This weekend is the 40th anniversary of the Jonestown massacre, the greatest single loss of American civilian life in a deliberate act until the September 11 attacks of 2001. Here are nine things you should know about the massacre and Jim Jones, the cult leader behind the killings.
1. In his youth during the 1950s, Jim Jones was part of a “Oneness” Pentecostal congregation. He continued to attend a Pentecostal church even while serving in his first ministry position as a 21-year old student pastor at a Methodist church. Two years later, Jones opened a small church he named Community Unity, and less than two years later, he purchased a church building at Fifteenth and North New Jersey, calling his new congregation Wings of Deliverance.
2. In 1956, Jones became an ordained minister in the Independent Assemblies of God. The ordination certificate includes the first known mention of Peoples Temple, listed here as “People’s Temple of the Wings of Deliverance, Inc.” The church eventually became part of the Disciples of Christ, and Jones himself eventually became an ordained minister in that denomination.
3. Jones considered the church to be primarily a means to fulfill his political agenda. According to his wife, Jones had “not been lured to the ministry by deep religious faith, but because it served his goal of achieving social change through Marxism.” “Jim used religion to try to get some people out of the opiate of religion,” she said, adding that he had once slammed a Bible on a table and said, “I’ve got to destroy this paper idol!” In a recorded interview Jones said, “I decided, how can I demonstrate my Marxism? The thought was, infiltrate the church.” It was in talking about communism with a Methodist superintendent that Jones got his first church. “He said I want you to take a church,” Jones claimed. “I said, you giving me a church. I don’t believe anything. I’m a revolutionary . . . and he appointed me, a Communist, to a church, and I didn’t even meet him through the party, I met him in a used car lot. This was in 1953.”
4. In the early stages, the People’s Temple functioned as more of a religious organization than a church. In 1965, Jones told his congregation that a nuclear war would occur on July 15, 1967. About 70 families followed him to a “safe haven” in northern California. After the move from Indianapolis to California the congregation became a social welfare advocacy group and a political organization. Interviews with members of the People’s Temple who survived the massacre indicated that the group had not been formally religious for several years, even though it registered as a religion with the state of California and took advantage of the provisions for religious organizations in Federal income tax laws. Members said that instead of hearing about God they heard a great deal of “socialist rhetoric.” They also noted that Jones found evangelical speaking, music, faith‐healing, and other tent‐meeting techniques “useful in attracting and controlling the many working class members, particularly the aged, whose Social Security and government-support checks were an important resource.”
5. Jones used the pulpit to preach a doctrine that he called “Apostolic Socialism” (which he sometimes referred to as God Socialism or Divine Socialism). In one sermon he said, “My desire is to see a perfect utopia based on non-violence, based on apostolic socialism as it was on the day of Pentecost when they had all things in common.” As David Chidester explains, “The Divine Principle, or Divine Socialism, which Jones claimed to represent, was committed to a society based on total equality, where all things were held in common, where there were no rich or poor, and where there were no racial divisions among human beings. This was the practical dimension of God Almighty, Socialism.” In one sermon Jones told his parishioners, “If you’re born in a socialist community, then you’re not born in sin. If you’re born in this church, this socialist revolution, you’re not born in sin. If you’re born in capitalist America, racist America, fascist America, then you’re born in sin. But if you’re born in socialism, you’re not born in sin.”
6. By the early 1970s, Jones abandoned all pretense of being a Christian minister. Jones also began preaching that he was the reincarnation of Buddha, Gandhi, Vladimir Lenin, and Jesus. He would preach sermons lasting six hours or more, in which he showed a preoccupation with sex. As one congregant noted, “Oh, and he would talk for hours about sex, about how good he was and how women should think he was making love to them, not their husbands, and about how all the women sent him notes that they wanted to see him.” Jones, a bisexual, reportedly had numerous affairs with both men and women in his congregation. His former bodyguard claimed that Jones appointed one of his secretaries to arrange for women church members to sleep with him. He was also arrested in a Hollywood theater on lewd‐conduct charge, after an undercover Los Angeles policeman said Jones had tried to molest him.
7. In the summer of 1977, Jones learned the San Francisco Chronicle was going to publish an expose of him and the People’s Temple. Jones and several hundred church members decided to move to the Temple’s compound in Guyana, South America, a settlement called “Jonestown,” which Jones had named after himself. Jonestown was a tract of 3,852 acres, leased to People’s Temple by the Government of Guyana, where members had cleared dense jungle to build an agricultural commune. About 2,000 members (including children) were committed enough to the cause that they had passport photos and filled out application forms to travel to Guyana, though only about half that number moved to Jonestown.
