An Open Letter to the Committee on International Relations of the United States House of Representatives on the occasion of the 20th Anniversary of Jonestown, November 18, 1998

November 18, 1998 is the 20th Anniversary of the tragic incident in which Congressman Leo Ryan and his traveling companions, and some 900 members of the Peoples Temple died in Guyana. In the years since, the Peoples Temple at Jonestown has become a symbol of all that is wrong with religion and especially newer religions, frequently called "cults" in the media and popular discourse.

As scholars of religion and the religious life, especially of new religious movements, we take this opportunity to express our sympathy for the families who lost loved ones in Guyana and share their concern for the further disclosure of information concerning what occurred on that day so long ago.

Further, we deplore the use of this tragedy as an excuse for religious bigotry, especially in the stigmatization of new religious movements as destructive cults each with a potential for the same violence as occurred at Jonestown.

Much of the manipulation of the image of Jonestown has been made possible because of the continued inaccessibility of crucial documents. We are aware that the Peoples Temple was a congregation of a mainline Christian denomination, The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), and that through its denomination was a member of both the National Council of Churches and the World Council of Churches. As such it fit within the larger Christian community, its political ideology given a semblance of legitimacy by the popularity of Marxist liberation theology.

We are also aware that many documents essential to the understanding of what occurred at Jonestown were not released by the Committee on International Relations (then the Committee on Foreign Affairs) when its report on the death of Congressman Ryan was published. These documents were turned over to the Central Intelligence Agency and remain in its custody. Now, twenty years later, the need for keeping these documents away from the public no longer exists and we, the undersigned, respectfully petition the Committee to move to make these documents accessible to the academic community, the families of the deceased, and the general public.


J. Gordon Melton, Institute for the Study of American Religion
Massimo Introvigne, Center for Studies on New Religions, Turin, Italy
David G. Bromley, Virginia Commonwealth University
John Saliba, SJ, University of Detroit-Mercy
James T. Richardson, University of Nevada-Reno
Robert S. Ellwood, University of Southern California
Catherine Wessinger, Loyola University, New Orleans
Arthur L. Greil, Alfred University
Eileen Barker, London School of Economics
Jeffrey Hadden, University of Virginia
Susan Palmer, Dawson University, Montreal
Rosalind Hackett, University of Tennessee
Thomas Robbins, Independent scholar

Academic scholars willing to add their signature to this letter may E-mail CESNUR indicating their name and institutional affiliation

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