“I haven’t seen anybody yet [who] didn’t die. And I’d like to choose my own kind of death for a change. I’m tired of being tormented to hell, that’s what I’m tired of. Tired of it.” So said pastor Jim Jones on Nov. 18, 1978, in Guyana, right before he perpetrated the mass killing of more than 900 members of his Peoples Temple of the Disciples of Christ.
Since then, Jonestown, the settlement Jones established, has remained at the periphery of social consciousness. Shocking and visceral photos of the aftermath sometimes catch people’s attention, and the massacre has left a sinister mark on our culture: The phrase “drinking the Kool-Aid” entered the popular lexicon as a warning against blindly accepting an idea. But most people know little about the story of the Peoples Temple outside of the 1978 deaths.
Jones’s path from rural California pastor to power broker to jungle demagogue is an intriguing story even without its harrowing ending. And it raises important questions: Did the members of the Peoples Temple really accept Jones’s instructions without question? What was it about Jones that made people follow him in the first place? And how did he get nearly 1,000 Americans to make a pilgrimage to Guyana that ultimately resulted in their deaths?
Born in Lynn, Ind., Jones launched his church in 1954 in Indianapolis and experienced steady, though not spectacular, success in attracting congregants. He preached a message that emphasized socialism and racial equality, ideas that were not necessarily popular in the 1950s Midwest.
This led Jones to eventually resettle his Peoples Temple, first in Ukiah, Calif., and then in San Francisco, where his ideas were better received. It was in San Francisco that Jones turned his congregation into a political force. Its canvassing played a crucial role in the 1976 election of Mayor George Moscone, and national politicians began to take notice. Rosalynn Carter, wife of future president Jimmy Carter, met with Jones in September 1976, at the height of her husband’s presidential campaign. Had Jones died before moving to Guyana, it is possible that he would be viewed differently by the public because of this political impact.
In San Francisco, Jones attracted a large congregation because he condemned an oppressive society. Members of the Peoples Temple were told that they lived under a system that sought to control and marginalize them. Because most of Jones’s parishioners were black and lived in an era known for the murder of civil rights leaders, violent retaliation against antiwar protests and political corruption, these ideas rang true.
But Jones weaponized and exploited the fears of his disciples, promoting distrust of outside authority to the point of paranoia. As he told his followers in 1974: “I cannot tell you, but I had it proven to me by a high law enforcement official, he said we can’t even control our own [police] departments. We’re afraid, he said, there are chiefs of police that are afraid to speak up today, because they’re afraid they’ll find themselves dead and it’ll look like an accident.”
Even as he denounced oppression, Jones imposed suffocating rules on Peoples Temple members. A 1977 exposé by the magazine New West detailed how “humiliating sessions had begun to include physical beatings with a large wooden paddle." Church “leaders also instructed certain members to write letters incriminating themselves in illegal and immoral acts that never happened,” the magazine reported.
Remarkably, even as the Peoples Temple was devolving into a cult, fear drove many mainstream politicians to continue to court Jones. In the words of Harvey Milk, a member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, “make sure you’re always nice to the Peoples Temple. If they ask you to do something, do it, and then send them a note thanking them for asking you to do it.”
Jones’s political clout reinforced the message that he alone could protect the oppressed. And the Peoples Temple seemed to serve as a monument to Jones, whose soup kitchens, nursing homes, excellent public speaking skills and natural charisma supported his extraordinary claims. This unique combination turned Jones and the Peoples Temple into a beacon for those seeking shelter from racial discrimination and poverty and to members of the professional classes who sought simple answers to these complex problems.
No discussion of Jones would be complete without mentioning his narcissism, which has been noted by psychologists such as Len Oakes and Peter Olsson. In one 1974 sermon, he referred to himself as “the center and circumference of the universe.” Jones sought praise relentlessly and was extraordinarily sensitive to criticism. His reaction to rejection was explosive.
In 1973, the angry departure of eight college students from his church led Jones to seek a remote site in Guyana where he could exercise more control over his congregation. When New West ran its exposé on Jones in 1977, he moved as many people abroad as were willing to travel, but not before enlisting his political allies, including California Lt. Gov. Mervyn Dymally, to insist the magazine stop its investigation. In California and in Guyana, Jones practiced suicide drills, instructing his followers to drink poison, then telling them that the poison was fake. Jones expected complete loyalty from his congregation, and the drills were initially a test to see who could provide it.
Nonetheless, resistance remained within the ranks of the Peoples Temple. When Rep. Leo Ryan (D-Calif.), motivated by constituent concerns, traveled to Guyana to perform a welfare check, 15 Temple members indicated they wished to leave. Jones was humiliated and implemented drastic measures. One member of the congregation, Larry Layton, posed as a defector and led Ryan’s party into an ambush, in which the congressman, three journalists and a defecting member of the temple killed.
At Jonestown, the congregation prepared for its final suicide drill. Contrary to popular belief, the members of the Peoples Temple did not go gently. Parishioner Christine Miller argued at length with Jones about the logic of a mass suicide, contending, “When we destroy ourselves, we’re defeated.” Eyewitnesses recall many people refusing Jones’s orders and being injected with cyanide. Other members likely noted the presence of guards armed with crossbows and pistols and drank the poison as the least arduous way to die. Approximately 30 people managed to escape alive.
The lessons of Jonestown are as clear now as they were 40 years ago. No single person is a panacea to all the problems in the world, and people who claim they are should be ignored, not worshiped. When an individual promises to fix a broken system, one should look at both the structures they claim are broken and the schema they wish to implement. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, independent thought persists even under the most severe oppression, and the presence of oppression alone does not warrant blind obedience to any cause. On this Nov. 18, take a moment to consider the victims of Jonestown humanely and spare your jests for the bullies at the pulpit.
This essay used resources from the Jonestown Institute at San Diego State University, which has spent thousands of hours making primary documentation from Jonestown available to the public. Their web address is jonestown.sdsu.edu.
[The views here are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of the State Department or the U.S. government.]