Change and the Chameleon That Was Jim Jones

(This article is adapted from a paper which Laura Johnston Kohl gave at the annual meeting of the Communal Studies Association Conference in September 2017, in Zoar, Ohio.)

Will the real Jim Jones please stand up. Here we are, almost 40 years after the deaths in Guyana, and we still do not know the “real” person behind the “public persona” of Jim Jones.

All of us have our public and private behaviors. When we look at Jim Jones, however, we see that his private behavior was much more dysfunctional, and secreted away, than even those close to him could know. His more public side was carefully constructed. He often quoted Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 9:19-23: “I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some.” In a way, he used that quote to justify deceit in so many of his actions.

From the moment I met him in 1970, and most likely long before that, his core philosophy was captured in the idiom “the end justifies the means.” He was an inspirational leader who certainly practiced that, as well as its more confrontational cousin in language, “by any means necessary” or BAMN. He was a pragmatist, and more than following any religious leading or belief, he was looking ahead for his own path to power.

In the late 1960s, Jim contacted Rob Jones, a history teacher in the Bay Area and the creator of “The Third Wave.” Rob Jones’ students had asked how anyone could actually become an enthusiastic member of the Third Reich and follow Hitler. In response, he set up an experiment, to blindside them into becoming zealots for a classroom project. Their enthusiasm was channeled into making a particular gesture – much like Hitler’s salute – making posters, feeling superior to other students because of the closeness to the creator of the group, and ostracizing students who did not want to participate. After a week, Rob Jones ended the experiment and explained what had happened, both to his students and to his community. Among the people who wanted to know how he got the students to cooperate was Jim Jones.

The chameleon-like quality of Jim Jones was present in three primary parts of his life. He pretended to be a man of God. He also portrayed himself as a faithful family man. And finally, he always presented himself as the epitome of a Protector: his dedicated members came first, and he would never forsake them. Those beliefs were the pillars upon which Peoples Temple was built.

A Man Of God

From an early age, Jim Jones visited all types of venues, from churches with Pentecostal ministers, to evangelical tent gatherings, to Father Divine, and to Bible-belt healers, to learn their secrets. He was a diligent student of history as well, focusing on leaders who had amassed hordes of followers, such as Adolf Hitler, Josef Stalin, and Vladimir Lenin. He learned from the most powerful so that he could achieve their same success. How did they get people to follow them, to become committed, and to be financially supportive? He watched, learned, and then practiced these tools. I believe that from the first few times he peeked in the doorways of churches, and saw pastors and ministers sitting in front of hundreds of members, Jim knew that becoming a minister of some faith was his calling. He saw the power they had over their membership, and he wanted that devotion and adulation. He wanted that power.

I also feel certain that the real Jim Jones was deeply and genuinely opposed to racism, and that he did want to be the head of an interracial immediate family and a grander church family. He fought battles of injustice throughout his life, because he believed in those values. In the early days of Peoples Temple – and even before that, when his church was known as The Wings of Deliverance – Jim stood firm and lived those values. At the same time, he wanted more and more members, more political clout, and more power. He was lucky that his dearest message was one that resonated with many in the 1960s and early 1970s, and he used it to draw many new members to transform the small group he had in Indiana into a church with thousands of members in California.

I do not see Jim as a devoutly religious man. As a young man who wanted power, he saw religion as his vehicle, and he made his public persona as a Man of God. He had decided upon that as a means to his goal. The very first person to learn that he not only didn’t believe in God, but that he had no core belief in any God, was his wife Marceline Jones, a devout Methodist. That was a well-kept secret between the two of them, and possibly a small circle of friends, for many, many years.

But the reality is, Jim’s earliest and most consistent lie was that he was a “Man of God.” From the moment he found that religion was his path to power, he began his charade. He passed through traveling revival events, but only to develop his style of speaking. He was ordained into an Independent Assemblies of God for a while, he told another member of the local faith community that he had been raised a Quaker, he took on a position in the local Methodist Church, and he opened a storefront church to be more hands-on in a very poor neighborhood. All of that was before he received ordination into the Disciples of Christ Christian Church, a Protestant denomination, in 1965.

Jim understood early on that he would use the cloak of religion, and he remained flexible about which discipline would work the best for him as he gained status. “Flexible” is the word he might have used. Most members of those different religious groups would likely find one specific religion with its own unique foundation and belief system. His message was inclusivity, so he assumed that in his religious affiliation, he could also affiliate as he wished.

