Jonestown: The Cult That Never Went Away

by David Conn

Why was Jim Jones able to go more than eleven years in California politics without being seen for the charlatan that he was? My investigation of Jim Jones began almost nine years prior to the Guyana mass murder. I can assure you: this is the one question not answered in the hundreds of books, articles, documentaries and movies produced in the aftermath of the Guyana horror in 1978.

Because the question was not answered, Jonestown continues to exist, affecting culture at many levels: academic, politics, philosophy, religion, literature and journalism. If several key facts had not been withheld, the public might have understood why Jim Jones was able to move so smoothly up and through the political echelon. That horror would now be settled and understood. It would have left the public much less confused. All of those documentaries that ensued simply did not explain the critical reasons for the cult leader’s decade of increasing power. One major reason was not exposed at all, while other critical reasons were barely mentioned. Why? The fact is that well over 90% were written by liberals: psychologists, historians, social scientists, journalists, political scientists, and new-age theologians. Being liberals, they were disinclined to mention all of those liberals who paved the way for Jim Jones.

I’ll mention three among many that infested California’s political hierarchy, beginning with self-described consumer advocate Ralph Nader. Two of my sources tried desperately to get in touch with him in 1976. They wrote him “an extremely guarded letter,” telling him about “cruel and inhuman things” that Jones was doing. They asked him to put a classified advertisement in the personal section of The San Francisco Chronicle “to Angela” to indicate his interest in learning the truth, and that they would then “get in contact with” him. They “enclosed several of Lester Kinsolving’s articles and some … articles from an Indianapolis newspaper from several years before when Jones had been encouraged to leave the area.” The wife who wrote the letter expressed her great fear, and that it was her “last resort.” She continued, “I am so afraid that I do not dare tell you my name.” Instead of following through, Nader took their note directly to District Attorney Joe Freitas who, being a strong supporter of Jim Jones, then took the note directly to Jones himself. (Being well connected with the San Francisco political community, Nader had to have known just how close Freitas was to Jones.) Jones immediately let the two defectors know that he had full knowledge of their attempt to expose him. It was only fifteen months after the Guyana mass murder that these two and their daughter were murdered by a person whom the Berkeley police suspected, with significant evidence, to be a member of the Jones cult.

Next is Harvey Milk who, when Jim Jones was getting bad publicity during the last 18 months of his reign, wrote a letter to President Jimmy Carter, praising the cult leader at great length. In the big movie, Milk, there was no hint whatsoever that Harvey Milk was highly connected to Jones, which shouldn’t be surprising. Neither will you see this forthrightly dealt with in any books and articles written by those liberals.

And the third person who paved the way for Jim Jones is Willie Brown who continues to this day to deny that he is the one that San Francisco Mayor George Moscone sent to the California State Legislature in order to successfully sponsor an Assembly Bill that allowed the Mayor to bypass his Board of Supervisors and appoint Jim Jones directly to Chairman of the San Francisco Housing Commission.

I recently attended a meeting of fifty or so in which the two special guests were Dr. Frank Luntz – a Fox News pollster – and Willie Brown. When Dr. Luntz asked Brown for a “candid” response on some matter, the former California Speaker of the House suddenly interrupted him and said, Dr. Luntz, “I want you to know that I am always candid.” Very quickly then, I raised my hand and said to Dr. Luntz, “Sir, I’d like to help you out here on the matter of the Speaker being ‘always candid.’” I then turned to Speaker Brown and said, “Back when Jim Jones was at the height of his reign, the Mayor of San Francisco sent a person to the legislature in order to pass a special bill that would allow him to bypass his board of supervisors and appoint Jim Jones directly to Chairman of the Housing Commission. Mr. Speaker, you and I both know who that person was, don’t we?” Speaker Brown, with an exceptionally smooth demeanor, said, “I have no idea what you are talking about. You must have some kind of agenda.” When the meeting concluded shortly thereafter, I went to Willie Brown and put my hand on his shoulder. “Mr. Speaker, I find it amazing that you cannot recall passing that special Assembly Bill. It is A.B. 3154, and your name is on it. You were the sponsor and I have a copy of it in my files.” As we walked together up the aisle he continued to deny any knowledge of his actions. It was absolutely astounding. Most of all, though, it put the lie to his claim that he is “always candid.”

Of course there were many others in the California political system who, after the mass murder in Guyana, quickly denied having any knowledge that Jim Jones was dangerous. They claimed not to remember Lester Kinsolving’s series of articles several years earlier in The San Francisco Examiner detailing Jim Jones and his bizarre treatment of cult members and their children. (I met with him in 1972 to give him some key information.)

