist Church in Indianapolis. However, just as he had done as a child, he would study a variety of religious styles, before settling on the eccentric and enthusiastic Pentecostal. While the Methodist social creed was heavily representative of his own social beliefs, his preaching style remained strongly influenced by Pentecostalism. The Pentecostal worship, combined with faith healing and an emphasis on social outreach, suited Rev. Jones. The power he enjoyed over the congregation was important for the young man who had felt like an outsider most of his childhood.
“Pentecostalism came to represent both style and substance for Jim Jones: a style of vibrant, expressive worship, manifestation of the spirit, and faith-healing miracles; a substance, based on Acts 4:34-35, of sharing, cooperation, and mutual support.” The enthusiastic worship style, as well as the complete devotion to the preacher, suited Rev. Jones’ liturgical needs. He needed an adequate platform from which to spread his gospel of socialism and racial integration. Pentecostalism provided him with the best opportunity to gather and convert followers.
Additionally, the faith-healing aspects of Pentecostalism allowed Rev. Jones to convince his congregation that he truly was touched by the spirit and that his message was the true word. By supporting his goal of cooperative socialism with biblical sources, Rev. Jones legitimized the message for both his religious and political followers. Eventually, religion would become simply the presentation; once they were there, the package he presented was much more. With the Pentecostal platform, Rev. Jones could preach that everyone had a purpose, ensuring that everyone felt special.
Peoples Temple Full Gospel Church
As a student minister, Rev. Jones attempted to integrate the church by openly welcoming African American members of the community. Indiana during the 1950s was home to strong racist sentiments and the national headquarters of the Ku Klux Klan. While Rev. Jones attempted to combat these feelings, “It was one thing for white believers to nod in passive agreement when their preacher said that all humans were created equal in the eyes of God; it was quite another to stand shoulder to shoulder with a black person, sharing a hymnal.” After several families left the church, board members decided not to invite the young student minister back to lead their congregation. Frustrated with the hypocrisy of the religious institutions in Indiana, Rev. Jones established his own church in 1954.
Peoples Temple Full Gospel Church was a traditional Pentecostal church. Rev. Jones incorporated the main tenants of Pentecostalism into his sermons. These included faith healings, prophecy, speaking in tongues, and miracles. Sermons “reiterated familiar themes in evangelical Christianity: creation and fall, sin and redemption, personal evangelism.” Central to the message was acceptance of all individuals, regardless of race. Rev. Jones intended to bring individuals to the church by Pentecostalism, but hoped to keep them there to hear his message of racial equality. However, as the church grew in numbers, Rev. Jones began to adapt the religious worldview of his particular variety of Pentecostalism.
Because the initial church was based predominantly around the Pentecostal worship style, faith healings were integral to each meeting. The “healing ceremonies were glorious spectacles” but the amateur sleight of hand used to execute them were fairly obvious. However, most of the loyal followers did not mind the deception, simply because Rev. Jones’ message was so powerful. The healings served to fulfill the church’s designation as a Pentecostal establishment, as well as to encourage more individuals to attend the ceremonies.
Rev. Jones often employed a call-and-response worship style. His oratorical cadence varied, as he would draw the audience in. He would vacillate between slow and soft-spoken, then launch into a booming, fervent monologue. Asking his listeners to respond with cheers of “Amen,” Rev. Jones would find the enthusiasm to continue with his sermon. This call-and-response style of preaching resonated strongly with the predominantly African-American congregation. The enthusiastic back and forth liturgical dialogue between congregation and preacher is often found within the Baptist denominations, to which African-Americans largely belong.
Peoples Temple Full Gospel Church was a unique blend of religion and socio-political teachings. Rev. Jones emphasized the social gospel in both his sermons and his actions. The social gospel was a Protestant movement that attempted to use Christianity as a means of solving social problems. Urban ministry and extreme social reform through various outreach programs are key aspects of the social gospel. Peoples Temple drew upon this and established nursing homes, drug rehabilitation programs, soup kitchens, adult education classes, and free legal clinics. These actions are generally associated with “progressive middle-class Protestant denominations” but show how Rev. Jones created a revolutionary blend of religion and social action.
Peoples Temple Full Gospel Church grew rapidly and was supported financially by Jones’ own non-profit organization called Wings of Deliverance. The organization helped establish the programs in accordance with the social gospel aspect of the church. “During this period, Jones and church members knocked on the door of every black home in Indianapolis, working hard to build an interracial ministry.” Rev. Jones insisted that black members were treated equally, inviting them into his home and ensuring that they always had front-row seats for every sermon. One of Rev. Jones’ associate ministers noted that “Jones was hated and despised by some people, particularly in the white community.” His integrationist message, as well as actively integrating the church, broke new ground in race relations.
The late 1950s was marked by a shift in ideology after Rev. Jones was invited to meet with Father Divine. Father Divine, leader of the Peace Movement, represented “an exemplary model of the marriage of religion and racial equality.” The Peace Movement encouraged racial integration and communal living. Father Divine fashioned himself as a prophet, highlighting the importance of self-help, communal meals, and black capitalism.
Father Divine attempted to create a working model of an integrated society. In one sermon, he preached about the importance of harmony in religion and life, unity, the power of positive thinking, and most significantly, the need to transcend race.
I mention this because as mortality in its egotistic ways of expression rises and manifests itself in the mortal minded people as critics, there and then is the time I shall rise on the hearts and minds of mend as I have never done. Oh it is indeed Wonderful! I shall bring them from every so-called tried, from every so-called nation, from every so-called language and every so-called people. I shall bring them to the recognition of GOD in a Body, and they as well as you shall recognize their FATHER.
This passage is of note because Father Divine suggests that he is God, in corporeal form. Rev. Jones would adopt many of Divine’s techniques to his own repertoire, but one of the most significant aspects Jones employs is the concept of himself as the physical manifestation of God. Father Divine often “claimed to be God in an equivocal sort of way.” Rev. Jones’ grandiose claims would slowly escalate; after returning from his encounter, Rev. Jones “encouraged his congregation to call him “Father,” as Divine’s followers called him.” Establishing himself as a God-like figure would allow Jones to shape his doctrine in various ways.
While the traditional Pentecostal sermons continued to draw members, Rev. Jones believed that the faith healings and enthusiastic worship encouraged members to focus too strongly on the religious aspects of his message. After the meeting with Father Divine, Jones became convinced that communal living and socialism were the best methods with which to combat growing racism. The late 1950s marked the start of his ideological shift and the refocusing of his message. Rather than rely solely on religious rhetoric and practices, Rev. Jones would increasingly incorporate more socialist messages into the Temple.
In 1959, Rev. Jones delivered a landmark sermon where he presented his new style, consisting of a fiery oratorical styles and progressive subject matter that would dominate Peoples Temple for years. Along with the inclusion of an us-versus-them message, Rev. Jones “warned his listeners to wake up for the healings coming. ‘Either you endure sound doctrine when I preach it or you don’t hear it.’” While Rev. Jones referred to faith healings, he was also speaking of a metaphorical healing of society. This societal healing would only be achieved by adherence to the teachings and practices of Peoples Temple.
Peoples Temple increased its community services, and the Jones family became a living example of the message. After the birth of their first, and only, natural born son, the couple became the first white family in Indiana to adopt a black child. Rev. Jones and Marceline would create their own rainbow family, showing the world that integration, acceptance, and love for all races was possible. “At the pulpit, he could now relate his personal experiences with racism and thus gain credibility with his increasingly dark-skinned flock.” If the young minister practiced what he was preaching, then it would be difficult for anyone to doubt his authenticity and passion.
Rev. Jones’ message of racial equality, as well as his social and religious ideology, spread well beyond the walls of Peoples Temple Full Gospel Church. Drawing upon Father Divine’s influence, members began to actively protest racism in the area. The congregation would knock on doors in the African-American neighborhoods, spreading the word of a truly integrated church. By implementing Father Divine and the Peace Mission’s techniques and practices, Rev. Jones begins to move more towards the socialism that would define Peoples Temple. This key shift in ideological practices and principles signifies that start of Rev. Jones’ us-versus-them rhetoric that would escalate over the years.
Rev. Jones was increasing his socialist tendencies within the church, while Peoples Temple projected an outward image of a wholesome, albeit progressive, evangelical church. “By 1960, Peoples Temple had affiliated with the Disciples [of Christ], and in 1964 Jones was officially ordained a minister.” Prior to this, Peoples Temple was not supported by an overarching ecclesiastical authority. The choice of Disciples of Christ is fitting; the church is democratic oriented and aims for achieving wholeness. Historically, women and minorities played a strong role within the church, mirroring the integrationist aims of Peoples Temple. Minorities were featured prominently, and women were among the inner circle that helped run the church.
As a recognized Disciples of Christ church, Peoples Temple was required to perform two rituals – full immersion baptism and communal meals. Communal meals, as described in the Book of Acts, were already a key part of Rev. Jones’ social gospel. Religiously, the purpose of communal meals is to celebrate and reenact the Lord’s Supper. Peoples Temple members frequently ate together, as well as provided community meals for the homeless and less fortunate. Full immersion baptism is a ritual experience, used to signify the individual fully accepting Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior. For Rev. Jones, baptism, like faith healing, was performed only to satisfy the needs of the more religious members. Rev. Jones utilized traditional religious ritual as a method of drawing religious followers; however, once they were captivated by the movement, he would emphasize the socialist message over the religious.
Disciples of Christ, like Peoples Temple, advocates humanitarian and social outreach. As a part of the Restorationist movement, Disciples of Christ attempted to return religion to apostolic Christianity. Under this, followers believe to legitimately proclaim the message of God. Essentially, they profess and believe to be the only Christian denomination that represents the genuine word of God. The goal is to speak and follow the Bible as it is written. There is no room for excess interpretation, and where the Bible is silent, followers are silent. Additionally, followers are encouraged to actively engage in selfless acts of community service. Giving back to those less fortunate mirrors the attempts by Christ to spread goodwill and redeem the sins of mankind. These religious concepts allowed Rev. Jones to seamlessly blend his socialist message into the religious doctrine of the evangelical church.
Holiness and the holiness movement were also significant contributors to the early Christian message of Peoples Temple. Traditionally, the holiness movement believes that individuals can achieve sanctification if they accept Christ as their personal savior. Rev. Jones incorporates this belief structure, replacing himself as the Christ figure. Technically, Peoples Temple does not completely adhere to traditional Christian dogmatic practices because Jesus Christ is not necessary for the salvation experience. However, the early church located in Indiana experienced and practiced more traditional Christianity than any other geographical incarnation. “At one time, the Holiness movement concentrated much of its attention on social issues and public morality.” Peoples Temple adheres strongly to the public service and communal ministry; providing service for those less fortunate would break down socio-economic and racial boundaries.
