article is an electronic version of an article originally published in International
Journal of Cultic Studies, Vol. 01, No. 01, pages 29-53. Please keep in
mind that the pagination of this electronic reprint differs from that of the bound
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House of Judah, the Northeast Kingdom
Community, and ‘the Jonestown Problem’: Downplaying Child Physical
Abuses and Ignoring Serious Evidence
offers a critique of the discussions concerning physical child abuse that
occurs in the standard academic sources on Peoples Temple and
Jonestown—most especially John Hall’s Gone From the Promised
Land, which he published in 1987. Using accounts about children in Peoples
Temple and Jonestown from personal accounts and respected journalistic sources,
the article shows that sociological and religious-studies scholarship has
downplayed the extent of the physical and emotional abuse that the children
suffered prior to their murders. Moreover, some of this scholarship even has
minimized the children’s deaths themselves. Hall’s discussion of
corporal child punishment comes under special scrutiny, because he attempted to
contextualize it by analogizing Jonestown’s child punishment regimes to
practices within both conservative Protestantism and two groups operating in
the same period as Peoples Temple and Jonestown—the House of Judah and
the Northeast Kingdom Community.
The Jonestown deaths of
November 1978 remain the most dramatic and tragic American ‘cult
to have occurred after the Second World War, and a generation of people still
remember the nightly news broadcasts of increasingly dire information as
reporters and government officials struggled to make sense out of the bodies
bloating in the sun. The generation of people who hold those memories, however,
is aging (and, alas, dying—see R. Moore, 2000: 7–8), and at
some point future generations will have to acquire information about the
tragedy through media and Internet sources. Thanks to the Internet, audio of
Jim Jones’s directives to his followers will survive electronically, as
will many documentaries produced since the murder-suicides. Very little
information from these sources, however, winds up in scholarship, since
academics tend to rely upon the written word—especially the written word
of earlier academics. Undoubtedly in the future, some academics will return to
archives and mine information afresh, but until new research emerges, scholars
and others will have to rely upon earlier publications in their efforts to
understand the violent deaths of 918 people.
Those of us who see Jonestown as
the epitome of cultic control, manipulation, and abuse may find aspects of
scholarship on that fateful community startling. The scholarship that I paid
particular attention to appears in the book-length monographs that academics
(people with appointments in colleges or universities) have produced on
Jonestown, especially monographs published by university presses. For years I
have been collecting these monographs, as well as journalistic, religious, and
conspiratorial accounts about Jonestown and its demise. For this article, I
supplemented my own collection with additional volumes that I obtained through
my university’s library (including from the Kent Collection on
Alternative Religions), and I spent hours searching new- and used-book Internet
sites for more titles (which I either purchased or ordered through interlibrary
loan). I also checked bibliographies within the academic monographs.
Because in this article I am
concerned about what subsequent generations will learn about Jonestown based
upon existing scholarship, I wanted to identify which monographs are likely to
have impact in the future. To determine books’ likely impact, I checked
(in mid-November 2009) the titles on the OCLC Online Union Catalog (WorldCat) database, which gives the names and total numbers
of libraries around the world that own particular volumes. I assumed that the
greater a book’s availability, the more likely that future generations
will have access to it. Presented chronologically (according to date of
publication), the sociology studies are: Ken Levi (ed.), Violence and
Religious Commitment: Implications of Jim Jones’s Peoples Temple Movement
(1982; with a WorldCat count of 634);
and John Hall’s Gone from the Promised Land: Jonestown in American
Cultural History (1987; with a WorldCat count at
Other academics wrote and edited additional sociological books about Jonestown
but published them with Edwin Mellen Press—a
publisher that received very bad media coverage in 1993 for the poor review and
production standards that it applied to its products (St. John, 1993).
Again in chronological order, the books are Judith Mary Weightman,
Making Sense of the Jonestown Suicides: A Sociological History of Peoples
Temple (1983; with a WorldCat count at 363);
Rebecca Moore, In Defense of Peoples Temple—and Other Essays (1988;
with a WorldCat count at 146); and two books edited
by Rebecca Moore and her husband, Fielding M. McGehee III—The Need for
a Second Look at Jonestown (1989; with a WorldCat
count at 152); and New Religious Movements, Mass Suicide, and Peoples
Temple: Scholarly Perspectives on a Tragedy (1989; with a WorldCat count at 202). A number of religious studies and
interdisciplinary books also have appeared concerning Jonestown, and I will
mention them later in this study.
Based upon the number of
libraries worldwide that own copies of these sociological books, Hall’s
study of Jonestown appears destined to be the most influential in the coming
years. Moreover, soon after its publication, several book reviews sang praise to
its scholarship. “Hall’s achievement is noteworthy…. [H]e
presents the most comprehensive and sociological assessment of Peoples Temple
available,” said the review in Contemporary Sociology (Rigney, 1988: 469). Another proclaimed, “Hall’s
book is a triumph of scholarly craft and a skillful demonstration of the
sociological viewpoint” (Christiano, 1989:
222). According to a third review, this study provided “the most
compelling sociohistorical account to date of one of
the more chilling horrors of modern times” (Snow, 1990: 1103); and a
fourth reviewed concluded, “I have no doubt this work will be a standard
in the field for years to come” (Wright, 1989: 94). More recently, three
religious-studies scholars praised Hall’s monograph as “the most
complete and compassionate history of Peoples Temple to date” [Moore, Pinn, and Sawyer (eds.), 2004: xvii]. Certainly,
Hall’s study of Jonestown is a likely source to examine in an attempt to
see what future generations of scholars will learn about and how they will interpret
child-abuse issues within Jones’s group. I begin, therefore, my analysis
of scholarly representations about child abuse within Peoples Temple by
examining his book.
The Discussion of Child Physical Abuse in John Hall’s
Gone from the Promised Land
Hall discussed child abuse issues
far more than did other scholarly books, yet he (and for that matter, other
scholars, too) diminished important issues of the physical (and psychological)
abuse that the children at Jonestown endured prior to their murders. He
minimized the deviance of the children’s abuse by spuriously analogizing
it to other punishment regimes in two contemporaneous groups (the House of
Judah and the Northeast Kingdom Community), even though the regimes in those
two groups actually were themselves widely criticized (and in at least one
case, fatal). Other scholarship on Jonestown attempts to humanize the people
who died while placing considerable blame upon the group’s countercult opponents (called the Concerned Relatives) for
Jones’s murderous response (see R. Moore, 1988: 3–26), but these
attempts minimize the significance of the large number of infants, children,
teens, and elderly who simply were murdered.
Hall’s study was the
product of extensive research, with his having gained information from the Guyanian government; the Federal Bureau of Investigation
and the Department of State; the California Historical Society; and the
attorney for the Peoples Temple (Hall, 1987: x). Although the study has much to
commend, it completely rejected any validity to what Hall called the anticult
movement and its alleged reliance on atrocity tales (Hall, 1987:
xiv–xviii). The anticult movement, he decided, “was ideological, no
matter what its claims to scientific legitimation,”
partly because it targeted “culturally deviant and unpopular
religions” but ignored “the more subtle (and perhaps more
effective) coercion in mainstream religion” (Hall, 1987: 107).
Clearly, Hall was disinclined to
provide any legitimation to the anticult movement.
Moreover, his insistence that the movement relied upon atrocity tales to make
its claims about coercion blinded him to the fact that people in the particular
anticult movement against Jim Jones, called the Concerned Relatives, often were
deadly accurate in their fearful predictions about the direction of his group
(cf. Hall, 1995: 308 for mention of the group’s credibility problem). In,
for example, his complaint against Peoples Temple, former member James Cobb,
Jr. accurately predicted the mass murder of children that would occur five
months after he filed his papers in court. Cobb indicated that
‘revolutionary suicide’ was what Jones and Temple leadership were
calling the action that the group would take if “Jones felt he was being
persecuted or unduly harassed,” but the action really “was a
megalomaniacal threat of ‘mass murder’ which would result in the
death of minor children not old enough to make voluntary and informed decisions
about serious matters of any nature, much less insane proposals of collective
suicide” (Cobb v. Peoples Temple... 1978: 14). Despite this kind of
accurate prediction, Hall’s discussion of the group’s punishment of
children did not locate Peoples Temple’s obvious abuses within a
framework of anticult concerns, but rather attempted to place them within a
context of conservative Protestantism. In doing so, however, Hall juxtaposed
Peoples Temple with two other groups whose abusive practices had attracted
considerable anticult attention and concern.
