Digital Jonestown: A Syllabus

Digital Religion: Jonestown
Drake University
REL 144-8507 || HONR 141-8378

Dr. Brad Crowell
Office: Medbury 207

office hours: M-Th 9:30-11:00

Fall 2016
T & Th 11:00-12:15
Cowles Library Room 45

Course Description

From the Course Catalog: As the digital world becomes more and more a part of the everyday human world, religion has increasingly become digitized and crowd-sourced. Digital Religion will engage this religious phenomenon by studying and analyzing religious movements that have a lasting digital legacy. Students will participate in critically analyzing the history, traditions, and teachings of a religious movement and creating digital annotations to clarify and connect a group’s essential online documentation. These types of innovative religious movements often encounter significant dissent and attacks from non-participants leading to misinformation or misunderstood interpretations. The course will also engage in analyzing various conspiracy theories and techniques of vilification intended to marginalize such groups.

Topic Description: This semester Digital Religion will analyze the Peoples Temple movement and their agricultural project in Jonestown, Guyana. This group, led by Jim Jones and an inner circle of devoted socialists, rose to prominence in the San Francisco Bay area in the 1970s, working on radical political issues, establishing communal living facilities, and emphasizing racial and economic equality. The group left the Bay Area for Guyana where it established a communal agricultural project. Ultimately, the group committed what they called “revolutionary suicide” in late 1978. In cooperation with the Alternative Considerations of Jonestown and the Peoples Temple project hosted by the San Diego State University, students will assist in the analysis and annotation of an online selection of documents originally produced by Jim Jones and members of the Peoples Temple.

Area of Inquiry: Information Literacy

Course Objectives in Brief (see below for full explanations)

Upon successful completion of this course, students will be able to:

  • Navigate and integrate scholarly resources into their research and reflection
  • Evaluate information resources and identify quality resources relevant to the problem or issue investigated
  • Explain the complexity of a religious movement with a founder, followers and opposition
  • Analyze the Peoples Temple as an existentially lived, historically conditioned and culturally intertwined religious movement

Reading Material

Rebecca Moore. Understanding Jonestown and Peoples Temple (Praeger, 2009) ISBN 0313352518

Tim Reiterman. Raven: The Untold Story of the Rev. Jim Jones and His People (Penguin, 2008) ISBN 9781585426782 (paperback of the 1982 seminal history)

Detailed Course Objectives

Students who successfully complete this course will demonstrate mastery of the major themes of the course with significant development of critical thinking skills. These skills can best be understood as: description (what is it), analysis (how it works), and interpretation (what does it mean). Description involves gathering relevant information, deciding what is appropriate, and organizing it in a coherent form of communication. Analysis requires indentifying patterns and relationships, highlighting bias in the sources and balancing it with other sources, and identifying areas that require further information and analysis. Interpretation entails connecting your research with the larger questions of the human and religious experience, incorporating theory and approaches both from within religious studies and other fields of inquiry, and balancing your interpretation with other thoughtful viewpoints.

In addition to these general goals, this course will attempt to accomplish specific, content-related goals:

  • Navigate and integrate scholarly resources into their research and reflection

Marginalized and newer religious movements are typically ignored in academic research until something dramatic happens. Working on the history and beliefs of these groups often includes engaging audio recording, newspaper stories, and later interviews along with scholarly histories and multiple sources to explain the context of the movement

  • All readings will address this goal, also the contextual annotation project will emphasize using various histories and scholarly resources to provide the historical and social context of a particular source
  • Evaluate information resources and identify quality resources relevant to the problem or issue investigated

The scholarly and popular analysis of new religious movements has proliferated a number of misconceptions, conspiracy theories, and misunderstandings about the groups, their leaders, and their beliefs. The expansion of online access and self-published blogs and articles has only compounded this problem. Students will engage a wide range of these types of sources to attempt to understand and explain a specific experienced narrative of life within the movement.

  • Classroom discussion will focus on source analysis, students will also construct a survivor profiles, which will engage the various statements and perspectives on a survivor’s story.
  • Explain the complexity of a religious movement with a founder, followers and opposition

One of the difficulties of studying new religious movements and digital expressions of religion is the determination to understand such a group from a single perspective in order to explain a certain outcome. Yet there are typically multiple angles and orientations from which to understand complex religious movements. Students will be expected to display an interest in complex explanations both in classroom discussion and in their digital projects.

