What is Apostolic Socialism?

Jim Jones frequently turned to the New Testament book of Acts to justify the practice of communalism and radical sharing in Peoples Temple. He called this “apostolic socialism” – and may have even coined the term himself – after the traditions the apostles followed in the early church.

All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. (Acts 2:44–45)

All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had. With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. And God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all that there were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned land or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone who had need. (Acts 4:32-35)

Jones’ earliest known uses of the term appear in sermons from 1972 and 1973, when he discussed making the kingdom of heaven on earth a reality by building apostolic socialism (Q1059-2 and Q 1014). In another sermon from 1973 he said, “My desire is to see a perfect utopia based on non-violence, based on apostolic socialism as it was on the day of Pentecost when they had all things in common” (Q971). That same year Jones described the “ennobling” experience of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit descended upon the apostles. “On the day of Pentecost, they had all things in common . . . You have to share, you have to think of your brother a bit— or your sister above yourself” (Q1023). “Apostolic communalism” is the truest form of love, where barriers between people fall because total equality exists (Q1023). Because love is socialism—that is, the radical sharing of all things great or small—and if God is love, then God is the principle of Socialism. Jones frequently referred to “God Socialism” (Q960, Q1015, Q1057-5, 1059-3, 1059-5, etc.) or “Divine Socialism” (1059-1) though he ultimately conflated the two concepts within himself.

The Divine Principle, or Divine Socialism, which Jones claimed to represent, was committed to a society based on total equality, where all things were held in common, where there were no rich or poor, and where there were no racial divisions among human beings. This was the practical dimension of God Almighty, Socialism. (David Chidester, Salvation and Suicide, 1988, p. 57)

Jones criticized those who just “talked” socialism but did not live it (Q1014). He also noted historical examples of those who abused the idea of socialism, such as Adolf Hitler (Q1023). Rewriting scripture he said “It’s harder for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of socialism, the kingdom of God, than for a camel to go through the eye of a needle” (Matthew 19:24). He exhorted followers to share everything, commit everything, and live unselfishly for others.

Members of Peoples Temple responded to the call to apostolic socialism and sincerely believed in its practice. No matter how far their leader may have strayed from his personal commitment or altered its tenets to suit his own purposes, many of Jones’ followers continued to volunteer their time and labor to make the Peoples Temple movement a significant social and political presence in both Indianapolis and California.

— Rebecca Moore