“You Don’t Know How Hard It Is To Be God”:
Rev. Jim Jones’ Blueprint for Nurture Failure

“Oh, you don’t know how hard it is to be God, how awful it is to be God. I’m gonna back up now. Start the backward motion. So that everybody won’t quit. ‘Cause if I kept on, said all I had to do, and all I want to say tonight, we’d only end up about a hundred here. Ummm-hmm. No. ‘Cause I love you too much”
―Jim Jones[1]

Jim Jones believed that adults in his community had failed to nurture him throughout his childhood. War injuries hampered the ability of his father, James Thurman Jones, to provide either material or emotional support for his son.[2] Jones’ mother, Lynetta Jones, spent most of her time working outside the home. The result was a childhood spent in the hands of babysitters who often allowed Jones to roam the streets unsupervised. When Jones finally ran away to live with an aunt, she proved just as incapable of caring for him: “So I stayed with my aunt. Finally she got sick…and she was tired of me, so she sent me on a bus, back to [Lynn, Indiana]. My mother never came, and my dad wouldn’t come.”[3] The young Jones’ experience of alienation was not confined to his family life, but extended to his lonely days in Indiana schools, where he was once told by an administrator that he was unintelligent, and where he was the only student whose parents did not accompany him to school functions.[4] Neither did the churches in Lynn open their arms to the raven-haired child, at least according to Jones’ own account. Indeed, his anger at some of the local denominations even led him to disrupt services and vandalize church property.[5]

Family, school, church, community—each and all failed to nurture the innocent boy Jim Jones. In Jones’ later words, this nurture failure justifies every child’s feelings of enmity toward other people: “[A]ll children feel hostile to all…who brought children into the world. [The] rationale of all socialists the world over is, that the child has a right to feel hostile for being brought into the world.”[6] Since he could not depend upon anyone to fulfill his needs, Jones found another path opening before him: through the power of his own thought, he could ignore his own deprivation while meeting the needs of others. In September 1977, a little over a year before his and many of his followers’ deaths, Jim Jones spoke the following revealing words:

[H]aving been cruelly let down [as a child]—when I needed things, basic, elementary things, and they were not provided—I made a covenant that as long as it appeared someone needed me, I wouldn’t let them down. (…) I used to resent it as a youngster because I was always the guy who got the kid[s] together, and I didn’t like it because I had to assume so much of the planning. So I died very early to the need for reinforcement from people. I can’t even remember when I had a real need for people.

Yeah. It wasn’t a matter of whether people really appreciated it or whether, when they got through with you they tossed you aside like an orange with all the juice squeezed out. I expected that, but I thought, “I may not be a person of great talent, but one thing I could give was loyalty.”[7]

Note the combination of world-negating resentment with grandiose aspiration in Jones’ words. He is treated “like an orange with all the juice squeezed out,” not only by those who should nurture him, but also by his young comrades who should help shoulder the burden of planning and organizing their boyish pursuits. Nevertheless, Jones pledges his unfailing “loyalty” toward those who have failed him.

Insecurity at not being “a person of great talent” comes into play as well, for Jones decided he must lay aside all thoughts of his and others’ deficiencies and focus only on the category of “loyalty.” But what is “loyalty” to Jones? I argue that, for Jones, loyalty is willingness to sacrifice one’s own desires and needs in an all-encompassing effort at nurturing a group of underlings or followers. Jones saw himself as unique in having undergone such a total nurture failure. No one’s need for approval was so great, and no one was denied approval so completely. Consequently, Jones believed his consciousness was raised above the mundane level of “approval seeking.”

For Jones, the absence of support from the outside world forced him to support himself from within. This nurture failure armed Jones with an overwhelming conviction that nurturing cannot fail as long as it emanates from his own messianic will:

[T]he fact that I sought approval so damn much and couldn’t get it enabled me to work through that need at a very young age. Finally decided to be true to my own conscience because the frustration of trying to be accepted, meet the norm, and still not being accepted, going to all the churches and still not being accepted, relieved me at an early age of a lot of the pressures that a lot of people still have to deal with.[8]

Here Jones speaks triumphantly of having overcome his own need for nurturing, and thus of having cleared the way for his own role as world-savior. In other addresses, however, Jones indicated that his attempted reversal of nurture failure into messianic nurturing was undergirt by an insoluble problem, that of “needs.”

