Many churches in the United States are brick-and-mortar buildings that sit on the same corner, in the same neighborhood, and in the same city for the life of that church. Some churches eventually shut down due to declining membership, or – conversely – grow larger and need to move nearby to accommodate the growth, or consolidate with other congregations in other facilities. I believe that is the norm, the way churches usually conduct business.
From the start, Peoples Temple was never your “usual” church.
In the 1950s, Jim Jones was determined to be a preacher in his own church. He had visited every type of institution, from Pentecostal and Southern Baptist, to roving Tabernacle Healing services, and many of the other churches holding services in the area around Indianapolis. He tried working in churches of several religions. His message was always about assisting the poor and he justified it biblically. He also always advocated for total integration.
Eventually, after several changes in the religious message and name, he established Peoples Temple Christian Church. While it was affiliated with several Christian denominations along the way – including the International Assemblies of God and the Disciples of Christ – it was always Jim’s own vision and agenda that undergirded Peoples Temple. At a time when the nation was struggling to move beyond segregation and racism, Jim Jones was outspoken and uncompromising. He lost members of his congregation and gained the support of some people in high places. Many other people were drawn to his church, and the new members became very loyal to Jim and stayed with him through many changes.
Jim was not eager to become just one of many preachers. He always had his own plan. In the early 1960s, he took his family to Brazil for a couple of years, leaving his Indiana meetings in the hands of his members, a Quaker, and a few community preachers. That was his first journey out of the country as Pastor Jim Jones. After his return, he began to plan another more permanent move, and this time, he would take his church with him.
In 1965, Jim and his family moved the entire congregation of Peoples Temple to Northern California. The car caravan of members, and those who joined the group soon after, numbered over 100, and Jim considered them all as his family. Even though his congregations in Indiana had been more predominantly black, the caravan was primarily white. Still, there was a great diversity in race, age, religious training, and skills. These people – mostly family groups – moved West because Jim motivated them to leave their homes and follow him. After arriving in Redwood Valley in California’s Mendocino County, he looked around for a church or home to buy or convert, and finding none, he and his followers built the Peoples Temple building and began to recruit more members.
Redwood Valley was a predominantly white farming community about 100 miles north of the San Francisco Bay Area. Most of its first new members from nearby communities – like those from an Edgar Cayce discussion group – were also white. After several years, Jim began to travel to San Francisco as a “healer,” and preaching passionately just the way he had learned from his years of observations of Bible Belt preaching in Southern Baptist churches, he began drawing crowds of San Franciscans of all races. His congregation began to become more integrated, just as it had been in Indianapolis.
By about 1972, most members of Peoples Temple were from the Bay Area. Redwood Valley remained as the financial headquarters and the home for early Temple members, but it was increasingly a satellite of the larger congregation in San Francisco. But throughout the Temple history – from its arrival in Redwood Valley through its final years in Guyana – a very small band of people who were intimately acquainted with the Temple money dealings were from Indiana. Jim allowed them to work in the money areas – an area he was exceedingly private about – profits, losses, expenses, collections, etc. It was the early Indiana members, such as Eva Pugh and Helen Swinney, who oversaw numerous care homes run by PT members, supplied the communes, and coordinated other operations like the letter writing center and the bus garage.
In some ways, the Temple’s years in Redwood Valley were its purest. It was isolated from its Indiana past and predated its dramatic rise of notoriety and political aspirations of Jim in the Bay Area to be one of the purest times for Peoples Temple. The group living, working, or even passing through Redwood Valley, was a base of known and trusted members. The early settlers in Jonestown, the heads of financial areas, the members of Jim’s elite group of mistresses and secretaries, and even many of the lasting friendships that exist to this day, were developed in Redwood Valley.
Eventually though, the majority of Redwood Valley members eventually made their second migration to follow Jim Jones and move into San Francisco.
Peoples Temple also expanded to Los Angeles, where it also bought a church. The Assistant Pastors traveled to cover when Jim was not there, and some LA members did choose to move up to San Francisco to be part of Peoples Temple in what seemed like the main headquarters. There was some movement between LA and San Francisco, but not many people changed residences between the two cities, as previous migrations had entailed. Still, there was a certain “flow” of belonging to Peoples Temple that had people on the move. Members traveled north and south to weekend meetings, and – more ambitiously –on bus trips across the country to search out new members. No one was allowed to be stationery. It added to the excitement of being in a growing church.
The next movement was to be the mass exodus – the emigration – of 1,000 people from the United States to Guyana, South America. In 1974, a small group of 40 settlers moved to begin the process of setting up the “Utopian” community in Guyana. It was on the remote border of the Northwest District, close to Venezuela. Jim had visited Guyana in the 1960s, so he was familiar with it. Guyana had many positive qualities. It was part of the warm and lush tropics, it was multiracial with a primarily black and East Indian population, it was English-speaking, it had a progressive government, and it was receptive to a church flaunting a large membership and large bank accounts to locate a free medical clinic in a very remote area. A decade later, he met with Prime Minister Forbes Burnham and the officials from the government’s socialist-leaning Peoples National Congress, to discuss plans for an agricultural project.
