(Author’s note: I am a 26-year-old student from West Virginia Northern Community college getting ready to start my second year. I was asked to write about a historical event that happened in the last one hundred years and to sum it up in six to eight pages. I knew that I wanted to write about something that maybe my fellow classmates did not know a lot about. When I asked around about Jonestown or even Jim Jones, most only knew about the tragic end if they knew anything about it at all.
(I came to realize and learn that there are no words, songs, or even student papers that can sum up those years spent by all in Peoples Temple. The most we can do is keep an open mind to those that remain here among us and never let those who lost their lives fade away into history. When people take it upon themselves to pass judgment on others, they tend to forget that they are the outsiders looking in.
(I hoped when I finished my paper then – as I hope now – that anyone reading it will come away at least a little more enlightened like I did as to why people were drawn to Jim Jones and the many types of people and personalities that made up Peoples Temple.)
One hundred and sixty-seven managed to escape. Nine hundred and thirteen people were dead. Three hundred fourteen of those found were children. Jim Jones found dead by gunshot wound to the head. Families found piled together. A metal vat filled with grape-flavored punch mixed with a sedative and cyanide. November 18, 1978 will be remembered as the tragedy of Jonestown. The impact that Jim Jones had over his followers is what led so many to this tragic end.
The nation was under immense disorder and tension during the 1960’s and 70’s which left many feeling misplaced and needing somewhere or someone to turn to. Peoples Temple was the right place; its leader Jim Jones was the right man. “Jim’s personality, strong commitment, egalitarian lifestyle and hard work brought us all in – for those different reasons,” said Temple survivor Laura Kohl. People of every race and age were openly welcomed into the flock. There was no apprehension, unequal treatment, or disdain due to race or ethnic background. People were appreciated for who they were and unique because of it.
During this period in American history racism, violence, and the Vietnam War ripped our nation apart. Many wanted a world where they could feel protected and safe. They wanted a world that was fitting to raise their kids and grandchildren in. Jim Jones presented them with a utopian vision. In “Race and Peoples Temple,” another Temple survivor Glenn Hennington tells of how significant it was to see Jim Jones putting his beliefs into action:
Robert Kennedy had been killed. Malcolm had been killed. Martin Luther King had been killed. So you’re looking at a period of time of civil rights consciousness when there were those in this country that were tryin’ to stomp [racism] out, and you had somebody here who was not only speakin’ about it, but as far as I could see, it was being demonstrated before my very eyes. That was testimony within itself.
Members of the congregation that were African American joined for their own reasons. Jim Jones’ preaching style was one that attracted many black followers. His style of preaching was a blend of Pentecostalism and Methodism. Some believed that Jones could heal the sick; some alleged that he could raise the dead, and at a time when race mixing was sinful, he had a multiracial parish (Cannibals and Evil Cult Killers 365). Jim Jones gave them a place to go and worship, as they pleased not just deal with the inequalities of life, and reach out to aid their community. Tim Stoen recalls, “When I saw Jim kiss old black ladies on the cheek and their eyes would light up, I would cry, I was so touched. (qtd. in “Race and Peoples Temple”).
Jim Jones candidly promoted interracial marriages, which gave many people a sense of hope for the future. Vernon Gosney, a white man with a black wife, recalled the difficult climate of the time. “We were not accepted. Her family didn’t accept me. My family didn’t accept her, and it was really important to us, to have a place – to be in a place where we were accepted and embraced and celebrated…” (qtd. in “In Race and Peoples Temple”). Peoples Temple was that place. The first church they approached had refused to marry them.
Many white Americans united with Peoples Temple because they sought to create change at a time when there was so much chaos and controversy happening in the world. Tim Carter recalls, “People wanted change. And I wanted change. I wanted to change the system that sent nineteen year olds off to a country eight thousand miles away to die for something that wasn’t a reality, you know?” (Interview with Tim Carter, qtd. in “Temple Members’ Stories”). Besides the Vietnam War, much of white America took up the struggle to stop racism and coupled with the Civil Rights movement. Carter tells how Peoples Temple advocated for their way of life:
So when I ran into Peoples Temple, it did reflect the times because we talked – we advocate change, you know, non-violent change, which is important, ‘cause there were some groups back at that point in time which advocated violence, you know. The Temple was never one of them, but we were supposed to stand for human rights and social justice and affecting that in a way that I could actually see. A lot of people were talking the talk, but I found myself with the opportunity to walk the walk as well…and I appreciated that. (Interview with Tim Carter, qtd. in “Temple Members’ Stories”)
Numerous people were drawn to Jim Jones’ strong dedication to helping the community. Jones started many different outreach programs such as providing meals and home care services to the neediest families regardless of race. Not only did he use his influence to create good here in the United States but in other countries such as Brazil and Argentina. His work ethic was inspiring to many running orphanages, soup kitchens, free clinics, senior citizens’ homes he opened. On top of everything else, he desegregated many theaters, restaurants, and hospitals.
