Jonestown and Peoples Temple

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JONESTOWN AND PEOPLES TEMPLE was a communal religious settlement in the jungles of Guyana founded and led by the Reverend James Warren "Jim" Jones (19311978). Nearly 1,000 people had come to the South American country in the mid-1970s intending to build an integrated agricultural utopia. Things began to unravel, however, when California Congressman Leo Ryan (19251978), accompanied by journalists and former members, arrived to investigate persistent reports of brainwashing and abuse. After Ryan and four others were murdered by temple members, Jones commanded his followers to kill themselves and their children: Over 913 people died on November 18, 1978. In the aftermath, popular media and anticult activists depicted Jonestown as the epitome of dangerous "cults."

Rise and Demise

Jonestown began as a ministry of the Reverend Jim Jones, who blended Pentecostal religion, socialism, and racial harmony into a distinctive political theology. In 1955 he established the Peoples Temple Full Gospel Church in Indianapolis, Indiana, where he conducted faith-healing services, established social services, and campaigned for racial integration. In 1960 the Peoples Temple became formally affiliated with the Disciples of Christ; Jones was ordained as a minister in 1964. Although the Peoples Temple remained affiliated with the denomination until the end, the group's religious beliefs and practices of bore little relation to their parent organization.

When Jones had a vision of imminent nuclear destruction in 1967, he moved the Peoples Temple, choosing northern California because an article in Esquire magazine had identified it as one of "Nine Places in the World to Hide" in the event of such a catastrophe. With a nucleus of about 150 followers transplanted from Indiana, the Peoples Temple grew rapidly, expanding from its base to sponsor branches in San Francisco and Los Angeles. As his congregations multiplied during the early 1970s, Jones began to formulate an innovative theology.

In his sermons, Jones consistently discounted any God "out there," a notion that he ridiculed as the sky God, the mythological God, the spook God, or the buzzard God. But he celebrated a real God, a genuine God, which he defined as love, as sharing, as "God, Almighty Socialism." When he personally claimed to be God, the messiah, Jones could be understood to be asserting that he was an embodiment of this divine socialism. He promised his congregation that they also could be deified by dying to capitalism and being reborn in socialism.

In America, he argued, blacks, women, and the poor had been consistently treated as less than fully human. The Bible and Christian churches only sustained this dehumanizing subclassification. To be a human person, Jones argued, required liberation from the dehumanizing pull of Americaand that could only be achieved through the superhuman power of divine socialism.

During the early 1970s, Peoples Temple members were told that as long as they lived in the United States they would be in captivity, exile, and eternal conflict. America, Jones argued, was the biblical ancient Egypt, where the children of Israel found only enslavement. America was the biblical Babylon, a place of exile, where refugees longed to return to Jerusalem. America was an imperial power, like first-century Rome, which Jones identified as the antichrist of the last days as described in the New Testament. Since America led the global, imperial crusade against God, Almighty Socialism, Jones claimed that people could only feel enslaved and exiled, defiled and dehumanized, by living within the United States.

A religious sense of origin and destiny was also cultivated within the Peoples Temple. Developing an innovative creation story, which depicted Eden not as a garden to be restored but as a prison from which to escape, Jones's sermons focused on an imminent rendezvous with nuclear destiny. Fashioned in the midst of Cold War politics, superpower conflicts, and the nuclear arms race, this religious worldview was forged in fear of a nuclear apocalypse and its prospect of a total planetary annihilation. Time, in this context, was running out.

Many shared this apocalyptic view. In 1950, during the early days of the nuclear age, American novelist William Faulkner accepted the Nobel Prize for literature, observing: "There is only one question: When will I be blown up?" In sermons twenty years later Jones declared that he would be glad to be blown up in a nuclear apocalypse if it meant the destruction of the world's capitalists. Self-sacrifice, even in a nuclear holocaust of extraordinary devastation, could be imagined as redemptive within the philosophy espoused by the Peoples Temple.