  • Classroom discussion will focus on this goal, also the student annotation project will demand demonstration of mastery of the complexity of the situation, especially the final project.
  • Analyze the Peoples Temple as an existentially lived, historically conditioned and culturally intertwined religious movement

Every religious movement, idea, and leader is partially defined by the social and political context in which they become prominent; Jim Jones and the Peoples Temple are no exception. In the sermons, documents, and tapes of the Peoples Temple, the group is both responding to its social, economic, and political context as well as attempting to effect positive change in that context. Students will engage this objective consistently throughout the semester and should be able to demonstrate in their final autoethnography an ability to engage this primary theme

  • This course objective is taken from the Religion Major Outcomes of the Department of Philosophy and Religion. There will be a repeated, consistent emphasis on this theme and how it can be observed in the material produced by the Peoples Temple.


Jim Jones: The Early Years Project – After investigating the early years of Jim Jones by reading histories and class discussion, students working in pairs will choose a document or set of documents to transcribe (if necessary) and annotate with historical and cultural explanatory notes. Each student must submit a short formal paper explaining the decisions behind the annotations along with bibliographic citations. September 20, 22.

The Political Peoples Temple Project – While the Peoples Temple was in Ukiah, San Francisco and Los Angeles, they produced extensive documentation including taped sermons. These sermons are the primary record of the religious and political views of Jones and the Temple as it merged those views into a radical socialist vision that produced a trenchant critique of American capitalism. Students will identify a section of a sermon by Jones during this period (about 10 pages in length) and carefully annotate the text with historical and cultural explanatory notes. Students will be expected to listen to the digitized tape and check the transcriptions available on the website. Each student must also submit a short formal paper explaining the decisions behind their annotations along with complete bibliographic citations. October 20.

Media Onslaught – One of the major stresses on the Peoples Temple was negative media attention that started in mid-1977 that involved the testimonies of several recent defectors from the group. This project will involve students working through the media reports that intensified and became increasingly negative through early 1978. Most of the articles were collected and entered into the public record in the House Report on the Assassination of Leo Ryan. Students will read these articles, and digitize/annotate one of them, attempting to explain and contextualize the accusations and their impact. November 8.

Life at Jonestown Annotation Project – This project will be designed and executed by individuals or small groups of students. Students will identify a project – a collection of texts, a specific aspect of life at Jonestown like the school or Jones’ interpretation of news – and work with the professor and library experts to digitize and annotate that project. Each student must also submit a short formal paper explaining the details along with complete bibliographic citations. December 8 and 12.

Empathy, Complexity, & Understanding of Jonestown: An Autoethnography of Learning –Over the course of the semester, classroom discussion will focus on “thinking about learning,” how and what do we actually learn when engaging in a course like this. The professor will distribute documents as several points during the semester to give instructions on how to write a self reflection on learning, but students should actively begin creating a portfolio early in the semester. This should be digital (in Google Drive) and can include weekly journals, a time-sheet of work involved, reflections on learning as projects are completed, each student’s contribution to each project. This project gives students an excellent opportunity to actively contribute the process of their learning (and their grade). The project is due during finals week. December 12

Attendance Policy

You are expected to be present in class during every class session.  I understand that conflict and emergencies do arise.  During the semester, you are allowed two unexcused absences.  It is best to not use at least one of these absences in case something develops late in the semester requiring you to miss class. If you are involved in a University sponsored activity that will cause you to miss class, bring me a schedule or list of the classes missed within the first two weeks of the start of the semester.  If an emergency arises, do not hesitate to contact me so arrangements can be made. Each absence beyond the allotted 2 will reduce the final grade by 5%.

Laptop and Cell Phone Policy

While this course will primarily involve the discussion of sources, methods, and possible interpretations, it is highly recommended that students bring a laptop or device to discover and read documents. Eventually, the class will participate in creating and editing annotated documents that will require online access. If a student does not have a computer, our classroom does have enough laptops for each student.

Academic Integrity

Academic integrity is breeched whenever a student takes credit for work that they have not done or provides assistance to others to gain such credit.

  1. Plagiarism – representing another’s work (ideas, phrases, language) as your own. Academic information is produced, owned and often copyrighted by individuals and institutions.  Using the work without properly giving credit constitutes stealing.
  2. Cheating – the act of giving or attempting to give or receive aid and/or information in the course of fulfilling academic requirements. Except in the case when an assignment explicitly involves group projects, do not share your work with someone else. This includes purchasing papers or essays and representing them as your own.
  3. Fabrication – the intentional falsification of any information or citation in any academic exercise.

