Peoples Temple
A congregation led by Pastor Jim Jones. It fell victim to a
massive murder-suicide in November 1978. In the wake of the
tragedy, the Peoples Temple has become a symbol of the dangers
of cults and Jones the model of the evil, manipulative cult
leader. The Peoples Temple was for the last 15 years of its existence
a part of the Christian church (Disciples of Christ), a
large mainstream Christian denomination. In the 1960s it was
hailed by liberal Protestants for its social activism. Within the
loose structure of the Christian church, however, it developed
a unique internal life.
The Peoples Temple was founded in Indianapolis, Indiana,
in 1955 by a youthful Jim Jones as an independent congregation.
He eventually brought the congregation into fellowship
with the Disciples of Christ and he was ordained as a minister
in that church in 1965. The next year he led most of the congregation’s
members to Ukiah, California, and once settled the
group began to take on the elements of its unusual life. Although
Jones was white, his efforts at recruiting were focused
in the African American community, and the great majority of
members were black. Worship services took on the free style of
black Holiness churches.
Jones had been deeply influenced by his perception of black
religious leader Father Divine, both in his ability to build an
interracial community and in his godlike status. At one point
he even attempted to merge his efforts with those of Divine’s
Peace Mission. Jones also came to see himself as possessing
some of the godlike abilities claimed by Divine. This new selfperception
was also influenced by Jones’s experience among
Brazilian Spiritists, and he was seen by followers as a prophet
and miracle worker. Not only could he heal, but there were a
number of cases of reported resurrection from the dead.
Church services came to feature psychic readings and healings
by Jones. Equally strong in Jones were the Marxist leanings underlying
his social idealism.
By 1972 the Peoples Temple had grown to include several
congregations, with groups in San Francisco and Los Angeles
joining the older groups in Indianapolis and Ukiah. That same
year Jones leased land in the South American nation of Guyana
and the temple initiated an agricultural colony. The colony
prospered and in 1977 Jones and a number of the members
moved there. Eventually approximately one thousand members
resided at Jonestown, as the colony was named. Jones’s
move to Guyana coincided with a rising criticism of the church
by former members (including accusations of violence directed
toward some) and the prospect of several very negative media
reports on the temple.
By this time a variety of government investigations had been
launched into temple activities, including its use of the welfare
checks received by many of the members. In the midst of the
ongoing controversy, Congressman Leo J. Ryan went to Guyana
to see the colony, claiming he was interested because many
of its residents had formerly lived in his district. After what had
been to all outward appearances a cordial visit, Ryan and his
party were murdered as they were about to board an airplane
to return to the United States. Within hours most of the temple
members were dead; some committed suicide, but many were
murdered. Very few survived to tell what had happened.
In the wake of the tragedy, the U.S. Congress conducted an
extensive investigation. Unfortunately, though a lengthy report
was issued, the mass of materials, including the files of the
various government investigations of the temple, have never
been made public, and the truth of what actually occurred at
Jonestown remains shrouded in mystery. Substantive revelations
of what occurred there will likely be made when those files
become available. In the meantime, completely distancing herself
from the standard anticult rhetoric concerning the temple,
Patricia Ryan, Ryan’s daughter, filed a lawsuit against the U.S.
Central Intelligence Agency, claiming that it was in large part
responsible for her father’s death.
Sources
Hall, John R. Gone from the Promised Land Jonestown in American
Cultural History. New Brunswick, N.J. Transaction, 1987.
Klineman, George, and Sherman Butler. The Cult That Died.
New York G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1980.
Melton, J. Gordon, ed. The Peoples Temple and Jim Jones
Broadening Our Perspectives. New York Garland, 1990.
Moore, Rebecca, ed. New Religious Movements, Mass Suicide,
and Peoples Temple Scholarly Perspectives on a Tragedy. New York
Edwin Mellen Press, 1989.
Reiterman, Tom. Raven. New York E. P. Dutton, 1982.

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