Jones, Jim

views updated May 14 2018


JONES, JIM . James Warren Jones (19311978), the charismatic leader of Peoples Temple who persuaded his followers to commit murder and suicide in Guyana in 1978, was born to James Thurman Jones and Lynetta Putnam Jones in Crete, Indiana, on May 13, 1931. Lynetta supported the family doing factory work in Lynn because the elder Jones suffered ill health resulting from injuries sustained in World War I. Although the family was irreligious, the younger Jones attended several local churches and by the age of ten was being groomed as a child evangelist by a female Pentecostal preacher.

As a high school student, Jones met Marceline Baldwin, a nursing student, at a hospital in Richmond where they both worked. They wed in 1949. After intermittently attending Indiana University and working at a series of jobs, Jones found himself drawn to the ministry, despite earlier expressions of atheism. He began an internship in 1952 at a Methodist church in Indianapolis but was expelled after he brought African Americans to services. He established his own congregation, Community Unity Church, which in 1955 became Peoples Temple. His ministry in Indianapolis, marked by Pentecostal and Holiness theology and black church tradition and style, attracted both black and white members drawn to his message of racial equality and social justice. He and Marceline adopted five children, including one white, one black, and three Koreans, and along with their biological son created what they called a "rainbow family." Jones's work as a white minister in an interracial congregation led to his appointment as director of the Indianapolis Human Rights Commission in 1961, where he served briefly before traveling to Hawaii and South America. When he returned two years later, he told the greatly reduced Indianapolis congregation that the church must move to northern California to be safe in the event of nuclear war.

A group of eighty parishioners relocated with the Jones family to Redwood Valley, a small town in the California wine country north of San Francisco. There members began to live and work communally, donating wages and income from outside jobs. The group sponsored several residential homes and outpatient services for the mentally ill and mentally retarded, which Marceline administered. Jim Jones continued to preach a social gospel message of service to the poor and encouraged expansion of the church to San Francisco, where membership grew with the inclusion of thousands of African Americans. The dynamic minister became a political force in San Francisco in the 1970s, a result of his delivering Peoples Temple members to demonstrations in support of freedom of the press, Native American rights, and antidevelopment efforts. Local, state, and national politicians frequented the Temple, where they were warmly greeted. The Temple also opened a church in Los Angeles, and during the mid-1970s Jones preached at all three California congregations, traveling the length of the state in a Temple-owned bus. He also led several cross-country caravans, preaching in Philadelphia, New York, and midwestern cities, attracting members at every stop.

In 1974 Jones signed a lease to cultivate 3,852 acres in the Northwest District of Guyana, the only English-speaking country in South America. Temple volunteers had been developing the site for three years when critical reports about the powerful minister emerged in San Francisco. Former members claimed that Jones forced sex upon them, encouraged corporal punishment of errant members by other members, and had faked faith healings and miracles. Some claimed that Jones had ordered ex-members to be killed. Negative publicity, coupled with a federal tax investigation, prompted Jones and a thousand members to immigrate to Guyana in mid-1977. Jones's mental and physical health deteriorated in the tropical climate, and his leadership became more erratic and abusive, as an addiction to tranquilizers worsened. A small leadership group, comprised mainly of women, carried out most day-to-day details, while Jones focused on what he believed were conspiracies against the community, now called Jonestown.

When U.S. Congressman Leo A. Ryan announced plans to visit Jonestown in November 1978 to investigate charges of kidnapping and abuse, Jones and the group protested, but then acquiesced once the congressman arrived in Guyana. On November 18 Ryan left Jonestown with about sixteen defectors. Gunmen, presumably from Jonestown, shot and killed Ryan and four members of his party and wounded a dozen others at the Port Kaituma airstrip, six miles from Jonestown. Meanwhile, in the community's central pavilion, Jones gathered residents who did not yet know of the death of Ryan and the others. As a tape recording made at the time indicates, Jones exhorted his followers to drink from a vat of poisoned punch. He asked mothers to quiet their children and allowed a dissenter to speak, although she was shouted down by other community members. His words indicate that he wanted the world to recognize their self-sacrifice as an act of "revolutionary suicide" to protest the conditions of an inhumane world. Jones was found shot to death, surrounded by his followers. An autopsy reported that his wounds were consistent with suicide, although the gun that killed him was found several feet away.

