Jonestown: Not the usual theocracy

jonestownThe coverage of the Jonestown massacre made a strong impression on me, since I was a young journalist who wanted to become a religion-beat reporter.

I remember, for example, the calm anger in the voice of the late George Cornell of the Associated Press when he told me that, to his knowledge, there wasn’t a single major news organization that assigned its religion reporter to take part in covering the shocking demise of what was clearly a warped and perhaps even cultish religious community led by a charismatic preacher.

Today, it’s hard to remember the questions that surrounded the Rev. Jim Jones and his fortress in Guyana back in the days before “Drink the Kool-Aid” devolved into a sick national gag line. It’s hard to remember why congressman Leo J. Ryan felt that he had to take a potentially dangerous mission down the Jonestown to investigate rumors of violence, sexual abuse, mind control and other forms of strange behavior. Ryan ended up dead, of course, one of the first of hundreds to die.

I’ve been watching the coverage of the 30th anniversary and, so far, I think the best story that I’ve seen is the gripping first-person feature written by Charles A. Krause for the Washington Post. I mean, he was there.

Jackie Speier now represents California’s 12th Congressional District in the U.S. House of Representatives. The last time I saw her, 30 years ago, her bloody, bullet-riddled body lay in tall grass at the side of a jungle airstrip in Port Kaituma, Guyana.

She had been gunned down by four assassins sent by the Rev. Jim Jones to kill congressman Leo J. Ryan — and the rest of us who had accompanied him to investigate reports of violence, torture and sexual abuse in a place called Jonestown.

For 15 hours, Speier and the others who miraculously survived the airport massacre waited to be rescued, bleeding and fearful the gunmen would return. Meanwhile, five miles away, Jones was ordering more than 900 of his followers to commit “revolutionary suicide” by drinking fruit-flavored punch laced with poison.

Jones’s exhortation to his followers, to “die with dignity,” and a survivor’s account of Jonestown’s final hour — “they started with the babies” — became headlines sent around the world. Overnight, Jonestown would become more than a name or geographic location; it became shorthand for troubling questions about cults, the social and sexual revolution then underway in the United States, and the mixture of politics and religion that Jim Jones used so effectively to lure thousands of followers into his church and to hoodwink much of San Francisco’s political establishment.

And there you have the key words that have always haunted Jonestown stories — San Francisco.

You see, Jones was a minister in good standing of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), an absolutely normal denomination at the heart of the liberal Protestant ecumenical establishment. He was an idealist on the left and, as everyone knows, this kind of theocratic, cultish behavior is supposed to take place on the theological right, not the left. That’s where the wackos reside. Correct?

Thus, there has always been a tendency to avoid in-depth discussions of what Jones believed, what he preached and how his idealistic, progressive congregation — one committed to racial equality, free health care and social justice — evolved into an armed camp of suicidal killers lined up at a vat of cyanide and fake fruit juice.

Krause mentions some of the key players in his well-written and sobering feature. Take, for example, that wild lawyer of the left Mark Lane — who worked to defend Jones and his encampment. There there is this:

Speier says Jones’s rise to power and legitimacy in San Francisco was largely due to his clever deception of George Moscone, Harvey Milk, Willie Brown and other San Francisco political leaders, who courted Jones in the years before the massacre because he provided them with campaign workers and critical support.

“From my perspective,” Speier says, “the Peoples Temple got out of hand because the political leadership in San Francisco was indebted to Jim Jones.”

You must read the whole article, which raises more questions than it answers. Krause knows this, because he leaves the reader with a long, long list of crucial unanswered questions.

Ponder this, if you can stand to do so:

Was Jonestown a cult, a religious commune or a legitimate experiment in racial harmony and social justice gone bad? Should Ryan have insisted on going to personally investigate Jonestown, taking journalists with him, after having been warned that Jonestown was an armed camp and Jones himself increasingly unstable?

