(Nicolas Mullins wrote this paper for his “HIST 250: The Nature, Study, and Writing” history class at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University. His reflections on writing this paper appear here.)
In November 1978, Americans confronted the realization that over 900 American citizens a part of Peoples Temple had participated in a tragic event. Under their leader, Reverend Jim Jones, this tragedy would come to rock Jones’ home state of Indiana where his religious movement began, the state of California where Peoples Temple grew in popularity in the late 60’s and 70’s. The mass suicide took place in the socialist country of Guyana in what would be described as a socialist utopian agricultural experiment under the official name of Jonestown, in honor of their leader. But how could so many who participated in creating a utopia on Earth decide to end it all and partake in a mass suicide?
In the studies that have taken place about the Peoples Temple movement, whether it be from media soon after the mass suicide that took place or the books written, members who participated in the mass suicide to outsiders were seen as brainwashed and insane for following a movement they believed in. In looking at these perspectives that soon took place after the mass suicide, I focused on the humanitarian side of Peoples Temple leader Jim Jones and his followers who participated in the mass suicide in Jonestown and the members who did not take part. The focus of the humanitarian side of members will be seen in interviews I have done with previous members and pastors who were a part of Peoples Temple, and the ideas that members believed in will be seen throughout this paper. My main emphasis in this paper is the question: How does mass murder-suicide connect to the religious teaching of Reverend Jones and the beliefs of thousands of his followers in Peoples Temple?
My argument is this: The belief system that Jim Jones created – apostolic socialism – helped create a movement that would create a utopia on Earth, which would eventually be destroyed, where there was no racism, no sexism, and no class, allowing everyone in the movement to be seen as truly equal based on the Apostle’s doctrine. By using different means to create equality within in the church, including calling himself and members “nigger” and proclaiming all members as homosexual, Jones was able to create an equal community. This will be discussed further and will be based on sermon transcripts Jones delivered, while I will also be discussing how the members felt about these teachings and why more outsiders started joining the church due to these beliefs.
As seen in sermon transcripts that will be discussed in this paper, the members of Peoples Temple developed a distinctive belief system behind Jim Jones’ teaching of apostolic socialism. The teaching of apostolic socialism taught that members should show love by giving everything to the church and the church would provide for them in return. Jones would teach that the church must show love by being committed to helping those in need. Jones would teach that he, along with everyone in Peoples Temple, could be like God by showing love, by sharing, by caring, and by being an overall being of “God, Almighty Socialism.”
How was Jim Jones able to speak about socialism and creating a utopia on Earth where everyone would be treated equally in a country where equality was still being fought for blacks, and the government was fighting against the spread of communism and socialism in other countries across the world? As a child, Jones lived in one of the poorest cities in America during the Depression era, Lynn, Indiana, and knew the problems of racism due to disagreements he had with his father’s support for the Ku Klux Klan. Because of this he was truly able to connect to the African American members who followed him that believed in equal rights for minorities and for those that were in support of the working class. I argue that with Jim Jones becoming a nigger preacher, he was able to connect to the African American race and the working class and show them that there was a better life to live that the American government had never given that Peoples Temple would.
How was Peoples Temple was truly able to create a society on Earth that many members declared as a Utopia and their Heaven on Earth with outsiders who visited declaring that the Utopia was perfect and the best type of socialist experiment that they had ever seen? I argue that while in California, Reverend Jones did what he could in order to create a utopia on Earth due to the state being more liberal than Indiana. Although there was much support for Jones and Peoples Temple in the state of California – from the mayor of San Francisco, the governor of California, national leaders and civil rights leaders – the Peoples Temple leadership decided to make plans to create their official utopia on Earth in the socialist country of Guyana beginning in 1974. Based on the guest book, pictures of residents, interviews from residents and outsiders, and letters from outsiders and residents of Jonestown, I will argue that Jonestown was truly a Heaven on Earth to many members who lived there.
The last argument that I will provide – which shall be the hardest – due to there being many different beliefs on the subject and conspiracies as well, is the reason that so many Americans decided to commit revolutionary suicide. With evidence supporting the fact that residents of Jonestown were attempting to move to the Soviet Union instead of having to go back to a racist capitalist America, if ever forced to move away from Guyana, and the upcoming visit of Congressman Leo Ryan, revolutionary suicide came into play. This would be the idea that would ultimately destroy Peoples Temple and any possible positive thought when it comes to the history of the Peoples Temple Movement or Jonestown. The aftermath of this event will also be considered, including perspectives from the American State Department and Guyana Prime Minister Forbes Burnham’s administration that was in power when the event took place.
Teachings within Peoples Temple
Through the entire movement that Peoples Temple had created, all teachings that Reverend Jones would show would be based around giving to the church, showing love to those in need, and always coming together in times of need. The apostole’s doctrine had this teaching in many different biblical verses, such as Acts 2:44-45 and 4:32 where followers of Jesus would always come together and give to those that were in need as Jesus once had. Followers believed that in helping the needy and coming together as one body to help one another, they all possessed one heart and one soul that worked towards the ending of hunger and hatred in the world. Jones would use this in many of his sermons and show that these followers were working towards ending the class system by doing what they could to provide for everyone. Though not stating the word directly in his beginning years, he would often relate these teachings to socialism. He would compare the teachings from the Apostole’s Doctrine and Karl Marx’s most famous quote from his Communist Manifesto “To each according to his ability, to each according to his need.”
The members of Peoples Temple were first asked to give up many material objects such as money and jewelry to help make sure that the church could support itself. These small items soon turned into more expensive items, which included homes and cars, due to Jones’ teaching that he and the other members of Peoples Temple would provide for one another. Giving the church any personal items that had value allowed the church to be able to fund the members’ needs. Jones’ teaching of giving everything to the church came straight from the afore-mentioned verses from the book of Acts. The members gave everything they had and in return, Jim Jones gave members exactly what they needed. In place of homes, Jim Jones had apartment buildings and land for communities. In place of cars, Jim Jones had Greyhound buses that were used by members. In place of going out to eat, Jim Jones had soup kitchens created to feed the homeless and feed members as well. In place of doctors and hospitals, Jim Jones created nursing homes, and many members were nurses that helped members in need and were employed in the nursing homes as well. Members who joined Peoples Temple had everything that they needed within the church. Members who sold all their possessions in Indianapolis, where the church started, followed Jim Jones and Peoples Temple to Ukiah, California.
The teaching that giving everything to the church and the church would return what was needed to the members came from the book of Matthew, chapter 25 verses 35, 36, and 40, which showed the members’ belief about how they should help the world. These verses state:
For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me… The King will reply, ‘Truly, I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’
The church used this on the outside world in communities that were known for citizens living in poverty-stricken neighborhoods. Members believed that their church should be following these texts and showing their support for the needy. Peoples Temple followed these scriptures due to many members being a part of the lower working class making them understand the needs of the less fortunate.
In the year of 1954, Jim Jones preached many different times at the Laurel Street Tabernacle in Indianapolis. This location had all-white followers before Jones started preaching. He brought many African Americans into the services, and due to Indianapolis being a segregated area, African Americans attending the church were not treated equally. This can be seen by historian Rebecca Moore who states: “Jones invited African Americans to attend the Tabernacle, but when church ushers seated them in the back rows, he protested.” As Temple member Esther Mueller wrote about another church in Indiana that Jones wanted to integrate: “He insisted that black members should be in the choir, and so when he went away for a month the church put him out rather than integrate the choir.” Seeing that many churches in Indianapolis would not allow integration to happen in the service, Jones decided to create his own church, and many members of Laurel Street Tabernacle and other congregation members followed him due to his strong beliefs on integration. This church was created in 1955 and would be called Wings of Deliverance, but Jones would change the name to Peoples Temple a few months later to show that all people were welcome.
Another idea that Jim Jones used within his teaching of apostolic socialism was speaking on racism and gay rights and equality for all people. Apostolic socialism was created by Jones to show how he believed in creating a community where everyone was equal based on the Apostles doctrine in the book of Acts. In America, racism was still spreading throughout the time that People Temple was conducting services in Indianapolis, Indiana. Outside of the church, racism was rampant and African Americans still faced segregation outside of Peoples Temple. However, as Jeannie Mills recounts, within the confines of Peoples Temple:
Black and white people were seated together…white parents were holding black children, and white children were sitting on the laps of black parents. There seemed to be no racism in this atmosphere of peace and love and I began to relax…and I decided to start being friendly with black people.
Africans Americans felt comfortable attending a church and pastor that showed kindness and equality while also having some of the traditions of an African American church as well.
Another way that Peoples Temple was seen as an equalitarian community church was the associate pastor, Archie Ijames. Archie Ijames and his wife, Rosie Ijames, came to know about Jim Jones and Peoples Temple while living in Indiana and searching for a church that displayed an apostolic egalitarian community. Pastor Ijames met Jones in the year of 1956 at the age of 65 and was hired as the associate pastor of Peoples Temple. An African American preacher having the same position as a white reverend and knowing that Jones hired him, showed many members who Jones was truthful in his integrational teaching and that he practiced what he taught.
