The Jonestown Massacre

by Matt Williams

(Matt Williams wrote this paper as a junior for a class in “U.S. History and the World” at Friends School of Baltimore in Maryland.)

On November 18, 1978, Jim Jones led his congregation, Peoples Temple, in a mass murder-suicide while in Jonestown, Guyana. Over nine hundred men, women, and children were lost, making the Jonestown massacre one of the largest mass suicides in human history. After this horrific event occurred, it seemed to be a mystery as to how Jim Jones was able to manipulate such a large number of people from such a wide range of social and religious backgrounds into committing a mass suicide. Many people were confused as to what the motives of Jim Jones were and what Peoples Temple stood for. Jim Jones was able to influence people to become members of the Peoples Temple congregation through appealing to, and uniting a wide range of religious and social backgrounds under a single diverse society free of inequality and prejudice. Many of the members of Peoples Temple were so desperate for acceptance and fearful of being alienated for questioning the Temple’s methods that they ceased to speak out against Jones’ harsh, manipulative practices.

Jim Jones was born on May 13, 1931 in the small town of Crete, Indiana. His father was an alcoholic and had no job. Growing up as an outcast with few friends, Jones was drawn to religion: “Childhood acquaintances recalled Jones as being a ‘weird kid’ who was obsessed with religion” (Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple; hereafter, Jonestown). He also recognized and could relate to discrimination that blacks and other non-Caucasians faced.

In 1951 Jones and his wife moved to Indianapolis where he enrolled at Butler University to receive a degree in secondary education (Alternative Considerations of Jonestown and Peoples Temple; hereafter Alternative Considerations). He also became the pastor at Sommerset Southside Methodist Church in 1952, but decided to leave when the church “barred him from integrating African Americans into his congregation” (Wessinger). Jones founded the Wings of Delivery Congregation in 1955, which he renamed later that year to Peoples Temple (Wessinger part 3 page unknown). Peoples Temple became affiliated with the Disciples of Christ, “a denomination that boasted 1.5 million members,” which helped to increase the Temple’s credibility and popularity (Wessinger). Because the church did not closely supervise Jones, he was able to preach his philosophy of “Apostolic Socialism” (Alternative Considerations). His goal was to create a completely egalitarian society that was accepting to all races, religions, and sexual orientations.

In 1961, Jim Jones became director of the Indianapolis Human Rights Commission in order to help racially integrate Indianapolis. After a few years, however, he began receiving criticism for his extreme philosophy and concluded that the state of Indiana was too racist to be the home of an organization with goals such as those of Peoples Temple (Wessinger). So, in 1965, Jones moved his tiny congregation to Redwood Valley, California, where it rapidly expanded from a few hundred members to over one thousand. Jones attracted a diverse mix of people to Peoples Temple because he made everyone feel that they had a purpose and “there was something bigger than themselves that they needed to be involved in” (Jonestown). In the end though, everyone who joined Peoples Temple did so for their own reason, “their own story, their own understanding and belief of what Peoples Temple was and what Jim Jones represented to them” (Beck). For instance, Don Beck joined Peoples Temple in 1970 at the age of 28 because of its great diversity as well as its common goal of “building a socially just and egalitarian community on earth, a rainbow family of folk from a wide diversity of backgrounds, experience, and education” (Beck).  It was a society where people who felt like outcasts in everyday American society could go and feel a sense of belonging and community.

Many members of Peoples Temple began to make the Temple a central part of their lives. Some demonstrated their financial support by voluntarily tithing (Beck). As Jones’ confidence in the commitment of his congregation grew, he began to preach more controversial topics such as his belief that God and heaven did not exist. “We had belief in good for the sake of good, rather than working for an ‘expectation’ of reward in a heavenly hereafter” (Beck). “He [Jones] said if you see me as your friend I’ll be your friend, if you see me as your father I’ll be your father, if you see me as your savior I’ll be your savior, if you see me as your God I’ll be your God” (Jonestown). Many members of Peoples Temple, yearning for acceptance, took to this belief of Jones. Jones also began performing what he called healings, which impressed many people and helped to attract new members to Peoples Temple. Many of these healings were fake, and were only “crowd pleasers” (Beck). For example, Jones would say he cured someone of cancer by having that person cough up bloody chicken parts in front of a crowd (Beck). He also pretended to cure a handicapped woman, but it was later confirmed that she was one of Jones’ secretaries who was part of the ruse (Jonestown). Many people became very impressed with these “healings” which, in turn, increased the popularity and level of commitment to Peoples Temple.

