Intentional Community Project:
A Utopian Analysis of Jonestown

by Alan Parnell

(This paper was written for a Political Science course in Utopia/Dystopia at the University of Central Florida.)

Throughout the year of 1974 a group of members from the Peoples Temple movement under the rule of Jim Jones had set out to Guyana to establish an agricultural cooperative community in an effort to establish a socialist utopia for themselves as well as forthcoming members. This community was named “The Peoples Temple Agricultural Project,” but is more popularly known to the public as “Jonestown.” The concept of Jonestown arose from the Peoples Temple movement that surfaced in California as an effort to create a heaven on earth away from the capitalistic evil of American society. The concepts and organizational structure of Jonestown were results of further elaborated and continually evolving principles from the Peoples Temple movement, fusing extreme socialist views with an evolving form of Christianity as perceived by the leader himself, Jim Jones. As the community grew and became a sustainable establishment, its organization in the realms government, religion, labor, and general way of life was emphasized through a blinding authoritarianism. From its constructional origin in 1974 to its suicidal demise in 1978, Jonestown became a wonder to the world because of its status as an intentional utopia designed through the eyes of madness.

Origins

Jonestown was the ultimate product of the Peoples Temple movement resulting from an attempt to create heaven on earth. Jim Jones, the manic leader of Peoples Temple and Jonestown, had found community in the church at a young age, and as he grew older he became a preacher. He preached diversity and acceptance of all and claimed to understand the struggle minorities in America experienced in that day and age. His preaching attracted the likes of many followers: young and old, black and white, individuals and entire families. He relocated his movement from Indiana to California where Peoples Temple grew vastly popular, gaining thousands of members and opening multiple branches of the church throughout the state. It was during this period of exponential growth that origins of what later became Jonestown were first erected. It was through the course of lively and energetic sermons that preached social equality, love for the community, and kindness to others that Jones gained a very loyal and devout following. People donated unprecedented amounts of money and material belongings to the church, and dedicated their entire livelihoods to the cause. People who worked professional jobs would voluntarily forfeit each paycheck they received to the church and would live through the means provided by Peoples Temple. They built housing and provided all followers who were true to the cause with food, shelter and clothing. Along with the necessities for life, church members were provided with full health care, insurance and legal services.[1] The church ran a number of programs to benefit those in need of food, drug rehabilitation and legal aid.[2] It was this acceptance of diversity complemented by the overt cause to help others, and energetic and regular church meetings that gained Peoples Temple a popular image and thus attracted a substantial number of followers. However, the promoting of social equality then led to the preaching of existent social inequality in America, as well as political and even religious inequality. Jones began to preach that capitalism and the desire for money and private property were the contributing factors of inequality and social injustice in America and thus began to promote socialism. In one of his sermons, Jones preached, “only can we have what everyone else can have.” He went on to compare the love for money to the force of gravity. “The earth will hold you down as long as you’re selfish, capitalistic, and possessive and you don’t want to share. You can’t get out of its gravitational pull until you get free from it.”[3] Jones’ views on Christianity evolved into a socialistic and prophetic message, placing a heavy emphasis on creating heaven on earth.[4]

Government

The structural organization of government in Jonestown began in the early days of Peoples Temple. As the movement began to grow and gain popularity, Jones began to assign some of his most loyal followers as members of his staff. Staff members were responsible for somewhat smaller tasks such as filing paper work, keeping track of inventory of the material donations received, and putting use to the money and paychecks people gave to the church, as well as participating in church “healings.” As the movement gained its bulk of followers, Jones appointed a number of well-educated, young professionals to use their knowledge and talents to benefit the church. These young professionals brought Jones proficiency in various areas such as law, accounting, nursing, teaching and music, in addition to paychecks donated to the church.[5]

