Jim Jones and the People’s Temple Suicide (1978)
It was on this date, November 18, 1978, that over 900 members of the People’s Temple religious cult, along with their leader Jim Jones, committed mass suicide in Jonestown, Guyana, South America.
The leader of the cult, James Warren Jones, was born on 13 May 1931, the son of a Ku Klux Klansman in Lynn, Indiana. He opened his own independent, but non-Fundamentalist Christian church in Indianapolis by 1953, and in 1964, at the height of the American civil rights movement, the Disciples of Christ ordained him. His group of followers called themselves the People’s Temple and started out as an inter-racial mission for the sick, homeless and jobless. An interracial organization was unusual for the segregated 1950s, and Jones drew many black congregants.
Believing a nuclear Armageddon was coming, Jones moved his congregation to the San Francisco Bay Area in 1965. There he gained respect from politicians and civic leaders for his social programs. Jones was able to organize his followers to support political candidates in California and was rewarded by Mayor George Moscone with a seat on the Housing Authority Commission.
But a 1977 New West magazine article charged Jones with faith-healing fakery, physical abuse of his parishioners and questionable finances. Having already leased some jungle land in Guyana for a “People’s Temple Agricultural Project,” Jones warned his followers his persecutors could end his mission. He ordered a select thousand to accompany him to Jonestown in 1977 and 1978.
In June 1978, the San Francisco Chronicle published People’s Temple defector Deborah Layton’s account and affidavit* on the cult. She revealed weekly drills for mass suicide. Jonestown relatives pushed for an investigation. On 17 November 1978, Representative Leo Ryan arrived at Jonestown. His investigation was initially well received, but when some residents tried to leave with Ryan, Ryan, some defectors and some news people, were murdered at the airstrip on orders from Jim Jones.
His mission and his place in history slipping away from him, and physically and mentally deteriorating himself, on November 18 Jones ordered his people to commit suicide by drinking cyanide-laced juice, which he called a “revolutionary suicide”:
|Audio| Please — for God’s sake, let’s get on with it. We’ve lived, we’ve lived as no other people have lived and loved. We’ve had as much of this world as you’re gonna get. Let’s just be done with it. Let’s just be done with the agony of it. … This is a revolutionary suicide. This is not a self-destructive suicide. So they’ll pay for this. They’ve brought this upon us. And they’ll pay for that.
Almost 1,000 drank poison-laced Kool-Aid — hence the expression, “to drink the Kool-Aid.” In all, 914 bodies were found, some murdered, including more than 200 children — along with Jim Jones, age 47, shot through the head.
The website Religious Tolerance.org gives a compelling explanation of why generally good, generally intelligent people fell for the faith-based following of Jim Jones and his People’s Temple cult:
1. Jim Jones’ mental illness, aggravated by his use of drugs.
2. The group’s intense fear of the imminent end of civilization.
3. The extreme isolation of the Agricultural Project.
4. Opposition and pressure from anti-cult groups, the media and the U.S. government.**
The People’s Temple mass suicide was not unique. As far back as Masada (73 CE) — and as recently as the “Benevolent Mother” cult of South Korean Park Soon-ja (29 August 1987), the Tijuana Mexican Sect (13 December 1990), the Branch Davidians in Waco under David Koresh (19 April 1993), the Order of the Solar Temple (22 March 1997, 23 December 1995, 5 October 1994), and the Heaven’s Gate cult (26 March 1997) — otherwise good people have abandoned their good sense for a bad promise.
Originally published November 2003.