Behind every religious or social movement is the leader that created it. James “Jim” Warren Jones was the father of the “People’s Temple” turned “Jonestown”. The lifetime of the movement created by Jim Jones started with bright beginnings and concluded with a dark end. It was filled with impressive expressions of faith and sinister examples of control. One cannot help to ask what it was that created the man who started it all and how did it arrive at its abrupt end?
Jim Jones was born on May 13, 1931 in a rural area of Randolph County, Indiana.
His mother, Lynetta Putnam Jones, believed she had in fact given birth to a Messiah, foreshadowing Jones’ future as Reverend of the People’s Temple. She claims that her dead mother appeared to her in a dream telling her that she would bear a son who would right the wrongs of the world. In order to keep her dreams of her son claiming his messiah-ship alive she raised him with Methodist beliefs.
However, due to the economic difficulties of the Great Depression the Jones family had to move to nearby Lynn, Indiana where Jim grew up in a shack void of any indoor plumbing. With little else to do to ease his situation, Jim became an avid reader and studied the works and life of individuals such as Joseph Stalin, Karl Marx, Mahatma Gandhi and Adolf Hitler.
Shortly after graduating High School and marrying Marceline Baldwin Jones he became a member of the Communist Party of the USA in 1951.
In 1960, Indianapolis Democratic Mayor Charles Boswell appointed Jones director of the Human Rights Commission. Jones however was not shy about trying to share his views on integration with the public. Some examples of his radical integrationist theories include Jones helping to integrate churches, restaurants, the telephone company, the police department, a theater, an amusement park, and the Methodist Hospital in his area. Moreover, included in his efforts, was an incident occurring after swastikas were painted on the homes of two African American families in the surrounding neighborhood. Jones personally walked the area, comforting African Americans and counseling white families not to move out. Similarly, he set up variousstings to catch restaurants refusing to serve African American customers. He also wrote to American Nazi leaders then proceeded to leak their responses to the media. Finally, when Jones had accidentally been placed in the black ward of a hospital after he had collapsed, he refused to be moved and began to make the beds, and empty the bed pans of black patients in the ward. Boswell had advised Jones to keep a low profile, but he ignored these warning by finding new outlets for his views on local radio and television programs. When he was asked to cease his actions, he resisted and was cheered on at a meeting of the NAACP and Urban League.
Jim Jones became the subject of incredible amounts of criticism because of his beliefs. For example, white-owned businesses and locals were very critical of him. Accounts of vandalism and terror inflicted on Jim Jones include a swastika being placed on the Temple, a stick of dynamite being left in a Temple coal pile, and a dead cat being thrown at Jones’ house after a threatening phone call. There is speculation that Jones himself may have been an accomplice to several of these acts.
It is clear that whether these acts were self-perpetuated or not, Jones met incredible amounts of opposition in his early years when trying to voice his views and opinions. He posed the problem to himself of how to demonstrate his Marxist views. His decision was to infiltrate the church when he had witnessed multiple faith healing ceremonies at a Baptist church.
In 1952, Jones became the student pastor of Sommerset Southside Methodist Church. To his surprise, he was not only allowed in the church but was given a leadership position despite his political views. Jones saw how the church drew in massive numbers of people no matter their current social situation or background. He also realized the need these people had for some sort of reassurance from whatever oppression they felt. Jim Jones would later feed on that weakness he saw in people to create his Temple.
