(This paper was written in November 2017 for a class in American Religious History at the University of Northwestern Saint Paul.)
One survivor describes Jonestown in these words, “I’m talking about total isolation — someone takes all your money and brings you to a place where there’s no communication, or if there is you aren’t allowed to use it. Those are the lessons I took from Jonestown, and that’s the message I think the American people should take from it. Trust your gut and don’t give up your liberties.” This was the reality of the members of the Peoples Temple movement for many years.
The mass suicide was prompted by a visit of Rep. Leo Ryan, who came to investigate after hearing rumors of abuse and manipulation. According to Guyana Minister of Information Shirley Field-Ridley, some of the victims “showed signs of violence, including presumed gunshot wounds, which were not consistent with suicide.” The children were forced to drink the cyanide-laced Kool-Aid first, because once a parent loses their child, they lose all other will to go on. Many of the “suicides” were a result of coercion and manipulation.
What makes 900 people decide to leave everything they know to follow a man to a jungle in South America and kill themselves? This is a question that people have been asking for the past 38 years. Unsurprisingly, it did not happen overnight. Between the failures of the American culture, the charisma of Jim Jones, and the community offered by Peoples Temple, many people were attracted to the black hole of Jonestown.
Doyle Johnson states, “It has often been noted that cults and sects tend to arise and flourish in an unstable, highly turbulent, and rapidly changing social environment, when established traditions break down and there is a widespread search for alternative values and normative patterns, lifestyles, and organizational forms.” Turbulent and rapidly changing certainly social environment describes the seventies. Between the civil rights struggles and government corruption, many individuals were looking for something more.
People were drawn to Jonestown because it offered a place of acceptance and equality when American culture failed to do so. Tim Carter, a Jonestown survivor states, “We were a reflection of the economic and political and cultural realities and dynamics of the Civil Rights and Vietnam War generation. Whether one’s intentions had been political or spiritual, the Temple seemed to offer the ideal opportunity to effect social change.”
Jones also took every opportunity possible to paint the American government and capitalism as a whole in a bad light. Occasionally, this involved taking legitimate problems and exaggerating them. Other times, outright lies were told to make socialism and Jim Jones look like the saviors of a completely evil society. Jones preached in a sermon:
I’ve prophesied the date, them hour, the minute and the year they’re gonna put people in this country in concentration camps. They’re gonna put them in gas ovens, just like they did the Jews … We’re in danger from a great fascist state, or a great communist state, and if the church doesn’t build a Utopian society, build an egalitarian society, we’re gonna be in trouble.
Jones used fear of persecution to draw people into his community. One Peoples Temple member wrote, “I am willing to lie my life down. To make sure some of these capitalistic dogs get what is coming to them. Kill every CIA, destroy the whole works, fight as long as I have breath.” Through his negative portrayal of American culture, Jones lured people into the Peoples Temple community.
This was fairly easy to do, as the view of the American government decreased after numerous scandals in the late 60’s and early 70’s. The release of the Pentagon Papers with confidential Vietnam War information was key in turning the view of the American government from protector to conspirator. Pres. Richard Nixon’s wiretapping and subsequent lying regarding the Watergate scandal only helped hurt the media and general public’s view of the government. Not only did the government lack integrity, many leaders lacked integrity in their personal lives as presidential affairs were numerous.
With this view of the American government, lack of civil rights, and frustration with capitalism, many were understandably looking for something different. Jim Jones and the Peoples Temple movement offered just that: equality through socialism. The Peoples Temple movement gave a sense of hope and purpose where the government and culture failed to do so.
While the culture provided an ideal breeding ground for a “cult” to appear, Jim Jones’ charismatic personality was crucial in the creation of Peoples Temple. Ulman and Abse state, “The charismatic leader is among those character types that are habitually intimidating and encouraging, and often rapidly alternating between these polarities. Their charm is based on both inspiring awe and love. This charm is often heightened by an intermittent and sudden outright brutality.” Through his charisma, Jones seemed to have an uncanny ability to not only control Peoples behaviors, but also their hearts and minds. According to Denice Stephenson, “Jim Jones connected directly to Peoples fears, confusion, grief, and anger. He challenged people to actively question established religious practices and to develop a personal belief system that encompassed ways to create change in their everyday lives and express their commitment to social justice.”
