The Push and Pull of Jonestown

by Kassidy Scott

(Editor’s note: Kassidy Scott a senior at Stephen F. Austin State University with a major in history. This paper was submitted as a graduation requirement.)

During the 1960s and 1970s, the United States went through societal changes and had many reactions among its citizens. Many minority groups struggled with finding a place in the country due to ongoing changes in society’s expectations. Jim Jones defied all odds and founded a place in which many found a home among the struggles of racism, poverty, and education. The way Jones attracted people through love, acceptance in which he founded his church, Peoples Temple. The push and pull and relationship between Jones and the struggles of society played a large role in members joining new religious movements, like Peoples Temple.

Many members of Peoples Temple went through struggles in order to join Jim Jones and his church. New religious movements became prominent in the 60s where the increase of poverty and racism within the United States led to negative social changes. The negative outcomes of those changes made many people look to new religious movements for the answer to their problems. Different societal factors affected both the member’s personal lives along with himself and led to many American citizens joining Peoples Temple. Eileen Baker stated the relationship between people and new religious movements that sprouted about society. She argued, “movements can be explained as reactions to the wider society; the emphasis is on a ‘push’ from outside; any ‘pull’ from the movements is perceived in their promise to compensate for the shortcomings of the wider society.”[1] The push in society was considered all the negative factors of society that was pushed upon people such as discrimination of race and poverty. The pull is related to Jim Jones and Peoples Temple. They were able to use everyday struggles to reel groups in who faced the most oppression in their daily lives. He promised a community of not only of material goods such as shelter and food, but emotional support. He made members feel like they belonged and were important. The push and pull factors such as these were vital in people following Jim Jones and his teachings.

The Push to Jim Jones

The 1960s and 1970s changed the way Americans spent and organized their money. The U.S was in favor of a strong capitalist government in which private businesses flourished. Capitalism had positive effects on the economy and encouraged trading and competition throughout the country. Businesses chose what products to make and how much to sell them for. An abundance of different goods became available and many Americans lives became easier. This took off by encouraging the buying and selling of different commercial goods. It limited the government in interfering with the economy, so people had the freedom to do whatever they wanted. There were also many factors of capitalism that negatively affected the country. It increased the gap between the rich and poor and made the wealth unevenly distributed between people. The poor citizens of the country struggled to live and find quality of life within its borders.

Racism in the 50s and 60s influenced the amount of people to join Peoples Temple. Jones attracted African Americans and different people of color due to his belief in integration of society. The civil rights era was monumental and led to many people fighting for equal rights across the country. African Americans were not given the same quality of education and many lived in poverty. Members used racism as a reason to believe in Jones and everything he stood for. African Americans lived in fear due to the rise of the Ku Klux Klan and violent acts against anyone who was not a white male. Violent murders and mob killings or lynchings happened frequently to African Americans, and they faced death due to their race. Jones attracted many people by being inclusive. Minorities were not given a good education environment. Schools were segregated and many African Americans were not able to learn to the same extent as a white child. He established a place where people of all ages could learn safely and efficiently. Because of this, Racism was used as a reason to believe in Jones because of his support to end racial discrimination.

Racial divides pushed African Americans to join Peoples Temple because it gave them a safe place from the oppression they faced every day. Elsie grew up in an area where many of her people were killed. She never felt save anywhere she went. She remembered, “Where I lived blacks were getting shot.”[2] Elsie grew up in Eudora, Arkansas where finding bodies in the woods happened frequently. She was surrounded by white people who constantly bullied her and her son. Due to the constant backlash of her skin color, she hoped for a place where there was no discrimination based on skin color. Jim Jones was her solution by giving her a place where she felt safe from racial violence and inequality.

