Jim Jones and the Peoples Temple Religion
by Me for my World Religions 107 Class at UNM-Taos.Copyright AngelStar Creations. Do not take any of this and call it your own. Please cite your sources.
Instructor: Mirabai Starr, October 12, 2009
I originally wrote this paper back in 2009. I believed what I wrote below at the time. I recently, in 2017, re-watched the documentary movie made in 2006. Fact of the matter is, Jim Jones was a whack-job right from the very beginning. You can read what I wrote below if you wish. Watch the movie, Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple.
In this paper I am going to show what Jim Jones’ life was like leading up to his becoming a minister, after he joined the ministry and eventually getting many people to believe in what he said and what he did. He was very convincing, persuasive, charming and seemingly kind on the pulpit and with his people. He wanted to help all people including the poor, the blacks, the sick, the elderly, and others. I am writing this to tell this fascinating story of hope, love, peace and death.
Jim Jones wanted to run his own religion, so he did. He called it the Peoples Temple (with no apostrophe). He wanted people to follow him and to love and trust him, and they did. He wanted to control people, and he did. He was sole pastor, leader, dictator, and many thought of him as God. He wanted his people to be safe from oppression, bigotry and human rights violations, and they were, for a while. Or so they thought.
James Thurman Jones was born on the thirteenth of May of 1931 in Indiana during the Great Depression. He attended public schools and was highly intelligent, hanging around with kids similar to him in intelligence. Most of his fellow students couldn’t understand him and his eccentric ways. He went to many different churches in his youth. His favorite in his younger pre-teenage and teen years was the Gospel Tabernacle church, which was a Pentecostal church. It had a “shabby” reputation and he loved it.
In high school he was “preoccupied with religion, medicine, current events and world figures.” His classmates were interested in things like basketball and drinking beer, but he was not. His eccentric activities lessened in his high school years because he felt that he would gain more acceptance in being somewhat more conventional, although he kept his controversial ideas.
One of his fellow students once said to a teacher, “He’s hell bent for doing what he pleases.” (Reiterman) In the movie that I watched some time ago, Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple, I incorrectly got the impression that he was a kindly man who started taking drugs, which is why his ministry turned nasty. But by reading the book, Raven: The Untold Story of the Rev. Jim Jones and His People, and watching the movie again, I see that he did many things in his youth that were questionable. When he was still in junior high school he was with his best friend in the barn loft and Jim Jones shot his friend with a BB gun, just to see his friend’s reaction. Unbelievably, several months later he and his friend went on a hunting trip and his friend loaned Jim a rifle. Jim shot his friend in the foot because Jim wanted his friend to stop walking and the friend wouldn’t. There was one other time later on where Jim shot at the same friend again. At one time he also stabbed and killed a cat just so that he could perform a funeral for it.
Jim Jones married an older woman (about 5 years older) he met while being an orderly in a hospital in Richmond, Indiana. Jim told the woman many lies in order to get her to marry him. Jim was quite paranoid, lied often and moved around a lot. One minute he’d seem like the kindest person on the planet and then the next minute he would do something mean to his wife or to the child they once took care of, and his “rainbow” children. He almost constantly tried to persuade, threaten and convince people to do what he wanted them to do. This is something he continued to do throughout his life. (Reiterman)
He wanted to be a preacher at first, and then he didn’t want to be. He wanted to be a communist and he wanted to study medicine. He had so many ideas roaming around in his head that during his young life he often didn’t know what he wanted to do with his life.
After marrying the woman of his dreams and a visit to a certain church he decided to become a preacher. He wanted to belong to a community where everyone was accepted just the way they were. He wanted blacks, whites and other people of other nationalities to get along. He wanted to be part of an interracial, all-ages group. He couldn’t find anything, so he made his own. He lied, cajoled and practically forced people to join his group. He was obsessed. He hardly slept at all. (Reiterman)
He started his church in Indianapolis and eventually moved his entire community to a place north of San Francisco. He wanted all of his community members to sell all their belongings and only have possessions in common. He and his followers lived a communal life style. In 1966 his congregation was 81 people; five years later it swelled to thousands. He did this by buying a bunch of busses and traveling across the country, with many of his current members to spread his word and to bring more members into his fold.
He would often do healings at the end of his sermons and sometimes he would use plants, people who acted crippled, for instance but weren’t, and became “healed” when he told them they were healed. From what I have read and seen, some of the healings were genuine, but I think that they were only successful through the power of suggestion - by hypnotism.