As Jones’ congregation grew and members became increasingly devoted to Peoples Temple, many members “gave up their right to think for themselves to Jones” (Jonestown). Many members disliked Jones and the daily pressure tactics of the Temple, although they did not speak up because they still believed in the ultimate goal of Peoples Temple and feared being ostracized (Jonestown). These objectionable practices included public humiliation and beatings (Jonestown). Jones began using drugs in the 1970s as a result of his paranoia that the United States government would intervene and put an end to Peoples Temple (Jonestown). In 1976, Jones was informed that a popular magazine would be publishing an article that would greatly damage the reputation of Peoples Temple by revealing some of its dark secrets (Jonestown). Just hours before the article was published Jones decided to move his congregation to Guyana, where he believed he could escape the United States, and start over again in a place where a truly equalitarian society could prosper. Don Beck, a former member of Peoples Temple, said “We would either make American society be true to its founding democratic beliefs, or we would find a place to build such a society”.

By 1978, Peoples Temple’s new agricultural project in Jonestown had a population of over one thousand members (Alternative Considerations). Jonestown was, unfortunately, not all that it appeared to be: the establishment of Jonestown marked the beginning of Jones’ real paranoia, which quickly evolved into a harsh dictatorship. “The community was situated in the middle of a jungle with armed guards along the few roads that led to civilization” (Steel). Even if one did escape, he or she would not have money or passport because everyone relinquished their possessions to Jones upon arrival in Jonestown (Steel). The residents of Jonestown were made to work twelve-hour days and attend classes on socialism during the evening hours (Layton). Cruel and unusual punishments were inflicted such as the dangling of children into wells head first, or confining people to a six-by-four feet underground enclosure called “The Box” (Knapp).  Throughout the day, a loudspeaker constantly broadcasted Jim Jones’ voice. In these broadcasts, Jones “portrayed the United States as a ‘capitalist’ and ‘imperialist’ villain, while casting ‘socialist’ leaders such as former North Korean dictator Kim I1-sung, Robert Mugabe, and Joseph Stalin in a positive light” (Alternative Considerations).

Many people back in the United States, especially in California, were concerned for their relatives in Jonestown. Leo Ryan, the Congressman representing a Northern California district, announced on November 1, 1978 that he would visit Jonestown to investigate complaints from “concerned relatives and allegations following the defection of [former Temple member] Deborah Layton” (Reiterman). On November 15, Ryan traveled to Georgetown, Guyana, about 250 miles from Jonestown, with a team of eighteen people “consisting of government officials, media representatives, and members of the group Concerned Relatives of Peoples Temple Members (Reiterman). On November 17, upon arrival in Jonestown, Congressman Ryan and his party were warmly welcomed, but this was short lived (Steel). Throughout Ryan’s visit he received notes or quiet requests from various Jonestown residents asking for assistance in leaving Jonestown (Steel). Ryan and his party left Jonestown for the Port Kaituma airstrip with sixteen defecting members on November 18. Jones allowed them to leave with little protest, but after Ryan boarded one of the aircrafts destined for Georgetown, a group of Jones’ loyalists pulled up in a tractor next to the plane and opened fire (Jonestown). Five people, including Congressman Ryan, were killed and eleven people were injured (Jonestown).

When Jim Jones was informed of the shooting, he announced over the Jonestown public address system that Congressman Leo Ryan was dead and that the United States would not let Peoples Temple “get away with this” (Jonestown). He went on to say, “if we can’t live in peace, then we must die in peace…die with respect, die with a degree of dignity” (Jonestown). Jones then distributed grape flavored Flavor Aid laced with cyanide to the residents of Jonestown so they could “die in peace” (Jonestown). Many people drank this cyanide-laced Flavor Aid without questioning Jones’ judgment. Others were forcefully injected with cyanide or shot with guns. The total death count at Jonestown was over nine hundred, including Jim Jones.