In 1974, when the plans were first proposed to create a “Utopian” community in Jonestown, there was little resistance. That was our next, even logical, step. Over the next few years, about 2,000 members went through the process to get their passports and prepared to move to an unknown country because it was just another location. That was a surprise to Jim and everyone else. He apparently thought the Jonestown community would be home to about 600 members, but he had oversold his idea.
In 1977 and 1978, another 950 people moved to Jonestown. For those early followers from Indiana, that was the third time they had been uprooted to follow Jim. And this time, they had left cities in the United States to move 4,500 miles to a primitive community in a distant continent.
Why did the people move? There are likely 1,000 reasons. From my point of view – and I speak only for myself – people moved because Jim persuaded us that Jonestown would be without racism and with everyone treated with dignity. Think of it: all these people coming from a country where racism was rampant and on the news every night. People also emigrated for the same reasons refugees leave their homes today: parents wanted their children to live in a just and healthy community, away from violence and drugs; people wanted to participate in a rainbow family, an adoptive family, where all races and backgrounds were welcomed. That was the expectation of all of us who moved to Jonestown, and for many of the 1,000 additional people still in the United States who were awaiting their turn to come over.
Another reason to emigrate to Jonestown was Family. According to Dr. Rebecca Moore’s 2017 Update on the Demographics of Jonestown:
Jim Jones was connected to 7.8 percent of the total population of Jonestown by family ties (n = 1121) and to 9.6 percent of those who died (n = 912). But more broadly, it is fair to say that almost everyone in Jonestown was related to someone else. This was not a group of single young adults, but rather a network of interconnected families made up of parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, guardians, foster parents, siblings, and adoptees who knew each other intimately. Paradoxically these family ties make the deaths both inexplicable (how could parents kill their own children?) and understandable (how could family members leave anyone behind?).
Jim had the remarkable ability to gather large family units. Both black and white families joined with large families. One of Jim’s management tools was to move family members into other homes, and move youth from other cities into homes of members. Most of the members supported those moves, and many were delighted to have their children in seemingly safe homes. Others were delighted to welcome new kids into their own homes. It was living the message that Peoples Temple was spreading, and it was the practical application of the principles Jim espoused in every public setting.
A further reason to trust and follow Jim was that even though his public persona was to be all-inclusive, he was a shrewd businessman and a judge of character, even if that judgment might be of who might be a sucker. People who gathered around Jim were confident that the money they donated to the Temple was in good hands and not wasted. The hard-working people of Indiana most likely made sure of that from the beginning. I know that was important for me, to see that the money collected was put to good use, and that Jim didn’t spend it on improving his lifestyle. When making a choice of an inspirational leader to follow, this confidence in a leader’s apparent honesty was essential. It was also rare. Many people had come from churches where the ministers lived with great wealth, at the expense of church members. Jim made no apology for taking brutal collections, but he didn’t appear to be taking collections for his own enrichment.
There were more reasons for individuals to follow. Who wouldn’t want to live in a Promised Land?
In Indiana, Jim was able to instill a deep loyalty to both his ideals and himself. Not only did 104 people uproot themselves to follow him to California, but 66 of them still followed him to Guyana. And on the last day, many of those who left with Congressman Ryan were from the original Indiana families, including Patty Parks, who was murdered at the airstrip. This was something Jim had to recognize, a more significant blow to his community than if the defectors had been people from Leo Ryan’s congressional district who joined the Temple a decade after Indiana.
It is significant that when we discuss migration and emigration within Peoples Temple, of the 105 people who originally moved West with Jim in 1965, 73 were with him in Jonestown on the final day (with two remaining still in San Francisco). Of those 73 who emigrated, 58 members died in Jonestown on November 18, 1978.
Jim would never admit to making a mistake or having a plan fall through. He went ahead with an overpopulated and under-producing and unsustainable rainforest community. Since he had been the voice raving about Jonestown, there was no one else he could blame – which was his usual tactic for avoiding responsibility for an obvious mistake.
Jim was dishonest about the problems with Jonestown, but only a very few people knew that the future in Jonestown was already doomed. Rather than put the brakes on the community’s growth, Jim continued to promote selling the idea of a Promised Land, and the migration continued. People were still arriving in Georgetown on November 18, en route to Jonestown.
Over the last few months of Jonestown’s life, Jim was made aware how it would not be able to continue as he had envisioned it. Ultimately his success at selling the idea, along with protecting his enormous ego, his paranoia-producing drug use, and his mental illness were his undoing. By then, he had surrounded himself with trusted associates who would never disclose that the Emperor had no clothes. That was the ultimate undoing.
(Laura Johnston Kohl is a Jonestown survivor and a regular contributor to the jonestown report. Her other articles in this edition of the jonestown report are Returning to Jonestown, Guyana 40 Years Later, The Legacies of November 18, and My Donation to the University of Southern Indiana. Her collected works may be found here. Laura may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)