On The Occasion of the 30th Anniversary of Jonestown (Part 2 of 3)
Continuing the essay I started five years ago on the 30th Anniversary of Jonestown.
Most may believe the mass suicide of Jonestown was sudden. But the members of the People’s Temple Christian Church prepared for this moment for many years. Led by their charismatic apostolic pastor, Jim Jones, they frequently participated in suicide drills in macabre tests of loyalty. Somehow, Jones knew in his heart a day would come when escape from the world was impossible and in his skewed worldview, a “revolutionary suicide” was the final solution.
Life in the People’s Temple Christian Church was not easy. Jim Jones spoke, and his authority was to be absolute, never questioned. His word was as good as God’s word. Step out of line, and you were the subject of scorn, ridicule, and perhaps even beatings at the hands of the cult members. Children were discipline with a switch, a paddle or other forms of corporal punishment. So were some of the adults.
Life in the People’s Temple was all encompassing. It was the Old Folks Home. The Nursery for Babies and Small Children. It was the Drug Rehabilitation Center. People living in the Temple assembled daily and rarely left its environs. People who participated in it called it “Paradise”, and lauded their leader as a visionary – as a representative of God – a sort of go-between.
In time, Jim Jones became seen as God himself.
No possessions were considered the property of their owners, but like the 1st Century Church in Christianity’s earliest days (during a time of Roman Oppression); people gave into a common, collective pool of property. Christian Socialism.
Even the children were not thought of as the responsibility of parents, but were, under great duress, signed over to Jim
Jones, granting power of attorney.
In his rogue brand of expository Bible teaching, Star Scott parsed the principles of the Scripture and used them to dictate how life in Calvary Temple should be. For example, while he expressed trepidation about communal living, Scott said he also knew very well that it was a likely eventuality for Calvary. The day would come that he would need to order the entire congregation of Calvary Temple relocate to a permanent settlement on grounds belonging to the church. He would allude to the existence of a parcel of land belonging to the church which could be used in the event of an emergency such as the collapse of the American economy or intense persecution of the church.
While seeing that a far off yet perhaps necessary evil, he did certainly believe that life within the church environs was the best and most correct place for all members of the church. Indeed, citing that believers in the Book of Acts assembled daily for prayers, the grounds were nearly always open. The church had a working gym and basketball court, so there
was certainly no need for anyone to look elsewhere for such diversions.
Calvary Temple members were told to eschew any sort of therapy but instead, counsel should be at the hands of a select group of Deacons. Unlike traditional deacons found in most mainline denominations, who do little more than pass around offering plates, deacons of Calvary Temple were like a Big Brother, therapist and career counselor all in one. They could be where the pastors and full time staff could not, so all of us could be daily exhorted to follow the faith.
Frequently, Scott would speak of the impending Judgment of God against ungodly America, that “this nation is going down”, that the only nation we should have allegiance to was the church.
Jonestown was frequent fodder of jokes for Pastor Scott. “One they might find us all here, just dead. They investigate but never find any Cool Aid”.
Corporal punishment was met out to unruly children, and it is alleged, frequently to unruly adults. The method of choice was a wooden paddle. After all, the Book of Proverbs counsels that “foolishness is bound in the heart of the child, but the rod of correction will beat it far from them”.
To those who have never experienced life like this, these seem like insane, irrational forms of behavior. Most do not have any pity for cult members who, in their blind devotion, follow their leader even to the gates of hell themselves. No rational human being, it is thought, could ever allow themselves to become the mental slaves of such a man.
Yet I saw for myself a man who went from telling his congregation “I never council divorce” to actually mandating divorces of believers from unbelieving spouses. Nowhere does this counsel appear in Scripture, except for one somewhat oblique reference in the book of Nehemiah of the children of Israel divorcing spouses married during their captivity in Babylon. But Star Scott was chiefly concerned with one thing and one thing only: culling the fold.
I saw for myself a man who led his congregation away from the oversight of the Assemblies of God, a revered and trusted denomination, to become a lone wolf apostle of his own doctrine.
