Almost since the beginning of history of human civilization, the question of what, or rather - in whom - people should believe, has been rather prominent. The question regarding how this belief should be manifested was almost as important. Consequently, the history of these two questions appearing in human societies throughout their social evolution is very dense, and very violent, as this theoretically rather impersonal question would actually become very personal in practice. This essay will discuss one such case of socio-religious questions turning violent - the case of Jim Jones, his Jonestown and his People's Temple - and will try to explain as to why this movement, concerned with social welfare and racial integration, came to such a tragic end in terms of social history.
To do that, we shall examine the People's Temple movement from various structural viewpoints, using such well-known sociologists as Stark, Weber and Wilson as our guiding lines.
CULTURE: People's Temple movement began in the United States of America in 1950s-1960s. It was a time when Americans were struggling with the matters of social welfare, and the issue of race muddled things even further; the matter of socio-racial segregation is just one of the examples of this time; anyhow, even with the subject of race aside, the society in the US in the middle of the twentieth century was quite different from modern times, much more chaotic and disorganized. Therefore, it was quite natural that when Jim Jones' movement began to follow the lines of Gospel of Mathew, chapter 25, and support the poor and otherwise socially dissatisfied people, the latter went flocking to him... and to similar establishments, such as the Peace Mission of Father Divine, whose preaching style and charitable nature obviously had influenced Jones' own.
Coincidentally, in 1970s, the last decade when the People's Temple movement existed, it went just as strongly: "the People's Temple membership rose to between three thousand and five thousand members; the Temple claimed a total membership of twenty thousand" (Chidester 8). American people are not that naОve and they would not have joined the Temple if it was not what it was supposed to be - a vessel of social welfare and racial integration; so, once again, how did it go so wrong, how did it shift from being intent on making the world a better place to just leaving it by committing suicide? From a cultural perspective, people in the movement did not develop deterioration of personalities as the time went on, or even if they did, they seem to have changed, or even left the movement, because of Jim Jones, who did change, and apparently profoundly so, through the years. However, since he is the most obvious culprit for the tragic end of his movement, we will leave him for last.
IDEOLOGY: Evidently, every religion needs good, solid religious ideology as one of its initial components. Metaphorically speaking, ideology acts as a nucleus or a spine of the religious movement and it is the source of religious strength of the movement's members when they are confronted with the pressure or persecution from outside. This pressure or persecution manifests itself in a certain "holier-than-thou" attitude of the movement's members, because they are "holier" than their opposition, at least in their own eyes.
On a more mature note, it happened to be, that every new religious movement, from antiquity to modern times, could be considered not just a spiritual, but also a social challenge to the greater society. By claiming that they are "holier" than their official opposition, the newcomers literally challenge not only the official faith, but also the state that sponsors that faith. Whether the movement is led by Jesus, or Mohammed, or Joseph Smith, it is always a challenge to the official government body of the country, whether it is a Roman province of Judea or an Arab town in the Medieval Middle East, or the nineteenth century United States.
However, here we once again come to a bit of controversy. As an individual, Jim Jones clearly had a bone of contention to pick with the official Christian clergy (Chidester 2), but the People's Temple as a whole did not so readily fit into the mould of a new cult or sect challenging the official church; indeed "In 1960 the People's Temple was accepted as a congregation in the Christian Church, Disciples of Christ" (Chidester 5): i.e., unlike the new religions of the past, from Judaism to Buddhism to Mormonism, People's Temple movement, though it was determined to improve the world, did not seek to change it in a revolutionary fashion of a "genuine" new faith; rather, despite Jim Jones' statements, it appears that the movement per se saw itself as a part of the Christian church, even if as just a more marginal and non-conformist part. Thus, once again we see a sort of a disagreement between Jim Jones' own character and the people he led.
INTERNAL INFRASTRUCTURE: Unsurprisingly, while religious or any other ideology of faith is the backbone of a new religious movement, its internal infrastructure can be compared to the rest of a skeletal framework. In effect, any social movement, including a newly invented religious one, must have a very definitive internal social organization, as shown by the ancient Hebrews, for example. Internal organization is vital in a hostile world - but the world of the People's Temple movement was not seriously hostile to them; not as a movement, though individually, it could have been another story.
So then, why did they leave the USA, where they were making an impact on a greater world around them, to Guyana, to live in isolation? Chidester gives an answer: "Exodus to Guyana became an increasingly attractive option for the People's Temple during 1977, as journalists Marshall Kilduff and Phil Tracy prepared to publish an exposИ on the movement in New West magazine" (9). The exposИ may have been around the movement as a whole, but it was led or spearheaded by Jim Jones, as well as it was his idea to transfer his people to Guyana for real - after he had heard the exposИ draft. Consequently, despite all the attempts to prevent any possible "demonization" of Jones, it seems that it was he, his character and his personality that led to the downfall of Peoples' Temple.
LEADERSHIP: When a religious movement is still at the level of a cult or a sect, rather than an official, fully-empowered-by-the-state church, the role of a leader is very important in its social development: at the initial state the leader is practically equal to the church in the eyes of his or her flock, because it is he or she who brings forth the new church into the world and prophesies change in which his or her followers will be rewarded, while the rest of the old, sinful world perishes. A leader's job is to lead his or her followers, sure enough, but it does put a lot of pressure on the person, partially because a new religious group is breaking away from the old socio-religious tradition that makes the official church groups run more or less smoothly, as well as it makes a church's leadership less personal than a smaller sect's or cult's. Moreover, as the above socio-religions discussion have shown, the problem did not lie in the movement's interaction with the rest of the world, or even between the lesser members, but within Jim Jones, who seemed to be somewhat at odds regarding who he actually was, and who he was supposed to be.
Or maybe - between the person he was and the person he was turning into. "During the early 1970s the People's Temple membership rose to between three thousand and five thousand members; the Temple claimed a total membership of twenty thousand" (Chidester 8). Obviously, the bulk of these members had been recruited in the previous decades, but even in the 1970s, the last decade of the movement's existence, when Jim Jones began to think openly about the possibility of suicide, the movement was going quite strong. In addition, why should not it be so? The Temple was doing good deeds; indeed, it had found a perfect social niche for itself, feeding the poor, smoothing down the coarseness of racial interactions, caring about the unwanted members of the greater society, and so on. Things were going well, at least until the exposИ, but even before that, Jim Jones grew increasingly paranoid, and possibly - power-hungry. In nonprofessional terms, it means that he might have mentally broken down despite his movement's success. And consequently, he used his still-great influence over his movement, to move them from the US to Guyana, thus going against his own initial preaching - and once that stage was reached, a tragedy of some sort became unavoidable, as Jones clearly became obsessed with suicidal ideas by 1977-8.
As this essay mentioned several times before, this essay's goal is not to demonize Jim Jones or turn the Jonestown tragedy as a whole into some sort of "pornography". Instead, it did its best to explain in socio-historical terms why the People's Temple movement failed so badly, but the facts still show that the movement failed only because its leader has failed at a critical stage in the movement's development, thus perhaps preventing the world from becoming a better place.