May 13, 1931. A simple, ordinary day for many. For one family, one state, one nation, this ordinary day would produce one of the most influential, yet deadly, people in our history.
On this day, the birth of James Warren Jones in Crete, Indiana occurred. Jim, at a young age, had strong beliefs in God and religion, and would be often seen preaching to his peers in the loft of his family barn. Like every child, Jim had his share of peer pressure and was constantly picked on. His charisma and energy, however, began to emerge when he was by himself or with his friends, teaching and leading in his back-yard sanctuary.
As time went on, Jim grew older, married, and decided that he wanted to be a pastor. He became a preacher in the 1950’s and raised money to fund the building of his own church. Finally, The Wings of Deliverance, (later to be known as Peoples Temple), was built, and joined with the Disciples of Christ denomination.
Peoples Temple was a place of refuge for the homeless, regardless of race, ethnicity, sex, or religion. Although the majority of attendees and regulars were black, many other ethnical groups were drawn to Peoples Temple because of its main focus: the people. If you were hungry, sick, needed money, a job, or just a place to spend the night, no matter what time of day, the doors to the Temple were always open. Although the majority of Indianapolis didn’t agree with the Temple’s teaching, the people soon knew whom to turn to when they need help.
When the church was established, public meetings were held where Mr. Jones would preach on social justice and racial equality. He also performed healings in which people would be instantly cured of whatever ailed them. This is where all the trouble began to arise.
Controversy started to surface when Jones began to isolate his followers. He would tell them that the government was against their beliefs and would try to destroy them. He also spoke of a Nuclear Apocalypse and claimed that because he was a prophet, he knew that his congregation would be safe in either California or Indiana. Upon joining the Temple, the role of father went to Jim and the people were known as an integrated family. Jim also stated that he was the reincarnated form of religious and political leaders such as Buddha, Lenin, and Jesus. In 1965, Jim moved his congregation, wife, and his “rainbow family”, a group of ethnically diverse children whom he claimed as his own, to north California in order to escape the potential of a nuclear war.
Reverend Jones was becoming very popular among the community. Politicians were looking to him to rally up follower’s support, which could guarantee votes and possible victory, among other community and citizen missions. Although Jim was a very powerful man, he was also very sharp and cunning. Little by little, the people on the inside of the church saw the real Jim Jones for who the power was making him become. Many people got tired of the church and the consequences for certain behavior. Punishment was severe in most cases, with public physical and sexual humiliation as well as beatings. The people were told that they were all homosexual and that he was the only true heterosexual among them. This was said to justify his own homosexual actions, being that the California police caught him trying to have sexual relations with another man. He would also make those who disobeyed him perform sexual acts on him or in front of the congregation. At this time Peoples Temple was being investigated for tax evasion and other suspicious dealings, when Jones decided to move his congregation. By this time, word was just beginning to spread about what was really going on inside the Temple. Many dissenters tried to tell those outside what was happening but, quite frankly, no one believed them until after the tax investigations began. It wasn’t till a news article was published about life behind closed doors, that Jones finally decided to leave. He was given 3800 acres of land by the Marxist government of Guyana to build an “agricultural utopia” of sorts. What really took place in South America was a different story.
Upon arrival, you were stripped of all your personal belongings, including your passport. You weren’t allowed to leave the camp and the entrances and exits were heavily guarded. Food and water were depleting rapidly and personal hygiene was non-existent.
While the members worked in the field, Jones was off somewhere getting high, feasting on imported foods and liquor, and having sexual relations with many of his staff members. Many members grew tired of the situation they were in and wanted out of the Temple. They envied those who stayed behind and realized that many of their loved ones and family members were better off than they themselves. Around this time, a group of family members called the Concerned Relatives began searching for a way to bring their loved ones back from Jonestown. Congressman Leo Ryan was sent to investigate the camp and make sure living conditions were acceptable. At first Jones denied his arrival. After much debate and conflict, Jones agreed to let him in. Upon arrival, Congressman Ryan, Tim Stoen, members of the media, and other cabinet members, were warmly greeted and feasted with the Reverend as onlookers served them. Everything seemed to be going well until a note was slipped to the congressman by one of the Temple members, revealing that he wanted to leave with the congressman’s entourage. Ryan became quickly aware that not every thing was, as it seemed. Concerned, and bombarded by 14 other requests for departure, Congressman Ryan decided to take action. By now, Jones had realized that his power was quickly slipping away. The control he once had on his people was quickly vanishing.
Just as a decision was about to be made, the Congressman was attacked by one of Jones’ guards. Jones ordered him to be released and said that he could take the 15 people with him. He was told to leave immediately and set off for the Kituma Airstrip in Georgetown. As they began to board the plane, a small pick-up truck made its way towards the dissenters and opened fire, killing 5 people, including the congressman. During this time, Jones was beginning to loose complete control over his followers, and as chaos and confusion set in; he knew he had to do something. On November 18, 1978, Jones gathered his followers underneath the main pavilion, for what would be the real reason behind the countless imaginary “white nights”, suicide drills that were held throughout the mornings in order to teach the members how to kill themselves. Something was different about this night because unlike many other white nights, this was during the day and a lot had gone wrong. Many ran as far away from the camp as they could during the confusion and scuffles, and managed to find refuge within the jungle, but others, especially the children and elderly, weren’t so lucky.