The majority of Peoples Temple members considered themselves Christian and considered Peoples Temple to be a Christian church, with a Christian pastor. I was an atheist when I moved in and was not looking for a church to join or even be part of, and I recognized I was part of a small minority. I saw Jim as a motivator who was interested in moving people away from the segregated religions of the United States in the 1960s and 1970s, and making them into activists. He would make the most of every opportunity to let each member know that he understood our pain and our tenderness. He often went beyond that, to actually take resolve some problems a member might be having, such as transportation to a doctor, tutoring help for children, and legal, medical or welfare assistance.

The congregation saw Jim as an idealistic minister, and – absolutely! – as a man of God. He had prepared himself for that role. He had taught himself to read and study the Bible. He would take on any adversary who wanted to challenge him on scripture, and more than that, he always prevailed. Over and again, he demonstrated that he knew what he wanted, and that nothing could stop him.

Although I could certainly make a case that I recognized Jim as being a chameleon from the moment I joined the Temple, I have to give great credit to Jeff Guinn for his recent book, The Road to Jonestown. As Guinn researched and uncovered information about Jim’s childhood, youth and adulthood in Indiana, he learned that certain claims I heard Jim make all nine years I was in the Temple were false. Once he found a popular story – sometimes with a nugget of truth, and sometimes total fiction – he would include it in his repertoire. He gained additional power with his own lies by carefully disclosing any exaggerations or misstatements of any other member in Peoples Temple. He took the righteous role of always being the truth-teller.

He repeated several of his lies in almost every setting in Redwood Valley: he was a poor boy with some American Indian and/or black blood; his father and/or relatives were members of the Ku Klux Klan. In every possible way, he disparaged his own father. His father, James Thurman Jones, had been disabled during a German gas attack in France during World War I. His mother, Lynetta Putnam Jones, worked but never earned a large salary. She wanted the prestige and reputation of a talented and accomplished woman. When her jobs were more mundane, she just elaborated on the story. According to Guinn, Lynetta lived in a fantasy world, where everyone else was beneath her. She blamed others for her lack of position. She was a stern taskmaster as a mother, and she expected Jim to be the knight in shining armor to rescue her from the rotten conditions she lived in. Her own frequent lying about her disabled husband, her number of marriages, and her fabricated jobs and titles made deceit a part of the home where Jim grew up.

Jim lived in a lower-middle class neighborhood, assisted by his relatives so that he was never hungry or in need. He was purely Caucasian. He did live in the state of Indiana, an early home of the Ku Klux Klan, but no one from his family seemed to be part of that racist group.

Jim was happy to perpetuate the fairy tale that, as a man of the cloth, he couldn’t lie, and he often alluded to himself as honest as Abe Lincoln. He didn’t pause in telling stories that strengthened – or exaggerated – his position. As Peoples Temple grew, the sermons changed. The larger gatherings in San Francisco and Los Angeles eventually became more predictable and more akin to church services in many denominations. He admitted he could be whatever you wanted him to be, whether it was your God, your Father, your friend, or your Savior. He would be anything you wanted him to be; he would be anything you already saw him as.

But in our private, smaller membership-only meetings, Jim was a bit more honest about his own feelings. He said that we no longer needed the Bible, which had been used to keep us down and make us wait for heaven. After stating that, he might slam the Bible down on the floor of the meeting room, or fling it across the room.

In Jonestown, he took it further. He never conducted religious sermons, he never preached sermons, he never made any references to the scriptures. Even the words from Matthew 25 to feed the hungry and clothe the naked that adorned the Temple letterhead and that the members took as their marching orders in the States, was never heard in Jonestown. Instead, he recommended that people who did not have toilet paper in the Jonestown bathrooms to use the pages from their Bibles. In other words, Jonestown liberated him from the pretense of the value of reading or preaching the Bible.

Faithful Family Man

When I first attended a Peoples Temple Meeting in Redwood Valley, Jim had already carefully set the stage for being a Father to all in the group, and foremost, to his own multiracial adopted family. I remember my very first day, when his wife Marceline sat on the podium with him, seemingly enchanted with each word he spoke. I was impressed, because I had not seen that kind of worship since watching the audiences at the speeches of John Kennedy and Martin Luther King. That vignette did a lot to win me over. Marceline, his wife of many years, was still that mesmerized by his words, and that was impressive.

In addition, Jim and Marceline had been the first white couple to adopt a black child in the state of Indiana. Another win. Jim and Marceline also had their Asian and homegrown children. Perhaps the most gratifying experience of all, children in the Temple flocked to Jim and wanted to change their own last names to Jones. Pictures of Jim and his family – both primary and extended – were all around. Those same pictures were duplicated and sold at our meetings or included as part of the sales pitch to those from around the country who wrote and sent contributions.

