Deconstructing Catastrophic Millennialism: Reconstructing Jonestown through the lens of Religion as-lived

by Adam Keane


not too distant under the skin
Lies a beach far and wide.
Concealed by a veil of sea
held there by the tide.

And perhaps by chance of circumstance.
Or may be by unknown law.
When the moon shines in the sky
The curtain of sea does it draw.

Behind is a naked beach
Of history it is made.
For in each grain of sand is cast
A link that chains us to our past

A past which draws from the course
To which we would aspire
And leads us down the slippery slope
To animal desire.

And so an eternal conflict is run
Between the moon and sun
Between the sea and the shore
And will it be forever more.

But for every wax and wane.
The shore is never left the same.
And in this change there may be hope
That we can break the beastly yoke

Poem used with permission of author: Martin Keane (2016)


In their text Dying for Faith, Madawi Al-Rasheed and Marat Shterin (2009) discuss the relationship between violence and new religious movements (NRM’s), starting from the position that the tragic events of the mass murder/suicide in Guyana on 18 November 1978 represented an epoch moment in the study of religion for it led to an asserted effort by a generation of scholars to understand the role religion played in society. Out of this urgency emerged the field of NRM’s which had an immediate concern to understand the link between violence and religion (Al-Rasheed and Shteri, xxiv­). Decades on, it has become apparent that the enquiry into religious violence must be multi-faceted, as there is no single causal root for religious violence, leading the authors to assert:

Certain lines of analysis, however, have emerged as most promising; these included focusing on beliefs, organisation, leadership, relationship with wider society, and contingencies in the sequence of events (Al-Rasheed and Shterin).

This independent study will seek to explore Peoples Temple through the lens religion as-lived (McGuire, 2008), by considering the movement from a historical and sociological perspective. My independent study will be separated into three chapters.

In chapter one I will outline Catherine Wessinger’s (2000) theological construction of catastrophic millennialism and how this is subsequently applied to Peoples Temple and used to explain the mass murder/suicides at Jonestown.

In chapter two, I will attempt to deconstruct catastrophic millennialism through critically analysing the history of Peoples Temple, and by further critiquing the methodology that Wessinger uses to construct the theological conception of catastrophic millennialism. This chapter will draw heavily on Nancy Ammerman’s Congregations (2009), in order to provide a much-needed analysis of the social dynamics involved within Peoples Temple.

In the final chapter, having deconstructed the concept of catastrophic millennialism, I will attempt to provide an explanation for the mass murder/suicides at Jonestown that builds upon the critique made in the earlier chapter whilst synthesising this with the concepts of Woolcock’s (2001) forms of social capital and applying this to the lived lives of one of the families who lived at Jonestown.

Part One

In order to define what Catastrophic Millennialism, is it is first necessary to define what is meant by the term Millennialism. Generally speaking millenarian “refers to the view that Jesus will return to earth imminently and establish a reign of peace on earth for a thousand years, and groups which hold it” (Bowden, 2005, 1333). Or to put it another way, millennialism is the “hope for collective earthly or heavenly salvation” (Wessinger, 12). Furthermore the understanding that Wessinger has of millennialism is much more nuanced and excludes the necessity of messianism, which the author uses to refer “to an individual believed to be empowered by God to create the millennial kingdom” (Wessinger, 17).

Wessinger develops this idea further by introducing to the concept of millennialism the understanding of catastrophe, and in doing so creates discreet conceptual boundaries which separate millenarian groups into the categories of catastrophic and progressive. Millennialism then becomes a polemical concept for Wessinger, with poles that are either catastrophic or progressive, whereby catastrophic is associated with a “pessimistic view of humanity of society’” and progressive being associated with “an optimistic view of human nature that became prevalent in the nineteenth century” (Wessinger, 16). What unites both groups is the understanding of a millennial kingdom, and Wessinger goes on to acknowledge that these beliefs are at the core of what the author describes as “mainstream scriptures, especially the Bible” (Wessinger, 14). The impetus behind Wessinger’s assertion is an attempt to un-other those who died at Jonestown. It is perhaps Johnathan Z. Smith (1999) who captures this un-othering the best, through the use of the term, “the pornography of Jonestown” (Smith, 376). This “pornography” would be printed by the press, whose “initial focus on the daily revisions of the body count, the details on the conditions of the corpses” (Smith, 376-377). Wessinger critiques the press for not acknowledging Jonestown’s “‘apostolic socialism’ in which financial resources were held in common to serve the needs of all community members” (Wessinger, 14). However, this understanding of Jonestown does not permeate into Wessinger’s analysis when placing Peoples Temple on the typography of millennialism, something that this independent study seeks to readdress. Having set out a rudimentary understanding of Wessinger’s understanding of millennialism, it is now necessary to explore the concepts that Wessinger uses throughout her text, beginning with the concept of ultimate concern.

Essential Concern

In order to advance the thesis of millennial violence, Wessinger uses Paul Tillich’s theological conception of ultimate concern, drawing upon Robert D. Baird’s (1971) usage of ultimate concern as a central component to define religion. For Baird, ultimate concern is defined as “a concern which is more important than anything else in the universe for the person [or the group] involved” (Baird, cited in Wessinger, 15). What is particularly interesting within the above quote is Wessinger’s use of brackets. Fundamentally, “[or the group]” extends Baird’s scope of ultimate concern from being an individual concern to being a group concern. This represents a fundamental theoretical fallacy within Wessinger’s thesis because it presents ultimate concern as something that is held homogenously by the collective and by implication is non-transitory. This independent study will seek to demonstrate this through presenting data from the Alternative Considerations of Jonestown website, and data obtained from personal correspondence with the website’s director Fielding McGehee III, and from Don Beck, a former member of Peoples Temple.

