“This is a revolutionary suicide. This is not a self-destructive suicide,” (The Jonestown Death Tape) is what Pastor Jim Jones, told his congregation on November 18, 1978, while they willingly drank their mixture of grape flavour-aid and cyanide. This concoction swiftly found its way through the drinker’s system, killing them in less than an hour. On that day, over 900 men, women, and children took their lives, fearing that a secret government squad was hiding in the jungle outside the boundary of their commune of Jonestown, Guyana. The question remains, how was Jim Jones able to gain ultimate control over such a large group of people? Through first-hand accounts and articles, this paper will make an effort to discover just that.
Peoples Temple was created in Indianapolis, Indiana in 1955. The leader of this congregation was Jim Jones, a pastor who frequently preached on racial equality and helping the poor. In 1965, a large group of followers and Jones himself moved to California and opened a small commune in Redwood Valley, as well as a church in San Francisco and Los Angeles. By this time, the Temple supposedly had over 3,000 members. Due to harassment from numerous places, Jim Jones and over a third of the congregation migrated to a newly-cleared agricultural site in Guyana, in South America. This became known as the Peoples Temple Agricultural Project, or more commonly, Jonestown. On November 17, 1978 American Congressman Leo Ryan visited Jonestown due to many concerned reports coming from family and friends of Jonestown citizens regarding horrible living conditions and violations of human rights. The next day, the Jonestown Security Team shot at Ryan, media members and Jonestown citizens trying to escape as they were boarding the plane. Ryan was killed, and many others were wounded or killed. That night, Jim Jones ordered all of Jonestown to drink a mixture of grape flavour-aid and cyanide, and they willingly followed. Within 45 minutes, 909 people died. (Alternative Considerations of Jonestown and Peoples Temple) Throughout all this, the members followed Jones’ every word, doing anything and everything that he ordered, without question.
In order for one to fully begin to understand how the many members of Peoples Temple were indoctrinated into devotedly following Jim Jones, it would be helpful to examine the attraction of the congregation in the first place. Peoples Temple was a place that provided people with what they sought for in their lives. “[Some people] wanted a religion that matched with what they saw in their Bible – a united world. Some whites were infatuated with Jim and/or his power . . . Some followed their family members” (Kohl, The Joiners of Peoples Temple). A vast majority of the members were lower to middle-class Americans from a variety of racial backgrounds, with a large portion being African-Americans. Many of these African-American members had other reasons to join. “There were some who wanted a better world . . . Some had gotten fed up with the day-to-day racism all around. Some wanted the healings” (Kohl, The Joiners of Peoples Temple). Many saw these wishes fulfilled by Jones and the Temple, and it drew them in.
The focus of the Temple centered on helping society progress towards this type of world. This created “a sense of belonging to something larger . . . together we could make a difference in the world” (Vilchez). The “unification” process within the Temple did actually succeed in creating a community that blurred the lines of race and nationality. Laura Kohl, a former Temple member, still holds this mentality in her life today. “Stereotypes and prototypes didn’t hold true . . . [we were] together as one family . . . Even now . . . I don’t identify as or feel ‘white’” (Kohl, The Joiners of Peoples Temple). For many, coming from a life of being the victim of discrimination into one of equality was a massive change for the better. This success put Jim Jones and his “cause” above all. This ideology of community and equality created by Jones became one of his arguments for committing suicide. His belief – while the suicide was taking place – was that it was a revolutionary act “protesting the conditions of an inhumane world” (The Jonestown Death Tape).
With such a large following within Peoples Temple, it seems fair to say that there would be some members who may have occasionally thought of leaving. That was certainly looked down upon, and there was frequent talk about the consequences of doing so. Jones himself declared, “’anyone who leaves [the Temple] is fair game’” (Layton 65). Due to such strong belief in Jones’ spiritual powers, these threats were taken seriously. Rumors of what happened to “defectors” would constantly be spread throughout the congregation:
There were veiled threats and innuendos that some of the members who had questioned [Jones] or tried to leave had been “taken care of.” . . . One longtime member and father of three who had talked about leaving the church was mysteriously crushed between two railroad cars. Another member was killed driving her car because, Father explained, she was thinking negative thoughts. (Layton 61)
Threats like these contributed to the ultimate loyalty to Jim Jones. If there was a fear of experiencing a tragic accident simply for thinking a negative thought, chances are that most members would change their thought process to only think positive thoughts towards the Temple. Of course, why it was believed that Jones could cause such events was itself another form of indoctrination.
