The FBI and Religion:
The Case of Peoples Temple

This article is an expanded version of a paper given at the annual conference of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion, held in Washington, D.C., on 14 October 2017.

The title of this paper comes from two sources. The FBI and Religion is a book edited by Sylvester Johnson and Steven Weitzman that came out earlier this year. “The Case of Peoples Temple” is my supplement to their excellent volume.

Johnson and Weitzman examine the relationship between faith and national security before and after September 11, 2001.[1] The collection of fifteen essays documents some of the things we already knew—like the FBI spying on the Southern Christian Leadership Conference during the 1960s, and infiltrating Muslim community groups in the early Aughts. But it also reports on some things we did not know—like the ways in which the FBI has shaped the religious landscape in America.

In general the book’s essays focus on the FBI’s anti-communist, and then Cold War, mentality that existed up to the death of its first director J. Edgar Hoover in 1972. This mindset eventually developed into the anti-terror approach that has characterized the FBI since 2001. But the thirty years between Hoover’s death and the twenty-first century are significant. This is the period which sees the rise of new religious movements, which the editors briefly note in the book’s introduction. Catherine Wessinger’s meticulous deconstruction of the FBI’s treatment of the Branch Davidians is really the only discussion of the agency’s interest in a new religion.[2] Yet at this time the agency was deeply interested cults. In 1978, a Freedom of Information Act request made by the Church of Scientology resulted in the release of more than 200,000 pages of the FBI and CIA’s surveillance records on the church.[3] The FBI was also maintaining files on the Children of God. The Family International—COG’s successor—used FOIA requests to obtain thousands of pages which reveal that agents routinely spied on its members. For example, a 1984 memo to the Director of the FBI from the Houston Field Office indicates that the Children of God were being investigated on racketeering charges. The memo also reports that several “parental committees” organized around the country, as one of the parental committees put it, to “liberate our youth from sinister influences of the leaders of this unorthodox sect.”[4]

This paper elaborates on an already good book by discussing what we have learned about the FBI and Peoples Temple. Most famous, or infamous, for the mass deaths in Jonestown, Guyana, Peoples Temple was a black religious movement headed by a white leader, Jim Jones, throughout the 1950s, 60s and 70s. Unlike other groups discussed in The FBI and Religion, however, Peoples Temple did not attract agency interest until after the assassination of Congressman Leo Ryan and the subsequent murders and suicides in November 1978. I argue that the FBI’s investigation of Peoples Temple reflected the prevalent anticult bias that existed in U.S. society at that time. This generally supports the contention of Johnson and Weitzman that the FBI saw itself as the guardian of Jewish and Christian traditions (as conceived within its perspective) over and against alien worldviews.

But first, a note on methodology. The information I am using for this report has come from Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA, requests made by the Jonestown Institute to numerous federal agencies. We have received literally thousands of documents, which translates into hundreds of thousands of pages. We have filed three FOIA lawsuits to get information: one against the CIA, and two against the FBI. This fact usually gets me excluded from jury service. We are heading toward the conclusion of the third FOIA suit, which I will discuss in a moment. We have posted a fraction of what we have received on the website “Alternative Considerations of Jonestown and Peoples Temple.” This website is hosted by the Special Collections at San Diego State University. All of this information, and more, appears on your handout.

Although Peoples Temple advocated socialist politics and supported radical causes in the 1970s—such as the national liberation movements occurring on the African continent at the time—the FBI appeared to take little interest in the group, so far as we can determine. In contrast, the U.S. State Department has numerous files documenting site visits to Jonestown, usually in response to what are known as “Welfare and Whereabouts” inquiries made by relatives. In addition, the State Department had extensive correspondence over a protracted child custody suit. Another agency, the Federal Communications Commission, has many letters from irate amateur radio operators who complained about the Temple violating ham radio rules. It has released virtually all of its records relating to its investigations of these violations. The FOIA lawsuit we filed against the CIA in 1980 revealed, or suggested, what we already suspected: that the CIA had been monitoring activities in Jonestown. The FBI apparently received various reports about Peoples Temple from the State Department, the FCC, the U.S. Customs Bureau, and other agencies, although it did not seem to have initiated any investigations itself.

