This year marks the 35th anniversary of the Peoples Temple’s mass murder/suicide in the jungle of Guyana, South America. It was the single greatest loss of American civilian life ever recorded in a non-natural disaster — not counting the attacks of 9/11. And although the events of November 1978 offer a cautionary tale about religious fervor and the mad demands of false messiahs, it’s also true that Jim Jones, the evil genius in question, was a deconverted Christian who had come to embrace marxism and atheism.
On the demand of the Indiana-born cult leader, 908 people — including more than 300 children — ended their lives by gulping down a poisoned drink (an act that may have given rise to the phrase “drinking the Kool-Aid”). Some of Jones’s followers imbibed the fatal beverage willingly, hoping to “step into another plane,” as their leader put it. Others were forced at gunpoint. Temple members hunted down and killed a visiting U.S. Congressman and members of the American press. Jones, a few hours after ordering and overseeing the carnage, ended his own life with a single bullet to the head.
The next day, this was the scene from the air:
An early remembrance of sorts comes to us via the website Dangerous Minds, which yesterday posted a mind-bending fly-on-the wall video of a San Francisco Peoples Temple gathering from around 1975, three years before the bizarre tragedy in Guyana.
I don’t know who the woman is at the 1:20 mark, or whether she made it out alive. I hope so. Clearly, though, she was firmly in Jones’ grasp:
There are so many miracles in this church that it’s hard to tell about one without telling about two or three because they blend together and make a beautiful flow of miracles that changes our lives. I have a job that I’ve had for a year that was gotten for me by a miracle. The man employed me and then I wasn’t able to go to work for six weeks, and he waited for six weeks with nobody working for him, because our father [Jim Jones] kept that job open for me.
She then relays how her employer, whose business was faring badly, inexplicably became deluged with new orders after she told Jones about the company’s trouble. And there are further “miracles” she wants to share: When her car ran out of gas, she was more than a mile from the nearest service station, but she made it there anyway after simply restarting her vehicle. Somehow, this was Jones’ doing, she believes.
And you know, for 30 years, I prayed to a Sky God. And I got down on my knees and I pleaded and I cried for help, and I got nothing but disappointment and heartache. And now we have a father who loves each one of us so much that we don’t even have to ask for blessings… He wants to give us so much that everything we need and desire is there before we ask. How thankful we are for you Jim! Thank you!
The “Sky God” reference is jarring in the churchy context. It seems like an atheistic putdown, and that’s probably what it is. One of the deeply odd things about the Peoples Temple was that, eventually, Jones slipped the moorings of his Christian religion and supplanted it with rigid interpretations of marxism and socialism — without ever letting go of his preacher’s persona.
Once a staunch Methodist, he seems to have considered himself a non-believer. During one sermon, Jones thundered that
There’s only one hope of glory; that’s within you! Nobody’s going to come out of the sky! There’s no heaven up there! We’ll have to make heaven down here!
A 1976 phone transcript has Jones saying:
Off the record, I don’t believe in any loving God. Our people, I would say, are ninety percent atheist. … I’ve felt somewhat hypocritical for the last years as I became an atheist. I have become — you feel tainted by being in the church situation.
In an interview with the New York Times in 1977, Marcy Jones said that her spouse had been deeply influenced by watching Mao Zedong‘s forces overthrow the Chinese government, and added:
“Jim used religion to try to get some people out of the opiate of religion.”
Not to put too fine a point on it: Jim Jones was a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside a ball of fucking insanity. Even after he began working toward a secular egalitarian utopia, he kept or adopted all the trappings of Pentecostal-style religion: the flashy-reverend schtick; the robes; the inspired exuberance of his sermons; the faux miracles. He then combined all those things with equal parts Elvis Presley (charisma, swagger, aviator glasses) and Mao Zedong (communist ideology, totalitarianism, violence).
On paper, the good Reverend should have been shunned by everyone with half a brain: by socialists for grossly perverting the movement’s mainstream policy objectives; by his largely black spiritual following, many raised in the tradition of Christianity, for literally stomping on the Bible (“this black book has held down your people for 2000 years. It has no power!”); and by all in polite society for displaying unsettling strands of paranoia and megalomania, perhaps brought on Jones’ well-known drug abuse.
But his congregation in California grew into the thousands, and left-leaning activists and politicians such as Willie Brown and Harvey Milk were among his passionate defenders. As thanks for the Temple’s political support, San Francisco mayor George Moscone appointed Jones to the city’s Housing Authority Commission, where the Reverend eventually made chairman. The sainted Milk, in a letter to President Jimmy Carter just nine months before Jonestown‘s mass murder/suicide, declared the cult leader “a man of the highest character.”
Jones would have agreed. Encouraged from a young age by a mother who thought she’d given birth to the Messiah, he’d begun to think of himself as the reincarnation of Gandhi, Jesus, Buddha, and Lenin — among others. “If you see me as your savior, I’ll be your savior. If you see me as your God, I’ll be your God,” he told his followers.
Some women — and men — saw him as something else: a lover:
While Jones banned sex among Temple members outside of marriage, he himself voraciously engaged in sexual relations with both male and female Temple members. Jones, however, claimed that he detested engaging in homosexual activity and did so only for the male temple adherents’ own good, purportedly to connect them symbolically with him.
The more you learn about Jones, the more improbable he becomes. For instance, he earned money for the first church he started by raising monkeys and selling them door to door. Then he discovered a better source of income, requiring Temple members to tithe 25 to 40 percent of their gross incomes — and sometimes to sell their homes and give the money to the church. (After the reverend’s death, the Times noted that he had at least five million dollars socked away in foreign accounts.)
No blog post — and no video, no matter how revealing — can do justice to this complex maniac. Your best bet is probably Tim Reiterman‘s Raven: The Untold Story of the Rev. Jim Jones and His People, followed closely by Julia Scheeres‘ A Thousand Lives: The Untold Story of Jonestown. Both authors jump fearlessly into Jim Jones’ maw of delirium — a mixed pleasure if there ever was one.