Salvation and Suicide: An Interpretation of Jim Jones, the Peoples Temple, and Jonestown

Salvation and Suicide: An Interpretation of Jim Jones, the Peoples Temple, and Jonestown

by David Chidester

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Praise for the first edition:"[This] ambitious and courageous book [is a] benchmark of theology by which questions about the meaningful history of the Peoples Temple may be measured." -- Journal of the American Academy of Religion

Re-issued in recognition of the 25th anniversary of the mass suicides at Jonestown, this revised edition of David Chidester's


Praise for the first edition:"[This] ambitious and courageous book [is a] benchmark of theology by which questions about the meaningful history of the Peoples Temple may be measured." -- Journal of the American Academy of Religion

Re-issued in recognition of the 25th anniversary of the mass suicides at Jonestown, this revised edition of David Chidester's pathbreaking book features a new prologue that considers the meaning of the tragedy for a post-Waco, post-9/11 world. For Chidester, Jonestown recalls the American religious commitment to redemptive sacrifice, which for Jim Jones meant saving his followers from the evils of capitalist society. "Jonestown is ancient history," writes Chidester, but it does provide us with an opportunity "to reflect upon the strangeness of familiar... promises of redemption through sacrifice."

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Chidester uses theology to interpret the November 1978 mass murder-suicide of some 900 Jim Jones followers in Guyana, concluding that the Peoples Temple was a meaningful religious movement. (Sept.)no pw review.

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Indiana University Press
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Religion in North America
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Salvation and Suicide

Jim Jones, the Peoples Temple, and Jonestown

By David Chidester

Indiana University Press

Copyright © 2003 David Chidester
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-253-11274-3



The fragile network of interlocking interpersonal relations that holds any society of human beings together is inevitably disrupted by death. Since society is an abstraction for that network of relations, there is an important sense in which society is threatened with dissolution at the death of any of its members. This may be more apparent in small-scale groups woven together out of kinship relations, shared ritual practices, and the intricate bonds of obligation among persons than in large-scale, mass societies, which are often unified simply by virtue of occupying the same geographical territory. Even such a mass aggregation of human beings, however, may be subtly, yet seriously disrupted by the event of death. The community of the living constitutes itself as a relatively unified whole, however much the differences of economic, social, political, and religious interests may divide it, in the face of the ongoing possibility of its dissolution in death.

Ritual reconstitutes that rent fabric, those broken connections between the living and the dead. Funerary rituals are the outer signs of an internal social contract human beings make with each other not to allow the other to die. This is a social agreement implicit in the ritual practice itself: the care of the dead, the disposition of the corpse, the expressions of grief, mourning, and bereavement, the celebration of memory in the hearts and minds of those who survive to reconstruct the periodically shattered image of human community disrupted by death. The anthropologist Mary Douglas has taught us to recognize that the disruption of shared order registers as defilement. The lifeless corpse suddenly violates the order of the living by becoming matter out of place. The often elaborate rituals of disposition, such as burial, cremation, and exposure, replace the physical remains in such a way that the community of the living may be both protected from the potentially defiling influence of the corpse and, at the same time, provided with a ritually sanctified space for an ongoing connection between the living and the dead.

Robert Hertz, sociologist, student of Durkheim, and casualty of the trenches in the Great War, suggested precisely this interpretation of the rituals of the dead in his essay, "A Contribution to the Study of the Collective Representation of Death" (1907).2 Hertz proposed a preliminary analysis of the underlying pattern of the ritual symbolization of death by isolating three elements in death rituals: (1) the material remains of the body; (2) the symbolic images, or traces, of whatever immaterial remnant of the human person is regarded as surviving death; and (3) the human community of the living. Each element in the ritual symbolization of death enters into an integrated, reciprocal relation with the others to form a complex ritual mediation of the event of death. The relationship among the corpse, the dead, and the living can be suggested in a simple schematic diagram:


The patterned relationships among these three elements in religious rituals of the dead generate specific beliefs and practices that serve to reconstitute and reinforce the community of the living in the face of death. Funerals are practiced at the intersection between the inert corpse and the community of the living in order effectively to separate the two; religious beliefs relating to death and afterlife reveal a wide variety of connections between the body and whatever immaterial form may be regarded as surviving; and cemeteries, burial grounds; and memorials to the dead complete the ritual cycle by providing an ongoing connection between the community of the living and those persons who are allowed to survive as social persons even though they have been irrevocably separated from the network of social relations. The traces of transcendence in the ritual cycle of death derive from the symbolic reconstruction of those broken connections. Every death sunders—however imperceptibly in large-scale, complex, differentiated societies—the tenuous fabric of human social relations. Collective representations of death involve rituals of inclusion in the face of the ultimate human limit situation that separate, transform, and reincorporate the deceased human person into a ritually patterned continuity between the living and the dead.

