40 Years Later: How We Talk About Jonestown And Why It Matters

Joseph Laycock | 19 November 2018

American History | Religious History | Modern History | Media History

On November 18, 1978, over 900 members of The Peoples Temple died in mass murder/suicide in “Jonestown,” a colony they had built in the jungles of Guyana.  Jonestown remains one of the most disturbing and perplexing events in study of contemporary religion.  While sociologists and religion scholars have spent decades analyzing the factors that contributed to this tragedy, the public has often regarded it as a simplistic, even risible, event.  Not only has a complex event been dismissed with facile explanations, but these facile explanations have become a lens through which contemporary controversies are regarded.

The violent end of Jonestown was the culmination of years of paranoia toward the U.S. government and the forces of racism and capitalism stoked by the Temple’s leader, Jim Jones.  After the murder of Congressman Leo Ryan, who had arrived the previous day to inspect “Jonestown,” the end of the colony was imminent.  Facing the destruction of everything they had built and fearing their children would be taken and “brainwashed” by capitalists, the community’s leaders decided to enact a plan of “revolutionary suicide” by consuming a cocktail of Flavor-aid, cyanide, and other drugs.  While many drank this substance willingly, it was also squirted into the mouths of children with syringes and there is evidence that some were forcibly injected.

Jonestown occurred within the larger cultural context of “the cult wars.”  U.S. immigration laws changed in 1965, allowing an influx of people from South Asia and East Asia that brought with it such new religions as the Unification Church (founded in 1954 by Sun Myung Moon) and the International Society of Krishna Consciousness (founded in 1966 by A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada).  Combined with the counter-culture of the 1960s, it seemed to some Americans that religious “cults” were suddenly taking over the country.  Many medicalized these new religions, claiming that converting to them amounted to a sort of disease of the mind.

“Brainwashing,” a term popularized by the Cold War, became a lens through which these new religions were understood.  The tragedy at Jonestown energized the “anti-cult movement.”  Critics of new religious movements felt that all their claims about mind-control and the inherent destructiveness of these groups had been proven correct.  Unfortunately, this narrative hindered more rigorous analysis of why the event happened and led to unwarranted stigmatising of new religions.

In time, the Jonestown massacre became metonymy for the idea of mind-controlled people.  The phrase “drink the Kool-aid”––in addition to being historically inaccurate––became a way of dismissing someone’s worldview by framing it as illegitimate and unworthy of debate.  Rebecca Moore, who lost two sisters in Guyana, notes that Jonestown has become a way of talking about any community deemed deviant or destructive and implying it will come to a similar end.  In a recent essay, she coined the term “Jones’s Corollary to Godwin’s Law.”  “Godwin’s Law” states that, “[A]s online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison to Nazis or Hitler approaches one.”

In most (but not all) arguments, invoking the Nazis and the Holocaust creates such an extreme comparison that it stifles analysis.  Jones’ Corollary holds that discussion of new religious movements begins with a comparison to Jonestown, presenting the most extreme example as somehow commonplace.  ISIS has been interpreted through the lens of Jonestown.  In 2013, when conservative Pundit Glenn Beck announced his plans to build a community called Independence, U.S.A., it was immediately decried as “the next Jonestown.”

These comparisons matter.  Discussing the 1993 immolation of the Branch Davidian headquarters in Waco, Texas, anti-cult psychologist Margaret Singer wrote, “For me, Waco was a replay of Jonestown.”  During a standoff between the Branch Davidians and federal authorities, speculation that the Branch Davidians were planning a “mass suicide” similar to the one in Jonestown was a factor in the decision to end negotiations and attempt a “dynamic entry.”  Equating Waco with Jonestown became a self-fulfilling prophecy as the dynamic entry set the stage for the fires that ultimately killed 83.  Forty years later, we have far more data about what happened at Jonestown, yet we still invoke facile explanations of the tragedy that are not only insensitive but potentially dangerous.

Joseph Laycock is an assistant professor of religious studies at Texas State University and a co-editor of the journal Nova Religio. His research interests include American religious history, new religious movements, and moral panic.