Out of the many sermons Jim Jones preached and books that have been written about him, the best that many scholars can conclude is his beliefs on racial equality and poverty came from his childhood. In the sermon transcript Q134, he states: “I had early developed a sensitivity for the problems of blacks, I too probably feeling as an outcast…I brought the only black young man in the town to my house to visit my dad and to visit my home. My dad said that he could not come in, and I said, then I shan’t, and I did not see my dad for many years, or for some, sometime thereafter.” Jones also spoke of his father in a negative manner due to him being connected to the Ku Klux Klan, though no evidence has been found to support this claim. While supposedly having a racist father, Jones lived in Lynn, Indiana, which was one of the smaller towns in Indiana where “people there did little more than earn a living, raise children, attend church, on Sunday and cultivate vegetables in small gardens.” Showing the background of what he saw as a child and from his community, Jones came up with his Apostolic Socialist teaching.
The services were like that of black churches according to Milmon Harrison who states that Jim Jones’ voice
punctuated and actually buoyed along by the moments of applause, shouts of “amen,” “hallelujah,”…while this part of African Americans worship service may appear to be out of control when, in actuality, it requires that one learn the proper times and places in which to insert these seemingly spontaneous vocal interjections.
In the beginning, Peoples Temple was of a Pentecostal faith-based church. The main emphasis that connected Jim Jones and the teachings within Pentecostal faith was that of his emphasis on faith-based healing. From his childhood, Jones grew up a part of the Pentecostal faith and preached his own sermons as a child, with animals as his congregation. He even practiced healing animals as well whenever they were sick or hurt. Growing up in a Pentecostal environment, he was able to see healings take place and used those environments to base his own healing sermons when he became a pastor. Though many of Jones “healings” in San Francisco were fake, some former members of Peoples Temple believe many miracles actually took place. Former Temple member, Don Beck, recalls how his foster child, Danny, had 20% hearing in one ear and 70% hearing loss in another due to physical bone damage from being beat as a child. When Danny had come back from a summer trip however,
Danny got off the bus talking away, speaking clearly and understandably…I was just sort of staring at him when Jim walked by. He looked at me and then at Danny and then at me, smiled and said, “He’ll be fine.” We had him retested: the 20% loss ear was normal, and the 70% loss was now 20% loss. Hearing was never a problem again.
The reason that Beck believed that Jim Jones healed Danny was not only due to the fact that Danny’s hearing had been repaired but also due to no one knowing about Danny’s problem. Beck had never even told Jones about his son’s problem.
Out of all the healings and miracles that took place, whether they were real or not, it can be demonstrated that there were healings that took place other than physical healings. Many members who came to be a part of Peoples Temple praised Jim Jones for the healing of their addictions by attending the church. During the testimonial part of one church service, an anonymous member states: “Before I came here, I was taking LSD, marijuana, every type of drug that you can imagine. Without our pastor Jim Jones guidance, I would not be in college right now.” Another member of Peoples Temple, Stanley Clayton, was interviewed stating that he used drugs and drank alcohol excessively. He spoke about how other people his age were going through what he was going through and how they were healed of these types of addictions. Seeing people healed of these same types of addictions made him believe that he too could be healed as well. Many addicts including Stanley Clayton were healed because they believed that they had a purpose in the church and were shown how important they were and that drugs were not needed in their life.
In my interview with David Parker Wise, one of the Associate Pastors of the Los Angeles branch of Peoples Temple, he said that he believes that there were actual healings that took place. The reason Jim Jones performed fake healings was to bring faith to the audience, and then the real miracles and healings would start to begin. This, according to Wise, was when Jones used his belief that “the means will be justified in the end.” Jones believed that if he were to perform a few fake healings and fake miracles in the church, then the members who were actually in need of miracles and healings would receive them. These fake healings would help the spirit of belief come into the church and the people would start believing they too could be healed. Jones would describe this as a catalyst process in order to be able to build faith among the members. So while Jones committed these deceptions, he became convinced that the catalyst process would make a way for real genuine physical healings. Pastor Wise recounted in previous interview that members were actually healed and proved it by coming back to the following services with reports from their doctors saying whatever illness they had was totally gone.
When arguing whether Reverend Jones actually did heal people, the one perspective to look at is Jones himself. After visiting other churches that practiced faith-healing including many Pentecostal churches, as a child, he believed that he could do it just like other churches. “If these sons of bitches can do it, then I can do it too.” Jones was going to do something different, however. He believed that he could start his own healing services and gain some money to further his cause of racial integration and equality for all, backed by his apostolic socialism belief system. So from that one quote, Jones can be seen as a copycat who could have never performed any real healings due to just mimicking other religious leaders. However, Jones did believe he healed many of his members without truly knowing how he did it. He had members in Jonestown “who got healed fifteen, twenty years ago, and are still O.K” which showed him that he did have some form of power to heal.
The healing parts of the services were a major reason that Jones was able to bring in so many followers. He always conducted the healing parts of the service at the end, after he spoke his message of his beliefs and teachings on equality in the world. Many members came for the healing part of the service, but Jones believed that the ones that stayed till the end of the service and listened to him speak truly deserved the healing that they asked for. One main teaching that he taught his members is the idea that involved everyone in the church becoming truly equal. He argued that all of his members were equal by stating, “Anyone in America who’s poor, white, brown, yellow, or black, and not admit he’s a nigger is a damn fool. Because nigger means to be treated cheatedly.” Reverend Jones made everyone become a part of their own type of society where everyone was a “nigger” because of how the government treated them badly and did not care for them. A way in which he taught that everybody in the congregation was this, was how housing was for many members. He said that even though governments considered some members white on paper, they resided in poor neighborhoods that black members lived in.
To become a “nigger” was not Jones telling his members who they along with himself were all black, but it was a way for him to show that blacks and anyone that was being oppressed in society could be transformed. This term was not associated to a racial classification but was associated to those being oppressed. When looking at his members, Jones saw that though there were white people in his congregation with blond hair, he saw black hearts in them all. For example, those members who were gay and lesbian were being oppressed because they were not free to marry who they wanted and were afraid to show their relationship due to backlash. Those members were finally seeing that they were oppressed and were going through the process of being “niggerized.” With the members going through this process, Jones was able to extend the term “nigger” to his “nigger blacks,” “nigger Mexicans,” “nigger women,” “nigger Indians,” “nigger gays” and all his other members as all being a part of the oppressed in America. This process allowed members to start becoming aware of being cheated, persecuted and oppressed like black people were in America. They were transforming themselves to become “niggers,” and this symbolic inversion of the term allowed the members to come together to face the real problems in America, which was that of white power, capitalism and the class system.
As Michael Bellefontaine writes, another idea that promoted the idea of everyone throughout the church becoming equal was when Jim Jones claimed that
Everybody is gay. All men are homosexual and all women are lesbians. People wrapped up in heterosexual relationships are not mature enough to deal with this. This leads to domestic violence, and the abuse and abandonment of women. Gays and lesbians who are “out” have faced suffering and ostracism; therefore, they are empathetic to the treatment of poor white people and racial minorities. Gays and lesbians are the most loyal people in the movement.
Whenever Jones spoke of this, his followers did not see them as negative and derogatory terms. He insisted that since they were all homosexual, then they were all equal to one another. They were all fighting for the same rights and in saying, they were gay, they would thus start fighting for gay rights as well. Being a part of one equal society allowed one to believe that he or she was the same as everyone else.
Bellefontaine also writes that
When gays and lesbians came to Peoples Temple, they not only heard Jones’ philosophy on everyone being gay, but they also found an all-accepting community. A community where being gay did not impact how you were perceived by the other congregants. No judgements, just irrelevant.
Gays and lesbians came to Peoples Temple due to the teaching that they were equal to everyone else. The first visitor to come to Peoples Temple whenever the church moved to California was a gay man who decided to become a member. Outside of the church, gays and lesbians were ostracized for their lifestyles, but they found equality and a belief that they could live openly amongst straight members in Peoples Temple. Just as African Americans were fighting for desegregation and their rights, homosexuals were fighting for their rights as well. Jim Jones was the man who was able to make all his members see that there were many different categories fighting for their own specific rights, and that they should all be joined together in fighting for rights for all.
Many scriptures that Reverend Jones used from the Bible included statements that spoke about how God was love and how love dwells in man, which supported Peoples Temple beliefs that showed that God could dwell in man. Scriptures used in order to promote this teaching include I John 4:7 and I John 4:16. These scriptures, according to Peoples Temple beliefs, helped show people that everyone could be like God by showing love to everyone. This was the ultimate teaching Jones proclaimed, telling his members who true equality was achieved by saying that they were like God by having love within them and showing it to the world. To get rid of the term of them being “niggers” and “gay” and “lesbian,” they would have to declare that they would create heaven on Earth and by teaching that love is the ultimate key to living together. By having a body that was full of love and helping those in need, then God would be manifested in themselves, which would make the “sky god,” as Jones called God, to never be needed.
In getting rid of the idea of there being a “sky god” and also getting rid of the idea of a heaven in the sky, members were taught to believe that they could be like God themselves and could create Heaven on Earth. The teaching came from the idea of love and how love was God and how God was manifested in man through love. Humans could be like God by showing their love to their communities and cities. They could create Heaven on Earth by bringing their teaching of love to everyone in hopes that everyone could see that love was the idea that should be used when teaching about what the “sky god” truly was. It was the members’ job to create Heaven on Earth with Jim Jones proclaiming, “Sharing together. That is our perfection. That is how we will build Heaven on Earth. That is how we will have God come out of the sky, and come down on Earth. And we do it ourselves.”
