Examining the Peoples Temple

Witness the Power of Unexamined Religious Beliefs!

Powerful Enough To Cause Parents to

Give Poison to Their Baby!



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We have conceived of the Peoples Temple as a reflective cultural marker. We designed this Web page to emphasize the relationship between the Jonestown cult and the culture out of which it grew. When following our links to other sites, keep this in mind. When following the link to the "Cold War," for example, consider why a new religion such as the Peoples Temple might have emerged as a response to the existing Cold War environment. Ask yourself, "How does this cult reflect and/or react to these more general cultural instances?"

It is extremely important, however, to constantly remind yourself of the decontextualizing nature of the Internet. Information exists on the 'Net outside of existing scholarly structures. You must be MORE critical of what you find on the 'Net, always asking, "Who put this here?, Can I be sure of that?, Why did that person put this here?, What did they intend for me to think?, What does this mean?, How am I differently affected by images and texts that I get off a computer screen than those that I find in books or journals?, Can this information from the 'Net be used in good conscience?," and so on.

If our attempt at understanding Jonestown as a cultural reflector fails, it will probably be because we were unable to find the right information on the 'Net: we did not have the time to ask enough questions about each link that we have provided. We do not have the computer skill necessary to shorten the topical searches (to find concise information about a specific issue quickly). We freely admit that most of the links provided represent the first interesting site to appear in response to a given keyword search such as "counterculture" in Yahoo, Alta Vista, and cetera.

We have provided a short bibliography of pertinent texts at the end of the page. We encourage you, as you find more and more of your "facts" on the World Wide Web not to forget about the beauty and usefulness of books.


The History of Jonestown

In 1978, 913 followers of Jim Jones and the Peoples Temple committed a mass suicide in northern Guyana at a site called, Jonestown. The charismatic leader of Jonestown, was Jim Jones, a preacher who set up the Peoples Temple in San Francisco and ultimately moved his followers to a more clandestine site in Guyana. While Jones was preaching in San Francisco, he helped out many local and even national campaigns and was seen as a healer which much power in the community. However, once he had all of his members in Jonestown, his personality changed. Away from the constraints of American soil, Jonestown and its members became very cultish. Jones heightened regulations on his followers and their engagement to the sect. Eventually, Jones began to claim his true divinity. "Jones, for example now claimed to be the reincarnation of Jesus, as well as Ikhnaton, Buddha, Lenin, and Father Divine." (Galanter, 1989) Paranoia and complete control became Jones' personality, once he obtained such a close knit group. Jones began to stage rehearsals of his eventual mass suicide plan that he would eventually enact. These drills, called "white nights" began with sirens going off in the middle of the night and none of the members of Jonestown would know if it was real or not. "A mass meeting would ensue... we would be told that the jungle was swarming with mercenaries... we were given a small glass of red liquid to drink. We were told that the liquid contained poison and that we would die within 45 minutes. We all did as we were told." (Galanter, 1989)

In 1978, U.S. Congressman Leo Ryan went to Jonestown to investigate supposed abuses by the People's Temple onto its members. After staying for a day, Ryan tried to leave, taking four of the cult members who had decided to defect. Realizing this, Jones ordered them killed, as was done. Sensing that his utopia in the jungle would surely come to an end after word got back to the states about Ryan; Jones decide to put his suicide plan into action. Telling his subjects that it was a "revolutionary death," he had a large quantity of fruit punch laced with cyanide prepared. After making all 276 children at Jonestown drink the punch, all the adults proceeded. In the end, after Jones apparently killed himself with a gunshot to the head, 914 people had died.


