Selling Jonestown: Religion, Socialism, and Revolutionary Suicide in Peoples Temple

“So on down the road… I decided, how can I demonstrate my Marxism? The thought was ‘infiltrate the church.’ I consciously made a decision to look into that prospect.”

Jim’s Commentary about Himself, Jim Jones, 1977-1978

In the recent history of the United States, there has been an abundance of quasi-religious cults. Marshall Applewhite’s Heaven’s Gate, David Koresh’s Branch Davidians, and Jim Jones’ Peoples Temple were three cult-like groups to emerge in the second half of the twentieth century. However, while the first two organizations were certainly religion-based, Peoples Temple had other goals. Twenty years after its inception in Indianapolis, Reverend Jim Jones moved Peoples Temple to Guyana to establish Jonestown, a utopian commune. It was there that his Marxist beliefs truly began to “infiltrate” Peoples Temple’s mission. Ultimately, Jones and over nine hundred of his followers would commit “revolutionary suicide” in Guyana. It became clear at this point that Peoples Temple was not engaging in typical behaviors of a Christian religious group, and the debate began about the true motives of Jones and his followers. An examination of Peoples Temple will reveal that, although it was sold as a Christian religious group, Jim Jones was leading a political, more specifically socialist-based, movement.

In order to gain a following and to protect the livelihood of Peoples Temple, Jim Jones originally had to promote his movement as a religious group. Historian John Peer Nugent explains, “[Jones] would be mildly progressive on the surface, community-minded, selfless, as Christian as necessary, so as not to arouse suspicion… A low profile kept the FBI at a distance, as well as the IRS – two government operations that would have legitimate cause for action if Peoples Temple were no longer a nonprofit, religious organization.” To do this, Jones needed to create the illusion of a church. He called himself the Reverend Jim Jones, and named his group Peoples Temple to stress its religiosity. Jones clearly dressed like a traditional member of the clergy, and he gave his sermons from behind a pulpit. Furthermore, at the beginning of the group’s existence, Jim Jones performed “miracles” and did “faith healing,” traditional practices for some Christian churches. Jones was given several awards and commendations for his “humanitarian work” within the church. Even as late as November 1978, government officials such as Rep. Leo Ryan of California were still referring to Peoples Temple as a church. For all of these reasons, to many outsiders, including the United States government and the media, Peoples Temple appeared to be a Christian church.

However, the origins of Peoples Temple indicate that religion was not the focal point. The historical climate of the mid-1950s through mid-1970s created an atmosphere ripe for the cultivation of a group focused on societal issues. Not long after the end of World War II, Jim Jones began to build Peoples Temple for the disillusioned and the displaced. The church was ideal for those who had not been living the American dream they saw others living after the end of the war. Sociologist Ken Levi explains: “Jones gave people a reason to live, a cause bigger than themselves, and that appealed to ‘rootless people.’ Many poor blacks believed Jones made them feel no longer neglected and that he was ‘helping people become somebody.’” For many poor or spiritually lost Americans, the need to belong became a motivating force in their desire to join Peoples Temple.

In addition, Nazi concentration camps in Europe during World War II inspired Jones to call for the protection of minorities in the United States. In a sermon given in Philadelphia in the mid-1970s, Jones claimed, “I’ve prophesied the date, the hour, the minute and the year they’re gonna put people in this country in concentration camps. They’re gonna put them in gas ovens, just like they did the Jews… They’re gonna put you in the concentration camps… They’ve got them already.” Jones also claimed, “The United States is calling for the removal of all blacks and Indians. So is England. They want to have their immigrant black, Indian population removed in six months.” These predictions created fear and uncertainty in the minds of Jones’ followers, many of whom were African American, Jewish, or whites sympathetic to the plight of minorities in America.

Jones also capitalized on fear created by the potential for nuclear war following World War II. After the detonation of two atomic bombs in Japan in 1945 and the Cold War politics of the following decades, many were concerned about the potential for nuclear warfare in the United States, and Jim Jones was no exception. The Reverend moved the group to Ukiah, California, supposedly because a magazine article declared it to be one of the safest places to be during nuclear fallout. Jones spread his fears to his followers, who prepared for nuclear war and possible radiation fallout by being “trained to survive under desperate conditions, with few comforts and little sleep.” Religious studies professor David Chidester explains, “The message of liberation from American fascism, capitalism, and racism was intensified by being linked with this apocalyptic anticipation of nuclear war.” Clearly, the threat of nuclear war following the end of World War II influenced the development of Peoples Temple and provided the group with a sense of purpose and cohesiveness.