Jim Jones was considered to be of a higher power. He was even considered to be God himself “because of his apparent psychic ministry and healing ability” (Cartmell). Jones frequently used his “abilities” during sermons and “healing services” to heal the sick and prove his omnipresence. However, these events were often staged specifically to boost Jones’ appeal and to promote devotion from his followers. One story comes from Mike Cartmell. During a meeting, Jones called up Cartmell and proclaimed that he was to perform a healing service through the youth. To the congregation’s amazement, Cartmell named three members. He was able to identify personal household items that these three members owned, and announced what disease each of them were suffering from. Finally, Cartmell proclaimed those three members healed. The audience burst with amazement and disbelief that Jones had channeled his power in such a way. From their perspective, this seemed like an incredible event. However, behind the scenes was a different story. Jones approached Cartmell earlier in the day to partake in this event, and there was much preparation to go along with it:
I met with Carolyn Layton [Jones’ chief of staff] who gave me three blue 3” by 5” cards, which displayed highly personal details about each of three Los Angeles Temple members . . . This information included the individual’s prescriptions medications, unusual household objects, specific articles of clothing (and where they were located), etc. Carolyn instructed me to memorize all the details on each card [and] explained how the healings would be staged.
What this shows is that there was much going on within the Temple that many didn’t know about and that quite a few of Jones’ “revelations” were completely false. Nonetheless, his abilities were taken to be true. What the audience witnessed was another moment of Jones at work, setting up situations that would undoubtedly win more support and followers.
While Jones’ physic powers were almost always staged, his apparent healing powers may have had some truth behind them. Whether or not it was intended to happen, some people actually did feel better after being “healed” by Jim Jones. The possible explanation for this is the placebo effect, a process that, with enough faith, can relieve (or appear to) some ailments of the body. During many healing services with the Temple, faith was not hard to come by. These services (often advertised to draw in non-members) were incredibly powerful. “You simply cannot appreciate the emotional power of those services,” Cartmell says. “The overwhelming belief of a couple thousand enthusiastic Temple members . . . combined with prophecies and revelations . . . literally made my hair stand on end.” Being able to “heal” members of sicknesses once again boosted Jones’ God-like reputation. While minor ailments were frequently cured, Jones also claimed to be able to “cure the incurable.” Often these types of healings were not shown in person, but rather they were published in Peoples Temple flyers and pamphlets easily escaping the need to prove the validity of these claims.
Flyers and other forms of literature were frequently used within Peoples Temple to spread the word of Jones’ deeds and influence. As mentioned above, details of Jones’ ability to cure incurable diseases were often published in The Living Word, a publication spread throughout the congregation to tell stories of how Jones affected people’s lives. An example of such a story tells how an anonymous member was cured of a disease that today is still impossible to treat:
[The doctor’s] diagnosis was cystic fibrosis . . . incurable by any normal medical or surgical means. . . [Jim Jones] put his back to mine . . . [And] just as he said he would do, and contrary to all known laws of sciences, Pastor Jones took my disease from me, leaving me in a state of health and well-being that I have not known since my childhood! (The Living Word, 16)
Upon looking through the rest of the publication, almost all of the stories feature the same theme. From addiction to heart failure, Jim Jones apparently had relieved serious afflictions from numerous, anonymous, members. To an outsider, the validity of these stories is questionable. But, a reader who was already devoted to Jones would simply view this as more proof of why he should be followed. Many members who were afflicted with these diseases were devoted to Jones in hope that they would be cured next.
While Jones created a strong image of equality and companionship within the Temple, actually creating bonds and relationships were almost forbidden. This was to maintain loyalty to Jones and no one else. Jones was “skilled at divide-and-conquer so that [one] would maintain loyalty to him, and not form deep alliances . . . with each other.” (Kohl). Jones utilized group confrontations to do this. In her book Seductive Poison, Deborah Layton mentions how she was the victim of one of these attacks, “The younger, newer members, my twelfth-grader friends . . . were pressured into telling me how much they hated me. Farther wanted their ties to me severed” (Layton, 79). Verbal attacks such as these were an effort to pull apart family and friendship bonds, leaving only loyalty to Jones.