He encouraged his members to partake in unpaid charity work and take in foster children. In order to gain better social equality he became foreman of the Mendocino County Grand Jury. All of this positive attention drew more potential members to the church. Jones then turned his attention to trying to help starving children in South America. Deborah Layton Peoples Temple member who joined as a teenager remembers, “I think the Sixties and Seventies people felt there was something more we all ought to be doing.” (Interview with Deborah Layton, qtd. in “Temple Members’ Stories”).
Following his own advice, Jones and his wife were the first family to adopt a black child in Indiana. Jim Jones Jr. remembers his mom telling him, “Jim stopped crying the moment Marceline Jones lifted him into her arms, and how she and her husband decided right then to make him the first black child in Indianapolis ever adopted by a white couple, and to consecrate their belief in racial equality by giving him his father’s name” (Smith, Sports Illustrated 4). In total Jones and his wife adopted seven kids. Their children came from diverse ethnic backgrounds such as Korean, African American, and even Native American. Many referred to them as the Rainbow Family.
Jim Jones gave people a sense of empowerment and taught the members of his congregation to do the same. “I saw older people, working with youth, not in a degrading way or condescending way, but kind of sharing wisdom back and forth. And if that’s not a beacon of hope, I don’t think what is in the world”, remembers Glenn Hennington (Interview with Glenn Hennington, qtd. in “Temple Members’ Stories). He showed people a new way to live together as one. It was not common practice for that time in history to be able to sit in the same company as that of someone from another race. Jones gave people the opportunity to learn and opened their eyes to a new view of the times. With all this togetherness, he gave his congregation a sense of power that they could use to illustrate to the rest of the world what a better place it could be.
“I wanted to be busy helping people, but I didn’t want to segregate myself just to blacks and so, because my mama had always taught me everybody’s the same” (Interview with Hue Fortson Jr., qtd. in “Temple Members’ Stories”). Peoples Temple helped people feel helpful and appreciated. It gave people a new choice for their life. African Americans no longer had to join the Black Panthers to be helpful in creating change in the world. White Americans no longer had to be a just another hippie or yuppie, they could take up the cause and just be who they were.
Jim Jones offered his worshippers something no one else could. He gave them an opportunity to live their utopian dream during their lifetime. This promised land was Jonestown. “Some were there to give their families a fighting chance, to get their relatives off the mean streets of the ghetto. Some had just gotten fed up with the day-to-day racism all around” (Kohl, The Joiners of Peoples Temple). Jones gave his people their heaven on earth. This was truly a functioning community with its own school system, agriculture, church services, and medical treatment. He gave them a sense of freedom and harmony that they could not obtain at home in the United States.
Above all else, in a time of such confusion and corruption Jim Jones gave people someone that they could trust and want to be like. He was real and true to what he believed in. “He seemed like a protector,” said Laura Kohl. Jones’ evangelist ways showed him to be someone with so much spirit and drive for life. Laura Kohl reflected, “He was a person who thrived on having a full life!” The hundreds of followers of Peoples Temple never saw the potential for disaster that was awaiting them in their future.
American history will always remember Jonestown as a large cult that committed the ultimate sin by taking their lives and the lives of so many innocent children. What people do not stop to remember is that they were a group of people who wanted to make their lives better for their families and themselves. The men, women, and children that died that day could have been your friend, neighbor, sister, brother, and mother. When asked if bothered by the fact that American, history turned their utopian vision into a cult Laura Kohl replied:
What I worry about most is that individuals who died in Jonestown will be written off as cultists, and crazies. They were the visionaries of our society. They were not content to passively accept racism and socio-economic prejudice so pervasive in our country then and now. They were the worker bees who made great sacrifice even before their deaths – to make the world better.
The actions of Jim Jones will always taint American history, but do not let it be the only resource when passing judgment on the members of Peoples Temple. They were a group of young and old that was actively trying to create a better world for everyone. They stood united to fight against racial barriers, to bring young men home from Vietnam, and allow people to love freely. All it took was a nation divided by violence and racism to give power to one charismatic preacher from Indiana the chance to take so many lives. Maybe America needs to stop and think about what these people died trying to do and what led them to Jonestown. Instead of simplifying the situation and labeling this faction as a cult and Jim Jones as a mass murderer maybe, we should look a little closer and discover what the real beliefs were behind this utopian society.
Interview with Glenn Hennington. “Temple Members’ Stories.” Featured in Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple. 20 March 2007 (Accessed March 2008).
Interview with Hue Fortson Jr. “Temple Members’ Stories.” Featured in Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple. 20 March 2007 (Accessed March 2008).
Interview with Tim Carter. “Temple Members’ Stories.” Featured in Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple. 20 March 2007 (Accessed March 2008).
Kohl, Laura. Email interview. 26 March 2008.
Kohl, Laura. “The Joiners of Peoples Temple.” Alternative Considerations of Jonestown & Peoples Temple. December 2007 (Accessed 8 March 2008).
“Race and Peoples Temple.” Featured in Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple. 20 March 2007 (Accessed March 2008).
Smith, Gary. “Escape From Jonestown.” Sports Illustrated 31 Dec. 2007: 124. Infotrac. WVNCC, Learning Resource Center (Accessed 25 Apr 2008).
Cannibals and Evil Cult Killers. Spain: Brettenham House, 2006.