Obey Your Father:
Jim Jones’ Rhetoric of Deadly Persuasion

by Jacob Neighbors

06a-neighbors(Jacob Neighbors wrote this paper for a course on “The Rhetoric of Global Leadership,” taught by Dr. Alyssa O’Brien at Stanford University. Coming from a small town in Texas, Jacob describes himself as “having borne witness to the dangers of narrow-mindedness and small thinking. It is because of his experiences there involving religion, conformity, and groupthink that he has taken a deep interest in the devices that control and influence the mind.”)

Abstract:

Once the horrific news of the Jonestown Massacre spread, it quickly became apparent that brainwashing and cult-like societies pose a real danger to society. After observing many parallels between the events that transpired in Jonestown and present-day events, such as Kim Jung Il’s reign over North Korea, it becomes even more evident that ignorance in regards to the methods in which these brainwashers manipulate others is both foolish and dangerous. Because of this threat, my paper examines how the primary methods of Jones’ success in controlling his followers is directly linked to his doggedness at expanding and elevating his ethos in the context of both his actions, and innate in his position, and the manipulation and control of his followers’ sense of solus, or isolation, through physical location and fear. This being the case, if people can learn to develop an understanding for the methods that Jones used to gain dominance over his people, they can learn to effectively recognize these methods in action and become better prepared to defend both themselves, and others, from the abuses of mind-control and manipulation.

In the Beginning

Inside, I just wanted things to stop… I looked to my right, and I saw my wife with our son in her arms, and poison being injected into his mouth. My son was dead and he was frothing at the mouth- you know, cyanide makes people froth at the mouth. My wife died in my arms, and my dead baby son was in her arms, and I held her and said, “I love you, I love you,” and this is all I could say because …[sobbing] she died in my arms. (Jonestown)

– Tim Carter, one of three survivors to escape the Jonestown Massacre. He lost his son, wife, sister, niece, and nephew.

Despite the horrific events that occurred on November 18, 1978 in Jonestown, Guyana, it has become apparent that brainwashing and cult-like organizations still pose a real danger in modern-day society. Even though it has been more than 30 years since Jim Jones, the leader of Peoples Temple, coerced his 908 followers to “lay down their lives” in an act of “revolutionary suicide” (Alternative Considerations) in the largest mass-suicide in the history of the world, the world has yet to make significant strides in establishing any kind of awareness or resistance to this type of threat. It seems that in regards to brainwashers, the world has remained rutted to the path of vulnerability.

In order to counter this danger, in order to establish a means of defense, it is necessary to examine and understand the different methods that Jones used to brainwash his people so absolutely. Thus, to aptly address this situation, we must focus on his tools of persuasion. What methods, what actions, what rhetorical devices, did Jones use to draw in such a sizeable following, manipulate them, and lead them to their deaths?

Through my research, I have discovered that in order to manipulate and control his following, Jones relied most exclusively on two rhetorical strategies: the extensive exaggeration and elevation of his own ethos through his innate position and his physical actions, and the manipulation and control of his followers’ sense of solus, or isolation, through physical location and fear. This being the case, if people can learn to develop an understanding for the methods that Jones used to gain dominance over his people, they can learn to effectively recognize these methods in action and become better prepared to defend both themselves, and others, from these abuses.

The Rhetoric of Jones

The strength of a movement is determined neither by the ideology it reflects nor by the opposition it faces; it is determined by the might of those who follow it.

Similarly, a leader, who often symbolizes the face or voice of such a movement, is powerless, no matter what he stands for, no matter what his vision is, no matter what he believes, without a following to transform his philosophy into reality.

This concept of gaining power through an inflated following is the source of Jones’ insatiable thirst for new recruits. The more people Jones could seduce, the more power and influence he was able to flex. These influences are ultimately what shaped Jones’ never-ending quest to attract and sustain a robust following, and Jones, through manipulation of his own ethos and his following’s solus, was a leader who had tremendous skill in doing just that.

The Power of Ethos

“Ordinary people,” psychologist Stanley Milgram writes, “simply doing their jobs, and without any particular hostility on their part, can become agents in a terrible destructive process. Moreover, even when the destructive effects of their work become patently clear, and they are asked to carry out actions incompatible with fundamental standards of morality, relatively few people have the resources needed to resist authority” (Milgram).

During Jones’ 25-year reign over Peoples Temple, he was effectively and reliably able to exploit the manipulation of his own ethos to influence and control his followers to do his bidding. “Jones could make everyone feel as if he or she was the guest of the day; he made each one feel special in some way. He gave you your five minutes, and in return, you gave him your life.” (Gleason)

This power is made clear when we observe that many of the most definitive experiments regarding compliance in humans point to the role of authority as being among the most effective means. The most revealing of such experiments, the famous “Milgram Shock Experiment”, conducted by psychologist Stanley Milgram, showed that with nothing more than the prompting of an authority figure, 65% of people were willing to disregard their morals and expose innocent others to what they thought were lethal doses of voltage. His experiment has been retested many times and has been shown to be consistent throughout societies. “The key to the behavior of subjects,” Milgram writes, “lies in the nature of their relationship to authority…they see themselves as instruments for the execution of wishes; once so defined, they are unable to break free” (Milgram).