It is necessary to underpin the ultimate concern that Wessinger avails upon Peoples Temple, in order that it may be deconstructed and critiqued. The author states that the

ultimate concern of the Jonestown residents was to preserve their communal solidarity, and, thus, be an example that would help establish a future society free of racism, sexism, classism and ageism. Jim Jones taught that a period of turmoil, race war, and nuclear destruction would precede the establishment of the perfect society, which he believed would be communist (Wessinger, 15).

From this foundational starting point Wessinger develops her thesis by introducing to the discussion the concept of catastrophic millennialism and links this explicitly to violence.

Catastrophic Millennialism

In the discussion above, the concepts of catastrophic and progressive millennialism were briefly introduced and differentiated by their respective levels of optimism. Wessinger develops this differentiation further by linking violence to catastrophe whereby “[t]he world is seen as a battleground between good and evil” (Wessinger, 17). According to the author, conflict becomes a reality when ultimate concern becomes threatened by an external agency. Furthermore, when this conflict reaches a critical point, members

give up on the possibility of salvation and turns inward to ensure the salvation of its members alone, then violent actions are likely to be committed. This was the point reached by the Jonestown residents (Wessinger, 18).

This understanding of conflict is an essential part of Wessinger’s construction of catastrophic millennialism, which the author divides into three distinct groups, that of fragile, assaulted and revolutionary. Peoples Temple is placed into the fragile group on the basis of the group’s internal weaknesses,

many of which were caused by their respective leaders and their experience of cultural opposition, Jonestown residents… initiated violence to preserve their ultimate concern” (Wessinger, 20).

The above discussion has sought to lay out the foundations upon which Catherine Wessinger builds her thesis of How the Millennium Comes Violently. At this juncture it is important to acknowledge that the text is first and foremost a comparative analysis that seeks to apply the concept of catastrophic millennialism in order to explain the violence initiated by Peoples Temple and other religious movements, including Aum Shinrikyo. Whilst we may acknowledge that “comparison is an inescapable and unobjectionable aspect of reasoning” (Roscoe, 2006, 26), it would be unwise not to critique the methodology that Wessinger chooses to adopt and apply. Fundamentally, the analysis seeks to apply the theological conception of millennialism to NRM’s which have historically been associated with violence. This is not a critique on theology per se, rather it is an appeal to the understanding that Christine Helmer (2012) reaches regarding theology relationship to religious studies:

Theology must seek to understand religion in the empirical terms of living relationships, while religious studies must seek to understand the conceptual as a crucial dimension to understanding the reality that it studies (Helmer, 253).

Furthermore, one might observe that the inclusion of Peoples Temple within the author’s text is an example of the literary device known as inclusio, which the theologian Alister McGrath (2013) defines as a tool that “allows a writer to ‘bracket’ material to indicate that what is enclosed constitutes a single coherent unit” (McGrath, 274). By bringing together NRM’s whose history involves violence, and bracketing them under the concept of catastrophic millennialism, Wessinger is engaging, consciously or unconsciously, in the process of inclusio. As I have argued above, this represents a methodological fallacy owing to the inability to “understand [NRM’s] in the empirical terms of living relationships” (Helmer, 253).

I shall now attempt to demonstrate how Wessinger applies the concept of essential concern and catastrophic millennialism to Peoples Temple. According to Wessinger, catastrophic millennialism within the context of the movement of Peoples Temple relies upon a single individual, namely, Jim Jones.

Jim Jones taught that the ultimate reality, the true God, was “principle” or “Divine Principle”. Principle was equated with “Love,” and Love was equated with “Socialism” (Wessinger, 37).

Wessinger uses this assertion to develop the argument that Jones was a messianic figure imbued with divine power to “prophesy, to heal, and to raise the dead” (Wessinger, 37). This understanding of Jones as a messiah figure indicates that for the author, millennilism and messianism are intimately connected to the charismatic leadership of Jones, with charisma defined in the following way: “Charisma, in the academic field of Religious Studies, refers to the quality of someone believed by a group to receive special revalation from an unseen force” (Wessinger, 8).

After developing this understanding of Jones as a charismatic leader, the author goes on to develop the argument that Jim Jones held a dualistic worldview: “[T]he United States was the Antichrist and capitalism was the ‘Antichrist system.’ The United States was ‘Babylon’ and Jones would lead the elect to the Promised Land where they would build a new Eden” (Wessinger, 39). For Wessinger, this demonstrates not only a commitment to the dualisic worldview but also Jones’ role as a messiah figure that carries out a role similar to Moses. When considering the history of the movement, Wessinger makes the concession that Peoples Temple had the “potential to become a progressive millennial movement, through social service” (Wessinger, 39). However, the movement does not achieve such status due to the “active opposition” it encountered and how this apparently led to a clinging to their “dualistic catastrophic perspective and to see themselves as being on the righteous side in a battle of good verses evil” (Wessinger, 39).

Wessinger devotes many pages to detailing this opposition, which according to the author began in the 1970’s. The author highlights attacks by outside forces in the form of neo-Nazi groups and of former members of the group who “coalesced into a group … calling themseleves Concerned Relatives” (Wessinger, 39), and at the fore of this group, Wessinger places the Stoen family whose custody battle for their son John Victor Stoen would fuel the tension and conflict between Concerned Relatives and those that remained within Peoples Temple, and the locus of the Concerned Relatives criticism would be aimed at Jim Jones himself.

