Salvation and Suicide: Jim Jones, the Peoples Temple, and Jonestown

Salvation and Suicide: Jim Jones, the Peoples Temple, and Jonestown

Salvation and Suicide: Jim Jones, the Peoples Temple, and Jonestown

Salvation and Suicide: Jim Jones, the Peoples Temple, and Jonestown


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.


In November 1978 many in the guild of religion scholars were gathered at New Orleans for the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion. As professionals we had come together to apply critical method from varying disciplinary perspectives to the phenomena of religion. When news of the “white night” at Jonestown broke at our meeting, it came with a strange surrealism. There was, it seemed, nothing in the resources of an entire tradition of scholarship that could enable us to grasp what had happened, to fit it into an interpretive framework that would make religious sense of it. Instead, members of the academy seemed left much as everyone else, bereft of any superior insights to come to terms with the raw event. There was, indeed, a subtle irony in our professional confidence regarding religious studies when juxtaposed with our conceptual difficulty in dealing with the decade’s, and perhaps the generation’s, most dramatic religious happening.

Now, some ten years later, David Chidester has taken a major step to bring the event of Jonestown into the province of the academy of religion. After an era of interpretation marked mostly by sensationalized journalism, facile psychologism, and relatively limited social science analysis, Chidester has shown—for the first time in a book-length work—that it is possible to understand Jonestown in religious terms. Distinguishing between the private religious world of Jim Jones and his public theology mediated through his sermons, Chidester points to the connections between the religious worldview of Jones and the organizing ideas of the Peoples Temple. Thus for Chidester the murder-suicide that framed the climactic moments of the Temple was, insofar as it was suicide, religious suicide.

That this is a provocative—and courageous—interpretive approach should be clear. Nor does Chidester soften the hermeneutic by ritual reminders that Jones was an evil man or at least a crazy one. Instead, with an impressive display of consistency, he carries his phenomenological method as far as it will go, demonstrating again and again his grounds for understanding Jones and Jonestown as distinctively human in idea and enterprise. The message of his work is clear: whatever else Jim Jones and Jonestown may have been, they were expressions of self-conscious and intentional religious possibility.

In arguing boldly for his thesis, Chidester has gone as boldly for the primary sources on which to build it. He has listened to and transcribed hours of tapes ignored, in their interpretive import, by other authors. He has tracked and read virtually every item that has been published on the Jonestown experiment, whether the work of insiders or outsiders. And he has mined these sources to provide us with the most complex and detailed account of the religious teachings of Jim Jones that has yet appeared in print.

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