In Jim Jones's Guyana compound, there hung a sign that spelled out in large white letters the familiar quote from Santayana that those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. It was prominent , hanging over Jone's jungle throne, and reporters confronting it have noted its irony, its "final irony", as one of them has put it. But the extent of the irony, and the literal aptness of that sign's witness in Jonestown, is even greater than might first appear. Almost the whole astonishing scenario was played out a century ago, not in a remote equatorial jungle, but in the 19th century wolderness of western Illinois.
In 1846, a utopian community called Bishop Hill was founded by a group of Swedes on a site 100 miles west of Chicago. Like many of the Peoples Temple members, the settlers of Bishop Hill had left their own country in the belief that they were at such odds, Spiritually and socially, with the conservatives established order there that they would be persecuted if they remained. Ill-educated and poor, they fell to the temptations of a gifted but ultimately mad preacher and healer who promised them the New Jerusalem, but brought them instead misery, ruin and, in many cases, death.
The Swedish preacher was Eric Janson, a visionary from his childhood who claimed the gifts of miracles, prophecy and healing. Like Jones, he attracted an early following of economic have-nots through his explosive, even volatile style, and the dramatic application of his various "gifts", particularly healing. Like many other seers before him, and like Jones himself, he predicted an iminent apocalypse, which, though it failed to materialize, had paradoxical but common effect in prophetic movements of intensifying his followers' faith in him. Those few rash enough to doubt openly his claims were violently reviled before congregation. "If I so willed", he would say heavily, " you would fall dead at my feet and go to Hell."
Janson's activities in Sweden brought him to the attention of the authorities.But they were concerned about limiting his or his followers' right of religious freedom, and the crown twice released him after he had been arrested by local officials, who recalled with fear earlier religious peasant rebellions.
Deciding that his destiny and that of his followers lay in a wilderness far from the religious and economic constrictions of Sweden, Janson purchased acreage in Illionis. He eased his simple followers's fears with promises not only of utopia, but also of a gift of tongues that would be visited on them at their arrival in the brave new world. Janson and his first settlers (more were to arrive annually for many years) journeyed by sea and canal to Chicago, and walked the final 100 miles to their new home.
There, a chance began to come over Janson. He began to speak of himself not only as a prophet, but also the reborn messiah. And he began to abuse his faithful in terrible ways. He harangued his followers late into the night, and awoke them before sunirse to be harangued again before sending them off to their regmented duties. Exhaustion was no excuse for not attending those compulsory sessions, and falling alseep in their course was considered a sin. Most settlers were forced to take their shelter, summer and winter, in tiny and mud dugots, where up to 40 of them would a space only 18 feet by 25 feet. Famly life nearly ended. Children were too great to burden to beget,and husbands were often separated from wives, though Janson lived with his own wife. He called her "Mother."
Illness among Janson's followers was a serious matter. Death, when it came, was pronounced retribution, and death came often. Exhauston, poor shelter and poor food took their toll, but cholera arrived with a boatload of followers one year, and smallpox another. Many fell dead in the fields of the wilderness Jerusalem, while many others, including one entire boatload, were perishing at sea in the efforts to reach it.
And if any of those who arrived wished later to flee Bishop Hill, they could not. Janson has posted a cadre of armed guards to prevent that.
While the physical miseries of Bishop Hill eased somewhat with the increased production of flax and the weaving of carpets (one fo the products of Jonestown), Janson's on madness continued to deepen. His social doctrines were subject to sudden change, an announcement was issued one day altering his view of marriage, for example, which was followed by mass ceremonies. Janson began to interfere constantly in his followers lives. As for himself, he had passed beyond the stage of messiah, and was now greater than God, shouting orders, heavenward, "I shall depose You from your seat of omnipotence," he threatened God, "and You shall not reign either in heaven or on earth, for you cannot reign without me." But Janson's madness was to go no further.
The blow that crippled Bishop Hill was a defiant escape by a husband, an American, and his wife, who was Janson's own cousin. Janson pursued them and kidnapped the woman, but eh case wound up before an astonished judge in Cambridge, Ill., who watched as the husband John Root, shot, and killed Janson in court.
Obviously, Janson and Jones shared much in common, especially the abilities of the true fanatic to delude themselves and their followers completely and to make their followers obey them in anything to meet their mad aims. Their most significant difference, and it is an illuminiating one, lies in the nature of their ultimate aims.
For Jones, religion was utlimately overshadowed by obessions, particularly the tormented messianic politics that led him to proclaim himself not only a reborn Jesus, but also a reborn Lenin. Janson, on the other hand, seems to have considered his political problems solved with his emmigration, and devoted himself to a tormented argument with God. There were none of the real or imagined conflicts, at least at the time of his death, that would have led him to demand the kind of extreme political acts that took place at Massada of the first century, the Mexican military academy of the 19th century, Okinawa in the 20th century, and Jonestown.
Bishop Hill lingered several years after Janson's death, chosing as its new leader a man as tyrannical as Janson had been. It prospered for a time in the boom of the 1850s, but saw it assets wiped out in the panic of 1857. Most of its people drifted into more common-place ways of life, but a few continued to seek their happiness in the promised social perfection of New Harmony. Ephrata, Oneida.Economy and other examples of failed religious communism that were once scattered through the wilderness of the old Northwest, and which are now obscure and forgotten.