When looking at how Reverend Jones’ teachings were put on his members to achieve equality within the Temple, it must be understood that these teachings would not be needed if Jones and his movement had created a place of true equality in the world. There would be no more “niggers,” since the oppression of people would not exist. There would be no “gays” and “lesbians,” since everyone would be able to be in public with no worries of consequences. There would be no use of healings, as everyone would have what was needed to live and the opportunity for free healthcare. There would be no more thoughts of Heaven, the afterlife or the “sky god,” because the area on the Earth that would be created would be Heaven on Earth due to the showing of love from members thus making them be like God. How would all of this come into fruition? Socialism was the key way in which the demonstration of perfect love in creating a perfect society would be able to exist. When Jones taught on how to fix the problems of the world and in creating a perfect society through apostolic socialism, he would declare, “Socialism means that all the means of production that man has are owned by the same people. There is only one source of ownership-love.” The teaching of Apostolic Socialism was committed to creating a society where there was neither class system, nor racial divisions, and where everyone would finally be seen as equal.
Jones’ Stand to End Segregation in Indianapolis
From high school to attending college to becoming a pastor, Jim Jones believed that whites were no better than blacks. In a memo titled, “Jim Jones…as seen through the eyes of those HE LOVED…” Jim Jones’ wife Marceline speaks specifically about how Jim was the one that made her aware of the race problem. She would say that her husband quit the high school basketball team due to his coach using racial terms against the opposing team. In his days in college, Marceline continued, Jim was always friends with blacks and helped those that felt they were being bullied. Another note written by Marceline recounts not only did her husband care about the racial problem in Indianapolis, but he also cared about it globally. In trips that Jones and his family took at the end of 1962 to South American countries such as Brazil and Cuba, Jones always did what he could to help, including working at foster homes. Marceline would recount about these visits and say that, “Day and night, his first concern is for the suffering and oppressed.”
So why did Reverend Jones feel so connected to the pathway to equality for blacks and become so connected to the Civil Rights Movement in Indiana? Lynetta Jones, Jim’s mother, was the reason her son felt he was so highly devoted to the fight against racism and oppression. Since his birth in 1931, his mother believed that her son would be someone different who would make a change in the world. Lynetta would write in Jonestown that she always knew that Jim was going to grow into a great leader. Lynetta had always wanted a child who she believed would bring liberation and freedom to the oppressed in society, especially those that were black. This, according to Reverend Jones, was when his mother decided that he was going to be a black child, that would help his black brothers and sisters that were oppressed in the world. In many sermons, Jones would defend his belief that he was just as black as they were. He continued arguing that he did not grow to be black, but was born black. Standing at the front of the church in front of his members with raven-colored hair, and what seemed to be dark eyes behind his sunglasses, Jones may have had white skin but black members saw that he was just as black as they were. Though he may have been seen as black in the church, to outsiders Jones would be a part of the white race and this would end up being a positive in the divided city of Indianapolis. In seeing that his black brothers and sisters were being oppressed in society, he too felt oppressed and began doing what he could to fix these issues.
In 1960, the mayor of Indianapolis, conservative Democrat Charles Boswell, created the Human Rights Commission which was supposed to help solve the racial problems going on throughout the city. No one seemed to want the position, though. For eighteen months, only one person had applied for the job; Boswell was running out of time, and the post had to be filled. But Jones was seen as a candidate, since city leaders “had seen his name on the religious page of the newspaper and knew him as an advocate of the poor and blacks. Jones came across as an articulate and humane eager beaver social worker.” Though Jones was given the position due to his support for integration, Boswell specifically stated to Jones “to keep a low profile, and to avoid inflaming the racial climate or antagonizing the business community.”
Jones had a choice to make. Would he heed the mayor’s warning, keep a low profile, and not fight for the rights of African Americans facing segregation in Indianapolis? Or would he continue the practice of his teachings and fight for integration within the city? In 1961, Jones accepted the mayor’s nomination and stayed on as the Mayor’s Human Rights Commissioner until 1962. Integration in Indianapolis was a key issue for Jones during his year as the city’s human rights director. Jones went around the Butler-Tarkington area fighting racial tensions by comforting blacks and telling whites to stop running away from black houses and to integrate. Jones used his position as the Head of the Human Rights Commission to integrate the city and received support from different community leaders and students from Butler University as well. Going to a civil rights meeting one night, which included members from the NAACP and the Urban League, Jones was even described as their own version of Martin Luther King Jr.
During his time as Human Rights Commissioner, Jones was able to integrate 58 out of 61 white-owned businesses in Indianapolis, including restaurants, a downtown movie theatre, the Bell Telephone company, and even the biggest hospital in the state of Indiana, the Methodist Hospital. One of the ways in which Jones was able to integrate restaurants in Indianapolis was by fasting and prayer. An article in The Indianapolis Times described Jones’ prayer crusade as “a Gandhi-like action,” and quoted Jones as saying: “Through the fast we have found that when we get people’s attention on certain matters, things are accomplished.” Many saw Jones as a man of action who always protested peacefully and never allowed himself to partake in acts of violence. To integrate restaurants, he would speak specifically to the managers and ask managers their specific reasons for segregating restaurants. In return, Jones would argue that if the manager allowed their restaurant to be integrated, then the restaurant would have more customers and thus make more money. Jones would back this argument by bringing in members of Peoples Temple to eat when the restaurant was not usually busy, allowing the manager to make more money that day.
Outside of bringing members to restaurants in order to prove the fact that integration in restaurants brought a positive outcome, Jones would integrate businesses, arguing that the new employees would be the best employees the company ever had. What Jones argued was correct. He would always go by and check on the employees whom he encouraged managers to hire with managers providing feedback that there were never any problems. The black employees whom Jones brought in knew that if they worked out well, then Jones’ reputation would be kept positive in the city allowing for more management to decide to integrate their businesses as well.
The biggest business to integrate in Indianapolis, the Methodist Hospital, was specifically due to Jones. When he was assigned a room in the Methodist Hospital for painful discomfort in his abdomen, he would not let any doctor touch him, because they had assigned him to the hospital wing that only accepted whites. Jones argued that if the hospital staff did not integrate, then they would have to watch him be in pain and possibly die. Many knew that Jones had a reputation in the city for fighting for blacks, and they knew that he needed to be treated. So the administrators promised to integrate in the near future. That was not good enough for Jones. He wanted it done immediately. Though at first the administrators protested, integration did take place that same day with Jones even being treated by his own personal black doctor. Jones would later thank the administrators and state that the fact a black doctor helped cure him of his abdominal pains – found out to be bleeding ulcers in his stomach – should show them that blacks could do just as well in helping a patient in pain as a white doctor could.
While Jim Jones was helping to integrate the city of Indianapolis, the practice of integration was happening within his personal life as well. Jim and Marceline were the first white family to adopt a black child in Indiana. In doing this, Jones had created what he termed a “Rainbow Family.” The rainbow family that Jim Jones spoke of so frequently included himself, his wife Marceline, his five sons – four of whom were adopted – and his three daughters, all of whom were adopted. His adopted family included black, white, and Korean children. Jim and Marceline would call their adopted black child Jim Jones Jr. to state that they were proud that a black child held their name. They would also give their only natural born child the middle name of Gandhi to show that they believed in helping the world and their child would help. When their Korean daughter, Stephanie, died in a car crash, they even buried her in a black cemetery. “If that’s where you put minority peoples and Jews, if that’s where you put them… then that’s where we all go!” By burying his daughter in a black segregated cemetery, Jones and his family became more associated with African Americans thus gaining more attention throughout the community.
A former member of Peoples Temple, whose name shall be kept anonymous due to his personal reasons, spoke about why he and his family joined Peoples Temple in Indianapolis. In a recent interview, he stated that he and his family lived in Ohio and were a part of the lower class. His mother felt personally connected to the Civil Rights Movement, and she was a part of the NAACP in Ohio. His mother was also very evangelical and believed in faith healing and learning of Jones and his healing ceremonies. She felt that Jones was a respectable leader for herself and her family. His mother knew the work that Jones was doing in the city of Indianapolis whenever it came to his support of integration, and this was another reason that she believed Jones was the right choice as a church and community leader. My source was eleven years old at the time and he stayed with the Temple from 1959 to 1977.
During the late fifties and early sixties, African Americans were still fighting for equality during the Civil Rights Movement while non-supporters were openly opposing the movement. There were acts of violence against African American men and women such as police brutality, protestors fighting against peaceful marchers, the Birmingham church bombing and more. While this was all happening in the South, the Jones family was going through the same things in Indianapolis. Jim Jones knew that he was causing tensions due to his integrating businesses, his teachings on racial equality, and his practices of integration in his personal life. An article in the Indianapolis Record described how Jones had people taunting him on both the black and white sides of the community. “So cruel have so-called prominent Negro and white citizens been that one Negro Baptist clergyman rumored Jones was in a lunatic asylum.” It can be seen in the same article that Marceline Jones was despised for being a “nigger lover”:
One of the most memorable unfortunate incidents occurring to the Jones family happened to his loyal and understanding wife. Mrs. Jones was awaiting a bus to take their Negro son to the clinic when a middle-aged white woman spit in Mrs. Jones face. When she began to weep, the woman returned to spit in the baby’s face and called her a nigger lover.