It is through the use of these members as well as the leadership of Jones that the governmental structure of Jonestown began to form. Jones’ administration consisted of governmental branches and various subcommittees. He had banking, legal and accounting committees to handle the appropriate work. A legislative branch consisted of various subcommittees to handle planning, agendas, industrial issues, priorities and a domestic issues committee known as the “Jonestown Site Committee.” A judicial branch consisted of an evaluations officer, a branch secretary, a counseling officer, and the Relationships Committee that was responsible for granting marriage between church members. Below these branches were various departments, administrations and subcommittees that included: agriculture and livestock; business and industry; construction, power and transport; education, housing and population; entertainment and guests; foods and central supply; public utilities; security; and small shops.[6]

It is through Jones’ role as Executive Officer and the role of his administration that we see a blending of two forms of government, autocracy and aristocracy. Autocratic denominations are present in Jones’ role as Executive Officer. Jones was an authoritarian ruler, and as ultimate leader and planner of the movement as a whole; he had absolute power and influence in the structure and tenets of Jonestown and Peoples Temple. Aristocratic qualities are present in the entirety of the administration below him. It was an aristocracy of those whom Jones determined to be most loyal, educated, and well fitted for the role. Those loyal followers who had jobs and were educated in professional areas before Jonestown were assigned to a role parallel to their experience, while those who did not hold this status were mostly laborers.

In the economic realm Jonestown was internally socialist. No money was used to purchase food or clothing; it was mostly provided by donations, labor, and agriculture of the community. If a house or article of clothing needed repair, appropriate laborers within the community would do so. Food, plumbing, electrical, and various other services would be provided by the community. Jonestown only used money externally to pay for resources to construct the area and buy local goods from the Guyana’s capital city of Georgetown, a 24-hour boat ride away. Jonestown also arranged a number of small shops and merchant stands more locally in small towns of the North West District to sell goods they produced, in which all money was then given to the Jonestown treasury.[7]

Work & Labor

The work and labor ethics in Jonestown were perhaps the greatest source of physical and mental abuse experienced by its followers. Starting in Peoples Temple, every follower that lived under the roof of the church was assigned a job, usually that of hard labor. A considerable amount of members would work their regular jobs, and in addition to forfeiting their paycheck to the church, would do church-related work. This work included anything from organizing protest marches, writing political letters, participating in the beneficial programs, but mainly tedious hard labor on church grounds. There were reports of followers working up to 22 hours a day, and sometimes not sleeping for weeks. Followers were made to feel guilty about the luxuries of sleep, leisure, and materialism.[8] If a member was reported neglecting their work, they were punished by being forced to box a stronger church member, usually without being allowed to defend oneself against the blows.[9] Conditions were no better once Jonestown was established.

The workforce in Jonestown was well organized and harshly implemented. Most work was agriculturally based, but there were various types of other jobs ranging across all types of specialties; anything from woodworking to electric engineering to shoe repair. Many people worked in agriculture as well as other jobs. While the adult members worked, the children attended school for nearly all hours of the day. Education was mainly liberal arts based but included most core subjects and some subjects implemented by Jones himself.[10]

Punishment followed those who were caught slacking or resisted work, and was quite diverse. Sometimes it was in the form of physical neglect from the guards,[11] other times it was brought to the attention of Jones during daily meetings in which he would decide the appropriate punishment, usually that of hard labor or a catharsis session where followers were made to confess to homosexuality or child abuse. If children misbehaved in school they were punished with a heightened sense of cruelty. In one form of punishment, the misbehaving child was blindfolded and hung upside down in a well, where adult members terrified them by making horrifying noises.[12] It was this authoritarian approach to the regulation of labor that created an innate fear and paranoia in Jones’ followers, which allotted more manipulation and eventual deterioration as a community.

