Date of Award

2021

Document Type

Honors Thesis

Degree Name

Bachelor of Arts (BA)

School

CAS

Department

History Department

Faculty Advisor

Kathryn Lasdow

Abstract

In 1957, Hyacinth Thrash, a fifty-five-year-old black woman living in Indiana, thought she had found her church. She joined a religious organization in Indianapolis that seemed to be free from racism, with a mission to help the poor and the needy. The church, called the Peoples Temple, was led by a charismatic white man, Jim Jones. From 1956 to 1978, Reverend Jim Jones led the Peoples Temple congregation in Indianapolis, Indiana (1956-1965), then in Ukiah and San Francisco, California (1965-1977), and finally in Jonestown, Guyana (1977-1978). Thrash described the first time her sister, Zipporah, saw the Peoples Temple on television: “She came running in from the other room, shouting, ‘I’ve found my church!’ She saw the integrated choir on TV and Jim standing so handsome, and wanted to go.” Zipporah enticed Hyacinth to join her. Hyacinth appreciated how the church aligned with the principles of the early Civil Rights Movement; she engaged in social work in her community while her pastor, Jones, became the director of the Indianapolis Human Rights Commission. She also believed in the church’s healing powers. In 1964, Thrash’s doctors found a cancerous tumor. When she was deemed cancer free by several doctors in the months following her diagnosis, she claimed she had been cured through faith healing in her church. For Hyacinth Thrash, and hundreds of other followers, the Peoples Temple was a central force in their life, and an organization on which they depended spiritually, socially, economically, and politically. Yet, twenty-one years later and 2,947 miles away, Thrash awoke in Jonestown, Guyana to find that, while she slept, over 900 people died. Among the dead was her sister, Zipporah. On November 18, 1978, Peoples Temple members met a violent and news-making end when Jones and over 900 followers engaged in a murder/suicide by drinking Flavor Aid laced with cyanide. Called the Jonestown Massacre, this event represented the largest one-day loss of American civilian life prior to 9/11. The 918 human deaths in Guyana meant the metaphorical death of the community Thrash had dedicated herself to for over twenty years. When Thrash awoke and realized her community died, she recalled “I started screaming! I thought maybe I was dead too. I pinched myself. Was I alive? I couldn’t believe it.” Thrash’s story gets to the heart of this thesis project, which examines the ideology of the Peoples Temple from a bottom-up perspective to asserts members’ agency over the development of the Peoples Temple organization and settlement in Jonestown. I ask a series of historical research questions: How did the diversity in the Peoples Temple general membership compare to the diversity of the Peoples Temple’s leadership? How did the experience of a new recruit compare to that of a more established member? What parts of the Peoples Temple story are most predominant in retellings of the organization’s history? How do these works portray the victims of the massacre and the leader Jim Jones? How can artists create a narrative that is both compelling and historically accurate? Is fictionalization ever appropriate for historical interpretation, or should artists strive to maintain full historical accuracy? How do survivors or family of the victims feel about adaptations of the Peoples Temple story? And finally, how can a topic of this magnitude be handled in good taste and with proper respect? My research argues that many members of the Peoples Temple remained loyal to the organization for reasons beyond brainwashing or cult behavior. Rather, these members, including Hyacinth Thrash, Grace and Timothy Stoen, Deborah Layton, and many more, dedicated their lives to the organization because they shared a genuine belief in the Peoples Temple mission to end racial and economic inequality and bring about a socialist utopia. Peoples Temple leader Jim Jones capitalized on the social and moral connections of his membership to slowly radicalize the organization over its twenty-two-year history. Because of their love for their peers and their belief in the mission, many members became more dependent on the organization (and therefore on Jim Jones) as time went on. By the organization’s demise in 1978, some members believed that the ultimate sacrifice—taking their own lives—served the greater good. However, not all members responded positively to the evolution of the Peoples Temple. For example, Timothy and Grace Stoen became the most outspoken antagonist for the Peoples Temple community. In the early 1970s, The Stoens joined the Peoples Temple when Timothy became the church's primary lawyer. In 1972, Grace gave birth to a son, John Victor, over whom Jim Jones claimed paternity. Grace defected from the Peoples Temple in 1976 after witnessing the brutal beating of Peter Wotherspoon at the direction of Jim Jones. After defecting, Grace began a legal battle with Jones and the Peoples Temple to regain custody of her son. Timothy defected in 1977 after the organization’s move to Jonestown, Guyana. Their defections, coupled with their increased unease about Peoples Temple doctrine, instigated a rise in public scrutiny of the Peoples Temple and pushed members to radicalize the organization in its final year. Both Jones and general members claimed the case threatened the sanctity and strength of the community. This existential fear and paranoia caused mass murder and suicide to become what seemed to be the only way out for some of the organization’s members. To get to the heart of member-focused stories, such as the Stoens’ custody battle, I have had to reexamine the historiography of the Jonestown Massacre. Much of the existing scholarship on the Peoples Temple has analyzed how Jim Jones alone controlled his congregation through tactics like sexual coercion, love bombing (or the use of excessive affection as a manipulation tactic), financial dependency, and the breakdown of relationships outside the Peoples Temple. I explore first-hand accounts from members within the inner-circle of the Peoples Temple, including The Onliest One Alive by former Peoples Temple member Hyacinth Thrash, Seductive Poison by former Peoples Temple Planning Committee member Deborah Layton, Marked for Death by the organization’s former lawyer Timothy Stoen, as well as assorted excerpts from other Peoples Temple primary sources and reflections. These sources illustrate how the decisions of Peoples Temple members influenced the organization’s progression and development from its founding in 1956 to its end in 1978. The Peoples Temple evolved from a religious organization grounded in social work and a commitment to socialist ideology to one influenced by paranoia built on the relationship of Jim Jones and the Peoples Temple membership. Many members’ dedication to the Peoples Temple stemmed from their belief in the group’s social and economic mission. Therefore, my analysis explores how multiple contemporaneous movements and organizations influenced the causes the Peoples Temple members fought for. The Peoples Temple incorporated the philosophies of Father Divine’s Peace Mission, the writings of Karl Marx, the Civil Rights Movement, and the writings of Black Panther Party founder Huey Newton to form a movement that justified ostracizing dissenting voices that members deemed capitalistic, racist, and invalid. As the group’s ever-radicalizing ideologies pushed the organization further from mainstream society, it became more insular and paranoid. These sentiments and emotions reached their peak in the late 1970s, when 1,000 members chose to move halfway across the eastern hemisphere and fully sequester themselves within the Peoples Temple community in Jonestown, Guyana. My research paper is organized as follows: first, I analyze the historiography of the Peoples Temple to demonstrate how the historical narrative has expanded from an interpretation of the members as cultists to an interpretation in which they are shown as more complex historical actors—people dependent on the community, abused at the hands of Jim Jones, or genuinely committed to the stated goals of the organization. Then I place the Peoples Temple in its historical context and discuss how broader social and religious movements influenced the organization and affected the stated ideology of members. Next, I analyze the experiences of individual members as case studies, including Hyacinth Thrash, Deborah Layton, and Timothy and Grace Stoen, to explore the relationship between the Peoples Temple members and Jim Jones. I uncover how members and Jones became increasingly codependent overtime and took on the characteristics of an abusive relationship. Finally, this project culminates in the production of a full-length theatrical script drawn from this research and grounded in public historical best practices.

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