The Mutt’s Nuts

Where religion is about as attractive as a two week holiday in Afghanistan

Jim Jones and Joseph Smith

with 9 comments

Last night I watched a documentary on Jim Jones and Peoples Temple, something which I really knew very little about. By the end of the broadcast I felt really shaken – it’s the kind of programme that haunts you for a long time afterwards.

The story of Jones and his followers was very disturbing on several different levels. The terrible tragedy of so many unnecessary deaths was heartbreaking, especially as described by the few survivors, some of whose wives and children died in their arms, and who were still profoundly affected by their experience 30 years later.

The knowledge that one person could accumulate enough power over others that they would willingly poison themselves at his command was also incredibly troubling.

But for me, one of the most shocking aspects of the whole documentary was the description of Jones and his “religion”, because it wasn’t difficult to make connections between his behaviour and that of the founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Joseph Smith. Having previously been a Mormon for many years, I was shaken by the similarities exhibited by these two charismatic men. At times I almost felt as though I was watching a modern-day re-telling of the beginning of the Mormon church.

Let me say here that I don’t believe that Joseph Smith would have encouraged his followers to take their own lives. However, many of his qualities, experiences and actions were uncannily close to those of Jones in other ways.

Jones came from a poor family and grew up in a small town, as did Smith. He developed an interest in religion at a young age and so, by his own admission, did Smith. Jones became a preacher on the revivalist circuit. As a teenager, Smith acted as an “exhorter” at Methodist revival meetings, encouraging people to make a commitment to the church as they were touched by the message of the preacher. Both young men recognised the potential for influence that a religious leader held.

The messages of both men held broad appeal and attracted all types of people to their congregations. Both were well-known for their policy of welcoming whites and non-whites – in Jones’s case, African Americans, in Smith’s case, Native Americans. Admittedly, Jones’s determination to encourage desegregation was impressive and presumably built on a desire for racial equality. Smith’s rationale for gathering Native Americans into his fold, on the other hand, was rooted in religious belief. He taught that, anciently, the indigenous peoples of the Americas were of the House of Israel and, as such, were heirs to the blessings that God pronounced on the great patriarch, Abraham.

Jones and Smith were forced to relocate their growing band of followers in the early days of church growth, in order to better implement their visions for a more egalitarian society. They were both interested in the concept of “having all things in common” and encouraged church members to sell their homes and possessions and give the money raised to the church for redistribution more fairly, although in Smith’s case, this idea was met with enough resistance to prevent it from being implemented in any coherent way. However, both men did create communities that were set apart from the rest of society, giving them a committed power base that allowed them to mobilise hundreds, if not thousands, of people in support of the causes they espoused.

Both leaders were revered by their people and clearly revelled in this adoration, setting tests of their followers’ loyalty and commitment. In a horrible preview of the later events in Jonestown, Jim Jones arranged for drinks of Kool Aid to be given out during one church service, telling the congregation after they had drunk it that the juice was poisoned and then waiting to see their reactions. Smith devised a different kind of test, introducing the practice of polygamy, initially among the Mormon elite, much against their instincts and sensibilities. He charged one Mormon leader, Heber C Kimball, to give him (Smith) his wife. After much agonising, Kimball and his wife presented themselves to Smith, who then congratulated them on passing this test of their faithfulness and sent them home. (Smith later “married” Kimball’s 14 year-old daughter). Both Jim Jones and Joseph Smith had relationships with women (and in Jones’s case, men) outside of their marriage, using their position of church leader to accomplish this.

Smith and Jones both became involved in politics and accrued significant power in that area. Jones assisted Mayor Moscone to win a very close vote in San Francisco and was rewarded with the post of Head of the Housing Commission. Smith became Major of Nauvoo in Illinois and also launched an unsuccessful bid for the presidency of the United States.

Both men felt the force of opposition from mainstream society and were accused of law-breaking. Both eventually succumbed to an untimely death, as a direct result of their controversial lifestyles and teachings.