Jones sought to embody the characteristics that would appeal to the most people looking for comfort. He used his views of socialism, integration, and perceived oppression to gather a rather substantial following. One way he embodied these views, especially of integration, was the creation of his so called “rainbow family”. Jim and Marceline Jones adopted several children of at least partial non-Caucasian ancestry. The two adopted three children of Korean-American descent. They were Lew, Suzanne and Stephanie. Jones had long been encouraging his Temple members to adopt orphans from war ravaged Korea. In 1954, he and his wife also adopted Agnes Jones, then 11 years old and partially of Native American descent. Suzanne Jones was adopted at the age of six 5 years later. In June 1959, the couple had their only biological child, Stephan Gandhi Jones. The couple also adopted another son, who was white, named Tim. Tim Jones’ birth mother was a member of the Peoples Temple, was originally named Timothy Glen Tupper. Two years later, in 1961, the Jones family made history by becoming the first white couple in Indiana to adopt a black child, who they named James Warren Jones, Jr. This act brought Jones’ integrationist views to complete embodiment. He said to his people that integration had become much more of a personal issue to him and his family; that it was a matter of their future in this world. Jones even translated this term over to the Temple as well by referring to them as a “rainbow family” in their own way.
The People’s Temple was started in Indianapolis in the mid 1950’s. Some members recall that the Temple purported itself to practice what it called “apostolic socialism”. After Jones had received a considerable amount of criticism in Indiana for his integrationist views, he journeyed to Brazil looking for a safe haven to move his Temple; this trip was also the first time that Jones had been to Guyana. After his return, Jones made wild claims that the world would soon be engulfed in a nuclear war. He even went so far as to predict a date. This would all happen on July 15, 1967. These events would inevitably then create a new socialist Eden on earth, and thus the Temple must move to be alive in order to take part in this wonderful utopia that was to come. Jones read in esquire magazine that the rural Redwood Valley of California was to be safe from nuclear war. As a result of Jones’ instance, the members left their lives in Indiana behind and the Temple moved to Redwood Valley, California in 1965. The Temple’s popularity grew and in the early 1970s, the Peoples Temple opened other branches in a number of cities including San Fernando and San Francisco. In the mid-1970s,
the Temple officially moved its headquarters to San Francisco, CA.
After the Temple’s relocation to San Francisco, it became increasingly more active in politics. For example, the People’s Temple is credited with a large part in the mayoral election of George Moscone in 1975. As a result of their efforts, Moscone appointed Jones as the Chairman of the San Francisco Housing Authority Commission. Unique to Jones from other figures considered as cult leaders by the public is that Jones held the public support and had contact with some of the highest level politicians in the United States at the time. A few of these influential politicians include Vice President, later Presidential candidate, Walter Mondale and First Lady Rosalynn Carter. In September of 1976 Governor Jerry Brown, Lieutenant Governor Mervyn Dymally, and Assemblyman Willie Brown, among others, attended a large testimonial dinner, in which Willie Brown served as the master of ceremonies, held in honor of Jones. Brown is quoted as saying, “Let me present to you what you should see every day when you look in the mirror in the early morning hours… Let me present to you a combination of Martin Luther, Angela Davis, Albert Einstein, and Chairman Mao.”
What was life like in the Temple that drew in such a large number of followers? For most members the life inside the Temple represented exactly what they wanted the world to become. Blacks and Whites were freely worshipping together. Jones’ son, Stephan Jones, said “You saw every walk of life”. Everyone had their own reasons for joining the Temple; individuals each heard their own message. Another ex-member, Laura Johnston Kohl, stated her view as “People came to make a dramatic change in their lives, to make a dramatic change in the world”. Terri Burford, yet another ex-member, recalls her first encounter with the temple. She says,
“I had $20 to my name and I was hitchhiking up between Ukiah and Redwood Valley, where the Temple was. Somebody picked me up who was a member of the Temple and he said, ‘You know if you’re looking for a place to stay, a place to sleep, we’ll get some food, I’ve got the place for you. I belong to this wonderful church and they feed the hungry, they take care of the sick. Furthermore, the person who runs this thing is God’”.