The penalty for engaging in any of these forms of academic dishonesty in relation to this class at minimum will be a grade of “0” on the assignment and may result in failure in the course or suspension from the university.  You should become familiar with the full statement in the Arts and Sciences Handbook or the Drake Student Handbook.

Disability Accommodation

If you have a disability that will require special accommodations for this course, please notify me within the first two weeks of the semester.  I am happy to make accommodations to meet your needs, but contact Student Disability Services (Michelle Laughlin, first floor of Old Main, 281-1835, so I can coordinate the appropriate arrangements.

Project Expectations and Evaluation Criteria

Criteria Excellent Average Poor

Clearly defined problem

Clearly stated thesis about the problem

Central problem is defined along with subsidiary questions

Student takes a clear and insightful position

Central problem is defined but lack depth and complexity Central problem is not defined clearly

Position taken is not clear


Relevant evidence to support the thesis

Clear, specific, and relevant reasons in support of the thesis

Identifies and evaluates important evidence

Evaluates the credibility of sources and acknowledges the limits of evidence

Develops and evaluates reasons in support of the thesis

Reports relevant and credible evidence

Some evaluation of the credibility of sources and limits

Provides weak or insufficient support

Some relevant evidence presented but lacks evaluation or development

Little evaluation of credibility of sources and limits


Effectively developing the stated thesis

Articulates purpose and structure of project convincingly

Makes effective transitions between reasons

Compelling summary that connects reasons with thesis

Clear beginning, middle and end

Clear organization with smooth transitions and an adequate summary of the connections between thesis and reasons

Organization is unclear

Few clear transitions

No effective summary


Adequate identification of assumptions and fair treatment of alternative positions

Analyzes implications of assumptions related to thesis

Effectively accounts for alternative explanations in providing reasons for the student’s thesis

Addresses assumptions and relates them to the thesis

Accounts for alternative explanations

Identifies assumptions but does not relate them to the thesis

Mentions alternative explanations but does not fairly account for them


Effective communication of the argument

Clear writing with a strong sense of audience

Style is concise, coherent and precise with sophisticated structure

Consistent and appropriate tone and voice

Adequate writing with a sense of audience

Style is adequate with only minor problems of clarity, tone and voice

Some insignificant mechanical issues

Weak communication skills with little sense of audience

Major problems with clarity, tone and voice

Mechanical issues distract from argument

August 30 Introductions and Syllabus
Sept. 1 An Introduction to the Peoples Temple and Jonestown
Read: Gallagher, Introduction, pp. 1-36 The New Religious Movement Experience in America (PDF located in Google Drive)

Discuss PBS Documentary Life and Death of the Peoples Temple (2006)

Make sure Google Drive access and Slack access is understood and working

Founding and Formations

Sept. 6 Jim Jones, the Depression, and a Heartland Childhood
Read: Moore, pp. 9-12

Read: Reiterman, chs. 1-3

Sept. 8 Jim Jones, the Depression, and a Heartland Childhood
Documents collected by the FBI in RYMUR HH-6

Audio of Q762 of Lynetta Jones (no transcript available)

Transcripts of Lynetta Jones interviews: RYMUR EE-3-SSS and TTT

Collection of stories from Lynetta Jones: RYMUR BB-18-Z

Handwritten stories from Lynetta Jones: RYMUR EE-3-DDDD and FFFF

The Ballad of the Jim Jones Movement: RYMUR X-3-f-22a

Audio or transcript of Q134 of Jim Jones

FBI Interview with woman who knew Jones as a child: RYMUR Serials 332

Sept. 13 Jim Jones: An Integrationist Ministry in a Segregationist City
Read: Moore, pp. 12-21

Read: Reiterman, chs. 4-7

Sept. 15 Jim Jones: An Integrationist Ministry in a Segregationist City
Newspapers from Indianapolis (online in Indiana newspaper archives)

The Open Door (newsletter from 1956)

Booklet by Jones on visit to Father Divine in RYMUR BB-17-O (33 pages)

Sept. 20 Jim Jones: The Early Years Project
Students will identify a digitalization and annotation project in groups of 5