Henry Mercer also experienced racial indifference growing up in the 1950s. He worked hard growing up, working many different jobs and experienced racism in each one. He tells of a story of him on his walk home from work. He recalls, “I was working one night at the ice plant and a honky picked me up in a car and said, ‘I just got to kill me a nigger tonight.’ And I was scared to death.”[3] Fortunately, he was not the right person in which they were looking for and was let go. He grew up in Jessup, Georgia, and experienced discrimination in every which way. Mercer never saw a lynching but would often find the aftermaths of them. He would witness the horrifying scene of a man hanging there brutally murdered. African Americans often kept guns for protection, but they never felt truly safe. Jones gave him a community where he felt safe from lynching and violence. His people constantly felt cared for and Jonestown was everything they could have ever hoped for in a world full of hatred. African Americans were surrounded by an accepting environment in which many people felt the same about racial discrimination. In doing this, Jones became a figure of hope in escaping the torment that was racism.

A quality education attracted many people to Peoples Temple. African Americans had a hard time finding a place where they could learn effectively and efficiently. Mattie Gibson explained her story of growing up in Blevins, Arkansas. “When I was a child I had very little schooling. I never went past the third grade.”[4] She spoke of a time in school where brutal beatings happened frequently. Due to the extreme racism, education and learning was a struggle for many African American children. Schools were not a safe place for minorities to go, so they turned to Jim Jones in hopes to find a safe and efficient place to learn.

While visiting Jonestown, Mark Lane got to interview many residents. He conversed with an African American woman who originated from Watts, the black community in Los Angeles. She expressed her thankfulness for the church by commending the school program in Jonestown. The women who remained anonymous said, “I have three children; one of them is about high school age now. I figured if we stayed in Watts, my children would never graduate from high school. Here in Jonestown my children attend the best school we would ever be able to find.”[5] The neighborhood where they resided had high levels of unemployment and crime. She knew Jonestown was her only hope in positively changing her children’s future. The push of the education system in Watts and the quality of learning in Peoples Temple was an important reason many members decided to join. She later confirmed that the schools in Jonestown were superior to many of the counterparts located in the United States. Members were drawn to the idea of a safe and efficient education which was promised through Peoples Temple.

Even though fear and education were reasons many members converted to Peoples Temple, the biggest push towards Jones was the poverty. People lacked the money to afford a safe place to sleep, clothes, or even food. Health care was promised and became a primary reason many admired Jim Jones. Health care for the sick and elderly led to many older members joining Peoples Temple. The capitalist government of the United States turned in its older citizens due to lack of healthcare and members recognized that. Mark Lane interviewed an elderly woman who resided in Jonestown. She compared the medial care in both the United States and Guyana. She confessed, “I have a high blood pressure. I was pretty sick with it in America, for the charity hospitals made me wait all day whenever I went there and did nothing for me. My blood pressure is checked here three times a day and I have been given a special diet. I’m almost cured now.”[6] The American Government and their inadequate health care system was a common complaint among the elderly population of Jonestown to the point it made them want to leave the country to live in Jonestown. Health care was considered important to many of the members and the United States pushed them away with the lack of a quality health care system.

In 1974, newspaper publisher Carlton B. Goodlett interviewed a young man who was a former drug user. He had marks all up his arm from how often he used narcotics. The man confessed he had a problem and wanted to look for a solution. He had an appalling reputation in many states for his involvement with drugs which made him want to make a lifestyle change. The negative effects of drugs both mentally and physically made him join Peoples Temple. Goodlett said, “I was very impressed by the fact that Jim Jones had saved this young man from alcohol and narcotics. He had stepladder marks on his arms, and he admitted that he had been a drug user. Apparently he found a solution to his problem when he joined the Peoples Temple.”[7] Members were impressed with Jones and his mission to help people with bad backgrounds. Many members with troubled pasts wanted to become better people, and they found their solution in Peoples Temple due to its dedication to helping people.

The family dynamic in the mid-1960s and 70s contributed into pushing members to join Peoples Temple. During this time, everyone in the family had a role in the everyday life. Men were considered to be the breadwinners of the family while the mothers stayed at home and cooked. Gender roles and a woman’s job in the family started to change from the 60s going on into the 70s. Due to women gaining a more prominent role in society, many members felt abandoned by their family and leaned towards a community that made them feel accepted. Many grew up being abused sexually and others failed to meet their parents’ expectations as adults. The struggle for a loving and supportive atmosphere pushed many men and women to follow Jones. He made every member feel loved and filled the voids in many of their hearts. Even though his following was dominantly more female than male, there were some men who still struggled to find parent figures to love and care for them.