Jones’ problem of human needs can be divided into two aspects, that of not meeting others’ needs and of not needing others. On the former difficulty, Jones once opined that the leader or nurturer is faced with the insoluble paradox of

be[ing] able to cope with loving people and know[ing] you can’t love them in terms of fulfilling their needs. And if love isn’t demonstrated it isn’t worth a shit. So there are always needs, problems that are not being met. You can never fully meet [people’s] needs. The [people] who are helping you are in misery—so [everything] is pain to me. If your associates approach your standard of caring, that agonizes you because you know the burden that means for them. And then the people who are so caught up in themselves, well, nothing satisfies them, so they are never happy.[9]

The Peoples Temple leader is pained both by his worthy and his unworthy followers: neither group’s needs can be satisfied by a leader, even one as selfless as Jim Jones. He cannot meet all of the needs of his true followers, and this provokes an empathic emotion from him. The “people…caught up in themselves,” though, do not deserve empathy, according to Jones. This is where violence enters into the picture for Jim Jones, for those who resist the Peoples Temple vision of socialism must be met with force.

There exists a second aspect of the problem, though: the nurturer cannot admit the possibility of failure, but he also cannot shake off his own need to be nurtured: “I’ve tried to overcome needing people. It’s a terrible burden. I haven’t overcome it but I try not to impose my needs on others.”[10] These words reveal the shakiness, the fragility at the core of Jones the messiah, for he is haunted by the unbalanced ledger of needs. And the imbalance is found both within the Peoples Temple leader and in the inconstant efforts of his followers. After all, even the most stalwart Peoples Temple member could falter and leave the fold. We have countless examples of Jones obsessing over those lost sheep who did abscond.

So, what strategies did the über-nurturer Jim Jones devise to deal with the inherent instability of his position? Mercy killing was on Jones’ mind almost from the outset as a solution to the problem of nurture failure. Jones once spoke of the first nurture failure for which he himself was responsible: a little dog, a “patient” in his charge, died. Following the dog’s demise, Jones felt an urge to end his own young life. The child interpreted his own unwillingness to commit suicide as a loss of nerve; Jones henceforth considered life “shit,” his psyche weighed down by an ever-expanding, yet irredeemable “debt.”[11] Jones stayed alive, but he reoriented his life toward nurturing the others around him, be they animals or people; the intensity of his own efforts and the height of his expectations toward others were ratcheted up.

However, Jones explains that he would never have continued his career of nurturing had he understood, as a child, how to kill: “[I]t was just little animals that I stayed alive for [because] I was too young to know how to kill them.”[12] Did Jones consider it an expression of Divine Principle or Providence that he was granted that feeling of wanting to end others’ misery by killing them, yet (for a short time) without understanding how to administer such a supremely violent medicine?[13] One thing we know for sure: In the same sermon, Jones vents his spleen against his lukewarm followers: “I am bored, and I am disgusted, and I am sick with people who do so little with socialism when they have such a good example to follow.”[14] We can see, then, that Jim Jones saw his relation to others as a cosmic indulgence that, at the very least, cloaked a deep-seated anger at others’ very existence. Once the Jonestown dream exploded, Jones’ taut suspension of his suicidal/murderous impulses slackened and fell away.

* * * * *

In the remaining paragraphs, I would like to use Jim Jones’ comments about two of his elementary school teachers to further illustrate nurture failure. A final set of comments on how his reminiscences about these teachers may have informed Jim Jones’ sexual teachings will round out the discussion.

We are fortunate enough to have a tape recording of Jim Jones speaking about his early life in a relatively candid manner. The recording was done in September 1977, and, to judge by the transcript, Jones was in more of a collaborative mood than was usual during his time in Guyana. It is important for us to compare and contrast the more relaxed, intimate Jones with the more impassioned and strident version that presided over the infamous “white nights,” and the 1977 recordings give us a much-needed window into the former aspect of Jones’ psyche.

