Jim Jones & Jonestown

Jonestown - How Did This Mass Suicide Happen?

How did Jonestown evolve from its idealistic beginnings as a highly evolved agricultural settlement to a massacre of more than 900 followers? Many scholars and researchers have approached that question since the apparent mass suicide in Guyana, South America, in 1978. In this paper the findings and viewpoints of journalists and researchers will be presented with reference to Jones, his beliefs, the "People's Temple" and the aftermath of the tragedy.

Background on Jim Jones and the People's Temple:

The Jonestown story is not easily understood without knowing Jim Jones' story and relating to his psychological, social, spiritual and moral makeup. Jim Jones grew up in Indiana, an only child and an "outsider" according to a report by the Public Broadcasting Service (www.pbs.org).Hisfather was a disabled veteran of World War II and was much older than his mother; Jones' mother was Cherokee Indian, and Jones told friends his dark hair and high cheekbones came from his mother's ethnicity. In time Jones would marry Marceline and adopt Korean and African-American children. Part of Jones' personal value system was that diversity was a wonderful thing in a society, and that interracial, multi-ethnic and spiritual values reflect America in the best possible way.

The "Jonestown" project at San Diego State University (SDSU) - "Alternative Considerations of Jonestown & People's Temple" (http://jonestown.sdsu.edu) pointsout that the People's Temple actually began in Indianapolis, Indiana, in the 1950s. It was originally set up to help the poor and downtrodden in Indiana. Prior to the establishment of the People's Temple in Indiana, Jones had been trained as a Protestant minister and was a student minister in 1952 with the Methodist Church. But that particular church in the 1950s reportedly did not allow African-Americans to participate and so Jones quit the church and went out on his own.

While still in Indiana, Jones' group was associated with the Disciples of Christ denomination, but Jones also visited Philadelphia often to visit a person named "Father Divine" and his "Peace Mission." Father Devine was known for organizing and invigorating a large inter-racial group of followers, and clearly Jones was impressed with this and planned to create a flock of his own using the Father Devine model. In fact Father Devine insisted that his followers call him "dad" and "father" - so that was also how Jones expected his followers to behave around him.

Jones even took his leadership a huge step beyond just asking for respect: he told his members that he should be looked at as though he was the "incarnation of Christ and of God," according to the SDSU document. He expressed the idea that a "disastrous period of fascism, race war, and nuclear holocaust was coming," the SDSU research continued. He preached a message of "socialist redemption," SDSU explained.

In 1965 Jones, his family and about 70 followers moved from Indian to Northern California "...in search of a place which might be safe in the event of a nuclear war," the SDSU research points out. The Jones' group wound up in Ukiah, a town known for liberal politics and a progressive social agenda, about 200 miles north of San Francisco. This was a period of great unrest in America; the Vietnam War was going on and there were numerous protests and violent actions by those opposed to the war. Eventually Jones moved his church to the Bay Area and according to the PBS account, Jones "...allied his group with progressive politicians demanding rights for minorities and the poor."

In this environment, the People's Temple attracted hundreds of people to its umbrella of social services, food for the poor, and religion without denominational dogma. In the PBS article it is pointed out "...Hundreds of People's Temple volunteers could blanket a neighborhood with fliers, stuff a mass mailing, or enthusiastically cheer a campaign rally at a moment's notice" (www.pbs.org).ThePeople's Temple seemed to be doing a better job attending to the needs of impoverished and disabled people than established government services were doing. The People's Temple group was idealistic and yet down to earth, as it established "...homes to care for the elderly, half a dozen foster homes for children," and even a ranch that was licensed to provide care for "mentally disabled" people (www.pbs.org).ThePeople's Temple also had trained social workers who could help citizens navigate the bureaucracies

And during the tumultuous 1960s, there was a lot of evidence in the news and on the streets to back up Jones' assertions, made in his charismatic sermons, that foretold of doom and fascism and racism taking over the land. Dr. Martin Luther King had been assassinated, Robert Kennedy had been killed - and militant black leader Malcolm X had been killed as well. The Vietnam War images were featured on television news programs every night and students were shutting down universities in protest over the draft and the war. All these events played well for Jim Jones as he pursued a path where people could take refuge from the evils and violence of the American society and join up with him.

Eventually "the congregation itself became the draw," according to PBS. There was a lot of music, the congregation joined in a lot of singing during the services, and the multi-racial nature of the movement was appealing to people of all faiths and races. The PBS research reveals that African-Americans were searching for "alternatives to their conservative churches...many black ministers were still preaching patience, asking their congregations to accept inequities and await a better future in heaven..."

Another example of the appeal of the People's Temple was that Jones (as an ordained minister) could marry interracial couples; some states had laws against interracial marriages and there were unspoken social mores that kept many couples from marrying. Vernon Gosney, who was white, had an African-American wife, thanks to the People's Temple's policy of racial unity. "Her family didn't accept me. My family didn't accept her," Gosney explained in the PBS piece. "...It was really important to us, to have a place - to be in a place where we were accepted and embraced and celebrated..."

Jonestown - the Beginning and Ending

In 1974, Jim Jones sent a few of his members to Guyana, a one-time colony of the British Empire, to rent jungle property for an agricultural project. A total of 3,852 acres were rented by the People's Temple from the Government of Guyana for 25 years, the SDSU research project reports. The land was in the western part of Guyana near the border with Venezuela. The idea from Jones' standpoint was to build an agricultural community based on the spiritual and social movement he had started in Indiana and brought into fruition in California. The workers who first visited the new site for the People's Temple, "Jonestown," cleared brush and trees and preparing for planting because the lease deal Jones struck with Guyana included a provision requiring Jones to "cultivate and beneficially occupy" at lease one-fifth of the 3,852 acres.

Meantime in David Chidester's book, Salvation and Suicide: Jim Jones, The Peoples Temple and Jonestown, the author claims that Guyana was a "black, socialist republic" and that Jones was a "utopian dreamer" who tried to create a "new social order that would serve as a model for people around the globe" (Metcalf, 2005). Writing in the journal Utopian Studies, Metcalf critiques Chidester's work, noting that 75% of the people in Jonestown were black, 66% were women, 15% were over 65 and 30% were under the age of 18. According to Chidester, Jones became paranoid, and began holding "regular rehearsals for their well-planned, anticipated mass suicide." But what brought Jones from the charismatic preacher and utopian seeker to the point where he would be asking his "congregation" of believers to practice killing themselves?

James T. Richardson writes in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion that "most government investigators and journalists" looked at the tragedy from a psychological standpoint, and many of those observers believed simply that Jones was "crazy" and that he had "brainwashed" his followers (Richardson, 2001, p. 240). But Richardson doubts those analyses, albeit he writes that Jones did have "absolute authority." Jones set up a group of 15 or 20 "private counselors and workers" that he called "the angels"; Richardson writes that they were "mostly attractive, tall, white women" and below the angels was another group called the "planning commission" (about 100 people who took care of "disciplinary actions") (Richardson, p. 244).

The so-called planning commission also provided armed security for the encampment; this security was in place because Jones lectured his followers about the possibility that his "enemies" were out to "destroy him," Richardson writes. No one was allowed contact with the outside world and strong physical punishment was reportedly meted out to those who broke rules. There have been reports in other publications and in data collected that Jones would impose punishments like sleep deprivation and he would force feelings of guilt; he also rewarded…