Carolyn Moore and her childhood experiences contributed to the push factor in joining Peoples Temple. Carolyn and her family exchanged many letters in which they expressed the impacts of one another and gave reasons as to why Carolyn was a certain way. She was known to be the most insecure of her family and always drawn to older men that seemed like a father figure. Carolyn and her father, John, struggled with a steady relationship. Rebecca Moore recalled her sister Carolyn in her writing. She remembers, “She found herself drawn to men who were either very unlike her father, or very like him.”[8] Her father John Moore was a preacher. They always clashed growing up due to Carolyn’s insecurities and never feeling worthy of her father. The lack of self-confidence in the relationship with her father led to her getting pulled to Jones who made her feel like she accepted.

Tom Grubbs also struggled with his family dynamic. His parents never got along and were constantly in a hostile state. His dad always worked, and his mother was emotionally unavailable. He recalled, “The most significant aspect of this period of my life was my mom was very unstable. We had to learn three scriptures before every totally raw meal and quote twenty-one without prompts on the Sabbath before we could eat anything,”[9] The relationship with his parents affected his self-worth. He continued to tell his story about finding the respect for himself through following Jones. The family dynamic pushed him towards Peoples Temple and provided him the stability he never got from his parents. Grubbs found himself stable while looking to Jones for reassurance and respect.

Researchers have found that a family’s influence on an individual did push them towards the cult way of life. They explained, “Young person’s join new religions to compensate for unfulfilled needs resulting from satisfaction.”[10] Parents would often fail in providing a nurturing atmosphere for their children. Without the feeling of a strong family structure, many members find stability in cults and new religious movements like Peoples Temple. The article continues explaining the reasons why many members feel disassociated from their families. The decline of the traditional family drove many members to follow cults. The decline led to a decrease in parental authority which often led to many children looking for a accepting community as a replacement for a family, to hold each other accountable and to feel the admiration among members. Jones attracted young adolescents by using love and promised a sense of belonging in which they did not get from their own families.

The Pull of Jim Jones

Jim Jones was the primary reason many people turned to Peoples Temple. He established the idea of a utopian society where every race, gender, and ethnicity could live together in harmony. Jones compared himself to Moses by “saving his people from the depredations of the US government and preparing them for his ultimate goal, moving them to the ‘promised land’ of Jonestown.”[11] The depredations of the US government referred to the racism, poverty, and discrimination that many members faced growing up in America. African Americans, women, and people of poverty felt as if they did not belong in society and Jones used that opportunity to pull them in. He gave them an atmosphere where they could relate to each other and not feel lonely.

Jones talked about the feeling he wanted to bring to the members of his church. He often discussed his mission and goals by establishing Peoples Temple. His caring attitude is notable when talking about the church. In an interview with Nouvelle Observateur, he explained, “when I pass people, my children, my companion, others… I try to extend as much love as I can every day because I would want to be sure that they knew I loved them as much as humanly possible to love. I deeply want them to know that.”[12] Jones had this same attitude in every service and in the community he established. Many people felt loved from Jones and his church that they decided to commit their life to it.

Many members felt alone in society and felt as if they did not belong. Richard D. Tropp felt like an outsider throughout his life, even though he was successful in his studies and considered a well-educated man. He might have been well off in his education, but he never felt like he belonged. Tropp stated that he was, “Lonely, depressed a lot, and felt that all I had learned was somehow an exercise in futility. I found no people around me who I could relate to. They were either in one world or another. I was in several.”[13] Growing up constantly focused on school, he lacked an environment in which he felt like could relate and bond to other people. Jones created a sense of community in his church and drew attention from others with similar backgrounds of loneliness and hardships. When they were all together, they could relate on the past and struggles they faced growing up. Tropp explained that, “In Peoples Temple, I have found the synthesis I was always looking for, personified in Jim Jones.”[14] He believed that Jones sacrificed himself to improve the social norms and by doing so, it gave him a place to grow.  Many joined to Peoples Temple because of the atmosphere he established and proved the pull factor that Jim Jones had was enough for people to commit their lives to him and what he believed.