Jim Jones criticized traditional Christianity for being complacent and hypocritical in the face of massive suffering and injustice, and he disparaged otherworldly religion, which neglected the here-and-now. He advocated a type of "apostolic socialism," which followed the example of the early church (Acts 2:4445, 4:32) in which everyone contributed to and shared in the common good. He wrote The Letter Killeth, a pamphlet that identified contradictions and injustices in the Bible, and during some services he would throw the Bible onto the floor in disdain. Modeling himself after Father Divine, the black leader of the Peace Mission, Jones encouraged followers to call him "Dad" or "Father." As opposed to Divine and other charismatic preachers, however, Jones eschewed the trappings that usually accompany celebrity. He wore used clothing and secondhand shoes, traveled and ate with his members, and shared the same type of housing. His modest lifestyle allowed him to attack "jackleg preachers" who drove Cadillacs and flaunted their worldly success.

As early as his years in Indianapolis Jones began to make claims about his own divinity, which eventually led him to declare himself "God, almighty God," in San Francisco. Once in Guyana, however, he dropped the religious language that had attracted thousands: Christian communalism gave way to political communism, as the group contemplated migration to North Korea, Cuba, or the Soviet Union. Jones's beliefs mixed religion, politics, and pragmatism into his own unique blend. In place of the sky god of Christianity, he encouraged people to believe in him and his divinity and to put their trust in his goodness. Ultimately that trust was betrayed.

See Also

Father Divine; Jonestown and Peoples Temple.


Chidester, David. Salvation and Suicide: An Interpretation of Peoples Temple and Jonestown. Bloomington, Ind., 1988. A review of the theology of Jim Jones.

Hall, John R. Gone from the Promised Land: Jonestown in American Cultural History. New Brunswick, N.J., 1987. Detailed, scholarly history of Peoples Temple and Jonestown.

Maaga, Mary McCormick. Hearing the Voices of Jonestown. Syracuse, N.Y., 1998. History of Peoples Temple that focuses on the role of women in the movement.

Moore, Rebecca. A Sympathetic History of Jonestown: The Moore Family Involvement in Peoples Temple. Lewiston, N.Y., 1985. Personal account of a family whose relatives died in Jonestown.

Moore, Rebecca, and Fielding M. McGehee III. "Alternative Considerations of Jonestown and Peoples Temple." Available from Website presenting primary and secondary source material on Jonestown and Peoples Temple.

Reiterman, Tim, with John Jacobs. Raven: The Untold Story of the Rev. Jim Jones and His People. New York, 1982. In-depth examination of Jim Jones and Peoples Temple.

Rebecca Moore (2005)

Jones, Jim (1931-1978)

views updated Jun 11 2018

Jones, Jim (1931-1978)

Founder of the Peoples Temple 900, whose members died in a massive murder-suicide in 1978. Jones was for many years an honored pastor of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) before his career ended in controversy and death.

Jones was born May 31, 1931, in Lynn, Indiana. As a young man he became the pastor of a Methodist church but could not meet the Methodist standards for a minister. He left in 1954 to found an independent congregation in Indianapolis to further his vision of a church that could overcome racial barriers. He was impressed with the accomplishments of Father Divine, and he modeled his own church, which he called the Peoples Temple, on Father Divine's Peace Mission Movement. In the mid-1960s he had a vision of a nuclear holocaust and moved the congregation to Ukiah, California, which he believed would be a relatively safe location. In the meantime, he and the congregation had become affiliated with the Disciples of Christ.

In California, Jones became a social activist and was well known for his support of liberal social and political causes. He extended his work to Los Angeles and San Francisco, where he built predominantly African American congregations. Leadership, however, tended to fall into the hands of the minority white members. Worship followed a style common to the black community, with a gospel choir, spirited preaching, and reports of miracle healings. According to reports, Jones became increasingly autocratic in his leadership, and as he became frustrated at the lack of visible effects of his efforts to end racism, he began to lean increasingly toward Marxism.

In 1973 he founded a rural agricultural colony in the largely Marxist country of Guyana. Through the mid-1970s, as the colony seemed to prosper, there were an increasing number of rumors and accusations concerning irregularities at the temple, including charges of violence against former members and temple critics. In 1977, just before the appearance of an exposé article in New West magazine, Jones and many of his followers migrated to the colony, which had been named Jonestown.

Jones responded to the accusations with heightened paranoia. During this time he was also seeking a solution to the problem of financing his following and placing his followers in a harmonious environment. He explored a number of possibilities, including "revolutionary suicide,"suicide committed in furtherance of a moral cause. During the Vietnam War, for example, several Buddhist monks killed themselves in protest of the war. Jones's situation was different, however, in that he was attempting to gain the entire community's acceptance of the idea.