Jim Jones used these fears and uncertainties to create distrust in the United States government among his followers, subsequently calling them to action. Levi explains how Jones cultivated this suspicion: “Jones warned [his followers] about the government as an oppressor of blacks and black-sympathizers, reinforcing his point with films showing tortures and concentration-camp horrors practiced by other ‘fascist regimes’ against their enemies.” In one sermon, Jones preached, “This country has always had to have a war or a depression. I tell you, we’re in danger tonight, from a corporate dictatorship. We’re in danger from a great fascist state… and if [we] don’t build a utopian society, build an egalitarian society, we’re going to be in trouble.” This shows that Jones made a conscious effort to identify these fears within subgroups of the United States’ population and exploit their fears following World War II in order to serve his own needs, in this case, to create a hostile and suspicious attitude toward the government.

Despite the elaborate illusion set forth by Jones, Peoples Temple more accurately should be classified as a socialist organization rather than a strictly religious one. Firstly, Jim Jones was deeply critical of religion and intertwined this skepticism with his distrust of capitalism. During a 1973 sermon in Redwood Valley, Jones proclaimed:

If there were no rich, no poor, if everyone were equal, religion would be soon to disappear. People only develop religion when they’re unhappy with this world… If this world were equal… people would soon lose their religion… People only make religion because this is so much a hell. They can’t stand to look at this place… The earth is in the hands of the robber-baron rich. It’s in the hands of the capitalists. Heaven was created by poor people that were working cotton fields and working in mines and living in hell, so they had to create a golden city somewhere. They had to dream, because they knew they’d never get anything out of this earth. So religion is a dark creation of those who are oppressed, those who are in bondage.

This clearly illustrates Jones’ skepticism of religion’s purpose, and also his tendency to attribute religiosity to a failing of capitalism itself, and in the United States in particular. These sermons served to link oppression with capitalism, which in turn led Peoples Temple in a socialist direction rather than a strictly Christian one, with the intention of creating a utopia on Earth rather than seeking heavenly goals.

Additionally, Jones was a self-admitted follower of Marxist beliefs, which in turn spurred his socialist teachings within Peoples Temple. For one, Jones admits to being a Marxist in his sermons, proclaiming “I shall call myself a Marxist.” He goes on to explain:

I’m so purely socialistic and some of my family is so purely socialistic, some of the members of this glorious Temple are so purely socialistic, that you’d be glad to work to see that everyone had the same kind of house, the same kind of cars… People are so afraid of socialism. They’re so terrified. They say, “What’ll it do to us?” Why, you poor people.

Jones’ own words show that he and his inner circle of followers had already adopted the tenets of socialism, and that Jones believed socialism was preferable for Peoples Temple and for the nation as a whole.

Jones’ gradual admissions about his trust in socialism began to influence the direction of Peoples Temple. This was a major break from the faith-healing origins of Peoples Temple, and Jones freely discloses that it was his trust in Marxism that guided his actions within Peoples Temple. He also admits to gradually shifting the group’s focus from Christianity to Marxism:

In the early years, I’d approached Christendom from a communal standpoint, with only intermittent mention of my Marxist views. However, in later years, there wasn’t a person that attended any of my meetings that did not hear me say, at some time, that I was a communist. And that is what is very strange, that all these years, I have survived without being exposed.

Clearly, Jones is aware that although Peoples Temple was originally perceived from the outside as a religious group, his self-proclaimed Marxist beliefs pervaded its overall message and focus.

Consequently, Jim Jones’ ultimate goal became to create a subversive socialist group that would be isolated from the United States’ capitalist ideology. This phase came to fruition after the move to the jungles of socialist Guyana, where the group founded Jonestown. Jonestown was a relatively self-sufficient commune, for it could produce its own food and had its own schools, day care, and physicians to look after its members. A solitary road allowed people to come and go, but was monitored by armed guards. Above the road hung a sign reading “Peoples Temple Agricultural Project,” further emphasizing the shift from religion to something new. Jones once claimed in a sermon, “You’re gonna help yourself, or you’ll get no help! There’s only one hope of glory…That’s within you! Nobody’s gonna come out of the sky! There’s no heaven up there…We’ll have to make heaven down here!” This demonstrates that Jonestown was Jones’ ultimate destination for building his utopia on Earth. Furthermore, it was in Guyana where Jones began to prepare his followers for total socialism by building an isolated commune far away from friends, relatives, the United States government, and any other sort of outside influence.

