The first disturbing reports of the deaths of Congressmen Leo J. Ryan and four other members of his party, did not reveal the whole shocking story when news broke out about shootings taking place as the victims attempted to board a plane at Port Kaituma airstrip in Guyana. Within hours, it was revealed that 408 American citizens had committed suicide at a communal village they had built in the jungle in Northwest Guyana. The community, known as The People’s Temple’ was led by an influential religious guru, the Reverend Jim Jones.
913 of the 1100 people believed to have lived in the village called “Jonestown” had died in a mass suicide pact.
Jim Jones as a youth was enraptured by his experiences at a Pentecostal congregation known as the Gospel Tabernacle. Its members were nicknamed the “holy-rollers” and by the time Jones was 16 he also believed he had spiritual powers.
In 1947 he was preaching on street corners in mixed race neighbourhoods proselytising egalitarian values, views that were quite radical for Midwest America. For Jones believed in breaking down racial divides as well as helping the poor and outcast of society, principles no doubt that would later attract hundreds of malcontents to his cult church in the 70s.
Despite his seeming compassion for others, Jones had a pathological belief in his own superiority. He become extremely annoyed at being criticised and once, when a young friend disobeyed him and left church early, Jones shot at him with his father’s gun. As a young man he even tried to impose his will on a twelve-year-old male relative that both he and his wife wanted to adopt. But the boy refused, despite having been told by Jones that his mother didn’t love him.
Jones’ growing interest in politics and social issues was somewhat undermined by an obsession with tyrannical figures like Hitler and Joseph Stalin. His great sense of insecurity was indicative of a paranoiac personality. He suffered from a fear of being abandoned by those he loved and would often become jealous of his wife, Marceline, when she showed attention to anyone else but him.
Unexpectedly Jones disavowed ‘God’ for allowing poverty and injustice to exist. He even threatened to commit suicide if his wife prayed. But after Marceline introduced him to the Methodist Church, he was encouraged by its views on emancipation for repressed minorities. Eventually he became a preacher for them.
Within a couple of years Jones was successfully preaching at Pentecostal meetings at other churches. This led him to begin his own church in 1956 calling it the “People’s Temple.”
Jones’ church established a soup kitchen and gave shelter to the needy. He and his wife also adopted a black child and a Korean orphan, while having a son of their own. It is difficult to equate such kindly, altruistic principles with a man who had a pathological bent for imposing his will on others which would later lead hundreds to commit suicide on his command.
During the Cold War and America’s fear of Communism, Jones decided that ‘Communalism’ was the best weapon against the Reds.
It was due to his ‘vision’ of an imminent nuclear attack that Jones decided to search for safe locations around the world. He had travelled to Guyana before and was impressed by the socialist ethos of its government. In 1965, fearing a nuclear attack, he moved 140 of his followers to Ukiah in Mendocino County in California after reading that it was one of the safest places to be.
Contrasting Jones’ increasing sense of power and domineering personality was the fact that his own family was falling apart. His wife Marceline no longer tolerated his extramarital affairs and son Stephen had little respect for a father who appeared to be a hypocrite.
In 1968, with his congregation having fallen to a paltry few, Jones applied for affiliation with a corporate religious organisation, the Disciples of Christ. Its 1.5 million members gave Jones the support he needed to create a maverick branch of the church that preached socialism.
By 1973, his congregation had grown to two and a half thousand and had spread to San Francisco and Los Angeles. The following year he obtained permission from the government of Guyana to begin building a commune on a 300-acre allotment, 140 miles from Georgetown. He named it "Jonestown".
Members of the local Catholic church were horrified by the nature of Jones’ preaching, which involved fake healings and miracles. Jones would often use employees to sift through members’ garbage bags so that he could deliver psychic readings and impress the congregation with his intimate knowledge of them.
Recruiting for Jonestown
Jones also set up a screening process where anyone who appeared too conservative would be rejected. Preference was for those who attended Pentecostal services, resulting in the majority of recruits being African-Americans, the poor and uneducated.
Members turned their property over to the People’s Temple and in return received bed and board and a weekly two-dollar allowance.
Jones’ views and laws regarding sex were often contradictory. He advocated marriage yet believed in sexual liberation, but would also preach celibacy. Any spouse who reacted with jealousy over their husband’s extramarital relations, would be admonished publicly.
Members were made to reveal their sexual fantasies and sexual orientation openly. Jones himself maintained that he was strictly heterosexual, yet he sodomised a male member on the grounds that he was ‘proving’ the man’s homosexuality. Interestingly Jones was actually arrested for importuning in a known gay cruising ground, although he managed to keep the offence under wraps.
It was Jones’ increasing links to influential political people and his sinister ‘Big Brother’ style tactics to eliminate critical reports in the press that indicated that he was becoming a control freak.
To go as far as planting Temple members in newspaper offices so that they could report any planned articles that would criticise the Temple organisation, was the kind of behaviour that attracted concern from the likes of Congressmen Leo J. Ryan. The latter, like many others, including concerned families of Temple members, created a great deal of public attention regarding Jones’ spiritual empire.
The authorities and media now wanted to investigate the powerful, rich, megalomaniac, who saw himself not only as a revolutionary, but also as Christ incarnate.
But as more defectors got word to the media - despite risking grave repercussions - and revealed disturbing stories of beatings and violence against Temple members, Jones decided that an imminent move to ‘Jonestown’ in the Guyana jungle was the only way he would have complete control over his flock.