Through the use of faith healing, baptism, glossolalia, and strong biblical overtones, Rev. Jones was able to address each religious member in the crowd. For the non-religious members, Jones would include his socialist and integrationist message. Peoples Temple began to move “towards communism under the guise of Christian communalism.” Fusing Marxist teachings with scripture allowed Rev. Jones to convince his religious and non-religious followers that religious communalism was the best way to combat racial segregation.
Eventually Rev. Jones incorporated apocalyptic millennialist concepts into the theological framework. Millennialists adhere to the belief that the world will be destroyed in an apocalyptic event, wherein all non-believers will perish and the faithful will reign with Jesus Christ. Peoples Temple deviates from this theological construct in two ways. First, the apocalyptic event is not a result of growing secularism but rather heightened racial tensions. Second, the redeemer figure of the Last Judgment is Rev. Jones as opposed to Jesus Christ. These differences are significant because they show how Rev. Jones adapted traditional Christian constructs within the theological rhetoric of Peoples Temple. Rather than adhering to traditional Pentecostal constructs, Rev. Jones created a new movement, one that appealed to a wide spectrum of individuals, from strongly religious to politically active non-believers. As former member Laura Johnston Kohl remarked, “Everyone would get the message they wanted to hear.”
Jones began receiving a series of visions predicting the “impending capitalist apocalypse.” Fearing the worst, Rev. Jones relocated his family to Brazil in the hopes of finding an isolated socialist paradise. For two years, Rev. Jones attempted to establish a commune in the jungles of Brazil, while running Peoples Temple from a distance. Just as he had done as a young child and as a student minister, “Jones explored some of the Brazilian cults,” such as Macumba. The tribal religion is marked by a fusion of traditional cultural aspects and Roman Catholic, European influences.
While in Brazil, Rev. Jones began to move beyond the strict confines of Christianity towards a variety of native religions, going so far as to begin to view himself as a shaman and deity. The transition from preacher and father to prophet and deity was inevitable, considering Rev. Jones’ adoption of Father Divine’s techniques. Father Divine established himself as a God-like figure to his followers, a construct Rev. Jones would attempt to emulate almost immediately. After returning from Brazil, Rev. Jones began to refer to his aura; merely the physical presence of Rev. Jones could heal illness and increase spirituality. This concept is pivotal in new religious movements “to the extent that a movement emanates from a revelatory/mystical experience by the leaders and the leader’s charismatic authority remains the primary internal power base.” Implying that proximity to his aura was directly related to the spiritual experience, Rev. Jones ensured that few members would leave the church.
As a result of the church’s extensive outreach program, coupled with the progressive integrationist mentality of both the leader and members, Rev. Jones was appointed to the Indianapolis Human Rights Commission. Peoples Temple was cited as the quintessential progressive church, one that genuinely practiced and lived Christian ethics. The influence and power of Rev. Jones was overwhelming. During one service he proclaimed, “Don’t worship me, become like me.” Success of the social message was not without some negative responses. Rev. Jones, utilizing the us-versus-them rhetoric adopted from Father Divine, began to speak of persecution against members.
The perceived persecution of Peoples Temple reached a peak when the property was vandalized and Rev. Jones claimed to have received death threats. Simultaneously, the rhetoric during services escalated. Almost each sermon drew parallels to the biblical exodus; Peoples Temple was the righteous word of God and they were thusly being persecuted for espousing the truth. Consistent with the apostolic aspects of the religion, Rev. Jones established a parallel between the apostles of Christ and Peoples Temple ministers. Just as Christ’s apostles were persecuted for returning to the true word of God, so would Rev. Jones and his flock be persecuted for living in a true Christian manner.
“In January 1962, Esquire magazine published an article listing the nine safest place in the world to escape thermonuclear blasts and fallout.” Believing that Indianapolis would be annihilated in the ensuing nuclear fallout, Rev. Jones cautioned his followers that an exodus west was necessary. Again drawing on biblical constructs, Jones creates legitimacy for the religious aspects of Peoples Temple. Members espousing such beliefs are portrayed as modern Israelites, persecuted for their progressive integrationist Pentecostalism. Because the trip to Brazil proved unfruitful, Rev. Jones decided to look westward.
Peoples Temple in Indiana was a unique blend of evangelical Christianity and socialist thought. During this time, Rev. Jones studied a variety of religions, seeking to incorporate as many theological influences as possible into his unique movement. Originating as a traditional evangelical Pentecostal church, Peoples Temple gradually but steadily evolved into a progressive social movement with religious foundations. Through the use of standard theological practices, such as faith healing, glossolalia, and enthusiastic worship services, Rev. Jones was able to draw members from a variety of religious backgrounds.
The strong integrationist and increasingly socialist message was appealing to members and non-members alike. Rev. Jones and his congregation were lauded for their attempts to reform and combat racism in conservative Indiana. The Jones’ adopted an African-American child; Marceline Jones was often called names and spat upon when in public with her adopted child. Yet these acts of aggression strengthened the resolve of each member in the congregation. Proof that their beliefs and social outreach impacted the Indianapolis community, Rev. Jones and Peoples Temple redoubled their efforts. Soup kitchens, shelters, and nursing homes were opened. Classes and legal assistance were offered to the poor, free of charge. Resources were pooled into a communal offering, to be shared by all members.
However, as a result of growing racial and political tensions in both Indiana and the rest of the United States, Rev. Jones began experiencing apocalyptic visions. In these visions, thermonuclear war would result in the complete eradication of the Midwestern United States. Apocalyptic millennialist theology gradually began to influence Peoples Temple. Fearing for the safety of both his members and his message, Rev. Jones began to urge his congregation to embark on a westward exodus. In northern California, Rev. Jones would expand his ministry, increase his social and political message, and fully develop the theological worldview that would define Peoples Temple.
The Exodus – California Dreaming
“If Indianapolis represented the conservative heartland, then California signified the progressive frontier.”
In July 1965, about 140 Peoples Temple members loaded their worldly possessions into their cars and began the migration to California. Roughly half of the group was Caucasian families, the other half African-American. Believing that thermonuclear war was imminent, Rev. Jones had convinced a majority of his congregation to flee the conservative and bigoted Indiana. The impending war, according to Rev. Jones, was a result of growing racial tensions in the United States. Peoples Temple was meant to serve as an example of the perfect socialist utopia, masked as a religion. California, specifically Ukiah, would act as a natural barrier, protecting the congregants from nuclear fallout. Rev. Jones was convinced that the liberal landscape of California would be provide the perfect home for the burgeoning religious and social movement.
After the Exodus, Peoples Temple began searching for a church where they could worship. However, California was not the idyllic refuge Rev. Jones had envisioned. Members were turned away from various churches and some African-American members were refused apartments. “During an outing to swim in Lake Mendocino, local bigots baited the group, calling them ‘niggers’ and ‘nigger lovers.’” Due to the negative experiences members had with local Californians, Peoples Temple members became increasingly suspicious of non-members. This suspicious attitude would manifest in recruitment and member initiation practices.
Eventually Rev. Jones bought land in Redwood Valley. There they built a space that served as church, community center, farm, commune and home to the Jones family. “The Temple was a large wooden building…There were floor-to-ceiling windows and a beautiful stained-glass one behind the podium with a dove in flight.” Community members also built a swimming pool in the center of the building. The pool served as a recreational tool for the group and was also where Rev. Jones performed baptisms. The land and community they created in Ukiah mirrored the socialist utopian message. Rev. Jones sought to show that individuals of all races could live together in harmony.
The idyllic, isolated location of the Ukiah church was the perfect choice for the burgeoning movement. “World-rejecting/transformative movements are organized as collectives, families, and communes…Since these movements are collectivist in organization, maintain strong separation from conventional society, and diminish individuality, movement leaders are more likely to exhibit strong charisma claims.” These types of new religious movements tend to focus energy on maintaining the righteousness of information provided solely within the group hierarchy. Members often engaged in aggressive and active recruitment, while at the same time maintaining a high level of skepticism of outside members. Peoples Temple California encouraged a strong separation from society but maintained a reliance on aggressive recruitment techniques to continue membership growth. The isolation of members allowed for the development of a new theological outline, one that would continue to be hypocritical with regards to Christianity.
The move to California marked a substantial dogmatic shift. During this time Peoples Temple became more of a social and political action movement. Members increased their outreach programs and often actively campaigned on the behalf of local politicians. According to a member who joined Peoples Temple in California:
There was a great divide at first because most of the new California members were progressive atheists, non-dogmatic Christians, Buddhists, or New Age types. Even the Baptists who joined from San Francisco were more progressive than the group that Jim had brought from the Midwest. But Jim soon brought us all together in one cohesive group, his core group of supporters. Later on, more traditional Christians joined in once the ministry started visiting San Francisco, Los Angeles, Seattle, and other smaller cities.
Naturally, Peoples Temple attracted a variety of social activists and progressive individuals seeking an alternative to traditional groups.
The ideological refocusing of Peoples Temple occurred gradually over a period of several years. Services still included the charismatic flair of early evangelical Pentecostal services. However, the dogmatic message became increasingly politically and socially motivated. Rather than focusing specifically on the Bible and belief in God, Rev. Jones espoused the idea of “God Almighty Socialism.” Through actively living a communal lifestyle, serving the less fortunate, and devoting one’s life to the Temple, a member could achieve whatever salvation they sought. “The religious history of California is filled with stories of maverick religious leaders taking their people outside the boundaries of their traditions general practice, sometimes dangerously.” In order for the transition to be palatable, Rev. Jones would need to shift the doctrine and rhetoric gradually.
“Apart from the civil rights movement, the 1960s promoted a mood of openness that encouraged people to respect diversity and thus to move freely among different lifestyles and worldviews.” In other words, the political and social atmosphere of the 1960s explains how Peoples Temple and Rev. Jones could push a socialist agenda without total religious cover. Religion tinged with socialism became a socialist revolution tinged with religion. California represented the progressive, revolutionary landscape, and Rev. Jones was the apostolic prophet sent to combat racism, sexism, ageism, and elitism through the living gospel of socialism.