This view of Jones as God was more than likely self-perpetuated and his followers latched on to it. In a recording of a sermon at the Temple Jones says, “Some people see me as the representative of the I am… Some people see a great deal of God in my body. They see Christ in me, a hope of Glory.” Jones also asked his members to refer to his as “Dad” or “Father”. Members claimed that Jones had a special gift that no one else possessed, they were enchanted by him. Even outsiders that visited the Temple found their own kind of sanctuary. Harvey Milk, who spoke at political rallies at the Temple and wrote to Jones after his visit to the Temple: “Rev Jim, It may take me many a day to come back down from the high that I reached today. I found something dear today. I found a sense of being that makes up for all the hours and energy placed in a fight. I found what you wanted me to find. I shall be back; for I can never leave.” The mentality so evident from Harvey Milk’s writing was not unique to him; it was shared among the members of the temple.
Life in the Temple was not as perfect as it was portrayed to be. The faith healings that were central to his ministry that Jones put on were a hoax. The individual’s that experienced these healings and claimed to have never met Jones had actually set up the whole act. Jones even played on the emotions of new members to strengthen his claims. Hue Fortson, JR. recounts the process of how these healings on new members were set up by Jones,
“We had greeters at the front door and every time one entered the service they would take their name supposedly for the mailing list. But lo and behold they staff workers would take that same name on the card. They would go by people’s houses; sometimes they looked at trash cans, sometimes they’d knock on the doors, if they weren’t there they’d break a window and they’d go in. So when that person came back to church, if they decided, they would use that person as one of his healing services. But, basically that was part of the set up to get people into the room. That he had some kind of extra special gift that no one else had.”
Save for a few members that played a role in Jones set ups, everyone truly
believed in these healings. “I didn’t know the healings were phony. I believed in spiritual healing and I am not the only person in the room that believed in it. A lot of people believed in spiritual healing” said Tim Carter.
When Chronicle reporter Marshall Kilduff got wind of the People’s Temple he made it his mission to write an exposé on the group. Little did he know the kinds of stories and the number of people he would encounter. What Kilduff would come to find out stood with incredible contrast to the humanitarian image that Jones had created for his Temple and its members. Ex-members relayed stories of systematic abuse within the Temple. Terri Buford commented,
“There were a lot of beatings in the Temple. People who strayed from the path one way or the other, talked to an outsider or had a relationship with an outsider or something like that. Or did something that was considered Capitalistic, they would get beaten in front of the church. You couldn’t just get up and leave; people would drag you back in. There wasn’t the choice of walking out and saying, ‘this isn’t tolerable’. You didn’t have that choice.” 
A number of recordings from Temple services depict Jones as saying that individuals that were experiencing these beatings were getting exactly what they deserved; that they deserved it all. Jones is on record as telling his followers that he was “the only true heterosexual”. Yet, there is at least one account of his sexual abuse of a male member of his congregation in front of the followers, ostensibly to prove the man’s own homosexual tendencies existed. Jones is also recorded as laughing during the proceedings of the abuse. He claims that it was something he needed to do in order to control the group, he deemed it necessary. In his mind and in the minds of the Temple members experiencing this, it was the idea that the end justified the means. It was all with the goal of a perfect utopian society in mind. Kilduff was taken aback by the number of accounts he had received. He reported that in the beginning it was hard to discern who was telling the truth and who was lying but by the end when multiple individuals came to him
with the same stories of abuse he could no longer question its legitimacy. When Kilduff had compiled his findings into the exposé of the decade he tried to go public with it. However, his magazine wouldn’t touch it and neither would many other magazines or newspapers. This was thanks to Jones’ political support from years of his humanitarian image. It wasn’t until Nine West magazine made the decision to pick up the story that Jones made the decision to uproot his entire Temple to the Guyanese land.
