How did Jim Jones manage to gain such control over his followers?

by Tim Brooks

(Author’s note: I attend Girraween High, a selective high school, in Australia, NSW. This paper was written for an assignment in Historical Investigation Work for Modern History for year 11. We were told to form a base question of an area of modern history which interests us, and to develop a response. Due to my great interest in the topic of Jonestown, I wrote this.)

On November 18, 1978 members of Peoples Temple living in Jonestown, Guyana took part in the largest mass murder/suicide in modern history. More than 900 people died after ingesting a cyanide-laced drink. All of these deaths cannot be considered as suicide – especially the children and young people under majority age[1] – but there were still hundreds of people who took the words of Jim Jones and followed them, ending their lives. So the question still remains, what factors were present which allowed the leader to have such control over these people by their leader.

Jim Jones grew up very much an exile of society, and had an understanding of the troubles minorities faced in not being accepted. “Feeling as an outcast, I’d early developed a sensitivity for the problems of blacks,”[2] he said. “As a child I was undoubtedly one of the poor in the community, never accepted, born as it were on the wrong side of the tracks”[3] These statements give an insight into the reason in which Jones was so easily connected to the disenfranchised and the alienated in society. Jones understood how black Americans and people who supported the Civil Rights Movement felt isolated by the community, and this allowed him to create a place where they felt that they belonged. “Every single person felt they had a purpose there and they were exceptionally special and that’s how he brought so many young collage kids in, so many older black women in, so many from diverse backgrounds who realised that there was something bigger then themselves they needed to be involved in and Jim Jones offered that”[4]. With such an understanding of how these people had suffered, the ordeals that they had been through and the pain within them, it is no surprise that Jones was so able to gain their trust and make them feel like he was really ready to help them. Knowing how they felt allowed him to build a foundation which would help them feel better. It gave them a place to finally feel they were accepted for who they were and would not be judged. This was a basis for the trust which these people began to instil in Jones, as he had finally made so many of them happy, even to the extent of filling something inside of them.

Jim Jones appeared to be a great person, and he convinced so many people that he was doing great things in the community. He united the races, and combated the racist attitude which may have lingered within members. He supported the poor and elderly people in the community. The people in his congregation were very well looked after, and people began to see him as a sort of role model to them. As Laura Kohl said, “He was a role model for me – adopted children of all colors, hardworker, lived in modest circumstances, didn’t have his own limo no matter how successful, never made fun of anyone, took care of business but was inclusive of the youngest to oldest, newest to oldest member ALL THE TIME.  And, he was a socialist and brought my heroes into the Temple many times – Angela Davis, Dennis Banks, Chileans . and SO MANY MORE.  He was a political animal – very ego-driven and very successful.  That is what I saw.  Things were going on behind closed doors that I never saw – or at least never tuned into.. But what I SAW was someone with power how used mostly for good.  Since the good was so overpowering – I didn’t spend much time being critical or even accepting the other.”[5] Such a moving statement allows us to empathise and understand why this man, who is seen as a villain today, was so widely respected and immortalised. He provided them with so much which ultimately led to unimaginable loyalty and trust to this man, such as a child honours that of a sporting hero. These people were betrayed by the actions of their hero, their role model but they cannot be blamed for entrusting such faith in him, as he misled them to believe him to be a demigod, perfect in so many ways and what he said. What he told them to do was truly thought to be the right thing to do.

Being part of Peoples Temple meant that you were made to feel guilty if you took luxuries for yourself. These luxuries were not the common thought of luxuries, as this included sleep. The members were forced to feel bad if they had been resting too much and enjoying this luxury, “We would let each other know next day, well, how long you slept, I slept two hours, you only slept two, well I slept an hour and a half”[6]. Doing this started to make people stop thinking clearly, or even to stop thinking at all, which was most probably Jones’ main desire. When they were like this, they would not think about instructions or even fight them, they would simply go along with what he told them. Other accounts echo this:

• “We were kept VERY busy – hardly time to sleep, so the other thing was – you had to decide HOW to use your energy – even your brain power.”[7]

• “The longest I ever stayed awake was six days, and that was with no coffee, no nothing.”[8]

• “Being in an environment where you are constantly up, constantly busy and you’re made to feel guilty if you take too many luxuries like sleeping, you tend to not to think for yourself and I allowed Jones to think for me, because I figured he had the better plan. I gave my rights up to him, as many others did.”[9]

These statements show just how things were in Jonestown, and how they were treated. We are able to see that they stopped having their own thoughts, and that Jim did nearly all of their thinking for them while they became mindless zombies under his control. It is very easy to see why they trusted him and did whatever he told them when this is taken into consideration, the fact that they were acting and living on virtually no sleep that they started being on his beck and call and that they no longer opposed the actions they were instructed to perform.