Towards the end of Jones’s life, he was addicted to drugs and clearly mentally ill. Meanwhile Smith definitely developed delusions of grandeur, at one point declaring that:

I have more to boast of than ever any man had. I am the only man that has ever been able to keep a whole church together since the days of Adam. A large majority of the whole have stood by me. Neither Paul, John, Peter, nor Jesus ever did it. I boast that no man ever did such a work as I. The followers of Jesus ran away from Him; but the Latter-day Saints never ran away from me yet. (History of the Church, Vol. 6, pp. 408-409)

However, I wonder if, ultimately, what both Jones and Smith offered people, over and above their own charismatic teachings and presence, was hope and idealism. Those who felt disenfranchised could join a community of like-minded people. Those for whom the prevailing religions of the day no longer met their needs could embrace new, almost revolutionary, religious ideas. Those who believed in social justice could feel that they were able to make a difference.

There is no doubt that Smith and Jones were clever manipulators. As one woman commented in the documentary, Jones’s actions seemed completely plausible at the time. However, both men managed to transcend mere personality cult and tap into the undoubted desire in many of their followers to be part of a movement that was working to create a better world – a utopia or a Zion. One might argue that it was their drive, their personality, their astuteness that allowed them to convince people to give up so much and follow them to a new life. And it was their narcissism that ultimately led to their downfall and put their loyal followers at risk. In Jones’s case, paying the ultimate price for relying on him to fulfill their dreams of freedom and equality.

Isla

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Written by islaskye

February 2, 2008 at 2:08 pm

9 Responses

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  1. And of course, on of the popular arguments for the truth of Jesus resurrection is the martyrdom of the Saints. People wouldn’t be willing to die for a lie, would they?

    StewartP

    February 2, 2008 at 3:02 pm

  2. Stewart,

    I’ve heard that argument, and it’s a silly one. If the martyrdom of the Saints validates the message of Christianity, then that means that the last acts of Muslim suicide bombers verify the truthfulness of Islam.

    Curmudgeonly Yours

    February 2, 2008 at 4:09 pm

  3. One difference is that early Mormonism was not built around the person of Joseph Smith. I’m in the middle of Joseph Smith Rough Stone Rolling and Bushman makes the point that the missionary efforts of early mormonism did not stress the role of Joseph Smith. Most converts joined having never met or seen the prophet. Smith’s theology and religious vision was so much more expansive and complex; he built systems and structures that diffused the authority away from himself which is partly to explain why Mormonism continued and grew beyond his own death.

    The complexity of the issues surrounding Joseph Smith have been enough to fuel debate and take up entire careers over the last 150 years. Jones seems to be a pretty cut and dry case. Crediting Joseph Smith’s success to the simple ‘charismatic leader’ explanation I think has been shown to be quite shallow scholarship, inside and outside of Mormon circles.

    Dave

    February 3, 2008 at 10:23 pm

  4. If Joseph Smith could logically be equated with Jones, the Church he helped to found would have died with him. But the fruits of the church, which Joseph Smith founded, continues to grow, fulfilling prophesy and confounding those who oppose it. It is the Stone that rolled out of the mountain without hands (Book of Daniel’s prophesy), rolling onward with a momentum which cannot be stopped. It is God’s restored truth.

    rricks

    February 4, 2008 at 2:20 am

  5. Dave,

    ***Crediting Joseph Smith’s success to the simple ‘charismatic leader’ explanation I think has been shown to be quite shallow scholarship, inside and outside of Mormon circles.***

    Firstly, nowhere does Isla claim to be scholarly and, secondly, she didn’t put Smith’s success down to the “simple ‘charismatic leader’ explanation”. She wondered if Smith’s success was due to more than just charisma.

    rricks,

    ***If Joseph Smith could logically be equated with Jones, the Church he helped to found would have died with him.***

    No, it’s your misreading of Isla’s post that reaches that point. If you could see beyond your defensiveness you’d realise that she wasn’t completely equating Smith with Jones, only pointing out that there were some similarities between the two people. She wasn’t saying that Smith equals Jones and Jones equals Smith. That would be silly.

