Before the tragedy at Jonestown, the people of Peoples Temple had a dream
Posted by admin on 16th November 2018

When people hear the word “Jonestown,” they usually think of horror and death.

Located in the South American country of Guyana, the Peoples Temple Agricultural Project was supposed to be the religious group’s “promised land.” In 1977 almost 1,000 Americans had moved to Jonestown, as it was called, hoping to create a new life.

Instead, tragedy struck. When U.S. Rep. Leo J. Ryan of California and three journalists attempted to leave after a visit to the community, a group of Jonestown residents assassinated them, fearing that negative reports would destroy their communal project.

A collective murder-suicide followed, a ritual that had been rehearsed on several occasions.

This time it was no rehearsal. On Nov. 18, 1978, more than 900 men, women and children died, including my two sisters, Carolyn Layton and Annie Moore, and my nephew, Kimo Prokes.

Photojournalist David Hume Kennerly’s aerial photograph of a landscape of brightly clothed lifeless bodies captures the magnitude of the disaster of that day.

In the 40 years since the tragedy, most stories, books, films and scholarship have tended to focus on the leader of Peoples Temple, Jim Jones, and the community that his followers attempted to carve out of the dense jungles of northwest Guyana. They might highlight the dangers of cults or the hazards of blind obedience.

But by fixating on the tragedy – and on the Jones of Jonestown – we miss the larger story of the Temple. We lose sight of a significant social movement that mobilized thousands of activists to change the world in ways small and large, from offering legal services to people too poor to afford a lawyer, to campaigning against apartheid.

It is a disservice to the lives, labors and aspirations of those who died to simply focus on their deaths.

I know that what happened on Nov. 18, 1978 doesn’t tell the complete story of my own family’s involvement – neither what happened in the years leading up to that dreadful day, nor the four decades that followed.

The impulse to learn the whole story prompted my husband, Fielding McGehee, and me to create the website Alternative Considerations of Jonestown and Peoples Temple in 1998 – a large digital archive documenting the movement primarily in its own words through documents, reports and audiotapes. This, in turn, led the Special Collections Department at San Diego State University to develop the Peoples Temple Collection.

The problems with Jonestown are self-evident.

But that single event shouldn’t define the movement.

The Temple began as a church in the Pentecostal-Holiness tradition in Indianapolis in the 1950s.

In a deeply segregated city, it was one of the few places where black and white working-class congregants sat together in church on a Sunday morning. Its members provided various kinds of assistance to the poor – food, clothing, housing, legal advice – and the church and its pastor, Jim Jones, gained a reputation for fostering racial integration.

Marceline Jones, the wife of Jim Jones, administered licensed care homes.
Peoples Temple Collection, 1942–2015, (I.D. MS-0183), Special Collections and University Archives, San Diego State University

Investigative journalist Jeff Guinn has described the ways early incarnations of the Temple served the people of Indianapolis. The income generated through licensed care homes, operated by Jim Jones’ wife, Marceline Jones, subsidized The Free Restaurant, a cafeteria where anyone could eat at no cost.

Church members also mobilized to promote desegregation efforts at local restaurants and businesses, and the Temple formed an employment service that placed African-Americans in a number of entry-level positions.

While it’s the kind of action some churches engage in today, it was innovative – even radical – for the 1950s.

In 1962, Jones had a prophetic vision of a nuclear catastrophe, so he urged his Indiana congregation to relocate to Northern California.

Scholars suspect that an Esquire magazine article – which listed nine parts of the world that would be safe in the event of nuclear war, and included a region of Northern California – gave Jones the idea for the move.

In the mid-1960s, more than 80 members of the group packed up and headed west together.

Under the guidance of Marceline, the Temple acquired a number of properties in the Redwood Valley and established nine residential care facilities for the elderly, six homes for foster children, and Happy Acres, a state-licensed ranch for mentally disabled adults. In addition, Temple families took in others needing assistance through informal networks.

Sociologist of religion John R. Hall has studied the various ways the Temple raised money at that time. The care homes were profitable, as were other moneymaking ventures; there was a small food truck the Temple operated, and members were also able to sell grapes from the Temple’s vineyards to Parducci Wine Cellars.

These fundraising schemes, along with more traditional donations and tithes, helped underwrite free services.

A food truck was one of several moneymaking operations the Temple ran in Northern California.
Peoples Temple Collection, 1942–2015, (I.D. MS-0183), Special Collections and University Archives, San Diego State University

It was at this time that young, college-educated white adults began to trickle in. They used their skills as teachers and social workers to attract more members to a movement they saw as preaching the social gospel of redistribution of wealth.

My younger sister, Annie, seemed to be drawn to the Temple’s ethos of diversity and equality.

“There is the largest group of people I have ever seen who are concerned about the world and are fighting for truth and justice for the world,” she wrote in a 1972 letter to me. “And all the people have come from such different backgrounds, every color, every age, every income group.”