The FBI entered the scene, literally, a few days after residents of Jonestown assassinated a member of Congress who was visiting the jungle community on a fact-finding tour. Congressman Leo Ryan’s visit triggered the community’s plan in place to die by ingesting poison, an act Jim Jones called revolutionary suicide. At the request of the U.S. government, the Government of Guyana formally invited the FBI to investigate the death of Ryan—though not the deaths of any other American citizen. Several things happened as a result. First, the FBI started an investigation—code named RYMUR, for Ryan Murder—which concentrated on determining responsibility for the death of the congressman. Second, the FBI took seriously the claims of an apostate group that had organized in opposition to Peoples Temple. The Concerned Relatives believed that hit squads were poised to carry out more murders. Finally, the FBI gathered up all of the group’s papers, photographs and audiotapes it found at the death scene in the jungle. In other words, the FBI became the de facto repository of the self-generated history of Peoples Temple.

These three tasks dictated what the FBI did next. Its highest priority was to capture the assassins, which proved a difficult task since these young men had all died in Jonestown. The only alleged perpetrator remaining was Larry Layton, who had pretended to defect with the congressman, and started firing a gun inside an airplane when he heard shooting erupt outside the craft. He clearly had not killed the congressman, and a jury in Guyana acquitted him of all charges. Nevertheless, Layton was extradited to the United States where he faced two trials and ultimately served 16 years in federal prison for the crime of conspiracy to murder a member of Congress.

FBI agents interviewed each and every surviving Temple member as they arrived in the United States in late 1978 and early 1979. (In defining “survivors,” I refer to Peoples Temple members living in Guyana who were not in Jonestown that day and the smaller number of individuals who managed to escape.) Utilizing Winnebago campers parked on the tarmac of Kennedy Airport in New York, agents interrogated returnees about what they knew of the plans to kill the congressman, about hit squads, and about narcotics, guns, and money reputedly stashed in Jonestown. Laura Johnston Kohl describes the experience this way:

We were kept there [in the camper] for about 14 hours. I remember at some point being given some McDonald’s fast food. It dropped like lead in my stomach . . . . The interrogators tried the good cop-bad cop routine, and everything else. They would leave me alone, and then come back and say that someone told them that I knew everything . . . When they started asking me about my personal situation, I asked for a lawyer and refused to speak to them any more.[5]

Kohl later realized their main purpose was to try to identify the shooters, but since she had been in Georgetown during the operative time period, she couldn’t tell them much.

It is clear that cult experts influenced the FBI’s understanding of Peoples Temple. Dr. Hardat Sukhdeo, then-Chief of Psychiatry at the New Jersey College of Medicine and, according to the New York Times, a “specialist on cults,” was interviewed several times. In the most extensive conversation, FBI agents demonstrated their conviction that members of Peoples Temple had been programmed and were under “some type of mind control,”[6] a belief that Dr. Sukhdeo only reinforced. The psychiatrist provided helpful hints for identifying brainwashed individuals and how to break through their indoctrination. He suggested playing “How Deep Is Your Love,” by the BeeGees, in order to melt the resistance of Temple members, since this was the song to which they were programmed. One agent expressed incredulity that people might have wanted to be in Jonestown. “Are you saying that the great majority of people that were in Jonestown were happy to be there and it was an enjoyable experience?” the agent asked. Dr. Sukhdeo equivocated, saying “As far as they were concerned, yes.”