With the typical friendship and familial loyalties taken care of, romantic emotions were also focused on Jones. This was done by claiming that “all men [were] homosexual, except for Jim” (Layton, 53). With enough persuasion, this seemingly outlandish claim was soon believed to be true. Deborah Layton describes how this belief became a fact. “I was stunned, but when the information was not disputed by anyone, I obediently believed it . . . I became terribly embarrassed for the men I knew, wondering why they had all pretended otherwise” (Layton, 53-54). The simple fact of the absence of denial to this claim quickly turned it into a true fact. And this is just one member, responding to one claim. With the amount of other ideas preached by Jones that were never quite as outlandish, what happened in Jonestown on November 18 doesn’t seem quite as crazy. All Jones needed to do was to create the belief that there were in fact enemies in the jungle, preparing to massacre the whole population. After that, all that was needed was to make suicide and death seem far less terrifying.
“’They have always tried to quiet the voice of change . . . the government killed Martin Luther King [and] they silenced John Kennedy’” (Layton, 91). Jones often preached about things such as this, denouncing the government for killing off people who tried to promote change in the world. The Temple’s idea of an equal society for all, according to Jones, made the congregation vulnerable to the same fate as Kennedy and King. This helped instill fear, but also supported his idea of suicide and death as “part of what happens to people who give their lives for a cause” (Vilchez). The common idea around this theme was that it was better “to fight till the death for your ideals than to live under oppression” (Vilchez) and that a revolutionary suicide was the best way to fight. Convincing the members that death was such a powerful way to fight set the stage for the suicide that took place in Jonestown. It may have in fact been the final straw in completely indoctrinating the members.
One of the most disturbing pieces of evidence left over in Jonestown is a tape recording depicting the mass suicide as it was taking place. Jones himself can be heard for the majority of the 45-minute recording as he is attempting to persuade the members into committing suicide, and succeeding. The children within the commune were the first to be given the cyanide/flavour-aid mixture, and their parents were the ones to administer it. For those who didn’t immediately give the drink to their child, Jones describes the horrible alternative. “When [the enemies] start parachuting out of the air,” he says “they’ll shoot some of our innocent babies . . . I don’t want to see this.” Near the end of the tape, the sound of screaming babies can be heard, proving the parents had acted upon Jones’ word. Throughout the entire recording, Jones frequently mentions death and performing this act of suicide, instead calling it “a revolutionary act”. The topic of death itself was addressed as something that was bound to happen eventually; “I haven’t seen anybody yet that didn’t die. And I’d like to choose my own kind of death for a change. I’m tired of being tormented to hell” (Jones). The sound of agreement rippling through the crowds is enough evidence to prove the amount of power Jones had over the Jonestown population as they ended their lives.
Jim Jones did what many others have tried to do – attain complete control over a population of people. Was it his goal to do just that? Or was his vision of a unified world an honest one? Unfortunately it is impossible to truly know. However, this event is not as unique to world history as one might think, and so there may still be a chance to decode the logic behind Jones’ motives. There have been numerous instances of groups of ordinary people following leaders with blind, un-abiding faith in order to fulfill their leader’s motives. Did Hitler truly believe that commanding thousands of Germans to commit genocide was justified in his need to make way for his “master race”? Was the cult of personality created by Kim Il-Sung truly necessary in the running of North Korea? More simply – did these leaders do what they did for any honest reason other than abusing the power they had? If these questions, and the many others like them, can be answered, the ones surrounding Peoples Temple may finally have answers as well. What is known is that Jim Jones had total control over the 900 people who took their lives on November 18, 1978. These people saw a man who promised them equality and freedom from the world that they lived in. In the end, they did find an escape, but not the kind they wished for. In closing, a quote from Lela Howard, family member of a victim of the Jonestown Massacre of 1978; “People are eager to ‘belong’ and get to heaven . . . Adoration turns into power, control, and literally getting people to do things they would never do for a common stranger, but yet, it’s agreeable, because the pastor said to do it.”
Alternative Considerations of Jonestown & Peoples Temple. n.p., n.d. Web. 5 Nov. 2010. http://jonestown.sdsu.edu/.
Cartmell, Mike. “Temple Healings: Magical Thinking.” Accessed 15 Nov. 2010.
Howard, Lela. Email interview. 29 Nov. 2010.
Jones, Jim. “The Jonestown Death Tape (FBI No. Q 042)”, Internet Archive. Accessed 8 Nov. 2010.
Kohl, Laura. “The Joiners of Peoples Temple.” Accessed 10 Nov. 2010.
Kohl, Laura. Email interview. 11 Nov. 2010.
Layton, Deborah. Seductive Poison. New York: Anchor Books, 1998. Print.
Peoples Temple. “The Living Word: An Apostolic Monthly – July 1972”. Accessed 9 Nov. 2010.
Vilchez, Jordan. Email interview. 6 Nov. 2010.