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Jim Warren Jones (May 13, 1931 – November 18, 1978) was a guru, preacher and complete nutcase in Indiana, later California and finally Guyana, who was initially considered a great humanitarian by civic leaders while in fact running his church as an authoritarian, paranoid cult almost from the beginning. There have been religious cults and there have been political cults on both ends of the spectrum; Jones was unusual in that he led a cult incorporating both fundamentalist/charismatic Christianity and revolutionary leftist politics. Whether Jones ever had good intentions at one time or whether he was a charlatan from the start is unclear; nonetheless, the story ended with Jones leading his congregation into a mass suicide/murder in Guyana in November 1978.
Beginnings of the People's Temple
Jim Jones grew up in a broken home with a father who was a member of the Ku Klux Klan; in reaction he took an anti-racist stance and opposed the Klan. In 1952, after witnessing a faith healing service at a Seventh-Day Baptist Church in Indianapolis, Jones believed he could attract people and make money with his own church. He became a student pastor at Sommerset Southside Methodist Church but eventually quit. Influenced by an eclectic mix of Apostolic faith, Unitarian humanism, Father Divine, and Marxism, he founded the People's Temple Christian Church Full Gospel (usually shortened to People's Temple), in the early 1960s, initially raising money by selling monkeys door-to-door. The church worked for civil rights and was against nuclear weapons. It quickly gained a following with many marginalised people and earned an excellent community reputation by feeding the poor, finding work for the unemployed, and caring for the aged, but also through its faked faith-healing services during which actors would pretend to give up their crutches or Jones would magically pull a "cancer" out of someone's body. Jones had promised his congregation to create a utopia, where people of different races, education and skills could work together for the common good as a "rainbow family". However, he was also possessed of delusions of grandeur, and believed he was the reincarnation of Jesus, Buddha, and possibly V.I. Lenin.
Move to California
Eventually, he became convinced that despite all of his work, nuclear war was on its way, with only a few places to be spared. He moved his whole congregation in 1965 from Indianapolis to Ukiah, California, believed to be a place that would be spared the ravages of nuclear war, and by the early 1970s he had established congregations in Los Angeles and San Francisco. There were also increasing allegations of his sexual misconduct on church members. Members were pressured to sign over all their money and possessions to the church, subjected to punishment and humiliation in front of the congregation for showing anything less than total commitment to Jones, and stalked and tracked down if they attempted to leave the church.
While the situation within his church was increasingly deteriorating, as far as civic leaders were concerned Jones was a great man engaged in humanitarian work and could do no wrong. Jones' efforts to court local politicians and civic leaders was especially successful in San Francisco. He was appointed head of the Indianapolis human rights commission in 1960 and head of the San Francisco housing authority in 1976, the latter after Jones had thrown the efforts of the People's Temple and the votes the church controlled behind the successful mayoral candidacy of George Moscone. His work was praised and publicly endorsed by Moscone, Harvey Milk, and even Jerry Brown and Rosalynn Carter, the wife of Jimmy Carter. Civic leaders simply either could not or would not believe early reports coming out that the situation within the church was not at all like the public image Jones had cultivated.
Move to Guyana and tragedy
In 1977 he and many of his followers moved to an isolated settlement in the South American country of Guyana, christened Jonestown, purportedly to build a self-sufficient utopia informed by agrarian communism, after declaring the Redwood Valley settlement in Ukiah a failure and moving the official headquarters of the People's Temple to San Francisco. Reports started to come out from Guyana of people being held against their will, long hours of forced labor with little food, forced breakup of marriages, beatings and torture, a camp patrolled by armed guards, and kidnapping with Jones claiming custody of children of parents who had fled the compound. With this, an American Congressman, Leo Ryan, went to investigate. His team was ambushed and gunned down as they tried to leave, and Ryan ended up being the first American Congressman to be murdered on the job, on November 18, 1978.
Knowing that worldwide condemnation and reprisals were certain, Jones and his top aides brewed up a batch of grape-flavored Flavor Aid laced with cyanide, and the whole church drank it. He ordered the compound guards to shoot to kill anyone who refused to drink. Babies were the first to die and were administered poison by syringe into the mouth. Jim Jones himself was found with a bullet in his brain, though it was impossible to tell if it was self-inflicted or not. Over 900 perished. Only 85 people escaped after they managed to flee into the jungle when the guards were distracted or had consumed the Flavor Aid. Others, like three of Jones' sons, survived because they were not at Jonestown that day.
Jim Jones and Jonestown have both become synonymous with destructive cults as well as a group that has been completely dominated. It is from this horrific event that the phrases "Kool-Aid drinker" and "drinking the Kool-Aid" come, as people tend to think the event involved Kool-Aid instead of Flavor Aid, mostly due to the genericized trademark of "Kool-Aid".
Until the events of September 11, 2001, 'the Jonestown massacre' as it became known, ranked as the single greatest loss of American civilian life in a non-natural disaster.
Backlash against the counterculture and New Left
The late 1960s and 1970s were fertile ground for the counterculture, breeding the human potential movement, the back-to-the-land movement, and communal experiments in the developed west. At the same time, anti-colonialist revolutions in the Third World, many of them informed by Maoism, were initially praised by leftist intellectuals as representing a more "pure" agrarian socialism than the discredited Soviet variety.
