Thinking about the Rev. Jim Jones: A classic example of why religion reporters are important

You could make a strong case that started with the Jonestown Massacre.

Yes, this massacre — a mass “revolutionary suicide” of 900-plus — took place in 1978 and this website launched in 2004.

What’s the connection? Well, in the late 1970s I was trying to work my way into the world of religion writing. I was already talking to the people who would serve as my links to that field — like Louis Moore, then of the Houston Chronicle, the late George Cornell of the Associated Press and others.

When Jonestown took place, here is what I heard these pros saying: This tragedy was the biggest story in the world. Why didn’t editors realize that this was a religion story? Why didn’t major news organizations assign religion-beat specialists to the teams covering this hellish event?

Why didn’t they get it?

There was no logical explanation for this gap in the coverage (especially in network television). To me, it seemed that newsroom managers were saying something like this: This story is too important to be a religion story. This is real news, bizarre news, semi-political news. Everyone knows that “religion” news isn’t big news.

Yes, there was a deranged minister at the heart of this doomed community. Journalists described him as a kind of “charismatic” neo-messiah, using every fundamentalist Elmer Gantry cliche in the book. OK, so Jones talked about socialism. But he was crazy. He had to be a fundamentalist. Right?

The reality was stranger than that. Jones came from the heart of progressive old-line Protestantism, from the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). He was well-connected to the edgy, liberal elites of San Francisco — including the LGBTQ pioneer Harvey Milk.

At the moment, the 40th anniversary of this event us getting attention in Hollywood and in the media. As our weekend think piece, consider reading this from The Daily Beast: “The Ballad of Jim Jones: From Socialist Cult ‘Messiah’ to Mass-Killing Monster.” Here is a chunk of that:

A new series from SundanceTV (co-produced by Leonardo DiCaprio) takes an unflinching glimpse at the motivations of one of history’s most notorious cult leaders — for ultimately, that’s what Jonestown and the Peoples Temple became. Through archival footage, much of it recorded by Jonestown members themselves, and survivor interviews, Jonestown: Terror in the Jungle offers an eerie, engaging look at the man behind a movement that was ultimately responsible for the deaths of 909 people.

Tracing Jim Jones’s origins in rural Indiana, the four-part documentary series probes his deeply unhappy childhood. Lonely and largely ignored by his parents, a young Jones became an active participant in no fewer than five church congregations, and grew enthralled with the flashy antics of the preachers. A schoolmate tells how when other boys were playing at being soldiers in World War II (already in full swing during Jones’ childhood), little Jim preferred playing Hitler.

Obviously, the religion connections are crucial. But what were the churches — theological traditions, even — that produced this man? What led to his unusual combination of neo-Pentecostal style and truly liberal content, in terms of politics and theology? How did the mainstream liberal Protestantism of the Disciples end up in Jonestown?


Back to the Beast, which notes that this documentary series:

… details the rise (and eventual downfall) of the Peoples Temple. After uprooting his congregation from Indianapolis to Redwood Valley, California, in the early 1970s, Jones began introducing vaguely socialist principles into his sermons. He praised equality among races and genders, and championed civil rights. “Socialism is god,” Jones can be heard saying in a sermon from that era. And following other socialist tenets, Jones encouraged communal living and sacrifice “for the greater good” — but survivors believe he was motivated less by dreams of an egalitarian utopia than by a desire to bring his congregation entirely under his control.

And this:

The details of the rest of the story are quite familiar, and Jonestown spares no detail in exploring the violent, gory end that most congregation members faced. Survivor testimony, combined with archival footage — like the eerie tape recording Jones made as he commanded mothers to poison their children, and eventually themselves—make for a somber denouement. The scene was discovered a few days later by Guyanese and American soldiers. Jones’s body was bloated and beginning to decompose, a single gunshot wound to the head his cause of death. Apparently, after seeing the agonizing deaths of his followers from the cyanide-laced Kool-Aid, Jones decided he’d prefer to go a different way. He’d told the Jonestown members that they’d be committing “revolutionary suicide,” essentially a protest against capitalism and racism and the conditions of an inhumane world.

That all sounds pretty “political,” doesn’t it?

Obviously, I am wondering if the religious ghosts in this story — the deeper ones, the denominational roots, the theological arguments — are going to ignored, all over again.

There were a few exceptions, back in 1978 — stories that were harder for readers across the country to see, in the pre-Internet world. If you are interested in the Disciples angle of this story, check out this New York Times piece, which was buried inside the newspaper soon after the massacre. The headline: “Parent Church Is Chagrined By Evolution of Jones's Cult.”

Although under scrutiny by his denomination since 1979, the Rev. Jim Jones was a minister in good standing at the time of his death, and his closest survivor will be eligible for a church pension, according to officials of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).

Since that tragic afternoon in Guyana, when more than 918 persons died, officials of the denomination, which has 1.3 million members, have been disturbed by their slender tie with Mr. Jones. Many wish their counsel, who investigated the cult leader in 1974, and their special committee, formed after complaints about Mr. Jones surfaced in 1977, had been clairvoyant about the events that were to take place in the jungle clearing.

Nevertheless, they insist that his 18 years of membership reflected the Disciples’ tradition of no creed but openness to anybody who professed faith in Christ.

Read it all. And I have included some YouTube clips offering more background, including an interview with “Cult City” author Daniel Flynn, who explores the ties between Jones and the progressive leaders of San Francisco. For a print interview with Flynn, check out this piece by Rod Dreher: “Jim Jones & Harvey Milk: The Secret History.”

Scary stuff for a Sunday afternoon. Click. Read. Enjoy?

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