Exploiting Ethos

Specifically, Jones was able to construct his authoritative, god-like ethos with his followers through two separate means: ethos manifestation due to his position, and ethos manifestation due to his actions.

In examining ethos due to position, we see that certain positions, or titles, are intrinsically weighted with varying degrees of ethos. We perceive that different people are entitled to different degrees of credibility, and often times this entitlement is due solely to the position of the person, not the content of their character.

Considering Jones, he was the founder of an organization. His organization had a reputation of feeding and clothing the homeless, supporting racial equality in a time when segregation was rampant, cleaning drug addicts, and providing free medical care for the elderly. It was an organization that was backed by religion and ordained by the concept of god. It was an institution that maintained a following that acted with unprecedented fervor and enthusiasm. It was a symbol, a concept, a vision of unparalleled equality and good works.

When one walked into Jones’ church, his arena, and gazed at him for the first time, they weren’t just watching Jones. They were watching something that was bigger than just one man. Elevated by his followers, his title, his message and religion, Jones grew into something bigger than himself. “The people that joined Peoples Temple were really good people. …They were looking for something larger than themselves to be involved in” (Twenty). Believing in Jones and following Jones became representative of just that.

Jones started in a very high authoritative position. It’s easy to see how people could become seduced, or at least intrigued, to take the first step in attending his sermons, but of course, this is not where Jones’ rhetoric ends. He also pursued power over his people by ardently crafting his ethos through his own actions.

If we examine Jones’ rhetoric, his speeches, his writings, his recordings, his sermons, his healings, and his actions, we notice an unsurprising detail: he has an ulterior motive behind the majority his claims. Jones, in nearly everything he does, makes severe efforts to tie his own image to that of a god-like figure.

“If you see me as your friend, I’ll be your friend. As you see me as your father, I’ll be your father. If you see me as a prophet, I’ll be your prophet. If you see me as your God, I’ll be your God” (Alternative Considerations). Jones would often use his spoken word and charisma to influence the masses and build his ethos. Outside of his sermons he would pay house visits to his members. He would use these opportunities to build strong connections with them, demonstrating the quality and sincerity of both he and his movement. He would use these opportunities to manipulate the elderly into giving him their homes, life savings, etc, and in turn, take care of them through the church, further committing them, and their families, to his cause.

Inside of his sermons, he would use charged language to evolve his ethos. In one sermon, Jones literally launched a Bible across the room onto the floor and shouted, “Have nothing to do with that Skygod. Have nothing to do with this Bible. You’re going to help yourself or you’ll get no help. There’s no heaven up there! We’ll have to make heaven down here!” (Alternative Considerations) Notice the implicit comparison between him and god. Notice the empowering message this sends to his following. Through his words, through his rhetoric, he enhances his own image to mirror that of a deity.

And to further support his “greater than man” theme, Jones would also, inside his sermons and out, demonstrate the ability to perform “healings” and use his “psychic powers.” One anonymous member was recorded on tape saying, “I don’t have to tell you whether I saw him as a man or a prophet. He healed me of a terrible cancer in my throat, so you know I saw him as God, my Savior” (Alternative Considerations). In his sermons, he would call people out and reveal specific information about their lives, he would “cure” people of their cancers and ailments, and he would even have conversations with the spirits of dead loved ones – voices that only he could hear. In one spectacular sermon, on his way up to the podium, a gun went off. He clutched his chest, stumbled into an empty room only to reemerge minutes later wound- free.

Through his actions, we see Jones had a powerful influence on many lives. To the elderly, Jones was a caretaker. To the drug addicts, he was a second chance. To the homeless, he was food and shelter. To the abused, he was a shield. To the discriminated, he was freedom and equality. In the eyes of his following, Jones was a god.

These observations grant us an interesting perspective into Jones’ unique position. Because of the image he spun on himself, much of his power became dependent on the fact that he was an infallible deity. Every defector, every collaboration against him, every hiccup in his plans raised serious questions to his authority. As seen in Milgram’s book on obedience, “Every failure of authority to exact compliance to its commands weakens the perceived power of the authority” (Milgram).

Therefore, if Jones wanted to maintain his power, he would have to maintain his image. If he wanted to maintain his image, he would have to ensure that none of his followers could dispute his will.

The Power of Solus

“When an individual wishes to stand in opposition to authority, he does best to find support for his position from others in his group. The mutual support provided by men for each other is the strongest bulwark we have against the excesses of authority” (Milgram).

If ethos can be characterized as the rhetorical strategy that elevated the power of Jones, then the use of solus can be characterized as the rhetorical strategy that diminished the power of his followers. Through examining Jones’ manipulation of his followers’ solus, we see that he uses this isolation to remove even the opportunity for his followers to resist him, and he does so in two different ways: isolation through physical location, and isolation through fear.