In the fall of 1973, Jones and an influential Temple member Timothy Stoen prepared an “immediate action” plan in order to respond quickly to a police or media scandal based on the acts of the Temple. The plan listed included many options for escape, one of which was a “Caribbean missionary post”. For this post, the Temple quickly chose Guyana because of its socialist politics and after it researched the Guyanese economy and extradition treaties with the United States. In October 1973, the directors of the Peoples Temple voted to pass a resolution to establish an agricultural mission project there. Former Temple member Tim Carter, who also traveled to Guyana with the migratory group, stated that the reasons for choosing Guyana were “the Temple’s view of creeping fascism, the perceived dominance of multinational corporations on the government, and perceived racism in the U.S. government.” Carter also said the Temple concluded that “Guyana, a predominantly Indian, English-speaking socialist country, would afford black members of the Temple a peaceful place to live”. This peaceful life for all members but especially the black members of the Temple was central to Jones’ appeal. Later, Guyanese Prime Minister Forbes Burnham stated that what may have attracted Jones was that “he wanted to use cooperatives as the basis for the establishment of socialism, and maybe his idea of setting up a commune meshed with that”. Jones also thought it was important that Guyana’s leadership consisted of several black leaders and that the country was small and poor enough for Jones to easily obtain influence and official protection just as he had done in the States.
An initial group of approximately 500 members began the construction of Jonestown in their new Guyanese home. The Temple encouraged some of its members to move to Jonestown, formally named the “Peoples Temple
Agricultural Project”. Jones and his Temple members viewed Jonestown as both their own “socialist paradise” and a “sanctuary” from the increasing media scrutiny they were under saying, “He believed we’re the purest communists there are”. His wife described Jonestown as “dedicated to live for socialism, total economic and racial and social equality. We are here living communally”. The relatively large number of immigrants to Guyana overwhelmed the Guyanese government’s comparatively small immigration system. Jones reached an agreement to guarantee that Guyana would permit Temple members’ mass migration. In order to accomplish this, he told officials that Temple members were “skilled and progressive”, he also reportedly showed off an envelope that held a half of one million dollars. He told the officials that he would invest the majority of the church’s assets into Guyana. The Guyanese immigration procedures were also corrupted to inhibit the departure of Temple defectors. Just like the emigration policies of the Soviet Union, Cuba, North Korea and other communist republics that the Temple wished to emulate, Jones did not permit members to leave Jonestown. He also bribed the officials to delay processing of the visas of any Temple opponents wishing to visit.
In the summer of 1977, Jones and several hundred more Temple members uprooted and moved to Jonestown with the hopes of escaping the building pressure from San Francisco media investigations like the exposé from Kilduff. In fact, Jones is reported to have left the same night that the editor at New West magazine read Jones the article to be published by Kilduff that recounted the allegations by former Temple members.
An unprepared Jonestown quickly became overcrowded, buildings fell into disrepair and weeds encroached on fields after the arrival of Jones and his Temple members. The people’s lives in Jonestown significantly changed. Like many socialist countries, propaganda shorts detailing Soviet life given by the Soviet embassy as well as documentaries on the problems of the United States policies were viewed in place of the entertaining movies that the first group of Jonestown members enjoyed before Jones’ arrival. School study and night time lectures for adults became a discussion time about revolution and enemies for Jones. For the first several months, Temple members worked all but one day a week, from 6:00 in the morning until 6:00 at night, with only an hour for lunch in the midst of this 12 hour day. Thankfully In 1978, after Jones’ health took a turn for the worse his wife, Marciline, began managing more of Jonestown’s operations. As a result, the work week was reduced to eight hours a day for only five days a week.
After the day’s work ended, Temple members would attend several hours of activities in a main pavilion. Among these activities were classes in socialism. Hugh Fortson, Jr. remembers these hours of studying simply, “It was always ‘America is going to fall’ and Armageddon is coming’’ he said. Jones thought this system copied that of North Korea’s; 8 hours of work immediately following 8 hours of intensive study. This was combined with the Temple’s practice of gradually subjecting its followers to mind control and behavior-modification techniques. Jones would often read news and commentary. Jones’ recorded readings of the news were part of the majority of the constant broadcasts over Jonestown’s speaker system in order for all members to hear them no matter the time. Jones’ news readings typically portrayed the United States as a “capitalist” and “imperialist” villain, meanwhile casting “socialist” leaders in a positive light. Terri Buford recalls, “From 6 in the morning until 10 at night, we heard him”. Evidence of Jim Jones’ knowledge of what he was doing to his followers is clear in his comments during an interview about an ensuing custody battle with one defector. Speaking of the child and if he was taken away he said, “That he’d be deprogrammed, that his mind be taken and used by their evil means and whatever chemicals to try to drain his mind.”