Marriage and Sex

Jones’ views on sexuality were quite manic and exemplary of his insanity. He preached that everybody was a homosexual and had homosexual desires, and that he was the only heterosexual in the world. He also claimed that sexual relationships were selfish and took away from the objectives of the church, and therefore forbade talks of sexual experiences.[13] Jones even went as far as encouraging children to spy on their parents and would reward the children if they told Jones of sexual encounters between the parents.[14]

Despite his views on sexuality, Jones allowed marriage in Jonestown through a very strict process. On the more basic level of marriage in Jonestown, those who had a child out of wedlock were instantly considered married. Traditional marriage needed approval from the Relationships Committee. Couples seeking marriage had to endure a three-month period without physical contact followed by a six-month period where physical contact was allowed. If the couple made it through these trial periods, they were considered married. If a married member of the church was caught having an affair with another member, the two would be publicly shamed by being forced to undress in front of the masses and would occasionally be forced to act out sexual behavior.[15]

Religion and Death

The religious tenets of Jonestown were a true integration of socialism into Jones’ perceptive approach to Christianity. It was a religion that evolved with the movement and with the changing psychology of their leader. Early in the development of Peoples Temple, Jones preached diversity and the teachings of Jesus Christ. As the movement grew, Jones preached that he was the “pinnacle of justice and righteousness,” and that he was truly a prophet.[16] Jones was a Pentecostal preacher who, through tactics of deceit, practiced healings and prophesizing regularly.[17] In an effort to promote his status as a Godly prophet, Jones placed heavy emphasis on the concept that Christianity was wrongly practiced because it oppressed minorities and exploited church members, thus creating a mindset that went against traditional Christianity.[18] Jones particularly favored the line “on earth as it is in heaven,” and used it to create a sense that heaven should be made on earth, and to wait to go to heaven would be selfish, thus enacting the Jonestown movement.[19] In Jonestown, there were daily and nightly meetings called “steering sessions,” in which there was singing and chanting, as there had been in Peoples Temple services in the US. These sessions became more of a source of brainwashing and manipulation in that Jones would use them to create a sense of paranoia by telling followers he has spies amongst the community that would tell if there were any plans of leaving, and that there were vicious tigers and snakes in the jungles that would hunt them if they attempted to leave. Jones also preached that the US government was going to come and try to take their land away from them one day and that they must prepare.[20] This is where his obsession with death played a significant role.

Jones constantly spoke of death in a revolutionary manner and described it as the ultimate price of truth. In the eyes of Jones, the concept of revolutionary suicide served three purposes: a test to the loyalty of the cause and the community; a way of avoiding a subhuman death and achieving a sense of true godliness; and a tool used as a testament to the outside world to accept the unbreakable truth of the community.[21] This mentality lead Jones to enact a series of suicide drills that came to be known as “white nights,” which occurred as often as once every two weeks. In these drills, Jones would call for a meeting of all members of the community and would force them to drink a fruit punch that they thought was laced with cyanide. To do so was the ultimate testament of trust and loyalty to the community, and those who refused were severely punished.[22]

Initial Success and Subsequent Failure

There were several conditions that allowed this movement to gain such a strong following. One environmental condition that allowed for the successful early development of the Peoples Temple movement was the aspect of the time in which it occurred. The 1960’s were a time where there were masses of young people who were influenced by social manifestations of the time in America (Vietnam war, Abundant racism, heavy drug use), which in turn lead them to search for a higher purpose. The early teachings of Jim Jones offered immense diversity, energetic rituals, and a number of positive antics. A large contributing factor to the growth that eventually turned into Jonestown was the simple yet effective organizational structure of government implemented by Jones.[23] The final piece to the puzzle was Jones himself, a charismatic leader who conveyed a message that offered the illusion of a solution to the many problems experienced by the followers, in which he heavily reinforced through the tactic of group think and creating the sense of contributing the whole as a greater action than oneself.[24]

In regards to the demise of Jonestown, it seemed as if all aspects implemented by Jones built up to the point of deterioration. The negative media attention on top of federal investigations of Jonestown was just the tip of the iceberg. The drug-fueled psychopathy of Jones increased his paranoia thus having an adverse affect on the community. Increasing security and internal paranoia as well as labor and intensifying punishments led his followers to lose sight of the intention and begin to question his leadership.[25] The physical and mental exhaustion of members led to a lack of motivation to maintain the community. This weakened the charisma of Jones because the community was no longer focusing on recruiting and expanding once the community was sustaining itself. The vast expansion of Jonestown put the leadership of Jones to the test, showing that he could not make all the decisions by himself because of a lack of knowledge in certain subjects.[26] The group psychology of the community plays a major role once again, as it did in the development of the organization.

