Consultation on the Implications of Jonestown

The following special report was filed by Henry Soles, Jr., a black journalist minister, and television producer. He attended the conference described below (much of which was closed to outside news media) as a delegate and on assignment forCHRISTIANITY TODAY.

When cult leader Jim Jones’s dream of carving a Marxist utopia from the Guyana jungles ended in a nightmare of suicide and murder last November, shock waves ripped through the world religious community. United States church leaders tried to disassociate themselves from Jones and his pseudo-Christianity.

Black church leaders, however, were particularly bothered by the implications of Jonestown. The People’s Temple in San Francisco opened in 1971 in a rented building in a predominately black area. Jones’s followers, who at one time numbered 20,000, were estimated to be 80 percent black. Though Jones and virtually all of his ruling hierarchy were white (he often used the phrase “we blacks” in speeches to predominately black audiences), most of the Jonestown victims were black.

Because of this disturbing affinity among some blacks for Jones, more than 200 of the nation’s black leaders—mostly clergymen—attended a two-day conference last month, billed as “A Consultation on the Implications of Jonestown for the Black Church.”

The Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and the National Conference of Black Churchmen (NCBC), cosponsors of the conference, invited the delegates, who traveled at their own expense, to San Francisco’s historic Third Baptist Church, reputedly the oldest black church west of the Mississippi. There the delegates explored the meanings of People’s Temple, Jim Jones, and the catastrophic deaths of hundreds ...

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