As Jones was developing his religious worldview during the early 1970s, temple membership grew to as many as 5,000. A former member estimated that up to 100,000 people may have heard a sermon by Jim Jones during this period. Most temple members were African Americans, many of them recent migrants from the rural South or Northeastern inner cities who had been drawn by extensive recruiting drives. The temple also attracted a number of white social activists who were drawn to Jones's integrated congregations as an alternative to the prevailing order of American society.

Jones portrayed communist countries such as the Soviet Union, China, and Cuba, as utopias in which divine socialism had already been established. In 1973 the Peoples Temple established a mission in the South American country of Guyana, which was then governed by the black socialist party of Forbes Burnham. By 1975 about fifty members were stationed there, clearing jungle land for the Peoples Temple Agricultural Project that came to be known as Jonestown.

In 1977 journalists Marshall Kilduff and Phil Tracy were preparing to publish an exposé of Jim Jones and the Peoples Temple in New West magazine. Their article was based in part on allegations by former members that Jim Jones was involved in questionable financial dealings, sexual impropriety, and the physical and mental abuse of followers.

Anticipating this negative publicity, Jones and many of his congregation moved to Guyana in a migration that came to be known as "Operation Exodus." By September of 1977 nearly 1,000 members were living in the compound. Jonestown residents were 75 percent black; 20 percent white; and 5 percent Hispanic, Asian, or Native American. Approximately two-thirds were women. Almost 300 were under the age of eighteen and over 150 were seniors past the age of sixty-five.

While trying to establish a viable agricultural commune in Guyana, Jones increasingly perceived the community to be under threat from external forces, especially the U.S. government, American media, and a group of former members who called themselves the Concerned Relatives. On November 17, 1978, an official fact-finding delegation led by Congressman Leo Ryan flew to Jonestown to investigate these charges. The visit became the flashpoint for the violence that exploded in murder and suicide. The delegation left the next day, taking fourteen dissatisfied Jonestown residents with them. As they gathered on the Port Kaituma airstrip, heavily armed Jonestown security guards drove up and opened fire, killing five, including Congressman Ryan, and wounding nine others.

Back at the temple and fearing retribution, Jim Jones commanded his followers to kill themselves. Vats of a cyanide-laced fruit drink were prepared and residents lined up to drink the poison. Although this event has usually been characterized as a mass suicide, it is clear that not everyone who died at Jonestown participated freely. Over 260 children, for example, had the poison given to them, while about forty adults escaped. For those who died willingly, however, collective suicide held a religious significance in the context of the worldview that had been cultivated in the Peoples Temple and Jonestown.

First, collective suicide was a ritual, signifying a purity of commitment to the community, which had been rehearsed a number of times over the past eighteen months. Referred to as "white nights," these ritual rehearsals of death affirmed, in the words of Jim Jones on the final night of Jonestown, that the members of the community were united as "black, proud socialists."

Second, collective suicide promised release from a world dominated by what Jones perceived as American racism, capitalism, and fascism. To avoid being captured and taken back to America, he urged his followers to step out of this world by taking "the potion like they used to take in ancient Greece."

Third, collective suicide was an act of revenge in which the guilt for these deaths would be transferred to the enemies of Jonestown. "They brought this upon us," Jones insisted. "And they'll pay for that. I leave that destiny to them."

Finally, collective suicide was regarded as redemptive. Many, perhaps most, of the adult participants believed this. What Jones called "revolutionary suicide" was meaningful for those who embraced it because it represented a superhuman act that would rescue them from dehumanization under the capitalist, racist, and fascist oppression they associated with America. "We didn't commit suicide," Jones declared. "We committed an act of revolutionary suicide protesting the conditions of an inhuman world."

Most Americans found the deaths at Jonestown unthinkable, something so obviously outside the mainstream of American cultural life that it stood as a boundary against which such values could be defined. In popular media they were depicted as not American, not religious, not sane, and ultimately not human. Resistance was mounted against allowing their bodies to be buried on American soil. Over 550 unclaimed bodies were stored for six months at the U.S. Air Force base at Dover, Delaware. The mayor of Dover expressed the feelings of many Americans by insisting the Jonestown dead should be cremated and their ashes scattered "beyond the continental limits of the United States." Twenty-five years later, survivors and family members were still struggling to create a suitable memorial for the Jonestown dead in America.