Jones coerced his followers to shed their capitalist beliefs and adopt socialist ones. To fully assimilate into the communal socialist lifestyle, Jones insisted that his followers learn Russian and take classes about the principles of socialism. Before receiving their dinner, Jones required that Jonestown residents ask for the food in Russian. Additionally, many had Soviet code names such as “Lenin,” but were warned never to reveal these code names to outsiders because they would be misunderstood. Jones even asked to be called “Comrade” rather than “Father” or “Dad,” as his followers had been calling him, in a show of his commitment to Communism. Finally, the group sang not traditional Christian hymns that one would expect to hear in a church, but instead chanted together “long live this socialist dream” at group forums. It is clear that Jones was preparing his followers mentally for a move to a socialist-friendly environment.

Furthermore, the Reverend wanted to move the Jonestown community to a location where he believed he and his followers would be among kindred spirits. Had the members survived November 18, 1978, the next stage of Jones’ proposed plan was to move the group to the Soviet Union. They never made it.

The U.S. government was already looking into the group after letters and petitions drafted by the Concerned Relatives surfaced. These family members and friends claimed that more than religious activities were going on in Jonestown, and that their loved ones may have been suffering physical, emotional, and sexual abuse at the hands of Jim Jones. The arrival of California Congressman Leo Ryan and his aides to inspect Jonestown expedited the process of Peoples Temple’s escape, but instead of fleeing to the Soviet Union or another socialist-friendly nation, Jones decided that it was time for the final escape in the form of mass-suicide.

On November 18, 1978, Jones and over nine hundred of his followers committed what Jones termed “revolutionary suicide.” In an audiotape recording from during the mass murder-suicides, Jones is heard telling his followers, “We laid it down, we got tired. We didn’t commit suicide. We committed an act of revolutionary suicide protesting the conditions of an inhumane world.” Subsequently, many Temple members willingly drank the cyanide-laced Flavor-Aid offered to them by high-ranking members; others had to be restrained and forced to drink the poison, and still others had to be injected with syringes full of cyanide by nurses. Peoples Temple members’ hopes of finally finding peace ended that day with the murders and suicides committed at Jonestown.

After the murder-suicides, several reporters began to see that Jones had indeed been leading a socialist movement rather than a traditional Christian religious church, as many had previously believed. Reporter Michael Novak of the Washington Post was quick to question the layout of Jonestown: “If Jonestown was a religious colony, why did it have no church, no chapel, no place of prayer? It had a day care center, a school, a clinic. The religion of Jonestown was explicitly and unequivocally socialism, not Christianity. The cult in Jonestown was socialism.”

Televangelist Billy Graham also came to the realization that Jonestown was no ordinary Christian church, writing, “One may speak of the Jones situation as that of a cult, but it would be a sad mistake to identify it in any way with Christianity. It is true that he came from a religious background, but what he did and how he thought have no relationship to the views and teachings of any legitimate form of historic Christianity.” Graham was right. Jones was a self-admitted socialist and critic of religion. After dissecting his sermons, particularly those in the mid-1970s before Peoples Temple’s move to Guyana, it is clear that Jones’ scathing critique is not only of capitalism, but of the oppressive nature of religion itself.

In conclusion, Peoples Temple, while using religious means and appearances to bring the group together, had primarily socialist goals. This was not simply a group of religious fanatics. Peoples Temple was meant to become a full-fledged political movement, and therefore should be considered as such. Jones took advantage of the fears existing in American society after World War II, and he crafted the rhetoric of his sermons to play to these fears. While religion may have been the original selling point and the cover-up of Jones’ Marxist beliefs, the hidden agenda at Jonestown was certainly to create a subversive socialist movement that would free the “down and out” of the post-World War II era from the “oppression” of the capitalist United States. For Jim Jones, the ultimate reward was not salvation or the promise of heaven in another life for his followers. The promise was creating a socialist commune here and now, in the living world. For former Peoples Temple member Laura Kohl, the commune was “heaven on Earth,” and she would have stayed there forever, not as a servant of God or Jones, but because it was home.

(Catherine B. Abbott can be reached at Her complete collection of writings for the jonestown report may be found here.)