Was Jones a sadistic egomaniac who cynically abused his followers? Or was he a decent man who fell victim to the drugs, power and paranoia that finally devoured him and the 913 other men, women and children who died in Jonestown? Why didn’t more people resist when they were ordered to die?

However, I have to say once again that this article has little or nothing to say about Jones and his message. In fact, the final section of the article muddies the waters quite a bit.

Consider this language drawn from a recent memorial service for the victims, held at a mass grave in Oakland:

In an emotional and highly charged address, the Rev. Amos Brown, bishop at San Francisco’s Third Baptist Church and president of the San Francisco NAACP, warned the mourners to beware of religious leaders who claim to have all the answers and insinuate themselves into politics, as Jones did so effectively in San Francisco.

“Good religion elevates folk, it teaches people to think for themselves. Good religion isn’t authoritarian. Good religion isn’t bigoted,” he said. “Open up your eyes, America. America isn’t a theocracy, it’s a democracy. … And that is the lesson we must learn from Jonestown.”

Theocracy? Yes, it’s hard to argue with that. But we need more information. What kind of theocracy? What were its doctrines? What kind of church worshiped at Jonestown?

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • FrGregACCA

    You see, Jones was a minister in good standing of the Church of Christ (Disciples)

    Geez, tmatt, another typo. It’s “Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)”.

    For more, the following may be helpful: Salvation and Suicide: Jim Jones, the Peoples Temple, and Jonestown.

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  • Carl Vehse

    One colloquialism that came out of the Jonestown tragedy was the expression, “drinking the kool-aid”, nowadays applied to devotees of a pseudo-religious demagogue… or demagogue-elect.

  • Jeff

    One unintended consequence of Jonestown for the (as noted) “Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)” is that it sped up the centralizing tendency for our ordination and standing process, from congregationally based to regional Commissions of Ministry having the authority to license, ordain, and certify ongoing standing. Jim Jones went to one of our seminaries, was ordained by one of our churches, and by sending back the Yearbook form each year received as much official certification as we had in 1978.

    When the first news flashes went on CBS on Thanksgiving Day, i vividly recall seeing the red Disciples’ chalice in the original newsbreaks. Years later i heard the story of how Bob Friedly, our denominational communications officer, got on the phone to the network news offices and convinced all three to stop using the Disciples’ logo, arguing that while he was in the 1977 Yearbook, that was from 1976 info and with the move to Guyana, they had removed themselves from our oversight.

    It worked, even though he and his congregation had never “lost” their standing, which lit a huge fire under the general and regional staff to create a clear, decisive process whereby a loose cannon could be either reined in or tipped over the side. Since 1979, you don’t get ordained and you don’t get standing unless a middle or upper judicatory body say so, which in our restructure into an “official” denomination in 1967 was an unresolved point of contention (leaving behind the independent Christian Churches and Churches of Christ, a capella and otherwise, which left TMatt a bit confused). The Jamestown tragedy was the last push towards formalizing ministerial structures — which in a different forum, i’d argue went too far in the centralized direction, but in the dark light of Jonestown, it’s hard to argue that you can go back to an entirely decentralized structure with a general identity.

    That’s how you get a Jim Jones.

    But for those of us who came to CTS in Indianapolis years later, and worked in community ministries, it was an eerie and regular encounter to find hints and traces of the passionate social justice crusader and interfaith, interracial pioneer Jim Jones wherever you went. He was most emphatically a liberal, even socialist Christian crusader throughout his ministry, and there still are those in Indy who will quickly note that the early Jim Jones “did a lot of good.” Of course, the same has been said about Mussolini and train schedules. . .

  • Jeff

    By the way, survivors and victim families LOATHE the term “drink the kool-aid” (or Flav-Or-Ade), since it implies mindless acquiescence. The fact that armed guards enforced the first stages, and the children were, on Jones’ orders, killed first, makes it clear this was a mass murder with the final suicide of the organizers, a la Hitler and Goebbels in the bunker. My reading of the accounts makes me quite sympathetic to this rejection of “drink the kool-aid” based on the essential inaccuracy and unfairness of the depiction, and i try to never use that phrase myself for that reason.