Eventually this tension and criticism would culminate in the visit of Congressman Leo Ryan to Jonestown on 17-18 November 1978. Ryan takes on the mantle of ageis for the residents at Peoples Temple as a result of a lobbying from Concerned Relatives. However, Ryan critically misunderstood how he would be received by the Jonestown residents, and Wessinger characterises the visit in the following way: “Ryan’s visit brought into Jonestown the enemies most hated by the Peoples Temple members:the press, Concerned Relatives and the American government” (Wessinger, 44). Here again we see Wessinger assert the dualism that has been discussed above. However we need to return to Helmer’s assertion about the need for theology to connect concept to living relationships. This need to do this is particularly important in the case of Jonestown because of implications that it has had within the social memory of the United States, and furthermore the implication this memory may have upon other religious movements engaging in struggle against perceived aggressors.

Wessinger presents Ryan’s visit as the beginning of the end for the community established at Jonestown, and whilst we know a great deal about the final hours of this NRM, ascribing a particular motive to these actions is fraught with risk. Peter Bryne (1999) is stringent in this point, where the student of religious studies is reminded

the very business of identifying a human act as the act it carries with it a presumption (albeit, rebuttable) that it is to be described, interpreted, and explained through the concepts which inform it, and of which the agent must be at least tacitly aware (Bryne, 258).

The pertinence of Bryne’s reminder about how human actions are interpreted in the discussion above because the tragic events at Jonestown have been viewed and informed through a prior conception of millennialism, whereby Jim Jones has been cast as messianic supernatural figure in conflict with other agents, with millennialism as the concept that informs the discussion. What follows in the next chapter is an attempt to consider Jonestown from another conceptual standpoints, and I will begin this reappraisal of Peoples Temple by considering the radical changes that Peoples Temple went through during their history, because, as this quote from George Santayana reminds us, “[t]hose who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” (George Santayana, cited by Wessinger, 13).

Part Two

jimjonesthroneThe above quote is relevant for two reasons that are interconnected. The first of these reasons is illustrated by the picture which depicts the quote hanging above Jim Jones’ chair in the Jonestown pavilion. Furthermore, Wessinger uses the same quote as an epigram to begin her case study on Jonestown. However, whilst acknowledging the importance of history and its remembrance, Wessinger confines the analysis made within How the Millennium Comes Violently to a particularly narrow portion of the history of Peoples Temple in order to support the theological construction of catastrophic millennialism and its application to the movement. Furthermore, the absence of depth within the analysis of Jonestown’s history undermines the enquiry that the author makes into the “social dynamics that can culminate in violence and pertinent” (Wessinger, 13). In order to address this fallacy, I shall now attempt to explore the radical changes that took place through Jonestown history, and this will be synthesised with the work of Nancy Ammerman and Pierre Bourdieu.

Many Congregations, One Movement

Bourdieu’s theory of social capital includes the concept of field, which states that anything can be a social field, because for Bourdieu a field is primarily concerned with the interplay of relationships and how these influence those within the field (Furseth, 2011). Within the context of People Temple, Bourdieu’s concept of generations will be used to denote a significant change within the movement’s history. The movement’s transition to Guyana, for example, represents the penultimate generation within the history of Peoples Temple. Whilst many members of Peoples Temple made the move to Guyana, many others remained in the movement’s three California locations, in Redwood Valley, San Francisco and Los Angeles. The argument that Wessinger makes regarding the ultimate concern of People Temple depends on the “communal solidarity” of the movement and does not allow for multiple congregations to exist because, as discussed above, Wessinger argues that the ultimate concern of the movement was preserved through the group’s “revolutionary suicide” (Wessinger, 2000). Having introduced the concept of “congregation” to the discussion, it is necessary to define it.

Nancy Ammerman defines a congregation as being “locally situated, multigenerational, voluntary organisations of people who identify themselves as distinct religious groups and engage in a broad range of religious activities together” (Ammerman, 562). It is clear that Wessinger does not acknowledge the possibility that Peoples Temple was “locally situated” in multiple geographic locations. An analysis of the multiple congregations that emerged out of Peoples Temple, and the congregations’ relationship to the Jonestown community is where I shall now turn my attention, starting with the forerunner to Peoples Temple, Community Unity.

Community Unity: The Forerunner of Peoples Temple

James Warren Jones was born on 13 May 1931 in the town of Lynn, Indiana. Growing up in the midst of the Great Depression, “Jones grew up with a strong sense of resentment towards people of wealth, status and privilege” (Hall, 188). For Wessinger, this resentment becomes a strand that would run throughout Jones’ life and manifest itself as a dualistic worldview. However, it might also be argued that rather than a sense of resentment, Jones represented the avant garde of a congregation imbued with a sense of mission towards “mutual caring [that] extends beyond their own membership. Most congregations are interested in making a difference in the world” (Ammerman, 570). Hall provides evidence for this through describing a teenage Jones who would first preach to a mixed audience of blacks and whites on the streets of Lynn. There is then in the early life of Jones a very particular sense of vocation towards a distinct demographic that was blind to characteristics of colour. Furthermore this sense of vocation was underpinned by an inner awareness that he possessed a set of talents towards preaching and the gifts of the spirit, and that these gifts transcended notions of wealth, status and privilege (Hall). Too often, these abilities have been looked at through the lens of the tragic events in Guyana, and Wessinger has labelled Jones as being a charismatic messianic individual, whilst for Storr (1996), Jones was a guru who went mad. However, as John Hall reminds us, from an early age, Jones dedicated himself to the craft of preaching, and as such we can assert that rather than being imbued with some innate gift, his gifts were the fruits of his labour that he harvested through ministry on the streets of Lynn (Hall).

