Jonestown After Forty Years

Can Jonestown contribute to our understanding of Truth? To answer that question requires that we find a genuine passion for Truth. But in order to acquire such a passion, we must learn to think deeply, bravely and honestly.

I was pushed to this consideration by a good friend, Dave Shumway, several years ago as I told him about an activity in which a group of radicals were engaged. In an instant he said, “They’re just not thinking.”

Now, I have long seen him to be one of the wisest men I have ever known. I knew, therefore, that he meant it in a profoundly more powerful way than any typical person might utter such a response. And from that moment I began an unusual pursuit of what it means to think deeply, powerfully, and honestly.

Included in that pursuit was a reevaluation of my long history of investigating the Jim Jones Peoples Temple cult, an inquiry I began almost nine years prior to the Guyana mass murder. Let me begin by saying: As I started my own investigation, I was not thinking in the way Dave Shumway meant. It was merely that I simply could not stand the thought that Jones was getting away with all his religious chicanery. As the years went by, I saw more and more that Jones was astoundingly evil. Still, I was not thinking bravely and profoundly. I had merely come upon information that the authorities seemed unable to use effectively. I knew Jones was a killer, but I was unable to prove it. And yet, that it is why, in early November 1978, I told the media, three lawyers, and dozens of people that “Congressman Ryan would not come out of South America alive.”

Now, those of you who are beginning to think boldly will sense what I mean when I note an element of jealousy in my earliest motivations. I wasn’t even close to seeing the likelihood of a profound evil unleashed upon the world. Had I been a deep thinker back then, things might well have taken a much less horrible path. The Guyana horror forced me toward an incredible reevaluation of my life and my own thinking! And, though my thinking had been profoundly changed by that event, it was not until Shumway’s comment that I realized the truth: When I began my investigation of the Jones cult, I was no more a deep thinker than the bulk of humanity. But God expects and demands more from us. Why else would the Bible say, “As a man thinketh in his heart, so is he.”

I refer to the kind of thinking that has nothing to do with IQ or intellect per se. Some bright scientists are blessed with being able to think boldly and honestly. Some are not. Some bright scientists – a medical doctor, several social scientists, and one marine biologist – supported Jim Jones over the years. They were not able to think deeply, honestly, and courageously about their lives and actions. Their “majestic brains” were blocked by a devilish pride.

For example, major scientists are divided on the issue of absolute truth, that is, on the matter of whether or not there is any human action or activity that is necessarily wrong or right. Those who reject the existence of Truth do not think deeply and boldly on why they are unable to accept it. Thus, they are unlikely to think past the probable existence of Truth — and to the truism that says “If Truth does exist, it affects the physical universe”!

These scientists are feeble in their thinking. They do not realize that, although they can legitimately choose to reject the existence of Truth, they cannot in the same way reject the truism. For the truism is incapable of being successfully argued against. Any scientist who is confronted with it must accept the truism and its scientific logic.

Scientists know human beings are part of the physical universe. They know that if a person accepts the reality of Truth, that person is changed. The physical universe is changed, therefore, precisely due to the existence of Truth. That is the enervating fact facing all persons who reject the existence of Truth. The peculiarly-confused mind of Jim Jones had to reject the idea that there was any authority beyond his own. Thus: his claim to be Christ.

Indeed, Jim Jones did not lead his flock toward honest and brave thinking. He must have been aware of several critical truisms, but dared not put any of them to his flock. Lord Bertrand Russell’s truism says “Either all religions are wrong or only one is right.” For Jones to put this to his group would have been risky. Even nominal thinkers would see the implications.

Take another truism: If Absolute Truth does exist, it can have only one Source. Although Jones was indirectly preaching all along that he was the source of Truth, he had to avoid this truism. He dared not put it to his cult. He could not risk their seeing his grand delusion.

There is another truism that Jones avoided dealing with at great length. He could not deal with it because its Truth is unavoidable. To deal with such truth would have disturbed his powerful ties to the severely leftist political hierarchy in California. The truism is in regard to abortion. It says: “Persons who are pro-choice on abortion cannot claim that their children have intrinsic worth; their only legitimate claim can be circumstantial worth.” It is a truism because it is inarguable. Consider this: When a person claims the right to abort a child, the person – upon thinking honestly and bravely – must admit to the baby’s mere circumstantial worth. Its living or dying depends only on circumstances. Thus it is seen, intrinsically, as worthless.

I cannot judge pro-choice persons. They have the legal right. But I have not only the right, but I have the obligation, to point out the direst implication. For one has to admit, after giving it bold and honest thinking, that humanity itself is without intrinsic worth. Its only worth is circumstantial and left to the whims and desperations of individual people. As society regresses, who will then determine the circumstances for those who are not prepared?

All this is to say: The Jonestown cult and the severe leftist California political cult share the common inability to think deeply, honestly and powerfully. Thus, neither has the ability to see the obvious. It is in fact this widespread weakness that draws our nation ever steadily toward oblivion.

