On the transformation of Jim Jones:
From God’s minister to the Angel of Death

by Dr. Philip G. Zimbardo

After reviewing much material on Jim Jones, I have found that one thing becomes increasingly clear. It is important to view Jim Jones’ transformation not in a linear fashion – from point A to point B over a number of years – but rather through the lens of his many personae. By the time of the mass suicide in Jonestown in 1978, Jim Jones had been a reverend, a healer, a leader, a revolutionary, a politician, a tyrant, a God, a Communist, an atheist, a drug addict, and a father, to name a few. But he did not move from one to another to another as time passed, but rather from fewer at once to more at once. His repertoire of personae grew and grew as he perfected styles from which he found benefits. After perfecting a few, he tackled new ones that he could apply to more effectively control his followers and the destiny of his growing church. His ability to get what he desired by manipulating the authority he gained within these personae began to overshadow the message he originally intended to preach through them. Eventually, Jones found himself in a predicament. He could not revert to a younger, more idealistic, less manipulative self. He had to continue to abuse the authority he had won himself in order to maintain control over his life’s work. If he failed to do so, those who followed him so loyally might come to see him as a liar and a criminal, rather than an infallible deity, and the church around him would crumble.

In viewing Jones’s transformation in this fashion, we begin to understand him not as an angel of death sent from Hell to ruin the lives of thousands, but instead as a man who had reason and motive behind all of his carefully planned manipulations, not all of which were inherently evil. He truly seemed to believe that he could eventually justify his ridiculous means with a miraculous end. But it is clear that by 1973, he understood his predicament. Either he would achieve his end and become a social revolutionary that changes the face of the modern world, or – in his own words – he would “bring it all to a screeching halt.” He knew that the only alternative to these two options was to watch it spin out of his control, and if Jim Jones had one driving force, it was that he must maintain his control over the destiny of his church. The White Nights of Jonestown show that he knew he had gone too far, and that his options had been reduced to one: the screeching halt. From there, it is only a matter of when.

His biggest sin then, was that he could not admit to making a mistake. He could not turn himself or his church around and try again, but rather he let the machine he had created run itself. To do otherwise – to acknowledge fallibility – would have risked surrendering authority, which might have meant losing his church. It was easier, more consistent, and personally less threatening to do nothing about it but instead just continue on.

From this point, he never changed the trajectory of his movement. On the contrary, as time passed, he had to work increasingly hard to perfect the many roles he had to play to keep it from being jolted off the path he had put it on. And herein lies a paradox: the more he worked to “control” the situation, the less control he actually had. The more he manipulated, the less freedom he had to steer the church in a new direction without losing it completely. And the more time that passed, the more critical his role-playing became, because it would take less and less to throw him and his church off track. This explains the move to Guyana, the paranoia, and the extreme control of information. However Jonestown was presented to the outside world – as a utopia, a religious commune, a socialist model, the Promised Land – Jones had transformed it into a fascist state. And he did so with the acquiescence, cooperation and participation of his followers.

For the responsibility for Jonestown’s end is not Jones’ alone. His sin is very similar to that of his followers. While Jones was the one who would have been most able to reverse the course of the movement, he wasn’t the only one. He was simply too afraid to say, “Stop, this doesn’t make sense anymore.” Instead, he played into it, letting the empire he created take him where it would. Many followers claim that at some point, they wanted to stop it, but knew that it would probably cost them their lives. By the end, even Stephan, Marceline, and Tim Jones desperately wanted to stage a coup, but knew that the people wouldn’t have it.

But that begs the question: “If the people won’t hear of it, could Jones really have stopped it as easily as one might imagine?” If killing Jones would not have ended the madness, what could Jones himself have said to reverse the wicked direction he had laid for them? Perhaps he could have admitted defeat in Ukiah in the early 70’s and tried to undo the harm he had already done, but even he didn’t foresee what was in store. He didn’t anticipate the lengths to which his manipulations would change him into a paranoid, power driven, drug addicted killer. Back then, he saw his misdoings as correctable, that the ends to which he would lead his church would justify the means he used to get there. Though he believed that he could still accomplish his goals in the end, he had already made one critical decision about his own infallibility. The alternative to his leadership was the destruction of the church, and the only question became: would he let it be at the hands of defecting followers, or would he bring it all down himself?