The same article described how a white teenager struck Jim Jones with a milk bottle and how he had received a concussion due to being struck on the head.
The church itself was coming under attack as well. Throughout the church’s existence in Indianapolis, it had to deal with swastikas being painted on the outside of the building, rocks being thrown through windows during services, and community members calling for Jim Jones “the Nigger lover to get out of town.” The many members of Peoples Temple were having to deal with the racial climate as well in their personal life, with many members enduring hate calls in the middle of the night, having their home vandalized, and having to deal with abuse on the streets. The church even had bomb threats, including one time when a dynamite stick was found in a coal pile within a few feet of the church.
Connections to Father Divine’s Peace Mission
From 1953 to 1971, Jim Jones was connected to Father Divine and his movement in Philadelphia. Jones and his wife visited Father Divine frequently. In the booklet Pastor Jones Meets Reverend M. J. Divine Better Known as Father Divine, Jones spoke about some of the teachings of Father Divine and whether he agreed with them or not. One of the clear negatives that Jones saw in Father Divine’s movement was that: “Naturally one can imagine the revulsion I felt upon entering their church and hearing the devoted followers of Mr. Divine refer to him as Father… I was nauseated by what seemed to be personal worship to their leader.” Though Jones did not believe in the fact that Father Divine could be God, Father Divine told his followers that he was God. In 1939, Father Divine was sentenced to a year in a prison. After being sentenced Father Divine stated, “I’m warning you, you send me to jail, something terrible is going to happen to you” and a week later the judge died of a heart attack. After finding out the judge died, Father Divine’s comment to reporters was “I hated to do it.” This was proof enough to Father Divine’s followers that he was God.
While Jim Jones did not agree with certain ideas Father Divine was teaching within his church, he did learn many lessons on how he too could create a utopian society such as Father Divine’s. The main teachings that Jones brought over from Father Divine was how Father Divine had created a community that truly followed the belief in communalism. In Father Divine’s movement to create a community of equality, Jones wrote:
The Divines have perfectly fulfilled the scriptural principle: From each according to his ability, to each according to his need… The followers pool their resources and buy all properties cooperatively or as a non-profit corporation to further humanitarian programs that M. J. Divine propagates.
Maurice Kleineibst, a follower of Father Divine at the time, observed: “Father Divine and Jim talked together about each other’s work and mission, and there was a correlation between the two. They talked about spiritual things and how to do away with racism and churchianity.”
After the death of Father Divine in 1965, Jones believed that through Peoples Temple, he would be able to continue Father Divine’s work. In 1971, he even tried taking over his ministry but was rejected by Mother Divine. Kleineibst described some of the tensions that could be seen between Mother Divine and Jones: “In 1969 when Jim visited Mother Divine, he told her how he felt about the way she was spending money on cars, clothes and jewelry and not looking after the senior citizens…This was the breaking point when Jim told her that because of this, the Peace Mission would go down.”
Another major breaking point between Reverend Jones and Mother Divine was when Jones proclaimed that he in a “white body was in fact the reincarnation of the cherubically black Father Divine,” to which Mother Divine replied “Father is supposed to be in every one of us… No one can take Father’s place… You’re no more special than anyone else.” In making this claim, Jones separated himself and his Peoples Temple from Father Divine’s movement. Jones was able to bring a few dozen members from Father Divine’s Peace Mission to Peoples Temple, mostly elderly African American women. To make these elderly women feel more comfortable in their new home church, the Peoples Temple choir learned songs sung at Father Divine’s Peace Mission and Jones’ followers were told to call him “Father” and his wife “Mother.”
Community Outreach in the State of California
From the beginning of Peoples Temple’s first service in 1954 to the move of the church to Ukiah in July of 1965, war was occurring throughout the world. The U.S.S.R was a communist country and was starting to spread communism to different countries on the Asian and African continents. America was determined to combat the continuous expansion of communism. During the Cold War, American governmental officials worried over a possible attack by the Soviet Union. President Kennedy would go on record stating that if an event of nuclear war should happen, then shelter must be sought out for those that survived. Though nuclear weapons were never used, Reverend Jones believed that a nuclear Armageddon was bound to happen due to a vision he had, and started searching for a safe place for himself, his family, and the members of Peoples Temple. Ukiah was picked as their safe haven. Jones would pick Ukiah due to an Esquire magazine article of January 1962 which stated, “In the event of atomic war, there will be some areas of this world still habitable. The safest of these places will be: Ukiah, California…”
Ukiah was also a place where Reverend Jones could give his sermons about equality without repercussions due to believing the community would be more accepting. Moving out of Indianapolis, which was racially divided, and relocating to the state of California, which was more open to the ideas of equality allowed Jones to attract more followers and teach his beliefs of socialism with less backlash from a racist community. The move to California, and then – later – relocating from Ukiah to San Francisco and Los Angeles and other cities helped Jones’ teaching spread. As a result, the church received African American followers and other working class followers, including many college students. Many of the new followers who came to Peoples Temple in San Francisco had participated in the Civil Rights Movement and had protested against America’s involvement in the Vietnam War. Peoples Temple was starting to become more popular, and more community members were wanting to become a part of this group, which allowed for the communities surrounding the church to take notice.
Once in California, Reverend Jones and his message of apostolic socialism spread throughout the entire state in major cities such as San Francisco and Los Angeles. In distributing his teachings, the one hundred member congregation that traveled from Indiana to California grew to what is believed to be an estimated high of twenty thousand visitors with an average of between five thousand and six thousand attendees being card holding members. Jones and his church became very visible in San Francisco due to endorsements of different members of society. Endorsements were always sent to different organizations at which Jones planned to speak, or for new attendees that planned on attending a service. “Statements About Reverend Jim Jones and The Peoples Temple” was a booklet made up of 25 pages’ worth of endorsements that included statements from medical professors, legal professors, law enforcement officials, religious leaders, the media, governmental and political leaders, and members of civil rights groups. As Joe Hall, president of the NAACP in San Francisco during that time wrote, “Their commitment and dedication to ending human suffering of the oppressed and downtrodden are unsurpassed by any of the organized churches in the city.” Physician and surgeon J. Bruce Massey wrote
Pastor Jim Jones teaches Christianity, brotherly love, kindness, and willingness to help friends in need at all times. He teaches all of these things to his members, and insists that they live this type of life every minute of every day…He should be seen and heard by people of the entire world… This world will be a better place to live in because of Pastor Jim Jones.
Phillip Burton, a United States congressman, wrote
He has worked to alert others to the injustices which exist in our society and has worked tirelessly with those who seek to correct these injustices. Let me express my heartiest approval of the efforts you and the other members of your church are making to help the less fortunate in our community.
With the services of Peoples Temple bringing thousands of supporters and members into the congregation from the cities of Ukiah and San Francisco, Jim Jones’ teachings could expand throughout the state of California. The teachings of apostolic socialism were used throughout the community whenever it came to helping the needy. “The church operates two senior citizen homes…the human service aspect of the church is far reaching. Four college dorms are operated by Peoples Temple, housing 104 students…Members also provide the little things in life for the needy and disabled.” Members of the church were taught that everyone in their group was the same and everyone that needed and deserved help, and they extended this teaching into the various cities in California. As a result, politicians within the state took notice of Reverend Jones and his thousands of dedicated followers.
One of Jones’ strongest supporters in a political position was George R. Moscone, mayor of San Francisco from January 1976 until his assassination in 1978. The endorsement from Moscone states:
Your contributions to the spiritual health and well-being of our community have been truly inestimable, and I am heartened by the fact that we can continue to expect such vigorous and creative leadership from the Peoples Temple in the future. By your tireless efforts on behalf of all San Franciscans, you have demonstrated that the unique powers of spiritual energy and civic commitment are virtually boundless, and that our lives would be sadly different without your continuing contributions.
Jones was able to get such an endorsement from a political figure because members of Peoples Temple helped him get elected as mayor. “One former Temple member, Neva Sly, recalled in an interview that her husband, Don, had driven busloads of temple members here to vote…Mr. Jones’ adherents probably numbered about 5,000 – a sizeable bloc in a city where the average voter turnout runs close to 200,000.” Though the article argued that Jim Jones did commit voter fraud, there is no credible evidence that voter fraud ever occurred.
The group was also connected to other political leaders including San Francisco County Supervisor Harvey Milk, California governor Jerry Brown, U.S. Vice President Walter Mondale, and First Lady Rosalynn Carter. “It became common knowledge that if you were going to run for office in San Francisco, and your constituency included the black, the young or the poor, you’d better have Jones in your corner.” Many political figures came for his help thus showing that members in Peoples Temple could help get political figures elected. Jones was even seen in a campaign rally with Mrs. Carter, and in a telephone call between the two of them, Jones said: “Well, you call us. We have many many thousands of members, and I have considerable influence in the Disciples of Christ denomination, in which I am an official. Anything we can do, you call. We’re one hundred percent behind you.” Mrs. Carter used Jones in order to get votes in a city that her husband had few followers in. She of course knew of the rumors that Peoples Temple helped many California politicians into power and believed that the members of Peoples Temple could help her husband win the election as well. After winning the election, Mrs. Carter and Vice President Mondale would not make contact with Jones again.