By 1968, “Peoples Temple was granted official standing within the Christian Church, Disciples of Christ, Northern California-Nevada region.” Continuing with the traditional Pentecostal liturgical styles established in Indiana, services were enthusiastic and prominently featured healings. One member remarked, “I watched as the young people began dancing around, happy, comfortable, not the least bit self-conscious.” Sermons continued in the call-and-response style. The “magnificent interracial and intergenerational choir would sing the most exhilarating hymns and songs. Many of the songs were original, and many were re-written to reflect the Temple philosophy.” Congregants would mingle, clap, and sing with members new and old. After the congregation was sufficiently enthused, Rev. Jones would walk towards the pulpit. The atmosphere of most services was electric.
The implementation of the communal socialist concepts began much as they had in Indiana. Members were encouraged to donate portions of their paychecks during the weekly meetings. Those who did not work were asked to provide any money they had or to volunteer their time. The elderly, most of whom lived in Temple-run nursing homes, sold their houses and turned over Social Security checks. These individuals were more than willing to give everything they had to the Temple, because the Temple provided absolutely everything they needed. Temple homes were luxuriously furnished, each resident had their own room, and Rev. Jones ensured that they were constantly looked after.
Younger members were encouraged to live in Temple-sponsored dorms. The communal housing reduced the amount of money they would spend and ensured they were being indoctrinated with the Temple message around the clock. Additionally, “the college students began some paramilitary training to prepare for the post-nuclear world. [They] jogged every night, practiced field navigation using a compass and flashlight, studied guerilla tactics, memorized portions of Karl Marx’s Communist Manifesto, and sang ‘The Internationale’ at the close of each evening devotion.” Rejection of Christianity increased and was replaced by Marxist and socialist training under the guise of apocalyptic millennialist beliefs. Yet, it would be several more years before Rev. Jones openly rejected the Bible and Christian theology. The younger members were presented with the socialist message before most of the congregation; this was due to the fact that the majority of them had rejected religion and joined the Temple based upon its social welfare and communal message.
However, because many members, mostly the older African-American congregants, still had strong religious beliefs, Rev. Jones continued to employ traditional religious rituals in meetings. Elaborate healing ceremonies occurred at the end of each meeting. “Over the years, many people joined the Temple so that their loved ones or they would be cured of an illness or protected from another sort of evil. Jim was seen as a protector, and a lot of people felt themselves to be in danger of illness of violence.” During these ceremonies, individuals would expel cancerous growths, either in front of the congregation or privately in the restrooms. Afterwards, Marceline Jones would present the growths to the congregation while they clapped, sang, and prayed. Rev. Jones was able to recruit a wide spectrum of followers essentially due to the fact he gave them an opportunity to be a part of something bigger than themselves. Religious aspects, including healings, were a key facet of the conversion process.
Another important evangelical construct that Rev. Jones continued with was his gift of prophecy. However, like many so-called religious prophets before him, Rev. Jones utilized his loyal inner circle members to gather information. “Others dug through trash bins collecting personal data for his supposed revelations. They were crafty and brazen. Inside, [a Temple member would] take an inventory of the residence…and pass the information along to Jones.” In addition, members would be planted around the audience, secretly passing notecards with information gathered on new members attending the meetings. Those who participated actively in his deceit did so believing wholeheartedly in his message of apostolic socialism. Realizing the need to capture and maintain the belief of the more religious members, “those who stayed accepted the fraudulence to receive the message, one that became a combustible mixture of sacrilege and socialism.”
During the late 1960s, several members, including Rev. Jones and his wife, were working in various social outreach sectors. Marceline Jones was employed as a social worker. Two loyal members, sisters Hyacinth Thrash and Zipporah Edwards, ran a Temple-funded nursing home. Other members worked as teachers, nurses, social workers, secretaries, and construction workers. Rev. Jones taught low-income middle school students, using the opportunity to recruit more members. The message of serving one’s community became more than a message; apostolic socialism and community activism became a way of life.
Just as he would during church services, Rev. Jones would not rely on provided textbooks in his classroom. Rather, he preferred to moderate heated discussions between students and espouse his socialist beliefs. This reliance on personal anecdotes and reiteration of outside negative forces is a key building block of new religious movements. “As a way of reining in freedom of choice, a new emphasis was also placed on the dangers of external constraints, such as those imposed explicitly by government…and freedom of choice meant exposing oneself to alternative experiences that would help develop these voices.” In this, Rev. Jones ensures that the perceived free choice made by members is favorable for the church. This model encourages freedom of choice within the church structure by suggesting restriction by and persecution from non-members. Rev. Jones provided the only information members needed, while simultaneously suggesting that all outsiders were wrong or misinformed bigots.
God is Love, Love is Socialism
The years in California represented the complete construction of Peoples Temple theological outline. The construct consists with four key points: (1) The Skygod does not exist, (2) genuine God is in the form of the divine principle, (3) God is represented by a physical presence, i.e., Rev. Jones, and (4) deification is possible for all members. These theological principles were only vaguely developed in Indiana; however, the rapid increase in membership, coupled with the isolation of members, provided Rev. Jones with an adequate platform to finally complete his vision for Peoples Temple. “In California, he shed Midwestern convention and embraced the Golden State’s emphasis on sensation.” The migration to California allowed Rev. Jones to adapt, change, reinterpret, and reinvent the dogma of Peoples Temple.
All four points of the theological outline serve to discredit traditional Christianity and the Bible. In arguing that the Skygod does not exist, Rev. Jones forces his congregants to search for a replacement. The other-worldly God creature, in the eyes of Rev. Jones, was responsible for the suffering of mankind. The “blind and superstitious worship of Skygods, spooks, or unknown gods [is] intrinsically linked with acquiescence to tyranny.” Rev. Jones employed the use of such negative rhetoric in several sermons. Often he argued that belief in such a creator was illogical, and that such worship resulted in control of the believer. In 1974, he went so far as to ask his congregants, “And you believe in God?” The rejection of traditional Gods or God-like figures is commonplace in new religious movements; the leader wants and needs to be the quintessential figure literally and spiritually for his or her followers.
The logical next step in the rejection of an ethereal God is to replace said God with a physical figure. According to Chidester, Rev. Jones first employed the gnostic redeemer myth before completely rejecting God all together. In this, Rev. Jones notes that the Skygod had forsaken all humans, and he alone would save them from damnation. Former member Deborah Layton said, “Jim explained to me how he and I needed to help the poor, how those who remained drugged with the opiate of religion had to be brought into enlightenment – socialism.” As the physical manifestation of God, Rev. Jones could save, feed, protect, and liberate his flock.
I’ve sincerely and conscientiously not only attempted to prove, but I have proven that you cannot base your faith upon the Bible. Did you get what I said here tonight? You cannot do it. You can’t do it. If you have any doubts about that, I’d hit the floor. I wouldn’t be hypocritical about it, I’d get it out. And you’ll not find anyone with the para-psychological, extra-dimensional, the paranormal, the ESP, whatever you wish to call it, the pre-cognitive, the extra-terrestrial, or paranormal, it makes no difference what you name it, para-psychological, as I said, or the gifts of the Spirit, you’ll find no one that has them developed on this continent to this intensity.
The previous quote is from a sermon given by Rev. Jones in 1972. This specific excerpt is of note for several reasons. In it, Rev. Jones implies that he is the only human on the continent given the power to understand and discern the fallacies of the Bible. However, he does not completely reject the religious, as he names the “gifts of the Spirit” as one possible source for his power. These gifts are prevalent in the Pentecostal faith and something he claimed to have had while establishing his early congregation in Indiana. The Bible, for Rev. Jones, represents nothing more than a set of stories utilized by religious leaders. Faith cannot be found in the Bible or in God; the faith for Peoples Temple can be found in the church. God is manifest in corporeal form as Rev. Jones.
Unfortunately for Rev. Jones, his rejection of the Bible and traditional Christianity would not be consistent or total until the movement’s final relocation towards the end of the 1970s. In fact, he needed Christian theological constructs to expand the doctrine of Peoples Temple. Jesus Christ, he noted, represented the corporeal form of God on earth, sent to suffer for the sins of humanity. By arguing for the corporality of God, Rev. Jones reiterates traditional Christian theology. Rev. Jones did not wish to repent for the sins of mankind, but rather wished to liberate and save mankind through the living example of socialism.
Rev. Jones began to incorporate more Christian themes into his own origin story, claiming that he was born via Immaculate Conception by a more evolved celestial body. The combination of Christianity and celestial bodies was a common theme of new religious movements during the time. In conjunction with proclaiming his other-worldly origins, Rev. Jones went so far as to claim that the source of religion was celestial.
But there’s much higher developments than this. But there no planet out there that’s got dominion over all of these forces in life. And I think some people coming up with theories now that I’ve said a long time ago, that lot of the stuff they got in the Bible was just contact with an outer world. But you won’t get contact again, in that mechanical contact, you won’t be lucky enough to get it, because [of] the long time that it takes to get here.
The inclusion of non-Christian theological constructs is interesting, but reflects Rev. Jones’ growing desire to introduce new themes to his congregation. The more bizarre some of the concepts appeared, perhaps attempting a communal socialist utopia would seem ordinary, if not logical. Celestial themes would appear infrequently; eventually Rev. Jones would abandon the construct entirely.
During one service, Rev. Jones argued the importance of sharing communally with those in the church, proclaiming, “When one was not sharing, we would be touched with a fuse of their infirmities and would bear it and would be happy to share whatever we had and possessed to the good and the welfare of every other person. I’m saying a hard saying that’ll cause many of you to wonder whether you’ve come the right way, but now is the time to wonder.” Using Christian terminology throughout his sermon, Rev. Jones finds a way to include a small mention of socialist communalism. Instead of making socialism the main topic of the sermon, he is able to support the necessity for the socialist gospel with the biblical gospel.
Gradually, but steadily, Rev. Jones established his platform of social revolution. The purpose of such a revolution, he argued, was to combat the subclassification of persecuted peoples. Under this construct, Rev. Jones attempted to create equality for African-Americans, women, and the poor. This worldview could be accomplished by a lifestyle of communal socialism, wherein no individual was treated differently and all resources were shared. In establishing such a community, bigotry would be abolished and the true meaning of religious would be understood. Divine love would be the only way in which people could honor the life and death of Jesus Christ. Interestingly, Rev. Jones viewed himself as the Christ redeemer figure, however, he faced some challenges admitting this role publicly. Privately, he viewed himself as the central figure, but publicly could not object to those members who still held to Christian theological constructs. Traditional theology broadened the audience Peoples Temple could reach; proclaiming to be a God outright would cause a decline in membership.
