Miracle, Mystery and Authority: Recalling Jonestown

by Thomas F. MacMillan

Thomas F. MacMillan is a free-lance writer in Ukiah, California who was acquainted with some of the Jonestown victims.

This article appeared in the Christian Century, November 9, 1988, p. 1003. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


A retrospective piece marking the tenth anniversary of the Jonestown tragedy – in which more than 900 people affiliated with Jim Jones’s Peoples Temple in Guyana took part in a communal act of murder and suicide. The most frequently asked question: “How did they ever become involved?”

When the news first reached us in Ukiah, California. on November 19, 1978, no one really grasped the magnitude of the Jonestown tragedy. At the time no one could believe it. Congressman Leo Ryan and his aide had been shot down on an airstrip at Port Kaituma, Guyana. A number of people who had accompanied Ryan -- some of them media representatives, some of them relatives who had hoped to make contact with members of the agricultural project set up by Jim Jones and Peoples Temple in the jungles of Guyana -- lay dead or wounded. No one really knew what else had happened.

Gradually the horror began to dawn. Before it was over, the body count reached 912, but even then no one was sure whether the count was accurate. In a bizarre communal act of murder and suicide, the end came for Jim Jones and Peoples Temple. The community in Ukiah was devastated. As the names began to be released, we discovered that they included some of our co-workers from the Department of Social Services, the Juvenile Hall, the Public Health Department, the offices of county government. We saw the names of some who had been students at the local high schools and community college; we saw the names of friends with whom we had grown up, members of our track teams and little league; some of us saw the names of family members.

It was a Saturday when we realized what happened in Jonestown. On the following morning, Jerry Fox of Ukiah’s First United Methodist Church was, according to all reports, the first member of the clergy to speak to our collective grief. He chose as his text two passages from Revelation 13, on the theme of "discernment between the Word of God operating in the world, and the word of death."

Total self-giving is precisely what the New Testament church asked of its members, as in Acts 4:32-33. In the case of Peoples Temple, the total self-giving masked the enslavement to death, the "beasts" mentioned in the Book of Revelation.

Peoples Temple presents a mirror image of the gospel. The life-giving forces of the gospel are reflected darkly in the life-taking forces of Peoples Temple. Both demand total, unconditional participation in their kingdom. The problem for people of faith, then, becomes one of discernment.

Ten years later, the need for discernment seems no less great, for in every generation the story of Peoples Temple seems to be repeated in some way, leaving in its wake a grieving and confused community of families, friends and loved ones.

Probably the question most frequently asked about members of Jonestown is, How, did they ever become involved? There is no simple answer. Followers of Jim Jones included people like Maria Katsaris, youngest daughter in a family of Greek Orthodox believers. Maria’s father, Steve, at one time a priest, was the motivating force in the founding of a group called Concerned Relatives, which fought a long and losing battle to get members of their families out of Guyana.

Jones’s followers also included people like Philip Addison, a disabled man whose family had been among the first 150 or so people to follow Jones when he moved Peoples Temple from Indianapolis to Ukiah. Addison was later to renounce Peoples Temple after being forbidden to see his mother during a long illness that eventually claimed her life. Addison’s brother died in Jonestown.

Finally, there were those like Tim Stoen, a graduate of Wheaton College and Stanford University Law School. No stranger to Christianity, Stoen was seeking the fulfillment of a kind of utopian dream. Breaking a ten-year silence about his own experience, Stoen stated last July that "what made Jim Jones a historical figure was his genius in giving the utopian dreams of idealistic people a tangible structure for expression." He went on to say:

Each idealist in Peoples Temple was being carried by the driving force of his own personal utopian dream, which developed the momentum of a locomotive, and all Jim Jones had to do was switch the track toward the abyss [quoted in the Santa Rosa Press Democrat, July 24].

For Stoen the abyss was deep. Peoples Temple cost him his only child, six-year-old John Victor, who was probably being cared for by Maria Katsaris when Jonestown turned suicidal.

If there was a common theme drawing the diverse followers together, it was indeed the one Fox identified: Peoples Temple presented a mirror image of the gospel, demanding total self-giving in exchange for the vision of a social order transformed by biblically sound values. Ross Case, Jones’s pastoral associate who was perhaps most directly responsible for bringing Jones to northern California, completely repudiated both him and Peoples Temple on the grounds of heretical divergence from the proclamation of Jesus Christ as Savior, and Lord. In a letter to a close clergy friend, Case wrote in 1965:

I want to make it clear that I am not a follower of James Jones, but of Jesus Christ. . . . Love for and trust in Jesus appears to be fading, while love for and trust in James Jones is growing. I am quite disturbed about this. Friends whom I had known as Christians are not concerned with the question, "What think ye of Christ?" but rather with the question, "What think ye of James Jones?" Jesus is no longer the issue to them; James is! [June 6, 1965, unpublished correspondence].

What was clear to Case very early in the history of Peoples Temple did not become clear to many others until the jungles of Guyana closed behind them -- and then it was too late.

Concerning authority, Dostoevsky’s Inquisitor speaks of the complete control over people’s activities that is required to keep them captive to the convoluted, mirror-imaged gospel: "And they will have no secrets from us. We shall allow or forbid them to live with their wives and mistresses, to have or not to have children -- according to whether they have been obedient or disobedient -- and they will submit to us gladly and cheerfully." Astonished at the scenario presented by the Inquisitor, one of the characters cries out, "Your Inquisitor does not believe in God, that’s his secret." And he is told: "At last you have guessed it."