The role Jim took on both as a family man and as a “Father” to all of us, really lulled us into thinking he was our protector. Many who came to Peoples Temple were at a crossroads in their lives. Difficulties had made us seek some other way forward. Sitting at the front of a congregation, surrounded by this diverse family, engaged in dialogue, even teaching lessons about behavior and commitment, he seemed to provide a new path.

One of the strongest pieces of the kaleidoscope that was Peoples Temple was a picture of Jim surrounded by all of us. It was a mental image we carried around with us, but it was also an actual image that was posted around in the buildings and sold at a booth after meetings. That was also part of each mailing sent out to solicit donations or prayer requests. It was more than a picture. It was a statement of who we were, and who he was.

I must admit that I succumbed as well. I was young and naive at that time. Regardless of what I had experienced in my life, I still thought loyalty was an easily discernible trait. I thought Jim was the epitome of faithfulness. And then came reality. I began to pick up bits and pieces over the years. He was surrounded by white, young secretaries who worshipped the ground he walked on; he had sex with women other than his wife, ostensibly to prevent them from committing suicide because they thought they were ugly, or to benefit the cause, or even to help them get over their hang-ups about sex. He always had some specific reason. I really didn’t pay much attention. I didn’t understand that he was blaming the victim.

Peoples Temple leadership was an onion, with Jim as the core. There were multiple layers of responsibility, of closeness to him, of intimate details, and of intrigue, all around him. One layer was the group of people he was having sex with, along with those who knew about it, and even scheduled it. Marceline was not in that layer, but continued the illusion of being his partner. When word leaked out about some of his exploits, some public explanation was given, but much of the information was on a “need to know” basis. Even with the bits I eventually learned, I had a very incomplete picture of that part of Jim’s activities.

It turns out that, even before I arrived at Peoples Temple, Jim had a long-time mistress, Carolyn Moore Layton. Their relationship began in 1968 and lasted until the final days in Jonestown. In the mid-1970s, Carolyn gave birth to his child. He told the congregation that Carolyn had been on an important mission in Mexico, had ended up in a Mexican jail, and was raped. The child’s given name was Jim Jon, and Carolyn had a Temple marriage to Mike Prokes to give the child a last name. But everyone knew the child as Kimo, and everyone knew who the father was.

In December 1973, Jim was arrested for soliciting sex from an undercover policeman in Los Angeles. He explained that to the congregation in Los Angeles that he had been entrapped to punish him for leading an integrated, progressive congregation. Very little was said about it up in San Francisco and Redwood Valley.

Research into Peoples Temple since the tragedy has revealed that Jim Jones had sex with many people, almost all (but not just) white and young, almost all (but not just) women, from the late 1960s through November 1978. Research has also shown that he drugged at least one young black woman in Jonestown when she refused his advances.

Jim did not take pains to hide his infidelity, especially with Carolyn, from his children and wife. To the contrary, he flaunted it. His children spent time with him when he was with Carolyn. Marceline’s will, giving Carolyn legal authority over her children in the event of her own death, recognized her place in Jim’s line of affection. In addition, his sexual encounters with Grace Stoen and his claims of paternity over her son, John Victor Stoen – a claim which became so important in Jonestown’s final year – was well known, not only to his family but to the whole congregation. How much Marceline knew about his other relationships – including Teri Buford and Maria Katsaris in Jonestown – is more the subject of speculation.

Jim’s public persona presented him as a stable and caring, even faithful, father and husband. The revelations that I have read since the murders at Jonestown show him to be a corrupt and egotistical leader, who made no attempt to control his behavior to live up to that standard. He lived a lie, and only a thin veneer of respectability was on display to the public. He continued the farce of being married to Marceline, and never publicly acknowledged his relationship with Carolyn or their son. He did arrange for his wife to return to the Peoples Temple buildings in San Francisco and Los Angeles, to act as an Assistant Pastor, one of the few he trusted with that arrangement. But the reality was nothing like the fantasy he presented.

A Protector

Jim’s rise from a storefront minister to a pastor with thousands of members was built one brick at a time. He first introduced himself as a humble, sympathetic, and caring man of God. He listened to his early members talk about abuse and incompetence in local community leadership or services. Then he would find a remedy to the problem, which he did with a vengeance. No detail was too small. He proved himself to his growing congregation on a daily basis. He took on City Hall, local elected officials, and anyone else standing in the Temple’s way. He built his reputation on his successes.