Social justice, specifically for African-Americans, was called for based upon the life and teaching of Jesus Christ. Combatting racism was the gospel, however the majority of leadership was comprised of attractive, young, white females. The only prominent figure of color was associate minister Archie Ijames, who served to show prospective members that African-Americans and whites could lead side-by-side without disaster.
Surprisingly, violence was not considered appropriate to combat the perceiving growing injustice. While Peoples Temple admired the goals of the Black Panthers and anti-Vietnam protestors, Rev. Jones felt that utilizing violence only served to discredit the movement. However, behind closed doors, violence was sometimes used to discipline disruptive or argumentative members. It is important to note that this particular form of violence was only observed by key inner circle members, and that the majority of the rank-and-file members were unaware of its occurrence.
More frequently, members willingly assisted in the deception and control of other members, rather than resorting to violence on a mass scale. The rationale behind such actions was that eventually divisions would arise naturally due to group dynamics. As a result, “the staff becomes dependent on the founder for policy directives and for serving as the spiritual center of the movement.” This reliance upon the leader was systematic and deliberate; Rev. Jones had been establishing himself as the ultimate source of knowledge for years through a variety of means.
Former member Deborah Layton recalled being told by a top aide, “‘we all come into the fold ignorant. The longer you stay near Jim’s energy and power, the more you will learn and understand. Right now, you are like a small child, but as you stay and grow you will advance and become enlightened.’ She smiled. “We believe in reincarnation. Jim was Lenin in his last life…’” Here, Rev. Jones has incorporated a central construct of Indian religions with political and social activism. By combining the two, the message of ignorance without his presence becomes more palatable. One cannot be fully reborn into the righteous life of socialism until they accept Peoples Temple and Rev. Jones into their hearts and minds. Again, he includes non-Christian theological concepts into the worldview.
According to the Temple theological’s worldview as established in California, God is principle, principle is love and love is socialism. Under this, Rev. Jones argued that socialism was love, the Bible, and God. Baptism, as required for the Disciples of Christ designation, was performed to give one’s self over to apostolic socialism, rather than Jesus Christ. Rev. Jones served as the “messianic incarnation of socialism.” The unique blend of pseudo-religious constructs with Marxist-Leninist socialism allowed Peoples Temple to attract members as well as praise from area politicians and news outlets. The theology of Peoples Temple was anti-theology in that it promised salvation and liberation, religious concepts, through non-religious means.
Martin Luther King, Jr’s assassination in 1968 shocked the nation. After Dr. King’s death, Rev. Jones argued that the racial war/apocalypse was inevitable. Using the high emotional fragility of the African-American community, Rev. Jones presented the racial utopia of Peoples Temple to mourning individuals. Bringing a majority white group to memorials for Dr. King, Rev. Jones showed poor African-Americans that integration on all levels was indeed possible. The rest of the nation no longer hoped that social activism would change the world, but “the message [of Peoples Temple] was the dream is alive.” Most members wanted to change the world, recruited other individuals who wanted to change the world, and honestly believed that they could accomplish that goal. The politically- and socially-charged environment of the late 1960 and early 1970s provided Rev. Jones and Peoples Temple with a chance to seize opportunity. Essentially, the assassination of a prominent African-American leader gave Rev. Jones a chance to suggest that the race war was imminent and present Peoples Temple as the best alternative to life as most currently knew it.
The various techniques of recruitment were utilized to establish race as his primary platform, as well as to legitimize the message. Activism was central and Rev. Jones ensured that his congregants viewed him as understanding the predicament faced by those of the underclass. During one sermon, Rev. Jones proclaimed “‘When I look at all those unhappy honkies, I’m glad I’m a nigger.’” According to the Peoples Temple worldview, being a “nigger” meant one understood the plight of the underclass; even if one looked white, he or she could possess a black heart. Because Rev. Jones had grown up poor, he possessed a black heart, and thus could be the only one to spread the message.
By the mid-1970s, Peoples Temple had grown to an estimated 5000 members, 80% of whom were African-American. Between 1972 and 1975, Peoples Temple expanded its ministry from Ukiah to Redwood Valley, San Francisco, and Los Angeles in order to accommodate the growing congregation. Members would engage in aggressive recruitment. They spent hours walking in poor African-American neighborhoods, passing out flyers and encouraging people to visit the Temple to hear Rev. Jones speak. Several flyers advertised “Reverend Jones’ miraculous healing powers.” Once again, the image presented to the outside community was one of a traditional, albeit progressive, evangelical Pentecostal church.
Recruitment techniques included other traditional Pentecostal methods. Peoples Temple proselytized using radio and television programs, cross-country revival tours, and religious tracts. The contradiction between the socialist message and religious recruitment methods became wider. Rev. Jones would employ religious methods to recruit followers; “once there, he would work at re-directing them into activism. He wanted a heaven on earth.” Evangelical Pentecostalism was no longer a belief for Rev. Jones and, to an extent, his followers. Religion had become a means to an end. The rejection of Christian theology increased at the same time Christian recruitment methods were aggressively utilized.
Eventually Peoples Temple purchased a fleet of Greyhound buses, eleven in total. Each weekend, members would cram into the buses, ready to spread the word of Peoples Temple in California and across the country. These buses also helped facilitate the development of the satellite churches in the surrounding areas. “The Los Angeles Temple was set up chiefly as a way station and recruitment center. Los Angeles was much bigger than San Francisco and included large black communities in the center city, Watts, Compton, and elsewhere.” Members went to Los Angeles almost every weekend to walk neighborhoods, pass out flyers, and scout prospective new members. These bus trips were done in the style of grand revivals, travelling across the country to cities with prominent African-American populations, under the guise of spreading the word of Rev. Jones’ miraculous faith healings. Houston, Detroit, Chicago, Philadelphia, and Washington D.C were among the top cities frequently visited. In reality, meetings in these cities discussed the merits of socialism and the promise of racial freedom out west.
The charged atmosphere of California and the United States surely aided Peoples Temple in its quest to gather more members. As Peoples Temple scholar and family member to key members of the movement Rebecca Moore notes, “Civil rebellions and antiwar protests in America’s cities provided the backdrop for the rapid expansion of the Temple from rural northern California in the late 1960s to urban San Francisco and Los Angeles in the early- to mid-1970s.” People were seeking for a place to engage in the events of the era; long-time church goers became fed up with the overwhelming hypocrisy; educated middle-class young adults desired an organization wherein they could fulfill their philanthropic pursuits.
As the revolutionary atmosphere heated up, both inside and outside the church, Rev. Jones’ rhetoric began to intensify. He began to portray the “United States as Babylon, the Apocalypse as race and class warfare that would engulf a society trapped in its own hypocrisy.” Drawing upon current events, Rev. Jones would argue that only those living under the guidelines of divine socialism would lead the new world, once the current one destroyed itself. A gender-, race-, and social class-blind society was the salvation for mankind. Activism through social welfare, as well as in the political sphere, granted Peoples Temple vast legitimacy within the community. Members were well-regarded and Rev. Jones became a significant political ally.
Membership increased significantly; individuals such as local deputy District Attorney Timothy Stoen provided legitimacy for Peoples Temple in California. Through Stoen, Rev. Jones was able to connect with local area politicians. Increasing their public outreach and social welfare programs, Peoples Temple also began actively engaging in political affairs. Members were used as campaign volunteers; they knocked on doors, registered people to vote, answered phones, and filled empty chairs at political rallies. The use of members as political assets signifies the important transition from a strictly religious organization into one of social activism.
Support for the idealistic group came from across the country. Peoples Temple and Rev. Jones received letters applauding the group’s efforts from the following: local newspaper columnists, San Francisco and Ukiah police chiefs, then-Governor Ronald Reagan, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, and President Richard Nixon. The overwhelming outpouring of support likely stemmed from the group’s social outreach efforts, as well as member’s outward appearance. “To build a positive image, Jones required his group to be well-groomed and clean cut, to register to vote and to be model citizens.” Scholars believe that this was to avoid drawing suspicion to questionable activities, but the outward presentation follows points laid out in Rev. Jones’ social gospel. However, there is no question that the outward appearance helped their image and recruitment, as well as Rev. Jones’ political clout.
Not only were the members convincing Californians of the benevolence and social efficacy of Peoples Temple. “Jones built peace treaties and alliances across the political spectrum, and called in political debts with the aggression of a backroom power broker.” The political connections granted Rev. Jones a little more freedom in expansion and provided him with legitimacy within the community. No matter what strange rumors some people heard, they could be brushed aside due to his personal connections and the reputation of the Temple.
During the mid-1970s, Rev. Jones became a more prominent public figure. In 1975, Rev. Jones was named one of the most influential clergymen in the country. He actively campaigned for San Francisco mayoral candidate George Moscone; without the Temple voting bloc, Moscone would have likely lost the election. “It was common knowledge that the church voted as a bloc.” In 1976, he received the Los Angeles Herald’s Humanitarian of the Year award, as well as an appointment to the San Francisco Housing Authority. Lastly, Rev. Jones became active in Jimmy Carter’s presidential campaign; Peoples Temple provided a large supportive audience for Rosalynn Carter’s California visit.
Tim Reiterman, prize winning journalist and Peoples Temple researcher, notes that “At a grass-roots level and in the chamber of bureaucracy, the Temple’s most effective public relations instruments were the people themselves.” Despite the praise given to Rev. Jones publicly, the rank and file members in the community were the ones truly spreading the message. Temple members lived the social gospel; they were employed as social welfare workers, police dispatchers, probation officers, and other similar professions. Those employed in the private sector preferred to work as laborers at the lumber mill. They appeared to be hard workers, kind, generous, and genuinely interested in the welfare of others, particularly those in the lower classes.
“Meanwhile, Jones’ message was quietly evolving. The more he studied the Bible, the more he noticed the number of errors, contradictions, and inconsistencies it contained.” Religious beliefs were being increasingly pushed aside and replaced by a revolutionary socialist message. Devotion to Rev. Jones was intended to replace devotion to capitalism and the Skygod. Calling out the righteousness of traditional religious beliefs during a meeting, Rev. Jones asked congregants, “If you don’t need a God, fine. But if you need God, I’m going to nose out that God. He’s a false God. I’ll put the right concept into your life…if you’re holding onto that Skygod, I’ll nose him out, then length every time.” Years prior, Rev. Jones would not have dared to openly reject traditional Christian concepts. Now, with a large body of loyal followers and extensive public praise, he had nothing to lose.