The forms of child abuse that Hall
identified in Jonestown were numerous, but his accounts of the physical and
psychological abuse of children and teens understated the severity of their
group-inflicted punishments. Hall reported that, on one occasion, a Temple
defector indicated that Jones’s pathological cruelty manifested in
“forcing a child to eat his own vomit” (Hall, 1987: 121).
Child-beatings also took place by 1975, in which “children sometimes were
subjected to extensive paddlings” in the
context of public meetings in which the entire congregation agreed to them (of
course, with Jones’s approval [Hall, 1987: 122]). After parents signed
release forms that released Peoples Temple from any liability for administering
the paddlings, children received a wide range of what
Hall called “whacks.” “For example, “several small boys
received ‘twenty-five whacks’ for ‘stealing cookies’ in
a supermarket” (Hall, 1987: 124). Another boy of indeterminate age
“took 70 whacks” for calling a member “a crippled
bitch” (Hall, 1987: 124). One teenager even asked Jones to
“administer seventy-five whacks” for an offense that she believed
she had committed, but Hall was not clear whether she ever received them (Hall,
Beyond these paddlings, beatings, or whackings,
Hall was imprecise about exactly what happened to children who faced
punishment, saying only that they could expect to receive it
for stealing, for lying, acting ‘irresponsibly,’
making fun of people for their handicaps, physically threatening or attacking
others, especially adults, associating too intimately with outsiders, and
breaking the laws of the larger society, especially in ways that reflected on
Peoples Temple. (Hall, 1987: 123)
He mentioned boxing or wrestling
matches as forms of punishment, but was not clear whether children (rather than
just adults) had to endure them (Hall, 1987: 123, 124). Hall, for example, did
not provide an age of “one ‘cocky delinquent type’” who
successfully fought several opponents before one beat him (Hall, 1987: 124).
Critiques of Hall’s Accounts of Child
fundamental problems exist with Hall’s account of the child abuse that
occurred in Jonestown prior to the murders of the children. First, it seems
highly likely that he dramatically under-presented what the children actually
suffered. One of Hall’s sources, cited in his bibliography, is Jeannie Mills’s 1979 book, Six Years with God: Life Inside
Reverend Jim Jones’s Peoples Temple. Her accounts of beatings are
explicit and numerous. Although Hall was vague about whether the teenager who
supposedly requested “seventy-five whacks” got them (Hall, 1987:
123–124), Mills recounts in painful detail how Jones ordered and oversaw
her daughter’s beating with a board, seventy-five times, for hugging “a
girlfriend whom Jim [Jones] considered to be a traitor” (Mills, 1979:
Mills’s account of this public beating was only
one of many. She indicated that large men beat children as young as four and
five years old, sometimes as much as 150 times (Mills, 1979: 13). (As did Hall,
she indicated that parents signed release forms prior to the public beatings,
which reputedly gave Jones permission to carry them out [Mills, 1979: 260,
296].) During various periods in the group’s history, children received
beatings with boards (Mills, 1979: 53, 71, 289), belts (Mills, 1979: 254, 259),
elm switches, and electric cables (Mills, 1979: 260). She also indicated
clearly that, as punishment, Jones forced young children (as well as adults)
into boxing matches (Mills, 1979: 53, 279). In one case, the group forced a
young boy, whom an adult man had molested, to watch as punishers stripped the
molester and beat him with a board “all over his body” (Mills,
1979: 48; see 71)—an account substantially confirmed by a later source
(Layton, 1998: 61).
In addition, Mills also told the story, in far more detail than Hall, about the
youngster whom Jones forced to eat his own vomit (Mills, 1979: 162). Another
tale that she recounted, from a family who escaped the group and came to her,
was about “young people [who] were forced to eat hot peppers or even have
hot peppers put up their rectums as disciplines” (Mills, 1979: 79).
Mills recounted a punishment that a defector from Jonestown told her about, in
which adults put children down a well (Mills, 1979: 81), which a later account
about life in Jonestown confirmed (Layton, 1998: 177). Reiterman
with Jacobs contextualized the story about the well by placing it among other
abuses that adults inflicted upon children and teens:
For younger children, punishment could be especially
terrifying. At first Jones would threaten to turn disobedient children loose in
the bush to see how long they would survive there by themselves. Those who
continued to act up were blindfolded then lowered by rope into a well. Adults,
on Jones’s orders, would hide in nearby bushes or even in the bottom of
the well, making noises and pretending to be monsters. (Reiterman
with Jacobs, 1982: 394)
further recounted the punishments Tommy Bogue, a
teenager around sixteen years old, and another boy who tried to escape
Once when Tommy Bogue and another
boy ran off, a Temple search squad caught them near the railroad tracks to
Matthews Ridge, then put the boys in leg irons. Back in Jonestown, their heads
were shaved and they were forced under armed guard to cut logs into small
pieces until Stephan Jones got his mother to intervene. (Reiterman
with Jacobs, 1982: 294; see 551)
Bogue was among the people who tried to leave
Jonestown with Congressman Leo Ryan, and he was shot in the leg (Reiterman with Jacobs, 1982: 551). Hall failed to mention
that one of the wounded defectors was a teenager (see Hall 1987: 279).
one of Hall’s sources also wrote about
a trench, roughly nine feet deep by nine feet square, where
the slackers were dumped…. A few children who maintained they were sick
and unable to work were lowered into that excavation and made to dig in the
mud, first light till last light. (Reiterman with
Jacobs, 1982: 357)
As far as I
can determine, however, Hall also omitted these punishments in his rendition of
Corporal Punishment in Protestantism
had believed that the accounts of either Mills or Reiterman
with Jacobs were inaccurate, then he could have criticized or qualified their
statements, as he did on other issues (see Hall, 1987: 167 [criticizing Reiterman with Jacobs], 338 n. 13 [qualifying Mills]).
Instead, when he discussed the physical child-abuse incidents that they had
reported, Hall dramatically downplayed their extensiveness, their severity, and
their variability. As I have indicated, therefore, his downplaying and
under-representation of various abuses is my first criticism of his use of
Peoples Temple and Jonestown’s child-abuse incidents. By using them,
however, he could putatively locate the abuses within the context of historical
and contemporary Protestantism. Locating them in this manner was crucial for
his argument, which was that most of the evils of Jones and Jonestown
“were widespread and sometimes institutionalized practices in the wider
society” (Hall, 1987: 309; see xviii; also see Hall, 1982: 49; 2000: 42;
B. Moore, 1989: 551; Rigney 1988: 468). The anticult
movement focused on “Temple methods, healings, money-making schemes,
glorification of a prophet, intimidation and punishment, public relations, and
political manipulations” (Hall, 1987: 309); but (Hall asserted) these
issues were similar to what went on within society at large, and in that broad
societal context did not receive scrutiny from the anticult movement.
Herein lies the second major
problem with Hall’s account: He minimized the extreme and damaging
punishments against children by trying to equate them with the punishments that
various historic and contemporary Protestants and modern Christian-related
sects inflicted upon their own children. The section in which he attempted the
comparison between Jonestown and Protestantism is worth quoting at length:
Physical punishment in the [Peoples] Temple certainly
exceeded normative standards of the modern middle class, but Temple members
were not predominantly middle class. Disciplinary practices of Peoples Temple
more resembled those of stern Protestants, from the Puritans of seventeenth
century New England to some modern fundamentalist sects. The extremes of
Protestant discipline are marked by a Michigan sect whose members accidentally
beat a child to death for his sins in 1984. More representative of the
sensibility is [the] Northeast Kingdom Community, a contemporaneous Christian
religious community in Island Pond, Vermont, whose members had no apologies for
using rods and switches for ‘loving correction’ of children, even
if it left marks on their bodies.
