The People's Temple was a new religious movement started by Jim Jones with the intention of promoting racial equality, but instead ended with over 900 people dead from a mass suicide in Jonestown,Guyana. Jones started the People's Temple in Indianapolis, Indiana. However, sensing that Indianapolis would never accept his message of racial equality, Jones moved his congregation to Ukiah, California in 1965 and then in the early 1970s to San Francisco. Finally, among growing accusations from former members and highly critical newspaper articles, Jones established in 1977 what he believed to be a utopian, socialistic community in Guyana called Jonestown (Kilduff and Javers, 1978).
Jones and the People's Temple were involved in a number of social welfare programs in both Indianapolis and California, such as "soup kitchens . . . legal aid services . . . [and] childcare centers" (Richardson 1980, p. 250). Additionally, journalists Marshall Kilduff and Ron Javers point out that they were active in politics, particularly in California. Temple members could be expected to write letters of support for a particular issue or to fill up a political rally when needed. Jones served in several appointed civil positions in both Indiana and California.
Congressman Leo Ryan was approached by a group called the Concerned Relatives, which consisted of former People's Temple members and the relatives of current members of People's Temple, about their concern for the people in Jonestown. Ryan agreed to make an official visit to Jonestown as a member of the House International Relations Committee. Ryan's attempt to visit Jonestown was met with resistance from Jones. Eventually Ryan, accompanied by both television and print journalists, arrived in Jonestown on November 17, 1978. The visit consisted of a tour of the commune, a meeting with Jones, and some entertainment (Kilduff and Javers 1978; Krause 1978).
Journalist Charles Krause reports that the next morning, Ryan was attacked by a man with a knife, although he was not hurt by the incident. Later that same day, Ryan and his party, which now included defectors from the People's Temple, were attacked by assassins at the Port Kaituma airstrip. Ryan and four others were killed and ten were injured.
As the killing at the airstrip occurred, Jones was leading his congregation through a mass suicide/homicide for which Temple members had been practicing since 1973. Sociologist Ken Levi and religious scholar Catherine Wessinger discuss how and why the suicide occurred. The suicide practices were called "White Nights" and consisted of members drinking a liquid that they believed was poisonous as a loyalty test to Jones. However, this day it was not a loyalty test: People lined up to drink the fruit-flavored punch laced with cyanide and tranquilizers or, for the very young, to have the poisonous concoction injected into their mouths. "Nine hundred and nine people died at Jonestown including 294 children under the age of 18" (Wessinger 2000, p. 31). Eighty-five members survived either because they hid, ran into the jungle, or were not in Jonestown that day. Jones himself "died of gunshot wounds" (Wessinger 2000, p. 31).
The question of how many people were murdered versus how many committed suicide is difficult to determine because only seven bodies were autopsied. Sociologist James Richardson (1980) notes that the decision to not autopsy more bodies was widely criticized in the press. Therefore, other than being certain that the very young children were murdered, it is impossible to determine how many people voluntarily took their own lives.
Reasons for the Violence
Several interrelated factors may have affected the Temple members' decision to stay in Jonestown and to commit mass suicide. First, Jones was a powerful and charismatic leader; he performed faith healings in which he pretended to cure people of cancer and claimed to be the "reincarnation of Jesus Christ" (Johnson 1979, p. 320). Also, Richardson explains that the authority structure in the People's Temple was highly centralized, so Jones had the ultimate authority there. As evidence that many people did see him as a charismatic leader, many of the followers called him "Father or Dad" (Wessinger 2000, p. 34).
Second, Jonestown was isolated—surrounded by thirty miles of jungle—so members were hesitant to leave. Jones made repeated threats that leaving would be difficult because of the lions, tigers, and human enemies in the jungle (Richardson 1980). The psychologist Robert Cialdini argues that isolation creates uncertainty, this uncertainty led Temple members to follow others. Therefore, when Jones was urging people to drink the cyanide-laced punch, Temple members may have looked around to see that others were lining up and compliantly got in line.
Third, coercive methods were used to control the people at Jonestown. The journalists Marshall Kilduff and Ron Javers noted in their book, The Suicide Cult (1978), that physical punishments were common at the People's Temple. For example, children may have been shocked using an "electrical cattle prod or heart defibrillator" (Kilduff and Javers 1978, p. 64). Jones frequently had Temple members sign documents in which the member falsely admitted to crimes. Jones would then threaten to use these admissions if the member ever left the cult. Jones built loyalty to him by weakening existing family ties. He would not allow sex between married couples, and children often lived apart from parents in a separate facility at the People's Temple commune.
Fourth, sociologist John Hall argues that Jones believed that he was being persecuted based upon negative news articles, lawsuits filed against him, and the belief that government agencies were conspiring against him. Moreover, Jones created an environment in which people feared persecution if they returned to or stayed in the United States. For the poor, urban African Americans who made up a majority of the group, he convinced them that if they did not come to Jonestown they would be put into concentration camps. For the whites, who often joined because of Jones's message of socialism, he led them to believe that they were being monitored by the Central Intelligence Agency.
Hall further suggests that the purpose of this persecution was to build loyalty to Jones. It may have made the idea of mass suicide more acceptable to many of the Temple members. Congressman Ryan's visit was probably already seen as threatening to many of the cult members. However, in the minutes before the mass suicide/murder, Jones repeatedly made reference to the fact that because his assassins had attacked the congressman that people would come back to destroy Jonestown; therefore, it was better to die in a revolutionary suicide (i.e., dying for a cause) than to have what they had built in Jonestown destroyed.
See also: Cult Deaths; Heaven's Gate; Mass Killers; Waco
Cialdini, Robert B. "Social Proof: Truths Are Us." In Influence. Boston: Allyn & Bacon, 2001.
Hall, John R. "The Apocalypse at Jonestown." In Ken Levi ed., Violence and Religious Commitment. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1982.
Johnson, Doyle P. "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. New York: Bantam, 1978.
Krause, Charles A. Guyana Massacre. New York: Berkley, 1978.
Levi, Ken, ed. "Jonestown and Religious Commitment in the 1970s." Violence and Religious Commitment. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1982.
Richardson, James T. "People's Temple and Jonestown: A Corrective Comparison and Critique." Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 19 (1980):239–255.
Wessinger, Catherine. How the Millennium Comes Violently: From Jonestown to Heaven's Gate. New York: Seven Bridges Press, 2000.
DENNIS D. STEWART CHERYL B. STEWART