8. In November 1978, after hearing reports from the U.S. Embassy in Guyana that some people in Jonestown were being subjected to physical and psychological abuse, Congressman Leo Ryan and a delegation visited the compound. Soon after their arrival a follower of Jones attempted to attack Ryan with a knife, prompting the delegation to flee the compound. As they were boarding two planes at the airstrip, Jones’s armed guards attacked them, killing Ryan and four others. Jones convinced his followers that the incident would result in U.S. authorities coming to Jonestown and committing mass murder.
9. For years Temple members had practiced suicide drills in which they pretended to drink poison and then fell down “dead” as part of a loyalty test to Jones. After the incident at the airstrip, Jones convinced his follower it was time to finally commit “an act of revolutionary suicide protesting the conditions of an inhumane world.” The people were encouraged to consume the fruit drink Flavor Aid that contained a lethal combination of potassium cyanide and sedatives (this is the source of the now-commonly used expression, “Drink the Kool-Aid.”). The death toll at Jonestown was 909, including two confirmed gunshot deaths—one of which was Jim Jones. The deaths included 304 children and minors younger than 18. Only 36 people who began their day in Jonestown survived the massacre.
Other posts in this series:
Out-of-Wedlock Births • Bethel Church Movement • Christian Hymns • Hurricanes • Infertility • The STD Crisis • Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) • Russian President Vladimir Putin • Supreme Court Nominee Brett Kavanaugh • MS-13 • Wicca and Modern Witchcraft • Jerusalem • Christianity in Korea • Creation of Modern Israel • David Koresh and the Branch Davidians • Rajneeshees • Football • The Opioid Epidemic (Part II) • The Unification Church • Billy Graham • Frederick Douglass • Memphis Sanitation Strike of 1968 • Winter Olympics • The ‘Mississippi Burning’ Murders • Events and Discoveries in 2017 • Christmas Traditions • Sexual Misconduct • Lutheranism • Jewish High Holy Days • Nation of Islam • Slave Trade • Solar Eclipses • Alcohol Abuse in America • History of the Homeschooling Movement • Eugenics • North Korea • Ramadan • Black Hebrew Israelites • Neil Gorsuch and Supreme Court Confirmations • International Women’s Day • Health Effects of Marijuana • J. R. R. Tolkien • Aleppo and the Syrian Crisis • Fidel Castro • C.S. Lewis • ESV Bible • Alzheimer’s Disease • Mother Teresa • The Opioid Epidemic • The Olympic Games • Physician-Assisted Suicide • Nuclear Weapons • China’s Cultural Revolution • Jehovah’s Witnesses • Harriet Tubman • Autism • Seventh-day Adventism • Justice Antonin Scalia (1936–2016) • Female Genital Mutilation • Orphans • Pastors • Global Persecution of Christians (2015 Edition) • Global Hunger • National Hispanic Heritage Month • Pope Francis • Refugees in America • Confederate Flag Controversy • Elisabeth Elliot • Animal Fighting • Mental Health • Prayer in the Bible • Same-sex Marriage • Genocide • Church Architecture • Auschwitz and Nazi Extermination Camps • Boko Haram • Adoption • Military Chaplains • Atheism • Intimate Partner Violence • Rabbinic Judaism • Hamas • Male Body Image Issues • Mormonism • Islam • Independence Day and the Declaration of Independence • Anglicanism • Transgenderism • Southern Baptist Convention • Surrogacy • John Calvin • The Rwandan Genocide • The Chronicles of Narnia • The Story of Noah • Fred Phelps and Westboro Baptist Church • Pimps and Sex Traffickers • Marriage in America • Black History Month • The Holocaust • Roe v. Wade • Poverty in America • Christmas • The Hobbit • Council of Trent • Halloween and Reformation Day • Casinos and Gambling • Prison Rape • 16th Street Baptist Church Bombing • Chemical Weapons • March on Washington • Duck Dynasty • Child Brides • Human Trafficking • Scopes Monkey Trial • Social Media • Supreme Court’s Same-Sex Marriage Cases • The Bible • Human Cloning • Pornography and the Brain • Planned Parenthood • Boston Marathon Bombing • Female Body Image Issues • Islamic State