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Apocalyptic Redemption and Utopian Resignation: How Visions of Dystopia Made Community Impossible in Jonestown.

"Please try to understand. Look at all. Look at all in perspective.
Look at Jonestown, see what we have tried to do--This was a monument to
life, to the [re]newal of the human spirit, broken by capitalism, by a
system of exploitation & injustice."
--Richard Tropp, "Suicide Note"
"The Jonestown story, like some Joseph Conrad drama of fanaticism and
moral emptiness, has gone directly into popular myth. It will be
remembered as an emblematic, identifying moment of the decade: a
demented American psychopomp in a tropical cult house, doling out
cyanide with Kool-Aid. Jonestown is the Altamont of the '70s cult
--Lance Morrow, "The Lure of Doomsday," Time (4 December 1978)

Etched into America's imagination as a warning about the insidious threat posed by "cults" and doomsday prophets, what Lance Morrow in a 1978 Time article labeled "the Altamont of the '70s cult movement," (2) the tragic end of and response to Jim Jones and Jonestown often dominate historical memory. John Hall, for example, argues that any attempt at understanding must extend beyond the almost immediate demonization of Jones and Peoples Temple by recognizing that congregants did not encounter the "devil, psychopath, con artist, Antichrist" caricature that often dominate Jones's place within American history (religious or otherwise), but instead "a prophet, redeemer, and friend." To continue to treat "Peoples Temple as the cultus classicus headed by Jim Jones, psychotic megalomaniac par excellence" foils any meaningful attempt at understanding, resulting in a perspective, as Hall laments, that "drifts on a sea of memory, only loosely tied to any moorings of history." (3) Similarly, in his study of the connection between media and the "cult" label as it relates to Jonestown, Hugh Urban emphasizes how critical yet sympathetic engagements with Jones and Peoples Temple remain obscured by the fact that "Peoples Temple became the media poster child of a dangerous, murderous cult and has informed much of the popular representation of new religions ever since." (4) While importantly well developed, the public's broad fascination with the idea of "cult" and the tragedy in Jonestown thus overwhelms attempts to critically engage and understand with a sense of empathy the sacred narratives, utopian values, and communal dreams that led a small, predominantly African American congregation in Indianapolis to follow the self-proclaimed manifestation of God on earth to Guyana, South America. Building off current scholarship that helps us understand the religious and cultural mechanisms that produced the conditions for "revolutionary suicide," (5) this article seeks to further this discussion by specifically outlining the utopian dynamics of Jonestown and the dystopian place of Jones as messiah. Such a focus helps unpack how the sacred positioning of Jones vis-a-vis his congregation intervened on the utopian trajectory and communal idealism of Peoples Temple, making the utopian wish of a free and equal society secondary to the dystopian assessment that functioned to legitimate both Jones's standing and belief (by 1978) that members of Jonestown could only be "freed" from the chaos and destruction attending the modern moment by taking their lives.

In taking this focus, however, it is important not to disregard the broader complexities that both directed the construction of Jonestown and help situate the meaning of its final, collective act. This article concentrates specifically on the way narratives of religious salvation challenged the maintenance of and potential for sustained community, while also working to maintain Jones's megalomania and power by underscoring the utopian impulse of Jonestown members. This article also demonstrates, however, the way the dystopian assessment of contemporary America produced real conditions to explore new ways of living that, for many members, represented more than a Christianized expression of salvation-through-death. Jonestown was a true experiment in socialism, an effort to model a way of collective living beyond the destructive consequences of racialized, monetized, and class-based social construction. Its end, while positioned by Jones in and through his manipulation of religious language as this article will explore, also reveals the limitations encumbered on the community by internal and external contingencies that extend beyond religious concerns. (6)

The rise and fall of Jonestown reveal the root challenges facing communal experimentation--from legal challenges to an antagonistic relationship with media and government to the community's inability to support itself (Jones originally planned for 600 residents, but more than 1,000 had arrived in less than two years). Its experience illustrates how access to resources and the maintenance of power--both geopolitical and local--complicate the coherency of community intention, leaving members rooted in the everyday experience secondary to the more spectacular characters or moments that dominate our historical memory. More than a path to personal salvation, Jonestown and its tragic end also signify efforts to outline a vision of hope for the broader world. Its members--in life, death, and survival--emerged as martyrs on behalf of a socialistic worldview predicated on total communal responsibility. (7)

Yet it is exactly this role of martyrdom that brings us back to the religiosity and spiritual manipulation of Jones and his apocalyptic vision. His elevation from local religious leader to self-identified God was animated through the view among congregants and Jonestown members that the world was evil, either as a result of its capitalistic and racist roots or as a consequence of arranging the world through a religious perspective that accepted faith and death as stages toward eternal life. As a utopian project, Jonestown not only supplied the space to counter the constructs directing the violence of the contemporary moment but also outlined the conditions to revel in the salvific promise of Jones (and by extension, Christianity). In this sense, "revolutionary suicide" was akin to Christ's sacrifice, signaling not only a path toward final salvation but also an immediate "escape from this old, corrupt world to a New World of peace in death, sometimes described by Jones simply as the 'next plane.'" (8) Salvation, as a result, meant more than the Christian promise; its role within Jonestown was often rhetorical, a way to buttress the vision, place, and power of Jones through tropes that played to the worst fears--both worldly and spiritual--of Jonestown members. By drawing from the religious sermons of Jones and the communal structuring of Jonestown, such a focus on the interplay between hope (the utopian wish), space (the community itself), time (the end of days religious narrative), and resignation (the dystopian assessment) helps us see the means by which religion, control, and charisma mutually sustain one another, often manifesting in day-to-day affairs through asymmetrical power relations that repudiate the utopian drive and thus hinder the viability of sustained community. (9) By highlighting the individual and social implications of connecting utopia to apocalyptic narratives, what ultimately emerges is not a lesson regarding the impossibility of utopia, but more distinctly perhaps, the unavoidable limitations burdened upon intentional communities when arranged within an oppositional paradigm (e.g., Jones's utopia versus the dystopia of western culture) and through an end-of-days religious perspective. (10)

Advancing through two supporting narratives that both explain and helped legitimate (for believers) Jonestown's apocalyptic trajectory, Jones's transformation from preacher to doomsday prophet reveals not only the complexity of religious authority and control but also how the entwining of the utopian wish with an apocalyptic fervor made the communal dreams of Peoples Temple impossible. The first narrative begins with a dystopian assessment that elevates the need to escape the ills plaguing modern society through the development of an intentional community dedicated to a more just and equitable way of living. Intimate to this belief was an understanding of contemporary America, which Jones referred to as "Babylon," as mired in racial violence and defined by the economic deprivation of racial and ethnic minorities. The second narrative played off traditional Christian tropes of ultimate salvation, promising true believers a future that offered the penultimate space for the utopian vision to find its fullest inflection in an act of redemptive death, rather than faith-based living. By binding Jonestown's communal impulse to an understanding of sacred time that perceived humanity as coursing imminently toward the end of days, Jones found the means to solidify his place as savior, the only individual capable of rescuing the utopian wish of Peoples Temple by confirming--and then manipulating--the communal hopes of believers. Such an emphasis co-opted the sense of hope that propelled the community to begin with, transposing the potential to realize a better world in the here and now with the increasingly accepted perspective that the very brokenness of the contemporary moment made suicide a project of utopian hope and, for Jones, a method to veil his megalomania as the conduct of God's final prophet. Coming only for the "chosen, that'll serve, that'll be liberators," Jones promised to make his followers "fishers of men. I'll give you power. I'll cause you to go forth and lay hands on all these--these oppressive devils, all these oppressive spirits that've held us down in racism. You get around me, and I will send you out [cries out] in my name, and you will set the people free." (11) Within this Christian environment of empowered believers, "there was no way," as Tim Reiterman emphasizes, "to separate the warped world view from his idealized vision and his social conscience, nor the real threats from his paranoia, his benevolence from his cruelty, his genius from his madness." (12)