In November 1978 California Congressman Leo Ryan made a visit to Guyana to observe life at Jonestown. For reasons still not well understood, immediately after he left and was preparing to return to the United States, a group of temple members attacked and killed him and his party. A short time later, most of the residents at Jonestownapproximately 900 men, women, and childreneither committed suicide or were murdered. Jim Jones died on November 18, 1978 from a gunshot wound.

Understanding the tragedy of Jonestown has been hindered by the confiscation and storage under lock and key of the many records concerning the investigation of the temple and Ryan's death. The lack of information has allowed a wide range of speculation about what occurred. Jonestown has since become a popular example of the pitfalls of unapproved religious groups, or cults.


Hall, John R. Gone from the Promised Land: Jonestown in American Cultural History. New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction, 1987.

Melton, J. Gordon, ed. The Peoples Temple and Jim Jones: Broadening Our Perspectives. New York: Garland, 1990.

Moore, Rebecca, ed. New Religious Movements, Mass Suicide, and Peoples Temple: Scholarly Perspectives on a Tragedy. New York: Edwin Mellen, 1989.

Reiterman, Tom. Raven. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1982.

Peoples Temple

views updated May 17 2018

Peoples Temple

A congregation led by Pastor Jim Jones. It fell victim to a massive murder-suicide in November 1978. In the wake of the tragedy, the Peoples Temple has become a symbol of the dangers of cults and Jones the model of the evil, manipulative cult leader. The Peoples Temple was for the last 15 years of its existence a part of the Christian church (Disciples of Christ), a large mainstream Christian denomination. In the 1960s it was hailed by liberal Protestants for its social activism. Within the loose structure of the Christian church, however, it developed a unique internal life.

The Peoples Temple was founded in Indianapolis, Indiana, in 1955 by a youthful Jim Jones as an independent congregation. He eventually brought the congregation into fellowship with the Disciples of Christ and he was ordained as a minister in that church in 1965. The next year he led most of the congregation's members to Ukiah, California, and once settled the group began to take on the elements of its unusual life. Although Jones was white, his efforts at recruiting were focused in the African American community, and the great majority of members were black. Worship services took on the free style of black Holiness churches.

Jones had been deeply influenced by his perception of black religious leader Father Divine, both in his ability to build an interracial community and in his godlike status. At one point he even attempted to merge his efforts with those of Divine's Peace Mission. Jones also came to see himself as possessing some of the godlike abilities claimed by Divine. This new self-perception was also influenced by Jones's experience among Brazilian Spiritists, and he was seen by followers as a prophet and miracle worker. Not only could he heal, but there were a number of cases of reported resurrection from the dead. Church services came to feature psychic readings and healings by Jones. Equally strong in Jones were the Marxist leanings underlying his social idealism.

By 1972 the Peoples Temple had grown to include several congregations, with groups in San Francisco and Los Angeles joining the older groups in Indianapolis and Ukiah. That same year Jones leased land in the South American nation of Guyana and the temple initiated an agricultural colony. The colony prospered and in 1977 Jones and a number of the members moved there. Eventually approximately one thousand members resided at Jonestown, as the colony was named. Jones's move to Guyana coincided with a rising criticism of the church by former members (including accusations of violence directed toward some) and the prospect of several very negative media reports on the temple.

By this time a variety of government investigations had been launched into temple activities, including its use of the welfare checks received by many of the members. In the midst of the ongoing controversy, Congressman Leo J. Ryan went to Guyana to see the colony, claiming he was interested because many of its residents had formerly lived in his district. After what had been to all outward appearances a cordial visit, Ryan and his party were murdered as they were about to board an airplane to return to the United States. Within hours most of the temple members were dead; some committed suicide, but many were murdered. Very few survived to tell what had happened.

In the wake of the tragedy, the U.S. Congress conducted an extensive investigation. Unfortunately, though a lengthy report was issued, the mass of materials, including the files of the various government investigations of the temple, have never been made public, and the truth of what actually occurred at Jonestown remains shrouded in mystery. Substantive revelations of what occurred there will likely be made when those files become available. In the meantime, completely distancing herself from the standard anticult rhetoric concerning the temple, Patricia Ryan, Ryan's daughter, filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, claiming that it was in large part responsible for her father's death.


Hall, John R. Gone from the Promised Land: Jonestown in American Cultural History. New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction, 1987.