Funerary rituals of exclusion may also be exercised. Any death may involve a certain sense of defilement in the disruption of the order of the world of the living, but some deaths are experienced as particularly and intensely disruptive of that organic, living order. The burning of witches, the pauper's grave, the mass execution, burial outside the sanctified space of church or churchyard, the postmortem torture of suicides by dragging the body through the streets in posthumous punishment for an unforgivable mortal sin—all are rituals of exclusion that symbolically excommunicate the dead from the communion of the living. To select one example at random from ethnographic literature, the anthropologist Hans Schärer reported that the Ngaju Dyak of southern Borneo had slaves who had no genealogy of ancestors and no hope of a life to come in the village of the dead. Cut off from a fully human past and any expectation of a fully human life after death, these slaves "are buried without ceremony," Schärer observed, "far outside in the bush or the forest." Religious rituals of the dead, therefore, oscillate between exclusion and inclusion. The lineaments of any truly human death are fashioned through rituals of inclusion. The ritual obliteration of the body, the denial of the memory of the dead, and the displacement of the deceased from the sanctified space of what the anthropologist W. Lloyd Warner called "the city of the dead" may all serve as ritual practices of exclusion that systematically subclassify a particular death as a fundamentally subhuman death.

It has often been noted that religion arises in response to human limit situations, those liminal, or transitional, points in any human life cycle or in any human society. Ritual practices respond to the liminal stages of the human life cycle, the transitions of birth, adolescence, marriage, suffering, and death; and rituals of crisis, affliction, and celebration respond to the need for a continuous reconstruction of the network of social relations in any community. The ultimate human limit situation arises in the death of the person and the dissolution of the community. Ritual practices of death negotiate the survival of both in the face of what Jean-Paul Sartre referred to as the untranscendable negation of their possibility to be. That very possibility of the impossibility of both person and the network of persons is the ultimate limit situation within which religious beliefs, practices, and associations emerge. Organized religious institutions—churches, sects, movements, traditions, and so on—are certainly engaged with the work of mediating these limit situations. But on a deeper level there is a sense in which the shared symbolization of death within a community reveals an essentially religious response to human limits that may not register explicitly in the organized institutions of religion. Whether we call this shared symbolization "collective representations," "ultimate concern," or "worldview," it reveals a type of invisible religion that permeates a set of social relations and negotiates human personal and corporate identity in the face of human limit situations. When the sociologist of religion Thomas Luckmann coined the term "invisible religion" for the shared beliefs and practices that transcend the purely biological functioning of the human organism, he isolated the important sense in which religious symbolization may be diffused through the shared symbols, myths, and ritual practices of a community. These common symbolic forms are nowhere more clearly revealed than in collective responses to the crisis of death. It is at that moment that the most fundamental religious orientations and classifications of a community surface in the negotiation of some sense of transcendence in relation to the limit situation of death. In response to the unavoidable factuality of the visible body, an invisible religious dimension within a network of social relations generates a community's most fundamental religious responses of inclusion and exclusion in order to reconstitute itself out of the possibility of its own dissolution. The deaths of 913 Americans on November 18, 1978, in the remote jungles of Guyana symbolized precisely such a possibility.

1.1 Death Rituals of Exclusion and Inclusion

The bodies began to arrive at the United States Air Force Base in Dover, Delaware, in the early dawn on November 23, 1978. The first C-141 Starlifter made the five-hour flight from Georgetown, Guyana, to Dover carrying a cargo of forty bodies. The bodies had been placed in rubberized bags where they had been discovered in the Guyanese jungle and then transferred to aluminum cases in Georgetown for shipment to Dover. The base had handled a large share of the bodies of deceased U.S. servicemen during the Vietnam War. Over twenty-one thousand casualties of that war had been returned to the United States through Dover to be reincorporated through the military rituals of the sanctified sacrificial dead, however much those rituals seemed to lose their cogency during an unpopular war in a divided society. Dover had also been the receiving point for 326 bodies from an April 1977 crash of Pan Am and KLM Boeing 747 aircraft in the Canary Islands. A team of experts worked three weeks to prepare, embalm, and identify the dead for burial. They were left with 114 unidentified bodies that were eventually buried in numbered graves in Southern California. The base was accustomed to handling the preliminary rituals of death on a large scale, but nothing prepared its staff, volunteers, and the surrounding community for the shock of receiving 913 corpses from the mass murdersuicide of the Jonestown community.