It’s important here to detail the role played by Rosalynn Carter, wife of President Jimmy Carter. She became enthralled with Jim Jones when she visited San Francisco with then-vice presidential candidate Walter Mondale during the 1976 campaign. She spoke from Jones’s pulpit, and also had a private dinner with him at a posh San Francisco restaurant. They continued to correspond by letter after that. Rosalynn was obviously captivated with Jones. So it is logical to assume that she praised Jones in her subsequent conversations with her husband after he became president. And, upon receiving that letter from Harvey Milk a couple of years later, he no doubt recalled his wife’s splendid memories of Jones.

Now I mentioned earlier that there was a “major reason” that Jones was able to go eleven years without being exposed as a scheming charlatan. It was the Disciples of Christ, the seventh largest church denomination in the United States. Jones had spotted them early in his career. He befriended Barton Hunter, one of their most famous theologians who had written several books. Barton was a liberal scholar who told Jim all about his denomination and its church polity. Upon hearing this, Jones realized that he had struck gold. He now had the ideal opportunity to gain prestige and, at the same time, he would be able to continue his bizarre cultic activities. He was soon ordained into the Disciples of Christ denomination and then made his move to their West Coast regions, where he found that the religious organization surpassed his fondest dreams. They absolutely loved him. His radical community organizing would fit perfectly with their sociopolitical agenda. Their hierarchical activities were bizarre, illegal, and clandestinely buffered from public knowledge – and they remain so to this day. Jones felt completely safe, as far as their interfering with his cult activities. It was just not going to happen. The Disciples were deep into pursuing their radical socialistic agenda along with their sex and drug indulgences.

I happened to have interviewed two people who had deep knowledge of the Disciples’ secret activities. The first is Dr. John Herbert Otwell, a Professor of Old Testament at Pacific School of Religion adjacent to U.C. Berkeley. He was so disgusted with the Disciples of Christ and their “modern” view of things that he decided he would

sever … relationship with the program if it were ever done again … the creation of peer-group … pressure on people in their formative years … violated their integrity and everybody should have known … that was being done. But the enthusiasm for the new technique was so intense that it was done recklessly. Two of the young women became almost hysterical in trying to retain what they had been trained by their parents to believe was a proper personal reserve. And they did retain it. They retained it by being alienated by the whole group … an appalling price to pay.

I asked Dr. Otwell about other vulnerabilities which might have left the church so open to Jim Jones. There are more than hints in his observation:

One of the experiments … going on in the Disciples of Christ then, and the residue of which is still with us, was the substitution of a persona and communal life oriented around the reality of the divine human encounter, the substitution, for that, of a socio-economic philosophy. And those who made that choice achieved a kind of fellowship with each other that simply made them ignore all of the ambiguities and the destructive behaviors … seen all around the landscape in that group, your nude encounters, wife-swapping, the breakdown of clerical marriages, just all over the place.

I interviewed still another man, a close friend since childhood, who was a trainer at the Disciples of Christ clerical retreats. And though he gave me a taped interview, he asked if I would keep his name out of the public eye. He was frank enough to say that the Disciples got into a “sixties mentality.” It was very evident in the leadership, “the young clergy, especially.” He went on to say:

… the nude encounter thing, they kept wanting [to have] … nude encounters. I don’t know what difference that would make. But it was that kind of thinking. And so they were very liberal; that’s the point I’m making.… We had clinical psychologists who were clergymen. They ran the groups. And out of the encounter phenomenon they tried to do all this in the context of the scriptures, with daily worship.

Does that give you some idea of just how crazy the Disciples of Christ had become? And can you see why the pathetic new-age clerics and their minions have fallen so hard for multiculturalism? Is it any wonder they see Islam as being just as good as any religion? Naturally they don’t want to hear about the butchering of women’s genitals, the religious enabling of men to kill their wives with what amounts to near impunity. Don’t tell them. It would cause intellectual confusion and they would have to think properly and wisely (an ability long lost to their animal brains).

Within two or three years Jones had two of his high level aides installed on the Disciples Regional Board, and through them, Jones gained inside knowledge of the most radical mainstream church denomination in America. And he soon became their darling. From then on, every time he received any bad publicity the Disciples Regional Minister (tantamount to a bishop) would go to the media with his great phrases of praise, detailing the “marvelous” work he was accomplishing.

But did the public know what really was going on? Would it ever be brought to their attention in the Bay Area or Los Angeles? Not for a full decade, and only then because I made my only major mistake. I was informed on. When Jones heard from the informant that I was in regular contact with a Treasury agent, he reacted with such a panic that it caused the mainstream media to see him in a new light. He then attacked me on television and in newspapers, saying that I was trying to destroy his “church.” He threatened to “burn [my] house to the ground.” I went into hiding for 18 months and began planning a book. Meanwhile I connected with two reporters for The San Francisco Examiner, Nancy Dooley and Tim Reiterman, who had started their own investigation.

