Was Jonestown a “Millennial Intentional Community”?

(This paper is adapted from a paper given before the Annual Conference of the Communal Studies Association in 2016.)

04-hueynewtonIt is complicated to include Peoples Temple in with any other group when you discuss “Millennial Intentional Communities.” In this paper, I will compare Peoples Temple to the more biblical/scriptural groups, and explain why it does not belong there. I will then look at it as another of the “Doomsday Cults.” Finally, I will look at it as a product of the 1960s and 1970s, including its use of the term “revolutionary suicide,” a phrase and concept first articulated by Black Panther leader Huey Newton in the 1970s.

Millennial Intentional Community

You may define “Millennialism” either in biblical/scriptural terms, or in the more secular terms. You may anticipate that there will be a thousand-year reign on earth until the final defeat of Satan. Or, you may be optimistic that there is a better world on the horizon that will descend from a heaven, or from your fellow humans. Peoples Temple, a pragmatic and practical “religion,” did not fit in any of these camps.

Peoples Temple was a “radical-dualistic” Intentional Community from the very beginning. As Jim Jones evolved from being a student pastor into becoming an ordained minister – serving in different Christian churches, from Methodist to Independent Assemblies of God to Disciples of Christ – he perfected his strategy of becoming a revered and significant spokesperson. From early on, he wanted the adoration and faithfulness of people around him. He found the most likely people to provide that for him were those from churches. He was all-inclusive in his search, and he founded a congregation made up of all faiths.

Peoples Temple was not a faith-based group, although the origins might have appeared so. Jim Jones was a leader who brilliantly read and memorized the Bible, and often cited passages from it to establish his credibility as a religious leader. He introduced himself as a Pastor or Minister or a Man of God. That was just his costume, his façade, which gave him some legitimacy. He then proceeded to create a rainbow family based on equality and socialism. Eventually, he called himself a Socialist – and later a Communist – when he labeled himself. I do believe that was his preferred title.

Jim would never believe that a book could foretell what would happen in modern times, so never acknowledged the Bible as his guide. He used the Bible in his own way, for example, selecting passages from Matthew and others to explain why he fed the hungry, clothed the naked and took care of human needs as he saw them in his world. But he would not believe in a cataclysmic event foretold thousands of years ago.

Jim did speak about reincarnation, and believed himself to be the reincarnation of Jesus, Moses, and Lenin, to name a few. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, when he worked to attract of some local Edgar Cayce believers, he spoke about reincarnation quite a lot. Later, he seemed to discard it, although he may have actually believed it but realized that most in the congregation found it unacceptable. In any case, he did avoid that topic as time went on in Peoples Temple.

The most consistent teachings regarding Peoples Temple and Heaven put us at odds with Millennial Intentional Communities. Jim taught that Heaven should be on Earth and should be available to us all. He would often make comments like, “How come if you are rich and white, you have Heaven now, and if you are poor and Black, you have to wait for the ‘Sweet Bye-and-Bye’?” He planned on working to make his and our Heaven on Earth, every day.

If you broaden your thinking about Millennialism to include all of the different reasoning and theories, and you tried to find where Jim Jones placed on the spectrum, I think you would find that he wanted to be the Savior riding in on a white horse, the powerful figure who would inspire people to readjust all that was skewed in our society. He built up his own position by reminding all of us about the terrible plight around us, and often enough, exaggerated to make his point. He would then direct us to some solutions, and have us do those things. As his political power and his reputation grew, he would even describe himself as Jesus did: “I am the Way, the Truth, the Light.”

Jim’s ministry and all of his teachings put the responsibility of making the world brighter and egalitarian on his own shoulders and on the shoulders of his Peoples Temple congregation. He always spoke about deteriorating social conditions, including racism, economic inequality, poverty, powerlessness, and political corruption. He taught and modeled that he, and those who chose to follow him, were the ones to turn things around and make a difference. Rather than allowing us to be despondent and passive in the face of these worsening conditions, he insisted that we work tirelessly to bring the world around and make it better.

At one of my presentations to the Communal Studies Association, someone asked me if the people who joined Peoples Temper were depressed and passive, waiting for someone to rescue them. The reality was that those who joined Peoples Temple were the ones who thought they could make the world better, with their hard work and collaboration.