In 1951, Jones would move to Indianapolis and would turn his craft into a vocation creating the church, Community Unity. Drawing on a broad spectrum of theology and practice, Jones would juxtapose “Methodists’ liberal social creed, communist ideology” with Pentecostal “apocalyptic vision” (Hall, 189), directing it towards the goal of ending American apartheid. Hall makes it clear the affairs of Community Unity were not Jones’ only concern, stating that an important break for Jones originated out of a successful “revival” trip to the neighbouring state of Michigan. For Hall, the success is tangibly linked to the establishment of Wings of Deliverance on the 4th April 1955. This illustrates the serendipitous manner in which Jones meets with members of the Laurel Street Pentecostal Church whilst preaching at a revival event some 300 miles away in Detroit. Hall attributes this as Jones’ “first important break” because it starts a chain reaction of events that leads to the eventual schism of Laurel Street Church and the formation of the organisation that would become known as Wings of Deliverance. This moment in the history of Peoples Temple is particularly significant because it is when Jones’ essential concern for community unity moves from a transcendental hope to an imminent reality located in actual time and space in the form of the corporate entity of Wings of Deliverance. Further significance can be drawn from the fact that the corporate entity of Wings of Deliverance was not born out of Jones’ will alone, reminding us that, whilst Jones was undoubtedly a driven man, rapt in the essential concern of Community Unity, he was in no way omnipotent or omnipresent. Rather there were seeds of serendipity that Jones would sow in order to birth the organisation of Wings of Deliverance. This is further evidence against the charismatic and messianic mantle that Wessinger places upon Jim Jones.

Furthermore, the success of Jones’ trip to Michigan has further scope of influence, for we see here the beginnings of ministry practice that Jones would repeat throughout his life. In taking on the role of itinerant travelling preacher, Jones would visit locations taking a radical theology and inviting those who heard his message to participate in the creation of a “Promised Land.” This Promised Land took on many guises, first in California, and later in the Guyana jungle. What is essential to underpin is that Peoples Temple origins were “locally organised, socially formed… to create a place of community and belonging, and to do something good for the world” (Ammerman, 570). Wessinger makes the concession that

Jones’s political and social service activities in California marked a period in which Peoples Temple had the potential to become a progressive millennial movement (Wessinger, 39).

Nevertheless, there is no acknowledgement of how the blueprints of these activities were seeded in Indiana, and in doing so a crucial piece of the history of Peoples Temple is lost. Furthermore, Wessinger needs to answer the question, where is the pessimism that defines catastrophic millennialism at this point in the history of Peoples Temple? It is fundamentally absent. Rather we see a movement that is “an agent of social action, establishing care homes for the elderly, running a free restaurant to feed the hungry, and maintaining a social service centre to help people get their lives back together” (Hall, 190).

So it may be more accurate to say that Peoples Temple was once a progressive movement that challenged the boundaries of a society that was going through what Robert Wuthnow (2003) characterised as a rights revolution. Wuthnow cites the argument of Martin Luther King Jr., “that principles of freedom found in Christianity and in the US democratic tradition needed to be rediscovered” (Wuthnow, 94). However, this was one voice amongst many, and others within society, most notably Robert Bellah, asserted the following viewpoint: “[T]he biblical tradition provides insufficient resources to meet the desperate problems that beset us” (cited by Wuthnow, 103). This led Bellah to posit a need to extend the sources of wisdom to worldwide sources. It might be said of Jones that he found himself in agreement with the aims of Martin Luther King, and yet identified more with the method of Bellah as he drew inspiration for his own ministry from an eclectic range of sources, and perhaps most notable source from which Jones would take inspiration would be the political ideology of communism. With this eclectic spectrum of ideology and practice, Peoples Temple would ultimately push the boundaries of this rights revolution in America to an extraordinary extent. This signifies another generation within the history of Jonestown, and this occurs not in Indiana but in the sunny state of California, and represents one of Peoples Temple so-called Promised Lands.

Promised Lands and New Edens

In the discussion above I drew on Ammerman to make the assertion that congregations are “local and social, as well as religious” (Ammerman, 572). Within the context of Peoples Temple, 1965 represented the emergence of Peoples Temple as a legal entity, having previously been known as Wings of Deliverance, and this consequently represented a new generation within Peoples Temple history, whereby the embryonic entity of Wings of Deliverance gave way to the birthed legal entity of Peoples Temple of the Disciples of Christ, which had the stated aim “to further the Kingdom of God by spreading the Word” (Jonestown Institute, n.d). As Ammerman asserts:

The habits and rules that guide their behaviour are products of the particular people who work together, the structures of authority within which they work, the way they exercise power among their members, and the way they fit into the ecology of organisations as it changes over time (Ammerman, 572).

This is significant, because Peoples Temple’s transition to California represented a literal change in the ecology in which they operated. It is important to emphasize that this represented a continuation of the movement, rather than the start of a new movement. Hall makes this clear by asserting that “seventy families, half white, half black, made the journey” (Hall, 191), and further evidence of this can be gleaned from the Alternative Considerations of Jonestown website where there are electronic copies of the Articles of Incorporation of Wings of Deliverance which were submitted in 1960, 1965, and 1972. This is illustrative of the point made earlier, that Peoples Temple was a movement with multiple congregations across multiple geographic locations.

The assertion that it was only Jones’ most “committed followers” (Hall, 191) that made the transition to California is worth critiquing. The danger in ascribing loyalty to the proximity to Jones, which is the implication of Hall’s comment, is that it fits within an already-established view that Jones was perceived to be a charismatic, messianic figure by his followers (Wessinger), and the devil incarnate by his enemies (Smith). These are classic binaries that inhibit our investigation into Peoples Temple history. For the anthropologist Clifford Geertz, there was a pressing need for the interpreter to respect “the beliefs of each culture under study. He thus rejected any reductionist reading of those beliefs and opposed any framework that would lead the interpreter toward such reductionism” (Puett, 2012, 177). Ascribing the labels of millennialism, whether catastrophic or progressive, to Peoples Temple is an example of such reductionism, whereby the framework for such an assertion is based on an overly narrow investigation of Peoples Temple history.

