Why did people refer to Jim Jones as “Father” or “Dad”?

Members of Peoples Temple referred to Jim Jones as Father beginning in the mid-1950s, not in the sense of a familial relationship, but as a church leader, as are many church leaders. Later, when Jones and his leadership group started considering the Temple as much of a political and social justice movement, it wasn’t hard for people to accept him as its father or – even more intimately – as the father of a large Temple family.

The reference lasted for much of the Temple’s existence. In tape after tape, people interchange “Jim” and “Father” with regularity, sometimes during the same conversation. Jones himself embraced the terminology on numerous occasions, referring to himself by both names or, as in a 1974 sermon before his L.A. congregation, combining the two: “Anyone in America who’s poor — white, brown, yellow, or black — and does not admit that he’s a nigger is a damn fool.… [S]ome of you whites, you look white, but honey, you’re a nigger like Father Jim. I know you are.”

Eventually, the title of Father drifted into the more familiar “Dad,” but that seems to have occurred once Temple members emigrated to Guyana. The Temple may have lost most of its religious trappings by the time it reached Jonestown, but some habits die hard, and the name “Dad” – in constant use, always encouraged – just hung on.

Jones recognized the implications of the title during the Jonestown years, and how outsiders – especially those in the Guyanese government, which had some control over their lives in the Northwest District – might perceive it. On more than one occasion, in coaching the members of the community before the arrival of visitors, he urged people to call him Jim. “You call me Jim,” he says in a tape from August 1978. “You don’t say Father, or Dad, no screaming around like that. It’s Jim… Never Pastor, never Dad. You know what I mean? You always refer to me as Jim.”

Still, it’s a mistake to view anything about Peoples Temple solely just through the lens of Jonestown. Whatever Jones’ mental, emotional and physical problems became there, there is much evidence throughout the church’s history in the US of the pastoral care – the care of a minister, the care of a church father – that he did for its members, just because he perceived there was a need to be fulfilled and, especially as the church became more politically- and socially-active, it was the right thing to do. Moreover, many people joined the Temple because they saw perceived it as an activist church led by a charismatic leader who didn’t seem to be afraid to take on the ossified power structures around him. It was one reason many other ministers in San Francisco disliked him as much as they did: all the things they were supposed to be doing as church leaders, he was actually doing.