By 1973, four years before Jones and members of Peoples Temple would flee to the Jonestown settlement in Guyana in response to a series of "lawsuits, government inquiries, and unflattering media portrayals," (13) Jones declared himself "God," (14) an idea fortified in his 1974 "Political and Religious Lecture" where he deconstructed traditional Christianity and the notion of a "loving God" by inserting himself into the sphere of the divine, which he redefined in distinctly socialistic terms. (15) As Jones preached, "I represent divine principle. ...Where there is no rich or poor. Where there are no races. Wherever there are people struggling for justice and righteousness, there I am." Such a perspective, while appealing to a multiracial congregation of believers, also signals the growing messianic, and then godly, positioning of Jones. (16) While helping to sacralize his own position, the emphasis on justice also came to dominate his sermons, which "became infused with, and eventually yielded to, overtly political themes." (17) Such an approach, particularly among a San Francisco interracial audience, furthered his appeal; it also advanced his process of redefining the nature of God as a socialistic condition. In lamenting humanity's false conception of a transcendent God, Jones, as Dereck Daschke and W. Michael Ashcraft develop, "did not see himself as the Christian God," but rather "the incarnation of the 'spirit of socialism,' the embodiment of the 'Christ Principle,' and the Prophet who would lead the charge against an inhumane world." (18) As Jones himself made clear, he came "with the black hair of a raven ... as God Socialist!" (19) Meant to inspire hope in a world gone mad as a consequence of capitalist accumulation and as expressed through racial division and religious hypocrisy, Jones's vision of a socialist utopia where he functioned as God replicated the very asymmetrical power dynamics and source for salvation he decried in his critique of America and mainstream Christianity. (20)

Importantly, then, although Jonestown typically functions as "the quintessence of the 'cult,' stereotypically portrayed as an organization that drains both property and free will from its member," its orientation, structure, and oppositional end highlight Jonestown as Janus-faced, a reflection of reality that Western society can hold up to assess its own actions, ideologies, worldly consequences, and constructs of and for religious salvation. As Richard Hall continues, when viewed beyond its stereotyped portrayal, "the Temple's realm of opposition to the world at large was often enough but a mirror of it, and sometimes a grotesque reflection of its seamier side." (21) Echoing the anxiety, violence, and power dynamics that lurk beneath the facade of neoliberal progress, Peoples Temple, although responding to these dynamics through a multiracial coalition of social justice warriors in the name of Christ, further entrenches each in Jonestown as a consequence of the sense of dread, opposition, and dystopian scenarios that came to dominate both Jones's prophetic vision and the community's sustained potential.

The very nature of the utopian/dystopian interplay helps situate this dynamic, illustrating how the utopian impulse, although a powerful motivator, ultimately could not sustain itself against the internal and external pressures (both real and those fueled by paranoia) that increasingly dominated Jones's religious vision. In devolving from leader of a religious group and founder of a commune to the source of and for both the community itself and religious salvation, Jones illustrates the consequences of connecting prophetic authority with spatial control. While the intentional community offered an escape, and although many saw their commitment to the community as extending beyond its "founder," Jones's theology promised a final solution highlighted not by the immediate concerns nor continuation of the Jonestown community, but by welcoming the end of days in order to realize the fullness of God's--and therefore Jones's--divine plan.

From a Theology of Justice to Suicide as a Sacred Act

While the lofty idealism of Peoples Temple became obscured and finally veiled over by Jones's godly proclamations and abuses of power (often sexual), which defined Peoples Temple in the immediate years leading up to its move to and life in Guyana, it is important to recognize, as Daschke and Ashcraft emphasize, how "Peoples Temple was a New Society movement at its core, as its ideal of transforming racist and capitalist America into a utopia of tolerance and economic balance never wavered." (22) Intended to be an expression of a rainbow family of believers, Peoples Temple emerged in 1956 in Indianapolis against a backdrop of systemic racism and economic oppression legitimated historically through religious narratives and neoliberal constructs that functioned simultaneously as tools to secure social control by delineating between in and out groups.

Rather than an emancipatory force, as practiced in America, Christianity emerges more as a politicized value, often functioning to legitimate capitalist drives and racial division through sacred narratives that devalue--by dehumanizing--the experience of people of color. (23) Yet at the same time, Christianity offered the means to speak truth to power; for many, the Christian gospels outline a narrative of love, social justice, and as theologian Howard Thurman argued, a manual of resistance for the poor and disenfranchised. (24) Against this backdrop, "Jones's earliest and most pressing concern for his Christian organization was combatting the evils of racism and economic disparity in the United States. Underlying this was a socialist critique of American wealth, media, and occasionally politics." (25) Distinctly, then, while we cannot and should not ignore how the tragic end of Jonestown was precipitated by, as Rebecca Moore emphasizes, "rumor, scandal, and outrage," Peoples Temple offered more than blind devotion to a charismatic leader. (26) For many trapped within a religious and secular society that disconnected individual experience from God and community, Jones and his message created space for believers who sought to put the lessons of Christ into action. Opposed, then, to the narrative of American exceptionalism that tethers Christianity to capitalist growth, Jones positioned God as socialistic, as a condition all can equally experience through the love and salvation offered by Christ and, as time would illustrate, Jones.

As Richard Hall details, "An unrelenting iconoclast, Jones sought to forge a militant movement of people committed to the vision of a utopian alternative to a racist, class-dominated, imperialist society. Peoples Temple thus carried a double onus: it was a countercultural commune group and a militant anti-American social movement." (27) Paramount to Jones's critique of modern American society was an entwining of socialistic intentions with an increasing emphasis on Christian apocalypticism that found its worldly apotheosis in the Cold War culture of inevitable nuclear war and destruction. Central to the religious trajectory of Christianity, belief in "an approaching end times or apocalypse is obviously not unique to contemporary new religious movements," as scholar of religion Hugh Urban makes clear. (28) Yet in a global culture that had experienced the horrors of genocide and the reality of nuclear destruction, the end of days seemed more visceral and imminent.

Influenced by a 1965 Esquire article that identified the nine safest places to live in the event of nuclear war, and solidified further for believers by Jones's prophetic proclamation that the world would end "in a nuclear holocaust which would occur on 15 July 1967," (29) Jones and Peoples Temple moved to California and then finally Guyana as they searched for "peace" within a world spiraling imminently toward destruction. (30) According to Tim Reiterman, "Jones wanted others to adopt his apocalyptic vision. In his grand castle of paranoia, justifiable concerns about thermonuclear war exploded into a doomsday scenario. He, like some latter-day Moses, would lead the people to live interracially." (31) Inspired by their prophet, Jones moved 150 members of his congregation to Ukiah, California, one of the cities identified by Esquire, and by the early 1970s, had extended his religious reach to San Francisco and Los Angeles, appealing to a countercultural sentiment amongst primarily Christians of color who remained disenfranchised economically and unfulfilled religiously. Jones also quickly ingratiated himself into religious and sociopolitical circles, being named in 1975 as "one of the hundred most outstanding clergymen in the United States by Religion in Life" and receiving "the Martin Luther King humanitarian of the Year award in San Francisco" in 1977. (32)