“People lifted Jim to a level of adoration, because many believed that he had healed them of cancer. Many believed that he had saved their son or daughter from an automobile accident. There were many reasons for many people to admire, love, excuse, overlook much of what Jim did.” (Jonestown - the movie)
“There’s only one hope of glory… That’s within you!” ~ Jim Jones
Jim Jones believed that everyone on the planet was homosexual and that he was the only one who was heterosexual. He’d sometimes offer to have sex with a man because he was strange like that, and he thought the man wanted it. He told all of his followers to be celibate but he was never so himself.
In the early 1970s the place north of San Francisco wasn’t working out so he moved his people to the city of San Francisco. They would picket for social change and other such things. Jim Jones had a lot of political power and he took full advantage of it. He met with many people including Walter Mondale and Rosalind Carter. He was very afraid that someone in the government would assassinate him. He had two body guards because of this. In the 1970s he started taking drugs. The San Francisco temple was burned down to the ground which proved to him that his paranoia was justified.
He just wanted a church that would “have a place of protection for its people.” (Jonestown) As mentioned previously, he was very paranoid.
He started building his community in Gayana in 1975. He ultimately planned to move there because he wanted to make a community that would be outside of the racism, bigotry and oppression in the U.S.A. The entire community moved there in 1977 because there were some newspaper articles about to come out about Jim Jones and what he was doing. People were worried about him and thinking that his organization was a cult.
The members of his movement had to live according to his rules and if they didn’t someone often told on them and they were brought up in front of the entire group and chastised and sometimes slapped and beaten into submission. He would sometimes torment people just for his own enjoyment. (Jonestown)
According to the press and seen on the Movie Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple, he isolated his followers from this country and from their families. He wouldn’t let people talk to their families except to say that everything was great. He lied to his followers and told them that blacks and Indians were being told to leave the USA and the United Kingdom. They had to constantly listen to his voice over a loud speaker system. He recorded some of his speeches and played them over and over again even throughout the night. Someone said it was like living in a concentration camp.
He did not want anyone to leave the community. If someone spoke out about their thoughts of leaving, or that things were wrong, they could be turned in by anybody, even by their own father or son or husband or wife. Jim Jones had to be in control and he wanted people around him, so he would do whatever he could to make people stay. He said it was “blasphemy to talk about going back when you have not been given any approval.” He would make them stand up and he would yell at them and ridicule them until they finally said that they didn’t really want to go home. (Jonestown)
Congressman Leo Ryan (Democrat) of California finally decided to give Jim Jones and his Peoples Temple a visit in Guyana in 1978 to find out what was really going on.
On November 17, 1978 the people had a concert for Congressman Ryan and everyone was happy and singing and dancing. Ryan and his people were totally impressed by what was occurring there in Guyana and planned on going back to the states to tell everyone that everything was fine. A sign behind Congressman Ryan during his speech said, “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” That night a couple of the people tried to get notes to Congressman Ryan that they wanted to leave.
The next day people were interviewed who said they wanted to stay. Then a storm blew in, and it was felt, by one person, “That evil itself had blown into Jonestown.” Someone finally spoke up to one of the reporters and said that they were being held prisoner and wanted to go home. “After it got out that people wanted to leave, all Hell broke loose.”
Jim Jones then pleaded with people to stay. He asked, “Why do you want to leave?” (Jonestown)
Someone tried to stab Congressman Ryan in the main pavilion of the community before he left. He and many of the people that came with him, and people who wanted to leave Jonestown were shot while trying to get on the plane by some gunmen in a truck. Congressman Ryan was shot dead.
The people who were left were called to the pavilion by Jim Jones. He spoke with them and said, “If we can’t live in peace, then let’s die in peace.” Suddenly men showed up around the pavilion with rifles. (Jonestown) I won’t go into any more of the horror of that day. 909 plus people died, including Jim Jones himself. After everyone else was dead he shot himself in the head, or some woman shot him and then shot herself. Three of Jim Jones’ sons were in Georgetown, Guyana at a basketball tournament and they survived. (Wessinger) Eighty-three other people were away for the day, plus there were others who escaped into the jungle, to stay alive to tell this story of hope, love, peace and death.
Updated September 5, 2017
Watch the movie and read the books I mention below and anything else you find to read if you want to learn more about this tragic event and the time leading up to it.
Moore, Rebecca. "JONESTOWN IN LITERATURE: CARIBBEAN REFLECTIONS ON A TRAGEDY." Literature & Theology 23.1 (Mar. 2009): 69-83.
Wessinger, Catherine. Professor of Religious Studies, Loyola University New Orleans. “How the Millennium Comes Violently: From Jonestown to Heaven’s Gate.” 2000. Seven Bridges Press. http://www.loyno.edu/~wessing/book.htm. Chapter 3.
Reiterman, Tim. John Jacobs. Raven: The Untold Story of the Rev. Jim Jones and His People. Dutton Adult. 1982.
Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple. (2006) (Video)
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