While phrases like “Jonestown” and “drinking the Kool-Aid” have wormed their way into the cultural lexicon, many myths and inaccuracies surround the Reverend Jim Jones and his church, the Peoples Temple. Jones, along with his followers, committed mass suicide by drinking poisoned Flavor Aid on November 18, 1978 in “Jonestown,” the informal name for the Peoples Temple Agricultural Project in Guyana, in reaction to what the abusive and paranoid Jones saw as an impending crackdown by the U.S. government. Until the events of September 11, 2001, it was the “greatest single loss of American [civilian] life,” according to the San Francisco Chronicle.
The facts and details of the Peoples Temple’s history, including its creation and tragic end, are very revealing—not only for what they tell us about Jones and his followers, but cults in general. Much of the following information comes from Raven, a biography of Jones by journalist Tim Reiterman, who was wounded by the reverend’s men that fateful day in 1978.
In Raven, Tim Reiterman and his collaborator John Jacobs estimate that at the height of the Peoples Temple’s influence, roughly 50% of its congregation was black, which is remarkable, considering that segregation was widespread at the time. Jones himself spearheaded the Temple’s integrationist policies by adopting children of varying ethnicities, cultivating what he termed his “rainbow family.” According to friends and family, Jones would occasionally pass himself off as being part-black or part-Aboriginal, though he was actually full-blooded Caucasian.
As comforting as it would be to think of the Peoples Temple as some fringe movement, it actually held a surprising amount of political sway, especially in the San Francisco area where it was based for much of the 1970s. Famous city councilman Harvey Milk (portrayed by Sean Penn in Milk), Mayor George Moscone and future Mayor Willie Brown all counted themselves among the Temple’s supporters, if not members. Moscone made Jones the San Francisco Housing Authority Commission chairman, as the Peoples Temple’s rallying support had been key to the mayor’s successful election. Brown was quoted as comparing Jones to Albert Einstein, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Angela Davis, among others. Davis herself radioed messages of support to the Temple at Jonestown in their final days. SDSU reports that even First Lady Rosalynn Carter knew Jones personally and conversed with him a few times.
There’s a pervasive attitude that cult members are social misfits who are drawn to such groups from the fringes of society. While this is often true of cult leaders such as Charles Manson and, to a degree, Jones himself, the unnerving reality is that cult members come from all walks of life. Tim Reiterman wrote that the Peoples Temple was made up of “decent, hardworking, socially conscious people… who were drawn to the interracial church,” and emphasized that they were motivated to truly help others, not worship a “self-proclaimed deity.” Excommunicated Temple member Tim Stoen was—and remains—a respected lawyer. Associated minister Archie Ijames had previously ministered for the Church of God, Body of Christ and fought for integration in the church community. So while it’s comforting to think that fringe or extremist groups draw from similar elements, the Peoples Temple—the definition of extreme—was had a much farther reach. It drew in community figureheads. It drew in whole families—some whom would perish in their entirety during the Jonestown Massacre.
California was effectively a breeding ground for cults in the 1960s and ’70s, particularly those with a New Age bent to them. As Cracked columnist Kristi Harrison pointed out in an article earlier this year, California hosted the Manson family, Heaven’s Gate (which, like Peoples Temple, committed mass suicide) and Scientology. Peoples Temple made California, particularly San Francisco, its home base for the late ’60s and most of the ’70s, but unlike its contemporaries it didn’t have a hippie vibe. Instead, following in the tradition of Jones’ rural upbringing, it took the form of Pentecostal Christianity with revival-style services, (faked) faith healings and all. Reiterman notes that while Jones didn’t care much for the healing ruse himself, he kept it up because of the attention it drew, which would make it easier for him to spread his true message…
While the Peoples Temple began its troubled existence as a Christian denomination, spreading the Biblical Gospel was never Jones’ goal. While Christian services had long been a part of the preacher’s life, his biography makes it clear that he was fascinated by the services themselves as a means to an end, be it for the purpose of spreading a message or manipulating others. By the time he was a young man, Jones was an atheist, a fact known by his wife and many parishioners. His wife Marceline told the New York Times that Jones was using religion to spread Marxism. In the documentary Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple, former Temple members describe an incident in which the preacher deliberately threw the Bible across the church hall in order to test God’s wrath.
The Temple’s Communist ties were so strong Jones considered—however sincerely—having the Temple defect to the U.S.S.R., and many of the his deceased followers willed their remaining savings to the Community Party of America.
Jones’ desire to control others and cultivate a cult of personality existed as early as childhood. In Raven, Reiterman writes that the future cult leader researched influential figures like Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin and tried to emulate what he perceived to be their “best” traits. With this in mind it’s no surprise Jones’ future endeavours as a preacher and community leader were so nuanced effective: when it came to tyranny, he had learned from the best.
The Jonestown massacre was triggered by a visiting Congressional delegation led by California Representative Leo Ryan, the former Mayor of South San Francisco who was known for his hands-on approach to politics (he had once investigated Folsom Prison by pretending to be an inmate for over a week, according to his former aide and Jonestown survivor Jackie Speier). Ryan had been contacted by a group of former Peoples Temple members and their relatives concerned about the wellbeing of the people at Jonestown. His delegation, which included himself, Speier, and members of the media (Reiterman included), met with many members of the commune who wished to leave. Fearing the Congressman would have the community shut down and his “family” taken away from him, Jones had his men pursue and kill the delegation. Ryan and four others were fatally wounded in the ambush. Jones used the fear of reprisal to spur the mass poisoning that followed.
To date, Ryan is the only member of U.S. Congress to die in the line of duty.
…at least not according to what popular culture portrays as brainwashing procedures, explained in A Clockwork Orange and The Manchurian Candidate. Jim Jones didn’t strap any of his parishioners to a chair, prop their eyelids open and feed them newsreel after newsreel of Capitalist America’s misdeeds. His domineering influence over his followers gradually manifested over the course of years and took a much more insidious form.
He told them a story.
It sounds simplistic, but the narrative Jones crafted—that the Peoples Temple was a fully progressive institution, that the U.S. government wanted to shut it down at all costs, that there was no way out other than to die “with dignity,” as he put it—shaped the lives (and fates) of hundreds of followers. He restricted the flow of information in and out of Jonestown, he bombarded his followers day and night with propaganda. And when it came time for suicide—“revolutionary suicide,” he terms it in his last recorded words—he had the poison administered to the children first, which Reiterman theorizes sapped the remaining will from his adult followers. Neither Reiterman nor survivor Tim Carter refers to the mass deaths as suicide for this reason, calling it “slaughter” instead.
And so the Peoples Temple—an organization renowned for breaking the colour barrier, for organizing soup kitchens and political rallies, and for creating a welcoming sense of community—died at Jim Jones' manipulative whims.