Jonestown and the Reformed Movement

On 18 November 1978, more than 900 people died in “Jonestown,” Guyana in one of the most spectacular examples in modern times of the danger of cults and sects.  Jonestown was a settlement on the northeast coast of an ignored South American country. It was led by a charismatic, colorful, and socially progressive preacher from Oklahoma (via Indianapolis) who led a large movement with congregations and communes in San Francisco, Los Angeles and elsewhere.

Jim Jones gathered a large congregation in San Francisco and began to use his followers to gain political influence in the city. Strangely, neither the mayor nor Willie Brown objected to a confusion of church and state, since Jones supported leftist  causes. Behind the facade of the socially progressive, pentecostal church lay a much darker story of fraud, coercion, manipulation, and violence. The “healing” services were fraudulent but folks (many down and out) believed him because he was persuasive and personally powerful. Ex-members now testify that Jones was promising them a utopia, that “The Peoples’ Temple” was going to lead a social revolution leading to racial harmony and economic equality. They testify that everyone saw in Jones what he needed. He was miracle man to some and the next Che Guevera to others.

Many people in the movement became quite devoted to Jones but reports began to leak to the press in 1977 that all was not well in the Peoples’ Temple, that there were beatings and that there was intimidation, that Jones had large sums of money stashed away for private use and that he was addicted to drugs. At the same time, Jones was building a future utopia in Guyana. As those reports appeared, Jones ordered his followers to pack up and go with no notice. Almost overnight, the Jonestown project was populated and he escaped further investigation by local authorities. In 1978, however, as reports of abuse began to filter back to California congressman Leo Ryan traveled with concerned family members, some reporters, and staff to investigate.

On 18 November, 1978, the congressman and four others were murdered by Jones’ lieutenants, on an airstrip about 7 miles from the compound, as they sought to leave Guyana.  In reaction, knowing that the murder of a congressman and an NBC newsman would bring the authorities from the USA and from Guyana, Jones, who had been practicing to hold a mass suicide for some time, ordered his followers to drink poison. It is likely that some who disobeyed were forced to drink the poison or shot.

From the moment the news began to appear on the television and in the newspapers (yes we read newspapers covering yesterday’s news in glorious black and white; it was about 13 years before the “internet” existed in a way available to the public) and on the radio the weird and profoundly sad story became a club with which the culture could shame virtually any religious fervor or perceived religious extremism.  Since that time, however, the memory of “Jonestown” seems to have become as faded as the newspaper clippings and grainy video taken by the network news crew who traveled to Guyana with Congressman Ryan.


What hath Jonestown to do with Geneva? In reality, they have nothing to do with one another, but on watching and reading some of the 30th-anniversary coverage of the mass suicide/murder and of the rise and fall of the cult/sect it did occur to me that, over the years, I’ve seen analogous phenomena and impulses in the Reformed movements.

Attraction To A Charismatic Leader

Despite the fact that Americans are (or were) notoriously stubborn and independent people, we have also shown the capacity to become very attached to charismatic personalities like Jones. At any one time, there is a large number of needy, socially alienated, broken people who are willing to look to a strong personality to give their lives meaning. On this point the connection to the Reformed movement is obvious to those who know the recent history of the broader Reformed movement.

Those Christians who identify with any aspect of Reformed Christianity form a small segment of American Protestants or evangelicals. We are isolated and marginalized. I can’t say how many times people have said to me, upon discovering that there were such things as “Reformed Churches” that, until they found one, they thought they might be losing their mind since they did not know anyone who agreed with them, who thought the way they did. Over the years, it has not been terribly difficult for strong personalities to gather up such folks, rather than directing them to the historic Reformed faith as expressed in the Reformed confessions, and rather than joining historic Reformed Churches, to form their own congregations, schools, and movements organized around one or two strong personalities with strong, distinctive theological views and social programs.

These leaders do not submit themselves to the government and discipline of the historic Reformed Churches because in that case, they would become ordinary ministers among other ministers and elders, instead of a de facto heads of their own movements. Unfortunately, since many of those attracted to such leaders come from outside the historic, confessional Reformed Churches, they lack perspective or awareness of historic Reformed practice. The followers may come from fundamentalist congregations where leadership is typically centralized in one authoritarian figure. In such cases, the followers have simply swapped one authoritarian figure for another. By confession and theology, Reformed polity is decentralized and inherently (and intentionally) inefficient. The gears of consistory, classis, and synod (session, presbytery, and GA) grind slowly. They form a terrible basis for an exciting, world-changing, utopian movement centered around a charismatic personality. As leaders of their own “churches” and movements, these charismatic leaders are typically accountable not to a classis or presbytery but to a select group of cohorts. There may be the appearance of accountability but these groups have typically lacked the substance thereof.

A Shared, Strongly-Held, Social View Or Program

Anecdotal evidence suggests that a large percentage of those who populate the Reformed movement have strong social views. Not a few of them came into contact with some version of Reformed Christianity through their social or political views. The theonomic and reconstructionist movements have been a gateway into Reformed theology and congregations for a good number of folk. It is common in such circles to identify the Reformed faith with a certain, strongly-held, social program. This happens on the other end of the theological and political spectrum, through in smaller numbers and with less visibility. More than once I’ve seen instances where the Reformed faith has become completely identified with a social program. It’s heady stuff when  God agrees with one’s vision for society. I can think of at least two instances, over the last twenty-five years, where people have relocated to certain areas in order to join a congregation because of its social views and program and perhaps because of leading personalities leading the groups.

A Utopian Eschatology

This is a great engine for a religio-social program, just ask Karl Marx. This isn’t new. There were utopian chiliastic (literal 1000 year kingdom of Christ on the earth) religious movements in the 16th century. They were condemned by the magisterial Reformers but chiliasm didn’t die and forms of it came to be embraced by segments of the Reformed Churches in the late 16th century and the eschatology spread through Reformed theology in the 17th century. In other segments of our churches the twin to chiliasm, sometimes described as “postmillennialism” also developed. This view looked for a future golden age on the earth as the result of the spread of the gospel. To be sure, not all forms of postmillennialism are the same. There was a third view, today known as amillennialism, which essentially rejected any form of an earthly golden age. Through the 1970s and 80s it sometimes seemed as if the golden-age eschatology was sweeping through the Reformed movement. In it, there was said to be a coming social collapse to be followed by a golden-age rising from the ashes of secularism,  I recall discussions with fellow students in the early 80s in which one was derided as a “Platonist” for rejecting the idea of a future earthly golden age. The failure of  Y2K and the notorious accounts of bunkers, beans, and bullets brought some forms of this eschatology into disrepute. Memories will fail and the golden-agers will be back.

What does it all mean? It means that as weird and impossible as Jonestown seems today, what happened to them and what they did to themselves, is not utterly unrelated to ideas, causes, and personalities in the Reformed movement over the last three decades. So far, no one has set up a utopian community in South America, but people have been enticed, by strong personalities, to move to this or that out-of-the-way location in order to start a church, school, and community founded on an golden-age eschatology, a highly developed socio-political ideology, and idiosyncratic theology.  As we remember the Thirtieth Anniversary of Jonestown, we shouldn’t say that to ourselves, “That could never happen to us.” At least some of the elements of the Jonestown tragedy have been present in the broader Reformed movement for the last several decades.

©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.


Heidelberg Reformation Association
1637 E. Valley Parkway #391
Escondido CA 92027
The HRA is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization

Subscribe to the Heidelblog today!