Jim Jones often conducted what they called “white nights” in Jonestown, nights where they were practicing in the event they were under attack. On these occasions, they would often practice mass suicide. The members after a while often stopped taking these seriously, although on the first occasion people reminisced “this punch is going to be passed out to everyone here. We all drank our punch, and then he said “you just drank poison and we will all die right her in the church together. The women were screaming oh no my baby my baby, and others just sat there. And then Jim said you didn’t drink poison”[10] and also the comment “”Jim said this was a test of loyalty. He just wanted to see if we were truly committed, and that is how we would show it.”[11] Through these staged mass suicides, the “loyalty tests”, Peoples Temple members would have become desensitised to the event, and may have no longer taken the threat seriously or thought that they were really doing it for real. This may not have been trust in him, just a false sense of security. Or maybe they just did trust Jones way too much, to believe that if he really wanted to give them poison to drink, that it was the best thing for them, that he ultimately knew the very best for them and they were happy to comply with this. However, it is sure that Jones had a role in making these people do something drastic that they would not normally have done in the right sense of mind. Even survivors will admit that had they been in Jonestown at the time, they would have shown their loyalty to Jones and committed revolutionary suicide. As Laura Kohl readily admits, “At that time – without the wisdom and insight I now have about the whole picture – I would likely have drank the drink.”

Another issue involved with Jim Jones’ control over these people that many of them came from broken homes and off the streets, from horrible lives which frequently included drug use and abuse, alcoholism and sometimes prostitution, alongside other criminal activities and abuse. When he developed Peoples Temple, it provided not only a home and place of refuge for these people, it was also symbolic of the improvements in their lives: they finally had something to live for, something to be a part of. It inspired them to try harder at their jobs, younger students to pursue college and forget the errors of their ways. They saw this as the change in their lives which made the improvement. You could even say they were oblivious that it was their own hard work and determination which brought about the better lifestyles; they believed it was this organization. “When I joined the Temple, I was cycling down into the abyss. I had flunked out of.college, had a brief marriage. had a man shot in my living room, had been hospitalized with a STD, dated a married man whose wife was a drug-addicted nurse, moved on to a cocaine-addicted attorney and endured other less dramatic but equally near-fatal experiences. And then I walked into the Redwood Valley Peoples Temple. What would have happened if I had not gone there at that time?… I am not the only one who found life in PT. Here in the US, many former drug addicts, prostitutes, disabled and disillusioned people were given their lives back.[12] Showing how one Temple member believed, and still does believe, how beneficial the group was to her life, could largely explain why she and so many others showed such faith and loyalty to Jones.

Jim Jones was a very desirable man to many women, and a role model to the men. He was extremely charismatic and always came across as a good person who was always trying to help others out. He was a man who understood the troubles of minorities and just generally of others, always ready to empathise with others. If you put your trust and faith in him, you were rewarded and looked after. “If I had to go the dentist it was taken care of, if I had to go doctors it was taken care of, if I needed clothes it was taken care of”[13]. These reasons all combined together to make the members of Peoples Temple trust and love Jim Jones. It also led them to take whatever he said seriously and in good faith, even though it ended up in such a downfall. His intentions may have begun as good, yet one thing is for sure; one man should not have such power over anyone, especially not such a mass of people.

Bibliography

The Jonestown Institute, http://jonestown.sdsu.edu/

The Religious Movements Homepage Project: Peoiples Temple

Email correspondence with Don Beck

Email correspondence with Fielding McGehee

Email correspondence with Laura Kohl

Jonestown: Life and Death of Peoples Temple (motion picture / documentary)

Jonestown: Paradise Lost (motion picture / documentary)

Notes

[1] “Murder or Suicide: What I Saw” by Tim Carter featured on Was it Murder or Suicide?: A Forum. Also mentioned by Laura Kohl: “Children can not make that decision for themselves.  They are children. Parents have to make the choice for their child.”

[2] Jim Jones quoted in the video Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple (0:09:54 minutes)

[3] Ibid. (0:08:11 minutes)

[4] Deborah Layton, Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple (0:07:09 minutes)

[5] Quote from Laura Kohl, former Peoples Temple member.

[6] Hue Fortson Jr, Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple, (0:21:36 minutes)

[7] Quotation from Laura Kohl

[8] Unidentified former Peoples Temple Member quote in Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple (0:21:55 minutes)

[9] Unidentified former Peoples Temple Member quote in Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple (0:21:58 minutes)

[10] Ibid. (0:32:45 minutes)

[11] Ibid (0:33:14 minutes)

[12] “Was It Murder Or Was It Suicide?” by Laura Kohl accessed at http://jonestown.sdsu.edu/?page_id=31982.

[13] Tim Carter on Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple

(Tim Brooks may be contacted through this website.)

Last modified on April 9th, 2014.
Skip to main content