How did so many members of Peoples Temple migrate to Jonestown in such a short time? Were they forced to go?

While it is true that the Jonestown settlement received most of its population during the late summer of 1977, it is also true that people had prepared for months to leave, and those preparations took a great deal of time. Would-be emigres needed passports, visas, and immunizations in order to enter Guyana, and that doesn’t include whatever notice they needed to give to vacate apartments, sell houses, close bank accounts, leave jobs, etc. In addition, Temple records at the California Historical Society show just how thorough the vetting process was in deciding who would and would not be able to go, and what documentation and forms the members had to complete before they could even be considered.

In other words, the members of Peoples Temple did not begin making plans to leave following publication of the New West article. That publication may have been the impetus, but the decisions of the members to leave the US were at the end of the process instead of the beginning.

Indeed, there is a sense that the sudden urgency to send so many people to Guyana may have been a contributing factor in the collapse of the settlement 15 months later. The original plan was to send people down in groups of 50 to 100, with several weeks or months in between, to allow the builders of the community time to assimilate them, to realize what infrastructure improvements needed to be made before the next batch came down, and then to make those improvements. Instead, the arrival of 1000 people in such a short time overwhelmed the ability of the community to absorb them, and the Jonestown leadership immediately found itself in a deep hole in providing basic services. In a way, they never recovered from that decision: there was never enough housing, there was never enough food, and the efforts to make themselves self-sustaining were frustrating and exhausting. By the time Leo Ryan arrived in November 1978, many people were ready to stop.

There were rumors, especially after the deaths, of people being forced to emigrate, but that discounts the reasons people might want to go of their own free will: the anticipated freedom of the Promised land, the desire to be near Father, the even greater desire to be with family and friends on their new adventure, the escape from the racism Jim Jones preached about and the depraved conditions in housing and urban blight which they experienced on a daily basis. Peoples Temple records at the California Historical Society bear that out. There are several hundred approved applications for people who had expressed a desire to go – maybe as many as to fill a second Jonestown – and who didn’t.

There were undoubtedly a few who may have been encouraged or requested to go – including possibility of Larry Layton, who was “summoned” almost immediately after his sister Debby defected from Jonestown – but they were the exception.

Page added June 2017.