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Jones, Jim (1931-1978), Cult Leader

Jones, Jim
(1931-1978), cult leader.

Jim Jones was the leader of an unconventional Christian movement, the People's Temple, in the United States, and founder of a cooperative agricultural community, Jonestown, in the South American jungles of Guyana that ended in mass suicide on November 13, 1978. In the American media, Jonestown became emblematic of the dangerous, coercive, and brainwashing "cults" that allegedly threatened American mainstream society. As he was demonized in the popular imagination, Jim Jones emerged as the model of the crazy, criminal cult leader in America.

Jones, a white minister, was born in Indiana and drew attention during the mid-1950s to Pentecostal faith healing, social service, and racial integration. After reporting a vision in 1967 of an imminent nuclear war, Jones moved his ministry to northern California, where he gained formal affiliation with the Disciples of Christ and attracted a large, primarily African-American following. In sermons during the early 1970s Jones attacked what he regarded as a false notion of God as a transcendent person. He derided such a notion by ridiculing the deity of conventional Christianity as the Sky God, the Mythological God, the Spook, or the Buzzard. However, Jones proclaimed a genuine God, which he identified as love. Citing Karl Marx, Jones declared that divine love was a social system in which each according to their ability gave to each according to their need. For Jones, God was socialism—"God Almighty, Socialism"—a principle of divine love that he claimed to exemplify by being the Christ, the divine socialist in a body.

While his sermons celebrated the Soviet Union, China, and Cuba as utopias of Divine Socialism, Jones identified the United States as a domain of evil. "Any system that fights against socialism is against God," he declared. "So who is fighting against socialism? You are sitting in the midst of the anti-God system: American capitalism." Depicting American capitalism as a racist, fascist, and oppressive system, Jones informed his congregation that "America's system is representative of the mark of the Beast and America is the Antichrist." In these terms Jones worked out his novel form of Christianity on the international battlefield on which capitalism confronted communism during the Cold War. In this apocalyptic scenario, Jones proposed a new understanding of the messianic age that would result in the Kingdom of God, the reign of Divine Socialism on earth.

During the mid-1970s, however, former members, who called themselves Concerned Relatives, began a media campaign to expose alleged brainwashing, financial corruption, torture, and child abuse within the People's Temple. Under pressure from this negative media attention, Jones led about a thousand of his congregation to Guyana, which he regarded as a congenial black socialist country in South America, to found the community of Jonestown. In November 1978, however, when the community was visited by a congressional delegation that included journalists and Concerned Relatives, Jones led more than nine hundred of his followers in what he called "revolutionary suicide." Understood as a blow against their principal enemies—the U.S. government, the media, and former members—mass suicide appeared to many in Jonestown as a way of redeeming a human identity from the dehumanizing pull of American capitalism, racism, and oppression through a single superhuman act. Although many at Jonestown hoped that their deaths would awaken the conscience of America, media coverage of the community, which was headlined by both Time and Newsweek as the "Cult of Death," reinforced and revitilized anticult stereotypes. As more than one anticult activist concluded, "All cults lead to Jonestown."

See alsoAnti-Cult Movement; Brainwashing; Church and State; Communes; Cult; Cult Awareness Network; Father Divine; Pentecostal and Charismatic Christianity; People's Temple; Psychology of Religion.


Chidester, David. Salvation and Suicide: An Interpretation of Jim Jones, the People's Temple, and Jonestown. 1988.

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

David Chidester

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