Survey Indicates Lack of Student Knowledge of Jonestown, Peoples Temple

Reverend Jim Jones’ last recorded words on FBI Tape Number Q042 are, “We didn’t commit suicide. We committed an act of revolutionary suicide protesting the conditions of an inhumane world.” Given these final words, it is fair to suggest this is how he wished for the events of November 18, 1978 to be remembered. Did he succeed?

Further, do young Americans remember Peoples Temple, Jim Jones, and Jonestown, or does the phrase “Don’t drink the Kool-Aid” dominate their understanding? If they do remember, what aspects of it do they recall?

To answer these and other questions I surveyed a random sample of students at a large Midwestern university via Qualtrics. In some ways the answers were surprising, while in others they were exactly as I suspected they would be.

The survey was conducted between July 26th and August 4th, 2023, and 770 students answered at least one question. The total number of responses to most questions is lower than that though, because many students answered only a handful of them.

  • Fifty-five percent of the respondents identify as female.
  • Eighty-six percent are white, while five percent identify as Hispanic or Latino, and five percent identify as African-American.
  • The age distribution is as one would expect from a university student sample, with the majority between the ages of 19 and 21.

When asked, “How familiar are you with the Peoples Temple” a substantial majority (69%) answered “not at all familiar.” Only 11% said they were “moderately familiar” or “extremely familiar” with the organization. Each of the percentages reported here and below are for those who actually answered the question. Those who skipped it are not included in the percentages.

A much smaller percentage (49%) reported being not at all familiar with Reverend Jim Jones, while 20% were moderately or extremely familiar.

In terms of familiarity with Jonestown, 41% reported not being at all familiar with it, while 26% were moderately or extremely familiar.

In terms of the phrase “Don’t drink the Kool-Aid,” 59% were either moderately or extremely familiar with the phrase.

The overall movement, the location of its attempt at communal self-sufficiency and its ultimate demise, and its leader are less well-known than the unfortunate phrase that has joined our language. This is not terribly surprising, given the extent to which the phrase has been repeated in politics and popular culture. For example, a search in the Newspaper Sourcedatabase for the years 1993 to 2023 of the phrase “drink the kool aid” generated 321 hits. According to Newspaper Source, the archive covers, “[f]ull text for hundreds of regional, national, and international newspapers, and complete television and radio news transcripts from CBS News, CNN, CNN International, FOX News, NPR and more.”

There are some differences in familiarity based on gender. With regard to Peoples Temple, Jim Jones, and Jonestown those who identify as male, transgender female, transgender male, gendervariant/non-conforming, or whose gender was not listed as an option on the survey or who preferred not to say were less likely than those who identify as female to be completely unfamiliar with the person, concept, or phrase, and the differences were statistically significant (using a chi-square test and a p-value of .10). All of the differences reported below are those that were statistically significant. There were no differences with regard to race/ethnicity and familiarity, except for the phrase “Don’t drink the Kool-Aid,” with white, Black/African American, and other respondents being less likely to be completely unfamiliar with the phrase than those who identify as Asian. Given the fact that the Peoples Temple congregation in the States was overwhelmingly Black, and that more than two-thirds of those who died in Jonestown were African-American, I was a little surprised by a lack of statistical difference between African American respondents and all others. . In terms of age, a good way to look at the data is to split the results between those over 30 and those not. Those over 30 were less likely than others to be completely unfamiliar with Jim Jones, Jonestown, and the phrase.

There were some differences with regard to those respondents who describe themselves as born-again, fundamentalist, or Evangelical Christians. Those respondents were a little more likely than others to be completely unfamiliar with Jim Jones, Jonestown, and the phrase. Those who identify as Democrats, with another party other than the Democrats or Republicans, or as independent or unaffiliated were less likely than those who identify as Republicans to be completely unfamiliar with Jim Jones, Jonestown, and the phrase.

Given that the students in the sample are from one university, they are not representative of the entire population of US university students, and certainly they are not representative of the population in general. However, given that the respondents are seeking higher education at a selective university, it would be reasonable to expect them to know more about historical people and events than other youths.

The goal of the survey was to establish a baseline for memory of events around the same time, although the time frame was quite wide, and in that regard, it should also be noted that knowledge around Peoples Temple was not the only area in which substantial deficits were seen. For example, almost 65% of respondents were not at all familiar with the Iran-Contra scandal, which crippled President Reagan’s second term. About 64% were either not familiar at all or only slightly familiar with the Iran hostage crisis, which destroyed Jimmy Carter’s presidency. On the other hand, a majority of respondents (62%) were somewhat, moderately, or extremely familiar with the Cuban Missile Crisis. Given the high significance of that event in the history of not just the Cold War, but the entire world, and how even popular culture covers the 13 days in 1962 that could have ended the lives of hundreds of millions of people, it is a good thing that young people know something about it.

I do not think it is a good idea to make too much of the demographic and political differences regarding familiarity with Peoples Temple and related places and people. However, a little informed speculation is in order. For example, the age difference makes sense. Those who lived when an event happened, or closer to it, may be more likely to remember it. In fact, in the open-ended questions reported on more extensively below, a small number of the respondents reported remembering where they were when the events of November 18, 1978 occurred.