FBI agents also interviewed former Temple members and relatives who had gathered at the Human Freedom Center (or HFC) in Berkeley, California. Two high profile defectors, Al and Jeannie Mills, founded HFC to help others who wanted to leave the Temple. In the aftermath of Jonestown, disoriented survivors, early defectors, and relatives descended on the house in Berkeley, convinced that a Temple death squad existed and that they were on a hit list. The central location of HFC made it convenient for the FBI to identify and conduct interviews with those familiar with the Temple. Anticult rhetoric had already infected the views of those interviewed, however. According to Dr. Lowell Streiker, director of the HFC at the time:

Mental health professionals, seldom hearing what the survivors and defectors actually had to say, offered their own theories of ‘brainwashing,’ ‘mind control,’ ‘thought reform,’ and ‘systematic manipulation of social influences,’ thereby enabling Jones’ followers to blame everything on ‘Dad’ and nothing on themselves.[7]

Because the Human Freedom Center had been established to help re-integrate former cultists into normal society, it adopted an aggressive anticult stance. Thus, the interviews the FBI held with individuals at HFC affirmed the anticult bias the agents brought to the table.

In retrospect it appears that the FBI had legitimate anxiety about a possible Peoples Temple hit squad purportedly targeting the group’s enemies. Given the assassination of Leo Ryan, the murders of three journalists along with the congressman in Port Kaituma, the mass deaths in Jonestown, the murders and suicides in Georgetown, and then—seven days later—the assassinations of San Francisco Mayor George Moscone and County Supervisor Harvey Milk, truly anything seemed plausible, even the hyperventilated fears of the Concerned Relatives. Documents received through FOIA requests reveal the chaos that existed throughout the federal government in the wake of Jonestown: no one at the U.S. Embassy in Guyana, the State Department in Washington, D.C., or any other federal agency seemed to have an inkling about what was happening in the first hours and days following Ryan’s assassination and the deaths in Jonestown. The massive confusion meant that the FBI relied upon pre-existing anticult tropes to interview both survivors and defectors. In addition, the chaotic background helped to give rise to alternative histories and conspiracy theories about what happened in Jonestown. Ultimately it appeared that the hit squad rumors were unfounded. The execution-style murders of Al and Jeannie Mills, and their daughter Daphene, in 1980 initially seemed to give the allegations new credence, but law enforcement officials today believe that the killings occurred during a drug deal gone awry.

Most important from our perspective, are the primary sources the FBI recovered in Jonestown: documents, photographs, and audiotapes. Among the documents are agricultural production reports; memos of meetings with representatives of communist governments, such as Cuba and North Korea; letters from residents to Jim Jones; medical records from the Jonestown clinic; autobiographies of Jim Jones and his mother Lynetta Jones; a draft history of Peoples Temple; and the detailed journals of a long-time Temple member. Hundreds of photographs depict life in Jonestown, revealing the diversity and richness of the project. More than 900 audiotapes comprise sermons from Jim Jones; community meetings which detailed everyday life in Jonestown; terrifying White Nights, or emergency preparedness drills, in which people declare their intention to die; and much more. These precious items offer us a wealth of data that few other new religions provide.

In response to a FOIA request we made in 1998—and for which we filed suit in 2001 to challenge exemptions—we have received more than 50,000 documents from the FBI. More importantly, the release prompted, or forced, the FBI to compile all of its Peoples Temple documents onto compact disks, available to the public for a nominal charge. Better still, the FBI has posted all of the Temple documents – what it refers to as serials – to its website. Unfortunately, the serials are not searchable, nor has the FBI provided an index to their contents. Fielding McGehee, my partner at the Jonestown Institute, is in the process of creating an index to the serials with the view of uploading it to the Alternative Considerations website. We have uploaded the RYMUR files to the site, and Fielding is transcribing some of the more interesting items, such as the interrogation reports noted earlier, to put them into a searchable format.

In addition to receiving thousands of documents, we obtained close to one thousand jpegs of photographs taken by Temple members and recovered in Jonestown. This was a major accomplishment, given the fact that the FBI first released the photos to us as photocopies. These photos can be accessed through a Flickr account.

We also acquired several hundred additional audiotapes, including ones that had never before been released to the public. These tapes have been digitized and can be heard online. To date, 369 have been transcribed. Excluding the 250 tapes which contain music or are blank, that leaves about 350 still to be transcribed. These tapes let us hear the voice of Jim Jones and the voices of the people in Jonestown and in the Temple. They range from fire and brimstone sermons to rather dull planning meetings, and even duller readings of the nightly news by an exhausted, or sedated, Jim Jones.