While publicly influential and celebrated, within the confines of his church and congregation, Jones's increasing sense of paranoia, fueled by continued concerns over impending nuclear war and a growing belief that "a fascist takeover of the United States was imminent," resulted in an entrenched sacred narrative that located Jones as the "father" of a "New Family," one freed from racial violence and economic deprivation. (33) In a 1976 sermon, Jones stressed his desire to "adopt" his followers, using the very language of Moses and God to cement his place as the divine incarnate: "I said, I am that I am has come. The very same Jesus, and the very same God ... as Jesus said, I have come to serve and not to be served." To see Jones this way is to locate the way to salvation. "I don't claim to be any Skygod," Jones continues, "but I claim that if you'll let me be your natural father, if you'll let me adopt you as an earthly father, I will save you." (34) The message--and thus solution to worldly suffering and religious salvation--was clear: "Jones knows about you, cares about you, and can help you in ways that no one else, including the Christian God and American society, can or will." (35)

Against the backdrop of Jones's competing roles as public figure and internal prophet, by 1977 the public facade began to break as a series of media reports, government inquiries, and lawsuits filed by concerned relatives or ex-members outlined the abuses of power that increasingly defined congregational life. (36) When an August 1977 issue of New West Magazine detailed "lurid reports of financial misdealings, beatings, intimidation, brainwashing, and hints of murder," the prospect of Jones's apocalyptic message took hold, leading Jones and nine hundred congregants to relocate to the Jonestown settlement in Guyana. (37) Established originally as an agricultural commune, Guyana, like Ukiah, was chosen by Jones as a safe space to ride out nuclear destruction. By December 1977, however, the utopian drive that propelled construction of the community in Guyana became secondary to Jones's sudden move and the corresponding redemptive promise Jones offered his followers once they arrived in Guyana. In other words, where utopia once signaled efforts to redeem the world through social activism inspired by Christ's love, it now marked resignation of the world through the salvation-by-death promised by Jones's (re)positioning as God. By projecting this vision on the community, Jones veiled over the increasingly evident reality that the utopian impulse of Jonestown could not stand against the weight of his own paranoia, megalomania, and mental collapse, as well as the motivations that propelled the community initially: freedom from racism, the possibility for self-reliance mixed with communal responsibility, and the root Christian perspective that juxtaposed the actions and role of Jonestown with the conduct and encroachment of the outside world. Salvation, then, developed as a rhetorical and utopian device, a means to legitimate the active resignation of the present moment for reasons and motivations that often extended beyond the perceived religiosity of Jones and Jonestown.

To understand the nature and expression of this dynamic, it is necessary to view the tragic end of Jonestown, as David Chidester so cogently develops, as an act of "religious suicide" (38) among a "people who chose to negotiate their identities, and ultimately their salvation, within the terms and conditions provided by a shared worldview even when sometimes they might discredit Jones himself." (39) Justified within a religious orientation that rejected the potential to realize earthly transformation in favor of salvation in another plane, this shift, from utopian dream to dystopian reality, illustrates how the acceptance of "revolutionary suicide" extends beyond a "politically infused apocalyptic mentality." (40) While no doubt rhetorically influential, it was Jones's use of "utopia" within a millennial religiosity that helps us see why the communal project of Jonestown could not sustain the life instinct over the belief that death offered the only solution, both for those seeking spiritual salvation and those seeking refuge from a world broken by racism, inequality, and violence. As Richard Hall stresses, to understand Jones and Jonestown requires going beyond the "caricature of him" in order to see how "Peoples Temple was both utopia and anti-utopia." (41) To do so, however, also requires that we unpack the meaning of utopia itself, which exposes, in its very structure, not only the limits to concrete realization and the tendency to be overwhelmed by dystopian thinking but also the worldly and spiritual conditions that moved Jones and Peoples Temple toward death as a redemptive act.

Utopian Wishes, Dystopian Realities, Apocalyptic Results

While no single factor can fully account for nor explain Jonestown's suicidal turn, untwining the connection between utopian idealism and religious apocalypse ultimately helps us see, to borrow from scholar of new religions Lorne Dawson's analysis, how "the souls that Jones had lifted to a new self-respect and vision of hope could decide that it was better to die for their beliefs, and with their community, than to stand by and witness the defeat of their dreams and the destruction of their new extended family." (42) In this way, Jones's condemnation of the modern moment and simultaneous acceptance of freedom through apocalypse illustrates the very challenge of moving from a dystopian critique to utopia as a place of and for worldly and spiritual salvation. Contextualized within Christian frames regarding the end of days, Jones's devolution to a messianic God and the shift from worldly engagement to physical resignation in Jonestown illustrate the consequences of binding utopia to an apocalyptic religiosity. For Jones and Peoples Temple, apocalypticism was more than a religious frame--it was also a "social form," a method, as David Bromley outlines, to create "structural liminality." According to Bromley, "apocalyptic groups unequivocally reject the social order in which they reside and invest their loyalty and identity in a new order whose arrival they view as imminent and inevitable." (43) Yet as a liminal space, the precipice dividing a decrepit old order versus a new world to be remains tenuous at best; when combined with the utopian/dystopian interplay that helps propel groups to reject the current to actualize the new, the indeterminacy of when apocalypse will occur ultimately elevates a tendency for the critique to overwhelm and overtake the utopian hope. (44)

Rather than leading to the means for active reconstruction, the tendency for utopia to deconstruct demonstrates the demands burdened upon communities when they shift from what Frederic Jameson identifies as the "utopian wish" to "utopian form," from a "utopian impulse" to a "utopian vision." (45) Because the utopian wish calls for the construction of an alternative, it necessitates not only an outlining of one's dystopian nightmare, but also the active construction of eutopia, the willingness to extend beyond utopia, which, etymologically means "no place," (46) to a "good place," the meaning of eutopia. Yet it is precisely in the move from a project of hope to a concrete reality that often frustrates the process, a condition reified further when it operates through religious understandings that delineate between physical and spiritual salvation. Distinct from the constructive potential of "progressive millennialism," Catherine Wessinger stresses how "catastrophic millennialism is rooted not only in a pessimistic evaluation of human nature and society, but also the pervasive human tendency to think in dualistic categories ... [an] 'us versus them' mentality, which leads to belief in the necessity of battling evil located in the demonized other." (47) To see the world through this antagonistic frame of difference replaces the drive to realize utopia with the tendency to defend and oppose, ultimately elevating an obsession with the dystopian conditions driving the utopian wish as opposed to the realization of eutopia itself.

Highlighted in the interplay between Jones's dystopian assessment of modern American society and the redemption promised spatially in Jonestown and religiously through Jones, utopia begins with identifying the negative material conditions driving human society into states of crisis. "As a demodernizing movement," to borrow from James Davison Hunter's analysis of post-World War II new religions in America, Jonestown acts as a "sign that in some sectors of modern society, the strains of modernity have reached the limits of human tolerance, and are thus symbolic, at both the collective and the social-psychological levels, of the desire for relief and assuagement." (48) As an act of protest, the utopianism of new religions appeals to modern agents by transcending "the bland ordinariness and meaninglessness of everyday life," (49) ultimately helping both individuals and communities overcome crises of anxiety, conformity, and "homelessness" that many decry as the essential characteristics of the modern moment. (50)