As the moments ticked away, the faithful members began to rejoice in the act of their “revolutionary suicide”, a term adopted by Jim Jones from a key member of the Black Panthers. Although some did resist, the majority of the group, so convinced that their father, their “god”, was helping them find peace, wanted to give their lives and contrary to popular belief, were in their own minds. As the barrels of cyanide-laced Flavor Aid rolled in, singing and dancing were among the many celebratory rituals the members took part in. As the drink was being administered to the children, who were the first to go, Reverend Jones spoke about how they weren’t losing the battle, they were winning by showing the American government that they wouldn’t comply. Communism would prevail in the world and that they weren’t giving up by laying down their lives. The rest of the poison was given out and taken either voluntarily or by force.
Syringes full with cyanide and tranquilizers were injected into those who refused to drink the poisonous juice, while others were shot on the premises. Jones was found dead by gunshot on the podium, along with his wife Marceline, who after much resistance decided to take her life once the children had been killed, and his mistress, Carolyn, who had also committed suicide by shooting herself. All in all, 914 people perished on that fateful day.
Many have wondered from time to time: what happened to the rest? There must have been survivors. What were their stories? How have they changed? How has this event reconstructed their religious/political views? Fortunately, many did survive and live to tell the tale. For some it’s a way of expressing their opinions on the subject. For others it’s a positive way to cope with the loss of loved one(s). For Stephan Jones, son of Jim Jones, and Don Beck, speaking of their past is a mixture of both and then some.
Most of it has to do with dealing with what has been and what is to come. Other cases are meant for educating those who need to hear the truth, whether they were involved or not. In Stephan’s case, it’s a little bit of both. Since he was a teen, he never agreed with what his father was doing, and found ways to separate himself from his father’s teachings and beliefs. Going to dances, movies, playing sports, all of those activities, and many more activities that were restricted or forbidden, were ways of communicating to his father, the hatred and anger for Jones’ behavior. He wouldn’t let the implement of fear from his father control him. Not then, not now, not ever. Jim Jones was an expert at doing so: controlling those who followed him not with consequences per say, but with absolute and total fear of inhalation. It has been quoted, “… people were his candy store, especially the people of Jonestown.”
Looking back on the situation, one perspective that many seemed to agree with is that with all the strength, emotionally as well as physically, that both Marceline and Stephan had, overcoming Jim Jones would have been easier if they weren’t separated. With Stephan in Georgetown and Marceline in the compound, they were weak and vulnerable. It wasn’t till after Congressman Ryan was shot, that Stephan even had a clue of what was going on. Although he did try: running to the American Embassy in search of aid, enlisting the help of his basketball team members, and returning to the camp- just in time to see the result of the true white night, there was just no way to succeed. Even Marceline put up a fight and refused to drink the poison. Nevertheless, Jim had her restrained until the children were dead. She felt no reason for living now that her husband had taken precious lives.
Don Beck, on the other hand, was lucky. He left the Temple early enough to avoid being caught in the fray of suicide, murder, and politics. From what he remembers, the Temple wasn’t always about war and death. After meetings, the children would swim the church’s backyard swimming pool, while the grownups had fellowship at the picnic tables. Communion was more of a social gathering rather than a religious ritual, and sermons were based more on moral choices and activities than religious themes.
Not every person had a horrible experience with the Temple. It didn’t start out as a brainwashing cult that made you give up your life so you could die for a radical cause. It was simply a way to help people get back on their feet. The fatal mistake I think that most can agree on lies in the hands of Jim Jones. Had he not taken the view of leader as far as he did, a lot of the tragedy and death could have avoided. Instead, he chose to take onto himself the role of God almighty, a task that no one can ever achieve.
The survivor’s tales are important because they bring forth one common message. We’re all human and we all go through things. Sharing them with others can be a very positive way of dealing with and encouraging others, as well as teaching those who may one day be in the same position. It takes a lot to be a survivor; patience, hope, strength, and faith, are all key ingredients to bringing someone out of a dark place. By coming out and speaking on their experiences, the survivors of Jonestown have become more than just ordinary, everyday people. They have become legends of spirit, strength, and bravery, which will go down in history for years to come.
Alternative Considerations of Jonestown and Peoples Temple, http://jonestown.sdsu.edu/
Personal Interview: Beck, Don
Personal Interview: Jones, Stephan G.
Reiterman, Tim and Jacobs, John. Raven: The Untold Story of the Rev. Jim Jones and His People. New York: Dutton, 1982
Snow, L. Robert. Deadly Cults: The Crimes of True Believers Praeger Publishers, 2003