One might argue that Wings of Deliverance and Peoples Temple represent two distinct movements. Such an argument is fallacious, due to Jim Jones’ status as the principle trustee on all of the Wings of Deliverance articles of incorporation papers. This alludes to Ammerman’s point regarding authority and its function across multiple congregations, and to the assertion that, “Leadership and influence in a congregation may be gained through longevity, high social status, religious wisdom, the investment of energy, or social skill” (Ammerman, 574).

If we apply this understanding of congregational power to the context of the movement of Peoples Temple, we can clearly illustrate why Jim Jones would be in a position to hold power within the vestiges of the former Wings of Deliverance congregation, with its long history of investment of financial and vocational resources, whilst also holding power within the new incarnation of Peoples Temple – which later grew into three separate congregations in California – where he was regarded as having a high amount of social skill and status. This is very different from the presentation that Wessinger provides of Jones, but it demonstrates an alternative view of Jones within a sociological framework.

Whilst in California, Jones would reuse the methods that had reaped success in Indiana, “and it thrived on the basis of expanding real-estate investments, a care home business largely supported by state welfare payments” (Hall, 192), and this in turn bolstered the social status of Jones within the community.

It is important to hear with absolute clarity John Hall’s stark warning regarding Peoples Temple, that “no one should gainsay the reprehensible features of Peoples Temple public relations, politics and social control” (Hall, 195). It is beyond the purview of this independent study to go into the detail of what Hall describes as “reprehensible.” However, it must be acknowledged, as Hall does, that the movement itself believed Jones to be a charismatic, messianic figure, and this was used as a source of capital for the movement to draw upon in order to achieve its stated aim to “further the Kingdom of God by spreading the Word” (Jonestown Institute, n.d).

It is therefore incumbent on this piece of work to reconcile the deconstruction of catastrophic millennialism, which depends upon the understanding of Jones as a messianic figure (Wessinger), with Puett’s analysis of Geertz, whereby beliefs are respected and yet reductionist frameworks are rejected. Perhaps one of the best ways to do this is to return to a primary source:

Yea, the cripples are walking, the blind both spiritually and materially are seeing, cancerous growths are passed in every service, every form of miracle known to man are being manifested in our Peoples Temple Garden of Eden acreage here in Redwood Valley (The Jonestown Institute, 2003).

The above quote of Jones’ own words, transcribed from an audiotape believed to have been recorded in the early 1970’s, presents us with a powerful illustration of both the critique made of Wessinger, whilst upholding Geertz’ maxim of respect. Within this quote we clearly see Jones cast himself as a messianic figure performing acts of healing, both physically and socially. We can further acknowledge that this performative role was endorsed and sanctioned by the institution of Peoples Temple (Hall). However, what we cannot derive from this is the extent to which individual members of Peoples Temple believed this to be true of Jones. Wessinger provides an illustration of how members within the community arrived at the understanding that the opposite was true:

When Congressman Ryan departed from Jonestown, his part included sixteen defectors, the majority belonging to the Parks and Bogue families. The Parks and Bogue families were Indiana sect members, so they were some of the earliest members of Peoples Temple (Wessinger, 46).

From this we can confidently assert that Wessinger understands the significance Jones placed on the members of the Indiana community. Critically, however, this is misapplied to advancing the framework of catastrophic millennialism whose foundation is built upon a faulty understanding of the theological construction of ultimate concern that is applied to the group context of Peoples Temple.

In summary, this chapter has explored how through utilising Bourdieu’s conception of the social field that is generations, the understanding that Peoples Temple was a movement with multiple congregations has been illustrated, and that Jim Jones was the principle source of authority within each of these congregations. Furthermore, I have sought to demonstrate a fundamental methodological fallacy within Wessinger’s analysis which seeks to apply ultimate concern upon the whole movement, consequently presenting Peoples Temple as a monolithic movement. In the next chapter of this independent study I wish to further critique Wessinger’s application of ultimate concern through advancing concepts of social capital and particularised trust to provide an alternative explanation for the mass murder/suicides that took place in Guyana.

Part Three

Particularised trust is built upon the theoretical conception of social capital which has at least three distinct forms: bonds, bridges, and links (Woolcock). These have particular significance to the Bourdiean concept of field “which refers to ‘the set of all possible objective relations between positions’ (Bourdieu 1987[1971]: 121)” (Furseth, 101). This chapter will seek to identify how these forms of social capital were constructed and utilised within the movement of Peoples Temple. These forms of social capital do not operate within a vacuum; rather “[c]ompetition for religious power has to do with competition for religious legitimacy” (Furseth, 101).

Bonding social capital, according to Woolcock, “denotes ties between like people in similar situations, such as immediate family, close friends and neighbours” (Woolcock, 13-14, cited in Field, 2008, 46). What becomes immediately apparent within the context of Peoples Temple is how traditional notions of “immediate family” become more and more elongated as the movement matured. Consequently, it is at the beginning of the movement’s history where bonds of social capital are most clearly visible. The Laurel Street schism is an example of this, whereby racial identity is the source from where bonding social capital is generated. This has been discussed above, but in the interest of clarity, it is worth quoting Hall:

[Jones’] first important break came when visitors from Laurel Street Tabernacle in Indianapolis took in services following a successful revival appearance that he had made in Detroit, Michigan. In September 1954 some of the visitors invited Jones to preach at Laurel Street. Jones created a stir by bringing blacks to the service of the racially segregated church (Hall, 189).

The visitors from Laurel Street were white people who came from a racially-segregated church, and Jones’ message of “racial integration” clearly resonated with those visitors, who in turn invited Jones to preach at Laurel Street. These are the events that Hall would attribute as Jones’ “first important break,” and forged bonds of social capital that would be instrumental in the creation of the movement of Peoples Temple. However, these bonds can be broken, and when that happens, catastrophe follows, a point that I will explore later in this chapter. For now I will turn my attention to bridging social capital and its prominence within Peoples Temple.