    Curmudgeonly Yours

    February 4, 2008 at 6:43 am

  6. I think that the part of the documentary (I watched it yesterday and it’s on my mind today) that resounded so much with me was the feeling that one could never give enough, do enough or be enough for the organization of the Peoples Temple. I felt that way within Mormonism. If Mormonism is not a cult, then, it certainly has some cult-like attributes. The idea that the faithful followers poisoned themselves in the jungle is only one step further than the blood atonement, no? Destruction of the Expositor is quite similar to gunning down your critics, no? Fleeing places when you are under investigation is similar to the westward pioneer journey, no? Reinterpreting scripture to suit the needs of the organization, etc, etc.

    I saw loads of similarities and I have a suspicion that the people who have commented probably didn’t watch the Jonestown documentary. It’s difficult to see the similarities within groups when you belong to a group that prides itself on being ‘different’ than the others…Just my opinion

    HM-uk

    February 4, 2008 at 10:37 am

  7. Dave

    One difference is that early Mormonism was not built around the person of Joseph Smith.

    I think that Joseph Smith was indeed the focus of the early church – both for converts and for detractors. Not only did he travel to meet new members around the area, but the people who joined the young church eagerly sought him out also. As a living prophet, receiving revelations from God and developing doctrines as he went along, Joseph was undoubtedly the person that early church members looked to for guidance, reassurance and inspiration. He was also the main target of the church’s enemies. Like Jim Jones, he established an “inner circle” of associates who assisted him in leading the affairs of the church, but, although he did “diffuse” priesthood authority to others, as the Prophet and President of the Church he was the only one who retained all of the priesthood keys.

    Crediting Joseph Smith’s success to the simple ‘charismatic leader’ explanation I think has been shown to be quite shallow scholarship, inside and outside of Mormon circles.

    Well, I don’t pretend to be a scholar, although I’ve read a fair amount of Mormon history. I just express my own opinion. However, if you’d read what I said more carefully, you would have noticed that I didn’t attribute Smith’s success to simply being a charismatic leader.

    islaskye

    February 6, 2008 at 7:56 pm

  8. rricks

    continues to grow… rolling onward with a momentum which cannot be stopped.

    By all accounts that growth has slowed considerably in recent years – down from 8% in the 1980s to less than 3% since 2000, according to a Washington Post article this week. There are several other Christian denominations which are growing faster. Less than a third of all Mormons are considered ‘active’. How do you account for this, if the LDS church really is “God’s restored truth”?

    Also, I really don’t think the LDS church is confounding anyone.

    islaskye

    February 6, 2008 at 9:07 pm

  9. HM-uk

    I think that the part of the documentary (I watched it yesterday and it’s on my mind today) that resounded so much with me was the feeling that one could never give enough, do enough or be enough for the organization of the Peoples Temple. I felt that way within Mormonism.

    I agree that the LDS church is very demanding – and you’re right, however much you give to it, more is always expected.

    The idea that the faithful followers poisoned themselves in the jungle is only one step further than the blood atonement, no? Destruction of the Expositor is quite similar to gunning down your critics, no? Fleeing places when you are under investigation is similar to the westward pioneer journey, no? Reinterpreting scripture to suit the needs of the organization, etc, etc.

    I didn’t pick up on those comparisons, but I can see your point. Although I think that the Expositor episode was certainly a case of wishing to silence critics, I don’t know whether it can be called similar to gunning them down!

    It’s difficult to see the similarities within groups when you belong to a group that prides itself on being ‘different’ than the others

    That’s a good point. It’s also difficult to be objective about an organisation that requires your total loyalty and commitment.

    islaskye

    February 6, 2008 at 9:12 pm


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