Harvey Milk, the first openly gay politician in the state of California, spoke positively about the church. Milk appeared frequently in services at different Peoples Temple locations across the state of California. With Milk being an advocate for minority rights and gay rights, Peoples Temple was the perfect place for him to get voters in San Francisco County as the members believed in gay rights and minority rights as well. When Peoples Temple was under attack by the media and ex-members, Milk even wrote a letter to then-President Jimmy Carter defending Reverend Jones and Peoples Temple and asking for the president to stop any more accusations and attacks towards the church.
After the mass deaths that took place in Jonestown, many political advocates stopped supporting the Temple altogether. Once Mrs. Carter heard of the tragedy, she and President Carter did what they could in order to not let it be known that two of them were associated to Peoples Temple. However, though many withdrew their support, Harvey Milk, George Moscone, and California Assemblyman Willie Brown continued to support Jim Jones and Peoples Temple. Brown believed that those attacking Jones and his church were attacking the black community. Though not politicians, Jesse Jackson and Huey Newton, who were major leaders in the Civil Rights Movement, were also supporters of Jones. After the mass deaths, Jackson still considered Jones a leader who created a following that truly helped those that could not take care of themselves. While Jones and his many followers were still alive in Jonestown, Huey Newton spoke with Jim praising the community where race was no longer an issue. One of the many Temple members who lived in Jonestown was Huey Newton’s cousin, Stanley Clayton.
Salvation and Revolutionary Suicide
A subject that in the end would lead to Reverend Jones and many of his followers to the socialist country of Guyana was the topic of revolutionary suicide. The leader of the Black Panthers, Huey Newton, who coined the term “revolutionary suicide,” believed that “we have such a strong desire to live with hope and human dignity that existence without them is impossible.” Newton believed this concept to be “about fighting for change, fighting to end oppression, and to set things right for one’s self and one’s community.” Huey Newton believed that to be able to fight for change and to fight towards the end of oppression meant that those fighting would have to risk their life and accept that fighting against overwhelming forces of oppression could lead to their death. Jones used this thought and changed it around to teach his followers the belief that committing literal suicide was truly how they would eventually gain their freedom from racism and economic inequality in society. Revolutionary suicide, according to Jones, promised to relieve the members of their sorrows when it came to how they were seen in the world. This technique of suicide showed that members were not willing to live in a world where they felt they were not welcome and instead would rather die. When the entire world is seen as impure and there is no true purity in the world anymore, suicide can be seen as an escape in order to achieve purity. When using this teaching, it could possibly be more understood why over nine hundred people committed suicide in Jonestown. America was seen as the reigning empire that was spreading the teaching of capitalism in the world, which to the members were considered to be impure. The Soviet Union was considered the ally of the members in Jonestown as they were spreading the pure teachings of communism. In realizing that a move to the Soviet Union was not going to happen, Jones and his followers would have decided that the country of the Soviet Union was no longer pure and that there was no chance of purity in the world anymore.
The only known demonstration within the church outside of Jonestown of the practice of revolutionary suicide occurred on January 1, 1976 when members were given wine that was supposedly poison. There were talks of different forms of revolutionary suicide that members could partake other than drinking poison, however. Jeff Guinn, author of The Road to Jonestown, quoted an interview with Maria Katsaris, who died in Jonestown, about how Jones wanted her to crash a plane with him and all the members on board in order to show that death was better than living in America. This was before the eventual move to Jonestown. Though the January 1, 1976 incident was the only act of revolutionary suicide known to be attempted on American soil, revolutionary suicide was still a major part of Jones’ teaching. and became a routine once followers moved to Guyana. These eventually became known as “White Nights.”
In Jonestown, there were many accounts of what soon became known as “White Nights.” There are different accounts of how many practices were committed with some saying fewer than five and other survivors saying more than twenty. Whenever this event happened, members came to the pavilion and they all drank the “poison” because they believed that attackers were outside of the community and were beginning the assault to kill everyone in Jonestown. Other than the mass murder-suicide that took place in November of 1978, the “White Night” rehearsals that happened never truly contained any poison. The incidents were training processes for the real event if any particular enemy of Jonestown came to attack the community. While taking part in the act of their revolutionary suicide, members also spoke about what they would do if they were attacked, including strapping bombs to themselves and hiding in the jungles to surround the coming military for a better advantage. With members, participating in the final “White Night” the day of the assassination of Congressman Leo Ryan, they showed that they would rather die than be forced to go back to America. 
Movement to Jonestown, Guyana
While Peoples Temple was located in San Francisco, some members started to defect from the church due to the harsh discipline and strict teachings Jim Jones imposed on the members. Some articles started coming out about defectors and their personal experiences in the church. Marshall Kilduff and Phil Tracy, writing for New West Magazine, spoke to numeous former members of Peoples Temple who related their personal experiences, stories of beatings that took place, and tales of services that were orchestrated when political visitors attended a service. This article made Jones and Peoples Temple look immoral to outsiders. Within the Temple however, members argued that many of the accusations in the article were false. As one former member wrote following the mass suicides, Marshall Kilduff “directed his focus completely on sensationalist, distorted versions and false accusations made by disgruntled former Temple members.”
While there were critical viewpoints coming from the public towards the church, the move to Guyana also occurred because Jim Jones, members of Peoples Temple and the Peoples Temple buildings were experiencing physical attacks. The Victims of Conspiracy flyer was issued in 1978 to publicize attacks made against the church and Jonestown as well. The flyer talked about the good works that the church was doing and how the church had been coming under attacks from arsonists and Nazis. This explained why so many members were forced to move to Jonestown. The flyer described how the Temple had been burned down twice and bombs had been found under their buses, and stated how members “have endured hate calls and racial slurs during the day and on the phone at night for years.” To Temple members, the Peoples Temple Agricultural Project – more famously known as Jonestown – would be the members way of getting out of the pain and suffering that they were going through in San Francisco and to their promised heaven.
While many of the accusations from the church about buses having bombs and threats on Reverend Jones life were not all truthful, the Peoples Temple branch church in San Francisco was truly attacked. In 1973 in California, Peoples Temple burned down and actually had to be rebuilt due to a fire that caused $100,000 worth of damage to the building. Vernon Gosney, a member of Peoples Temple in California, said, “The fire proved they are out to get us. They so do not want us to do what we are doing. They burned down the Temple. They will do anything to keep us from doing what we are doing.” The arsonist was never found, but the blame was put on those who opposed the church, including groups such as the Ku Klux Klan and the Nation of Islam.
In 1976, Temple member Paula Adams and the Guyana Commissioner of Lands and Surveys signed a lease for 3852 acres of land for use by Peoples Temple. The land was sold for twenty-five cents per acre for the first five years and then the next five years were still being negotiated but had a chance of going up to four dollars per acre. The 3852 acres were located in the northern part of Guyana in the county of Essequibo. The Peoples Temple Agricultural Project was where members could go to finally create the utopia on Earth that Jim Jones had promised them. Through the Peoples Temple organization, Jones bought land to create their heaven on Earth where his teaching of “divine principal, divine socialism, total equality, a society where people own all things in common, where there is no rich or poor, where there are no races” could be implemented.
Peoples Temple considered other locations when it came to creating a new church branch in Cuba and Grenada. In 1974, Guyana was ultimately chosen for the project location due to “its proximity to U.S.; its English-speaking population; its economy…and its policies to encourage agricultural development” Other reasons included: Forbes Burnham, Guyana’s Prime Minister, was black; Guyana had a socialist government; and the country had a large black population.
But the members’ main motivation to move to Guyana was due to their belief that Jonestown was going to be their paradise, their Heaven on Earth. One women in Jonestown said that she took her children with her so that they would not have to live in poverty anymore. She had lived in the black community of Watts in Los Angeles where her children attended low income schools, but she believed that her children had no hope of graduating. Moving to Jonestown allowed her children to have teachers who cared for them and classmates who were not a part of gangs.
The main reason that Prime Minister Burnham accepted close to one thousand immigrants was that Guyana needed leverage against Venezuela, while Jones wanted to locate a safe haven outside of America to escape criticism towards himself and his members. Guyana’s government had been fearful that Venezuela government would attack them, but believed the attack would not come if it risked harming and possibly killing Americans and thus making America a part of a possible war. Peoples Temple was also backed by leadership such as the First Lady of America and the Vice President which showed Burnham’s administration that Peoples Temple was a well-received organization.
Guyana was supposed to be the “promised land” for the members of Peoples Temple who had decided to come. To some Guyana was the “promised land” while to other members and outsiders this place was nowhere near what Heaven should be like. One of the key aspects to looking at whether Jonestown was a “promised land” is by looking at the conditions of the food, and living conditions in Jonestown.
The food that was in Jonestown included many different fruits and vegetables that residents had planted themselves. Jim Jones showed members of Peoples Temple back in America different things in recruitment videos including
Fields of pineapple, cassava, banana, over cute pastel cottages, over pink hibiscus and purple bougainvillea blooming along the walkways… the eight chicken coops, which Jones said housed thousands and thousands of chickens and…featured from the smoke house rafters. In the pantry, Jones opened a trunk containing packets of Kool-Aid, and a cheaper knock off, Flavor-Aid.