Annie Moore, Carolyn’s sister, also recalled the way Jones pulled people in. She mentioned the feeling of loneliness before joining Peoples Temple and how he aided that feeling. She recalled, “This church offers a place you’ll never be lonely. People are really giving.”[15] It was a setting where everyone was always there for one other. Jones established a place where everyone was there for one another. After a lifetime of loneliness, many found their sense of camaraderie within the church. The members all felt alone at one point in their life and they could relate on a personal level. Seeing someone else go through the same struggles brought everyone closer together. She also mentioned, “I never saw any soul care and have love for all aspects of life as I have in Jim Jones.”[16] Many members including Annie continuously talked highly of Jones and his selflessness for the church. They gained respect for him due to his commitment to his people which made it easier for many to follow him.

Even Barbara, the mother of Carolyn, Annie, and Rebecca Moore, gives an outsider look to Jonestown when she visited in May of 1978. She was always been hesitant of her daughter’s involvement with the church and took a trip to visit Guyana with her husband to visit. She described what she saw. “The nurture of children and family life is evident. Jonestown offers a rare opportunity for deep relationships between men and woman, young and old who come from diverse racial and cultural backgrounds. Single adults, one-parent families, and nuclear families feel at home in the community.”[17] In showing Barbara’s point of view, it expressed an outside look at how Jonestown took care of its members. Jones’ loving and caring environment was even felt through non-members and it made one think how even more love real the members felt. Barbara saw how people of different backgrounds were pulled in by the loving and family driven community that Jones established.

The United Sates during the 60s and 70s led to many people longing for change. They were tired of all the violent acts against African Americans and minorities, tired of the gap between the rich and poor getting bigger, and tired of the status quo in society. Many members of Peoples Temple joined for the humanitarian work and the revolutionary ideas in hopes to make the world a better place. Many felt like they could not do this by themselves, so they looked for something to be a part of to make a change for the greater good.

There was a small percentage of white Americans who joined Peoples Temple. They were compelled to help because they felt as if their country had failed its people. Annie Moore was remembered for her charity work to promote a society where everyone was equal. While reading many letters she had written her family, one can determine that she was pulled to Peoples Temple for the humanitarian work. She expressed that she wanted to be a part of something that was greater than herself. Annie knew she could not change the world all by herself, so she joined Jones to reach her goal of equality for all. She wrote, “I want to be in on changing the world to be a better place and I would give my life for it. I am the gladdest I have ever been, to be in this church working for social justice and brotherhood.”[18] She continued expressing concern for the public outside the church. Working in a hospital, she experienced how horrible the hospital systems were. People were treated as inanimate objects and were not given the proper care. The unfair treatment witness firsthand and the great social work Jim Jones was doing made her attracted to his church. He was doing more for the community and she wanted to be a part of it. The community service drew her in to be a part of something that was going to change the world.

Jann Gurvich admired humanitarian work most of her life. She grew up very well-educated and ended up being a junior high school teacher. After going back and studying for a while, she ran off and became a hippie, dropping drugs and promoting love. She was in search of THE teacher and found him in Jim Jones. Gurvich admired his humanitarian work and his mission to make the world a better place. She remembered, “Jim Jones and the Peoples Temple provide the most effective movement for change in the United States.”[19] She often visited a black revolutionary author that she cared for deeply. Seeing him emotional when he fought for freedom convinced her that change needed to be made within the justice system. When going to Jonestown she knew she was going to a place free of oppression and exploitation. Jim Jones was contributed the effort of change in society. Seeing a white man who fought for African American rights was practically unheard of. Jones started a chain reaction by fighting for equality in the United States.

There were many negative influences at the time where Peoples Temple was at its peak. The ongoing issue of racism and poverty played a big part that pushed African American and the poor to Jim Jones. All of their members had their own individual story on why they decided to commit themselves to the church, and all of them found their answer in the bigger picture of Peoples Temple. One can conclude many things from understanding the people who followed Jones.