On the 1977 tape, Jones speaks about two of his elementary school teachers, a Mrs. Moore and a Mrs. Shafer. The former was idealized by Jones into the perfect example of a worthy, caring person whose life ended in misery because of the basic unfairness of a world ruled by human selfishness. The latter was vilified by Jones as a child abuser who lived to perpetuate the inequalities of society via her unequal treatment of students. Jones said of Mrs. Moore,

She developed cancer. She appealed to the sense in me ‘I can’t let her down.’ …[A]t that funeral parlor they held me up to look at her, and when I got down, I was bitter. So bitter that I went into the funeral parlor later, [stole] a casket from the warehouse and a whole bunch of wreaths, and I put a wreath on the door of every fucker I thought should be dead in the community. I think I got about six or seven wreaths. In those days, a wreath on the door panicked the whole community. Everybody went ape-shit. I put one on my own dad’s door. But, I got the casket up in my room and I got in it. I wanted to die I guess.[15]

Another statement of Jones—also from the aforementioned 1977 recording—goes deeper into Jones’ interpretation of his memory of this rare source of encouragement to him:

I’ll be goddamned if the next thing I remember is being held up, looking into her casket, looking at her body. And [Mrs. Moore’s husband] Chick [the principal], how I hated him. He’s standing in the next room talking to everyone, chattering away like nothing’s happened, like nobody’s dead. And she’s in the front room—all alone. (…) And I want to cry. The pain and the hostility of it… because her life was unfulfilled. And that’s a bad pattern I have, not crying. Because some people need to cry—but it’s dangerous to get a whole collective crying, the leader can’t afford to cry.[16]

In this passage Jones responds to the death of the only adult in his life who gave him any nurturing by raging against the community of adults whose self-centeredness and lack of feeling led to inequality in general and Mrs. Moore’s lack of fulfillment in particular. Most importantly, Jim cannot “cry” or show any emotional need, since he is a nurturer who cannot fail his flock. Rage against the worst offenders in the community is Jones’ self-justified response, and his methods of revenge, though oblique, are nonetheless terrifying. After all, a child must be indirect, must be a vandal rather than a Viking, so to speak. The realm of the psyche is sometimes a much more effective target, as Jones’ wreaths—which “panicked the whole community”—demonstrate.

More insight into Jones and nurture failure is gained through the comments about Mrs. Shafer, the teacher who replaced the deceased Mrs. Moore. Jones relates:

[W]hen I got back to school they’d put in this bitch called Shafer. (…) All I can remember about that bitch is her hands. She rubbed my arm and something about an older woman could have feelings for a young student. I don’t quite remember all she said, but it was implicitly sexual, that’s for certain. She tried to choke me somewhere. In a fucking goddamn closet. Long corridor… I see coats hanging on both sides, with hooks. She tried to choke me. (…) I used to go around and imitate the way she held her hands. I cannot see that bitch in my mind. All I can see is her goddamn hands. What would that mean? Is there a sexual thing about being attracted to hands? Rubbing my arm… she was making a deal with me about that exam… and I backed out of the door to get away from her. She repulsed me. I recall the feeling of revulsion.[17]

Shafer should be a nurturer to the child Jones, but instead she tries to convince him to have sexual contact with her in exchange for a passing grade on an exam. This encounter sets a pattern for Jones’ treatment of his followers: Use sexuality to “cultivate” Peoples Temple members into a higher understanding of “Divine socialism.” That is, instead of offering success in the crooked world of haves and have-nots in exchange for illicit sex, Jones holds out the possibility of hoisting all to the same level in a socialist society, where illicit sex will not be possible, since all will think Father Jim’s thoughts ceaselessly.[18]

Ironically, Jones resembles and even imitates Mrs. Shafer, the arch-villain of his narrative. He says that he cannot stop thinking of Shafer’s hands, and that, as a child, he even practiced making his hands look like those of his supposed abuser. Yet Jones’ attraction to the evil power of Shafer is offset by his “feeling of revulsion.” The story of Mrs. Shafer sounds suspiciously akin to Jones’ story—which he repeated often and at great length—about sleeping with a diplomat’s wife in Brazil to raise $5,000 for an orphanage.[19] What is the tie between these two anecdotes? Jones’ pain at having to “love” someone toward whom he feels no attraction. Attraction is felt toward those who dedicate themselves to “God Almighty Socialism”; repulsion is felt against those, like Mrs. Shafer and the diplomat’s wife, who use their advantageous position to fulfill their own needs, especially sexual ones.