Interpretive Contexts

Academic analysis of the Jonestown murders and suicides has focused on three contexts: (1) the sociology of new religious movements; (2) the history and heritage of black religion in America; and (3) the phenomenology of redemptive sacrifice in the history of religions and religion in America.

In popular media and the anticult movement, Jonestown became the archetypal "cult," a deviant social organization masquerading as religion that was, in fact, its oppositeevil, dangerous, mind-controlling, financially exploitative, and politically subversive. Time and Newsweek proclaimed Jonestown the "Cult of Death." Jonestown was also viewed in light of the 1970s "cult controversy," in which some argued that every alternative, unconventional religious movement inevitably led to violence. This view was countered by the growing interest in the academic study of new, alternative, or unconventional religious movements.

Any understanding of Jim Jones, the Peoples Temple, and Jonestown, however, requires sustained attention to the broad and deep tradition of black religion in America. Although Jim Jones was white, he claimed to have a black soul, a black heart, and a black consciousness. He consistently identified himself as a black messiah advancing black liberation. His movement, which emerged from the racism and segregation of the 1950s, was fueled by contact with Father Divine's Peace Mission, the interests of a predominantly black membership, the attractions of a black socialist government in Guyana, and the sense of alienation experienced by many blacks in America.

Although in the aftermath of Jonestown mainline black religious leaders generally rejected the movement, most dramatically at the "Consultation on the Implications of Jonestown for the Black Church" in February of 1979, it is important to remember that many of Jones's followers had been drawn to his claims of embodying black consciousness, as well as his sermons, styles of worship, religious practices, and community formation, which were intentionally drawn from black religious traditions. Even white loyalist and former temple member Michael Prokes wrote a post-Jonestown suicide letter rejecting Jim Jones but retaining his identification with the Peoples Temple because it had given him a sense of community in which he learned what it meant "to be black and old and poor in this society."

In the history of religions, Jonestown-like collective suicides were seen in first-century Judea at Masada and among communities of seventeenth-century Old Believers in Russia. In these instances, as at Jonestown, groups of people chose death rather than what they perceived as defilement or dishonor by enemy forces. But the religious significance of redemptive sacrifice runs much deeper in the history of religions than such dramatic examples of collective suicide might suggest. As some analysts have argued, redemptive sacrifice goes to the heart of the meaning and power of religion, and has certainly been central to the religious and political history of the United States. For some analysts, Jonestown recalls the pervasive American religious commitment to redemptive sacrifice, which requires giving the greatest gift, paying the highest price, for a collective redemption.

Although the end of Jonestown entailed not only mass suicide but also the killing of infants and children, Jones insisted that truly loving people would kill their children before allowing them to be taken back to America to be tortured, brainwashed, or even killed by a society he regarded as fascist. That sentiment was echoed by a member of the community as he was surrounded by the bodies of the children who were in fact sacrificed: "I'd rather see them lay like that than to see them have to die like the Jews did." Members believed that death in Jonestown saved those children from a dehumanized life and death in America. If the children were captured by the Americans, this particular speaker concluded, "they're gonna just let them grow up and be dummies, just like they want them to be, and not grow up to be a person like the one and only Jim Jones." Sacrificial death, therefore, promised the redemption of an authentic human identity.

Saving children by killing them seems beyond the bounds of American religion. In the aftermath of Jonestown, however, from 1980 to 1988 the symbolic center of the American public order was occupied by President Ronald Reagan, a political figure who, on numerous occasions, idealized redemptive sacrifice, with specific attention to children. In a speech to the National Association of Evangelicals in Orlando, Florida, on March 8, 1983, Ronald Reagan related that a prominent young man in Hollywood told a public gathering during the early 1950s that there was nothing in the world that he loved more than his daughters but he was prepared to sacrifice them in the interest of a higher good. According to Reagan, this young father declared, "I would rather see my little girls die now, still believing in God, than have them grow up under communism and one day die no longer believing in God." In praising this young man, Reagan concluded that this willingness to sacrifice his children revealed "the profound truth" about "the physical and the soul and what was truly important." Revealing the "truth" of the American soul, this willingness to sacrifice promised to redeem that soul from a communist fate worse than death. According to Ronald Reagan, therefore, redemptive sacrifice was the "profound truth" at the heart of America.