On the other hand, the partisan difference may be due to some Democrats’ tendency to describe the Donald Trump movement using cult metaphors. In fact, a meme has been circulating for years that presents a photograph that merges Donald Trump and Jim Jones, and liberal radio host Michelangelo Signorile routinely ends his broadcast by saying, “Don’t drink the Kool-Aid.” Perhaps those who choose another party (such as the Libertarians) or choose no party at all have a sufficiently independent streak such that they have heard the phrase more often, and in turn may have done some research to learn its origins.

While the basic statistics of how well-remembered people and events around Peoples Temple are interesting in and of themselves, what is also important is to examine the responses to a series of open-ended questions about each of the topics analyzed above. Doing so allows us to investigate what young respondents think they know about these people and events, to what extent they are correct, and further if their perceptions fit into any patterns.

When asked to write what they know about Peoples Temple, respondents provided 137 comments of substance. Comments such as those indicating they do not know anything are not included in the analysis. The word “cult” was used 103 times to describe Peoples Temple. Clearly the cult framing has won out in the popular imagination. Only one respondent referred to it as a “new” religious organization.

Many of the respondents did seem to understand the history of the organization and the original aims of its members. Most of those, however, employed the cult framing as well, got some details incorrect, or focused on the events of November 18, 1978. All comments are printed verbatim, except for a few instances when slight modifications had to occur for clarity. For example, a respondent wrote, “American religious organization founded and led by Jim Jones, a preacher and communist who began the organization with congregations in California. The People’s Temple espoused a ‘new religion’ that combined Rev. Jones’ communist sentiments with Christian beliefs. Largely known only for the mass murder-suicides that occurred in Guyana during the late 1970s, of which there is a ‘Death Tape,’ i.e. an audio recording of the murder-suicide that occurred in Jonestown.” Similarly, another respondent offered, “A religious cult started by Jim Jones in America that originally focused on diversity and differed from many other religions by promoting integration. The cult grew within the United States until eventually pressured by law enforcement to move to ‘Jonestown’ in South America (an improvised camp created by the cult). Eventually after lots of hardship before being raided by law enforcement the group committed group suicide by cyanide in grape flavoraide.” Such responses get many of the basics right, but stress the cult framing and the end of the organization.

In terms of responses to the open-ended question to describe what they know about Jim Jones, the responses overall tended to be short, and focused on the cult framing and the mass suicide. There are 203 total comments, excluding those that say they do not know who he was, or something similarly insubstantial. Among those, the word “cult” was used 127 times, again demonstrating the extent to which that framing has become embedded in popular understanding. There were 53 uses of the fragment “aid,” which again demonstrates the extent to which the phrase is associated with both Peoples Temple and Jim Jones. There were 65 uses of the word “suicide” and only 10 uses of the word “murder.”

Several responses to the open-ended question about Jones, however, were able to present a somewhat nuanced picture of Jones and the organization, such as the respondent who wrote, “Jim Jones was the cult leader that founded the Peoples Temple. He was known as a positive figure in his community, working for Black power movements until he transferred into a cult leader. In his fervor, he became convinced of his own teachings, founded Jonestown, and ruled in an authoritarian manner until a meeting with an American Congressman, which lead to a mass suicide at his discretion.” Those who seem the best informed, as well, of course, as those who know the least, generally did not offer much thought about the ideology/theology of Jones and the Temple, but focused on the cult framing, the Temple’s legal problems, and its demise. For example, “Jim Jones started a cult in San Francisco that was popular in the 1970s. He took a group of his followers to Guiana where they lived together in a commune. Several hundred of his followers intentionally drank poisoned juice and died. I think this is where the phrase ‘don’t drink the Kool-aid’ comes from. Before the mass suicide I think a Congressman came to Guiana after a cult member’s family member complained to the Congressman. When he was there he was shot by a member of the cult. I also think that Jones had sex with many of his followers.” The salaciousness, violence, and controversy are more well-remembered than the political and economic goals of Jones and the Temple.

In terms of the open-ended question concerning Jonestown, there were 201 total substantive responses. The word “cult” was used 90 times, while the word “suicide” was used 82 times, and the word “murder” appeared 16 times. A number of responses managed to comprehend the complexity of the situation, as shown by the respondent who wrote, “[Jonestown] [w]as the commune set up in South America by Jim Jones and People’s Temple–relatively isolated with minimal infrastructure, making it easier for Jones to maintain control. Was ultimately investigated by the US government, leading to Jones to call for mass murder/suicide of the people in Jonestown.” Most responses are much shorter, and very few referred to any positive reason for creating the commune. Here is a typical response that fails to acknowledge the coercion that took place in Jonestown: “The entire congregation drank cyanide-laced kool-aid before Jim Jones committed suicide with a gun.” Some respondents took a different view, occasionally bordering on conspiratorial, such as the one who wrote, “mass homocide, dont believe in everything.”