After the difficulties of transporting, treating, and storing the bodies, the crucial problem was one of identification. The Dover Air Force Base received bodies in bags and names on a list. The difficulties in correlating these two sets of symbols were almost insurmountable. The bagged bodies were unnamed, unknown, and almost nonhuman. Twelve regular mortuary personnel, eighteen FBI agents, twenty-nine members of the Army Graves Registration Unit from Fort Lee, Virginia, a thirty-five member Air Force pathology team, and sixty base volunteers were engaged in processing the bodies in what was described as an "assembly-line job." One airman described the psychological adjustment that he felt was necessary for working with these bodies. "It's just an unintelligible mess," he said. "You can't tell white or black.... You can't tell facial features at all." The distinctive features felt to make humans intelligible as human beings had disappeared. The facial features, race, gender, and age of the bodies had been dissolved in death. Certainly one of the ironies of this dehumanization of the dead from the Jonestown community was that shared aspirations of the Peoples Temple for overcoming racism, sexism, and ageism were in one sense achieved in the depersonalized mask of death. The airman proceeded to explain how he adjusted to encountering the indistinguishable corpses that could no longer appear as intelligible within normal, ordinary classifications of human persons: "You just have to psych yourself into not thinking about it as a person, but just something that's broken down. If you start thinking about it as a person, you get yourself mentally involved and that's no good." This "thingification" of the Jonestown dead was an important strategy for dealing with the routine procedures of disinfecting, preparing, and embalming such severely decomposed corpses. These were not persons but machines that had broken down. Mechanical metaphors for human persons are not, of course, uncommon in the modern worldview. They are integral to the shared classifications of "otherness" in other persons as thing-like machines, robots, or automatons. The human machine is a classification that is central to the modern medical model of health and healing, even in models of mental health and mental illness. In the last few years of the Peoples Temple's history, both Temple opponents and loyalists resorted to calling each other robots in order to invalidate the fully human status of the other. Air Force personnel and volunteers handling the Jonestown bodies found themselves on the front line of the classification of otherness in the disposition of 913 faceless, nameless, and essentially nonhuman bodies.

The language employed in the popular media to describe the otherness of these bodies was thoroughly imbued with imagery of defilement. A story circulating in Delaware, and recorded in the Delaware State News, December 7, 1978, related the experience of a young woman who was working the detail assigned to incinerate the empty body bags. As she was lifting one bag in order to hurl it into the incinerator, the bag suddenly burst over her uniform. The Delaware State News recounted, "The bag had been disinfected but once contained all sorts of little creepy, crawly things." This simply hints at the vocabulary of defilement, impurity, and contagion within which these bodies began to appear in the popular imagination. In this particular instance, the young woman was praised for her quick wits in tearing off her uniform and burning it in the incinerator. The dangers of defilement were countered by chemical disinfectants: according to one mortician's account, ten times the ordinary amounts of chemicals were used to treat the bodies. The fear of contagion from contact with the Jonestown dead, however, was not limited to medical notions of hygiene. The deceased immediately came to represent a more fundamental, and dangerous, defilement of American territory.

On December 6, 1978, the New York Times reported on some of the difficulties encountered in arriving at a final, satisfactory disposition of the Jonestown dead. At that point, there were no death certificates for any of over nine hundred "cultists" who had died in Guyana. Death certificates, identifying the time, place, and cause of death, have been an important element in American rituals of the dead. To locate death in this way is to a certain extent to bring it within human control and to allow for a fully human disposition of the dead to proceed. The state of Delaware was using this bureaucratic, yet potently symbolic procedure to block any burial of the Jonestown dead within the territory of Delaware. The position taken by the governor and state legislature of Delaware was that identified and claimed bodies could be removed from Dover Air Force Base but not buried within Delaware without an acceptable death certificate and that unidentified and unclaimed bodies could not be removed from the base. The legal restrictions against burials in Delaware reflected the difficult and ambiguous position of the state in relation to the bodies. State officials insisted that the bodies should be removed from the state as quickly as possible, but they would not release unidentified and unclaimed bodies from the base for fear that they might be buried individually, or in a mass grave, on Delaware territory. The mayor of Dover, Charles A. Legates, Jr., was recorded in the Wilmington, Delaware, Morning News, November 29, 1978, as proposing that the unidentified bodies be cremated and their ashes scattered at sea "beyond the continental limits of the United States." The ashes could be put back aboard one of the C-141 Starlifters that brought the bodies to Dover in the first place, carried out to sea, and released with a "very compassionate ceremony." The primary concern in this recommendation, however, seemed to be less with compassion and more with an appropriate ceremony of exclusion that would effectively prevent the remains from defiling the territory of Dover, Delaware, or the continental United States.

Delaware Congressman Thomas B. Evans announced in a news conference in Washington that "Most Delawareans feel rather strongly that [their state] is not a proper final resting place. Delaware residents were not involved in Guyana and Delaware should not have to bear the burden of this problem." But what was the burden of the problem posed by the Jonestown dead? Certainly there may have been certain financial liabilities that state officials would not want to be placed upon Delaware taxpayers. But the suggestion by Congressman Evans that the bodies be airlifted to California, as the appropriate solution to the disposition of the dead, was part of a larger symbolic context within which the presence of these bodies on Delaware soil was perceived as a dangerous and defiling contagion. That contagion was feared on at least three overlapping levels. First, the bodies inspired fear in the popular imagination that the remains would contaminate the ground. One of the morticians at the Dover Air Force Base noted that "some people are even concerned that the bodies might contaminate the ground where they are eventually interred." The mortician tried to reassure the public that "there is absolutely no possibility of this," yet the fear of the decomposed bodies polluting the earth, creating a danger for public health, was a persistent theme in the public perception of the dangers involved in the disposition of the Jonestown dead.


Excerpted from Salvation and Suicide by David Chidester. Copyright © 2003 David Chidester. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

David Chidester is Chair of Religious Studies at the University of Cape Town and author or editor of 20 books, including American Sacred Space (IUP, 1995), edited with Edward T. Linenthal, and Christianity: A Global History.

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