There is a considerable debate over whether the events at Jonestown were a mass suicide or murder. Popular belief about the events that took place in Guyana on November 18, 1978 is that Jim Jones used some sort of brainwashing technique to convert otherwise reasonable, intelligent human beings into irrational, unquestioning robots willing to do anything and everything he demanded. Former Peoples Temple member, Don Beck, expanded on this idea by stating that “the simplified (popular) story about Peoples Temple was that its members who died were hypnotized into going [to Jonestown], that one man held so much power as to have mind control over them all: All the members were unthinking, unhappy, lost, castoffs from society hypnotized by a charismatic, crazy leader.” Instead, Beck argues that the majority of Peoples Temple members were rational human beings. “Peoples Temple members were thinking, reasoning people believing in a just, democratic, socialistic, supportive community” (Beck). If it were not possible to become completely immersed in these ideas within the boundaries of the United States then “we would go elsewhere to build a place where we could nurture these ideals of socialism and mutual support and cooperation. I had seen what could be done and how people acting with mutual trust can and do build a better community” (Beck).

The members of Peoples Temple who participated in the mass suicide-murder can be divided up into three main groups. The first group was members who were murdered. They certainly were not brainwashed. The second group was made up of those who truly believed in Jones’ ideas and were willing to die for Peoples Temple. The third and final group of Peoples Temple members was probably a combination of the other two groups. They were extreme outcasts from society, psychologically weak followers willing to accept extreme abuse in order to avoid being rejected by the community. It is likely that they were simply swept up in the mass hysteria of the moment.

Jim Jones’ Peoples Temple attracted members from a wide range of social and religious backgrounds, and united them under a single socialist, equalitarian society. Many members were outcasts from society and felt a new sense of belonging when they joined the Temple. Although there were many practices of Jim Jones that the members of the congregation disliked, nobody objected to them for fear of being alienated from the only society that accepted them. Likewise, Peoples Temple was the only component in Jim Jones’ life that he had absolute control over. After the shooting at the airstrip, Jones knew that Peoples Temple, the one thing he was truly passionate about, would be destroyed. He was so fixated on maintaining power over his creation that he decided he would rather end it on his own terms than submit and allow others to intervene.  When he felt threatened that his creation would be destroyed, he did what he could to maintain this absolute control by ending everything that he and the members of Peoples Temple worked for. Forcing Peoples Temple members to commit mass suicide was Jim Jones’ ultimate expression of control.

Works Cited

Alternative Considerations of Jonestown and Peoples Temple. Multimedia Educational Resource for Learning and Online Teaching. 24 Apr. 2008. <http://jonestown.sdsu.edu/>.

Beck, Don. E-mail interview. 3 May 2008.

Hall, John R. Gone from the Promised Land: Jonestown in American Cultural History. New York: Transaction Publishers, 1989.

“Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple.” American Experience. PBS. 9 Apr. 2007. Transcript.

Kinsolving, Tom and Kathleen. “Madman in Our Midst: Jim Jones and the California Cover Up.” Rick A. Ross. Rick A. Ross Institute of New Jersey. 5 May 2008
<http://www.freedomofmind.com/Info/infoDet.php?id=498>.

Knapp, Don. “Jonestown massacre + 20: Questions linger.” CNN. 7 May 2008 <http://www.culteducation.com/reference/jonestown/jonestown48.html>.

Layton, Deborah. Seductive Poison. New York: Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing, 1998.

Reiterman, Tim. Raven: The Untold Story of Reverend Jim Jones and His People. N.p.: New York: Dutton Adult, 1982.

Steel, Fiona. “Jonestown Massacre.” Crime Library.24 Apr. 2008 <http://stevenwarran-backstage.blogspot.com/2013/03/crime-library-jonestown-massacre-reason.html>.

Wessinger, Catherine. How the Millennium Comes Violently: From Jonestown to Heaven’s Gate. New York: Seven Bridges Press, 2000.

Originally posted on July 25th, 2013.

Last modified on January 1st, 2016.
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