To locate a better world--materially and spiritually--thus begins with an assessment of failure, a recognition against which the modern condition can be negated in favor of a higher state of being. (51) As Jameson develops, the dystopian assessment establishes the ground out of which a utopian wish, and then a eutopian project, can grow: "We need to get some idea of the specific situations and circumstances under which their composition is possible, situations which encourage this peculiar vocation or talent at the same time that they offer suitable materials for its exercise ... for the Utopian remedy must be a fundamentally negative one, and stand as a clarion call to remove and to extirpate this specific rot of all evil from which all the others spring." (52) Social theorist Herbert Marcuse furthers this notion of utopia as a "clarion call," demonstrating how the utopian impulse begins with a "Great Refusal," the recognition that "in the face of an amoral society, it [morality] becomes a political weapon, an effective force which drives people to burn their draft cards, to ridicule national leaders, to demonstrate in the streets, and to unfold signs saying, 'Thou shalt not kill,' in the nation's churches." Distinctly for Jones and Peoples Temple, wed as they were to an apocalyptic religiosity, any redemptive response to an "amoral society" necessitated more than a Great Refusal--it demanded, especially when compelled by God, the construction of a "new sensibility," what Marcuse defined as "the ascent of the life instincts over aggressiveness and guilt." (53) While Jones's and his congregants' precipitous move to Jonestown must be seen against a growing chorus of critiques, investigations, and a cultural backdrop that made California (and the United States broadly) no longer tenable to their religious worldview, the community itself, and the utopian vision of a better way to live, signals the simultaneous diagnosis of the ills plaguing contemporary society and the corresponding disclosure of a solution (in this case, religious) that furnishes another world aligned with Jones's utopian promise. However, as we will see, in locating death as the means to actualize life, Jones ultimately reveals the bounded nature of utopia, exposing how, in its very drive to offer an alternative, utopia inevitably fails by producing moments of reconciliation in which real-world solutions no longer accord with--or directly contradict--the initial utopian wishes of believers.

The shift from dystopian assessment to utopian wish to eutopian possibility traces the trajectory by which Jones's religious orientation solidified not only the conditions that would lead to mass suicide but also the baseline to develop an alternative way of actively living within (and against) the modern world. Drawing from the influential theory of utopia developed by Ernst Bloch, (54) Ruth Levitas points to the distinction between abstract and concrete utopia--the former suggesting a fantastical vision trapped within the imagination of the utopian and the latter able to overcome this limitation by adding the contingent expectation that utopia matters only when it moves into the realm of the material world. In other words, whereas abstract utopia reveals the negative dynamics that call for a utopian solution, concrete utopia locates the dimension necessary to make the vision realizable: hope. "Abstract utopia is fantastic and compensatory. It is wishful thinking," Levitas stresses. "Concrete utopia, on the other hand, is anticipatory ... only concrete utopia carries hope." (55)

Yet it is precisely this dynamic that captures why and how the utopianism of Jones and Jonestown was doomed to fail--hope, rather than being a drive to improve human society, became the means to legitimate a way beyond this world. It established the worldly and spiritual means to resign the potential for the here and now in favor of rewards in the hereafter; in this light, the utopian impulse that established the need for a community like Jonestown devolved into a dystopian assessment in which salvation through death solved the impossibility of actualizing and maintaining the concrete space of utopia. Once positioned as a religious act, suicide reflects an embrace of martyrdom, the belief presented by Jones and his followers that their choice, as Rebecca Moore develops, "bore witness to the depth of their commitment to and faith in socialism, that is, in their community and its goals." (56) Because "the act signifies hope for the future," the fruit of the martyr's act, as Terry Eagleton emphasizes, highlights "a truth and justice beyond the present." (57) In so doing, as Moore concludes, "unlike traitors who had apostatized, the martyrs [of Jonestown] chose loyalty over survival and sent a message to an uncaring world." (58)

In the early sermons and the final 1978 "Death Tape" that mark the beginning of Jones's ministry and the willful death of the group, the utopian wish is easy to encounter, illustrating how, from very early within his theological teachings, Jones both stressed the need to decry the modern moment and also envisioned a concrete solution. In discussing the orientation of Peoples Temple, Jones accentuated a utopian impulse grounded squarely within a reading of Christian socialism: "We're utopianist, in the terms of the acts of the Apostles, where, when they received their baptism of the Holy Spirit of their ineffable union with Christ, they shared and shared in every way ... instead of taking from our people, we give far more than we take." (59) The impulse to model a way of living predicated on Christ's teachings emboldened the utopian wish that propelled Peoples Temple from the urban scene of 1960s Indianapolis to the rural enclave of Ukiah and finally to their communal eutopia in Guyana. This ideal of modeling a response is captured tragically and profoundly in Richard Tropp's "suicide note," in which he not only informs his future reader that members of Peoples Temple "are proud to have something to die for" and that they "do not fear death," but, more distinctly perhaps, challenges his reader to not lose sight of the group's utopian wish. Tropp implores "the world," particularly in the aftermath of mass suicide, "to find a way to a new birth of social justice" by understanding Jonestown as modeling "the ideals of brotherhood, justice and equality that Jim Jones lived and died for." (60) Tropp hopes, in typical utopian fashion, that "if there is any way that our lives and the life of Jim Jones can ever help that take place, we will not have lived in [vain]." (61)

Like Jones, however, Tropp also identifies the move to suicide as one of necessity borne out by the conditions defining the modern moment. "We did not want this kind of ending," Tropp informs his reader. Suicide was never the aim of the group--rather "we wanted to live, to shine, to bring light to a world that is dying for a little bit of love." (62) When conditions made this impossible, the utopian wish folded in on itself, locating resignation as both a redemptive act to realize Christian salvation (or Jones's socialistic version of it) as well as a direct cure from the dystopian conditions defiling the modern moment. What mattered, in the end, was not what the group chose as its mechanism of release but rather the significance of its utopian wish. As Tropp appeals to his reader, "please try to understand. Look at all. Look at all in perspective. Look at Jonestown, see what we have tried to do--This was a monument to life, to the [re]newal of the human spirit, broken by capitalism, by a system of exploitation & injustice." (63) By positioning Jonestown as "a monument to life," Tropp addresses both the religious roots and fruits of Peoples Temple, as well as how the utopian wish could not overcome a dystopian world. Promoting the outlook that the communal space and its utopian aspirations matter more than the worldly outcome, Tropp, like Jones's declaration that Peoples Temple committed an "act of revolutionary suicide protesting the conditions of an inhumane world," (64) confirms Fredric Jameson's final determination that "at best Utopia can serve the negative purpose of making us more aware of our mental and ideological imprisonment ... and that the best Utopias are those that fail the most comprehensively." (65) In such a light, the experience, conditions, and understanding of utopia in Jonestown echo distinctly the dual sense of awareness and failure Jameson identifies.

Yet Tropp's comments also illustrate the counter-side to Jones's apocalyptic orientation and the continued value of the utopian wish, demonstrating how, for many members, the idea of Christian salvation was secondary to efforts to establish Jonestown as a model of and for compassionate worldly existence. While the surface image, and even this article, highlights the religiosity of Jonestown, Tropp helps us see how, even if doomed to fail, Jonestown in its entirety offers more than a lesson on the dynamics of religious salvation and suicide--it acts as a reminder that the pressures of living in the here and now do not negate the potential for a better future to come. Importantly, then, Tropp deconstructs the singular mythos of Jones and Jonestown by accentuating, as opposed to lamenting, the utopian wish that led many--regardless of faith--to leave the false security of America for the experimental potential of living in Guyana. The very entwining of socialism, utopianism, and religion thus extends beyond motifs of escapism, more directly reflecting how Jonestown's impetus and ending expressed a concerned desire to offer a meaningful response to a corrupt and broken world. Utopia offered community members hope; socialism presented a tool to move from wish to reality; but religion, while once the unifying tool for Peoples Temple, devolved into a device to legitimate the power and privilege of Jones by proclaiming to secure the socialistic aims of Jonestown in the exact moments where, for all involved, it became increasingly apparent that both internal and external pressures made the continuation of Jonestown impossible. For many, then, suicide expressed both worldly resignation and hope, the belief that the possibility of what Jonestown could have been matters more than the immediacy of their deaths. Religiously, however, suicide presented an absolute escape from both the evils of the world and the impossibility of realizing God's kingdom within the current space of human affairs. For those driven to Jonestown by religious impulse, and for those swayed by his varied forms of manipulation, Jones's reliance on apocalyptic motifs addressed simultaneously their fears of continuing with secular living and of experiencing spiritual salvation.

