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 Jonestown—approximately 900 men,
women, and children—either 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.
Sources
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.

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