This quote is backed up by documents published in Jonestown including the “Peoples Temple Agricultural Report Progress Report – Summer 1977,” and an article in the Sun Reporter published on June 15, 1978. Food that was reported to be growing in Jonestown including major crops such as cassava, sweet potatoes, eddoes, and papayas. Other crops that were grown but not so major to residents in Jonestown included beans, cabbage, lettuce, pineapples, and bananas. Other than crops, residents also had different animals including poultry, 130 pigs, and several milk cows. However in 1977 when the population of Jonestown started increasing, there was not enough food for all the residents to go around. What used to be great meals of different meats, vegetables and desserts every night turned into rice with little bits of meat mixed in, with dessert being rarely given. The best food would be given when visitors came, an efforty to hide the fact that Jonestown was not as sustaining as Reverend Jones said it was.
The living conditions and daily life of residents can also be contributed to the argument on whether Jonestown could have been a true “promised land.” The booklet “A Feeling Of Freedom” quotes outsiders stating many great things about the community of Jonestown, including how many were very surprised by how Jonestown looked, and how the members looked, and how different it was from the different accusations from the media. One of the greatest goals achieved in Jonestown was the fact that many outsiders could not believe that what was once a thick jungle was turned into a community that seemed to have no racism or class associated to the people. When John and Barbara Moore went to Jonestown in 1978 to visit their daughters, they saw that it was not a concentration camp, as many had said. In a May 28, 1978 press conference, soon after their return to America, a reporter asked, “Would you think it’s rather Utopian there?” Barbara Moore answered: “Oh, yes, a lovely Utopia.” However, they did not stay long enough to understand how harsh the environment of Jonestown was. Able-bodied esidents usually worked from sun up to sun down every day except for Sunday. With hardly any protein due to there not being enough meat for everyone, many suffered and fell ill very easily. The one thing Jones promised was that there would be free healthcare in Jonestown. This was true. However with only one doctor, and hundreds of elderly that had to be checked daily, many sick residents could not be treated for days.
Knowing that Jonestown had insufficient food and did not have enough medical professionals to treat all residents, there is only one question to ask: Why? The answer is that the community of Jonestown was never ready for the influx of residents that traveled from America in the summer of 1977. Before the influx of residents came, there were only around fifty residents working to make the community sustainable for an eventual permanent stay. No one expected such an influx of residents to come in to Jonestown in 1977, especially not hundreds of them. The cottages that were planned to be built would house one family each, now housed up to twelve members.
Reverend Jones needed this massive amount of members to come into Jonestown, though, apparently not caring that Jonestown was not yet ready. In San Francisco, he was seen as a man that led a great massive congregation and he still wanted to be seen like a leader over a great multitude of people. This was obviously not the utopia that he had promised, and he knew that many residents thought the same exact thing, even if they never said anything. What he needed was a new goal where a real true utopia that was already self-containing had already happened. The next utopia would be the Soviet Union.
The Planned Relocation Process to Russia
After the move to Jonestown in Guyana, the next step the community members planned on taking to create a utopian society was to emigrate to the USSR. According to many documents recovered from the Jonestown site, the move to the USSR was a recurring theme. Jones told residents that the American government was not happy with what they were doing in Guyana and that government officials back in America were killing African Americans and the working class because of executive orders. One executive order was titled “The King Alfred Plan” and was described as the total annihilation of blacks in America. Because Jones spoke on this topic frequently even before Jonestown, it can be easily seen why so many of his black followers moved to Jonestown and never wanted to go back to America.
“They got plans… There’s a plan already laid aside to put you in gas chambers. It’s called King Alfred Plan”
“We have this discussion of King Alfred Plan here, we have the discussion… that the past cabinet just approved, which will be the total annihilation of the black race.”
“[T]here’s a plan called King Alfred Plan that has, not only concentration camps in store for we who are black, but the absolute annihilation.”
These different quotes from different teachings of Jones being years apart show how his teachings convinced his black members to move to Jonestown.
In August of 1973, Jim Jones preached to his followers that:
They’re trying to get an executive order passed that will empower the president of these United States to put people in concentration camps without one consultation of congress. Now it won’t happen to you, but you’ve got to cooperate with me. You want to be free? Then cooperate with me.
This teaching helped followers see that even though America was going to become a hell for blacks, they still had a leader that was going to protect them from the death that was soon to be forced on them. Going to Jonestown meant escape for blacks from those in government positions wanting to kill them. These same black members believed that the Soviet Union was better than America. “And when you get to the Soviet Union,” Jones told them, if you were to go there – you will have completely more freedom.” In speech to Jonestown residents in October 1978, Mr. Timofeyev, the Soviet Union’s Embassy Representative in Guyana, stated that there was no racism in the Soviet Union and that everything was considered national in order to promote equality under the nation’s government. Timofeyev continued that with everything being national – including national languages, and national cultures – everyone would be under the great national culture of socialism. When he was done speaking, it seemed as if everyone stood up and applauded, wishing that they could move to the Soviet Union as soon as possible.
Although Reverend Jones taught that the American government was killing blacks, the King Alfred Plan, the plan was fictitious, originating in the book The Man Who Cried I AM, by John A. Williams. He came up with the idea of the plan by comparing it to J. Edgar Hoover’s programs that watched over black militants. The McCarran Act was also another comparison that the author used. The McCarran Act, enacted in September 1950, stated its purpose was to “protect the United States against certain un-American and subversive activities by requiring registration of Communist organizations, and for other purposes.” Williams appropriated the words in his novel and made it appear that blacks would have to be registered. It was the belief of the American government in The Man Who Cried I AM that if the King of England who could slaughter thousands under the guise of protecting the European religion of Christianity and be revered as one of the most noble kings in the history of England, then getting rid of the poorest people in America – African Americans – would allow America to grow to become one of greatest countries in the world. To get rid of blacks in the lower class, government officials kept watch of black organizations such as the Black Muslims, the Congress of Racial Equality, Freedom Now Party, and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
But even if Jim Jones didn’t want to return to the U.S., why did he choose the Soviet Union instead of another communist country such as Cuba or North Korea? To understand his reasoning, his childhood and views on World War II must be considered. He was a youth during World War II. In a series of recordings made during his final days in Jonestown, Jones spoke of pretending to be a soldier for Adolf Hitler and even sometimes pretended to be Hitler. Unlike most who saw Hitler as a bad man, Jones saw him as a great leader even though he grew up poor. Hitler and his Nazi army was going up against America and all of capitalism, according to Jones, and believed that he was fighting the good fight.
After the end of World War II and the death of Hitler, Jones needed a new leader to look up to that showed resistance against America’s spread of capitalism. This would be the Soviet Union. He knew that the Soviet Union helped destroy Hitler’s army but saw that once the war was over, the leadership of the Soviet Union in the person of Josef Stalin would be the one to resist the capitalist American government. In his unfinished autobiography, Jones would state that he was a proud communist in high school didn’t care what others thought of him. He would travel across Indiana to different communist and socialist meetings promoting the Communist Party in America in order to promote communism and talk with similar followers. Throughout his entire adult life, the Soviet Union was seen as the enemy of capitalism and America. In 1978 to Jones, the Soviet Union and the Communist regime was still seen as the strongest force against America. During the night that Feodor Timofeyev appeared before the Jonestown community, Jones demonstrated his willingness to destroy any past connections he had with American identity: “The United States government is not our mother, but the Soviet Union is our spiritual motherland.”
Believing that a King Alfred Plan existed, a small group in Jonestown studied a move to five possible locations in the Soviet Union and planned to go to Russia in December 1978. Imn a memo written by Gene Chaikin, Tom Grubbs, and Dick Tropp explained that to be able to move to the Soviet Union, they would have to live in the southern part of the country, which was equivalent to locations they were accustomed to in America, including Albany and Pittsburgh, California.
The five locations that were picked were 1. The east coast of the Black Sea, south of the Caucasus Mountains. 2. An area south of Baku, on the western side of the Caspian Sea. 3&4. The foot-hills or the mountains that made up the northern Himalayas, in the general vicinity of China. 5. The Syr River, located in the Kazakh SSR and the Amu River, located in the Uzbek SSR. These five different locations ranged from cold climates to drier climates with temperatures ranging from a temperature of twenty degrees in the month of January to eighty degrees in the month of July. These were the first choice areas due to the fact that temperatures in the winter could still be between 45 and 55 degrees. Secondary locations outside of these top five choices such as Moldavia were picked due to there being hot summers and fairly long growing seasons for rice and cotton.
After the death of the Jonestown residents, letters and financial documents were found which show that some members truly believed in the move to Soviet Union. These documents show the different amounts of money members left to the Communist Party in the Soviet Union and that their last wishes before death were to make sure that their money got to the USSR. One Jonestown resident transferred money from different bank accounts to that of Feodor Timofeyev. One document shows that Reverend Jones was willing to give the Soviet Union a sum of $5,241,536. This money was to be distributed from 1979 to 1981 ranging from May 31, 1979 to July 20, 1981. Another financial letter form shows that another $1,486,000 dollars was to be distributed to the Soviet Union on July 6, 1978, five months before the suicides took place. This money was to be given to Timofeyev to distribute to the government of the Soviet Union in order to pay for travel expenses and living expenses as well for all residents. A member of Peoples Temple that I interviewed, Charles Johnson, saw that offerings from members in the Temple rounded out to be about fifteen million dollars a year. Johnson said that he knew this due to being very close to Jim Jones and according to him he was his right hand man. Due to having this position, he knew how much Peoples Temple made yearly from offerings. So the amount of $6,727,536 that was to be given to the Soviet Union was a low amount compared to the amount of money the Temple had in savings accounts overall.