Informed that "there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved" (Acts 4:12), Christians operate through a singular referent, understanding how the passage to atonement and redemption is possible only through the figure of Jesus Christ. Embedded within this religious state, Jones's divine identification simply reroutes the trajectory, substituting a transcendent God/Christ with an immanent "God" in the personage of Jones. Moreover, while encouraged to live a life inspired by Christ, the faithful are ultimately promised a higher state of spiritual bliss removed from the confines of modernity and the sinful nature of humanity's carnal existence. Within the apocalyptic frames of Christian salvation, the final moment of judgment results in a condition in which "He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away" (Revelation 21:4). Told by Paul that such an experience accords with the divine truth that "our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself" (Philippians 3:20-21), the centrality of escaping this world for the spiritual kingdom of God only reifies millennial and apocalyptic thinking, manifesting in Christian claims, to borrow from a 1733 sermon by theologian Jonathan Edwards, that "to go to heaven, fully to enjoy God, is infinitely better than the most pleasant accommodations here." (66)

This is not to say Christians welcome death--as David Chidester importantly notes, Jones's elevation of death over life directly challenges "Paul's assessment that death was God's greatest and last enemy" (1 Corinthians 15:20-28). (67) However, in reorienting traditional salvation through the godliness of Jones, death became a shared--a socialistic--path toward individual salvation and worldly redemption; as with his belief that the baptism of the apostles produced a perfectly reciprocal and shared reality, Jones views death as the most complete expression of this socialistic redemption. (68) As Chidester details in his analysis of suicide as a sacred act, death becomes utopian in this divine way; it emerges as "the friend," "the victory" that "would be the common possession of all the members of the Peoples Temple." (69) Identifying himself as the site of and source for salvation, Jones declared without reservation, "I'm going to bring you victorious in life and victorious in the death of the great transition. I will have my way. Spirit of God, Body of God, Socialism!" (70) In sacralizing himself as God, Jones simultaneously repositioned the divine not as a transcendent source of creation but as an immanent ideal of human equality realized most fully through "the great transition," the moment of passing from life to death. To encounter God, then, is to experience reciprocity and equality; it is, to state it differently, to understand God not as a source but as a socialistic condition one can attain. By connecting the universal equality of socialism with the life and death contingency shared by all humans, death became a liberating force. For Peoples Temple, because death is "the one thing all human beings held in common," it came to be accepted, as Chidester underscores, "as a welcome release from the world, as a quiet rest, as the point of transition into the next life or another world." (71)

Once viewed this way, the proclamation in the Gospel of John that "I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die" (11:25-26) takes on a more immediate and concrete meaning through the utopian vision of Jones. While an intervention into traditional orthodoxy, Jones, and the apocalyptic failure of Jonestown's utopian dream, finds redemptive resonance within a revitalized Christian setting that reclaims the trauma and humanity of Peoples Temple. As Jonathan Z. Smith notes, while Jonestown's communal/socialistic approach to life and religiosity necessarily manifests in death, it nevertheless points to the "ordinary humanness of the participants in Jonestown's White Night." As Smith writes, "the destruction was intended to be total: men, women, children, animals, fish, and water supply--and this destruction alongside a deliberate presentation of utopian harmony--bodies lying together, 'arms around each other,' uniting the sexes, age groups, and races." (72) Reflecting Tropp's hope that Jonestown will be remembered beyond the moment of suicide, this final image of unity through death comes closest to actualizing the utopian wish of Jones's religious vision and Peoples Temple's communal project: it exemplifies both the socialist ideal of equality and the idealized Christian belief that all are equally saved through Christ (or, in this case, Jones).

The shift from seeking to actualize racial equality to seeking unitive salvation from this world redirected utopia from an ideal to strive for to a solitary and immediate act of redemption. Rather than a drive toward eutopia, or a realizable, concrete community, "many, perhaps most, of the adult participants understood the Jonestown mass suicide as a redemptive act," as David Chidester illustrates in his reading of Jones and Jonestown's religiosity. "This act, they thought, would redeem a fully human identity from the dehumanizing pull of an evil, capitalist world through a single superhuman act of self-sacrifice. In other words," as Chidester concludes, "suicide, or 'revolutionary suicide,' in Jonestown was meaningful for those who embraced it willingly, because it represented a superhuman act, recusing a human identity from dehumanization under the capitalist, racist, and fascist oppression they associated with America." (73) In positioning himself not only as the messiah for his Peoples Temple but also as "the spirit of socialism" who he happened "to be at this moment in time and space incarnated," Jones outlined not only a utopian wish but also a dystopian assessment of the social order. (74) To create the conditions to move from hope to reality, utopia itself functions through opposition, a condition reified in Jonestown by establishing the utopian solution as located exclusively in the salvation offered by Jones alone. Preaching in 1974, Jones decried anyone who still claimed belief in a "love God" when "one hundred million people--that is half the population of the United States--is going [sic] to die before Christmas." (75) Rejecting ostensibly those who still held to "that stupid carryover religion," Jones pushed his congregation into a new religiosity that, in being based within the familiar frames of their Christianity, allowed Jones to redefine both the root nature of Christian salvation and the utopian impetus for Jonestown's founding. (76)

In using utopia as a device of understanding, what we begin to witness is a transformation from a community of Christian activists to a model of revolutionary salvation. Where the utopian wish and impulse drove Jones and Peoples Temple first into politics and then efforts at constructing a more equitable and just world through the frames of the Jonestown community, it also redirected the site of utopia from worldly involvement to physical release. Through this redirection, utopia itself becomes not a drive for a better place but rather a solution that, for Jones and Peoples Temple, overcomes the dystopian conditions of neoliberal capitalism by tethering Christian salvation to redemption from America through the willful abdication of life and community. To realize the final utopian wish of Peoples Temple necessitated a resignation of the initial vision, replacing the potential to model a better world with the ability to rescue humanity by separating it entirely--through death--from America, which Jones viewed as "the biblical ancient Egypt, where the children of Israel found only a place of enslavement. America was the biblical Babylon, a place of exile, where refugees longed to return to Jerusalem. America was the imperial power of first-century Rome, identified in the New Testament Book of Revelation as the Anti-Christ, since America led the global, imperial crusade against God, Almighty Socialism." (77) By folding elements of the Cold War within the redemptive frames of Christianity, Jones not only located a solution to the mutually assured destruction promised by nuclear war but also reified the belief that traditional understandings of the divine misplace the site and expression of godly love.

Once manifested as a functioning commune of Christ love and social justice, by 1978, the utopian wish of Peoples Temple had devolved into a singular moment of final salvation made real through Jones as the embodiment of a unifying God. Theologically, Jones did not negate the monotheistic inclination of Peoples Temple but rather refocused it and redefined it. For Jones, a transcendent, mythological God represents another tool of the oppressive, capitalist system--God is not elsewhere but is ever-present "as love, as sharing, as socialism, as 'God, Almighty Socialism.'" (78) In reframing the site and expression of Christian divinity, Jones concurrently elevated his own status and promised followers the truest expression of Christian salvation: absolute equality before God and within the divine space. In other words, as Chidester emphasizes, "according to Jones, God was socialism. Accordingly, when he personally claimed to be God, the messiah, Jones could be understood to be asserting that he was an embodiment of this divine socialism. As he promised his congregation, they also could become like God, deified, by dying to capitalism in order to be reborn in socialism." (79) In this way, the utopian promise of Christianity (to be reconciled with Christ and God the Father), although beginning with a rejection of and attempt to overcome dystopian conditions, can only be actualized fully in the complete renunciation of this world. Like Christ's lamentation against a mad world, Jones saw physical death as the force to move from capitalistic aggression to socialistic peace.