By a Puritan standard like that of Island Pond, Temple
discipline was not excessive. (Hall, 1987: 125)
however, about Hall’s analogy between Peoples Temple and Puritan and
fundamentalist Protestant punishments is that, by minimizing their severity, he
replicated a criticism that he had made of the anticult movement. He had
criticized that movement for ignoring issues of coercion in mainstream
religion, but he downplayed the severity of the physical and emotional child
abuse that brutal corporal punishment entailed in the Peoples Temple by
analogizing it with Protestant child-rearing practices.
Hall was at
least correct in pointing out that the beatings Jones oversaw on children bore
some resemblance to ones that children suffered in various forms of fundamentalist
and sectarian Protestantism (see, for example, Ellison, 1996; Ellison, Bartkowski, and Segal, 1996). For example, the
groundbreaking book on Protestant punishment techniques was Philip Greven’s Spare the Child: The Religious Roots of
Punishment and the Psychological Impact of Physical Abuse, and it appeared
in 1991, which was two years after Hall’s Jonestown study. On the issue
of beating children, Greven was unequivocal in
identifying “the pervasiveness of such views about physical punishment among
fundamentalist, evangelical, and Pentecostal Protestants, as well as many
Americans of other persuasions, both religious and secular” (Greven 1991: 40). Among those groups, “Puritan
parents were among the most abusive in using the rod upon their children’s
bodies and wills” (Greven, 1991: 133).
Jones’s religious background included Pentecostal and Holiness theologies
along with ordination in the Disciples of Christ (see Hall, 1987: 19–28),
so this historical context was useful.
contemporary (supposedly) Protestant sects, however, to which Hall drew
analogies, were ones whose practices the anticult movement had specifically
been concerned about for a long time and that many critics called
‘cults’ (see Langone and Eisenberg, 1993: 332–334). One sect
turned out not even to have been Protestant, and the other was by no means
representative of American Protestantism.
Corporal Punishment in the House of Judah
The unnamed Michigan
group that Hall mentioned was the House of Judah (also known as Black Hebrew
Israelite Jews)—a group whose violent activities had attracted the
attention of cult-monitoring organizations of the period.
Contrary, however, to Hall’s claim, it was not a Protestant group,
since its members read only the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament (Helfer,
1983: 3). Moreover, the beating death of a twelve-year old child (John Yarbough) took place in July 1983 (not 1984, as Hall
indicated), with his mother (Ethel Yarborough) being convicted of involuntary
manslaughter in February 1984 (Detroit Free Press, 1984). At the
cult’s religious camp, the adolescent “repeatedly refused to do his
chores,” which included chopping and hauling wood, digging dirt used to
repair a road inside the camp and hauling pails of water” (Ray, 1983:
1A). For this refusal, adults put him in stocks and beat him “30 times on
the butt” with a broomstick-sized wooden pole. One or more blows hit his
spine, which killed him (Ray, 1983: 1A). In what cult apologists likely would
call an atrocity tale, John’s brother, Daniel, eventually would testify
under oath that his brother had been “beaten on at least 40 occasions by
sect members, one of whom once tried to lift the youngster by the ears with a
pair of pliers” (Detroit News, 1986). In response to the death,
authorities removed sixty-six children from the camp, and eventually secured
the conviction of the cult’s leader, William Lewis, and five others to
between two- and three-year federal prison terms “for conspiring to
enslave sect children and causing a boy’s death” (Mitzelfeld, 1986).
professor and medical doctor, Ray E. Helfer, assessed
the children, and he observed:
...these nutritionally healthy bodies have been moderately to
severely injured by repetitive beatings and other physical insults. Of the
first 50 to 55 children examined by a physician after John [Yarbough]’s
death a full 20% had signs of severe physical abuse. For the children greater
than five years of age this percentage increases to approximately 40% and for
the boys in this age range, the figure is 70% to 75%. Thus, the likelihood of a
male child reaching adolescence without showing physical signs of severe abuse
to his body is less than 25%, possibly even less. (Helfer,
1983: 2; see Langone and Eisenberg, 1993: 333)
wrote in conclusion:
The children of the House of Judah have been reared in a
manner unacceptable to any and all standards. Their bodies [are] seriously and
permanently injured, their intellectual capacities underdeveloped, minimal
decision making and problem solving abilities have been taught, the basic
concepts of delayed gratification underdeveloped, feelings and their
expressions denied, trust misguided and nongeneralizable
with fear serving as the foundation of the way of lives….
Being reared in the House of Judah is physically unsafe and
developmentally destructive. (Helfer, 1983: 10)
Hall’s attempt to analogize the beating of children in Peoples Temple to
the beating in the House of Judah works far better than he ever imagined, even
though the group was not Protestant and the boy’s deadly beating was not
“for his sins” (Hall, 1987: 125). Adults beat him to death because
he refused to perform slave labour, and one wonders
if ‘slavery’ would also have been an appropriate term for the
conditions in which the Peoples Temple children lived and died.
to contextualize, therefore, Peoples Temple’s corporal punishment of
children within fundamentalist Protestantism, Hall inadvertently showed that
such behaviours occurred outside of a Christian
context, and were criminal in nature. Moreover, true “atrocity
tales” assisted a United States District Court judge to reach his
decision that six key adults in leadership positions deserved federal prison
time. Alas, future generations are unlikely to be able to draw these
alternative conclusions about Hall’s use of the House of Judah in an
attempt to normalize the physical violence that occurred at Jonestown. They are
unlikely to be able to do so because none of the book reviews written about Gone
from the Promised Land (Bainbridge, 1989; Baptiste,
1988; Christiano, 1989; B. Moore, 1989; Rigney, 1988; Snow 1990; Wright 1989), nor any of the
subsequent academic discussions about Jonestown that I have seen (for example, Chryssides, 1999; Dawson, 2006; Gallagher, 2004) have
critiqued Hall on his child-abuse discussion. Moreover, only a few paragraphs
exist on the House of Judah in two academic publications aside from this one (Landa, 1990–1991: 592 n.1; 610; Langone and
Eisenberg, 1993: 333).
Punishment in the Northeast Kingdom Community
had alluded to the House of Judah only when attempting to contextualize Peoples
Temple’s corporal punishment of children, he specially identified by name
the Northeast Kingdom Community as a better example of a group demonstrating
“[t]he extremes of Protestant discipline.” To reiterate his
statement about it, he described it as “a contemporaneous Christian religious
community in Island Pond, Vermont, whose members had no apologies for using
rods and switches for ‘loving correction’ of children, even if it
left marks on their bodies” (Hall, 1987: 125). On this much Hall was
correct, and a significant body of academic literature does exist about this
group that academics in the future will be able to read about its practices.