Bridging social capital, according to Woolcock, “encompasses more distant ties of like persons, such as loose friendships and workmates” (Woolcock, 13-14, cited in Field, 46). If the source for bonds of social capital emerged from the Laurel Street schism, then Jones might be said to be the source of the bridging social capital that was generated within Peoples Temple. One salient example of this is the Rainbow Family that Jones would go on to create through the adoption process (Hall). Bonds come together to form bridges, and Jones’ own conception of “likeness” would be fundamental to the creation of this Rainbow Family. On the one hand Jones was blind to race, and on the other was crystal clear on the universal need of humanity for salvation. These would form the bonds that would come together in order to create bridging social capital that Jones would in turn use in order to make a fundamental statement about the movement’s position on racial integration, which in his own words was “more of a personal thing with me now, it’s a question of my son’s future” (Hall, 189).

Fundamentally these bonds and bridges of social capital would be used as a way to legitimize the movement of Peoples Temple and ultimately Jones’ place within the movement. In order to develop the notions of linking social capital, we need to move beyond the movement’s embryonic phase to Peoples Temple’s transition from the United States to Guyana.

Finally, according to Woolcock, “linking social capital…reaches out to unlike people in dissimilar situations, such as those who are entirely outside the community, thus enabling members to leverage a far wider range of resources than are available within the community” (Woolcock, 13-14, cited in Field, 46).

The map below can be found on the Demographics of Jonestown page on the Alternative Considerations of Jonestown & Peoples Temple website, and is reprinted from Moore’s 2005 chapter on the demographics of Jonestown. Compiled from incomplete passport records provided by the U.S. State Department, it illustrates the American states of origin of the people who died in Jonestown,map and as such allows for a vivid depiction of the linking social capital to be presented. It is evident that Peoples Temple drew members from an incredibly wide geographical base, drawing members from the majority of the states within America. It should not surprise us that California was the state from which most members of Peoples Temple hailed – with 374 people –which makes sense, given that the state was the epicentre of the movement’s ministry activity prior to the move to Guyana. However, if we consider the following states in the US South – Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Alabama, Missouri, Georgia and Tennessee – we can see that the number of people born in this part of the US totals 345. With 120 people originating from other states, we therefore have states of origin for 839 people within the Peoples Temple community and consequently the assertion can be made that linking social capital was a significant force within People Temple, due to the fact that there is only 3% difference between members with California as their state of origin and those who originated from the South.

To fully appreciate the significance of this, we need to contextualise what this meant for people living in the South, and perhaps there is no better way to do this than drawing once more on the words of Martin Luther King;

I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.

I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice…

I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of “interposition” and “nullification” — one day right there in Alabama little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers (King, 2006, 545-546).

King obviously uses rhetoric to underscore his own vision for the future for American society. However, almost five decades on, the impetus that carried these words is lost in Wessinger. Black people in the United States found in Peoples Temple a promised land, where freedom quite literally rang “from the curvaceous slopes of California” and little children, black and white played “as sisters and brothers” (King, 545). This would be the linking social capital that provoked them to leave the states of their birth looking for the freedom that they eventually came to believe they found in Peoples Temple.

What the discussion above has sought to illustrate is how Woolcock’s forms of social capital are present within the movement of Peoples Temple. Over time these bonds of capital became bridges which in turn formed the links that connected members of Peoples Temple from all across the United States. These forms of social capital demonstrate how the religious legitimacy of Peoples Temple grew and evolved over time.

We can take this understanding further by asserting that through the configuration of these forms of social capital emerges Daniele Hervieu-Leger’s (2000) concept that religion constitutes a chain of memory, a source of capital that connect the traditions of the past to the practices of the present. Hervieu-Leger puts religious chain of memory in the following terms:

[T]he capital of memory each one constitutes may continue to create tradition, in other words that it may take on lasting representation as a chain of belief, transcending the different communities in which the chain has been and is made actual (Hervieu-Leger, 173).

Within the context of Peoples Temple, we have illustrated that the movement was able to “leverage a far wider range of resources” (Woolcock, 13-14 cited in Field, 46) from an incredibly diverse range of communities, meaning to that chain of memory too would be incredibly diverse. Fundamentally, individuals’ memory of the movement would depend upon when they first entered the movement. For example, a member from Community Unity would have a very different chain of memory than that of a member whose first experience of Peoples Temple was in Los Angeles. This is the epitome of diversity, and consequently this sociological conception of a religious chain of memory is particularly useful to deconstructing the theological conception of catastrophic millennialism because it allows scholars of religion to advance the argument that people’s experiences within religious movements are not monolithic nor are they static, rather they are diverse and transitory. Furthermore, catastrophic millennialism depends upon the notion of ultimate concern being extended from the individual to the group as a whole. The diversity within Peoples Temple makes this improbable at best, and nigh impossible at worst.

In this final part of this chapter, I will move from sociological theory, and through primary sources provide an understanding of the lives of families who joined Peoples Temple in order to demonstrate their religion as-lived.

Religion as-lived in Peoples Temple

Peoples Temple diarist Edith Frances Roller’s entry into the country of Guyana was on 17 January 1978. During her time in Guyana, Roller would assiduously provide an account of her day, providing a concise overview of the interactions she had with other members of Peoples Temple. These include very detailed accounts of the rallies that took place in the Jonestown pavilion. The rallies served multiple purposes; they provided members with a source of entertainment whilst simultaneously being a way to impose discipline, but perhaps most fundamentally they provided a means for members of the community to disseminate communication to each other. What is particularly relevant to this independent study is how through Roller’s journals we can build up a picture of the lives of the families in the Jonestown community.