Church meetings became very intense, yet most members were willing to comply. For the most part, Peoples Temple was an interracial, intergenerational, multiclass organization committed to changing the world. However, as the membership and political influences of Rev. Jones increased, Peoples Temple became “much more than just a church on Sunday …; it was a life commitment.” Devotion became something to boast about, as well as something to use as a threat. As members threw themselves deeper into the inner-workings of the church, they would argue their devotion was more intense than others. Stanley Clayton remembers bragging about how little sleep he would get each night; they were made to feel guilty for taking luxuries such as sleeping or eating out at restaurants. Eventually, members forgot to think for themselves and allowed Rev. Jones and prominent members of the leadership to think for them.
Former member Garry Lambrev recalls the time requirement that was expected of members, but also the energy felt during those meetings. “We had two meetings a day and Jim was the pulpit; the living, waking, acting pulpit.” Rev. Jones’ enthusiastic and charismatic leadership style, even while requiring an inordinate amount of devotion from members, is extremely commonplace within new religious movements. “Charismatic leadership is pivotal in new religious movements to the extent that a movement emanates from a revelatory/mystical experience by the leader and the leader’s charismatic authority remains the primary internal power base.” In order to maintain his authority, Rev. Jones had to continue to be appealing to his audience. The energy and expectations were high, but because he and his message were so powerful, members willingly obliged.
However, in stark contrast to the public image of a social gospel oriented, evangelical Pentecostal church, the internal dynamics began to change. Rev. Jones began to demand the loyalty from members, almost to the breaking point. Members who left rationalized their decision to reporters, stating that the “loving atmosphere gave way to cruelty and punishments.” These claims and use of corporal punishment are not uncommon for new religious movements, however it is important to note that Peoples Temple is the exception, not the rule. Rev. Jones had begun to abuse a variety of drugs, increasing his paranoia and erratic behavior. His internal need to exert control and ascertain loyalty from members became an almost obsessive compulsion.
The alleged physical and verbal punishment inflicted upon Peoples Temple members is fairly typical of indoctrination techniques. Members were encouraged and often forced to attend catharsis sessions, wherein flaws or actions perceived to be against the church were brought up publicly. The accused individual would then be verbally degraded, even physically punished. “The verbal attacks became more virulent and menacing, until one day, Jones ordered the first members to be spanked with a belt. Once that line was crossed, beatings became de rigueur.” These sessions, though questionable and obviously horrifying, were designed to force individuals into giving themselves over to the cause. “From inside the Temple, monitoring, catharsis sessions, and physical punishment seemed necessary to maintain standards of acceptable conduct and prevent internal dissension from taking hold.”Additionally, public reprimands theoretically would reduce the likelihood of the individual acting out or speaking out again for fear of reprisal.
As a way of rationalizing the degrading behavior he seemingly forced upon unruly members, Rev. Jones argued that “the residual effects of the larger society needed to be ripped away like dead skin.” Physical and verbal humiliation was a way to give oneself to socialism. To be treated like a subhuman was to understand the plight of those who are classified as subhuman, specifically the poor and African-Americans. “Among the techniques of control used by founders…are loyalty tests, expulsions, playing leading members off against one another, frequent shifts in policy…public humiliations and confessions, the use of violence against enemies both internal and external, and changes of physical location.” Control and loyalty are two main factors a leader must maintain in order for a new religious movement to be successful. Rev. Jones needed to exert large amounts of control over his congregation in order to maintain his messianic role.
Another aspect that was strangely controlled was sexuality. Gathering extremely personal information had become commonplace; Rev. Jones utilized certain pieces of information to both exert control and profess his prophetic abilities. “Using all this ammunition, Jones created a sexually eclectic climate of intolerance disguised as tolerance, of guilt, repression and division.” It is possible that the sexual atmosphere was a response to the counter-culture movement and sexual revolution occurring outside Temple walls. However, it is more likely that sex and sexuality was another method of control. By assigning himself as the only viable sexual object, as well as claiming to be the only true heterosexual, Rev. Jones ensured the focus of members would revolve around the cause and nothing else.
As Peoples Temple moved far beyond its Pentecostal origins, the rhetoric and dogma changed as well. Religion no longer held any interest, nor served any real purpose for Rev. Jones. Revolution and the attempt towards social utopianism had become the primary focus. Stanley Clayton remembers that while Rev. Jones needed to speak the language of each individual member, the most important thing to him was activism. During one service Rev. Jones threw the Bible onto the ground, arguing that it was responsible for the oppression of African-Americans for years and they would no longer seek salvation from the biblical heaven or the Skygod. “We’ll have to bring heaven down here.” Heaven did not represent a Christian place of eternal salvation, but rather a worldly existence free from racism and economic oppression.
“At a certain point, Jones decided no one could leave his church.” Having finally established the community, the interracial family that he had desired his whole life, Rev. Jones was hesitant to let anyone go. Many members could not afford to leave, as they had donated most of their belonging to the church. Some members were simply terrified to leave. As a test of loyalty and devotion, Rev. Jones had members sign false confessions, to be used against them. Temple members admitted to a variety of false crimes, including molesting their own children. None of the confessions were real, and the Temple never actually used them against any member who left, but the threat was enough to keep those considering defection to stay put. “Over the years, Jones’ warnings became direr: leave and you will die.” The Temple and the cause meant everything; abandoning all they had worked for would result in disaster.
Rev. Jones was becoming increasingly paranoid, convinced that their progressive movement was threatened. In 1973, Peoples Temple was rocked by a defection of an interracial group of young adults, known as the Eight Revolutionaries. Citing hypocrisy within the Temple hierarchy, the defectors claimed that African-Americans did not account for any of the inner circle. In a revolutionary organization, they argued, socialism should be the focus, not sex or corporal punishment and degradation of members.
This semi-high profile defection, coupled with several more in the following years, increased Rev. Jones’ paranoia. Many of the later defectors were prominent members of the church, making their statements to the press more credible, as well as giving Rev. Jones more cause to be nervous. Sermons after these defections focused on the perceived persecutory atmosphere of the United States. “Three times they shot me, didn’t they…They threatened us if we stopped them in their acts of crime against people, that they would – they had letters that would tell various lies, cause that’s all they could do.” It is now known that the assassination attempts, much like the faith-healings, were staged events. However, the appearance that their leader had had attempts made on his life only strengthened the persecutory atmosphere. Claims of wiretapping, infiltration, CIA and government espionage, and threats to dismantle the movement flooded Peoples Temple. The San Francisco Temple caught on fire and had to be rebuilt. While most of the flagrant attacks against the Temple were staged in one way or another, the fire was mostly likely the result of faulty wiring and was a legitimate accident. “The great temptation of apocalyptic eschatology is to externalize good and evil in terms of present historical conflicts.” This dualistic nature is consistent with the preexisting us-versus-them rhetoric that appeared as early as Indiana, although this dualism also strengthened the siege mentality that gripped many of the members. Rev. Jones had been attacked, their church had been set ablaze; someone must want them to stop.
After the defections, the increased paranoia, and the burgeoning press coverage that was not always positive, Rev. Jones made his feelings regarding group suicide known. In a bold gesture, Rev. Jones invited several inner circle members to the church for a New Year’s Eve celebration. As they sat around, cups of wine were distributed. Waiting until all members had finished their drinks, Rev. Jones announced that they had all consumed poison and would die together in the church. Many screamed, some sat still, others attempted to run out of the room only to be subdued by one of Rev. Jones’ bodyguards. Nearly an hour passed before he admitted that it was only a test and they had not consumed poison after all. Later, one member believed it to be a rehearsal, to see if he was omnipotent enough to get members to kill themselves on command. Such rehearsals would occur frequently in Guyana.
For the first time since the establishment of Peoples Temple in Indiana, the press became more critical, some news outlets going so far as to suggest that Rev. Jones was possibly a cult leader. Their arguments, however, were very well founded. As a result of the attempts on his life, Rev. Jones began utilizing bodyguards, as well as armed paramilitary volunteers to patrol the Temple grounds. Usually members who walked in off the street were granted immediate access to meetings; now, newcomers were carefully screened to determine if they met the ideals of the Temple.
The evolution of Temple dogma occurred rapidly while located in California. With the increase in members, as well as Rev. Jones’ political alliances, Peoples Temple developed the infrastructure necessary to live according to their socialist doctrine. Moving away from evangelical Pentecostalism and towards social activism, Rev. Jones constructed a pseudo-religious worldview that essentially rejected religion. African-American membership dominated the Temple and the majority of members were willing to leave their original theological beliefs behind. Rev. Jones became teacher, father, reverend, prophet, savior, and for some, God.
As a result of his self-aggrandizing beliefs, increased usage of narcotics, and defection of key members, Rev. Jones became extremely paranoid. Staged assassination attempts, unverified threats, vandalism, and sensational newspaper articles appeared to confirm Peoples Temple’s worst fears; someone was out the destroy their work. However, members that were sent to Guyana were unbelievably excited. This exodus, unlike the one from Indiana, served two purposes. On one hand, they were seeking escape from the racism and oppression of the United States. On the other hand, they were embarking on a grand socialist journey. “Some wanted to escape the ghetto. Others wanted to be part of a bold social experiment.” Just as they had over a decade prior, members found themselves embarking on another exodus, only this would be their last.
The Jungle Paradise
“Temple members referred to the settlement as the promised land or freedom land. In the end, it would only be known as Jonestown, a place of misery and death.”
Rev. Jones and Peoples Temple leased a large tract of land in the Guyanese jungle, after scouting several other locations. Rev. Jones’ experience in Brazil led him to believe that the group needed to relocate to South America, but sought a different place. Guyana fit all the criteria. As a former British colony, its native language was English. Unlike Brazil, where Rev. Jones had a difficult time navigating the language barrier, members would not have any trouble assimilating into Guyanese culture and dealing with Guyanese officials. Most people were poor blacks and the government was sympathetic to socialists. The relationship was mutually beneficial; the area of land purchases provided Guyana with a buffer against Venezuela. Additionally, the economy of Guyana would most likely be stimulated by the group. Obviously, these were not the only reasons Guyana allowed a massive group of Americans to emigrate, but the geopolitical implications of the Temple’s presence were certainly a key factor. Guyanese officials were sympathetic to the oppression of this unique socialist group.
In 1974, the first jungle pioneers were sent to Guyana. This small group of men would painstakingly clear the jungle, plant a variety of crops, as well as erect several buildings that would eventually become housing, a school, a health clinic, and a kitchen. Mike Touchette, one of the pioneers, described the experience as being the ultimate aspect of Temple membership. They created an idyllic utopian community out of nothing. For many, Guyana represented the climax of Peoples Temple doctrine. In the isolated South American jungle, they would finally be living the socialist utopian dream.