Echoed within Christian beliefs regarding life beyond death--by directly embedding their worldly, political, and communal vision within a messianic religiosity--Jones distorted the idea, transforming socialism as a real-world expression of godly love and care to socialism as a divine condition actualized in the figure of Jones and realizable only in a moment of pure redemption. Such a condition ultimately legitimated suicide as the sacred solution to overcome capitalism by realizing the Christian ideal of reunion with God, of returning to the trusting hands of the Father, whom Jones had become in both a worldly and divine sense; for instance, Jones is identified and revered as "Dad" throughout the November 1978 "Death Tape." It also signaled, however, the belief that in a world that saw them as the "Cult of Death" (see the 1978 Time magazine cover), salvation for a "new heaven and a new earth" (Revelation 21:1) was obtainable only through escape and resignation. Recognizing and embracing how "the first heaven and the first earth were passed away" (Revelation 21:1), Jones insisted early in the "Death Tapes,"
For God's sake, let's get on with it. We've lived--we've lived as no
other people have lived and loved. We've had as much of this world as
you're gonna get. Let's just be done with it. Let's be done with the
agony of it... they took us and put us in chains ... they've robbed us
of our land, and they've taken us and driven us and we tried to find
ourselves. We tried to find a new beginning. But it's too late ... lay
down your life with dignity. Don't lay down with tears and agony.
There's nothing to death ... it's just stepping over into another
plane. Don't be this way. Stop this hysterics. This is not the way for
people who are Socialists and Communists to die ... we must die with
some dignity ... we will have no choice. Now we have some choice. (80)

In accepting this relationship between a dystopian modern world, a sacralized vision of a socialistic heaven, and Jones as the divine source of life and for salvation, "revolutionary suicide" manifested as the ultimate utopian act, a willful choice--a moment of pure agency--that allows the wish to become true and efficacious for believers.

The "Death Tapes" bear witness to this reality as followers of Jones alternate between praising "Dad" and lamenting against a corrupt world incapable of accepting their vision of a better world to be:
Woman 11: [weepy]--good to be alive today. I just like to thank Dad,
'cause he was the only one that stood up for me when I needed him. And
thank you, Dad ...
Man 4: ... And I'd just like to--to thank Dad for giving us life and
also death ...
Man 5: --hate and treachery. I think you--you people out here should
think about how your relatives were and be glad about, that the
children are being laid to rest. And all I'd like to say is that I
thank Dad for making me strong to stand with it all and make me ready
for it. Thank you ...
Woman 15: Everything we could have ever done, most loving thing all of
us could have done, and it's been a pleasure walking with all of you in
this revolutionary struggle. No other way I would rather go [sic] to
give my life for socialism, communism, and I thank Dad very, very much
Woman 16: Go unto the Zion, and thank you, Dad. (81)

Through these voices, we encounter a religious community bound by believers' faithful acceptance of both apocalyptic devolution as inevitable and, as a direct consequence, suicide as "an active rather than passive" ritual "continually practiced," as Rebecca Moore illustrates, "in thought, word, and deed." (82) The utopian wish to actualize a higher state of spiritual being found inflection within the redemption made possible through the active resignation of a broken world. Jonestown had not failed--rather, humanity and the modern moment had, leaving only reconciliation through death as the way beyond dystopia.

Conclusion: From Spectacle to Sacramental

To see the end of Jonestown as a type of sacramental rite, what Rebecca Moore calls the "sacrament of suicide," removes the act from the "spectacle" of its outcome to highlight the immediacy and limitations of its secular and religious aim. (83) In response to a fragmenting, corrupt, and immoral world, Jones and Peoples Temple confronted a sacred question, undertaking a journey to first identify and then solve the modern condition. In response to their dystopian assessment of both western civilization and traditional Christianity, Peoples Temple sought a "functional alternative ... capable of solving the problems of disjuncture by reintegrating the individual's life experience into coherent totality, thus protecting their members from the world, or providing them with adjustment for a renewed participation in the world." (84) Yet as with the realization that utopia's greatest success manifests in revealing society's most dystopian conditions, the drive for a functional alternative, and the uncertainty of the liminal space created as a result of rejecting both mainstream society as well as the sacred symbols of traditional Christianity, simply reified and amplified the very conditions of violence and control the group sought to solve.

Unable to overcome the impasse between identifying the problem and actualizing a sustained solution, the only "functional alternative" that remained as a means to inspire future hope--to maintain the utopian wish--was found through a willed "decision" of "revolutionary suicide." As Bill Oliver states clearly in his "Death Tape" confession, "My decision has been well thought out. I've been a member of Peoples Temple for seven years, and I know of the goodness. And in my death, I hope that it would be used as an instrument to further liberation." (85) Where a dystopian assessment of capitalism once called for socialistic living as the utopian expression of the sacred, it now functioned to position suicide as the ultimate utopian act. The individual identified as "Man 4" in the "Death Tapes" captures the conviction of this perspective, stressing, as his final message, that "I'd like to thank Dad for the opportunity for letting Jonestown be, not what it could be, [emphatic] but what Jonestown is. Thank you, Dad." (86) In positioning Peoples Temple, Jonestown, and even the act of suicide as the only response to a corrupt and immoral world, we are left, as Jonathan Z. Smith notes, with a "gesture designed to elicit shame ... by destroying all, by giving their all, they sought to call forth a reciprocal action." Helping us "catch a glimpse of the logic of their deed," as Smith concludes, (87) it is precisely in this call for reciprocity that we encounter how and why the utopian impulse could not sustain Peoples Temple. Established, set up, and conducted through an oppositional worldview, the call to see Jones and Peoples Temple as a model, as a real-world expression of what is and what could have been, ultimately helps us engage Jonestown neither as an example of the utopian tendency to fail, nor as a warning regarding the difficulties of communal living or the threat of devolving into "cults." Rather, what we encounter is an example of what occurs when religion, as opposed to operating for the here and now, finds itself coursing inevitably and uncontrollably toward an end-times scenario as the only means to first explain, and then be saved, from the corruption of this world.

To see religious time through a grand arc is to allow for adaptation and growth, but to see the apocalypse as imminent often compels believers to locate a place of and for safe passage--such a drive exposes not only the limits bound to dystopian thinking and utopian responses but also the complex reality that in Jonestown the spectacle of revolutionary suicide mirrors the violence, opposition, and othering that defined the base ethos of 1970s Western culture. While never losing sight of their desire to manifest a world free from racial bigotry and economic inequality, members of Jonestown found themselves bound to a religious orientation in which death was the means to life, in which salvation was predicated on a total break with the horrors of the modern (and for Jones, capitalistic) world. Although driven to improve the world, the dystopian conditions of modernity, along with the utopian idealism of Christian salvation in the hereafter, made community impossible and revolutionary suicide an expression of divine intervention in Jonestown.


(1) The author wishes to thank the editors of Communal Societies, Carol Medlicott, and Laura Johnston Kohl for her specific guidance--Laura's comments helped fill in necessary gaps and pushed this article into new and exciting places. I would also like to thank my Religious Studies 380: New Religions class from the spring 2018 semester at Michigan State University for inspiring the nature and aim of this article.