Jonestown was the home for many families. According to the Alternative Considerations of Jonestown and Peoples Temple website there were 185 families living in Guyana. Family is defined “as any grouping of two or more people who had a biological, marital or – especially in Jonestown – well-known, longstanding relationship” (The Jonestown Institute, 2014).

One family in Jonestown was the Christian family, comprised of four members: Robert Louis Christian, Vernetta Carolyn Christian, and their two children, Tina Rayette and Robert Louis II. It is hard to establish exactly when the Christians joined Peoples Temple because there is not a discreet membership register for the movement. However, from the memorial records at the Jonestown Institute, we do know that Vernetta, Tina and Robert Louis II were born in Texas, and this places them in Texas in September 1970, when their second child Robert Louis II was born (The Jonestown Institute, n.d.). The significance of this is that it places the family outside of the areas of the states of Indiana and California where Peoples Temple operated, and they were therefore cut off from the chain of memory that was forged in Indiana. Robert Louis entered Guyana on 1 July 1977, and his wife and children entering later, on July 23. It is fair to say that realities of family life in Jonestown were somewhat different to the experience the family had in California, and this tension brought the family under the scrutiny of the community. Edith Roller’s journal entry from the 1 March 1978, provides a particularly vivid account of this scrutiny.

The Christians sent a note complaining about the treatment of their child, Tina, on the Learning Crew. Jim said they interfere with the supervision of children. Rob Christian stated that he disagreed with the discipline program. Jim damned him for criticizing the office. “You underestimate my intelligence.” Vernetta admitted she can’t see the faults of her own child. Jim said Rob had wanted to leave. He warned him his wife wouldn’t stay with him.

It was reported that Rob had showed an interest in cutting a trail through the bush to the river, that he wanted to look good. Rob admitted he is arrogant, puts his own family first. Jim read the report on Tina about her misbehaving on the learning crew because she gets support from her parents. Vern and Rob talk firmly to Tina and Vern spanked her. Rob asked to be assigned to learning crew for two weeks. Jim refused (The Jonestown Institute, 2011).

What this journal entry reveals about family life in Jonestown is that there was a particularly acute existential tension between the stated goals of the community, and that of individual families within the community itself. Before arriving at Jonestown, the Christian family were able to preserve their nuclear identity, by which I mean they shared the same place of residence (The Jonestown Institute, 2013). However, when they arrived at Jonestown, this would not be the case. The memorial records of the family reveals that Tina and Robert Louis II were separated from their parents and each other and resided in different locations at Jonestown (The Jonestown Institute, n.d.). It is here that the notion that children were a resource for the community as a whole begins to develop (The Jonestown Institute, 2013).

Roller’s record of Jim Jones damning Robert Christian for “criticizing the office” and the Christians family’s “interference in the supervision of the children” illustrates how significant the notion that children were a resource for the community was to Jim Jones. Furthermore, the final two sentences of the journal entry reveals the extent to which Robert and Vernetta were prepared to surrender their parental responsible to the community of Jonestown and ultimately to the will of Jim Jones.

Whilst we only have Edith Roller’s account of what happened on the evening of March 1, when combining this with research of the Alternative Considerations of Jonestown and Peoples Temple website, we can build up a picture of how the Christian family’s journey to Jonestown and their experiences in the community illustrate how bridging and linking capital can transition to bonding capital, and how this bonding capital plays a significant factor in the formulation of particularised trust, which Field defines as

a propensity to trust those to whom one is related through kinship or personal acquaintance, or who share membership of a known common grouping such as a church or association (Field, 96).

Whilst these are the experiences of one family and cannot be taken as representative of all the families within Jonestown, what we can say is that the Christian family is an illustration of the complexity that surrounded the religious lives of those living in Jonestown. They are lives which cannot be explained by the polemical binaries of good and evil or progressive and catastrophic.

The lives of the Christians, as illuminated through primary and secondary sources, and synthesised with sociological theory, reveal a family which found itself in the dynamics of particularised trust, having been attracted to Peoples Temple through the legitimacy cultivated through Peoples Temple generation of bonds, bridges and links of social capital. They found at Jonestown a place where they could carve out a life for themselves, where the substance of their character was not defined by the colour of their skin. For this reason, the Christians left the comforts of the United States, and were one of the first families to arrive in Guyana.

Having demonstrated the complexity of the lives on the Christians and the role that social capital played in bringing the family into the movement, I wish now to demonstrate how these bonds of capital can be broken, and how this can lead to catastrophe.

Broken Bonds

In the discussion I have illustrated how significant bonding capital was to the development and establishment of People Temple as a movement. As noted earlier, the departure of the Bogue and Parks families – both being among Jones’ earliest followers – with Leon Ryan was significant because of their history with the movement. It demonstrates what happens when bonds of capital fragment and fracture. Upon hearing the news of the departure of these families, Jones would comment that “I have failed…” (Wessinger, 46), and the movement would descend into a spiral of catastrophe where murder/suicide became framed as the only way to respond to such a failure. This has more to do with fragmented social capital than it does catastrophic millennialism. Furthermore, the dynamics of particularised trust can be further demonstrated by once more returning to the memorial page of the Jonestown Institute. Whilst many of the Bogue and Parks family survived the Jonestown tragedy (The Jonestown Institute, 2015), Marilee Bogue remained behind (The Jonestown Institute, n.d.). Here we see two families caught in complex social dynamics that was prevalent in Jonestown. The significance of this is example is to illustrate a single point: social capital is not a benign force, and neither is it a catastrophic force. Rather it is a ambiguous force that may be used in either way (Field).