* * * * *

Jim Jones, from childhood until his last breath in 1978, suffered from nurture failure: His family and community failed to care for him, and so Jones set himself up as caregiver for those less fortunate than himself. However, there was no exit plan for Jones: he could not abide the possibility that he could repeat the failure of the authorities who presided over his early life. Jones tried to cope with the unstable situation by forming Peoples Temple and leading its membership to a life free of the imbalance of need and nurture that was his childhood cross; instead, the man who styled himself “Raven” ended up justifying violence of every type and degree against Temple rank-and-file. When the un-nurtured fails to nurture, death-dealing violence must be turned both inward and outward as, on the one hand, a self-directed release and, on the other hand, an apocalyptic rebuke of “an inhumane world.”[20]

(This article is copyrighted (©) 2017 by James L. Kelley, an independent scholar based in Norman, Oklahoma. Mr. Kelley is a regular contributor to the jonestown report. His complete collection of articles may be found here. He has published books and articles about religion since 2009, when A Realism of Glory (Rollinsford, NH: Orthodox Research Institute) appeared. Mr. Kelley’s research interests include new religious movements, western esotericism, and modern Eastern Orthodox theology. He has taught at East Central University in Ada, Oklahoma, and the University of Oklahoma in Norman. He may be reached at romeosyne@gmail.com.)


[1] Jim Jones, “Transcript of FBI Tape Q1056-6,” accessed 30 August, 2017.

[2] “My dad was ill an invalid from World War II [World War I], very bitter, cynical person. He spent so much time being ingrossed [engrossed] in his own pain that he finally debilitated himself (and finally his health was totally destroyed).” (Jim Jones, “Jim’s Commentary About Himself,” RYMUR 89-4286-O-1-A1, p. 1, accessed 25 August, 2017.)

[3] Jim Jones, “An Untitled Collection of Reminiscences (September 1977),” RYMUR 89-4286-O-1-B, accessed 25 August, 2017).

[4] “I was ready to kill by the end of the third grade. I mean, I was so fucking aggressive and hostile, I was ready to kill. Nobody give me any love, any understanding. In those days a parent was supposed to go with a child to school functions. If your parent didn’t go you were an outcast, that’s all. I was a fairly good singer. There was some kind of school performance and everybody’s fucking parent was there but mine. I’m standing there. Alone. [Always] was alone. Everybody else’d have their families, their cousins, their aunts and uncles – not Jones” (Jones, “An Untitled Collection of Reminiscences).

[5] FBI tape Q 1059, part 1; cited in David Chidester, Salvation and Suicide: Jim Jones, The Peoples Temple, and Jonestown, Revised Edition (Bloomington and Indianapolis, IN: University of Indiana Press, 2003), p. 2.

[6] Jim Jones, “Transcript of FBI Tape Q 636,” accessed 25 August, 2017.

[7] Jones, “An Untitled Collection of Reminiscences.”

[8] Jones, “An Untitled Collection of Reminiscences.”

[9] Jones, “An Untitled Collection of Reminiscences.”

[10] Jim Jones, “Interview with Nouvelle Observatoire,” RYMUR 89-4286-C-12-d-1, p. 1, accessed 25 August, 2017.

[11] Jones, “Transcript of FBI Tape Q 636.”

[12] Jones, “Transcript of FBI Tape Q 636.”

[13] On Jim Jones’ use of the term “Principle” to describe God as an energy accessible to human beings, see Jim Jones, “Transcript of FBI Tape Q 1059, part 1,” transcription by Fielding McGehee, accessed 2 September, 2017.

[14] Jones, “Transcript of FBI Tape Q 636.”

[15] Jones, “An Untitled Collection of Reminiscences.”

[16] Jones, “An Untitled Collection of Reminiscences.”

[17] Jones, “An Untitled Collection of Reminiscences.”

[18] On “cultivation” as a sexual therapy in Peoples Temple, note Jones’ words: “One of the best black women back in San Francisco fighting for us right now, has [fought for us] because she was with me. That’s what kept her cool. It made her feel— Unfortunately, you women do this to yourself. Your social acceptance comes through what a man thinks of you. And if the leader is attracted to you, then somehow that cultivates. Well, you ought to know I’m attracted to you, I’m ready to die for every one of you, so that means I’m attracted to you. You follow what I’m saying? I’m attracted to all of you. How much more attraction can you have than to be ready to have your eyes plucked out? You don’t understand that. You don’t understand. I might as well throw that— I might as well throw pearls to swine, than to throw it to some of you. Some of you do, or there’d have been a hell of a lot more claps” (Jim Jones, “Transcript of FBI tape Q 273,” transcribed by Fielding McGehee, accessed 2 September, 2017).

[19] Jeff Guinn, The Road to Jonestown: Jim Jones and Peoples Temple (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2017), pp. 117-118.

[20] Jim Jones, “Transcript of FBI tape Q 042,” transcribed by Fielding McGehee, accessed 2 September, 2017.