Unfortunately, key elements of that scholarship misrepresent crucial issues in
the sect’s stormy relationship with authorities over corporal punishment
and child-protection issues.
facts about a 1984 raid against the Northeast Kingdom Community are well known,
and Hall cited two New York Times articles and one Christian magazine
article about it. On June
22, 1984, police officers, accompanied by social workers and nurses, raided the
community, removing 112 children. The next day, however, a judge overturned the
raid on grounds that the search warrant was too general and did not mention
specific alleged crimes against specific children who were living in specific
buildings (Mahady, 1984a, 1984b). At least nine
academic and academically related articles have appeared about this group and
the raid against it (Bozeman and Palmer, 1997; Malcarne
and Burchard, 1992; Palmer, 1998, 1999; 2001; Swantko, 2000 [then revised, updated, and reprinted in
2004], 2005–2006; Swantko and Wiseman, 1995);
and the author/co-author of four of these is the Northeast Kingdom
Community’s lawyer, Jean Swantko.
publications, Swantko blamed the raid on the anticult
movement, specifically on Priscilla Coates, who was active in the Citizens
Freedom Foundation, and deprogrammer Galen Kelly, who had deprogrammed at least
one member. According to Swantko, Coates and Kelly
“prevailed on the Attorney General’s Office and the Governor
himself to adopt as true” a collection of unreliable evidence that a
state team of investigators had gathered from a dozen former members from
around the country (Swantko, 2004: 184). Indeed,
“these two antireligious zealots” (as Swantko
called them [Swantko, 2004: 184]), “provided
the fodder for local law enforcement to compile a 32-page affidavit used to
secure the warrant, which was replete with unfounded stories of abuse strewn
with erroneous and sensational interpretations of doctrine” (Swantko, 2004: 184). Nothing in Swantko’s
articles, nor in any of the articles in which Susan Palmer was the author or
contributor, gave any credence to the possibility that authorities acted on
compelling evidence, or that Coates and Kelly were speaking in the community
and talking to authorities because they had genuine, well-founded concerns
about children’s welfare. Indeed, a review of media accounts
about the Island Pond community before the raid paints a very different picture
than what Swantko presented—one of serious,
documented physical abuse against children, and a religious group that was
uncooperative with authorities who were acting on behalf of children’s
Accounts of Child Abuse in Island Pond’s Northeast Kingdom Community
that appeared in the Hartford Courant (and was reprinted in
Florida’s St. Petersburg Times) at the end of 1982 provided a
litany of problems that local residents were having with the Island Pond
community, all the result of actions and policies of the Northeast Kingdom
Community itself. These actions and policies were not things that residents
learned about from anticultists; they learned about
them simply from living in the same community with members of the group (Cockerham, 1982).
three years of Northeast Kingdom members moving to Island Pond in 1979 (Palmer,
2001: 213), tensions with local residents festered over a number of issues.
Specifically regarding the group’s care of children, residents had
figured out that the group illegally exempted its members from normal registry
procedures involving births and deaths. As locals realized, “the group
refuses to record births or deaths. They [sic] have a registered
graveyard on church-owned land, although no one knows of any mortalities”
(Cockerham, 1982: 6; see Harrison, 1984: 61). This
refusal was particularly troublesome regarding children, since officials had no
way of identifying or tracking their health and safety.
regarding children, townspeople saw and heard firsthand how the adults in the
group punished their children. In essence, townspeople such as Bernard Henault observed them “‘disciplining their own
children on the street’” (quoted in Cockerham,
1982: 6). Almost certainly, “disciplining” often meant hitting
their children. For example, former members Charles and Tommye
decided to leave [the group] because they objected to the way
the group treated its children. ‘The kids are punished for almost
everything, asking for more food or not speaking to adults they pass on the
street.’ Brown and his wife, who are childless, said the punishment
ranges from whippings to being locked in their rooms for as long as a week. He
also said the food is barely enough to survive on. (quoted in Cockerham, 1982: 6)
Apparently, Tommye Brown had testified about the beatings during a
previous, high-profile custody case, since, in late November 1982, Newsweek
reported that, during the trial,
witnesses testified that all of the Kingdom’s children,
from tots to teens, received frequent and lengthy bare-bottom thrashings with
wooden rods—during which they were supposed to smile and thank their
elders…. ‘I couldn’t stand what they were doing to their
children,’ said Tommye. ‘I couldn’t
stand listening to them cry.’ (Zabarsky, 1982)
tensions between the local community and the Northeast Kingdom came from
interactions that members from each group had with one another while living and
working in proximity. Coates and Kelly from the Citizens Freedom Foundation did
not have to generate allegations of physical abuse against Northeast Kingdom
Community children—Island Pond residents apparently saw instances with
their own eyes, heard the beatings going on in a Northeast Kingdom community
house (Sexton 1983: 25), and read about other instances in the local press.
to information about children allegedly being beaten within the Northeast
Community, local citizens also learned from the press that Lydia Mattatall, one of a defector’s children, essentially
had been kidnapped. Ex-members relayed that the defector’s former wife
“‘gave’ her to [leader Elbert Eugene] Spriggs as a faith
gesture” (Nickerson, 1983: 81), and Spriggs took her to Europe. In her
scholarship, Susan Palmer mentioned Lydia was with Spriggs; Swantko
did not. Palmer indicated that “members claim that [mother] Cindy Mattatall gained her husband’s consent prior to this
arrangement [involving Lydia living with Spriggs], but when he was disciplined
by the community in Boston, he decided to claim his daughter was
‘kidnapped’” (Palmer, 1999: 170). Even if this were true,
however, when the father, Juan, demanded custody of his daughter, “the
church has ignored a court order to return her,” and (on December 28,
1982) members “were told to pray for his death. One elder of the sect
rose during a ‘body meeting’ of baptized members and described a
dream in which Juan’s throat was slit and his head lopped off”
(Nickerson, 1983: 81; see Braithwaite, 1983: 1). Moreover, no reasonable
explanation comes to mind about why the group leader would want to raise
someone else’s young daughter in the first place, especially thousands of
miles from the parents themselves. No indication exists, for example, in
anything that I have read, that the mother gave her daughter to Spriggs out of fear
that her husband was a child molester, as might be inferred from Swantko’s comments and subsequent evidence about the
disappearance was not the first time that a young girl had gone missing from
the Northeast Kingdom Community at Island Pond. In 1980, a Northeast Kingdom
member kidnapped his daughter, Gabrielle Spring Howell, from her
grandmother’s house in Tennessee and brought her to Island Pond.
Gabrielle Spring’s mother found her and was trying to flee with her when
Northeast Kingdom members (or her husband himself—accounts vary)
“ran her off the road and snatched the child again.” Her father
took her to Europe; but three years later (when she was seven years old), her
uncle tracked her down in Spain and returned her to her mother in Alabama, in
March 1983. Spring (which was the name she went by) “told her family on
her return that she was beaten, forced to do physical labor, milk goats and
scavenge for nuts and berries to feed the cult” (Ottawa Citizen,
1983; see Daley, 1985: 154–155). Moreover, upon her return, she bore
scars on her legs and buttocks that her mother, once a member
of the church, claims are the result of whippings administered by sect members.
‘These are sick and dangerous people who would do this to a child in the
name of Jesus,’ the mother, Deborah Heflin 26, said in a telephone
interview.... (Nickerson, 1983: 87)
doctor in Alabama examined Spring, and he reported that “she had
‘multiple, long, narrow, discolored scar tissue areas over the ...
buttocks and posterior thighs—the result of severe blows to this area
with a rod-like instrument’” (quoted in Daley, 1985: 155).
out, too, that Spring had babysat Juan Mattatall’s
daughter, Lydia, in Europe. The information that she brought back, however, was
deeply disturbing. Detective Corporal Peter M. Johnson filed a report about his
interview with Spring, indicating that she told him,
During the time in Spain, Spring was severely disciplined by
Kirsten Nelson and Gene and Marsha Spriggs. Spring Howell advised that she was
hit all over with a stick with her clothes off. During the interview, Spring
showed concern for children that [sic] were still with the group; Spring
named Lydia (Lydia Mattatall), Semony
Daniel and Benjamin Sayer that [sic] they were
still getting beaten; Spring advised that during breakfast, if she asked for
more food, she would get a beating. Spring was suppose[d] to take care of Lydia
Mattatall and advised that Lydia was still in
diapers; Spring got a spanking for lying about Lydia wetting the bed. (Johnson
information that the police officer received from Spring’s mother, his
Deborah Heflin advised that at one point, approximately 3½ years
ago, she was forced to watch as Gene Spriggs and James Brooks hit Spring with a
stick until she bled; Deborah advised that Spring was scarred up when she came
home from Spain and that a few weeks after she returned, photographs were
taken; Deborah gave this officer written permission to obtain the
photographs.... (Johnson, 1983a: 2)
therefore, that the founder and leader of the Northeast Kingdom Community was
practicing corporal punishment against children, not to mention requiring a
child to care for an infant. About a month after officer Johnson filed this
report, and in a surprise twist of fortune, Mattatall
recovered his daughter, in October 1983, when Canadians living on Cape Sable
Island, Nova Scotia who had seen a television show about the group recognized
Spriggs and phoned both the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and Canadian
Broadcasting Corporation television (Gorham, 1983).
provided by defector Arthur Fritog (apparently in
established the connection between the alleged beating behavior by the leader
and his wife in Spain and the probable beating practices in Island Pond,
Vermont. Fritog departed the group after having
attended the meeting where two elders asked baptized community members to pray
for Juan Mattatall’s death. As a Vietnam War
veteran told a friend at the time, however, “‘I’ve watched a
lot of men die, and I’ve been party to a lot of men dying…. I
assured him that nobody knew what death was. I could not ask for a man to die,’”
so he left the meeting and departed from the group (quoted in Braithwaite,
1983: 1). In Fritog’s accounts about what life
was in the Northeast Kingdom Community, he revealed:
Methods of child discipline at the Island Pond community have
been dictated in a series of messages from Mr. Spriggs and his wife, based on
their experiences with three-year-old Lydia.
