I came to the study of Peoples Temple and Jonestown through a different route than many in academia. My expertise in religious studies is Ancient Israel and the Hebrew Bible, but my teaching responsibilities cast a wide net in a small religious studies department. As part of an Introduction to Religion course, I began to incorporate a section on Jonestown to illustrate politically-engaged religious movements and to pique student interest in a fascinating and compelling chapter in American religious history. That decision to simply introduce students to Peoples Temple spun into an independent course using digital methods of study and a project to digitally annotate important documents from Jonestown and Peoples Temple. Even though my entry into Jonestown studies has been as a bit of an outsider, I am able to see a vast amount of work still to be done. I also recognize that for many scholars and media influencers, Jonestown and Peoples Temple have few secrets left to uncover or compelling stories to tell.
Coming to Jonestown through pedagogy, I have spent considerable time reviewing resources, books, and narratives that could provide students with compelling but complex introductions to the movement. While Rebecca Moore’s Understanding Jonestown and Peoples Temple offers a succinct and important historical introduction, I try to supplement that text with one of the many popular narratives about the movement and its tragic end. This should be one of the most important “futures” of Jonestown studies: the communication of a complex human storyline of the commitments and desires of Peoples Temple to impact its social and political world. All too often the stories of Jonestown focus on Jim Jones – understandably, because he is a towering and charismatic figure – but these stories often neglect the members themselves, with their complicated and sometimes contradictory motivations for following a leader who promised a utopian community in a far-off land. Admittedly this is not an easy task, because most who understand and want to communicate this complex story lack the time, resources, connections or literary skills to do so.
A second “future” of Jonestown studies should focus on the somewhat urgent task of recording the stories, memories, and perspectives of survivors for posterity. There are many avenues – written recollections, audio recordings, digital stories – to try to preserve the various views and voices of Temple survivors. Alternative Considerations of Jonestown & Peoples Temple is doing an admirable job collecting the reflections of survivors and family members. The editorial decision to not edit or attempt to maintain a certain perspective is an important way to maintain the polyphony of perspectives of this set of events. But another important, and perhaps urgent at this stage, venture would be to collect audio and visual recollections and make them available to the public, future historians, and documentarians. There are several important books written by survivors, but the digital audio/visual format would increase the accessibility of the memories. However, this would be an expensive and labor-intensive endeavor.
In the near future, a third direction would be the continued digitalization and publication of Peoples Temple documents. Most of the available documents are already digitized and made available on the Alternative Considerations of Jonestown & Peoples Temple website, but there are important exceptions. For example, the Peoples Forum, the monthly newspaper that became one of the ways the Temple constructed its image for the larger public, has only one digitized issue available for review and study. The Peoples Forum was published for over a year and became the center of activity for many participants, as they stood on the streets of Los Angeles and San Francisco, handing out copies (even as others were given the duty of handing out copies as punishment after a catharsis session). Study of documents like these could help understand the public construction of the Temple’s message, and their larger persona that Jones and the leadership wanted to project.
My final hope for the “future” of Jonestown studies is that there would be a shift from the focus on Jones and the final tragic days, toward the followers and their lives and experiences within Peoples Temple. The various issues, hopes, fears, theological innovations, and manipulative techniques of Jim Jones have been studied and understood, and I’m sure that there will be methods and perspectives that can add to our larger understanding of him. But shifting the focus from the founder to the followers could open new vistas in the study of religious movements, and allow us to understand the multitude of motivations, hopes and fears of the rank-and-file membership. This would be a wonderful opportunity for the study of Jonestown to become more “crowd-sourced,” with interested individuals throughout the country searching newspaper and governmental archives for information about individuals from their region that joined Peoples Temple. Expanding the purview of the study of Jonestown and Peoples Temple could wonderfully expand our understanding of religious motivations, religious living and the extent of religious innovations.
(Dr. Brad Crowell is Chair of the Department of Philosophy and Religion at Drake University. His previous articles in the jonestown report may be found here. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)