Jones was well-respected by the general public for several years. He was seen as a man with a heart for the less fortunate. According to Stephenson:
Peoples Temple sponsored flu inoculation and contributed to social services for seniors, pets, and neighborhoods in San Francisco. Religion in American life, a national interfaith organization, listed Jones as one of the “100 most outstanding clergymen” of 1975. The Los Angeles Times named him “Humanitarian of the Year” in 1976. Later that year, Jim Jones was appointed to a housing commission in San Francisco. In 1977, the National Newspaper Publishers presented their annual Freedom of the Press Award to Peoples Temple.
On the outside, the Peoples Temple movement seemed to embody the ideas of loving one’s neighbor and living in community. Jones drew people in with the promise of equality and by giving them a purpose in life. One member wrote to Jones, “You’re the one that showed us the way, you’re the one that boldly challenged capitalism and put a vision in our hearts, you’re the one that proved to us that nothing is impossible.”
Jones created a family for many who had none and knew how to attract people from every walk of life. One survivor states, “If you wanted religion, Jim Jones could give it to you. If you wanted socialism, he could give it to you. If you were looking for a father figure, he’d be your father. He always homed in on what you needed and managed to bring you in emotionally.” Everybody in the community called Jones Dad. By creating a family, he retained power over the community that no one knew how to break.
Additionally, Jones used Christianity to attract people to his community. However, he took the gospel message and the idea of Christian community and twisted them beyond recognition. While he at first claimed to be following Christ, it soon became clear that the Peoples Temple movement was following Jim Jones.
In 1954, Jim Jones did start his own church. It began as an Independent Assemblies of God church with healings and speaking in tongues. At this point, the church seemed to be doing fairly well. All races were welcome and Jones encouraged people to share their faith.
Things soon began to change. During his trip to Brazil, Jones became involved in the occult and used this power to perform “miracles” in Pentecostal services. Additionally, Jones began to view communism as a religion and himself as a prophet, or even a God. Rebecca Moore writes, “His gradual desertion of biblical principles corresponded to his embrace of Communist, or rather communalist ideals … All of these factors combined with a new confidence in his own powers and persona. The deification of the beloved pastor as a second incarnation of God seemed to have occurred after Jones’ return from his two years in Brazil.” Jim Jones was almost worshipped in his community. The children’s choir recorded a song that stated, “He keeps me singing a happy song He keeps me singing it all day long. Although the days may be drear, He always is near, And that’s why my heart is always filled with song; I’m singing, singing, all day long.” As a “deity,” Jones could and did demand absolute loyalty.
Many of these people willingly followed him to their deaths. One woman stated as she was about to take poison, “It’s been a pleasure walking with all of you in this revolutionary struggle. No other way I would rather go to give up my life for socialism, communism, and I thank Dad very much.”
The darkness of the American culture and the charisma of Jim Jones drew people to Jonestown. However, many people stayed because of the diverse and beautiful community of people they found there. One survivor remembers, “What was good about Jonestown was not Jim Jones. It was the people he attracted. They came from every walk of life, from the very well educated to the totally uneducated. Some had lots of money. Some were living off of Social Security, and some didn’t even have that. It could have been you. It was me.” The community seemed to offer a place of belonging that many did not find anywhere else. One of their songs states, “Your father your future protects you, Keeps you safe from all harm, Little black baby, I feel so glad, You’ll never have things I never had.” With the strong desires for civil rights, the promise of equality was hard to resist.
Dick Tropp, a Peoples Temple member, writes, “We found each other. Our experiences, our backgrounds, were what had kept us apart, but our longing and sickness brought us together, in a terrible realization that we were all victims.” The brokenness that every member faced created a powerful bond.