One method, called scourging, involved tying a nude child
face down on a bed and striking the entire body with a thin wooden balloon
stick. Mr. Fritog said he had seen the technique used
on a two-year-old girl. (Braithwaite, 1983: 23)
If true, then
Fritog’s information established a clear link
between the beatings that Spring received in Spain—the results of which
police had summarized in a police report and had seen in photographs—and
messages received and followed by Northeast Kingdom residents from the leader
and his wife in Europe, both of whom had been involved with beating the young
What at the
time appeared to be unfortunate confirmation that Northeast Community elders
were following the Spriggs’s instructions about
scouring came when Constance and Roland Church reported that elder Charles
“Eddie” Wiseman had scourged their thirteen-year-old daughter, Darlynn, over a period of seven hours. Detective Johnson’s
report indicated that he and a person from Social and Rehabilitation Services
taped a statement from Darlynn in which she
Advised that she was sent from the room and the adults stayed
and had a meeting. Darlynn was called back into the
room and told she was going to be disciplined for lying. Darlynn
was stripped to her underpants and told to put her hands on a window sill. The
accused then hit the victim with a long, thin piece of wood (balloon stick).
According to Darlynn she was hit and then questioned….
The victim advised that this lasted from approximately 0930 until 1630 hours.
(Johnson, 1983b: 2)
the police report, Detective Johnson also submitted a copy of a medical report
written by a physician at a local hospital, which “indicated that linear
scars were present on legs and would be consistent with the victim’s
statement” (Johnson, 1983b: 2).
Darlynn’s father, Roland Church, who was present in
the room during the beating, confirmed his daughter’s story. He indicated
that the men who beat her “suggested that the rod be an extra long one
and that they should strip her down to her waist, down to her panties”
(R. Church, 1983: 3). He also indicated that the men talked to her for about
“an hour before the discipline started,” and it lasted “until
4:30 in the afternoon.” The men overseeing her beating would stop
scouring her for “ten to fifteen minutes until they pried information out
of her,” then start the whipping again (R. Church, 1983: 3). Likewise, Darlynn’s mother, Constance Church, confirmed her
daughter’s story, since she, too, witnessed it. The man beating her
daughter, she said, used long balloon sticks as the whips (C. Church, 1983: 5).
Although crucial aspects of this family’s accounts would change in the
future, before the raid there was strong evidence that adults were scourging
children, as the Spriggs couple had instructed.
evidence of physical abuse came forward in late August 1983, when Brenda
Hebert, who was the wife of a Northeast Kingdom Community member, produced for
the police seven photographs she had taken of children whom she said had been
injured, sometimes bleeding, from beatings. One picture was of a baby’s
bottom—the child was still in diapers; Hebert claimed the child had been
beaten for a week (Hebert, 1983: 4–5). Still another allegation of a
nine-month-old being physically abused came to light in March 1984, when
defector Jeff Jenke indicated that, in the community,
a baby with broken bones had been hit with “sticks,” and the people
in the church said that the breaks were from rickets (Jenke,
1984: 5–6; see Hebert, 1983: 3).
Social and Rehabilitative Services knew that a serious problem existed
regarding the physical abuse of children in Island Pond’s Northeast
Kingdom Community. Authorities had similar accounts of beatings coming from
multiple sources over a period of years. They also had medical reports that
corroborated people’s statements, and they even had photographs showing
the damage caused by children having been beaten with balloon sticks. Moreover,
police and social services had no way of knowing whether any children had been
sufficiently injured to have required medical attention, since one member of
the Northeast Kingdom Community already had been convicted of practicing medicine
without a license (Lium, 1982; O’Dea, 1984).
Likewise, officials could not even be sure that no children had died from the
physical abuse, since the Community operated its own graveyard, refused to
register births and deaths, and at every juncture refused to cooperate with
them. The lack of cooperation had gone so far as a Community member hiding a
stillborn baby’s body from authorities in 1980 (Kenney, 1980).
facts in mind, a raid against the Northeast Kingdom Community was inevitable.
Any efforts by subsequent authors such as Jean Swantko
to blame it on “anticultists who try to use the
legal system” (Swantko, 2000: 342), or Susan
Palmer, who saw the raid as a consequences of anticultists
who “created a portrait of a nefarious cult habitually cruel to
children” (Palmer, 1998: 201) clearly are attempts to scapegoat
responsibility away from the group itself. After Judge Mahady
threw out the warrant and any possible evidence that authorities acquired, the
Commissioner of Social and Rehabilitation Services for the Vermont Agency of
Human Services, John D. Burchard, Ph.D., wrote a
clear (and to my mind, compelling) justification for the raid and the continued
need to provide protection to Northeast Kingdom Community’s children. Swantko called this statement a “self-serving
justification” (Swantko, 2000: 353), but it
actually seems to have been an accurate account of the decision-making
processes that led up to the raid itself.
considerable understatement, Burchard let readers see
how surprising it was that Judge Mahady would have
squashed the state’s intervention into the Community on behalf of its
children, since he himself had commented strongly on the group’s corporal
punishment in a previous case. In that case, Mahady
‘At all material times, while the children have been
residing at the religious community, they have been subjected to frequent and
methodical physical abuse by adult members of the community in the form of
hours-long whippings with balloon sticks. These beatings result from minor
disciplinary infractions.’ (quoted in Burchard,
Although Burchard said little else directly about Mahady’s decision, the clear implication was that, in
ruling to dismiss the raid, the judge allowed a social environment to continue
that even he realized fostered physical abuse.
Swantko claimed that “antireligious zealots, Kelly
and Coates, prevailed on the Attorney General’s Office and the Governor
himself to adopt as true the unreliable information collected by two state
employees sent to investigate” former members around the United States (Swantko, 2000: 347). Burchard,
however, pointed out that many of the incidents that contributed to officials
believing in the necessity of the raid had appeared in the media,
and much of the evidence also included “sworn statements from witnesses
and victims and there are photographs corroborating several of these
incidents” (Burchard, 1984: 5). Religiously
bigoted information from “anticult zealots” played no role in the
officials’ decision, especially since many of the incidents, and much of
the supporting evidence were local to the Island Pond area.
specifically naming the cases involved, Burchard
presented “some of the specific allegations” that gave police and
social-service workers great alarm about the safety of the Community’s
1. A named four-year-old child who was hit fifteen to twenty
times with a rod for imagining that a block of wood was a truck.
2. A named seven-year-old girl who was stripped naked by
several persons besides her father and spanked for asking for some food. The
spanking continued until her bottom bled.
3. A named thirteen-month-old female child spanked for not
taking food from someone other than her parents. The spanking led to bruises on
both legs and her buttocks.
4. A named three-and-one-half-year-old boy disciplined until
his back was bleeding.
