James Warren Jones: “visionary”, “defender of equality”, and a man of “un-bashed charity. ” During his rise to spiritual power these were all words used to describe Jim Jones. He and his church drew upon hundreds of followers, from all ethnic and racial backgrounds. His message was simple and effective; a gospel of social and racial equality. He brought this scripture to the masses, until 1978 when the unthinkable thrust Jim Jones into infamy. Gone was his gospel of equality and tolerance as the world learned of the sinister games Jones played with his followers, eventually leading them to ultimate betrayal.
Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of the Jonestown tragedy is simply the question why? What led over nine hundred devoted followers to commit mass suicide? From great humanitarian to mass murderer, allow me to present the Jim Jones story. Born of lowly origins in Indiana during the height of the great depression, Jim Jones came from a family divided in matters of race. His father was a devoted member of the Klu Klux Klan, a fact leading to Jim being exclusively raised by his mother due to his father’s views and behavior.
His mother was skeptical about organized religions but she did old a firm belief in spirits and instilled this belief in her son. Jones began his religious career as a student of ministry in the early 1950’s at a Methodist church but soon left when the church refused to allow African Americans in the service. Jones broke away from the mainstream religion and formed his own church, the results of which were eventually disastrous (Grolier, 1992). Initially named the Christian Assembly of God, Jones’ church had humble beginnings.
He preached a gospel of social and racial equality to his integrated congregation, at the same time presenting imself as the only source of survival in a hostile and soon to be destroyed world. Eventually changing the name of his church to the Peoples Temple, Jones and his followers engaged in numerous charitable activities while making racial integration central in their work and mission (Dawson, 156). His social gospel emphasized human freedom, love and universal right, yet he warned his followers that a period of fascism, race war and nuclear holocaust would soon destroy the world.
During the 1960’s the Peoples Temple drew from a small, concentrated denomination, twenty percent of which were African Americans. Facing threats motivated by his liberal preaching, Jones moved his church to Ukiah, California, a location he deemed safe in the event of a nuclear war. In the early years on the American west coast, Jones began to recruit more affluent member’s to complement the large number of working class families in his congregation. His message spread, expanding to the point where a second church was opened in San Francisco. The temple attracted attention with its programs to help the poor and destitute.
Large crowds attended Jones public meetings and ever since revenue poured into the hurch. The belief system practiced by the people’s temple was a blend of many different religions and social theories. The theology Jones created combined elements of Pentecostalism with aspect of socialism and communism. Jones claimed the ability to “discern spirits”, which allowed him to read the minds of others, and he also appeared to be a great healer (Nichol, Internet Source). As well, Jones claimed the ability to see into the future and referred to himself as the reincarnation of Christ, Lenin and Buddha.
In California, temple members lived in a communal society. All ncome, as well as real estate, insurance policies and other items of value were given to the temple to be liquidated and redistributed equally among the members. Temple member often partook in many bizarre practices to demonstrate loyalty. Often members would sign documents stating they had committed acts of child abuse and homosexuality. Jones’ own personal infidelity impacted the belief structure of the temple. Jones strived to implement a classless social structure through communal living and frequently encouraged extramarital affairs.
These, in turn, helped to undermine individual autonomy and “enhance” temple life. Jones even went as far as to encourage temple members to call him “dad”. Jones offered a place of refuge in his church for those suffering from social torment, including lower class African Americans. Jones claimed he was a black soul reincarnated in a white body and felt that only he could identify with the problems of the African Americans (Robinson, Internet Resource). During the 1970’s the peoples temple began to come under both public and government scrutiny.
Allegations were heard that the charismatic Jones exercised a sinister power his followers, extorting money from them, ncouraging sexual promiscuity and enforcing discipline by beatings and blackmail. The United States federal government also launched investigations into alleged tax evasion and the validity of his cures for cancer, heart disease and arthritis. Although fazed, Jones and his temple continued to practice their faith until a 1973 magazine called The New West published an expose that raised suspicions of possible human rights violations and illegal activities ongoing within the temples ranks.
The endless negative press destroyed the image of Jones church and, in 1974; he people’s temple acquired a lease from the Guyanese government for a tract of land within the jungle to be used for a colony (Grolier, 1992). The choice of country was important to Jones because Guyana was one of the few countries in South America in which a socialist regime enjoyed the support of the United States government. In 1977, under the premise that he wanted his people to escape public criticism and further their own cause, Jones began to encourage temple members to relocate to Guyana.
Almost all of the eight hundred members of the people’s temple made the immigration to Jonestown, Guyana. Jones promised a communal paradise free of scrutiny and social torment, however, the Jonestown settlement was far from ideal. Many found the conditions in the colony not as they expected. The settlement was in the middle of the South American jungle and the work needed to maintain the settlement was immense. Members worked either in agriculture fields or building housing projects. The work schedule consisted of eleven hour days, six days a week.