Many outsiders of Peoples Temple thought members of the church were crazy and continue to do so today. After researching, one would find out that they were not all crazy as they were portrayed to be. The logistics and numbers expressed that many of the members were minorities in a country that refused to promise a safe environment to live. Being in a consistent state of worry and fear made many turn to a solution of an extreme religion that would make them feel secure. Capitalism played an important role in pushing people to join by increasing the gap between the rich and poor and by keeping up the status quo with racism in the United States. African Americans were pulled in by Jones who acknowledged their worth and made them feel like they meant something.

One could also conclude that there were many white Americans in society who wanted to do more for the greater good of the country. People like Annie Moore and Jann Gurwich were a part of the few who cared not only about themselves but everyone. Their humanitarian work does not go unnoticed and their fight and passion for equality was evident every time they spoke. They, along with many others, wanted to be a part of something that was bigger than themselves.

Every person has wondered what the real meaning of life is. Some felt as if they wanted to belong while others just wanted the means to survive. Members of Peoples Temple found their meaning personified in Jim Jones and his beliefs. The members truly believed they had found the solution to their problems, but in a different way than most other Americans. Their involvement with to Jones can be interpreted as two extremist that are now tragic oddities in history, but analyzing the problems faced by members of  Jonestown shows how they thoughtfully wrestled with the larger life questions their society raised.  Few realized how hard their life was or where they found its true meaning, until more than nine hundred people committed their lives to changing it.

Bibliography

Barker, E. “Religious Movements: Cult and Anticult Since Jonestown.” Annual Review of Sociology 12, no. 1 (1986), 329-346. doi:10.1146/annurev.soc.12.1.329.

Goodlett, Charles B. “Notes on Peoples Temple.” Alternative Considerations of Jonestown & Peoples Temple. Last modified October 21, 2018.

Jones, Jim. “Jim Jones’ Autobiographical Statements.” Alternative Considerations of Jonestown & Peoples Temple. Last modified April 10, 2019.

Lane, Mark. The Strongest Poison. Charlottesville: Dutton Adult, 1980.

Moore, Rebecca. The Jonestown Letters: Correspondence of the Moore Family, 1970-1985. Lewiston/ Queenston: Edwin Mellen Press, 1986.

Scheeres, Julia. A Thousand Lives: The Untold Story of Hope, Deception, and Survival at Jonestown. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2011.

Wright, Stuart A., and Elizabeth S. Piper. “Families and Cults: Familial Factors Related to Youth Leaving or Remaining in Deviant Religious Groups.” Journal of Marriage and the Family 48, no. 1 (1986), 15. doi:10.2307/352224.

Notes

[1] Eileen Barker, “Religious Movements: Cult and Anticult Since Jonestown,” Annual Review of Sociology 12, no. 1 (1986): 336.

[2] Mark Lane, The Strongest Poison (Charlottesville: Dutton Adult, 1980), 72.

[3] Lane, 77.

[4] Lane, 83-84.

[5] Lane, 43.

[6] Lane, 43.

[7] Charles B. Goodlett, “Notes on Peoples Temple,” Alternative Considerations of Jonestown & Peoples Temple, last modified October 21, 2018.

[8] Rebecca Moore, The Jonestown Letters: Correspondence of the Moore Family, 1970-1985 (Lewiston/ Queenston: Edwin Mellen Press, 1986), 60.

[9] Lane, 76.

[10] Stuart A. Wright and Elizabeth S. Piper, “Families and Cults: Familial Factors Related to Youth Leaving or Remaining in Deviant Religious Groups,” Journal of Marriage and the Family 48, no. 1 (1986): 16, doi:10.2307/352224.

[11] Julia Scheeres. A Thousand Lives: The Untold Story of Hope, Deception, and Survival at Jonestown (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2011), 32.

[12] Jim Jones, “Jim Jones’ Autobiographical Statements,” Alternative Considerations of Jonestown & Peoples Temple, last modified April 10, 2019.

[13] Lane, 68.

[14] Lane, 68.

[15] Moore, 83.

[16] Moore, 94.

[17] Moore, 235.

[18]Moore, 94.

[19] Lane, 65.

Originally posted on May 29th, 2020.

Last modified on October 6th, 2020.
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