Jones the Boy

As a boy, Jim Jones was raised in a rather non-conventional family. His mother did not look after him and his father was jobless. They didn’t attend church, like the rest of the families in the small town of Lynn, Indiana, where Jones was raised. They did not even sleep in the same bed. His mother Lynetta was the family breadwinner, and because she traveled to and from work every day (to Richmond), she had no time to keep the house in order. From an early age, Jones yearned to have a family that fit into the conventional Midwest town setting, but he would never get it.

It was in this setting that Jones first learned the practicality of compiling a number of masks to be worn differentially based on his surroundings. One of his neighbors, a woman named Myrtle Kennedy, often looked after Jim as a young boy. Covered in dirt and grime, he would wander around the neighborhood.

  • Cared for many animals as a boy. Would show them off to playmates. Often used animals as a way to win people over. He would speak to them. He often claimed to be able to heal the animals.
  • Would preach to friends in barn loft. Learned early how to keep an audience captive. Once locked two playmates in the barn loft and left them there.
  • His mother had instilled in him a sense of persecution. He believes early on that giving to the poor and needy is very important, and that social outcasts are in need of someone to stand up for them. Lived near a railroad that attracted many vagrants. Would give entire bags of food to drifters.

The Reverend Healer

  • Attends Gospel Tabernacle Pentecostal church as a teen and begins to mimic preaching styles that he encounters there.
  • Begins to study healing techniques and preaching styles in order to incorporate them into a racially-integrated church that he was trying to start.
  • Begins to learn the political aspects of preaching. Accomplishes a number of things for the social good.
  • Breaks from the Laurel Street Church to establish the Wings of Deliverance Church, immediately renamed Peoples Temple.
  • Begins to model preaching techniques of Father Divine, who claimed to be a deity himself. Reads scriptures looking for discrepancies, harps on these inconsistencies, and after undermining Christian ideals, claims to be a deity. This costs him a great deal of his followers, but the ones who have stayed have made a rather large commitment to him and his church.
  • Establishes a connection between Disciples of Christ and Peoples Temple.
  • Claims to have had to suffer sex with women for their salvation.
  • Wife Marceline becomes unhappy and Jones becomes obsessed with his church.

 In Ukiah

  • Convinces around 140 followers to leave Indiana and follow the Temple to Ukiah in the summer of 1965.
  • As more drift over and new members join, Jones brings the congregation to about 3,000 by the early 70’s. Between 1970 and 1972, the Temple newsletter circulation grows from 1,500 to over 36,000 due to huge national recruiting campaigns.
  • Based on accounts in the books by Debby Layton and James Reston Jr., Jones’ manipulations are getting out of control.
  • The Temple experiences some strong criticisms in the press, most notably from Lester Kinsolving. Jones claims that as a true prophet there are extremists who refuse to hear his message and seek to destroy him. His followers defend him and adopt a similar outlook.
  • First refers in a 1973 speech to his willingness to bring his movement to “a screeching halt.” Conducts the first “mass suicide drill” in 1975 when he tells people the wine they have been drinking is laced with poison and they will all die.

Jones the Emperor

  • Leads mass migration to Jonestown
  • Controls all information in and out of the Temple
  • Constructs a social network that is solidified in vertical accountability with spies, conspiracies, and complete lack of trust. No one can defect without fearing for their lives. It is a reconstruction of a Nazi state where everyone is a potential Jewish victim. It is likely that there is some CIA link to Jones’ jungle experiment in extreme or total mind control. That would be the ultimate irony for this socialist-communist, anti-USA fanatic to be in allegiance with the dark side of America’s CIA to demonstrate that it is possible to seduce nearly 1000 citizens to commit suicide and murder in blind obedience to authority with careful indoctrination.

(Dr. Philip G. Zimbardo is a professor emeritus of Psychology at Stanford University.He is author of “The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil” (Random House, 2007). Also see his web site: http://www.LuciferEffect.com. He may be reached at drzimbardo@gmail.com.)

Last modified on December 3rd, 2013.
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