    Not just because i’m an ordained Disciple who graduated from CTS . . .

  • Jerry

    I think looking at this horrible event is useful. Jones was part of the pantheon of cults and fanatics from the suicidal to the al Quaeda homicidal.

    There are any number of guides to help people spot harmful groups. One I found that I like is

    Ten warning signs of a potentially unsafe group/leader.

    1. Absolute authoritarianism without meaningful accountability.

    2. No tolerance for questions or critical inquiry.

    3. No meaningful financial disclosure regarding budget, expenses such as an independently audited financial statement.

    4. Unreasonable fear about the outside world, such as impending catastrophe, evil conspiracies and persecutions.

    5. There is no legitimate reason to leave, former followers are always wrong in leaving, negative or even evil.

    6. Former members often relate the same stories of abuse and reflect a similar pattern of grievances.

    7. There are records, books, news articles, or television programs that document the abuses of the group/leader.

    8. Followers feel they can never be “good enough”.

    9. The group/leader is always right.

    10. The group/leader is the exclusive means of knowing “truth” or receiving validation, no other process of discovery is really acceptable or credible.

  • Dave

    Jeff, the Pagan elder Isaac Bonewits published a similar checklist around the time in question or a bit earlier. His included “No sense of humor about leaders or organization.” He once founded a Pagan organization with a funny name to filter out those with no sense of humor.

  • tmatt


    I know the difference. I just made a mistake.

    I taught at Milligan College for six years. People frown at you if you make that kind of mistake there.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Is there any relation between Obama’s “Church of Christ” and the “Christian Church (Disciples)”? and “The United Church of Christ”? In the past 30 or 40 years it seems like the names of various Protestant mainline denominations have been migrating around as much as the people in the pews. No wonder reporters and journalists sometimes have problems.

  • FrGregACCA


    I’m sure you do know the difference. Gotta watch them typos. ;-)

    Deacon John:

    No connection other than that both are what are sometimes called “mainline” American Protestant denominations. Obama’s former church belonged to the United Church of Christ which is the result of a merger between two previous denominations in 1957. The Disciples of Christ is a branch of the Campbell-Stone restoration movement, which began in the early Nineteenth Century in the American South. The more conservative, “confessional” Restoration Movement congregations are called Churches of Christ or independent Christian Churches. Linked below are relevant Wikipedia articles:

    United Church of Christ

    Disciples of Christ

    Independent Chritsian Churches/Churches of Christ

    Churches of Christ

  • FW Ken

    Deacon John -

    The United Church of Christ (to which Sen. Obama belonged) derived from the Congregationalists, who derived from the Puritans that settled New England. The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), the Churches of Christ, and some independent Christian Churches descend from the Campbellite movement of the late 19th century, founded by Alexander Campbell.

    The UCC and the Disciples can reasonably be considered mainline, liberal protestant denominations, while the Churches of Christ and independent Christian Churches (at least the ones I have known) tend towards fundamentalist theology, with various cultural distinctives such as a cappela singing and some aspects of church governance. This is all a bit simplistic, but that’s the basics.

  • Bob Smietana

    The Churches of Christ remain intensely congregational in polity, with no hierarchy or ordained clergy, along with their with a cappella worship.

    And as Terry points out, it’s easy to confuse them with the Christian Church (Disciples)and Christian Churches.

    The UCC and the Disciples are in full communion, according to the Disciple’s website.

  • Will

    When I got tired of hearing that “Jonestown” discredited “religious cults”, I would ask why it did not discredit socialism and communism.

    The United Church of Christ was formed when the Congregational church merged with the Evangelican and Reformed Church, which did not come from the Independent/Separatist tradition (it was widely hailed as the first major “organic” merger in the US), and therefore called for a new name for the product.

    And I do not see what is funny about “Ar Draoicht Fein”, although I have heard funny stories about the people in it.