Possible projects: Indianapolis Newspaper articles, collection of reflections on early ministry, Jones and Father Divine, annotation of documents from HH-6, Q1058-2 – part 2-3 – sermons from Indianapolis years

Sept. 22 Jim Jones: The Early Years Project – Continuation of Project discussions

Growth and Radical Change

Sept. 27 A Radical Ministry by the Bay
Read: Moore, pp. 22-26

Read: Reiterman, chs. 8-14

Sept. 29 A Radical Ministry by the Bay
Selection of Edith Roller Journal Entries

The Living Word (newsletter from 1972)

“A True Follower of this Christian Activist Ministry”

Sermons: Q 356, Q 958, Q 1059-1

Oct. 4 Politics and Expansion … and Problems
Read: Moore, pp. 26-40

Read: Reiterman, chs. 15-22

Oct. 6 Politics and Expansion … and Problems
Sermons: Q 1053-1; Q 356; Q952; Q162
Oct. 11 Facing Dissent
Read: Moore, pp. 26-40

Read: Reiterman, chs. 23-26

Oct. 14 Facing Dissent
Read: Reiterman, chs. 27-30

Kinsolving articles – 8 articles, 4 of which appeared in the San Francisco Examiner in 1972 – see

8 Revolutionaries letter – see

Oct. 18 Fall Break – No Class
Oct. 20 The Political Peoples Temple Project
Read: Reiterman, chs. 31-33 (discussion will take place in the next class)

Students will identify a digitalization and annotation project in groups

Possible projects: Kinsolving articles annotation, annotation of a sermon or portion of a sermon, analysis of financial records (in RYMUR A-1 through A-19, annotation of part of Edith Roller’s journal

Stresses and Starts: Of Traitors, Defectors, and the New Beginning

Oct. 25 Prepping the Promised Land
Read: Moore, ch. 3

Read: Reiterman, chs. 34-36

Oct. 27 Prepping the Promised Land primary documents
Resolution to Establish Guyana mission – RYMUR A-32

Guyana documents – RYMUR A-31; A-31-a21a-21c; A31-a-23

Q1058-2 – part 1 (late 1976 after Jones returned from Guyana)

Nov. 1 Onslaught! The New West Review and Media Exposés
New West Review – see

Peoples Temple response – RYMUR-HH-1-C

Peoples Temple statement in August 1977 – RYMUR-2035

Collection of Reiterman articles (if possible)

Or interaction over Lindsay article –

Nov. 3 No Class – professor is out of town
Nov. 8 Media Onslaught Annotation Project
Read articles in House Committee report, digitize and annotation one.

Struggles & the State: Concerned Families, Communal Life, & Government

Nov. 10 Life at Jonestown: Pigs, Plants, and a Sustainable Community in the Jungle
Read: Moore, ch. 4

Read: Reiterman, chs. 37-40

Nov. 15 Life at Jonestown: Continued Problems and the White Nights
Read: Moore, ch. 5

Read: Reiterman, chs. 41-47

Nov. 17 Puzzling trough the End: The Final Month at Jonestown
Read: Moore, 6

Read: Reiterman, chs. 48-54

Nov. 22-

Nov. 24

No Class – professor at a conference

Meet with groups to work on annotation project (ok to do this remotely)

Read: Moore 7-9 over break

Nov. 29 Life at Jonestown: Continued Problems and the White Nights
Reconstruction of the White Night of April 12, 1978

Edith Roller Journals, Q 635-644, Huey Newton, Revolutionary Suicide

Dec. 1 Puzzling through the End: The Final Month at Jonestown (Nov. 1-17)
Ryan letter to Jones and Jones Response

Audio of Jones announcing the visit to the community (Q175)

Jonestown produced brief on Leo Ryan (RYMUR E-3-A-2)

Jones interprets the news (Q323)

Jones to the community the day before the visit (Q050)

Account of Leo Ryan at Jonestown on November 17 (Q048)

Dec. 6 Puzzling through the End: November 18
Watch NBC compilation of coverage from Jonestown (link will be provided)

The Final Hour Tape (Q042)

Odell Rhodes accounts of last moments (FD-302 in RYMUR 89-4286-2242)

Last Words – Richard Tropp and Annie Moore

Dec. 8 Life at Jonestown Annotation Project Discussion and Peer Review
Dec. 12 Life at Jonestown Annotation Project Discussion and Peer Review
9:30-11:00 Students must attend! Submit Auto-ethnography of Learning