Peoples Temple members participated in a radically dualistic society. If you were working with Jim to make the world better, you were the “we,” the ones on the loyal side. If you were not doing the work – whether you were among the visitors who didn’t stay, family members of members, or former members – you were “they” and treated as outsiders. Confidences would not be shared, and those on the outside were vilified.

In Jones’ view, the world was decaying further each day. His solution was for all of us, his congregation, to be the change. There was no excuse for inactivity. While we were in the United States, our every interaction was geared to be helpful. If any of us were on a city bus in San Francisco and a senior boarded, we were expected to give up our seats, and to explain that Jim had taught us to be respectful. Anyone who could write a letter was expected to correspond with judges for the release of any incarcerated relatives of Peoples Temple members. We opened up many senior citizen and foster homes to house local people who were displaced. In so many instances, we were fixing the broken system with our own hands, providing many essential services and support.

Doomsday Cults

Many people lump Peoples Temple with other Doomsday Cults. Because of the devastating ending, with 918 people dying in Guyana, it might seem that these groups that take their own lives, or have their lives taken, would be very similar. Doomsday cults, including the Solar Temple and Heaven’s Gate, are considered as a subgroup of Millennialist groups.

In 1994, seventy-four members of the Solar Temple in Canada and Switzerland made good on their belief that members would need to ascend to a different spiritual plane in order to survive the environmental apocalypse. Once they survived, they would ascend and be reborn on a planet orbiting the Sirius, the Dog Star.

Heaven’s Gate, a San Diego cult, ended with the suicides in 1997 of 39 people, including the leader and prophet Marshall Applewhite. The group believed that the Hale-Bopp comet which was brightly flashing across the sky, would bring with it a UFO that would rescue them ahead of the imminent end times.

Although these “Doomsday Cults” had strong charismatic leaders, and died in large numbers of fellow believers, they had a belief and even expectation that there was some sort of life after death in a physical or spiritual world. Their ultimate decision to die was consistent with that belief.

Often, Jim would refer either to a biblical “Promised Land” or to quote Dr. Martin Luther King’s “Mountaintop” speech: “I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land.” Jim wanted Heaven – the Promised Land – to be here and now, to be lived in here and now.

The Uniqueness of Peoples Temple

Peoples Temple was a success initially in Northern California because of a much larger stage, the stage of world and U.S. History. It is somewhat easier to understand Peoples Temple, including the horrific ending, if you look at it through a historical lens. The events of the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s had an immense impact on Jim Jones and many members of Peoples Temple.

On the international front, in 1953, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were executed as Communist spies, an event that affected Jim a great deal and of which he often spoke. U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy raged against spies and communists from 1950 through 1956, and thereby became a target of Jim’s rage. During the Cold War, many thought we were on the brink of World War III, which would destroy the world in a nuclear holocaust, but – as many Western political leaders told us – “Better dead than red.” We entered into the Vietnam War in a small way, accepting the “domino effect” theory that once a country fell to communism, its neighbors would quickly fall as well.

On the domestic front, Rosa Parks had been arrested in 1955 for refusing to give up her seat on a bus. In 1960, John Kennedy had just been elected as the youngest and the only Catholic president to date. People across the South were pushing for Civil Rights and the end of segregation, and Freedom Riders were traveling across the South.

But the decade of vigilantism had also begun. In 1963, Civil Rights activist Medgar Evers was killed, as was President Kennedy. Another black activist, Malcolm X, was shot to death in 1965. Martin Luther King, who delivered his “I have a dream” speech in 1963, was assassinated in 1968, followed three months later by the death of John Kennedy’s brother Robert.

But the violence did not stop there. In 1970, four students were shot and killed during antiwar protests at Kent State University in Ohio, and 11 days later, two African American students were shot and killed during a confrontation with police at Jackson State University in Mississippi. The Civil Rights movement became more militant, with the rise of Black Power, and Russell Means and Dennis Banks organized Native Americans through the American Indian Movement. And, in 1973, Huey Newton published his book Revolutionary Suicide, which described what a revolutionary should expect as the consequence of challenging the system: if you carried the banner of revolution into the street – to stand up against the power of the Man – the Man was going to shoot you down.

