A Note On Jim Jones, Nurture Failure, And Ancient Gnosis

(This article is copyrighted (©) 2016 by James L. Kelley, an independent scholar based in Norman, Oklahoma. He has published books and articles about religion since 2009, when A Realism of Glory (Rollinsford, NH: Orthodox Research Institute) appeared. Mr. Kelley’s research interests include new religious movements, western esotericism, and modern Eastern Orthodox theology. He has taught at East Central University in Ada, Oklahoma, and the University of Oklahoma in Norman. He may be reached at romeosyne@gmail.com.)

In my article Nurture Failure: A Psychobiographical Approach to the Childhood of Jim Jones,[1] I theorized that Jim Jones came to see himself as a do-or-die nurturer who would rather see his charges perish than to “fail” them as a protector or nurse. Since this article appeared in the jonestown report in November 2015, I have chanced across further evidence that supports my thesis. Not only this, but my revisiting of the sources has convinced me that there is a clear Gnostic influence on Jones’ thought (though his knowledge of the ancient Gnostics may have come through popular summaries or through New Age or Theosophical literature).

Let us begin near the end, as it were, with a quotation from Jones just two months before the tragedy in Jonestown. It is July 1st, 1978, and Jones is delivering a speech at a rally beneath the Jonestown pavillion. The topic on Jones’ mind is sex; relations are occurring in Jonestown without Jones’ approval, for one thing. Secondly, Jones is at pains to explicate the significance of his own sexual activity with Temple members. When Jones has relations with his followers, it is not to slake his lust, nor is it an act of mere dominance; rather, sex with the leader supplies a higher level of consciousness to the receiver precisely because Jones’ very essence is “giving,” and thus anyone in the receiving role vis-à-vis Jones becomes a receiver by essence. If all of this sounds too abstract or theoretical to have been the Peoples Temple founder’s intent, keep in mind that Jim Jones, at every point in his career, wove together concepts and their corollaries in the service of his theologico-political agenda. These concepts Jones drew from a number of semantic fields such as Pentecostal Christian theology, Gnosticism, and Marxism-Leninism.

I don’t know how to selfishly use anybody. I wouldn’t know how to do that. I couldn’t do that. I’ve always seen my[self] in a role of giving. If I receive anything, it won’t be long, because the giving will be outweighing the receiving. ‘Cause that’s me. And you mess with me, that’s the way you’re gonna get. ‘Cause I always gotta give. I take on more worries about you than you’ll ever take on about me or anybody else. I hope that changes. And it can change. But that’s why…life is hell for me, because you don’t get anything.[2]

Here, I propose, is the key to understanding Jones’ mode of rationalizing his mental, physical and sexual abuse of others: The Peoples Temple leader is incapable of receiving anything from those on a lower level of consciousness, so, even the physical pleasure Jones experiences from his debauched sex-sessions (Jones: “[T]his old man likes to fuck”[3]) functions as a kind of building up of merits that the abused Temple member will be able to access at a later time, once he or she has been able to receive the higher consciousness. In another place we see that the pain and humiliation accrued by the subordinate Temple member during sex with Jones was to be interpreted by the former as proof that he or she was not on Jones’ spiritual level (nor were they up to his level of active sexual performance), but that the experience was helping to “cultivate” them into a state of continual meditation on “socialism.”[4]

However, nurturing can fail. That is, Jones’ inability to need anyone or anything, his essence-defining characteristic of selflessness, cannot guarantee that his charges will properly receive his tuition. The result? Jones translates the ontological distance between his own socialistically-deified self and that of his fickle, inconstant, and selfish followers into a cosmic reservoir of anguish that only his divine body could reabsorb. Ironically, the term Jones uses for the physical and mental pain he suffers owing to his followers’ failure to accept his nurturing was “guilt.” Peoples Temple diarist Edith Roller reported Jones to have taught the Temple membership in California to “[k]eep yourself filled with guilt. It makes you do good. …Some of you never practiced feeling guilt. [Jim] knows [his] meanness. [Jim] know[s himself].”[5]

Such passages afford us a glimpse into Jones’ antinomianism: one must be a callous Machiavellian because the conscious embrace of these submerged aspects of self will hoist one to a higher state of consciousness. Only the attainment of this new and higher thought-stage will place the “meanness” of one’s present stage in the proper context. To put it baldly, you have to be bad to be good.