5. A named thirteen-year-old girl who was stripped to her
underpants by several men and hit with a rod for being deceitful. The
discipline lasted over a period of several hours and produced more than eighty
welts on her body.
6. A named eleven-year-old boy who was hit with a 2 x 4 eight
times for laughing at a church member. A large blister and bruise resulted from
the discipline. (Burchard, 1984: 5)
Burchard certainly captured the feelings of many Island
Pond citizens when he offered, “any person who reads the published
accounts of the disciplinary practices of the church must believe there is
reasonable evidence that child abuse may have occurred” (Burchard, 1984: 5; see Malcarne
and Burchard, 1992). He also was aware of how severe
(if not deadly) child beatings in closed communities can be, because he had
consulted with Michigan officials concerning what had transpired within the
House of Judah (News Tribune, 1984).
Judge Mahady’s objections to the raid, of course, were not
because he doubted the probability that adults were inflicting child physical
abuse upon children; rather, they were largely because the warrant was not
specific in naming alleged victims and their exact locations. Burchard, therefore, both examined whether the state had
any alternative to initiating a raid on an entire community, and discussed
whether such a raid was legal from the standpoint of an action designed for
juvenile protection. On the question of possible alternatives, Burchard was very clear that the behavior of Northeast
Kingdom Community members toward authorities left his department with no other
choice than to issue a general warrant. Said succinctly, time and again,
Community members refused to cooperate with far less intrusive social-service
The problem that State has faced from the beginning is that
the church community appears to be purposefully organized to shield the
identity of the parents and children in question, and to allow them to thwart
the ordinary steps of due process which many critics seem convinced should have
worked successfully. (Burchard, 1984: 7)
discussing eleven instances (dating back only to 1982) when the Northeast Kingdom
Community had refused to cooperate with a variety of state agencies, Burchard concluded “that the church does not
recognize the state as having any authority to examine any of their children
under any circumstances” (Burchard, 1984: 10;
see 8–10; see Palmer, 1998: 194). Later he added, “the active,
unlawful resistance of the church was also extraordinary” (Burchard, 1984: 13). The noncooperation and actual
resistance of the Community members, individually and collectively, made it
impossible for the Attorney General’s office or Social and Rehabilitation
services to specify the names or specific locations of people or possible
evidence. The group members “file [tax] returns as if they were one
family” (Harrison, 1984: 61), and they acted as a unified front against
all of the state’s authorities and institutions designed to protect
detailed media and professional accounts of child physical abuse within the
Northeast Kingdom Community with the scholarship on the group, it is clear that
most scholars have buried or dismissed the former Commissioner’s
thoughtful statement about his perspective on the raid that his office had
conducted. If researchers, therefore, try to contextualize the child punishment
in Peoples Temple and Jonestown by following Hall’s suggestion and
looking at the Northeast Kingdom, then they likely will find articles by Swantko, Palmer, and a few others that conveniently neglect
to portray the severity with which that group apparently disciplined children
and teens. Hall greatly understated the severity of the group’s abuse
when he stated that members’ use of “rods and switches”
sometimes “left marks on [children’s] bodies” (Hall, 1987:
125), since in reality the beatings apparently also left bloodied and bruised children
This level of
corporal punishment clearly exceeded community standards outside the narrow
confines of some Protestant (mostly fundamentalist and evangelical) circles,
which Hall overlooked when he used the group’s corporal punishment actions
as indicative of a “Puritan standard” that was not excessive (Hall,
1987: 125). These actions were excessive and potentially harmful to the
children themselves, as historian Philip Greven
realized. In Spare the Child (1991), Greven
highlighted many of the beating allegations, and mentioned the raid as
“the result of several years of intense but frustrating investigation by
the Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services” (Greven 1991: 35). When discussing the harms caused by such
beatings, Greven identified the causal connection
between corporal punishment techniques involving “spankings, whippings
and beatings” of children and the development of sadomasochism in adults
(Greven, 1991: 174–186). “For many
adults,” Greven observed,
...sadomasochism in both erotic and nonerotic
forms is a direct consequence of the confusions generated by the combination of
love and pain in childhood, the long-tem outcome of the normal assaults and
abuse associated with physical punishment from infancy to adolescence. (Greven, 1991: 174)
this point, Greven concluded,
...the association of love, fear, and pain begin early and
remain embedded in the unconscious mind for life. Children from Island Pond,
Vermont, who have been beaten for disobedience, have sometimes insisted that
painful punishment is the proof of love. (Greven,
He quoted a
disaffected member who told a reporter, “’I have an eight-year-old
girl who is a masochist. She equates love with beatings’” (Greven, 1991: 175, quoting Juan Mattatall
in Sexton, 1983: 36). The ex-member had audio-taped that daughter insisting to
‘I know, the Lord wants you to spank us [herself and
her younger sister] if we’re disobedient. If you love us ... then
you’ll spank us. If you spank us, then you love us. If you don’t
spank us, then you don’t love us…. That’s what it says in the
Bible.’ (Greven, 1991:175, quoting daughter of
Juan Mattatall in Sexton, 1983: 36)
Greven concluded his section on the implications of
Northeast Kingdom Community disciplinary procedures by observing that
“the association of love and pain is inescapable when corporal
punishments are used” (Greven 1991, 176). It
seems wholly inappropriate, therefore, to continue Hall’s use of
fundamentalist and evangelical Protestantism to normalize the corporal
punishment at Jonestown. Such intense beatings are physically and emotionally
harmful to children regardless of the religious or secular context in which
Hall’s analogy involving corporal punishment in Jonestown and
conservative Protestantism, other forms of extraordinary discipline took place
under Jones’s supervision that have no Protestant parallels. Hall had to
downplay or ignore these other forms in order for his analogy to Protestantism
to appear superficially credible. I am not aware of Protestant children being
lowered into wells and terrified by adults hiding within them or within
surrounding bushes, and I am not aware of Protestant children being forced to
eat their own vomit. I have not seen any reports of Protestant children being
punished by ingesting hot peppers or having those peppers rubbed on their
rectums. Nor have I encountered examples of Protestant children being placed in
leg shackles and having their heads shaved. Hall’s effort, therefore, simply
failed when he attempted to ‘normalize’ the child physical abuse
inflicted by Jones and his followers by equating it to practices in
conservative Protestantism. Rather, the attempted analogy heightened awareness
of how uniquely brutal the Jonestown environment was on children. The brutality
reached its apex, of course, with the child murders.
The Child Murders
credit, Hall included information about the child murders that took place as
adults administered the poison to infants and children (Hall, 1987:
283–287). He reproduced some of the debate between member Christine
Miller and Jones in the minutes before the final act, in which she told Jones,
“’I look at all the babies and I think they deserve to
live’” (Christine Miller in Hall, 1987: 283; see Hall, 2000: 37;
and for a transcription of these final exchanges between Miller, Jones, and
others, see Maaga, 1998: 147–164). Concerning a
retort that Jones gave soon afterward to another member’s question about
how Jones could allow his precious little boy (John Victor, who was the subject
of an ongoing paternity battle [see Hall, 1982: 48–49]) to die, Hall
reported Jones as saying that he could not put the child’s life above the
lives of the others. Hall surmised that, “for the children, Jones held, life
was worse than death: ‘we give them [i.e., the governmental authorities]
our children, then our children will suffer forever’” (Jones in
Hall, 1987: 284; see also Jones quoted in Smith, 1982: 117). He described the
actions of the first two adults to pour poison down the throats of their
children, and he reproduced the comments of a Jonestown member who instructed,
“‘the older children help love the little children and reassure
them. They’re not crying from any pain; it’s just a little bitter
tasting’” (Judy James, quoted in Hall, 1987: 285; see Hall, 2000:
37). When yet another man tried to speak to the crowd, “the shrieks of
the children yelling ‘Noooo!’ swallowed
up his words” (Hall, 1987: 285). As Hall concluded in an early book
chapter on Jonestown, “many Jonestown residents did not willingly commit
the suicide” (Hall, 1982: 54).