  • Elanor

    “the Rev. Amos Brown, bishop at San Francisco’s Third Baptist Church”
    I’m a bit confused. Baptists churches have bishops? Since when? What does a Baptist bishop do?

  • FW Ken

    Elanor -

    On the congregation’s website Dr. Brown is referred to as “pastor”, not “bishop”. Some black churches, particular those of a pentecostal turn, use the term “bishop” for their pastor, or (as in the Church of God in Christ) for a pastor of a congregation who supervises “elders” who pastor other congregations. It looks like the writer was misapplying the term, in this case. That’s not the only problem with that paragraph. Compare this:

    In an emotional and highly charged address, the Rev. Amos Brown, bishop at San Francisco’s Third Baptist Church and president of the San Francisco NAACP, warned the mourners to beware of religious leaders who claim to have all the answers and insinuate themselves into politics, as Jones did so effectively in San Francisco.

    with this, from the website:

    Pastor Brown was appointed to the Community College governing Board by Mayor Dianne Feinstein in 1982 and elected in 1984. He was also appointed to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors by Mayor Willie L. Brown in 1996 and elected in 1998. Third Baptist has shared the leadership abilities of Pastor Brown with the world as he has chaired the Civil Commission of the National Baptist Convention and united all black denominational bodies in opposition to the appointment of Clarence Thomas to the U.S. Supreme Court, during the Senate Judiciary Committee Hearing of 1991.

    The writer has clearly interpreted Dr. Brown’s quoted comments in a manner the contradicts his own biography.

  • Dave2

    Dave wrote:

    Jeff, the Pagan elder Isaac Bonewits published a similar checklist around the time in question or a bit earlier. His included “No sense of humor about leaders or organization.” He once founded a Pagan organization with a funny name to filter out those with no sense of humor.

    The Church of Scientology actually has an official policy against having a sense of humor about the organization, I kid you not. It was announced in a policy letter on 5 February 1977, entitled “Jokers and Degraders”.

    The policy letter reports that a rigorous investigation into “a small handful of people who were joking about their posts and those around them” revealed that these individuals were either harboring evil intentions or else hopelessly insane or else sinners or else connected to someone harboring evil intentions: “In some cultural areas, wit and humor are looked upon as a healthy release. However, in the case of orgs [Scientology organizations], this was not found to be the case. Intentional destruction of the org or fellow staff members was the direct purpose.”

  • Bern

    Doesn’t it seem a bit sad from the point of Christian unity–that it is necessary to diffentiate UCC from Disciples from Church of Christ? That was good work from a PR point of view to distance Jones from his purported denomination. But aside from leaving the story with less depth than it might have had, I don’t see what relevance Jones’ theological “progressiveness” might have had to the story initially or now.

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  • Dave

    Will (#13), I was not referring to Bonewits’s Druid organization but an earlier one whose acronym sounded funny if pronounced. I think it was NROOGD or something like that, but don’t quote me.

  • str1977

    Jeff, the Pagan elder Isaac Bonewits published a similar checklist around the time in question or a bit earlier. His included “No sense of humor about leaders or organization.” He once founded a Pagan organization with a funny name to filter out those with no sense of humor.

    That’s exactly the kind of thing that should not be on such a list.

    Yes, some people think themselves really enlightened if they can laugh it off but usually these people never realise that there are also things that they would never laught about or even tolerate laughing about. They only laugh about the things sacred to others.

  • Dave

    They only laugh about the things sacred to others.

    Str1977, you happen to be wrong. Perhaps you keep a solid wall between what is sacred and what can be the subject of humor, but that is not a human universal.

    Certainly there are times when humor is not appropriate, but for many people that is not all the time.

    Among Pagans there is a send-up on “Gimme That Old Time Religion” that runs through a humorous litany of Pagan deities. It has at least a dozen verses.

  • Will

    Strig, you obviously have never encountered the Wombat Wicca “tradition”. Or for that matter,the Discordians.

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