(2) Lance Morrow, "The Lure of Doomsday," Time, 4 December 1978, 6.

(3) John R. Hall, "The Apocalypse at Jonestown," in Cults and New Religious Movements: A Reader, ed. Lorne L. Dawson (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2003), 187. In an effort to adhere to Hall's warning, this article follows Jonathan Z. Smith's exhortation that "we make the effort of understanding" in relation to that which resides outside one's personal beliefs or beyond the normative standards constructed within a cultural setting. In Jonathan Z. Smith, "The Devil in Mr. Jones," in Imagining Religion: From Babylon to Jonestown (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982), 105.

(4) Hugh Urban, "Peoples Temple: Mass Murder-Suicide, the Media, and the 'Cult' Label," in New Age, Neopagan, and New Religious Movements: Alternative Spirituality in Contemporary America (Oakland: University of California Press, 2015), 245.

(5) See, for example, David Chidester, Salvation and Suicide: Jim Jones, The Peoples Temple, and Jonestown (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2003); John R. Hall, Gone from the Promised Land: Jonestown in American Cultural History (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 1987); Mary McCormick Maaga, Hearing from the Voices of Jonestown: Putting a Human Face on an American Tragedy (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1998); Rebecca Moore, "The Controversies about Peoples Temple and Jonestown," in Controversial New Religions, ed. James R. Lewis and Jesper Aa. Petersen (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014); and Catherine Wessinger, How the Millennium Comes Violently: From Jonestown to Heaven's Gate (New York: Seven Bridges, 2000).

(6) See Leigh Fondakowski, Stories from Jonestown (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013); Hall, "The Apocalypse at Jonestown," 186-88, 195-206; and Rebecca Moore, A Sympathetic History of Jonestown: The Moore Family Involvement in Peoples Temple, Studies in Religion and Society, vol. 14 (Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen Press, 1985).

(7) See, for example, Alternative Considerations of Jonestown and Peoples Temple, Department of Religious Studies, San Diego State University, accessed 18 March 2018,; and Rebecca Moore, "Narratives of Persecution, Suffering, and Martyrdom: Violence in Peoples Temple and Jonestown," in Violence and New Religious Movements (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011).

(8) "Peoples Temple," in New Religious Movements: A Documentary Reader, ed. Dereck Daschke and W. Michael Ashcraft (New York: New York University Press, 2005), 244.

(9) For a discussion of charisma and power, see Lorne Dawson, "Crises of Charismatic Legitimacy and Violent Behavior in New Religious Movements," in Cults, Religion, and Violence, ed. David G. Bromley and J. Gordon Melton (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 80-101; and Benjamin Zablocki, Alienation and Charisma (New York: Free Press, 1980).

(10) While this article highlights the limitations burdened onto intentional communities through utopian discourse and apocalyptic belief, it is important to recognize that the communal drive itself is utopian, often designed not only as a mark identifying the ills of a social order, but also the desire among participants to proactively model alternative ways of living. As Rosabeth Moss Kanter emphasizes, "Although most groups today refer to themselves as communes rather than utopian communities, I have retained the word 'utopian,' for I think that communal ventures represent not only alternatives to life in the dominant culture but also attempts to realize unique ideals, dreams, and aspirations." Kanter, Commitment and Community: Communes and Utopias in Sociological Perspective (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1972), viii.

(11) Jim Jones, "Sermon in Philadelphia, 1976," in Daschke and Ashcraft, New Religious Movements, 248.

(12) Tim Reiterman, Raven: The Untold Story of the Rev. Jim Jones and His People (New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher, 2008), 95.

(13) "Peoples Temple," in Daschke and Ashcraft, New Religious Movements, 242.

(14) "San Francisco Sermon, Annotated Transcript Q1059-1," Alternative Considerations of Jonestown and Peoples Temple, modified April 20, 2015,

(15) Jim Jones, "Political and Religious Lecture, October 15, 1974," in Daschke and Ashcraft, New Religious Movements, 247.

(16) Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple, directed by Stanley Nelson (PBS Home Video, 2006).

(17) Moore, "The Controversies about Peoples Temple and Jonestown," 55.

(18) "Peoples Temple," in Daschke and Ashcraft, New Religious Movements, 242.

(19) Reiterman, Raven, 148.

(20) For example: "Despite its efforts to eliminate racial inequity in the world, Peoples Temple fell short of this goal in its own organizational structure, as almost no high-level positions were held by nonwhites, despite the fact that African Americans made up the majority of the community. Jones also focused increasingly on sex as a matter of control." "Peoples Temple," in Daschke and Ashcraft, New Religious Movements, 243.

(21) Hall, "The Apocalypse at Jonestown," 206; see also Rebecca Moore, "'American as Cherry Pie': Peoples Temple and Violence in America," in Millennialism, Persecution, and Violence: Historical Cases, ed. Catherine Wessinger (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2000), 121-37. In their study of "cults and new religions," Douglas Cowan and David Bromley note the importance that new religions assume as a "lens on the dominant social order ... how a particular society treats minority faiths says much about the history, structure, and values of that society." Douglas E. Cowan and David G. Bromley, Cults and New Religions: A Brief History (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2015), 196.

(22) "Peoples Temple," in Daschke and Ashcraft, New Religious Movements, 243.

(23) See, for example, James H. Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree (Ossining, NY: Orbis Books, 2013); Jeannine Hill Fletcher, The Sin of White Supremacy: Christianity, Racism, and Religious Diversity in America (Ossining, NY: Orbis Books, 2017); and Jim Wallis, America's Original Sin: Racism, White Privilege, and the Bridge to a New America (Grand Rapids, IA: Brazos Press, 2017).

(24) Howard Thurman, Jesus and the Disinherited (Boston: Beacon Press, 1996); see also, James H. Cone, A Black Theology of Liberation (Ossining, NY: Orbis Books, 2010) and Black Theology & Black Power (Ossining, NY: Orbis Books, 2013); and Gayraud S. Wilmore, Black Religion and Black Radicalism: An Interpretation of the Religious History of African Americans (Ossining, NY: Orbis Books, 2006).

(25) "Peoples Temple," in Daschke and Ashcraft, New Religious Movements, 241.

(26) Moore, "The Controversies about Peoples Temple and Jonestown," 53.

(27) Hall, "The Apocalypse at Jonestown," 188.

(28) In order to engage Peoples Temple with nuance, Urban argues that we cannot see the events in Guyana in isolation, nor as a representative event. Within religious history, and more importantly within the recent history of new religious movements, Peoples Temple was not unique in connecting apocalyptic thinking to worldly violence/suicide. Urban identifies specifically Heaven's Gate, the Order of the Solar Temple, the Branch Davidians, and Aum Shinrikyo as other examples. Urban, "Peoples Temple: Mass Murder-Suicide, the Media, and the 'Cult' Label," 244-45.

(29) Smith, "The Devil in Mr. Jones," 106; see also Caroline Bird, "Nine Places to Hide: The Small World is Getting Smaller," Esquire, January 1962, 55-57, 128-32.

(30) Jim Jones, "Interview on Ukiah Radio Station, May 10 or 11, 1973," in Daschke and Ashcraft, New Religious Movements, 244-46.

(31) Reiterman, Raven, 95.

(32) Smith, "The Devil in Mr. Jones," 106.

(33) "Peoples Temple," in Daschke and Ashcraft, New Religious Movements, 243.

(34) Jones, "Sermon in Philadelphia, 1976," 248-49.

(35) "Peoples Temple," in Daschke and Ashcraft, New Religious Movements, 242.