Timeline of the Peoples Temple

1956 Peoples Temple founded in Indianapolis as an integrated church combining evangelical, enthusiastic religion and loosely socialist politics. Jim Jones, the founder and pastor of the church, preformed healings which attracted many members. The congregation was predominately black.
1960 Jim Jones was appointed director of the Indianapolis human rights commission.
1961 The Peoples Temple Full Gospel Church, as it came to be called, became a part of the Disciples of Christ. Jones was ordained by that faith in 1964.
1965 Jones moved the Temple's headquarters to Ukiah, California, a city near San Francisco which he thought would be a safe haven in case of a nuclear war.
1967 -
The Peoples Temple attracted more members and much favorable coverage in the press and from the political establishment as Jones himself and the Temple in general became more active in the community. Jones was even appointed to the San Francisco Housing Authority.

It was also during this time that some questions were raised by people outside of the group as to possible human rights violations within the group. the organization of concerned relatives was formed in response to reports of beatings and other punishments afflicted on members by Jones and the Temple's leaders.

It was also during this time that Jones decided to move his congregation to Guyana.

1978 By the end of 1977, more that 900 Temple members were in residence at the commune in Guyana. At the end of the day, November 18, 1978, 914 members had committed suicide.


Martin Heidegger theorized that cultural truths are revealed only when specific cultural manifestations cease to work properly. He called this concept "breakdown." The larger meanings of culture itself, according to this understanding, are primarily invisible to those within culture until part of it breaks down. An aberrant occurrence or anomaly, as referred to by Mary Douglas, represents such a breakdown. In turn, the development of new religions and cults exemplify Douglas's idea of anomaly.

The Peoples Temple cult, and specifically the mass suicide of so many of its members, represents an anomaly, and therefore a breakdown, in the culture of mid-twentieth century America. An examination of the development and eventual self-destruction of the Peoples Temple should shed light on that culture. The Jonestown cult was born of that culture and in turn reflects back upon it, that is, the Peoples Temple was effected (created) by mainstream American culture of its time and in turn affected that same culture.

A complete examination into the events and meanings of the Jonestown cult would entail leafing through many pages of letters and documents, listening to taped conversations, and researching the histories of each of that cults followers. In addition, the theories of any of scores of social theorists, philosophers, psychologists, scholars of religion, and cetera would no doubt be pertinent to a complete understanding of the anomaly of Jonestown and the culture that spawned it. The compilers of this site do not have the resources nor the theoretical knowledge to profess to such a venture. In fact, it would be impossible for us to claim a complete understanding of such a complex event, even with an encyclopedic knowledge of all world thought. Our goal in the compilation of this site is to encourage you to consider the history of Jonestown in light of the mainstream culture around it. If Jim Jones's concept of revolutionary suicide is to be affective on any level it is necessary that we conceive of this (apparent) anomaly as an indicator of problems within society as a whole. Consider the implications of Jonestown as regarding its broader historical era as well as our contemporary world. Remember that those who found refuge in the Temple were seeking, as we all do, a place within a world they felt ill-equipt to understand. These Temple members were not others; they were us.

It is important to conceive, first and foremost, of the cultural climate into which (and out of which) the Jonestown cult arose. Jones and his followers were products of their culture at the same time that they were producers of a reactant culture (namely, the Peoples Temple). That said, let us consider the era and the area out of which and into which Jim Jones and his Temple were born:

1 mid twentieth century, specifically 1960s, United States
2 mid-west (Indianapolis, IN was the home base of the KKK)
3 San Francisco
4 Guyana
5 Cold War
6 rampant fear of nuclear destruction in the wake of WWII
7 Civil Rights movement in all its guises
8 mature capitalism, vastly differentiated income distribution
9 general climate of unrest, change, grassroots movements, counter culture
10 increased interest in non-Western religious models
11 rise of new religions and followers of new leaders preaching in contemporary language (like Father Divine and his Peace Mission)
12 recognition that there were millions of Americans (specifically blacks) who did not necessarily feel that they belonged in the American culture, who felt they had been omitted from the American dream

This list could go on forever but we have tried to include the most salient environmental clues necessary for an understanding of the Peoples Temple.