While there are financial documents that prove that money was supposed to be given to the Soviet Union from Peoples Temple, there are also letters and last wills and testaments written by Temple members to the Soviet Union found within Jonestown. For example, Jim Jones’ wife wrote: “I, Marceline Jones, leave all bank assets in my name to the Communist Party of the USSR… Please be sure that these assets do get to the USSR.” In another letter, Carolyn Layton writes: “This is my last will and testament. I hereby leave all assets in any bank account to the Communist Party of the U.S.S.R. However it can be sent to them, would be my deepest request.” Maria Katsaris wrote in her last will and testament she wanted to “leave all the money in the Bank Union de Venezuela in Caracas to the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. This is my final wish before I die.”
Despite these calls and demonstrations of allegiance to the Soviet Union, there are other examples where Jim Jones can be heard stating why moving to the Soviet Union should not happen. As he said one night in Jonestown, “If we wanted asylum in Russia, that I agree not to be the leader, and that we assimilate, if you go to Russia.” Later in the evening, Jones adds, “And that’s why I like Guyana, in the terms we can be our own independent government. For all matters and purposes, we are our own independent sovereign existence. That’s something you won’t have any place in the world, not likely that you’ll have that anyplace else in the world.”
The Visit from Congressman Leo Ryan
Many who defected from People Temple either joined the Concerned Relatives, a group which included former members, family of members and critics of Peoples Temple. This group was the main oppositional force that went up against Jones and his movement when the mass movement to Jonestown occurred in 1977. The Concerned Relatives group went around San Francisco trying to show others that Peoples Temple and Jonestown was not the Utopia that so many believed it was. Rumors from the Concerned Relatives group that started spreading about Jonestown included Jonestown being a concentration camp where members wore balls and chains. The security force in Jonestown had over 200 illegally non-registered guns. These rumors were found to be not true. There were no barbed wire or fences surrounding Jonestown, and the security force that the Concerned Relatives spoke about were simply members from families in Jonestown. After the tragic event took place in Jonestown, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms numbered the Jonestown arsenal as only having 32 weapons and found that no laws had been broken in having the weapons in Jonestown. With these rumors spreading throughout San Francisco and other areas where Peoples Temple was associated, the Concerned Relatives group was able to obtain Congressman Leo Ryan, the man they believed would save their family members in Jonestown.
Congressman Leo Ryan went to Jonestown in November of 1978 because families within of the Concerned Relatives Group stated that 60 of their relatives, were not allowed to leave the community. Ryan wanted to see for himself if the rumors were true and to make sure that everyone in Jonestown was being treated fairly. According to an NBC News report aired after the congressman’s assassination, “It was characteristic of Leo Ryan to get information first hand.” Leo Ryan’s mother, Autumn Ryan, added: “he was an activist…He preferred to get into it and make his decisions as he resolved the problem.”
Congressman Leo Ryan was interested in coming to Jonestown acting on behalf of a number of his constituents, but also to visit people who once livied in his district in California. Jonestown was a closed society and the followers did their best to keep Leo Ryan out of Jonestown including “barricading logs deliberately across the road, making it impassable.” The congressman, NBC News reporters and a few family members of Jonestown residents were finally able to obtain passage into Jonestown on November 17, 1978 and stayed the night there. During the visit, Ryan seemed to truly believe Jonestown was good for some people: “From the few conversations I’ve had with the folks here, I’ve already spoke to this evening, that whatever the comments, are there are some people here who believe this is the best thing that has happened to them in their whole life.” When he said this in front of the many members and Jones, the audience erupted in loud applause. Though Ryan apparently believed this to be true, there were a few members who wanted out of Jonestown and believed the congressman was their only escape.
Overall there were fifteen defectors who wanted to leave Jonestown and follow the congressman, family members and news reporters back to America. These members felt that Jonestown was not what Jim Jones said it was going to be and wanted to return to their families back in America. In the end, Jones did allow these defectors to leave with Ryan, but when the congressman and defectors were boarding the plane, a tractor pulled up parallel to the plane holding seven of the Jonestown security force members. The driver leading the attack on the defectors was Stanley Gieg, nineteen years old, with six more behind him holding weapons getting ready to follow Jones’ orders and kill the congressman and the defectors.The security team killed the congressman, three news reporters and one defector because they were told by Jones that everyone leaving would cause more rumors and negative publicity that they did not want. However before the congressman and defectors left Jonestown, Ryan assured Jones that he should not worry about only fifteen people wanting to leave. To the congressman, this was a small amount that did not seem like a major deal when a majority still wanted to stay. Also of the sixty relatives in Jonestown the congressman went for, none wanted to leave, declaring that they had never been happier anywhere else.
While the attack was taking place at the airstrip, Jim Jones was planning his last White Night for the final act of revolutionary suicide. Once the defectors left, Jones called everyone to the pavilion to prepare for their revolutionary act of suicide. Once he officially heard that the congressman had been killed, he told everyone that it was time to implement the revolutionary act of suicide that they had been planning for. Jones and his members believed that the American government was coming to kill them for assassinating the congressman and that they must kill themselves. They were scared and believed soldiers would “torture our children, they’ll torture our people, they’ll torture our seniors,” as Jones put it. The members drank Flavor-Aid laced with cyanide, and those who refused were injected with cyanide.
In the end, 914 members of Peoples Temple who followed Jim Jones believed his teaching that “we believe we have to go as one, we want to live as People’s Temple or end it.” Peoples Temple member B. Altheia Orsot, who was not able to partake in the mass suicide due to being away from Jonestown for a dentist appointment, stated that she would have given her own life along with the other Jonestown members:
Nonetheless, I can only say that if I had been in Jonestown that day, I would have proudly joined others who laid down their lives for what they, like me, believed to be right rather than surrender to the world the freedom and egalitarian model that we worked so hard to achieve. We wanted to demonstrate to the world that people of all races, color and ethnic backgrounds, age or circumstances, could live and work together harmoniously for a common cause. In the end, we made a decision to die, as the Jews did in Masada, rather than forsake the dream.
There are other perspectives that argue that the people in Jonestown did not willingly drink the cyanide laced Flavor-Aid but these are not put in the spotlight due to historians already believing that the study of the Peoples Temple movement and the mass suicide in Jonestown is complete.
While there are scholars arguing that Reverend Jones was the one who ordered the assassination of Congressman Leo Ryan and the mass suicide – and most that would agree with the public perception – there are also scholars who counter these statements. These include Russian authors S.F. Alinin, B.G. Antonov, and A.N. Itskov who wrote The Jonestown Carnage: A CIA Crime. In the final speech to his members, to some known as the Death Tape, Jones is recorded stating “I don’t know who fired the shot, I don’t know who killed the Congressman…I didn’t plan it,” which these authors claim validates their position. However, Rebecca Moore, a well-known scholar on Peoples Temple, believes that Jones was lying when he said this, due to surviving members noticing the attackers; faces who killed many of the defectors and congressman.
While looking at the assassination of the congressman and the defectors, Laurie Kahalas, a former member of Peoples Temple, writes: “The film taken by an NBC newsman on site also survived. It shows a sophisticated military formation called a diamond perfectly and professionally executed…There was no military training whatsoever in Jonestown. There was no capability to pull off this professional hit.” Supporting the theory that members of Jonestown were murdered by some form of military personnel, is Pastor David Parker Wise. In his own experiences at Peoples Temple and his studies of Jonestown, he spoke with a soldier with the Green Berets who went into Jonestown the day after the mass suicides. According to this informant, Scott Hooker, he and all other Green Berets were ordered to go into Jonestown and kill any survivors. He gave an in-depth account on how he saw members waving at the helicopter for rescue but the men were forced to shoot anyone down they saw alive. The Green Berets searched bodies for explosives which shows that they or those giving orders had contacts in Jonestown. In letters to Reverend Jones recovered at Jonestown, many members had threatened blowing themselves up and launching bombs and grenades in buildings in order to hurt and kill as many enemies of theirs as possible. The evidence of Green Berets coming into Jonestown from helicopters was supported by Temple member Sharon Amos who was in Georgetown during the mass suicide. Before the suicides took place, Amos allegedly received a transmission from Jonestown stating that members saw helicopters and armed men approaching the compound and she could hear the whirring of the helicopters through the transmission. This however could never be corroborated; Amos died that same day.
This again is not accepted by most historians who study the entirety of the Peoples Temple movement. In fact, while looking at these different events that some members of Peoples Temple believe supposedly took place in Jonestown, we must realize that none of these accusations have ever been truly proven. Chris Knight-Griffin, a disapprover of conspiracy theories based on Jonestown, verified this when seeking information on an “United States Army Special Operations Forces (SOF) to Guyana in 1978” from a Freedom of Information Act request he made in 2012. The letter from the Department of the Army of Special Operations Command stated that they had found no records, meaning that there is no substantiated proof that any Green Berets were ever in Guyana in 1978. However, it cannot be too far-fetched to believe that the CIA or some other form of party associated to the capitalist American system would have been dissatisfied with a group of 900 Americans, who were mostly black, and whose socialist motives and beliefs were backed by the Soviet Union embassy in Guyana, especially knowing the fact that the group was contemplating moving to the Soviet Union. A member of Peoples Temple, Michael Prokes, admitted to being an informant for a man named Gary Jackson who said he worked for the government. What is interesting about the conversation between Prokes and Jackson was that Jackson called Prokes soon after he spoke with Esther Mueller on Jim Jones’ home phone. This prompted Prokes to believe that Jones’ home phone had been tapped. Becoming a part of the inner workings of the Temple and seeing Jones committing sincere acts of kindness including the time he saw Jones help an elderly women up a flight of stairs though there was no one around to see his good deed, made Prokes believe Jones was a real humanitarian. 