(36) For a more thorough discussion of the controversies and abusive practices connected to Peoples Temple and Jones prior to 1978, see Hall, Gone from the Promised Land; and Moore, "The Controversies about Peoples Temple and Jonestown," 55-65.

(37) Smith, "The Devil in Mr. Jones," 107. For a broader discussion of the circumstances surrounding Jones and Peoples Temple, including conspiracy theories about their move, conduct, and time in Jonestown, see Rebecca Moore, "Reconstructing Reality: Conspiracy Theories About Jonestown," Journal of Popular Culture 36, no. 2 (Fall 2002): 200-220.

(38) Catherine L. Albanese and Stephen J. Stein, foreword to David Chidester, Salvation and Suicide: Jim Jones, The Peoples Temple, and Jonestown (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2003), ix. It is important to note that not all viewed "suicide" as a religious, sacred, or utopian act. Survivor Tim Carter contends that Jonestown should be viewed as a massacre, not a religious act: "We were just fucking slaughtered," Carter emphasized. "There was nothing dignified about it. Had nothing to do with revolutionary suicide, nothing to do about making a fucking statement. It was just senseless waste, senseless waste and death." Tim Carter, "Murder or Suicide? What I Saw," in Alternative Considerations of Jonestown and Peoples Temple, accessed April 22, 2018,; see also Urban, "Peoples Temple: Mass Murder-Suicide, the Media, and the 'Cult' Label," 259-60.

(39) Chidester, Salvation and Suicide, xiii.

(40) Hall, "The Apocalypse at Jonestown," 188.

(41) Ibid., 188.

(42) Lorne L. Dawson, Comprehending Cults: The Sociology of New Religious Movements (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), 156; see also Duchess Harris and Adam John Waterman, "To Die for the Peoples Temple: Religion and Revolution after Black Power," in Peoples Temple and Black Religion in America, ed. Rebecca Moore, Anthony B. Pinn, and Mary R. Sawyer (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2004), 103-22.

(43) David G. Bromley, "Constructing Apocalypticism: Social and Cultural Elements of Radical Organization," in Millennium, Messiahs, and Mayhem: Contemporary Apocalyptic Movements, ed. Thomas Robbins and Susan J. Palmer (New York: Routledge, 1997), 33; see also Debra Bergoffen, "The Apocalyptic Meaning of History" and Charles Lippy, "Waiting for the End: The Social Context of American Apocalyptic Religion," in The Apocalyptic Vision of America, ed. Lois Zamora (Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green University Popular Press, 1982); and Krishan Kumar, "Apocalypse, Millennium and Utopia Today," in Apocalypse Theory and the Ends of the World, ed. Malcomb Bull (Cambridge: Blackwell, 1995).

(44) Bromley identifies this interplay between deconstruction and reconstruction as the mark that determines the ability for groups to transition out of apocalypse and thus reintegrate with mainstream culture. See Bromley, "Constructing Apocalypticism," 41-43.

(45) Fredric Jameson, Archaeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions (New York: Verso, 2007), 1-9.

(46) Utopia derives from the Greek words ou ("not") and topos ("place"); it is often therefore translated as "not a place."

(47) Catherine Wessinger, "Millennialism With and Without the Mayhem," in Millennium, Messiahs, and Mayhem: Contemporary Apocalyptic Movements, ed. Thomas Robbins and Susan J. Palmer (New York: Routledge, 1997), 50.

(48) James Davison Hunter, "The New Religions: Demodernization and the Protest against Modernity," in Cults in Context: Readings in the Study of New Religious Movements, ed. Lorne L. Dawson (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction, 2012), 109-10.

(49) Hunter, "The New Religions: Demodernization and the Protest against Modernity," 111.

(50) See, for example, Paul Goodman, Growing Up Absurd (New York: Vintage, 1956); Peter Berger, Brigitte Berger, and Hansfried Kellner, The Homeless Mind (New York: Vintage, 1974); Erich Fromm, To Have or To Be? (New York: Bantam, 1976); Herbert Marcuse, One-Dimensional Man (Boston: Beacon, 1964); David Riesman, The Lonely Crowd (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1966); and Lionel Trilling, Sincerity and Authenticity (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1972).

(51) Jameson, Archaeologies of the Future, 11.

(52) Jameson, Archaeologies of the Future, 11-12.

(53) Herbert Marcuse, An Essay on Liberation (Boston: Beacon Press, 1969), 8, 21, 37.

(54) Ernst Bloch, The Spirit of Utopia (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2000).

(55) Ruth Levitas, "Educated Hope: Ernst Bloch on Abstract and Concrete Utopia," Utopian Studies 1, no. 2 (1990): 14-15.

(56) Moore, "Narratives of Persecution, Suffering, and Martyrdom: Violence in Peoples Temple and Jonestown," 109.

(57) Terry Eagleton, Holy Terror (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), 99; see also Mark Jurgensmeyer, Terror in the Mind of God: The Global Rise of Religious Violence (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003); and Jessica Stern, Terror in the Name of God: Why Religious Militants Kill (New York: Ecco, 2003).

(58) Moore, "Narratives of Persecution, Suffering, and Martyrdom: Violence in Peoples Temple and Jonestown," 109.

(59) Jones, "Interview on Ukiah Radio Station, May 10 or 11, 1973," 246.

(60) Richard Tropp, "Suicide Note: Nov. 18, 1977 [sic]--The Last Day of Peoples Temple," in Daschke and Ashcraft, New Religious Movements, 252.

(61) Ibid.

(62) Ibid., 253.

(63) Ibid.

(64) Last words on the "Death Tape," FBI No. Q042 (18 November 1978).

(65) Jameson, Archaeologies of the Future, xiii.

(66) Jonathan Edwards, The Works of President Edwards in Four Volumes, a reprint of the Worcester Edition Vol. IV (New York: Leavitt, Trow & Co., 1843), 578.

(67) Chidester, Salvation and Suicide, 123.

(68) We should note that Paul also discusses the dynamics of what is gained vis-a-vis life versus death when it comes to Christ: "For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better" (Philippians 1:21-23).

(69) Chidester, Salvation and Suicide, 123.

(70) Ibid.

(71) Ibid.

(72) Smith, "The Devil in Mr. Jones," 111, 118.

(73) Chidester, Salvation and Suicide, xviii.

(74) Jones, "Political and Religious Lecture, October 15, 1974," 247.

(75) Ibid.

(76) Ibid., 248.

(77) Chidester, Salvation and Suicide, xix.

(78) Ibid., xviii.

(79) Ibid.

(80) "The 'Death Tape,' November 18, 1978," in Daschke and Ashcraft, New Religious Movements, 250. Richard Tropp echoes this sentiment in his "suicide note," understanding death as passing "over to peace." Tropp, "Suicide Note: Nov. 18, 1977 [sic]--The Last Day of Peoples Temple," in Daschke and Ashcraft, New Religious Movements, 253.

(81) "The 'Death Tape,' November 18, 1978," in Daschke and Ashcraft, New Religious Movements, 250-51.

(82) Moore, "Narratives of Persecution, Suffering, and Martyrdom: Violence in Peoples Temple and Jonestown," 109.

(83) Ibid.

(84) Hunter, "The New Religions: Demodernization and the Protest against Modernity," 114.

(85) "FBI Audiotape Q 245," in Alternative Considerations of Jonestown and Peoples Temple, accessed 22 April 2018,

(86) "The 'Death Tape,' November 18, 1978," in Daschke and Ashcraft, New Religious Movements, 250.

(87) Smith, "The Devil in Mr. Jones," 120.
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Author:Shipley, Morgan
Publication:Communal Societies
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Date:Dec 1, 2018
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