The Third World revolutions instead led to the likes of Muammar al-Gaddafi's Libya, Pol Pot's Cambodia, Idi Amin's Uganda, and Emperor Bokassa I's Central African Empire, the latter three all overthrown in 1979 after committing particularly heinous crimes against humanity. Indeed, some parallels can be seen in Pol Pot's and Jim Jones' attempts at building self-sufficient, purely agrarian communist societies, while the government of Guyana at the time, ostensibly a western-style democracy, was under the control of a leftist political party espousing similar ideas about agrarian Third Worldist socialism with the main opposition party led by an avowed Marxist-Leninist even further left.
After 1978, people had had enough. Those who had been willing to overlook such things as the Charles Manson cult, Lyndon LaRouche's Operation Mop-Up, the Weather Underground's insane bombings, or the Symbionese Liberation Army's kidnapping of Patricia "Patty" Hearst weren't so willing anymore to regard them as aberrations after the Jonestown massacre and similar cults like Synanon hitting the news around the same time, and the gruesome news coming out of Cambodia. 1978 in general marked a turning point after which there was a backlash against the New Left and the social changes of the 1960s and early 1970s. While several issues, such as tax revolt, the right wing organizing around anti-gay ballot initiatives, and opposition to the Panama Canal treaties, all factored into the rise of the New Right, Jonestown shouldn't be overlooked as a catalyst for the shift in mood against countercultures and alternative lifestyles. It certainly was a catalyst for the mood ever since, in which communal new religious movements are automatically regarded as potentially dangerous cults meriting a law enforcement response.
A number of crank theories have since circulated about Jim Jones and the People's Temple. One is that the Jonestown settlement was a CIA mind control experiment gone horribly wrong. Another conspiracy theory concerns the assassinations of San Francisco mayor George Moscone and supervisor Harvey Milk by former supervisor Dan White on November 27, nine days after the mass suicide in Guyana, alleging some connection between the two. One that was popular in the Soviet Union was that the Jonestown incident was actually a CIA black-op meant to wipe out a group of leftist dissidents and deter those who might harbor similar communal, anti-capitalist ideals.
- Tim Reiterman, Raven: The Untold Story of the Rev. Jim Jones and His People, by a reporter who accompanied Congressman Leo Ryan on the ill-fated trip and survived being shot, is highly regarded and considered by many to be the best overall book on the subject. Highly recommended.
- Mark Lane, The Strongest Poison, by an attorney who had been retained by the People's Temple a couple of months before the tragedy, who also escaped Jonestown as the mass poisoning was going on. Lane, better known as a JFK assassination conspiracy theorist, indulges in some conspiracy theorizing here as well as bending over backwards to try to disassociate himself from Jones, although the book is otherwise a fairly riveting account if taken with several grains of salt in some sections.
- Shiva Naipaul, Black & White (U.K. title) a.k.a. Journey to Nowhere: A New World Tragedy (U.S. title), places Jonestown in the context of revolutionary ultra-left Third World ideology combined with the California New Age and human potential movements, and the cultic mind control techniques popular in both.
- Ed Dieckmann Jr., Beyond Jonestown: 'Sensitivity Training' and the Cult of Mind Control could have been similar to the Shiva Naipaul book in focusing on the broader mix of revolutionary third world leftism and U.S. encounter group/human potential movement faddism as a toxic stew out of which a Jim Jones could emerge. Unfortunately, the book is bogged down in anti-Semitic asides attempting to somehow blame a Zionist conspiracy for all this. Not highly recommended.
- Charles Krause, Guyana Massacre: The Eyewitness Account, a paperback rushed to the market by the Washington Post almost immediately after the tragedy. Worth a read. The Suicide Cult by Marshall Kilduff and Ron Javers is similar, published immediately after the tragedy by the San Francisco Chronicle.
- Laura Johnston Kohl, Jonestown Survivor: An Insider's Look, personal autobiography about the author escaping Jonestown; she credits joining Synanon afterward for getting her life back together.
- Deborah Layton, Seductive Poison: A Jonestown Survivor's Story of Life and Death in the People's Temple.
- Julia Scheeres, A Thousand Lives: The Untold Story of Hope, Deception, and Survival at Jonestown.
- Min Yee, In My Father's House.
- Guyana Tragedy: The Jim Jones Story ran on CBS television in April, 1980. Network TV dusted it off and reran it in 1993 after renewed interest in cults following the Branch Davidian siege. Starred the then-unknown Powers Boothe, who won an Emmy for his performance depicting the rise of a young, idealistic Jim Jones and his later descent into abuse, cultism, and madness. Disturbing viewing even today.
- Guyana: Crime of the Century (also known as Guyana: Cult of the Damned), is a 1979 exploitation film shot in Mexico that is a considerably fictionalized account of events (Jim Jones is "James Johnson", and the compound is "Johnsontown").
- Two documentaries were made about Jonestown: Stanley Nelson's Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple (2006), and Tim Wolochatiuk's Jonestown: Paradise Lost (2007).
- The Sacrament is a found-footage horror movie based on the Jonestown Massacre but set in the present day (2013 at the time of production). Directed by Ti West and produced by Eli Roth, its plot depicts two journalists from Vice Magazine (ironically, the kind of publication that probably would have supported Jones) entering a fictionalised version of Jonestown called Eden Parish. The cult leader is played by Gene Jones who steals every scene with chilling menace.
- "FBI No. Q 042" (aka "The Jonestown Death Tape") Audio recording of the events preceding and during the mass suicide of November 18, 1978. Not for the squeamish.
- Alternative Considerations of Jonestown and Peoples Temple Sponsored by the Department of Religious Studies at San Diego State University. Just about anything you'd need to know about the horrific event is here.