In terms of the open-ended question concerning the phrase, it should come as no surprise, given that respondents had the most familiarity with it among the four items measured, that it generated the most comments, with 331 substantive responses. One trend among them is obedience, and a belief that there was little or no opposition to the events of November 18, 1978. One respondent wrote that they believe the phrase means, “To not follow blindly. The cult members and children were given poison laced kool-aid which they drank unquestioningly.” Children, naturally, are inclined to do what their parents or other adults tell them to do. That this respondent lumped all residents of Jonestown into the same category as children “unquestioningly” drinking the poisoned punch demonstrates the extent to which the people of Jonestown who died that day have been caricatured as mindless robots doing what they were told. This is especially unfortunate given that multiple eyewitness accounts and the infamous “Death Tape” demonstrate otherwise. I would argue that for most respondents what they perceive to be the essence of the phrase is positive, but their misunderstanding of its origins are painful to survivors and families of victims. This is well summarized by the respondent who wrote, “this phrase refers to what happened in jonestown with revered jim jones and his followers as he fed them poison that they all drank together at the same time killings themselves. this phrase means that you should not do what everyone else is doing or oblige by society’s indoctrination just because someone told you it is what you should do. it is a phrase that is often used in a religious context.” Few would disagree with the idea of challenging authority and not following leaders blindly, however one cannot help but wish that such positive thoughts did not derive from this potential misinterpretation of the events of November 18, 1978.

Other respondents took a more nuanced view, such as the one who wrote, “…Although this phrase is a bit unfair. The people at Jonestown were forced to drink it at gunpoint. Many of them knew it was poisoned and did not want to drink it. As the phrase is used now it makes it seem like the poisoned Kool-Aid was being offered without the people knowing.”

But interestingly, despite myriad context clues from the survey, some respondents appear not to know of the origins of the phrase, such as the respondent who wrote, “This phrase has been told to me since I was a child. Don’t drink the Kool aid, to me, means not to follow the radical ideas of a political party different than your own,” as well as the respondent who wrote, “The Red-40 dye that is in Kool-Aid can cause serious health problems across a span of using products with it.” A few respondents believed that the phrase referred to not drinking alcohol punch at parties, such as the respondent who wrote, “My best guess is that this refers to jungle juice that is often served at parties and can be very dangerous as it contains strong levels of alcohol but doesn’t taste like it which can lead to someone getting alcohol poisoning, blacking out and/or vomiting.”

A few respondents demonstrated the flexibility of the phrase by adapting it to the conspiracy theories surrounding COVID-19, including the one who wrote, “In other words, don’t believe what you’re being fed. This is a great example of what the CDC and government did during COVID regarding the vaccine. They said it will prevent you from getting and spreading the virus, despite not having ANY proof of that. They made people believe you’re saving lives by getting the vaccine, when in reality, it didn’t.” This evidence suggests that this phrase will be in the American lexicon for quite a while to come.

A number of the respondents made similar mistakes with one another. For example a handful thought Jonestown was located in Africa. Also, a small number of respondents confused Peoples Temple with Heaven’s Gate, which demonstrates the depth to which the cult framing of People’s Temple has taken hold. A respondent who really mixed things together wrote, “Jim Jones was the leader of the cult church Heaven’s Gate at Jonestown. Jonestown is famous for the Jonestown massacre, where Jim Jones and his followers all drank poisoned Kool-aide because they believed that an alien spaceship had arrived to take their souls to the afterlife and they needed to die to board.” A small number mentioned that they think Jones supported white supremacy, and a small number also said they believed he was anti-gay. One respondent mentioned they thought he was a lawyer, then acknowledged that they were thinking of the Westboro Baptist Church. This indicates the extent to which various strands of tangentially related things form together to create sometimes confused understandings of the past.

It is common to survey Americans to test their political knowledge, then criticize the respondents and blame various institutions for failing to inform. That, decidedly, is not the purpose of this project. Peoples Temple, Jim Jones, and Jonestown are not remembered as Jim Jones wanted them to be. No version of the word “revolution” or “revolutionary” appeared in any of the open-ended responses, and a phrase developed after the events of November 18, 1978 predominates. As the responses in this survey indicate, the people and facts around Peoples Temple are often remembered incorrectly, mixed together with other similar events, and most commonly as a cautionary tale endorsing a noble view of the value of questioning authority, but doing so a way that caricatures the events of November 18, 1978. The only thing that can be done about this is to continue to tell the stories and offer alternative considerations.

(David J. Jackson is Professor of Political Science at Bowling Green State University in Ohio. His major research interest is the interactive relationship between politics and culture. He is the author of the book Entertainment and Politics: The Influence of Pop Culture on Young Adult Political Socialization, 2nd Revised Edition (Peter Lang Publishing, 2009), as well as scholarly articles in such journals as Political Research Quarterly, Polish American Studies, International Journal of Press/Politics, and Journal of Political Marketing. In 2007-2008 he was a Fulbright Fellow at the University of Łódź. His book Classrooms and Barrooms: An American in Poland, was published in 2009.