This information was put out by Michael Prokes in a press conference in March 1979. After the conference he excused himself and went to the bathroom and committed suicide, signing a letter stating that he identified with the members and how “they became my brothers and sisters” and not being able to live without them was a life he was not willing to serve.
After the Massacre and the Study of Peoples Temple
More than 900 American citizens had died in the massacre in Jonestown with one of them being a US Congressman. The American government needed someone to blame for the deaths of these citizens and this blame would be put on the Guyanese government. However, the Guyanese government would fight this guilt and argue that Prime Minister Burnham was tricked into letting the members of Peoples Temple set up a community in the northwestern part of the country. Due to such high endorsements from American officials such as First Lady Rosalynn Carter and Vice President Walter Mondale, Burnham’s administration believed that Jonestown would grow to be a prosperous city in their growing country. The Burnham Administration would put no blame on the Guyanese figures who visited Jonestown, believing that there was nothing wrong with Jonestown since the residents never showed any signs of harm or distress. The Guyana government would simply argue to the American government that this should have never happened and that it was the American government’s fault because they should have known that Jones was planning this.
The State Department and the FBI did their own investigation into Peoples Temple and the assassination of Congressman Ryan. These departments would of course argue against Guyana’s accusations and would put the blame on the U.S embassy staff located in Guyana and the Guyanese officials that went to visit Jonestown before the mass suicide took place. It would be argued that the U.S Embassy did not demonstrate enough of their time on Jonestown and that their lack of visits allowed Jones to show his power and forced everyone to die. Guyanese officials would also be blamed as well with the FBI and the State Department arguing that Burnham’s administration did not care what Jonestown was like, as long as Jones kept Jonestown in its location so that Venezuela could not attack and start a possible war. The State Department and the FBI would also argue that Guyana officials accepted bribes from Temple members in order for Burnham’s administration to “look the other way.” Neither Burnham’s administration, nor any U.S. governing body would be found guilty for possibly being able to stop the cruel act of mass murder-suicide that took place in Jonestown. However, though there was no official guilty verdict for the event, there were many that would have the blame put on them and would be scrutinized for many years after Jonestown. These “guilty verdicts” would of course be the survivors from Jonestown and the members of Peoples Temple remaining in California.
After November 18, 1978, many members back in San Francisco and members returning back to America from Jonestown were in a state of confusion. They never believed anything as bad as the suicides could take place in Jonestown. Don Beck, one of the temple members in San Francisco while the suicides took place, wrote:
I was in a sort of daze – I think we all were – trying to make sense of something nonsensical. Though the San Francisco community offered counseling, in reality no one knew what to do or say to us. My family was supportive, but in many ways they were as confused about it all as I was.
Those members in California were still following Jones up to November 18, and afterwards to them it seemed that their life was at an end and there was no reason to go on. The books and movies that emerged shortly after the deaths, according to Beck, were “rude portrayals, pandering to the horror of an ending, memorialized by the media for 30+ years now.” More informational books and documentaries have been created long after Jonestown, and these books have provided more accurate and detailed information, many of them based on documents released under the Freedom of Information Act.
The Jonestown Institute, located at San Diego State University, would have the best information for Jonestown. Site manager Rebecca Moore and Research Director Fielding M. McGehee III, both related to Peoples Temple Members who died in Jonestown, are the founders of the Jonestown Institute, more famously known as the Alternative Considerations of Jonestown and Peoples Temple website. This website was used throughout my entire research and is the perfect site for both seekers of knowledge towards the Peoples Temple movement, Jonestown, and for members of Peoples Temple to come together and give their own personal views of the entire movement. The site also provides a place for previous members to come together and provide a voice to show what Peoples Temple did for them and for other members to come together and realize that they are not alone. The site also provides many primary sources throughout the entire Peoples Temple movement from Indiana to Guyana, including sermon transcripts, and FBI files released under the Freedom of Inforamtion Act, which is where much of my primary resource research has come from. Though this site provides many opinions from members and arguments about Reverend Jones and the last day in Jonestown, there is one question that is still asked to do this day: Was the final act that took over nine hundred lives in Jonestown an act of suicide by faithful members following their devoted leader to death or an act of murder forced on members with no other choice?
There are different opinions on the events in the last few hours in Jonestown and different pieces of evidence that support both answers. The argument that this was a mass “protest suicide” as Pastor Wise argues could be seen in suicide letters written from members including Annie Moore, Richard Tropp, and Tish Leroy. Annie Moore would write in a letter before she died that, “We died because you would not let us live in peace!” She blamed the Concerned Relatives group for the mass suicide that took place due to them wanting Leo Ryan to go to Jonestown. Moore would believe that committing suicide was the only way for the entire movement to finally be at peace with a world that did not let them live in peace. Richard Tropp spoke of how beautiful the mass suicide was explaining it as “people hugging each other…Hugging & kissing & tears & silence & joy in a long line.” Tish Leroy wrote that the suicides happened due to the members not wanting to go to hell, which to members were America, where they would not be treated the same as they were in Jonestown. With the knowledge that the congressman was dead, many believed that American forces would come in and attack the community and kill them for killing one of their own.
Though there are letters left over from Jonestown that show that some members chose to commit the revolutionary act of suicide, there are also those facts that prove this could be murder. If Jim Jones forced members to drink the poisoned Flavor-Aid and told guards to shoot those who did not, then this act would be murder. If a military force came into Jonestown and shot the members as Wise and Laurie Kahalas believe, then the act would be murder. However, no one truly knows what happened in Jonestown, and conclusions are based on personal interpretations and interviews. The fact that over 300 children were killed that day with many of them being below the age of 10 make a strong conclusion that parents gave their children the drink. With the children being this young, many members and historians have argued that the children’s parents murdered them. About 180 members were above the age of 65, and for Jonestown survivor Tim Carter, he believed that they only had two options: 1. Commit suicide and die fast or 2: Stay in Jonestown knowing that there was no help coming and die a slow painful death. For Carter, this would be considered murder due to him believing they had no other choice but to die fast. Lastly many that were found dead and examined by Dr. Leslie Mootoo, the only physician to be at Jonestown, believed that as many as 100 were murdered due to needle punctures on the back of dead members’ shoulders. To this day though, some believe that these puncture wounds were “coup de grace” injections in order for death to come faster and be more harmless for those committing suicide. These fact may never be found out in our lifetime just as the answer to another argument may never be decided: Was Jim Jones once a good man who went down a dark path or was he always a bad man that planned such a mass suicide since the beginning of the Peoples Temple movement more than twenty years before it happened? There is no simple answer to this argument.
At some certain point, it does seem quite certain that Reverend Jones did fight for racial equality and equality for those that felt oppressed in the world. He created his teachings straight from the Bible. He fed the hungry, clothed those that were homeless and had nothing to wear. Jones would not even wear new suits to services in order for his members to see that he was no different than them. His nursing homes and addiction programs got people who were close to close to death and who could not afford the bills from hospitals back to good health. In Indiana, Jones fought against racism and fought for the integration of many businesses and did this without any acts of violence but through acts of prayer and peaceful negotiations. Jones would create Jonestown in order to provide a place where many would finally feel equal in the world, and for those living in the ghettos and poor neighborhoods of America, they would find a place with no crime that was a far better place than they had ever lived. Jonestown would be the only place to last more than a year in the Northwest District of Guyana as many new communities that have tried, have failed.
Yet in the end, Jim Jones and Peoples Temple did not live up to the expectations that many believers believed they would. Jones could have always believed suicide was a good option whenever it came to fighting against those who were against him and his movement. Though not an aspiring leader too many Americans growing up during World War II, Adolf Hitler was a source of fascination to Jim Jones, how he grew to have millions of followers even though he grew up poor. He grew to be a follower of communism and saw that capitalism destroyed his childhood life by making him live in a poverty-stricken environment and thus believed capitalism destroyed all those that were living in the same environment as well. This would lead to Jones’ belief that his followers were fighting in the same fight against oppression that he was fighting. He would be the leader and his followers would follow him on the last day in Jonestown whether they wanted to or not. When the last day in Jonestown came, Jones would issue the call for everyone to drink the cyanide laced Flavor-Aid and everyone would die in order to show the world a revolutionary hopeful choice to die rather than live in an inhumane world. This is not the way Peoples Temple and Jonestown history is remembered.
The Peoples Temple Movement is considered an example of how a social movement can go terribly wrong. When looking at Peoples Temple and Jonestown history, the quote “Don’t drink the Kool-Aid” is better known than the way the movement tried to fight for equality for all those that were oppressed in society. Whichever way it is argued – whether Reverend Jones was always bad or a good man who went down the wrong paths, or if members committed suicide or were murdered – surviving members look at the death of the movement in a new positive way. Though Jones ultimately made the choice to destroy his movement, many members believe that, though they did not succeed in creating a better world, they did all they could for those oppressed in society. Through an act of total love for one another, members did what they could in order to show the rest of the world that there was a better way of life.
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