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What began in Indiana in 1960 as a bold experiment in radical theology ended tragically in the jungle of Guyana in 1978 with Peoples Temple members drinking poisoned Kool-Aid.
In the early 1970s the Peoples Temple was accused of being a doomsday cult. Its flamboyant minister, Jim Jones, readily admitted that he thought that the Apocalypse and Armageddon were just around the corner and that the world had definitely entered the endtimes. Jones fulminated from his pulpit that the end of the world was drawing near and that civilization would soon be destroyed in a nuclear holocaust. At the same time, his healing services at the Peoples Temple in San Francisco were attracting both true believers and curiosity seekers, and Jones’s particular brand of theology seemed attractive to many individuals drawn to alternative religious expression.
Born into a poor Indiana family at the height of the Great Depression in 1931, James Warren Jones (1931–1978) was deeply influenced by his mother’s belief in spirits and by her distrust of organized religion. At the same time, a Pentecostal neighbor lady showed the boy how religion could also be an intensely emotional experience. At an early age Jones developed a repugnance of racism, and he set as his mission the creation of a social activism that would tear down all racial barriers.
Jones held degrees from Indiana University and Butler University, but he had received no formal training in theology when he was invited to speak at the Laurel Street Tabernacle, an Assemblies of God Pentecostal church, in Indianapolis in September 1954. As a result of his powerful sermon on racial equality, many members left the congregation to follow Jones and to form a new church, the Wings of Deliverance, which was renamed the Peoples Temple. In 1960 the Peoples Temple was officially made a congregation of the Christian Church, Disciples of Christ, a liberal Protestant denomination, and Jones was ordained a minister. Within a very short time, Jones’s social gospel of equality and love attracted over nine hundred members, and he added healing services to his ministry.
In 1965, because of threats directed against the Peoples Temple by those who were disturbed by Jones’s radical theology and his alleged cures of cancer, heart disease, and arthritis, the Temple moved to Ukiah, California, where Jones believed racial equality could be preached with greater openness and less fear of retaliation. Seventy families, half of them African American and half white, moved with him.
In 1977, reacting to a number of attacks directed at him and his inner circle, Jones moved his community to the South American nation of Guyana, where in 1974 he had acquired a lease from the Guyanese government for four thousand acres of land to be used for colonization. The new community was called the Peoples Temple Agricultural Project, and eventually over nine hundred men, women, and children would follow their charismatic leader to Jonestown.
Jonestown was not an idyllic community in the middle of the Guyana jungle. Members were required to work eleven hours a day, six days a week, and eight hours on Sunday, clearing land for agriculture, planting crops, and building dormitories and other necessary buildings. Their diet consisted primarily of rice and beans, and their evenings were filled with required meetings before they were allowed to get some rest.
While his followers slaved in the steaming jungle to build a viable community, Jones, who had become increasingly paranoid, as well as extremely reliant on prescription drugs, began receiving messages from extraterrestrials who described a process called “Translation.” During the implementation of the Translation, Jones and his followers would all die together and the aliens would take their spirits to another planet to enjoy a life of bliss. To prepare for this event, Jones ordered rehearsals of a mass suicide, during which followers would pretend to drink poison and fall to the ground. Those followers who began to suggest that their once unselfish leader was suffering from mental illness or megalomania were shouted down by the true believers once Jones revealed his true divinity, claiming to be the reincarnation of Jesus Christ, the Buddha, the pharaoh Akhenaten, Lenin, and Father Divine, the founder of the International Peace Mission movement, all in one physical body.
On November 14, 1978, California congressman Leo Ryan and several representatives of the media visited Jonestown to investigate claims of civil rights violations that had reached concerned relatives in the United States from community members. Sixteen members of the Temple told Ryan that they wished to return with him, and Jones became extremely upset by so many defectors wanting to leave his community.
On November 18 a Temple member made an attempt on Ryan’s life, and the congressman and his party decided to leave Jonestown immediately. While they were boarding two planes on the jungle airstrip, some heavily armed members of the Temple’s security guards arrived and began firing on the group. Ryan and four others were killed and eleven were wounded before the planes could get into the air.
Jones feared retaliation from the U.S. government and decreed that it was time to put Translation into effect. Some members of the Temple committed suicide by ingesting cyanide-laced Kool-Aid, and others injected poison directly into their veins. According to those who later arrived at Jonestown to investigate, 638 adult members of the community died, together with 276 children. A few fled into the jungle and survived the mass suicide and attempts to shoot those who refused to drink the poison.
The Peoples Temple as a movement died along with the 914 members who perished in Jonestown on November 18, 1978. In 1989 their former headquarters building in San Francisco was destroyed by an earthquake. Conspiracy theorists argue that the tragic mass deaths at Jonestown eliminated evidence of a CIA experiment gone bad. Others suggest that Jones subjected his followers to mind-control experiments of his own and became a victim of the situation. And then there are those who insist that Jones was mentally ill and complicated his mental imbalance with drug abuse.