Every member was given a chance to be useful in the community. Even elderly members made small crafts to sell or helped prepare meals. Annie Moore, a Peoples Temple member, writes, “’I found people who were friendly, mixing all races together, working in a cooperative setting.” Jones attempted to put the ideas of socialism into practice. Nobody owned any property, and every community member was expected to work to contribute towards the common good.
Jones also used music to build community. During rallies, many hymns were sung as a community. Eventually, the choir recorded and published some of their songs. The Peoples Temple album, He’s Able is a fusion of gospel, jazz, and funk. While the cover claims that “making the humanist teachings of Jesus Christ part of our daily lives,” is the message that the album wanted to send, much of it sounds suspiciously as if the people were worshipping Jones himself.
Jonestown’s inhabitants were united by shared struggles, shared work, and shared music. The nature of the Peoples Temple movement demanded complete loyalty. The cohesiveness of this community was partially due to the collective brokenness that these members had experienced. Jonestown promised to be a place of healing and acceptance for those who were hurt by circumstances around them.
Other people stayed in the Jonestown community because they had no choice. Every Peoples Temple member had one thing in common: they were there for the rest of their lives. Once a person joined Peoples Temple, they were required to turn over all their personal cash and belongings. Senior citizens “donated” their Social Security checks to the community. This ensured that they would be dependent on the community for survival.
The Jonestown leaders put extensive effort into ensuring that the community was successful. Edith Roller’s journal states,“There were ten questions visitors might ask; some agencies have indicated that we may have a CIA spy arriving here with a group of our own people and it is important that we all appear happy and exhibit satisfaction and know how to avoid the warning kind of question or not give information which can be used against us.”
Near the end, security began to tighten. Nobody was allowed to leave, and even the slightest complaint could be viewed as treason against the community. While the stated intention was to create a strong community, a spirit of fear and distrust grew instead when Jones began requiring members to spy on each other. According to one young survivor, “He was certain that other disheartened young people in Jonestown were plotting to escape, but they never discussed such plans with each other because each never knew who he could trust.” Members who showed signs of “negative attitudes” or “rebellion were assigned to “learning crews.” Offenses could be as minuscule as a teenager disrespecting parents or complaining about the Jonestown diet. Horrific punishments would be decided by the community leaders, but primarily by Jim Jones. These could entail anything from excessive hard labor, to being drugged to the point of sedation, to imprisonment in a three-foot high box for as long as a week.
Needless to say, fear took over the community. To ensure complete loyalty, Jones instituted suicide rehearsals called White Nights. In one such gathering, Jones proclaimed to the people, “If we’re gonna die, we better all die together. Or we’re gonna live, we better all live together … What we were going to do, our demonstration would be damaged, would it not?” By November 1978, the community was already well conditioned for what they soon would be expected to do. Additionally, some members were held at gun point.
Not only did Jones have physical control over the people, he also could mentally and emotionally manipulate people however he chose. Jones thought he was a God. Peoples Temple members gave up everything to follow him and were well prepared to give up their lives for this man who they were convinced was a divine father figure.
By appearing to satisfy natural human needs, Jones achieved a position of complete authority through manipulation. At first, it appeared that he was following Christian principles. His charity work in California blessed many people. James 1:27 states, “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress.” (NIV) However, problems began when Jones started to view himself as a God. A wise professor once said that a true leader is simply a “servant on the stage.” Jesus himself said, “Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (NIV). Much of the black community in America did have a Christian faith. Jones perverted Christian principles for his own gain. Instead of giving his life for his people, Jones manipulated the people into giving their lives for him.
The Jonestown suicides did not happen in a vacuum. Throughout history, people have been looking for a place where they can belong, or somewhere that violently opposes the injustices that they have faced. People have been drawn to charismatic leaders who give promises of a better future. This is what happened at Jonestown. Many faced injustices due to the rampant racism in America. Jones offered them a community. There was a lack of government and personal integrity among leaders. Jones gave people hope. After luring people into the community, Jones confiscated all of their belongings and information, leaving them with no option to leave. The tragedy of Jonestown occurred because the Peoples Temple community offered a strong leader to follow and a secure place to belong.
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