Getting this information has not been an easy process. Witness the fact that after sixteen years our lawsuit has still not been settled. We have contested a number of FOIA exemptions that we feel are arbitrary and unwarranted. To withhold the names of people in the news or those acting in their official capacity, such as members of congress and diplomats, is unwarranted. To claim the Privacy Act protects the name of an individual ten times, and to release the name on the eleventh, is arbitrary. To claim national security exemptions may violate federal regulations. In 1995 President Bill Clinton established the Information and Security Oversight Office through Executive Order 12958. ISOO was assigned the task of declassifying of items of “extraordinary public interest,” such as materials relating to the 1974 coup in Chile or the Iran-Contra Affair of 1985. We expected this might be applied to Jonestown materials. But in 2006 President George W. Bush authorized a process of re-classification which had already seen more than 55,000 pages withdrawn from public access.[8]

We should not be surprised that government agencies seek to withhold information, however. While there may be legitimate national security concerns, there is also the propensity of bureaucracies to keep “their knowledge and intentions secret,” in the words of Max Weber. As the German sociologist notes, bureaucracies are interested in power, and that objective exceeds purely functional uses of secrecy. “The concept of the ‘official secret,” he writes, “is the specific invention of bureaucracy, and nothing is so fanatically defended by the bureaucracy as this attitude, which cannot be substantially justified beyond these specifically qualified areas.”[9] He adds that one goal of this emphasis on secrecy is to stymie legislative oversight.

Certainly the Freedom of Information Act was designed to thwart bureaucratic power. Despite initial optimism over government transparency and openness when the act passed in 1966 and was amended in 1974, there have been a number of discouraging changes in policies and procedures since then.[10] But there has been some positive movement as well. The Electronic Freedom of Information Act of 1996, which was updated in 2002, required the digitization of government records. This means that many items are now readily available, without even having to make a FOIA request. For example, at the FBI Vault you can find serials on the Moorish Science Temple of America, the Sikh Temple Shooting, and Shirley Temple Black. Transcripts of the surveillance tapes the FBI made during the siege at Waco are available at the Vault. You can also learn how many FOIA requests have been made on the word Trump. Frequently the information is dated, such as the files on the Nation of Islam. But digitization is a step forward, as long as the records remain online.

The FOIA material we have collected has given us a look at the inner workings of the FBI and its attitude toward at least one new religion, Peoples Temple. The anticult attitude adopted toward groups like the Moorish Science Temple and Nation of Islam is apparent in the agency’s dealings with survivors and defectors of the tragedy at Jonestown. The fact that members of Peoples Temple espoused radical politics—supporting the American Indian Movement, Civil Rights leaders, pan-Africanists, and other progressive individuals and groups—further alienated the Bureau from the victims of Jonestown. Coupled with their contacts at communist embassies, and the visit of the Soviet press attaché to Jonestown, those who died might be viewed as casualties of the Cold War that still existed in 1978. Thus, not only its religious views but its political ideology made Peoples Temple a target of FBI suspicion. And the dramatic denouement that was Jonestown merely seemed to confirm the justice of FBI mistrust.

Nevertheless, “mistrust” is not a recognized exemption under the Freedom of Information Act. The exemptions which once may have had validity no longer apply to documents that are now almost forty years old. For scholars and writers to fully understand the role of the government, and the relationship that it has with Peoples Temple and other new religions, the FBI should abide by its statutory obligations and release all remaining materials. It is only in this way that we can fully understand the FBI and its relationship to religion.


[1] Sylvester A. Johnson and Steven Weitzman, eds., The FBI and Religion: Faith and National Security Before and After 9/11 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2017).

[2] Catherine Wessinger, “The FBI’s ‘Cult War’ against the Branch Davidians,” in The FBI and Religion, pp. 203–243.