Within months, the Peoples Temple Agricultural Project, which eventually came to be known as Jonestown, had established a self-sustaining community out of wild jungle. “There was a real sense, before Jones arrived, that they were creating a new world. Jonestown was a clean slate for everyone. You could shed your old self and become someone better there.” After arriving, the new residents of Jonestown pooled their resources together. This meant that any belongings brought from the United States were given over to be sorted and distributed as needed. In Guyana, communalism would become more than a platform or an idea, it would become a way of life.
In addition to the jungle settlement, Peoples Temple maintained a headquarters in the Guyanese capitol of Georgetown. Here the predominantly female staff would meet those arriving from the United States. These staffers would help clear arriving members through customs, show them around town, and provide them with a rest stop before the long journey into the jungle. Rev. Jones attempted to gain political alliances, just as he had done in the United States. Paula Adams, longtime member of Peoples Temple, was stationed in the Georgetown house at Lamaha Gardens for the sole purpose of entertaining the Guyanese ambassador. She served as the de facto public relations officer for Peoples Temple in Guyana. Obtaining connections was easier in some ways and harder in others. Money, more often than ideology, could encourage officials to support the Temple. Additionally, the use of attractive white women, a sight not often seen in Guyana, could persuade customs officials to overlook certain pieces of luggage or inspire prominent individuals to lend their support.
By the time a small but functional community had erected itself in the Guyanese jungle, “the concern of the organization shifted to supporting and maintaining the Peoples Temple Agricultural Project.” Members still remaining in California were relegated to fundraising to support the commune, sending supplies, and spreading word of its success. The once-dominant political force in California politics no longer existed as most members began to migrate to South America. Instead, both Rev. Jones and other key members began reaching out to foreign leaders who were supporters of or sympathetic towards socialism. Rev. Jones began openly praising Soviet and Cuban leaders for their socialist efforts. Temple member Edith Roller noted in her journals that Rev. Jones began speaking more about socialist countries, describing the efforts they make to educate the youth and the value of living a socialist communal lifestyle.
Back in the United States, however, Peoples Temple was fighting a revolution against increasingly negative press. Members were leaving and discussing some of the more bizarre practices of Peoples Temple. Grace Stoen, whose husband Tim served as a Temple lawyer and who was arguably the second most influential member next to Rev. Jones, claimed that her son was being held hostage by the church. The custody battle between Grace Stoen, Tim Stoen, and Rev. Jones would wreak havoc on the Temple both in California and Guyana. Other members who had left but remained silent, now came forward and described unimaginable things happening in the church. Mostly, former members discussed the staged healings, public corporal punishments, and possible fraud being conducted with senior’s Social Security checks. None of these people believed any harm would come to their relatives, but that did not stop them from speaking. One couple, however, did change their name after receiving threats and harassment from suspected church members. This group would eventually call itself the Concerned Relatives, but would not engage in anything productive, in terms of contacting loved ones in the church or seeking legal action, until 1978.
The development of such apostate groups is part of the development of new religious movements. As David Bromley articulates,
The emergence of organized, committed apostates who threaten the movement’s mission is another significant development. Such apostates infuriate their former movements by allying with movement enemies; frequently reveal movement secrets that render the movement more vulnerable to social control agencies; become a focus of media attention that can inflame public opinion against the movement; and play a major role in the legitimation strategy of opposition groups seeking to discredit targeted movements. It is not unusual for movements to feel compelled to lash out against those whom they regard as the worst type of traitors.
With regards to Peoples Temple apostates, involved members attempted to discredit those individuals who left, or deflect attention altogether. Letter-writing campaigns praising Rev. Jones and the efforts of Peoples Temple became increasingly commonplace. Members would use their access to a wide variety of addresses, thanks to many working in the non-profit and social welfare sector, and send thousands of letters to congressmen, mayors, police chiefs, even senators. The purpose was to show that the few individuals speaking out did not represent the public or internal perspective regarding Peoples Temple.
Mike Prokes was one of the members sent to Guyana, responsible for recording video messages for the congregants remaining in California. He later remarked, “Jonestown had nothing to hide….The project was talked about far and wide in Guyana.” The videos sent back featured member’s messages to those who had not made the journey yet. Each individual spoke about the beauty and simplicity of life in Jonestown.
Jim brought back enticing movies from his last visit there. Everyone looked happy and they wore colorful tropical attire. They didn’t have to work these miserable hours. They slept more than four hours a night. No one had circles under his eyes…All the letters we received from Jonestown spoke only of happiness and relief that finally everyone could live free and safe from the corruption of capitalism.
Those who remained in California were forced to tackle all the responsibilities they already possessed, as well at the responsibilities of those who had already departed for Guyana. Many were overworked, getting very little sleep each night. The relaxing tropical paradise shown in those videotapes from Guyana promised a relief from the stressful, persecutory life they were living in California. Life was hard in Guyana, yes, but most there felt that living in a fully integrated community free from worldly possessions was precisely for what they had worked so hard.
Jonestown “billed itself as a socialist utopia, where persecuted minorities could live in dignity free from ageism, sexism, and racism.” This jungle socialist paradise was progressive and extremely experimental. Everyone was expected to do their part, but that was the sheer beauty and essence of Jonestown. Each Peoples Temple member owned a piece of Jonestown, simply because they helped forge the utopian paradise with their bare hands. This dream, however, was not without challenge. “The lease shall within two years from the date of the commencement of this lease cultivate and beneficially occupy at least one-fifth part of the area of the land.” Simply put, by 1978 Jonestown was expected to produce enough crops to feed all inhabitants. Additionally, Peoples Temple members had to build and live on at least one-fifth of the land purchased from the Guyanese government.
Members worked hard to build a livable, viable, and productive community. Many were not accustomed to the difficult physical labor and tropical climate. However, members began migrating to Jonestown faster than adequate housing could be erected. The increased amount of settlers “put great stress on the nascent settlement. The pioneers had constructed fifty houses to accommodate four persons each. But soon each cabin was crowded with eight, sixteen, twenty people.” The escalating number of immigrants overwhelmed the community. Even as the population grew to almost one thousand members overnight, “spirits nevertheless remained high, as people believed they had escaped the problems of inner-city life: drugs, crime, poverty.” It was better to be creating something beautiful with brothers and sisters, rather than suffering under the bondage of the “racist” United States.
By 1977, Rev. Jones was facing a serious crisis. Tim Stoen, who had once considered Peoples Temple to be the greatest thing he had ever experienced, defected. The loss of such a high ranking and influential member, both within and outside the Temple, devastated Rev. Jones. Laura Johnson Kohl notes that “he was tortured by the defections and the personal betrayals, and could anticipate but not tolerate the consequences he faced individually.” Tim Stoen united with his estranged wife Grace and other members of the Concerned Relatives. Together, these former members began to wage a war on Peoples Temple. Unfortunately, a small boy would factor largely in the press coverage as well as the decision to pack up a substantial number of members and flee to Guyana, under the cover of darkness.
The Unwilling Boy Pawn
John Victor Stoen was born to Grace Stoen on January 25, 1972; the child’s paternity – Tim Stoen or Jim Jones – would be the subject of debate for the balance of the Temple’s life and beyond. All parties went so far as to sign a legal document claiming that Rev. Jones sired the child, at the behest of Grace and Tim. According to the document, Tim was unable to father a child and Grace willingly allowed Rev. Jones to impregnate her. According to the document, Rev. Jones was hesitant to comply, but agreed after both Tim and Grace proclaimed him to be the “most compassionate, honest, and courageous human being the world contains.” The affidavit would become the most important document in Temple history.
The legal uproar created by this child could have been avoided, had Grace Stoen taken John-John, as he was affectionately known, with her when she defected. However, she has noted that she believed the threats made on her life by Rev. Jones and Temple members were legitimate and did not want her son to be harmed because of her actions. Like other children in the Temple, he was also being raised communally. The communal raising of children was believed to foster independence and self-reliance, rather than an unhealthy attachment to biological parents. Children who were perceived to be unique or special were placed in the homes of high ranking and extremely active Temple members.
Rev. Jones presented the child as his own flesh and blood. After Grace Stoen defected, the Temple used the affidavit as a way of presenting her as an unfit mother. What mother, they argued, would leave her son in the hands of an organization that she claimed was harmful? The document served as a way to discredit her and gave Rev. Jones legal precedent to hold onto the child. However, he eventually became convinced that both Stoens would attempt to regain custody. The premonition was correct: in 1977 California courts granted Grace Stoen physical custody of her child. Unfortunately, it was too late as Rev. Jones had sent John-John to Guyana.
John-John was showered with affection, and many of Rev. Jones’ children viewed him as their brother. He adored the attention and was treated better than many of the other residents. But his putative father was working diligently to try and take him back to the United States. John-John was systematically programmed against his own mother, being told she was a “‘capitalistic whore bitch.’ Tim, on the other hand, despite the paternity question, was held high in the boy’s esteem.” Although he tried not to, Tim loved his work with Peoples Temple and believed that their efforts to create a socialist utopia were worth staying. Certainly he wanted to spend as much time with his son as possible. Rev. Jones monitored their interactions, not wanting John-John to prefer Tim over himself.
Fortunately for the Concerned Relatives, and unfortunately for John-John and Tim, Rev. Jones became paranoid that Tim was a CIA operative. His paranoia became undeniable when he uncovered “Stoen’s new, secretly obtained passport.” This illicit action signaled to Rev. Jones that Tim was planning on defecting and joining his estranged wife in her attempts to reclaim her son. Eventually the constant harassment, questioning of loyalty, and surveillance became too much for Tim Stoen and would lead to his eventual defection in 1977. This action inevitably helped the Concerned Relatives, as he had access to all Temple legal documents and was essential in many of their under-the-table financial matters.
The custody battle for John Victor Stoen was integral in the attempts of the Concerned Relatives. If Rev. Jones turned over custody to the Stoens, then precedent would be established: all members seeking to regain custody or even contact with their family members in Guyana would be legally allowed to do so. Moreover, Rev. Jones would have lost any and all bargaining power in keeping the Concerned Relatives at bay. The custody battle featured heavily in the scathing expose of Peoples Temple written by investigative journalists Marshall Kilduff and Phil Tracy. Titled “Inside Peoples Temple,” Kilduff and Tracy outlined the peculiarities of Temple membership. Days before the article was to hit newsstands, editor Rosalie Wright called Rev. Jones to read him the article and ask for any corrections of comments. As she read the piece, which raised concerns regarding member practices, suggested Rev. Jones be investigated formally, and argued the group was a cult, he wrote a note to Deborah Layton. “We leave tonight. Notify Georgetown.” Rev. Jones and a large majority of his congregation would pack immediately and flee to Guyana. Hardly any would return alive.
