Cults & Sects
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Cults & Sects

Free Huey Newton Rally | Post Office Square | Boston, MA (May 1, 1969) | Hall-Hoag Collection, Brown University

Revolutionary suicide as religion

precursors & aftermath of tragedy

What we’re reading

Kempton, “Revolutionary Suicide”

“Huey Newton was a hero to the alienated and a thug to the comfortable for pretty much the same reason: he was this stranger who had picked up the gun.” (Kempton 1973)

I included this review to provide a bit of background on/mainstream reception of Huey P. Newton, co-founder of the Black Panther Party.

Here’s Newton in his own words:

interview with Newton while incarcerated

Newton, “The Way of Liberation”

“It is better to oppose the forces that would drive me to self-murder than to endure them. Although I risk the likelihood of death, there is at least the possibility, if not the probability, of changing intolerable conditions.”

(Newton 1973, 5)

In defining “revolutionary suicide,” Newton says

Revolutionary suicide does not mean that I and my comrades have a death wish; it means just the opposite. We have such a strong desire to live with hope and human dignity that existence without them is impossible. When reactionary forces crush us, we must move against these forces, even at the risk of death.” (ibid.)

What does he mean by this? Do the transcript of “the Death Tape” and the events at Jonestown suggest Jones correctly understood or applied Newton’s concept? Why or why not? This piece might be helpful for trying to answer these questions:

Q042 Transcript

“We committed an act of revolutionary suicide protesting the conditions of an inhumane world.” (Jim Jones, November 1978)

I don’t want to linger on this or any of what Smith would call the “pornography of Jonestown.” But I did want you to see for yourselves the way that Jones appropriates and twists Newton’s concept of revolutionary suicide.

Hutchinson, “Black Women and the Peoples Temple in Jonestown”

“Despite the fact that nearly fifty percent of those who died were African American women (in a church that was itself at least 75% black), none of these literary and cinematic treatments [of Jonestown] have actually been by or about black women.” (Hutchinson)

This is pretty straightforward, but most people don’t know that Jonestown wasn’t a mass suicide or that Peoples Temple was majority-Black. I do a lot of yelling about this on the internets.

I also really appreciate Hutchinson explicitly naming our cultural (mis)memory of Jonestown as both historical amnesia and misogynoir.

Of her novel White Nights, Black Paradise, Hutchinson says

Many of the black female characters in White Nights, Black Paradise come to California at the tail end of the Great Migration. They are driven by the same “Promised Land” fever that spurred African Americans’ decades-long exodus from the South to the North. The church’s 1973 transition to the Fillmore community in San Francisco was the third leg of an internal migration that would culminate in Guyana. In a period in which most white mainline churches were segregated, Peoples Temple’s leadership was able to capitalize on blacks’ yearning for inclusion and cultural validation.

Given what we know from reading Weisenfeld, how might we understand Peoples Temple as a post-Great Migration community? Can we think of Peoples Temple as a religio-racial movement as Weisenfeld deploys the term? Why or why not?

Chidester, “Rituals of Exclusion and the Jonestown Dead”

“All the bodies had become black.” (Chidester 1988, 685)

David Chidester has done so much work to humanize the members of Peoples Temple, and I appreciate this article for a lot of reasons. But I am always and especially struck by the materiality of his analysis. For a lot of folks, Jonestown is a joke or a cautionary tale. For a lot of scholars, Peoples Temple is a historical oddity. Chidester does not dwell on the spectacle of the tragedy, but he insists we sit with the remains of the movement.

Standard analysis questions apply here as well, of course. What is Chidester arguing? How is he supporting that argument with evidence? Why does his argument matter?

Generally, Americans came to terms with the event by dismissing the people of Jonestown as not sane, not Christian, and not American, thereby reinforcing normative psychological, religious, and political boundaries around a legitimate human identity in America. These strategic denials were enacted in the ritual exclusion of the Jonestown dead. (Chidester 1988, 700)

Short version:

  • what happened to the bodies of the people who died at Jonestown?
  • why does the treatment of their bodies matter? what does it tell us about American religion?

The de Tocqueville epigraph also hit me pretty hard, especially in light of our Hutchinson reading:

[T]heir inferiority is continued to the very confines of the other world. When the Negro dies, his bones are cast aside, and the distinction of condition prevails even in the equality of death. (Alexis de Tocqueville 1:374, as quoted in Chidester 1988, 681).

(Also yikes, reading about funerary practices reinforcing social cohesion whilst we’re mid-pandemic is…oof, I don’t know. But it’s something, alright.)

Chidester’s argument has to do with American civil religion, which he defines as “the symbolic character of an unity in American society,” (1988, 698). You might remember that I don’t find American civil religion a particularly engaging or useful analytical lens; you might have also noticed that Chidester admits it’s been used so broadly as to be “diffused,” (ibid.). Ignoring for the moment “American civil religion”’s presumptive distance from white mainstream Christianity (because there is no distance tbh), what is Chidester saying about how America imagines itself with respect to religion?

“American civil religion defines itself by what it excludes.” (Chidester 1988, 698)

Pay particular attention to the “Tale of Two Cities” section at the conclusion. What meaning does he make of how Dover & San Francisco treated the bodies of the Jonestown dead? What do these cities’ treatment of Jonestown’s remains tell us about American religion? How does Weisenfeld’s emphasis on the specificity of place help us think about Chidester’s definition of American civil religion?

Take care of yourselves and one another over this Thanksgiving mini-break, friends. See you back here next week for MOVE.




This class explores common characteristics and popular depictions of religions on the fringes of American culture, often called cults or sects by nonmembers.

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Megan Goodwin

Megan Goodwin

author of _Abusing Religion_, co-host of “Keeping It 101: A Killjoy’s Introduction to Religion Podcast,” and wikipedia-certified expert on (ugh) cults

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