Generally, the nights were not spent resting, but instead were filled with meetings and other duties (Robinson, Internet Resources). Illustrating the elimination of individual autonomy that was practiced within the people’s temple, members lived in dormitories with the spouses sleeping in separate beds. Followers received inadequate food while Jones had access to a fully stocked refrigerator because he claimed he had a blood sugar problem. Described as a prison camp, life for the members at Jonestown was terrible. Although there was no barbwire around the settlement, members were trapped, with escape almost impossible.
Jones mediated all news and information that entered his “paradise”. Brainwashed nd disillusioned, over nine hundred People’s Temple members were under the total control of Jim Jones. Life at Jonestown continued to deteriorate sparked by Jones’ use of illegal drugs. He would enter into fits of rage only to calm down moments later. Paranoia would fuel harsh discipline for the slightest transgression and he became delusional. He spoke for hours over loud speakers positioned throughout the complex, depriving his followers of sleep.
It was over these very loud speakers that Jones would relay current news issues, although presenting a distorted commentary. The compound was “protected” y armed guards who insured no one could get in, or conversely, get out (Grolier 1992). As Jones lost touch with reality he began to develop the idea of a “revolutionary suicide”. He tested the loyalty of his followers by asking them to drink a liquid which contained poison; also he asked them to drink it for “the cause” through this type of test Jones was able to gauge the level of commitment to his ideals and theology.
Jones preached that an apocalypse was imminent within the world, and that it would lead to race wars, concentration camps and genocide. He noted that people who shared in is vision for humanity must be able to make the ultimate sacrifice in order to continue the cause. As his delusions became more pronounced he began a practice that he called “white nights” on a frequent basis and thus was able to desensitize his followers in regards to this mass suicide. As news of the conditions at Jonestown spread throughout America via temple defectors, concerned relatives began to seek action.
They alleged the Jonestown atmosphere was similar to a concentration camp, with Jim Jones brainwashing his devoted followers. After extensive pleas to Washington or action, the relatives of temple members finally found a voice in congress through California congressman Leo Ryan. In an attempt to determine the true story of Jonestown, Ryan planned a trip to Guyana. Although he represented the concerned relatives of the people’s temple, Ryan claimed his primary reason for flying to Guyana was a fact-finding mission into possible human rights violations.
In November 1978, after extensive discussion with temple leadership, Ryan and a small party were allowed access to the Jonestown compound to interview members (Nichols, Internet resource). Ryan, with a small group of media representatives, arrived in Jonestown on November 14th and began collecting information. Jones told Ryan that anyone who wishes to leave was welcome to do so. Ryan quickly found sixteen members who wanted out. The following day Ryan continued his task of interviewing the residents of Jonestown with disturbing results.
During an afternoon meeting with several temple members, Ryan was almost killed by a knife wielding follower. As a result, the congressman shortened his trip and planned to leave immediately. He assembled his group, including the ixteen defectors, and made his way to port Kiatuma airfield, a nearby jungle air strip where two airplanes waited for them to depart for the United States. As he prepared to board the plane a group of armed temple guards arrived and opened fire (Grolier, 1992).
The ambush left Congressman Ryan, three media representatives and one temple defector dead. Back in Jonestown, all the residents assembled in one building for what they thought would be an announcement regarding the success of the congressman’s visit. Instead, Jones made the proclamation that the time for the end was at hand. Jones said the outside world had forced them to this extreme situation and that “revolutionary” suicide had become their only option. Dissent came only from one woman.
The rest of the over nine hundred temple members listened and agreed without question. A large vat of purple fruit drink mixed with cyanide and various other poisons such as liquid Valium, Penegram and chloral hydrate was prepared. First to drink were infants and children, with many mothers pouring the poison down their child’s throat with a syringe. Men and women then formed two lines to receive the lethal cocktail, if there was refusal than they ere forced and if this persisted, than they were shot by security guards.
Jones did not drink the poison, but rather supposedly shot himself in the right temple. The final body count totaled 914 people; 276 of which were children. When news broke about the tragedy in Guyana, the world responded with incomprehension. To an outsider, the deaths seemed meaningless. To understand them, it is necessary to get inside the worldview of the numerous members. The people who lived in Jonestown had committed their work and their lives to Jim Jones project. Jonestown did offer opportunity o many who had never held positions of responsibility in their lives.
Through running livestock, providing education and various other necessary jobs, a sense of responsibility was bestowed upon temple members. The increasing barrage of negative media coverage and federal investigations was threatening the livelihood of the group. Jones persuaded the members that a conspiracy to destroy them existed. The arrival of Congressman Ryan provided the proof of such a conspiracy. On the final day of the People’s Temple, group members were faced with a choice; loyalty or betrayal. Loyalty meant death, while survival required betraying the ideal of the group.
In the end, members believed they had nothing to go back to in the United States, and chose loyalty (robins, 65-72) Jim Jones is arguably one of the most compelling individuals of the last century. His dominance over such a large group is ample evidence of the dangers a cult can posses. Through manipulation, betrayal and coercion Jones thrust his own twisted ideal upon hundreds of devoted followers, ending in disaster. His control was total, to the point where over nine hundred people would give themselves up for him and his cause.