Peoples Temple

   The short-lived Peoples Temple, founded in 1955 by Rev. Jim Jones (1931-78), is best known for its tragic end, when 900 members (and a party accompanying Congressman Leo J. Ryan [1925-78]) died in a massive act of murder-suicide in Guyana on November 17, 1978. The subsequent use of the Peoples Temple as the model of a "cult" has obscured its previous history.
   As a young minister in Indianapolis, Indiana, Jim Jones emerged as a messenger of social change with an emphasis on the church's concern for the poor and outcast. To some African Americans in the city, he offered hope, brotherhood, and socialism. His message came out of the Social Gospel movement of the early 20th century. In 1964, Jones was ordained in and brought his church into the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). The Christian Church was a member of the National Council of Churches and the World Council of Churches, and the association gave Jones access to the ecumenical world of liberal Protestantism. The congregation moved to ukiah, California, in 1965, and actively participated in the ecumenical activities of the California Council of Churches. In the mid-1970s, the Peoples Temple impressed the more socially active in the American Protestant community, and several denominational bodies held it up as a model of socially aware Christianity.
   The Disciples of Christ, as a liberal, non-creedal (without a formal statement of belief), and loosely organized body with a congregational POLITY, was and remains home to a wide spectrum of belief. A number of its ministers prior to World War II saw socialism as the practical expression of the kingdom of God on earth; in the 1970s they embraced liberation theology, a form of theology in dialogue with Marxism. As such, when Jones began to speak on such themes, his message resonated with one wing of contemporary Protestant church life.
   By the early 1970s, the Peoples Temple was holding Sunday services in several California cities, with a remnant in Indiana. In 1972, Jones leased land in rural Guyana and started a farming community. over the next few years, however, the temple became the object of several government criminal investigations. Former members filed complaints that they had been attacked, or that children under the temple's care were being abused. By 1977, the lawsuits and media exposés convinced Jones to move to the site in Guyana, eventually bringing more than 900 followers to settle there. Meanwhile, the congregations in California continued to gather regularly.
   In light of these challenges, the group's leadership became ever more doubtful that the temple had a future. The visit of Congressman Ryan, even though conducted on outwardly friendly terms, seemed to be the final threat. Ryan and his companions were murdered, and nearly all the members died in a massive episode of murder and suicide. The deaths represent a case of what is termed revolutionary suicide.
   After the deaths, the members still in California moved to dissolve the temple formally. People who lost family members and close friends in Guyana and former temple members still gather annually to remember and mourn.
   Though called a cult, the Peoples Temple came from within the mainstream Protestant community. The tragedy in Guyana has joined similar incidents in other religious communities as an object of consideration by those who would prevent similar occurrences in the future.
   Further reading:
   ■ David G. Bromley and J. Gordon Melton, Cults, Religion and Violence (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002)
   ■ John R. Hall, Gone From the Promised Land: Jonestown in American Cultural History (New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction Books, 1987)
   ■ Mary McCormick Maaga, Hearing the Voices of Jonestown (Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1998)
   ■ Rebecca Moore, Sympathetic History of Jonestown: The Moore Family Involvement in People's Temple (Lewiston, N.Y.: Edwin Mellen Press, 1985)
   ■ Catherine Wessinger, How the Millennium Comes Violently: From Jonestown to Heaven's Gate (New York: Seven Bridges Press, 2000).

Encyclopedia of Protestantism. . 2005.

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