Encyclopedia of Religion
and Society

William H. Swatos, Jr. Editor

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The Peoples Temple is most well known for the tragedy at Jonestown, Guyana, that took the lives of over 900 Americans in 1978. Started by the Rev. Jim Jones in the mid-1950s, the People's Temple migrated from Indiana to Ukiah, a small town north of San Francisco in the mid-1960s, and a few years later established a larger church in San Francisco. The Peoples Temple was unusual in that, even when it began in the still-segregated 1950s, it actively and successfully encouraged integration in its congregation. In the mid-1970s, spurred by conflicts with local government officials and concerned relatives of members, a group from the church formed a settlement in the jungle of the Northwest District of Guyana that was soon after known as Jonestown.

The membership of the Peoples Temple differed from that of most new religious movements of the 1960s and 1970s in several key ways. During this period in the United States, most members of new religious movements were young, white, middle class, and relatively well educated. The origins of the Peoples Temple were in the Christian Church, mainly in Pentecostalism. Its membership was predominantly black and working-and lower-class white. It included a number of elderly members and had a middle-class, educated, white elite. The Peoples Temple provided a wide range of social services for its needy members and tried to promote sweeping social reform, then decided to withdraw from U.S. society when it was clear that reform was not working (Weightman 1989).

The tragedy at Jonestown was apparently precipitated by a visit from Congressman Leo Ryan of California and an entourage of news media who came to investigate complaints lodged against the Peoples Temple by concerned relatives of church members. On November 18, 1978, after a visit that did not go well for Jones and the Peoples Temple, several members were sent to the nearby airstrip to intercept Congressman Ryan and his party. Five of the Ryan party were shot down while trying to leave, including Ryan. After the attack, Jones, apparently feeling that the Peoples Temple could not escape persecution even by moving to the jungles of South America, gathered the members of the Peoples Temple for mass suicide.

An estimated 911 Jonestown community members died in the tragedy, in addition to those of Congressman Ryan's party who were killed. More than 200 children were murdered. Most members, including Jim Jones and other leaders of the Jonestown community, voluntarily committed suicide by drinking a mixture of potassium cyanide and tranquilizers. There are indications from an audiotape made at the scene and other evidence that 50 to 100 members did not voluntarily commit suicide but were coerced into drinking the poison or were short by Peoples Temple guards (Moore and McGehee 1989).

The press and the U.S. public tended to interpret the events at Jonestown in purely psychological or psychiatric terms, and certainly as an event that was bizarre and inexplicable. Jim Jones was often portrayed as being insane, motivated by a mad quest for power, or as pathologically authoritarian. Peoples Temple members were commonly depicted as insane or victims of brainwashing. Additionally, there was a tendency in media coverage of the tragedy to suggest or imply that the Peoples Temple was similar to other new religious movements in the United States at that time in ways that posed a danger of similar tragedies connected with these new movements (see Richardson 1980). These trends were encouraged by those in the anti-cult movement. The incident at Jonestown was used to point to the supposed dangers of involvement in religious "cults." Some anti-cult members suggested that Jonestown was the first of such tragedies among new religious movements or "cults" and that similar events would become much more common. Jonestown did produce short-lived support for key items on the anti-cult agenda, such as increased support for restrictions on new religious movements. However, much of that support waned with the absence of any wave of mass suicides and with the decline or partial assimilation of many new religious movements (see Shupe et al. 1989).

Unlike most views presented in the mass media, social scientific examinations of the Peoples Temple and the Jonestown tragedy have tended to regard the Jonestown events, while to some extent unusual and extreme, as explicable and not unprecedented. Richardson (1980) and Weightman (1989) point to key differences between the Peoples Temple and other new religious movements in the United States, suggesting that similarities between the Peoples Temple and other new religious movements have been overstated. Robbins (1989) states that Jonestown is not unprecedented and compares Jonestown suicides with those in the Old Believers of Russia in the late seventeenth century and with those in the Circumcellion group of the Donatist "Church of Martyrs" in North Africa during late Antiquity. Hall (1981) analyzes the Peoples Temple as an other-worldly sect with characteristics similar to other other-worldly sects, but with special characteristics and circumstances that made the mass suicide option more likely and perhaps more attractive. Recent events such as the tragedy at the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, and the mass suicide of the Heaven's Gate members in the United States, along with instances of religiously motivated mass suicide or murder in Switzerland and Japan, have rekindled scholarly interest in the connection between religion and violence.

See also Deviance, Violence

Edward F. Breschel


J. Hall, "The Apocalypse at Jonestown," in In Gods We Trust , ed. T. Robbins and D. Anthony (New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction, 1981)

J. Hall, Gone from the Promised Land (New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction, 1987)

K. Levi (ed.), Violence and Religious Commitment (University Park: Penn State University Press, 1982)

R. Moore and R. McGehee III (eds.), New Religious Movements, Mass Suicide, and People's Temple (Lewiston, N.Y.: Mellen, 1989)

J. T. Richardson, "People's Temple and Jonestown," Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 19(1980):239-255

T. Robbins, "The Historical Antecedents of Jonestown," in Moore and McGehee, q.v . (1989): 51-76

A. Shupe et al., "The Peoples Temple, the Apocalypse at Jonestown, and the Anti-Cult Movement," in Moore and McGehee, q.v . (1989): 153-178

R. Weightman, "The Peoples Temple as a Continuation and an Interruption of Religious Marginality in America," in Moore and McGehee, q.v . (1989): 5-24.

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