The religious worldview of Jim Jones, the Peoples Temple, and Jonestown was forged in the Cold War between capitalism and communism. Jones's deification of God Almighty, Socialism, evolved during the second half of the twentieth century in which free-market capitalism was also being invested with religious significance. Although marginal to American society, the Peoples Temple and Jonestown nevertheless raised significant questions about religious authenticity, religion and violence, religions of the oppressed, and the religious and political role of redemptive sacrifice.

See Also

Anticult Movements; Aum Shinrikyō; Brainwashing (Debate); Branch Davidians; Father Divine; Heaven's Gate; Jones, Jim; New Religious Movements, articles on New Religious Movements and Children, New Religious Movements and Millennialism, New Religious Movements and Violence; Temple Solaire.


Following the demise of Jonestown, many journalistic accounts were published, the best of which is Tim Reiterman with John Jacobs, Raven: The Untold Story of the Rev. Jim Jones and His People (New York, 1982). For a social history and sociological analysis, see John R. Hall, Gone from the Promised Land: Jonestown in American Cultural History (New Brunswick, 1987; second edition published by Transaction Books, 2004). For a reconstruction of the religious worldview, see David Chidester, Salvation and Suicide: Jim Jones, the Peoples Temple, and Jonestown, second ed. (Bloomington, 2003), in which can be found all direct quotations in this entry from Jim Jones and his followers. See also Mary McCormick Maaga, Hearing the Voices of Jonestown (Syracuse, N.Y., 1998).

Jonestown has also been considered in analyses of new religious movements and violence. See John R. Hall, with Philip D. Schuyler and Sylvaine Trinh, Apocalypse Observed: Religious Movements and Violence in North America, Europe, and Japan (New York, 2000); Thomas Robbins and Susan J. Palmer, eds., Millennium, Messiahs, and Mayhem: Contemporary Apocalyptic Movements (New York, 1997); and Catherine Wessinger, How the Millennium Comes Violently: From Jonestown to Heaven's Gate (New York, 2000).

For discussions of the Peoples Temple and Jonestown in the context of African American religion, see Rebecca Moore, Anthony B. Pinn, and Mary R. Sawyer, eds., Peoples Temple and Black Religion in America (Bloomington, 2004). An early attempt to interpret Jonestown in the context of the history of religions was undertaken by Jonathan Z. Smith in "The Devil in Mr. Jones," Imagining Religion: From Babylon to Jonestown (Chicago, 1982): 102120. Discussion of the role of redemptive sacrifice in the religious worldviews of Jim Jones, Ronald Reagan (including direct quotations from Reagan in this entry), and American popular culture can be found in David Chidester, "Saving the Children by Killing Them: Redemptive Sacrifice in the Ideologies of Jim Jones and Ronald Reagan," in Religion in American Culture: A Journal of Interpretation 1 (1991): 177201; and David Chidester, Authentic Fakes: Religion and American Popular Culture (Berkeley, 2005).

Decades after the event, Jonestown has remained the focus of sensationalistic revelations by opponents, such as Deborah Layton, Seductive Poison: A Jonestown Survivor's Story of Life and Death in the People's Temple (New York, 1998), as well as counterarguments, including conspiracy theories, by defenders, such as Laurie Efrein Kahalas, Snake Dance: Unravelling the Mysteries of Jonestown (New York, 1998). In tracking the ongoing cultural, social, and religious history of Jonestown, dedicated scholarly research can be found on the website "Alternative Considerations of Jonestown and Peoples Temple," supported by the Department of Religious Studies, San Diego State University (; May 20, 2004).

David Chidester (2005)