Several months thereafter, two of my major sources along with a few of their defector friends managed to contact Congressman Leo Ryan. After meeting with the defectors, the congressman decided to go to Georgetown, Guyana. It was just a few days prior to the mass murder. On Wednesday of that week, I heard on the news that Ryan had decided to go all the way to the Jonestown jungle outpost. I was frantic. I phoned Nancy Dooley to tell her we must stop Ryan from making that trip. She assured me that Ryan heard all the information from the defectors and that her co-writer, Reiterman, was in the Congressman’s entourage. I said they have no idea of the danger. The journalists had been on the story only for two or three months. I vividly remember my very words: “I have been studying Jones’ mind for nearly nine years, and I know he has some plan of action. If the Congressman goes out to Jonestown he will not come out alive.” (I had already told my fellow workers and two of my attorney friends the same thing.)

Nancy’s friend Tim Reiterman was one of those who were shot. I found out later that Nancy left her job after that. I tried to get in touch with her so that I could assure her that there was no way she could have realized the danger. I wanted to assure her that she was actually, and in every way, truly helpless. But I never managed to find her. I tend to think that even if I could have contacted Leo Ryan, he would not have been persuaded. I had gone almost nine years finding more and more horror and failed to communicate it effectively. And, yet, I believe that if I had been back then what I am now when first I heard about Jim Jones, I would have found a way to expose him.

You see, I was just another naïve East Bay liberal, way off target, who had stumbled upon some inside details of the Jim Jones cultic horror. I was not wise in a way that conservatives are. At the time, I simply had no real choice; I had to continue my investigation. No halfway reasonable guy would have done otherwise. My investigation of Jim Jones is the event of my life that, over those nine years, pulled me from the trench of liberalism. That transition was due in part to my going half crazy trying to explain the Jim Jones horror to all of my liberal clergy friends, and then being immensely relieved to find that my one conservative clergy friend, Russell Coatney, easily understood, saying that he even went to the church hierarchy and complained about Jim Jones. (He said they just laughed at him.) Believe me: with very few exceptions, the fiercest conservatives, the wisest conservatives are those who climbed out from the murky pit of liberalism. Furthermore, in almost every case, they will freely admit that it was their theological quagmire, and that it is God alone who truly forgives them for not having seen the Light.

Having failed to stop the Guyana mass slaughter, I needed to pursue the matter of how and why the Disciples of Christ protected him for eleven years. Were they as corrupt as they appeared? It turns out that they were as bad or worse than I had imagined. In fact they were in essence nothing more than politicians. And in the end they managed a cover up that outmatched the most corrupt of California’s politicians.

It was about two weeks after the Guyana mass murder that they held their previously-scheduled executive’s conference. Seven of their highest theologians met privately. Only one, as it turned out, was courageous and honest. The Reverend Dwight French earnestly petitioned to “call our very best theologians together, so that we can openly respond to what was just starting to hit the media.” The notorious Jim Jones cult was one of their largest “churches.” But they were already beginning to act like they hardly knew the man. Dwight French basically said, “Look, who are we trying to kid? He has been a member of our denomination for over a decade. We have got to be up front about it?” So he handed out stencil copies of a preparatory statement that they could give the media. The six others each took a copy back to their hotel rooms to study that night. The next morning the seven continued their meeting. French was told to take the stencils back to his office, burn them, and not let anyone know about it. He was “told to not even let their communications people know about it.” French was terribly disappointed and said that “they were obviously following the advice of attorneys.” It was the beginning of a massive cover-up. Such was the response of a radically liberal new-age denomination partially hoodwinked by a seasoned charlatan a dozen years earlier.

Still, it must be said: this calculated avoidance of the truth, this well organized cover-up, allowed them to avoid civil law suits. This denial of their deep involvement with Jim Jones paid off. But did it pay off in the larger sense? They live now with the knowledge of their deception. Surely they see their similarity to the Apostle Peter who, when charged with having been seen with Jesus, said, “Man, I know not what thou sayest” (Luke 22:60, KJV). The Disciples leaders are so deaf that they never heard the cock crow.

(David Conn describes himself as an “investigator of the Jim Jones Peoples Temple cult for nine years prior to the Guyana mass murder.” Along with George Klineman and Sherman Butler, he co-authored The Cult That Died (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1980). He is also the author of Lednorf’s Dilemma (Bloomington, IN: AuthorHouse, 2006); of The Specific Density of Scientists And Their Secret Fears (Bloomington, IN: AuthorHouse, 2012); and most recently of The Pleasure of Fiends: An Orthodox Study of Evil and the Meaning of the Jonestown Cultic Horror (Roseville, CA: AlphaGraphics, 2013). His website is www.truthsleuth.net. His complete collection of articles for this site is here.)

Originally posted on October 1st, 2014.

Last modified on October 14th, 2014.
Skip to main content