After the many “white nights” of suicide drills, the day finally came where the members were forced to actually do it. Members assisted each other in administering the cyanide-laced Flavor-Aid, believing through the words of Jones they were dying for a higher purpose and to not do so was selfish.[27] They believed that through this action the Promised Land awaited and that it was their destiny to die this way, this way of revolutionary suicide.[28]

Bibliography

Chidester, D. (1991). Salvation and suicide an interpretation of Jim Jones, the Peoples Temple, and Jonestown. Bloomington, Indianapolis: Indiana University Press.

Hall, J. (1987). Gone from the promised land: Jonestown in American cultural history. New Brunswick, U.S.A., New Jersey: Transaction Books.

Jonestown Jobs by Department Document, 1978, acquired through the Freedom of Information Act, accessed 30 November 2015.

Jonestown Organizational Chart, 1978, acquired through the Freedom of Information Act, accessed 30 November 2015.

Maaga, M. (1998). Hearing the voices of Jonestown. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press.

Nelson, S., Smith, M. A., Walker, W. N., Chin, M., Phillips, T., Firelight Media., (2007). Jonestown: The life and death of Peoples Temple. Alexandria, Va.: PBS Home Video.

Reiterman, T., & Jacobs, J. (1982). Raven: The untold story of the Rev. Jim Jones and his people. New York, New York: Dutton.

Richardson, J. T.. (1980). “Peoples Temple and Jonestown: A Corrective Comparison and Critique.” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 19 (3), 239–255.

Staff, H. (2010). Jonestown. Retrieved November 30, 2015.

Ulman, R. B., & Abse, D. W. (1983). The group psychology of mass madness: Jonestown. Political Psychology4(4), 637-661. doi:10.2307/3791059

Notes:

[1] Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple. Nelson, S., Smith, M. A., Walker, W. N., Chin, M., Phillips, T., Firelight Media., (2007). Alexandria, Va.: PBS Home Video.

[2] Jonestown, Staff, H. (2010).

[3] David Chidester (1991) Salvation and suicide an interpretation of Jim Jones, the Peoples Temple, and Jonestown. Bloomington, Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 99.

[4] John R. Hall (1987). Gone from the promised land: Jonestown in American cultural history. New Brunswick, U.S.A., New Jersey: Transaction Books, 24.

[5] Tim Reiterman & John Jacobs (1982). Raven: The untold story of the Rev. Jim Jones and his people. New York, New York: Dutton, 157.

[6] Jonestown Organizational Chart (1978).

[7] Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple.

[8] Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple.

[9] Mary Maaga (1998). Hearing the voices of Jonestown. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 88.

[10] Jonestown Jobs by Department Document (1978).

[11] Jonestown.

[12] Reiterman & Jacobs, 393-394.

[13] Jonestown Jobs by Department Document (1978).

[14] J.T. Richardson (1980). “Peoples Temple and Jonestown: A Corrective Comparison and Critique.” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion19 (3), 239–255.

[15] Reiterman & Jacobs, 393.

[16] Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple.

[17] Hall, 19-20.

[18] Hall, 24.

[19] Hall, 30.

[20] Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple.

[21] Chidester, 126-127.

[22] Reiterman & Jacobs, 390-391.

[23] Richardson.

[24] R. B. Ulman & D. W. Abse (1983). The group psychology of mass madness: Jonestown. Political Psychology4(4), 637-661. doi:10.2307/3791059

[25] Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple.

[26] Maaga, 89.

[27] Ulman & Abse.

[28] Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple.

Last modified on November 24th, 2018.
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