This kind of religious antinomianism was held by the Gnostic Carpocrates (fl. between 100 and 150 A.D.) and his followers, as well as by the Gnostic Cainites. These groups held that one must “pass though all things” in order to reach the spirit realm above matter.[6] As St. Irenaeus of Lyon (early 2nd century to ca. 202 AD.) stresses in his account of the Carpocratians and their ilk, “All things” means “actions such as one is not even allowed to mention,”[7] but a clue to what is involved is provided by Irenaeus’ revelation that the Cainites saw themselves as having a special kinship with the practices of the Sodomites.[8] Thus, the Cainites and Carpocratians believed that human beings had to experience every possible sin, including all conceivable forms of sexual abuse. Strangely enough, the Carpocratians’ idea that breaking all human and divine laws (especially sexual ones) frees one from a lower level of consciousness was expanded by Carpocrates’ son Epiphanes (fl. between 100 and 150 A.D.) into a radical proto-communist program. Here is what the patristic writer Clement of Alexandria (150-215 A.D.) says of Epiphanes:

This is what [Epiphanes] says, then, in the book Concerning Righteousness: ‘The righteousness of God is a kind of universal fairness and equality. There is equality in the heaven which is stretched out in all directions and contains the entire earth in its circle. The night reveals equally all the stars. The light of the sun, which is the cause of the daytime and the father of light, God pours out from above upon the earth in equal measure on all who have power to see. For all see alike. There is no distinction between rich and poor, people and governor, stupid and clever, female and male, free men and slaves. Even the irrational animals are not accorded any different treatment; but in just the same way God pours out from above sunlight equally upon all the animals.[9]

So, Jim Jones’ nexus of (1) sexual abuse, (2) divine care or nurturing as a projection of a deiform emission into the passive bodies of creatures, (3) radical equality of all living things, and (4) love of animals, is a page out of the Gnostic playbook.

The intertwined histories of modern Western Esotericism and of the scholarly (and popular) study of ancient Gnosis are subject for other publications. For now, we will return to Jonestown in 1978, where Jim Jones’ sexual and ideological nurturing was being hampered by his followers inability to understand and appreciate the goodness of his leadership. Consider the daily tests covering socialist themes, tests that Temple members often failed miserably. In addition, his increasing focus on the conspiracies against Jonestown – whether real or devised – distracted the community, not only from benefiting from the wisdom of his example, but also the very cohesion of its economic and social structure.

As I concluded in my previous article, death was always a valid form of nurturing for Jones, once all other methods of socialist progress had stalled. Jones could not fail to nurture, but his patients could fail as nurturees, or the historical present could fail to provide conditions sufficiently ripe for the hoped-for socialist revolution. Nurture failure, it seems, could be laid at the feet of anyone or anything but Jim Jones; however, the prescription was invariable: revolutionary suicide. How did this “solution” satisfy Jones’ theologico-political scheme? Either by allowing Temple members to return to the earth in the future, via reincarnation, and thereby to achieve the socialist utopia that their untimely yet meritorious reception of higher socialist consciousness already entitled them; or simply by not compromising with a capitalist world-system that would not allow Jonestown to continue to be productive economically and thus remain a viable alternative to the world’s “cursed history” of money and privilege.[10]


[1] A slightly revised version of this article is in James L. Kelley, Orthodoxy, History and Esotericism: New Studies (Dewdney, B.C., Canada: Synaxis Press, 2016), pp. 95-105.

[2] Jim Jones, Transcript of FBI tape Q273, accessed 22 August 2016.

[3] Ibid.

[4] On the idea of sex with Jim Jones as spiritual therapy, see Tim Reiterman with John Jacobs, Raven: The Untold Story of the Rev. Jim Jones and His People (New York: Tarcher/Penguin, 2008 [1982]), p. 177, which includes the following excerpt from the written “confession” of an anonymous Temple member who had been sodomized by Jim Jones:

I felt that when you related to me, you were doing so to serve me without being condescending at all. Your choice of words, your warmth and tenderness made me feel that you deeply loved me.