Among some of the controlling things that Jones subjected his followers to were the “White Nights”. Mass suicide had been previously discussed in simulated events on a regular basis. During at least one such prior White Night, members drank liquid that Jones falsely told them was poison. Grace Stoen recalls one such event. She states,
“I can remember we were in a planning commission meeting and Jim says, ‘You know I really love you guys. I’m going to let you guys drink wine. You don’t think I love you.’ So we were all given this wine that was from the ranch. Jim said, ‘Has everybody drank their wine?’ And some people had said, ‘Well, I don’t want any.’ Then Jim said, ‘No everybody is going to drink this.’ So we all drank it and Jim asks, ‘Has everybody drank that wine?’ We all said yes. He says, ‘Okay, you all have 10 minutes to live.”
Laura Johnston Kohl, who was at that same meeting, finishes the account by saying, “Jim said, ‘That was poison, because we need to commit revolutionary suicide.’ We needed to be totally committed to this cause, period. And you can’t be part way; you can’t do it part way.”
Yet another example of Jones’ controlling nature is in his “special privileges”. While Jones banned sex among Temple members outside of marriage, he himself voraciously engaged in sexual relations with both male and female Temple members. Jones claimed that he detested engaging in homosexual activity and did so only for the male temple members’ own good, purportedly to connect them symbolically with him.
The majority of Jones’ political allies in the States severed their connections after Jones’ departure, however, some did not. Willie Brown spoke out in support at a rally at the Peoples Temple in San Francisco. More importantly though for Jones and the Temple, Moscone’s office issued a press release stating that Jones had broken no laws during his time in the US.
In the fall of 1977, relatives of Temple members in Jonestown formed a “Concerned Relatives” group. The group ventured to Washington D.C. in the winter of ‘78 to address their concerns for their family in Jonestown. The groups’ efforts raised the curiosity of Congressman Leo Ryan. There was growing pressure in the States to investigate the Temple. On April 11, 1978, the Concerned Relatives distributed documents, including letters and affidavits, that they en titled an “Accusation of Human Rights Violations by Rev. James Warren Jones” to the Peoples Temple, members of the press and members of Congress. In June 1978, escaped Temple member Deborah Layton provided the group with a further affidavit detailing alleged crimes by the Peoples Temple and substandard living conditions in Jonestown.
In November 1978, U.S. Congressman Leo Ryan led a venture to Jonestown to investigate allegations of human rights abuses from the documents distributed by the Concerned Relatives. Ryan’s traveling companions included relatives of Temple members, Don Harris, an NBC network news reporter, an NBC cameraman and reporters for various newspapers. The pack arrived in Georgetown on November 15. Then on November 17, Ryan’s delegation traveled by airplane to Jonestown. The delegation left hurriedly with a number of temple defectors on the afternoon of November 18 after Temple member Don Sly attacked Ryan with a knife. Congressman Ryan and his people succeeded in taking fifteen People’s Temple members out of Jonestown to the airstrip where their planes were waiting. At the time, Jones had made no attempt to prevent their departure.
As members of Ryan’s delegation boarded two planes at the airstrip, Jones’ “Red Brigade”, his armed guards, arrived in a trailer and opened fire on the group of escaping individuals. Simultaneously, one of the supposed defectors, Larry Layton, drew a weapon and began firing on members of the party that had already boarded a small Cessna. Among those that the guards killed were Congressman Ryan; Don Harris, a reporter from NBC; Bob Brown, a cameraman from NBC; San Francisco Examiner photographer Greg Robinson; and Temple member Patricia Parks. Those that managed to survive the attack were future Congresswoman Jackie Speier, then a staff member for Ryan; Richard Dwyer, the Deputy Chief of Mission from the U.S. Embassy at Georgetown; Bob Flick, a producer for NBC News; Steve Sung, an NBC sound engineer; Tim Reiterman, a San Francisco Examiner reporter; Ron Javers, a San Francisco Chronicle reporter; Charles Krause, a Washington Post reporter; and several defecting Temple members.