As the congregation grew, the kinds of issues widened. At first, utility bills, landlord complaints, and school and other local political issues got his attention. Eventually, attorneys, nurses, social workers, teachers, counselors were available at all services to help straighten out problems. Jim always wanted to have the reputation as a “fixer.” If you brought him a problem, he would want to resolve it. He built his reputation on that.

Jim became a recognized political presence in San Francisco, and after the Temple helped George Moscone in his campaign for mayor, Jim was appointed to the San Francisco Housing Authority; he later became its chairman. There were other, larger issues as well. He organized protests around city-wide humanitarian issues like the International Hotel debacle, when seniors and disabled residents were ousted. He protested about the invasion of privacy, and defended the freedom of the press that allowed newspapers to print stories without disclosing their sources. He was also in constant contact with the courts. Members contacted judges, probation officers, police, and attorneys, and pleaded for leniency for those charged with crimes. We were pro-active in getting people out of jail, on probation, and/or placed within our homes. That became another part of our reputation in the Bay Area.

Jim created communal housing so that everyone had a home to live in. Shared housing was the norm in Peoples Temple. People shared what they had. We were being made into a family.

While that was going on, Jim was intent on collecting monies and had no qualms about raking it in. He had staff go out and collect the monthly tithing from members. He took collections that would leave the audience penniless. You had to resist fiercely to be able to hold on to anything you brought to a meeting. He also made arrangements for people to donate their property and belongings, although much of this happened in private. Family members found that the deed to the property in which they lived had been transferred to the church, when they received the eviction notices. One family I heard about actually received an eviction notice on the same day they learned that their mother had died in Jonestown. Jim seemed to cloak so many of his plans in secrecy. He wanted to control any publicity, and certainly wanted to stop any negative publicity.

Appearing as an advocate, Jim also visited the International Peace Mission of Father Divine and fought with the second wife of Father Divine for the group’s leadership. That effort eventually proved unsuccessful, but Jim did manage to bring at least ten members of Father Divine’s group to join the Temple with promises of sunny California and comfortable housing. Several of them died in Jonestown.

When discussion about Guyana first came up, Jim spoke about constructing a Promised Land, a safe place for our children and for our community. His persuasive speeches and enthusiasm broke down even the fiercest opposition.

And then the flight from the United States began. Everyone wanted adequate housing set up in advance of the new settlers. But Jim was expecting to face public criticism and even censure in the press – expectations that came to pass with publication of stories in New West Magazine in the summer of 1977 – and the mass exodus occurred before Jonestown was ready to receive so many newcomers.

While in Guyana, he attempted to devise another plan to safely move the Jonestown community elsewhere. He looked to the Soviet Union first, but the Soviets were not willing to invite Jonestown residents to move as an intact community, and especially with Jim still at the helm. He also tried looking to Cuba. Nothing came of that plan. As a last effort, he tried to get his contacts in the government of Guyana to guarantee protection for him and his community. He tried to strengthen those relationships through both legitimate and illegitimate means – one of his secretaries began an affair with the Guyanese Ambassador to the U.S., an affair that survived the tragedy – but ultimately that proved unsuccessful as well.

By this time, Jim was desperate. He did not want to compromise by settling the biggest issue – returning a number children of Jonestown with custody issues, to their parents and/or legal guardians who wanted them out of Jonestown and back under their care – but neither did he want to turn over leadership and management of Jonestown to anyone else. He had never shared the limelight before and was not about to let anyone else take his credit for creating his Promised Land. To the end, Jim never accepted that anyone else was more trustworthy or more competent that he was. When he actually accepted that he was ill, and that the illness was worsening, he also accepted that Jonestown wasn’t, and could never be, self-sufficient. His paranoia warned him that outside (evil) forces were moving in and he decided there was no way forward, either for him or for anyone in Peoples Temple, whether they were in Jonestown, Georgetown, or back in the U.S. His ego dictated that only he could lead Peoples Temple. He thought that without him, Jonestown would fail. He could not come up with an alternative plan, like returning to the United States, without losing face in the community. He was unwilling to do that.

In early 1978, Jim arranged to get cyanide into Jonestown, with the excuse that we would be making gold jewelry. His practical planning for the demise of Jonestown had begun. He created a small chosen group of people to plan the murders over the next months. That was part of his biggest lie of all. Rather than protect his family of 1,000, he would have them all perish, along with Jonestown, and himself. He accepted that instead of being a Man of God, a faithful family man, or a protector, he would be the murderer.

(Laura Johnston Kohl, who had lived in Jonestown but was working in Georgetown on 18 November, died on 19 November 2019 after a long battle with cancer. She was 72. Her writings for this website appear here.)