Enforcing Isolation

Jim Jones did not metaphorically transport his people to Guyana, he literally did. These people, once they arrived, had absolutely no means of communication with the outside world. Even if they gathered within themselves the courage and resolve to leave, escape was not possible. They would have had to sneak out of the camp where they were constantly being surveyed, find a way through the 250 miles of jungle that separated them from Georgetown, and march into the US Embassy which they believed to be infected with members of Peoples Temple. The only communication they had with the outside world was the filtered and monitored news that Jim Jones allowed them. They were stuck, in Guyana, completely isolated.

This isolated environment left them particularly vulnerable to Jones’ messages. “The isolated setting… allowed them to develop their own values… [and] lose focus on the values of the outside world” (Cromarty).The people began to lose their own identities under Jones watch and began living a life based on fear.

To address the effects of isolation and fear on the people, I contacted Deborah Layton, a Temple member who escaped Jonestown six months before the massacre, filed an affidavit against Jones, and is largely credited for compelling the US government to investigate. Regarding opposing Jones’ will, she responded, “ Jones was like Gaddafi, Idi Amin, Hitler.… To oppose him meant you were disposable. It was safer to pretend to be on his team than ostracized, brutalized and drugged.” She later on went to say, “Brave people who spoke out against the atrocities in Jonestown were taken to the ‘medical unit’ and put on coma inducing drugs; others had a python wrapped around their neck. Children who cried about wanting to go back to the States were lowered into a dark well at night. One man was forced into ‘the box’ underground where he stayed for days/weeks.” Finally, Layton reiterated multiple times on how she could “never” trust anyone, even her own mother.

If members were to oppose Jones in anyway, they were punished. This included openly defying Jones, showing up to meetings late, not reporting on those who whined, not working hard enough, or wanting to leave. It elevated to the point that in order survive, one had to keep their thoughts completely to themselves so as not to risk Jones’ wrath, in what Phil Zimbardo referred to as a “ ‘locked loneliness’ that diminishes the human spirit” (Gleason). “The safest thing within Jonestown,” according to survivor Deborah Layton in an interview, “was to keep to yourself, abide by the rules and within yourself pray that you could figure a way out, or that you wouldn’t change your mind” (Drinking).

The only way for the members to survive became clear: become silent, become unquestioning, and become obedient. These traits, the traits that the members had become violently conditioned to follow, are what cost 908 people their lives on November 18, 1978.

The Aftermath

Now that we have clearly identified the pieces, it is easier to recognize the big picture regarding Jones’ strategies. We can now see the power duality that Jones established: increasing his ethos to raise his own power, and using that power to slowly strip the people of theirs. We see how the preservation of his power was incredibly dependent on image and how that contributed to his tyranny and insanity. Finally, we see that through his use of solus, he was able to maintain his people in a state of absolute isolation from the world and absolute dependence on him.

But why is all of this important? Why is it important to identify the methods by which people such as Jim Jones are able to convince others to commit such acts?

It’s important because these acts are still happening today. Heinous acts of inexplicable manipulation are happening right now, and the victims are often helpless and innocent. Consider Kim Jong Il and North Korea, the Sun Myung Moon cult, the Abu Ghraib prison fiasco, the Heaven’s Gate cult, suicide bombers, etc. It is clear that the Jonestown event is not an isolated incident. Cults continue to permeate our society today.

By understanding how these people were being influenced by Jim Jones’ abuse of his own powerful ethos and his followers solus, we may be able to learn to how stop it from happening in the future, or at the very least, learn to defend ourselves from letting it happen to us. By identifying the vulnerabilities of blind following and dependent thinking, we can learn to establish our own identity and independence as thinkers, and learn to question the message as opposed to the man behind it. Then we can learn to not only defend ourselves from the abuses of mind-control and manipulation, but we can learn to sense it as it’s happening to others as well.

Bibliography

Primary:

“Alternative Considerations of Jonestown & Peoples Temple.” Alternative Considerations of Jonestown & Peoples Temple. Accessed 5 June 2011. http://jonestown.sdsu.edu/.

Blakey, Deborah Layton. “Affidavit of Deborah Layton Blakey.” The Cult Education Institute. Accessed 5 June 2011.

Layton, Deborah. Email interview. 25 May 2011.

Secondary:

Cromarty, Edward. “Effects of Isolation on the Peoples Temple Agricultural Project.” Alternative Considerations of Jonestown & Peoples Temple. Accessed 6 June 2011.

“Drinking Poison: Inside Jonestown.” Welcome to HOLYSMOKE.ORG. Accessed 6 June 2011. http://www.holysmoke.org/wicca/jjones.html.

Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple. Prod. Stanley Nelson. PBS, 2007.

Gleason, Abbott, Jack Goldsmith, and Martha Craven Nussbaum. On nineteen eighty-four: Orwell and our future. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2005. Print.

Layton, Deborah. Seductive Poison: a Jonestown Survivor’s Story of Life and Death in Peoples Temple. New York: Anchor, 1999. Print.

Milgram, Stanley. Obedience to authority: an experimental view. New York: Perennial Classics, 2004. Print.

“Twenty years after Jonestown, a survivor looks back”. Latin American Studies. Accessed 5 June 2011.

Last modified on November 11th, 2018.
Skip to main content