Later that same day, 909 inhabitants of Jonestown, 303 of them children, died of apparent cyanide poisoning, mostly in and around the main pavilion. This became the single greatest loss of American civilian life in a non-natural disaster; that is until the September 11, 2001 attacks. No video was taken during the mass suicide, although the FBI did recover a 45 minute audio recording of the suicide in progress. On that tape, Jones tells Temple members that the Soviet Union, with whom the Temple had been negotiating a potential exodus for months, would not take them after the Temple had murdered Ryan and four others at a nearby airstrip. Jones justified his actions by saying, “So my opinion is that we be kind to children and be kind to seniors and take the potion like they used to take in ancient Greece, and step over quietly because we are not committing suicide. It’s a revolutionary act. We can’t go back. They won’t leave us alone. They’re now going back to tell more lies which means more congressmen. And there’s no way, no way we can survive.” Jones and several members argued that the group should commit “revolutionary suicide” by drinking cyanide-laced grape-flavored Flavor Aid. Jones put into his followers’ minds that there was no hope for anything anymore. This was their only way out; they might as well do it on their terms. He furthered the hopelessness of the situation by telling them that people were going to parachute in on them. They were going to shoot the babies and torture the members. Jones continually says how he has tried to prevent this from happening for months, how he has always had the people’s best interest in mind, and how he has never lied to them. He told them that this was the time to die, to die with some dignity. In the 45 minute recording a member, Christine Miller, opposed Jones’ radical proposition toward the beginning of the tape. According to escaped Temple members, children were given the drink first and families were told to lie down together. Jones was later found dead in a deck chair with a self-inflicted gunshot wound to his head. An autopsy of Jones’ body also showed levels of Pentobarbital, which may have been lethal to humans who had not developed physiological tolerance. His drug usage which included LSD and marijuana was confirmed by his son, Stephan Jones and their family doctor in San Francisco.
Jones can be compared with other radical religious leaders. One example of these leaders is David Koresch; the leader of the Heaven’s Gate group situated in Waco, Texas. Their time as a community also ended in tragedy. While Koresch had a set world view that he would not have compromised for anything in the world, Jones had more of an eclectic world view. His theology could be tailored to fit his social motivations. He picked the aspects of religions that he thought would favor the growth of a socialist society. He also viewed himself and his followers as the purest form of their kind. This purist society has apocalyptic undertones. The creations of their own utopia would lead to the ultimate utopia to come. Jones and Koresch were also the only individuals allowed access to outside information. As previously stated, Jones read the news and discussed the social issues of the day with his followers, but he was the keeper of knowledge. Both leaders spent hours on end with their followers conversing about their views on the world. Also, each leader was granted special privileges. Koresch and Jones shared their views of sexual relations; for the members it was restricted and for them it was unregulated.
The apocalyptic nature of the Jonestown community is also very clear. The most notable is the constant pressure from outsiders. In their world they were oppressed for their beliefs and sought refuge with like-minded people. That brought them to Jonestown and the next example of their apocalyptic nature. The members of the Temple wished only for the purest of societies and they worked hard to achieve that utopia in Guyana. The move to Guyana was a result not only of the perceived persecution they were under but also on Jones’ play on social anxiety of the end of the world due to nuclear warfare. All of these situations exemplify the apocalyptic nature of the People’s Temples and Jonestown. In the years following the massacre the view of Jonestown has skewed from a religious group to a cult. The interest and investigation of the so-called cult has also weaned. A member of the Concerned Relatives group has said, “As soon as we label a religion a cult, we dismiss it. We no longer have to investigate it, what did they believe? It doesn’t matter.”