Klineman, George, and Sherman Butler. The Cult That Died. New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1980.

Melton, J. Gordon, ed. The Peoples Temple and Jim Jones: Broadening Our Perspectives. New York: Garland, 1990.

Moore, Rebecca, ed. New Religious Movements, Mass Suicide, and Peoples Temple: Scholarly Perspectives on a Tragedy. New York: Edwin Mellen Press, 1989.

Reiterman, Tom. Raven. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1982.

People's Temple

views updated May 14 2018

People's Temple

The People's Temple is best known for the mass suicides and/or murders of nearly all of its more than 900 members in Jonestown, Guyana, in November 1978. This followed the murder of Congressman Leo Ryan, plus four others, as Ryan's investigative mission was ending, with some defectors planning to return with him to the United States.

Founded in 1956 in Indianapolis by Jim Jones, the People's Temple was a racially integrated congregation featuring enthusiastic, Pentecostal-style services with sometimes staged "faith healings" plus social service programs, including free meals for the poor. Jones became known in the community as a civil rights leader, but his integrationist policies aroused local hostility. In 1963 the People's Temple affiliated with the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), a mainstream Protestant denomination whose polity emphasizes congregational autonomy. Jones's services were influenced more by Father Divine than by mainstream Protestantism, but his racial policies and social out-reach were consistent with the social agenda of the Disciples (and other mainstream Protestant denominations) at the time. Jones developed a controlling leadership style, putting his own authority above the Bible and expecting followers to call him "Father." He borrowed Marxist-inspired socialist ideas plus the evangelical revivalist tradition. In 1965 he was ordained as a Disciples of Christ minister, but the congregation clearly did not fit traditional categories of religious organization.

In 1965 the People's Temple moved to Ukiah, California, reflecting Jones's fear of a nuclear holocaust, which he believed he could escape there. The congregation gradually grew, attracting educated white professionals and alienated young people who admired the temple's racial policies, high cohesiveness, and social service goals. Its outreach expanded with campaigns to San Francisco and Los Angeles, recruiting many poor blacks. By 1972 the temple moved to San Francisco, where membership grew to perhaps three thousand. Jones again became active in local politics. But the congregation increasingly resembled a communal-type organization, with members surrendering all their resources to the group. Jones tightened his control, using strategies ranging from lengthy self-analysis meetings to manipulation of sexual relations to physical beatings. Control was through a circle of inner advisers and a planning commission. He initiated a fake suicide ritual with the planning commission in which members were asked to drink "poison" wine (alcohol was otherwise forbidden) before being told that it was only a test of their faith.

Controversies erupted outside as news of inside abuses became known, and Jones developed plans for moving again, this time to Guyana, South America, to establish his long-awaited utopian community isolated from the coming apocalypse and other threats. By 1977 most members had moved, taking guns acquired earlier for protection. But Jones and his followers could not escape their opponents back in the United States, as demonstrated by Congressman Ryan's visit. Following Ryan's murder, Jones gave the suicide order to his followers. It will never be known how many suicide victims drank the cyanide-poisoned punch voluntarily to maintain their honor and escape possible retaliation for Congressman Ryan's murder, but armed guards ensured that Jones's last order before his death was followed.

See alsoAnti-Cult Movement; Brainwashing; Church and State; Communes; Cult; Cult Awareness Network; Father Divine; Jones, Jim; Pentecostal and Charismatic Christianity; Psychology of Religion; Sociology of Religion.


Hall, John R. Gone from the Promised Land: Jonestown inAmerican Cultural History. 1987.

Johnson, Doyle Paul. "Dilemmas of Charismatic Leadership: The Case of the People's Temple." Sociological Analysis 40 (1979):315–323.

Kilduff, Marshall, and Ron Javers. The Suicide Cult: TheInside Story of the People's Temple Sect and the Massacrein Guyana. 1978.

Doyle Paul Johnson

Peoples Temple

views updated May 11 2018

Peoples' Temple. Movement founded by the Reverend Jim Jones, a Christian socialist, in Indianapolis during the early 1950s. Having moved to California in 1965, Jones then established Jonestown, Guyana (1977). The Jones-town tragedy occurred in Nov. 1978, when 913 followers and Jones himself died, a sizeable number by drinking cyanide-laced ‘Flavor-Aid’ (the remainder were murdered). The tragedy was triggered by an investigation by Congressman Les Ryan and a party of journalists, seen as demonic agents.

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