An interest frequently starts by a coincidence. I became familiar with the name of Jonestown because of the California rock band the Brian Jonestown Massacre, and by accident I became familiar with the Jonestown massacre at Wikipedia’s encyclopaedia.
It reminded me of the events of Waco, but it left me with lots of questions. What a kind of person was Jim Jones? Was he a person like David Koresh, who saw himself as a prophet? What did Jones’ sermons and healings look like? Did he already show signs of his paranoia during the early seventies? These were the reasons I had when I ordered some of these tapes through this website. And after listening to them I ended up with these tentative conclusions.
I first thought of Peoples Temple as a religious sect. But soon it became clear Jones only used religion as a way to deliver his political messages. In all of his speeches he showed himself as an avid fighter against the invisible Skygod and the old religions.
Jim Jones’ healings were most popular, and drew the largest crowds. It seemed most people really believed in his “miracles,” even if his most incredible miracles, like resurrecting people from the dead, took place out of view of the congregation.
He spoke to them of his coming to give them Jesus Christ. He often evoked the image of “Jesus,” but emphasized he was the one that executed all these miracles, as here, in a 1972 sermon before the Temple congregation in San Francisco: “And you’ve never seen anybody [that] can take a cancer out of a person like me, I took it away with one stroke… You seen 3 people drop dead and you saw them resurrected. They were dropped dead but I resurrected them, and I’ve done it 63 times in 11 months.”
Jones always made clear he used the church and his healings to deliver his militant messages, as here in Los Angeles that same year: “I am the militant revolutionary. That is the highest calling. But I have to be a preacher to some, and I have to be a healer to some, and a miracle worker to others. I’ve gotta reach everybody on every level. You must become all things to all men, to save the more.”
Fortunately, the fleshmade prophet was there to save the oppressed. By accepting his teachings, people could free themselves. Jim Jones may have claimed to have saved people from death, diseases and enemies, but he also did deliver food, jobs and homes.
“You believe in me in order to believe in you… I am here, and I’m different. But I can make you exactly what I am, if you’ll listen.”
To achieve this freedom, people had to accept his teachings without any criticism. Jones was always right, and showed harsh criticism of those who disagreed with him. His followers became totally dependent. If people didn’t combine his miracles with his teachings, they could live a long life, but might as well be dead.
The theme of conspiracy drove much of Jones’ worldview and many of his decisions, and finally resulted in the massacre at Jonestown. “Many of our former members are now in jail, and some are dead,” he said in Jonestown in November 1978, while discussing the impending arrival of Congressman Ryan. “How much longer you think it’s going to be before they round up blacks in concentration camps?”
Although I can understand that Jones’ speeches about racism and women’s rights appealed to a lot of people, the idea that a majority of the members were willing to accept Jones’ most paranoid messages is shocking. Even accusing each other, beating their own children to “protect” Peoples Temple reminds me of a country like North Korea. It still leaves me with lots of questions about Jones and his people. It means I’m still drawn to this story, and always will be.
(Rene van Dam lives in the Netherlands. He can be reached at email@example.com.)