The line of the Peoples Temple spoke directly to most of these cultural markers. Jones's vision was one of racial and economic equality. His combination of communalism (which he differentiated from communism), multi-racialism, and faith, as well as his political activism within the existing order drew a group of followers which contrasts "typical" cult members. Those who joined the Peoples Temple were primarily older blacks. In her book, Making Sense of the Jonestown Suicides, Judith Weightman suggests that the Temple members may have seen the new religion as a viable option to the more radical counter-culture and anti-racist movements (such as the Black Panthers) that seemed to be cropping up in greater and greater numbers at that time.

The Peoples Temple also spoke to the fear of Red communism and nuclear war that the Cold War climate had instilled in so many Americans. Jones preached that Temple members would be safe from WWIII. In fact, his move of the Temple headquarters from Indiana to northern California was particularly fueled by the desire to be in the safest possible location should nuclear war erupt. Also, the eventual move to Guyana was certainly influenced by these fears.



An examination of the Temple cannot omit the question of why so many folks would commit suicide in the name of their new faith (or at the behest of a single man). Jones, apparently, saw the suicide as a revolutionary act, and in the last years of the Temple, an emphasis on religious ideas, particularly those of mainstream Christianity, was replaced by an emphasis on the political nature of the group. Weightman discusses the concept of revolutionary suicide in greater depth in her book than we can here. However it is important to recognize that revolutionary suicide is not a concept that can be found in the writings of Karl Marx.  Suicide cannot be revolutionary for Marx because suicide, particularly en masse, by an oppressed people effectively eliminates the very people who would be revolting. The self inflicted deaths of the revolutionaries eliminates the need for revolution and the means of production remain in the hands of the oppressors. Of course, Marx, as a materialist, sees the goals of life as entirely tied to this world, this life. The Peoples Temple members, as religious people, believed in some notion of an after-life.

That stated, is there another explanation for the suicides?  Emil Durkheim's concept of "altruistic suicide" is a good match. In this classification of suicide, those who kill themselves feel more closely tied to a sub-group than to mainstream society and their "basis for existence seems situated beyond life itself" (Durkheim,Lemert 90).

Again, Weightman probes deeply into the question of precisely why 913 people would terminate their own lives and her book includes a discussion of the resocialization of the Temple members. Also, Jonathan Smith, in Imagining Religion, sheds some light on this primary problem by placing the Peoples Temple into the larger framework of Religious Tradition. Smith compares the Peoples Temple to the Dionysic cults of Western antiquity as well as to the cargo cults in the New Hebrides Islands in this century.


The question of why Jim Jones specifically should decide he had the answers to any of life's questions is one we cannot answer. Since Jones is dead, we cannot psychoanalyze him, we can only speculate. Along these same lines, a Freudian interpretation of the Peoples Temple and Jones is possible. We could make suppositions about the cult members and their relationships to their parents and their consequent search for a father figure and their consequent killing of their father, for example. In fact, one of us (J.K-N.) has written a paper on the relationship between the Jonestown cult and the guru model of religion, which is quite similar to a Freudian interpretation. We have consciously chosen to leave a detailed Freudian examination out of this page, however, because in our opinion it has limited value in an examination of the relationship between the Peoples Temple and the culture out of which it grew.

We believe that Jones was able to articulate a response to mainstream culture which resounded eloquently in the ears of his followers. The question to be answered is: "Why did these particular people feel alienated from their culture, and what was it in Jones's preachings that drew them to the Peoples Temple?" We hope that this Web page can help in the answering of that question.



Galanter, Marc. Cults: Faith, healing and Coercion. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.

Lemert, Charles, ed. Social Theory. excerpts from the writings of Durkheim (77-109), Freud (136-160), and Marx (35-69). Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1993.

Moore, Rebecca. In Defense of Peoples Temple. New York: The Edwin Mellen Press, 1988.

Moore, Rebecca. The Need for a Second Look at Jonestown. New York: The Edwin Mellen Press, 1989.

Smith, Jonathan Z. Imagining Religion. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982.

Weightman, Judith Mary. Making Sense of the Jonestown Suicides. New York: The Edwin Mellen Press, 1983.

(Source of this information is .)

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