Each one of these cases teaches us that well-meaning and ordinary people (lower class, middle class, and upper class, young and old, people of all races, nationalities and education levels) can become caught up in religious systems and social dynamics that can culminate in violence (Wessinger, 13).

This final quote from Wessinger is a pertinent way to conclude this independent study for a number of reasons. Firstly, it aptly illustrates the structure that this essay has sought to develop. In the first chapter, the “religious system” of catastrophic millennialism that Wessinger constructed to explain the violence that occurred at Jonestown was outlined and analysed. In the second chapter this construction was deconstructed, by drawing on sociological and historical sources, and in the final chapter an alternative construction that underpinned the complex social dynamics within Jonestown was advanced in order to explain the violence that took place there.

Secondly, the quote illustrates the fundamental fallacy within Wessinger’s analysis of Jonestown, which can be summarised as a failure to acknowledge and provide an analysis of the social dynamics within the community. This fallacy emanates from Wessinger’s attributing ultimate concern from the individual to the group. Furthermore this fallacy was further conflated by Wessinger’s assertion that this ultimate concern of the group was preserved by the mass/suicides that occurred in Jonestown.

Finally, it must be acknowledged that the Peoples Temple movement is particularly complex. This independent study has sought to explore just one facet of this complexity, and there is a need for scholars who study NRM’s to reinvestigate this movement, in order to free it from the binary of catastrophic millennialism, and the symbolic violence that has historically been inflicted upon those connected to the movement.


Al-Rasheed, M. & Shterin, M., 2009. Introduction. In: M. Al-Rasheed & M. Shterin, eds. Dying for Faith. London: I.B Tauris, pp. xviii-1.

Ammerman, N. T., 2009. Congregations: Local, Social and Religious. In: P. B. Clarke, ed. Oxford Handbook of the Sociology of Religion. London: Oxford University Press, pp. 562-580.

Bowden, J., 2005. Glossary. In: J. Bowden, ed. Christianity the Complete Guide. London: Continuum, pp. 1330-1336.

Bryne, P., 1999. The Study of Religion: Neutral, Scientific or Neither?. In: R. T. McCutchen, ed. The Insider/Outsider Problem in the Study of Religion. Trowbridge: Redwood Books, pp. 248-260.

Field, J., 2008. Social Capital. Oxon: Routledge.

Furseth, I., 2011. Religion in the Works of Habermas, Bourdieu and Foucault. In: P. Clarke, ed. The Oxford Handbood of the Sociology of Religon. Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 98-116.

Hall, J. R., 2003. The Apocalyspe at Jonestown. In: L. L. Dawson, ed. Cults and New Religious Movements: A Reader. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, pp. 186-207.

Helmer, C., 2012. Theology and the study of Religion. In: R. Orsi, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Religious Studies. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 230-257.

Hervieu-Leger, D., 2000. Religion as a Chain of Memory. Cambridge: Polity Press.

King, M. L., 2006. I have a dream. In: A. Burnet, ed. The Chambers Book of Speeches. Edinburgh: ChambersHarrap Publishers, pp. 543-546.

McGrath, A., 2013. C.S Lewis: A Life. London: Hodder & Stoughton.

Moore, R., 2014. Jonestown and the study of NRMs. In: G. D. Chryssides & B. E. Zeller, eds. The Bloomsbury Companion to New Religious Movements. London: Bloomsbury, pp. 73-89.

Moore, R., 2005, “Demographics and the Black Religious Culture of Peoples Temple.” In R. Moore, A. Pinn, and M. Sawyer, Peoples Temple and Black Religion in America. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press.

Puett, M. J., 2012. Social Order or Social Chaos. In: R. Orsi, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Religious Studies. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 109-130.

Roscoe, P., 2006. The Comparative Method. In: R. S. Segal, ed. The Blackwell Companion to the Study of Religion. Oxford: Blackwell, pp. 25-46.

Smith, J. Z., 1999. The Devil in Mr Jones. In: R. T. McCutchen, ed. The Insider/Outsider Problem in the Study of Religion. Trowbridge: Redwood Books, pp. 370-390.

Storr, A., 1996. Feet of Clay: Study of Gurus. New York: Simon and Schuster.

The Jonestown Institute, 2003. Q1053-6 Transcript. [Accessed 16 May 2016].

The Jonestown Institute, 2011. Edith Roller Journals – March 1978. [Accessed 16 May 2016].

The Jonestown Institute, 2013. U.S Addresses for People Emigrating to Guyana. [Accessed 16 May 2016].

The Jonestown Institute, 2014. The Family Trees of Jonestown. [Accessed 16 May 2016].

The Jonestown Institute, 2015. The Demographics of Jonestown. [Accessed 16 May 2016].

The Jonestown Institute, 2015. Who Survived the Jonestown Tragedy? [Accessed 16 May 2016].

The Jonestown Institute, n.d. Jonestown Memorial – Robert Louis Christian. [Accessed 16 May 2016].

The Jonestown Institute, n.d. Jonestown Memorial – Robert Louis Christian II. [Accessed 16 May 2016].

The Jonestown Institute, n.d. Jonestown Memorial – Tina Rayette Christian. [Accessed 16 May 2016].

The Jonestown Institute, n.d. Jonestown Memorial – Vernetta Carolyn Christian. [Accessed 16 May 2016].

The Jonestown Institute, n.d. The Jonestown Memorial List. [Accessed 15 May 2016].

Wessinger, C., 2000. How the Millennium Comes Violently. New York: Seven Bridges.

Wuthrow, R., 2003. The New Spiritual Freedom. In: L. L. Dawson, ed. Cults and New Religious Movements: A Reader. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, pp. 89-119.

(Adam Keane wrote this paper as an undergraduate independent study.)

Originally posted on September 24th, 2016.

Last modified on October 24th, 2021.
Skip to main content