Endless White Nights
Once Rev. Jones arrived in Guyana, the idealistic and enthusiastic atmosphere of the commune changed. The overwhelmingly negative press reports, the increasingly aggressive actions of the Concerned Relatives, his own paranoia, compounded with increased substance abuse made Rev. Jones increasingly more erratic. Religion was no longer mentioned; no healings occurred in Jonestown. “The deification of Jim Jones also subsided somewhat in Jonestown.” His unstable mood, lack of any religious language or practice, in conjunction with excruciating labor intensive work days and constant socialist propaganda more than likely resulted in loss of faith; faith in Rev. Jones as a God, but also substantial loss of faith in the cause. Jonestown, which began as an idyllic socialist paradise, gradually became unrecognizable as the psychological well-being of members was taken apart piece by piece.
5 September 1977 marked a substantial shift in Peoples Temple. At this point, the movement that had begun as an evangelical Pentecostal church resembled a high-tension hostage situation. As he so often did, Rev. Jones staged the event that would become known as the six-day siege. After asking his son to fire a gun at his cabin, the noise echoing across the settlement, the community went wild with fear. “Thus began Jonestown’s first, and longest, White Night, a term Jones coined to denote any acute emergency, inverting the pejorative usage of black into white. It was the first of many fake assaults Jones would launch against the community to keep his followers fearful and obedient.” This event, which would last six days, resulted in the entire community gathering in the central pavilion. Here, members would guard the compound, ready to lay down their lives against an imaginary attacker or assault.
Temple members were terrified. During this, and many similar White Nights, they honestly believed they were under attack. Access to news was limited; generally Rev. Jones would get on the loudspeaker and read socialist propaganda, proclaiming that the United States had declared war on African-Americans. They were overworked, underfed, and exhausted. “Jim’s voice was still being broadcast over the encampment, so that each shift, day and night, could receive ‘the Word,’ and stay focused.” After a certain point, most began to believe what they heard.
The psychological indoctrination used to promote socialist ideals did not stop with the constant messages announced over loudspeaker. Many techniques that Rev. Jones utilized bordered on traditional cult indoctrination techniques. All of them hinged to the gradual, but constant psychological breakdown of each individual. Residents were expected to attend socialist classes. They were tested on the material weekly. A group known as the Learning Crew was established; the group consisted of troublemakers. They were required to run everywhere, work twice as hard, and were forbidden to speak to each other or anyone else in Jonestown. However, this form of punishment was hardly the most extreme.
A section of the health clinic was known as the Special Care Unit. Here, “unruly residents…were given a choice: they could either swallow tranquilizers voluntarily or be forcibly injected with them.” Confining and drugging individuals granted Rev. Jones an unimaginable amount of power. The threat of being even more over-worked through being placed on the Learning Crew was one thing; the slightest suggestion of being sent to the SCU was enough to put even the most resistant individual in his or her place.
It is important to note that knowledge of the behavioral modification techniques came towards the very end of Jonestown’s existence, and even more knowledge was provided after the tragic demise. A completely unbiased account of daily life in Jonestown is not available, but the closest are the journals of Edith Roller. However, as it was common knowledge that all written information, journals, correspondence, even homework, was screened, Dr. Roller was probably careful in what she wrote. Julia Scheeres argues this point by noting, “Edith was cautious in her reflections, knowing the Jonestown leadership scrutinized her writings. Nevertheless, a subtext of quiet desperation emerges.” Regardless, no one can deny that many were scared as they witnessed the movement they loved and for which they had given so much for changing drastically.
Jonestown would experience several more White Nights. However, as they became more common, they were not as terrifying as the first. To increase their fear and reinforce their devotion towards himself and the cause, Rev. Jones began to incorporate suicide drills into the White Nights. Just as he had done a decade prior on New Year’s Eve, Rev. Jones had his aides bring out a large bucket filled with liquid. Rambling about persecution and the necessity to die for the cause in order to enact change, he demanded that each member line up to take their drink. As children cried, parents pleaded, some members attempted sneaking away, Rev. Jones would finally announce that it was not poison; he was testing their convictions, attempting to determine who would voluntarily take their life for the cause, should such a situation arise.
Peoples Temple in Guyana became more typical of a world-rejecting new religious movement, as well as a socialist utopian experiment. World-rejecting groups “reject the materialism of the advanced industrial world, calling for a return to a more rural way of life.” The exodus to the remote Guyanese jungle, where communication with the outside capitalist world was heavily controlled, certainly fits this requirement. Members rejected their former existence in the United States, believing that it was responsible for the persecution of African-Americans. The created existence in Guyana held that all were equal, given that they accepted the doctrine of communalism and attempted to live according to said communalism. World-rejecting new religious movements are often all-consuming. “The movement is a ‘total institution,’ regulating all its adherent’s activities, programming all of their day but for the briefest periods of recreation or private time.” As Edith Roller’s journals, as well as letters from residents and statements given by surviving members indicate, this construct of Peoples Temple is accurate. Hardly any free time was awarded to members in Jonestown; free time represented capitalism, as well as time to think about exactly what was transpiring in the community.
Spring 1978 represented the point of no return, for Peoples Temple, Rev. Jones, and the Concerned Relatives. Deborah Layton, once a trusted advisor to Rev. Jones, as well as a member of the inner circle, successfully defected and returned to the United States. Once she arrived, she signed a sworn affidavit, proclaiming her intent to leave was based on the belief that “Jim Jones will carry out his threats to force all members of the Organization in Guyana to commit suicide.” Her fear, as well as confirmation that suicide ideation was heavily prevalent in Jonestown provided the Concerned Relatives additional legal ammunition. Many had been trying to contact their relatives in Guyana for months. Even if they managed to talk for a few moments via radio, the conversations felt forced or even coached. It was time to take action.
Defector reports of abuse and extreme psychological manipulation resulted in drafting of the Accusation of Human Rights Violation by the Concerned Relatives. This document, which singled out Rev. Jones for his misdoings, was sent to various government agencies, news outlets, embassies, and to Jonestown. Included in the numerous affidavits were letters to family members residing in Jonestown. The Concerned Relatives hoped that if the government became involved in a significant way, the letter would be safely passed along to their relatives and loved ones. Many were concerned that their letters were being confiscated or at least monitored by Rev. Jones aides one they reached Jonestown. Documents recovered by the FBI confirm that several letters both sent into and out of Jonestown were intercepted.
Apostate groups create a negative influence on the leader of a new religious movement. In the case of Jonestown, the Concerned Relatives created an even more hostile and precarious environment. Rev. Jones was paranoid, convinced that mercenaries were coming any day to rape, kill, and destroy their community. The perceived increase in this fear is reflected in the erratic rhetoric captured on audiocassette weeks before Peoples Temple final White Night.
That would be revolutionary suicide. That’s what [Black Panther leader] Huey Newton meant by revolutionary suicide, or running right out with a bomb in your hand into a building, and blowing it up. Or running at a car with something strapped around you that had the enemy in it and blowing it and yourself up. That would be revolutionary suicide and that would be an honorable thing to do.
While the Concerned Relatives had the safety of their family members in mind, their actions against Rev. Jones would have terrible consequences. Apostate groups do not generally cause violence, but in this instance, their efforts to save their family members backfired. Jonestown in the fall of 1978 was a powder keg, waiting to ignite.
Congressman Leo Ryan, who represented a district south of San Francisco, became curious about the affairs in South America. As many of the members of the Concerned Relatives, as well as those in Jonestown, were his constituents, Congressman Ryan had a vested interest in uncovering the truth. “Unfortunately for the Temple, Ryan sat not only on the Foreign Affairs Committee but also on the International Operations subcommittee, which concerned itself with protecting the lives and property of U.S. citizens abroad.” Many other local politicians had nothing but praise for Rev. Jones and his Temple members, but after the legal documents and damaging news articles, the congressman decided to visit Guyana for himself.
Let’s Make it a Beautiful Day
On 14 November 1978, Congressman Ryan, a few members of the Concerned Relatives, as well as reporters arrived in Guyana. The commune was well aware of their arrival and had been preparing for the visit. Rev. Jones coached individuals whose family members were part of the Concerned Relatives on what to say when asked if they wanted to leave. The night prior to Congressman Ryan’s arrival in Jonestown, Rev. Jones held a meeting in the pavilion. Tensions ran high, as Rev. Jones rambled about his displeasure with the visit, as well as his belief that Congressman Ryan had already made up his mind about the settlement. Foreshadowing the events that would unfold, Rev. Jones declared, “I’ve spent a week worrying about your lives. I spent a week worrying about who I’m gonna save and how I’m gonna save them, and I don’t see any point to worrying about living a life like this. Living isn’t worth a damn, doing this.” It is possible that Rev. Jones knew exactly how much gravity his statement held; the Temple doctor in Guyana had ordered enough sodium cyanide to kill over 1,800 people a few months prior.
17 November 1978 began like any other for the members of Peoples Temple Agricultural Project in Guyana. Residents woke up and prepared for the arrival of Congressman Ryan and his group. Initially, Rev. Jones refused to let any of the news crews inside Jonestown, but eventually he relented and allowed the news members inside to take photographs, interviews, and video footage of the compound. For the most part, everything appeared normal. The delegation was entertained by the Jonestown Express, an interracial and intergenerational choir. The video captured from the evening shows enthusiasm, pride, joy, and integration on every level. At one point, Congressman Ryan got up to speak and exclaimed, “I can tell you right now that from the few conversations I’ve had with some of the folks here already this evening, that whatever the comments are, there are some people here who believe this is the best thing that ever happened to them in their whole life.” His speech was followed by several uninterrupted minutes of clapping, hollering, and cheering. Many of the reporters initially believed this response to be staged, but were assured that the response was genuine.
The next day, Congressman Ryan and his delegation had scheduled interviews with a few family members of the Concerned Relatives, as well as an unprompted interview with Rev. Jones. An elderly woman, Edith Parks, passed a note to the congressman’s assistant Jackie Speier. The note said, “I’m being held prisoner here and I want to leave this place.” Once the first person publically declared their desire and intention to leave Jonestown, the tension increased exponentially. Marceline Jones attempted to diffuse the situation by offering tours of the grounds, discussing the progressive childcare and number of children born in the settlement. By this point, however, it was too late. In recovered footage, Rev. Jones appears to slur his words, becomes increasingly agitated, and begins calling those who want to leave the compound liars.