[3] Evan Hendricks, Former Secrets: Government Records Made Public Through the Freedom of Information Act (Washington, D.C.: Campaign for Political Rights, 1982), 168.

[4] 248 FBI FOI Document_1984.pdf, given to author by The Family International.

[5] Laura Johnston Kohl, Jonestown Survivor: An Insider’s Look (New York: iUniverse, 2010), 81.

[6] Interview with Hardhat Sukhdeo, 12 December 1978, FBI Airtel dated 10 January 1979, FBI 89-4286-1645.

[7] Lowell D. Streiker, “Reflections on the Human Freedom Center,” in The Need for a Second Look at Jonestown, ed. Rebecca Moore and Fielding M. McGehee III (Lewiston, NY: The Edwin Mellen Press, 1989), 155.

[8] Patrice McDermot, Who Needs to Know? The State of Public Access to Federal Government Information (Lanham, MD: Bernal Press, 2007), 169.

[9] Max Weber, “Bureaucracy,” in From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology, trans. and ed. H. H. Gerth and C. Wright Mills (London and New York: Routledge, 2009), 233.

[10] For an extended analysis, please see Rebecca Moore, “Freedom of Religion, Freedom of Information, and the National Security State,” Paper presented at CESNUR Conference, San Diego, CA, August 2007; at, accessed 29 August 2017.

Timeline of Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and Peoples Temple

1966 President Lyndon Jonestown signs the Freedom of Information Act into Law
1971 Pentagon Papers released by Daniel Ellsberg
1974 FOIA amended to reduce response time
1976 U.S. Congress passes the Sunshine Act in wake of revelations of COINTELPRO and spying on Martin Luther King Jr. (1963–1968)
1978 U.S. Congress passes the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act

Relevations about FBI and CIA spying on Church of Scientology

Revelations about FBI harassment of Nation of Islam

18 November, 918 people die in Jonestown, Georgetown, and Port Kaituma, Guyana
1979 FOIA requests filed by Fielding McGehee and Rebecca Moore
1980  McGehee v. CIA filed over failure to respond; judgment in 1983
1982 President Ronald Reagan introduces more restrictive classification rules Moore v. FBI filed challenging exemptions to FOIA request; judgment in 1984
1988 Revelations of FBI spying on CISPES (Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador)
1992 FBI releases 40,000 documents about Peoples Temple to Church of Scientology
1995 President Bill Clinton establishes the Information Security Oversight Office (ISOO)
1996 President Bill Clinton inaugurates EFOIA
1998 FOIA request filed by Fielding McGehee with Dept of Justice: 48,738 documents identified

J. Gordon Melton and other NRM scholars ask U.S. Congress to release documents relating to its investigation of Leo Ryan’s assassination

2001 11 September attacks on Pentagon, World Trade Center McGehee et al. v. Department of Justice filed challenging exemptions to FOIA request; still awaiting judgment
2002 U.S. Congress passes E-Government Act (requiring agencies to go paperless); Congress passes Criticial Infrastructure Information Act limiting FOIA access
2006 Revelations that six government agencies have been reclassifying documents released to the public
2007–2009 Revelations of FBI spying on Muslim groups
2010 Chelsea Manning releases military documents
2013 Edward Snowden releases NSA documents
2015 WikiLeaks releases State Department cables that contain information relating to Jonestown body lift
2016 President Barack Obama signs the FOIA Improvement Act on the fiftieth anniversary of the original act; 25-year limit on ability to withhold documents passed

(Rebecca Moore is Professor Emerita of Religious Studies at San Diego State University. She is currently Reviews Editor for Nova Religio: The Journal of Alternative and Emergent Religions and Co-Director of The Jonestown Institute.  Her other articles in this edition of the jonestown report are Freedom of Religion, Freedom of Information, and the National Security State; Representations of Jonestown in the Arts; Joanstown: A Different Look at Guyana; and An Update on the Demographics of Jonestown. Her complete collection of articles on this site appears here.)