Jones’s pronouncement that the cyanide would not cause convulsions, Hall
mentioned the action of Odell Rhoades, who “helped carry a young boy out
to the yard and gently laid down the life jerking with convulsions”
(Hall, 1987: 286; see a longer account in Feinsod,
1981: 198). Curiously, however, Hall did not provide the exact number of
children—around 276—who fell victim to the poisonings at Jonestown,
even though one of his sources was Kenneth Wooden’s
The Children of Jonestown, which provided this number in the first
sentence of its prologue (Wooden, 1981: 1; cf. Smith, 1982: 108, and Chidester, 2003: 154, both of whom gave the number of
infants and children at 260). Most of the 234 unidentified bodies were the
murdered children (R. Moore, 1988: 107, 109). Not always included in the body
count were Sharon Amos and her three children, who were away from Jonestown at
the time of the murder/suicides. After receiving instructions over the
short-wave radio to follow the lead provided by her comrades, she slit the
throats of her children, and then cut her own wrists (Feinsod,
1981: 210; see B. Moore, 1989: 183).
detailed examination of the dead people’s ages appeared in a 2004 study
by Rebecca Moore, who lost two sisters and a nephew (i.e., a sister’s
child) among the 918 or so people who died because of Jonestown (R. Moore,
2004: 61). She determined that “one hundred thirty-one (131) were
children under the age of 10; 234 were between the ages of 10 and 19...,”
which means that “more than one-third were under 20” (R. Moore,
2004: 64–65). (Presumably, Moore included nineteen-year-olds so that her
findings would encompass all teenagers, but the exclusion of eighteen- and
nineteen-year-olds would have allowed her to speak more clearly about the
number of children who died.) In
addition, “two hundred eleven (211) people were 60 and older, with
three-fourths of this segment being black females” (R. Moore, 2004: 65).
From these figures, “twenty percent of the members were over 60 years of
age…. Over a third of the population—36 percent—were infants,
children, and teenagers” (Sawyer, 2004: 169–170). (Moore’s
bar graph that presents ages makes it difficult to be precise, but apparently
around ninety people who died at Jonestown were in their seventies and around
twenty-five were in their eighties. One or two people appear to have been in
their nineties [R. Moore, 2004: 66). In sum, half or more of the people who
died at or related to Jonestown were of ages (young and old) at which
responsible adults should have been giving them varying degrees of care.
Instead, the presumed caregivers killed them.
inescapable reality that adults (often parents) murdered hundreds of children
in the final moments of Jonestown has caused problems for scholars who wish to
give interpretations of Jonestown that challenge anticult images of Jones as
the brainwasher who destroyed the critical minds of his followers. Respected
religious-studies professor Catherine Wessinger, for
example, wrote the introduction to Mary McCormick Maaga’s
study that attempted “to restore the humanity of the individuals who were
a part of People’s Temple” (Maaga, 1998:
xx). (The book’s front cover contains four pictures, each with a child or
children and an adult in normal, almost always happy, poses.) Toward this goal,
Most Jonestown residents agreed that their ultimate concern
was worth killing and dying for. The transcript of the last Jonestown meeting
[reproduced as an appendix in Maaga’s book]
provides evidence of peer pressure, persuasion, psychological coercion—by
the whole group, not solely by Jim Jones—but there is no evidence that
physical force was used to make people commit suicide. (Wessinger
in Maaga, 1998: xi–xii)
however, Wessinger seemingly contradicts herself in a
I am saying that, contrary to the media myth, we have no evidence
that there was any physical coercion to join the mass suicide. The witnesses
are dead. There is testimony of surviving witnesses of people willingly going
to participate in the mass suicide. Certainly the children did not choose to
die. Probably a number of elderly people did not have a choice. Dissidents in
Jonestown were drugged and kept confined. These people do not choose to die.
Able-bodied people could have escaped the suicide easily and some chose to do
so. My primary point here is that mass suicide could not have been carried out
without the agency of the able-bodied adults. (Wessinger
in Maaga, 1998: xii n. [italics in original])
words (and not even challenging her claim that able-bodied members easily could
have escaped rifle-carrying guards [see Chidester,
2003: 154]), at the very least the group used physical coercion probably
to kill dissidents and the elderly and certainly to murder the children.
the children of Jonestown suffered what surely has to be the cruelest and most
severe form of child abuse—murder, committed by their poisoning parents. A
surviving letter from Jonestown member Annie Moore (deceased sister of
Jonestown scholar Rebecca Moore) likely captured the attitudes that many of the
able-bodied killers felt about murdering the children. Annie Moore indicated,
‘I don’t relish the idea of participating in
killing the children and I don’t think anyone else does but I will do it
because I think I could be as compassionate as the next person about it and I
don’t hate children.’ (letter reproduced in Maaga,
restore the humanity of the individuals who were at Jonestown, therefore,
cannot gloss over the fact that roughly half of those people had their
humanity—their very lives—taken from them by other members acting
under Jones’s directives.
similar qualifications about the fate of the children appeared in David Chidester’s 1988 study (revised 2003), Salvation
and Suicide, which attempted to give a religious-studies perspective to the
tragic events. “For those who willingly embraced death through
revolutionary suicide, Jones described the conditions under which this could be
regarded as a meaningful act within the categories of symbolic orientation and
classification that operated in their shared worldview” (Chidester, 2003: 155; see Smith, 1982: 119–120). But
in the previous paragraph he had to acknowledge:
Finally, it would be difficult to suppose that the 260
of Jonestown all committed suicide. Babies were sacrificed first, perhaps to
signify to the adults that this was not a rehearsal, not another loyalty test,
but an act from which there could be no turning back once it had begun. (Chidester, 2003: 154–155)
scholars within religious studies want to find meaning for the suicides within
the group’s own theological system, for the children the final event was
infanticide. As even Hall admitted, “the organizational effectiveness of
People’s [sic] Temple for more than fifteen years and the actual
carrying out of the mass murder/suicide show that Jones and his staff knew what
they were doing” (Hall 1982: 36; Hall, 1990: 270).
‘cult wars’ continue to rage, as a few scholars persist in
publishing ideologically tainted studies designed to minimize or ignore real instances
of harm. In such studies, of course, these scholars have to neutralize or
deemphasize the child abuse that the adults far too frequently perpetrate upon
children. Sociologically, therefore, important social processes involving the
socialization of adults into abusers (not to mention, murderers) are crucial to
identify; and studies that ignore, sidestep, or downplay the range of child
abuses that adults perpetrated against children in Jonestown are overlooking an
important issue. It seems likely that they are doing so because close analysis
of groups’ deviant socialization processes will fuel anticultist
criticism of numerous groups. As a sociologist realized back in 1983,
The children of Jonestown were very thoroughly socialized.
For them, the [Peoples] Temple was not an alternative reality, a subuniverse, but the ground of their primary
socialization…. The primary socialization that the children of the Temple
was receiving, however, was taking place within a milieu designed more for the
secondary socialization of their parents—a milieu oriented toward those
who might be tempted to deny its reality. (Weightman,
questions about socialization are vital (see R. Moore, 1988: 130–131),
especially concerning how adults came to individual and collective positions
that allowed them to abuse and ultimately murder children.
Far too much
of the existing scholarship on Jonestown has avoided detailed examinations of
the child abuse in Peoples Temple facilities, probably for fear that such an
examination would feed the fires of the anticult movement with atrocity tales (Maaga, 1998: 39; see Hall, 1987: 107; R. Moore, 2009: 5,
116–118; Shupe and Bromley, 1982:
128–129; Swantko, 2004: 180–181; Weightman, 1983: 177–178). If, however, members of
the anticult movement are in fact looking at issues related to child abuse in
Jonestown and other ideological organizations, then they are pursuing an
important, and often neglected, research and social agenda. At this moment,
however, no comprehensive academic study of the child abuse within Peoples
Temple and Jonestown exists for future generations to read. In a discussion a
decade ago about why scholars were not ready to ‘close the canon’
concerning Jonestown, nowhere in lists of issues and data still needing study
were the plights of children (and for that matter, the elderly) mentioned (R.