For the months prior to Congressman Ryan’s visit, the residents had been living in a paramilitary state. The dualistic nature of Peoples Temple rhetoric, including the increase of us-versus-them constructs, was overwhelmingly present in Jonestown. Mike Prokes recalled that “the Temple and its members were wrapped in a virtual blanket of secrecy, and the distant location of their agricultural settlement, Jonestown, strengthened their privacy.” This dualistic nature, combined with the world-rejecting viewpoint, White Night drills, and constant haranguing by Rev. Jones that the enemy was coming to destroy them, created a perfect storm. The apostate group, no matter how benevolent their intentions, created a catalyzing event that would forever be associated with Peoples Temple.
After Congressman Ryan was attacked in the pavilion and the Temple defectors began to fear all of their lives were in danger, the delegation prepared to leave Jonestown immediately. They traveled to the nearby Port Kaituma airstrip, where two planes were waiting to fly the group, as well as the additional defectors, back to Georgetown. There, while waiting to board the plane, five members of the delegation were killed instantly; Congressman Ryan, three members of the news crew, and a Temple defector were shot and killed by a group of men that appeared on a tractor from the jungle. A number of other individuals waiting on the airstrip – as well as two defectors who had boarded one plane – were severely wounded.
Back at the compound, Rev. Jones called for another White Night. Among the hundreds of cassettes and documents recovered was Q042, known also as the “Death Tape.” Listening to the tape is difficult, but provides an insight into the moments before almost all of the members of Peoples Temple would take their lives. Only one person, an African-American woman named Christine Miller, voices objection to committing suicide, arguing they should flee to another socialist friendly country for the sake of the children, who deserve to live. Towards the end of the tape, Rev. Jones commands that the vat of Flavor Aid mixed with sedatives and cyanide be placed on a table at the head of the pavilion. He asks that the mothers remain calm and that those with small children take the drink first.
Can some people assure these children of the relaxation of stepping over to the next plane? That’d set an example for others. You set 1,000 peoples who say ‘We don’t like the way the world is…’ take our life from us, we laid it down, we got tired. We didn’t commit suicide. We committed an act of revolutionary suicide protesting the conditions of an inhuman world.
By the end of 18 November 1978, 918 people had died: 907 people in Jonestown ingested poison – either by choice or by force – and two others, including Rev. Jones himself, died of gunshot wounds; five people died at the Port Kaituma airstrip; and four died in the Temple’s Georgetown headquarters at Lamaha Gardens. Sharon Amos, a member loyal to Rev. Jones from the beginning, slit the throats of her three children before turning the knife on herself. She heard the command from Jonestown while working at Lamaha Gardens in Georgetown. Amos was the only Temple member who committed suicide outside of Jonestown. The extreme communalist atmosphere, coupled with her total devotion to Rev. Jones and the socialist cause of Peoples Temple, was most likely responsible for Amos’ actions. The deadly environment of the agricultural commune resulted in the psychological susceptibility of all Temple members, not just those present in Jonestown.
The legacy left behind by Peoples Temple is unfortunately linked with violence. The mass suicide and mass murder of almost the entire congregation remain the only lasting aspect and unfortunately, generally remains the only thing anyone knows regarding Peoples Temple and Jonestown. However, the movement represented much more than its violent end. It began as a progressive and hopeful evangelical Pentecostal religion. Rev. Jones represented a new age of race relations and religious movements. His aim to fully integrate the racist and selective churches of Indiana was successful. He and his family were the idealistic representation of a rainbow family; the son whom he named after himself was the first African-American child adopted by a Caucasian family.
A strange child, Rev. Jones became entranced by religion at a very young age. His affinity for sampling a variety of religious beliefs would remain with him his whole life, influencing each phase of his religious movement. His hope was to find the right combination of religion and socio-political constructs that represented equality and freedom from oppression. Evangelical religions influenced his younger years, as they tended to be on the fringe of traditional religions. Rev. Jones considered himself and his religious beliefs to be outside what was considered normal. He found his calling and his spiritual home at the Pentecostal church.
Evangelical Pentecostal religions focuses much of its attention on the gifts of the spirit. Faith healing, speaking in tongues, discerning of the spirit, and prophecy are examples of these gifts. Any individual who possesses one, or more, of such gifts is considered to be touched by God. Rev. Jones claimed to possess them all. Additionally, congregants of Pentecostal churches tend to engage in enthusiastic worship, with very little structure to services. Faith healings were probably the most significant aspect of Peoples Temple Full Gospel Church. Rev. Jones’ abilities to heal congregants and perform miracles were a hallmark of the early church. Membership grew as more people heard of his healing abilities and a fully integrated church. While his ideology and rhetoric would evolve far beyond its religious origin, initially Rev. Jones utilized religion to obtain followers and a legitimate platform from which to discuss racism and communalism.
Power, it is said, corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely. The control and devotion Rev. Jones expected and received from his congregation had peculiar effects on the young preacher. Neglected as a child, constantly striving for attention, he was not quite sure how to manage the adoration and accolades he received for his work towards integration. What is clear is that Rev. Jones wanted and needed more: more followers, more sources of inspiration, more praise, and finally, more power. Realizing that Peoples Temple could not fulfill its divine destiny, nor could he establish himself as the messiah of socialism, Rev. Jones convinced his flock to embark on an exodus to the progressive and liberal state of California.
Apostolic or divine socialism is influenced by the Books of Acts, as well as communal aspects of socialism. Rev. Jones believed that all people, regardless of age, gender, or racial background, should live together in an equal, shared society. Indiana was far too conservative for him to openly suggest a communal lifestyle. However, the isolated California Temple in Redwood Valley provided the adequate liberal environment for his true message to blossom and evolve.
Eventually, Peoples Temple attracted thousands of members. The congregation was represented by a wide spectrum of races and ages. All were welcome, as long as they were open-minded and willing to participate in the church’s social gospel. Welfare and outreach programs provided Peoples Temple with legitimacy and standing in the community. Members were well-groomed, polite, and extremely active in the community. Blacks and whites lived, worked, and worshiped side by side. All members were required to donate some or all of their paychecks to the church. Gradually, religion was replaced by revolution. Rev. Jones still incorporated theological rhetoric into his sermons and still performed healings. However, by this point, he had rejected traditional religious beliefs.
California represented the development of Peoples Temple’s unique theological worldview. Many of the congregants that followed Rev. Jones to California joined because of their religious beliefs. California members, however, joined because of the political message and the social activism. He openly denounced a traditional Christian God, instead claiming to be the corporeal socialist messiah. Because his actions spoke for themselves, his claims were met with favorable cheer. Many Temple members believed him to be a prophet, sent to show the United States the wonder of socialism.
Nonetheless, Rev. Jones’ behavior became erratic, his moods marked by paranoia. Peoples Temple was serving as a political movement, attempting to change the world. As a new religious movement, specifically a world-rejecting movement, Peoples Temple began operating under a highly dualistic worldview. Rev. Jones maintained a strong us-versus-them rhetoric, going so far as to stage assassination attempts. Another exodus became imminent as Rev. Jones’ began to believe that the United States would not let them exist in peace much longer.
Peoples Temple Agricultural Project, informally known as Jonestown, would eventually represent the total failure of Rev. Jones’ movement. However, it is arguable that it represents the teleological finale for his new religious movement. No religion was practiced and members lived in an extreme communal encampment. Psychological manipulation and exhaustion was the norm. Suicide drills, staged attacks on the community, verbal and even physical abuse, became commonplace. Almost a decade prior, Rev. Jones had staged a loyalty test. His siege mentality, coupled with drug abuse and declining health contributed to his erratic mental state. Life was not worth living, if there was a constant threat of destruction.
Most religions preach the celebration of life and the sanctity of life. Peoples Temple apparently respected life but was prepared to end it all if necessary, as its last act of defiance against the persecution which it suffered as a non-conformist religious organization with leftwing political ideology.
In addition to the already dire situation, the introduction of an apostate group heightened tensions even more. Already believing himself and his movement to be under attack, the presence of Congressman Leo Ryan created a situation with no discernable positive outcome. Having created an atmosphere of extreme persecution and the belief that they were constantly threatened, the events of 18 November 1978, tragic as they were, were unavoidable. “Targeted groups may come to feel that their only defense against such forceful suppression of their worldviews would be defensive violence directed against either the state or themselves.” In the case of the Jonestown suicides, as well as the shootings on the Port Kaituma airstrip, Peoples Temple engaged in both types of violence. The apostate group did not cause the final events, however their physical presence in Guyana catalyzed the chain of events that would result in the deaths of 918 people.
Peoples Temple theology was anti-theology. Rev. Jones utilized traditional religious constructs to denounce religion. In order to fully establish the truth and meaning of Peoples Temple, they would have to die. Rev. Jones created a setting wherein death represented more than life. The creation of a siege mentality resulted in the setting where suicide, specifically revolutionary suicide, represented the completion of their ideological beliefs.
Peoples Temple is an important example of how quickly and radically new religious movements can change. It can also be argued that Peoples Temple “was not really a ‘new religion,’ but rather represented a degenerated church, an occasional phenomenon which entails a charismatic clergyman leading a congregation in an increasingly violent, authoritarian, divisive or otherwise morally deviant direction.” Regardless of how his leadership is classified, it is clear that Rev. Jones created a dangerous and unstable environment with each geographic relocation. The ideology shifted away from its religious origins and became more radical with each exodus. The final location in the isolated jungle of Guyana represented the most extreme place, both ideologically and geographically.
The radical changes in the movement were indicative of both the geographic relocation, as well as the ideological changes of Rev. Jones. Peoples Temple began as a traditional evangelical religion. As they moved to California, the ideology shifted from religion to social and political activism. Religion became a means to an end, rather than the primary focus. By the time Peoples Temple enacted their final exodus to Guyana, religion no longer existed. No faith healings, once the hallmark of Rev. Jones’ gospel, were performed in Jonestown. Christian rhetoric was replaced with socialist messages. Members lived according to extreme socialist constructs, attempting to create a communal utopia. Sadly, their efforts failed. The movement should be examined and utilized as a method of understanding how new religious movements evolve and change, at times dangerously. Additionally, Peoples Temple and the events at Jonestown can help scholars realize that understanding a group’s ideology and not taking action, is at times the most beneficial action.
“We died because you would not let us live in peace.”
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