Jim was a product of this time too. He was born in the middle of Ku Klux Klan territory, in 1931. Married at eighteen, he began his journey to become an ordained minister of the Disciples of Christ. In each church, he integrated the congregation or left. He had made that an integral part of his identity. In 1954, he and his wife were already committed to integrate their family by adopting children of different races. Eventually, they adopted four children of different races – three Korean and one African American – and a white child along with their natural-born son, Stephan. By 1960, they had a house full of children.

In the early 1960s, Jim traveled to South America and lived in Brazil, briefly visiting Guyana (still British Guiana at the time). He returned to Indiana and had a vision of a nuclear blast hitting close to Chicago. In 1965, he moved 87 members of Peoples Temple to a “safe zone” in Northern California.

The Peoples Temple I joined in 1970 was aware of all of this movement: the push for equality, for dignity, and away from the vigilante-ism of the 1960s. The Temple was an Intentional Community, made up of people aware of all of these events, affected by them.

When I entered the Peoples Temple building in Redwood Valley, California, the membership was totally integrated and obviously one big inclusive family. It looked and acted like a church … until I listened to Jim. He was speaking my language, one of politics and social activism. Jim had connections to all of the political “heavies” of the time – Angela Davis, Dennis Banks, Cesar Chavez, and many others – and referred to them often.

Between 1970 and November 18, 1978, Peoples Temple fought many battles, defending the media, protesting the closure of the International Hotel, getting family members out of jail, providing legal representation, assisting in appealing welfare and disability decisions, and more. We experienced a lot of racism expressed towards us, our integrated family. We worked hard through those years, trying to provide a safety net for the membership. We were being educated about activism. We were ready to push forward with everything we had. There was no going back. Jim’s comments often reminded us of the book by Huey Newton. While not the first one to use the phrase “Revolutionary Suicide,” Jim did incorporate it as part of his rhetoric: we will never give up, we will never just take what was dished out.

Without question, over these years, Jim himself lost his vision. By the time he moved to Jonestown with 1000 followers, he became addicted to drugs, paranoid, and physically and mentally ill. He had become accustomed to reverence and obedience, and to people listening to his every word. In Jonestown, we were too exhausted to do anything but work. We were kept so busy we didn’t even see that he had become untrustworthy and dangerous. He was corrupted by his power.

When Congressman Leo Ryan of San Mateo, California, insisted on coming to see Jonestown, Jim felt he had been backed into a corner. Jim’s attorneys had told him that lawsuits pending in Guyanese and American Courts would bankrupt Peoples Temple. He was told that Jonestown could never be agriculturally self-supporting because the soil would not produce enough to feed 1000 people three meals a day. Some of his most trusted followers had defected. He was not able to deny it any longer. He also knew he was dying.

Jim reverted back to the earlier message. He reminded the people of Jonestown that they could never go back to their old lives. They had signed over their houses, donated their money, left their families and loved ones behind, and had followed Jim. And now, Jim was calling on them to end it all. Altering Huey Newton’s message, Jim told us that if you were going to have your life destroyed anyway, you might as well go out with a bang that might bring some changes. He thought that the rest of the people in Jonestown had no chance to survive without him. He wouldn’t be there to “protect” them, and he didn’t want someone else arriving to take over. He refused to share his leadership role and didn’t want to share his fame – or infamy – with anyone else. His would be the only name associated the Peoples Temple, with Jonestown, and with the deaths in Jonestown.

Peoples Temple was created by Jim Jones, a borderline personality disorder. He integrated parts of mainstream religion with parts of the civil rights movement, and moved to an area which held some of the most progressive thinkers of the times. He honed his message and became a powerbroker in San Francisco, masquerading as a religious figure. He was committed to civil rights but was steered off-course by his immense power and popularity, and became corrupted. In addition to physical and mental health issues, he became a drug addict. He took on an enormous move to Jonestown, Guyana, and building a “Promised Land” which he was unable to make successful. In the end, he was convinced that he could not go back to the life he had before, and he decided that his members should make that ultimate decision with him. Die in revolutionary suicide, but know that your death might make a difference for someone else. Jim chose revolutionary suicide, for himself, as he saw it, and with his devoted and infected secretaries and mistresses, he planned and coerced and bullied the other 917 to join him on November 18, 1978.

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