Moore, 2000: 17, 22). Surely their lives and their deaths demand careful and
As I conclude
this article, I return a final time to one of the groups, the Northeast Kingdom
Community, that Hall used when he attempted to normalize the physical beatings
that Peoples Temple and Jonestown children suffered. An important glimpse into
the “subuniverse” of that group—one
that casts additional doubt upon its validity in providing normative
child-rearing practices, comes from a surprising source—a
child-turned-young-adult who had intimate knowledge of the world in which
spokesperson, lawyer, and scholar Jean Swantko lived.
Swantko not only is the group’s lawyer, but also is a
convert who (in 1991) married a leader, Charles “Eddie” Wiseman.
She had met Wiseman when she was a Vermont public defender assigned to defend
him on charges of simple assault, after he allegedly was involved in the beating
of a 13-year-old girl (a case that I mentioned earlier [Johnson, 1995: 24]).
whipping allegedly took place over a seven-hour interval, and the girl and her
father “told state officials [that] she had 89 welts” from it (Clendinen, 1984). A court
dropped the charges, however, in 1985 because the defendant had not received a
“speedy trial” (Swantko, 2004: 185), but
the state’s case had been damaged badly when the father of the girl
retracted his initial statements about the beating (Donnelly, 1984).
Years later, Swantko went so far as to indicate that “Members do
use corporal punishment, but abusive punishment is not taught or
condoned” (Swantko, 2004: 185). Certainly she
was in a position within the group to know about this corporal punishment,
since she became a stepmother to Wiseman’s children, one of whom was Zebulun (or simply Zeb) Wiseman.
In 2001, Zeb fled the group and spoke to a reporter.
“‘Growing up in there, I saw the inside scoop. There’s [sic]
a lot of things there that weren’t right…. Spanking kids, locking
them up’” (quoted in Wedge, 2001). Academics are likely to believe Swantko, who dismissed allegations of abuse, but her own
stepson, and others of his generation, have a different tale to tell. Academics
who ignore their voices run the risk of producing scholarship that, in the
future, will prove to be simply, demonstrably, wrong.
a dramatic reminder for people worldwide that demagogic, emotionally and
psychologically imbalanced (see Lys, 2005), but charismatic individuals can
both attract followers and do tremendous harm to them and their children. Their
deaths were the clearest possible warning that unaccountable leaders can spiral
downward with their flocks into destructive, even murderous behavior. The
clarity of this warning to future generations must include accurate accounts of
what the youth experienced, and it is highly regrettable that people in
generations to come will receive information that downplays the Jonestown
children’s suffering. It is equally regrettable that similar
diminishments of child abuse appear in accounts about young lives in other
groups. Academics who write apologetic or misleading accounts of life in
sectarian or ideological groups do an injustice to the lives of the people
about whom they write and a disservice to their readers in the years and
decades to come. Victimized children deserve more; and so, too, do the persons
who were (and are) active in anticult groups and who try to sound the alarm
about children’s plights.
Thanks go to Terra Manca and Ashley Samaha for their editorial suggestions.
The technical name of the group that followed Jim Jones (1931–1978) was
Peoples Temple, and the community that Jones and more than a thousand of his
followers established in Guyana was Jonestown. Often, however, people use
Jonestown to refer to the entire movement, and at times I may be guilty of
doing so myself.
use the ‘cult’ term in a manner that is in line with standard
dictionary (in this case, Webster’s) definitions as both a religion that
most people consider unorthodox and spurious, and a small circle of persons
devoted to an intellectual figure. In simple terms, Jones’s
self-deification, harsh punishments, and fake healings made his movement
unorthodox if not spurious in the eyes of many, and his combination of
Christianity and Marxism made him something of an intellectual leader (at least
in the eyes of his followers). I am also aware of the early attempt by an
opponent of the so-called anticult movement, James T. Richardson, to isolate
Peoples Temple and Jonestown from the debate around new religions and cults.
According to Richardson, most new religions developed in America during the
1960s or early 1970s; Peoples Temple began in the 1950s (Richardson, 1980:
241-242). Most new religions comprise Caucasians/whites; many of the Peoples
Temple members were African Americans/black (Richardson, 1980: 242).
Jones’s organization was more authoritarian than most new religions
(Richardson, 1980: 243-244). Peoples Temple grew more wary toward outside
society over time, while most new religions become less wary of the dominant
society over time (Richardson, 1980: 245-246). In a remarkable admission,
Richardson acknowledged that some of the resocialization
techniques that Peoples Temple used seemed to share “at least some
important facets with the thought reform model developed by R. J.
Lifton...,” while most new religions used resocialization
techniques closer to effective persuasion (Richardson, 1980: 247). Jones was a
socialist, whereas the new religions “reflect Western culture’s
emphasis on individualism” (Richardson, 1980: 248). Jonestown’s
members were not crazy or brainwashed in committing suicide; they committed
what Durkheimian sociologists call ‘altruistic
suicide’ (Richardson, 1980: 249). In addition, new religions tended to be
introversionist, whereas Peoples Temple attempted to
involve itself in the political process (Richardson, 1980: 251). Finally,
participants in most new religions engage in their groups’ rituals
sincerely and see symbolic meaning to their actions, while Jones probably “manipulated
ritual behavior to accomplish his own ends” (Richardson 1980: 251).
According to Richardson, even though Peoples Temple/Jonestown bore little
relation to the new religions, those groups were under increasing pressure from
deprogrammers, anticult groups, and even the Internal Revenue Service because
of the inaccurate analogies between the two (Richardson, 1980: 252). Suffice it
to say that no anticultist identifies a cult
according to the ages of its members or the racial composition of the group.
Nor does the time period in which a group emerges or flourishes influence a
cultic designation. Moreover, authoritarian leadership is more pervasive than
Richardson implied, which certainly can contribute to outsiders seeing a group
as spurious and cultic. In fact, many groups do engage in politics in varying
degrees, and now several of them also have committed murder/suicide. For anticultists, a major factor for labeling a group to be a
cult is a determination of harm caused by group actions, and this very determination
of harm often is what makes a group spurious in the eyes of many societal
As indicated by Rebecca Moore, “[t]his number includes four of
Congressman Leo Ryan’s party—including Ryan himself—and one
[Peoples] Temple member who were killed at the Port Kaituma
airstrip outside Jonestown, and four Temple members who died in Georgetown
[Guyana]” (Moore, 2004: 61).
According to the book’s cover, Ken Levi (PhD) taught sociology at the
University of Texas at San Antonio at the time of the book’s publication.
According to the back of the book, John R. Hall was an associate professor of
sociology at the University of Missouri-Columbia.
8 St. John (1993: 22) referred to the Edwin Mellen Press as “a quasi-vanity press cunningly
disguised as an academic publishing house...,” and manuscripts did not go
through a review process (St. John 1993: 24). Its owner, Herbert Richardson,
used the press’s proofreaders as a money-making enterprise and also
“threatened to take a quarter out of the proofreaders’ paychecks
for every mistake they corrected past a certain number” (St. John, 1993:
23). Richardson sued St. John and Lingua Franca over the article but lost; and
about a year after St. John’s article appeared, St. Michael’s
College (which is part of the University of Toronto system) dismissed
Richardson for “gross misconduct” (Lingua Franca, 2000). For a
short analysis of the libel case between Edwin Mellen
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About the Author
Stephen A. Kent, Ph.D.,
Professor of Sociology, University of Alberta, teaches undergraduate and
graduate courses on the sociology of religion and the sociology of sectarian
groups. He has published articles in numerous sociology and religious study
journals. His 2001 book, From Slogans to Mantras: Social Protest and
Religious Conversion in the Late Vietnam War Era, was selected by Choice:
Current Reviews for Academic Libraries as an "Outstanding Academic Title
International Journal of Cultic Studies, Vol. 01, No.