Why the Peoples Temple?

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:

-mid twentieth century, specifically 1960s, United States

-mid-west (Indianapolis, IN was the home base of the KKK)

-San Francisco


-Cold War

-rampant fear of nuclear destruction in the wake of WWII

-Civil Rights movement in all its guises

-mature capitalism, vastly differentiated income distribution

-general climate of unrest, change, grassroots movements,counter culture

-increased interest in non-Western religious models

-rise of new religions and followers of new leaders preaching in contemporary language (like Father Divine and his Peace Mission)

-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.