Religious Pluralism - Freedom of Choice or Opportunity to Impose: Tragedy on The People's Temple

The film documentary “Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples’ Temple” directed by Stanley Nelson covers the rise and fall of the Christian socialist church, Peoples’ Temple, led by the preacher Jim Jones. Although other religious movements did not have an extreme falling, they did also demonstrate the desire of to incorporate new ideas and values. In accordance to the time’s social and religious state, people sought for new religious answers by means of exploring cultural and religious pluralism in response to the social upheaval and leads to the demise for some religious movements such as the Peoples Temple.

The social and cultural state of the 1970s contributed to the growing belief in which people felt that America was paying for their acts of immorality. Mistrust of the government grew as due to a loss of faith in political leadership. Many well-reputed political leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, and the Kennedy Brothers were assassinated, contributing to the rise of social tension. Meanwhile, other political figures such as President Nixon caused political instability as of result of controversies such as the Watergate scandal. The former political figures were symbols for equality and justice therefore their assassination in addition to the growing number of immoralities caused by the latter government officials resulted in heightening the distrust of the government. 

In terms of the economic angle, there were several historical events that caused further loss of the government’s credibility, including the Vietnam war and the Cold War. These events contributed to serious inflation which resulted in widespread poverty. As the Peoples Temple member, Neva Sly Hargrave, described, “The government was not taking care of the people. There were too many poor people out there… and poor children.” As a result, the American public essentially perceived the government as fiscally irresponsible.

During this social upheaval, many people felt desperate and helpless and thus turned to new religious answers as guidance by exploring cultural and religious pluralism and denomination switching. The preacher, Jim Jones, explored Christian socialism by the integration of socialist economic policies, which advocate for the means of production and distribution to be regulated by the people, with the religious values and principles of Christianity. This allowed Jones to offer religious guidance by virtue of a powerful sense of community.

He did not show prejudice against African-Americans, but rather encouraged a large diverse range of people from all backgrounds to attend church construing a message of racial equality. Jones received backlash from the white community against the integration of African-Americans into the church in Indianapolis which ultimately prompted Jones to move to a more liberal area in Northern California in Redwood Valley. Jones’s decision to move away due to the racial divide arguably strengthened his reputation as a caring and sincere person which serves significant because Jones’s characteristics and core values are laid down the foundation which attracted his following.

Jones achieved identification with the members of the church by portraying himself as one of them. In the film’s archival, he states, “As a child, I was undoubtedly one of the poor in the community, never accepted. Born as it were on the wrong side of the tracks.” By sharing his experience, he is able to find commonalities with his audience and establish the same core values, attitudes, and ideas thus being perceived as somebody who truly understood them and the struggles of poverty and racial prejudice they were facing, as demonstrated when a Peoples Temper member, Jims Jones Jr., stated, “He talked black… He really understood how it was to be treated differently. And that’s from his roots coming out Lynn.”

The socialist facet of the church was especially appealing to Jones’s audience because it heavily relied on the community as a whole to functionally operate. As Deborah Layton, a member of the Peoples Temple, described it, every individual felt like they had a purpose at the temple and that they were special. This attracted young college students and older black women, creating a diverse population by which socialism was propelled and reinforced through the sense of community.

Since the church’s foundation relied on community regulation, the church members were always busy and got little to no sleep. The lack of sleep in combination with Jones being held to a level of adoration blurred the members’ ability to reason. As member Hue Fortson Jr. described it, “ tend to not really think for yourself. And I did allow Jones to think for me because I figured that he had the better plan.” The church had reinforced a culture through the sense of community which essentially acted as a veil that excused several questionable actions and violations of morality codes carried out by Jim Jones such as his adulterous relationship, and his claim that he was the only heterosexual on the planet.

After the church moved to Jonestown, Guyana in South America, Jones was able to monopolize the church within an environment he could have total control over. For instance, there was a speaker system and only Jones would speak on it for twenty-four hours a day with the use of tapes. Jones’s monopoly came in many forms which continued to shape the members’ perception of him and eventually lead to their own demise.

As rumors of abuse and forced residency had made its way to the United States through the church members’ relatives, the arrival of Congressman Leo Ryan and reporters traveling to Jonestown to investigate prompted many temple members’ desire to leave. After the murder of Congressman Leo Ryan, Jim Jones encouraged everyone to commit suicide, “All right, let us not fall into in the hands of the enemy… Die with respect, die with a degree of dignity. It’s nothing to death, it’s just stepping over into another plane.” The majority of members committed suicide collectively as of result of the chaotic ambiance, blurred reasoning, and the perception that Jones was attempting to guide them toward the right path.

Other religious movements of the time also explored religious and cultural pluralism. Similar to Peoples Temple, Heaven’s Gate was also an extreme case which resulted in mass suicide. However, there were other religious movements including the popularization of eastern religions such as Hinduism, which was ultimately popularized because of The Beatles. The popularization of these religious movements are a reflection of the social upheaval occurring in which more people were trying to incorporate new ideas and experiment with different ideologies because many disliked American values in accordance to the social, cultural, and economic state of the country.

The People's Temple is part of the religious movements of the time because it exemplifies how people were in a significant state of desperation and sought new religious answers. Jim Jones offered an environment free of judgment and prejudice while enforcing a community-regulated system, influenced by the economic principles of socialism. The Peoples Temple made their members feel significant and purposeful, thereby giving a sense of guidance, but ultimately ended in a mass suicide as of result of the tight monopoly Jones held over the community. Nevertheless, the Peoples Temple is also a reflection of the public’s desire to find direction and support in consequence to the country’s social upheaval.


  1. Nelson, Stanley, Marcia A. Smith, W N. Walker, Michael Chin, Tom Phillips, and Lewis Erskine. Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple. Alexandria, Va.: PBS Home Video, 2007.
  2. Hungate, Adam. Lecture. “American Civilization.” History 146. California State University, San Bernardino. 2019
07 July 2022
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