If society is to learn anything from Jonestown, it will happen when its scholars, historians, and philosophers, study the shallow thinking and the lack of real thinking dominant, not only in Jim Jones and his aides, but in California’s leftist political cult that both enabled and protected Jim Jones (I call it “The California Disease”). Scholars, even the people at large, might learn critically from studying Jonestown, but only if they think bravely and honestly.

Real thinking demands that when one engages in a dialogue or proclamation, one must have one’s stealth and marauding weaknesses always in full sight. I recall contacting a journalist who, upon hearing the gorier details about Jones, became intrigued and excited about going after the “bad guy.” While sitting in his living room, I warned both him and an older writer sitting next to him, about becoming deflected. I urged him to “be very careful when you go after evil and evil persons. It and they can be very deceptive and, in the right moment, will strike at you suddenly, like a cobra.”

Within a year or so, while involved in some writing about the Jim Jones cult, he found himself in court, charged with sexually molesting his son. A few months later, I was invited to attend a convention on child molestation wherein I had occasion to talk with one of the two most prominent psychiatrists on the subject. He recalled one of the best known cases. It turned out to be that very same journalist.

You see, our motives, goals, ultimate intentions and the like, are difficult to see clearly. Deep and powerfully honest thinking is our only hope. If or when we see the errors in a person or organization, and we decide to do something about it, we first must do a powerful self-analysis. Does the benefit to me take precedence over the benefit to truth and to society? Is my pride involved? Is jealousy? Most of all, what is my frame of reference? What is my authority?

This kind of heavy, brave and honest thinking existed in neither the Jones cult nor in the larger California extreme leftist political cult. And the saddest thing of all is that the only institution able to reveal this major problem, and then do something about it, was the media. (To a lesser extent the academic world had some intellectual substance it could have used.) But the media were a total failure, because they would have had to attack the whole California political system, in which they were fully enmeshed.

The media have to live with this fact. And they do so feebly and begrudgingly. They hate the fact that the first investigation of the Jones cult was begun by a strictly private person almost nine years prior to the Jim Jones mass murder in Guyana. That is why earlier on they tried to marginalize me.

The Jonestown horror was society’s great opportunity to find the real horror, the horror behind the Jonestown horror. Why do I say that? Because the fact is that Jonestown was and is the critical and major portent of where the United States was and is going to end up in its moral and spiritual posture. The media and the academic world completely missed it. Neither of them posed any serious criticisms of Jones. And this brings me to the critical realization. They missed it because, for them to have seen it would have meant their seeing that they themselves were part and parcel of what really allowed it to happen. None of them has the guts to admit it, because none of them has a trustworthy frame of reference that would have allowed them even a hint.

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It can be said, in general, that concerned people are divided in a key way: Those who want to change the world for their sakes, and those who want to change themselves for the sake of the world. Another way to say it is that the one group desires to change the world to a value system that will accept their own idiosyncrasies, and the other group – with its much healthier spiritual make-up – wants personal change and growth so the world will be a little healthier. I believe that historians, journalists, and others who seek the meaning and lesson that “Jonestown” has to offer should study Peoples Temple, Jim Jones, and the California political cult with this point in mind.

It will be a difficult task for most of these researchers. And the reason is that they’re unable to see that both the Jones cult and California’s cultic hierarchy are composed of the former (that is, the unhealthy) mindset. They can’t see it because they, too, are almost all liberals, of a similar mindset. With deep and honest thinking, however, they might come to see the real problem. For California’s political hierarchy, being of same cultic mindset, did nothing to stop Jonestown effectively. And why would they? They could not see where their own selfishness (severely leftist strategy) would ultimately end up. So how could they see the obvious signs of horror in Jim Jones’ cult?

It is my belief that the academic world is ill-equipped to see the real problem. Universities are driving our young people into a state where they are less and less able to think bravely and honestly. And the media, who lost their ability to think propitiously, are blind to the academic horror.

Yet there is hope. Prager University, with its hundreds of five-minute videos is making a startling invasion into the internet. The effect upon the many young people who watch and listen to them is near to astounding. They have substance that will feed youngsters the meat of real, honest, and courageous thinking. I would urge everyone to check out Jordan Peterson’s contributions to these lectures.

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I will end with a passionate comment. God’s most powerful promise is with us always. But because few of His people have maintained the wondrous ability to think boldly and honestly, this promise is neither seen nor understood as the unfailing promise it really is. “If with all your heart ye truly seek me, you shall surely ever find me.” This promise, you see, is predicated upon the words “If with all your heart.” That’s it, without any doubt, an unfailing promise. God is saying that if you seek Him by way of deep, courageous and honest thinking, you shall find Him. It’s a totally trustworthy promise. It’s not up to you simply to believe it. It is only up to you to use your God-given ability to think bravely, deeply, and honestly. With that, you will find Him. And you will believe. Most all of your confusion you will handle expeditiously.

I pray you will all take the mild risk, and “think with all your heart.” God bless you.

(This article is copyright © 2018.)

(David Conn described himself as an “investigator of the Jim Jones Peoples Temple cult for nine years prior to the Guyana mass murder.” He died on December 31, 2021, of Parkinson’s disease. His complete collection of articles for this site is here.)