I saw for myself people who tried to leave but for whom the exit process was made difficult. In fact I myself tried to leave, making the mistake of announcing my intentions to the leadership of the church, and even naming my intended place of worship. “You realize”, I was told, “this new church will try to control you. You will go through there what you have gone through here all over again”. Somehow, they talked me out of it and I would stay for a few more years.
I saw for myself still others who desperately tried to fit in to life in the congregation but was repeatedly rejected. I saw for myself hungry newcomers looking for change but treated as outsiders in a provincial town who never welcomes strangers, like something out of a “Twilight Zone” episode about a man who runs out of gas in some utopian small town and is told never to return or tell others where he has been.
Though stopping short of arranging marriages, they certainly had a strong say in who could marry whom, and dispensed this advice freely in their pre-marital counseling sessions to young couples.
I saw a man charge his congregation that the Bible taught not only were they required to pay tithes (10% of one’s gross income), but two additional tithes. One tithe was to be used for purchasing study materials, the rest to retire the mortgage on the church. When the day came and the church mortgage was burned, he called it a “miracle”, though he in fact had mandated this acceleration of payments to the bank from his congregation.
As to the explanation of how he could justify this position in a Biblical way, Scott charged that he alone was the purveyor of this knowledge. This was significant, because unlike other teachings, when he urged the congregation to study his doctrine for accuracy (like a “Noble Berean” of the book of Acts), Scott insisted that he invested sufficient hours of study and that this was not worth our while to question.
With the mortgage retired, Scott was free to own and operate a fleet of several racing cars, and called this racing team a “Ministry” (Namely “Finish the Race” Ministries, taken from Paul’s final words to Timothy). In his collection were highly customized Chevrolet Corvettes, including one with a 600 HP Carroll engine, and another extremely rare 1967
550 HP model bequeathed to him from the death bed of his original owner (I would learn of this from Scott’s
mechanic who worked on some of these vehicles).
As the years went by, I observed Scott becoming increasingly paranoid. For example, he warned us that spy activity was taking place inside the church walls. “If somebody leaves our church”, he reported, “They are contacted within 24 hours by somebody. That means we have a spy among us”.
In fact, he may have been right. The activities of the church and its abuses left their mark on many. It may well have been the job of some self-styled covert operator to pluck out the sheep that wanted deliverance but were afraid to leave. Still it served as a barometer of how suspicious and afraid Scott had become.
Scott used to perform marriages (strictly for members of Calvary) the Calvary sanctuary. They were occasions where the families would invite their “unbelieving” relatives. Scott stated he could “sense” the opposition people had to his teaching whenever the “unsaved” were in attendance. It became so bad in his view that he stopped performing weddings completely. Not only would this avoid confrontation with outsiders but it would allow Scott to devote more time to study. In place of wedding ceremonies, Scott urged his members to look to Old Testament Israel. A celebrant of choice (perhaps one’s appointed deacon) could have a small ceremony. There would need to be some “evidence” presented that the marriage had been consummated in order to have a clergyman from Calvary approve the wedding. The rough, modern day equivalent of having priests hover outside of a marriage tent while a marriage was consummated.
Scott urged evangelism, citing Jesus and His “Great Commission.” But after many years of dragging unbelievers into church only to have them have insincere conversions at best, it was decided nobody known to be an unbeliever of any kind was welcome in the Sanctuary. Obviously if one of us “Led them to Jesus” beforehand, they were then welcome.
In the times I brought visitors with me, my guests were hectored by the congregation. One person, a woman who I had befriended, and who had a profession of faith in Jesus was told in no uncertain terms she was not welcome. She was told that her motivations were obviously to pursue me and cause me to stumble. She was told in no uncertain terms she not
in fact a Christian, not Born Again.
I was told to sever ties with her, and did so. I am ever so fortunate that upon leaving Calvary I restored my friendship with her and was in attendance to play guitar at her wedding. We remain friends to this day, and her life of faith is vibrant (unlike my own).
End Part 2