Your fucking me in the ass was, as I see it now, necessary to get me to deal with my deep-seated repression against my homosexuality. I have at times felt resentment at being fucked even though I knew your motives were utterly pure…. It was also due in part to the humiliation of being discovered by [my wife] and Karen [Layton].

I did find being fucked in the ass pleasurable, but I felt so ‘unnatural’ about it that the fear outweighed it…. I know beyond doubt you are the very best sexual partner in the world and I don’t think I’ve ever thought I could really compete with you.

Transcript of FBI tape Q273 includes the following comment from Jones that illustrates his notion of sexual “cultivation” into perpetual remembrance of socialism: “[I]f you’re going to be involved in helping to keep a traitor or to cultivate the personality into the strength that you see in them, you’ve got to keep your mind in socialism all the time. Do you follow me? Now, listen to me out here. You get to know me, some of you people, if you’d listen to me. You’ve got to keep your mind above it. You don’t dare think they want you. If you do, you’ve lost it right there.”

[5] Edith Roller, personal journal entry, 4 January 1977, RYMUR-89-4286-2018-C-3-A-1, accessed 22 August 2016.

[6] St. Irenaeus of Lyon, Against the Heresies, Volume One, Book I, translated by Dominic J. Unger, Ancient Christian Writers 55, edited by Walter J. Burghardt, Tomas Comerford Lawler and John J. Dillon (New York, NY and Mahwah, NJ: Newman Press, 1992), I.31.2 (p. 103). On the Cainites and the Carpocratians, see text and bibliography of Birger A. Pearson, “Cainites,” 227-229 and Winrich A. Löhr, “Carpocratians,” 240-242, both in Dictionary of Gnosis and Western Esotericism, edited by Wouter J. Hanegraaff (Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2006).

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid., I.31.2 (p. 102). That Jones considered anal intercourse to have some special significance beyond vaginal sex has been noted other commentators. See David Parker Wise, Sex in Peoples Temple, accessed 6 September 2016. Also, cf. Jones’ own words: “…[Y]ou should give your vagina, your penis, or your asshole, if it’s called for…” (Jim Jones, Transcript of FBI tape Q273).

[9] Clement of Alexandria, Stromata, III.2.6, accessed 30 August 2016.

[10] On reincarnation in Peoples Temple teaching, see Jim Jones, The Letter Killeth, but the Spirit Giveth LIFE, pamphlet, p. 6-7 (accessed 14 August 2016), which lists biblical texts that purportedly teach reincarnation; cf. Jim Jones, Q951 Transcript (accessed 14 August 2016), for Jones’ notion that Christ was an incarnation of the principle of divine socialism, and that Jones himself is just the latest incarnation of this same principle. Also cf. Jim Jones, Transcript of FBI Tape Q1025 (accessed 4 September 2016), in which Jones seems to teach that reincarnation is a way of speaking about the socialist revolution (which is, at the very least, a higher level of consciousness) for those not properly grounded in Marxist terminology and concepts: “How many have any questions about reincarnation? Humanist socialists don’t need motivation, but people who have religious backgrounds need motivation.”

On Jones’ conception of a “cursed history,” see Jones, Transcript of FBI tape Q273: “Revolutionary suicide. Any suicide for selfish reasons, which are always hostile reasons, is always going to bring you immorality, and your history will be cursed. Furthermore, you’ll come back again in some other form, for sure. Lower form. You’ll come back again reincarnated in a lower form. But that’s not the point… [S]uicide is unacceptable. Except for revolutionary reasons.”

On Jonestown as a threat to the capitalist world-order because of its economically-independent production, see Vernetta Christian, Minutes of People’s Rally of January 14, 1978, RYMUR 89-4286, C-11-d-9 (accessed 24 August 2016): “[Jim Jones said] We should produce so we can bring people in. If we produce enough we can override the problem. Dad said as long as we produce they will be hesitant to come in, as long as we stay strong.”


Last modified on October 21st, 2016.
Skip to main content