Dostoevsky created the Grand Inquisitor to represent what he believed to be the state of the Russian Orthodox Church in his own time. But the parallels to the method and ministry of Peoples Temple are remarkable. While journalists and critics disagree on the meaning of Jonestown, there is no disagreement on the fact that Jim Jones traded the name of Jesus using the coin of miracle, mystery and authority.

Whether Jones was in fact ever a Christian in the sense commonly understood among American evangelicals is a matter of some dispute. Certainly the terrible endgame in Guyana, during which Jones was by all accounts heavily drugged and perhaps close to psychosis, suggests an individual far from Christian ministry. But was it ever otherwise? Were there clues early in his ministry to alert potential followers of what was to come? Even now no simple answer can be given, for Jones’s ministry appeared to many to be spiritually empowered, and at least during the early years he himself claimed that power to be of Christ.

Affiliated with the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) , Jones had a ministry in Indianapolis that was praised as a model of interracial service to the poor. His followers could not be characterized merely as neurotics or fools. They were, in fact, rather like us all. And for all of us, the power of miracle, mystery and authority is sometimes sufficient to cloud our vision of Jesus Christ.

When Jones arrived with his small band of followers in Mendocino County in 1964, he quickly established himself as a charismatic figure who claimed powers to heal both spiritually and physically. It was through one of the healing services at the Twelfth District Fairgrounds that Maria Katsaris was attracted to Jones’s ministry. The presentations were powerfully staged, and, though often completely fraudulent, they had a tremendous impact. Speaking of the experience of these services, Stoen recalled that it was "rapturous":

You’d be sitting there and some black woman is singing a beautiful black spiritual, and you’re holding hands with an ex-con on your left and a cultured lady who teaches French on your right. . . . Some lady is in pain up there and Jones is working on her, and he says hold hands and sense love, and you’d feel that vibration going through you. Suddenly that lady says, "It’s gone, the pains gone." and the music is swelling. I tell you, next to the birth of my son. I’ve never had rapture like that.

And what would one give for the assurance of a miraculous deliverance from the pain of cancer? Or for the rapture of healing, even if the healings were not always authentic? Would freedom be too high a price?

A second element of Jones’s ministry was the mystery of his prophetic proclamations concerning members of the congregation. Allegedly some of his proclamations, made in the middle of a long service of preaching and healing, were based on intelligence gathered from medicine containers in the bathrooms of parishioners or records on file in some public agency or doctor’s office. But when Jones declared that "Sister Sally is having trouble with her arthritis again," the utterance was viewed as a visitation of mystery. Occasionally, the prophetic statements would have a dark resonance to them. Debbie Harpe recalls a time when Jones looked her mother in the eye in the middle of a service and pointed his finger at her. "That bitch is going to die!" he screamed. About two weeks later Debbie, then seven years old, discovered her mother’s body hanged in the family garage, an apparent suicide.

In his sermons Jones was known to dishonor both the Bible and the power of God. Tim Reiterman, whose book (with John Jacobs) on Jones and Peoples Temple is generally considered to be the most definitive, quotes a sermon by Jones:

"If you don’t need a God, fine. But if you need a God, I’m going to nose out that God. He’s a false God. I’ll put the right concept in your life. . . . You understand the mystery? If you don’t have a God and you’re already believing that you have to build a society to eliminate poverty, racism, and injustice and war, I will not bother you. But if you’re holding onto that sky God, I’ll nose him out, ten lengths every time. . . . What’s your sky God ever done? . . . The only happiness you’ve found is when you’ve come to this earth God!" [The Untold Story of the Rev. Jim Jones and His People (Dutton, 1982) , p. 148].

Then there was the discipline, regimentation and the demand for total personal submission to Jones’s authority. It was that authority that finally turned Stoen away from Peoples Temple and set him on a course out of Jonestown at the end of 1977. "Why is it you won’t yield yourself to me?" Stoen quoted Jones as demanding of him. At that point, Stoen knew he had to escape Guyana.

When Maria Katsaris’s father is asked about the cost of Peoples Temple to him personally, he replies that it goes beyond losing a daughter and having a son nearly killed on the airstrip at Port Kaituma. "They took a part of my soul, and it can never be replaced," says this man of peace and nonviolence whose life has been devoted to the children and staff of a school for emotionally disturbed youngsters. For years, until the marriage of both his elder daughter, Elaine, and his son, Anthony, Katsaris continued to urge further action on the part of the Congress. During this time he was threatened repeatedly, to the point that he felt compelled to receive training in the use of weapons. He also kept a guard dog by his side for almost a decade. But at the urging of his children, Katsaris gradually stopped fighting. He confesses to feeling that, since 1984, by no longer talking about what happened in a distant jungle, he has broken faith with his promise to the memory of Maria.

The story of Jim Jones is the story of a man who by miracle, mystery and authority affected an entire valley in northern California -- and an entire world. For the people of the Ukiah Valley, Jones’s story is, in part, a personal story, for in some way our humanity was on trial there in Guyana and hung precariously in the balance -- and then for an instant in the middle of a distant jungle seemed to slip away. We will never forget the lesson of Jonestown.