Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Jonestown Massacre: A 'Reason' to Die

The Man they Called 'Father'

Jim Jones was born in Lyn, Indiana in 1931 during the Great Depression. As his parents struggled to eke out an existence, Jones was free to explore the world around him. At an early age he happened upon a Pentecostal congregation known as the Gospel Tabernacle, made up mainly of people who had moved to the area from Kentucky and Tennessee. The church and its members dwelt on the fringes of the community and were known as "holy-rollers" and "tongues people" by the more conservative community of Lyn.

People's Temple leader Reverend Jim Jones
People's Temple leader
Reverend Jim Jones

By his early teens, Jones was no longer interested in the normal activities of the other boys. He was much more interested in the emotional and religious fervour he found at the Gospel Tabernacle. Here he learned about spiritual healing and was soon receiving praise for his preaching. In 1947 at the age of sixteen, Jones was preaching on street corners in both black and white neighbourhoods, sharing the wisdom and knowledge that he believed he possessed and was obliged to share with others. He believed in the brotherhood of man, regardless of social standing or race. His sympathies lay with the poor and the downtrodden.

Jones considered himself a leader among his peers and looked down upon the behaviour of other boys his age that he considered frivolous and sinful. Yet, he strongly feared rejection and would retaliate angrily at any adverse criticism or disagreement that he saw as betrayal. An example of this was when his best friend chose to go home rather than comply with Jones's demands. As his friend walked away, Jones grabbed his father's gun and shot at the boy's fast retreating figure.

During his high school years, Jones first became interested in the lives of powerful and influential men, taking a special interest in Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin. By the time he met his future wife, Marceline, in his late teens, he had already developed a keen knowledge and concern for social issues and world events. Marceline was a student nurse at the hospital where Jones worked part-time. They married after Jones graduated from high school with honours and began college. The first years of their marriage were very stormy. Jones was insecure and domineering. His greatest fear, that of being abandoned by the ones he cared about, caused him to be jealous of any attention Marceline gave to anyone else. Jones's constant emotional explosions and tirades were extremely difficult for Marceline, but her belief that marriage was a lifetime commitment caused her to endure.

Throughout this period, Jones began to question his faith, finding it difficult to reconcile his belief in a loving and merciful God with the reality of suffering and poverty he saw around him. He now proclaimed that there was no God. He expected Marceline to share his new wisdom and threatened to commit suicide if she continued to pray. He softened his view in 1952 when the Methodists, the denomination of the church that Marceline attended, displayed a social conscience in line with his own beliefs. The church espoused the rights of minorities and worked toward putting an end to poverty. The Methodists' opposition to unemployment and support for collective bargaining for workers and security for the aged particularly impressed Jones.

In the same year, while continuing his college studies, Jones accepted a position as student pastor at the Somerset Methodist Church in a less affluent, mostly white neighbourhood in southern Indianapolis. Secretly, Jones visited a number of African-American churches in the area and invited those he met there to his own services and into his home. During this time Jones attempted to adopt Marceline's cousin, who had been living with them since they rescued him from a foster home. The twelve-year-old boy was not happy about this decision and resisted. Jones told him that any thought of returning to his mother was hopeless as she was unfit and didn't love him. After visiting his mother, the boy believed differently. In an emotional rage, Jones attempted to impose his will upon the boy, but he would not be swayed. He returned to live with his mother and refused to see Jones when he came to visit.

Within a couple of years, Jones was successfully preaching at Pentecostal meetings at other churches, drawing large crowds with his healings and miracles. This success led him to leave The Somerset Methodist Church and begin his own church. By 1956, he moved his congregation to larger premises and began calling his activities a "movement" and his church the "People's Temple." His emotional style and preaching of integration and equality were unusual qualities in a white preacher in the mid-fifties and Jones's congregation did not provide the strong financial backing needed to increase his influence. Despite its lack of numbers, Jones's church established a soup kitchen and advocated giving shelter to the needy and the adoption of children. At this time, Jones and Marceline adopted a black child and a Korean orphan as well as giving birth to a son.

The intensity of the Cold War in the mid-fifties influenced Jones considerably and he believed that Communism could best be fought with communalism. He was able to Christianize his burgeoning political beliefs by referring to biblical passages about people selling their possessions. Jones's good works and belief in civil rights was soon rewarded by his appointment as head of the Indianapolis Human Rights Commission. His radical beliefs and actions at this time brought many complaints and criticisms from the conservative sectors of the community. Jones began to relate to local newspapers stories of harassment and threats to his life, although none of his claims could be substantiated by police inquiries.

Coincidentally, it was as criticism of his politics was heightening that Jones had a "vision" of nuclear attack. Believing that the Midwest was the most likely target of such an attack, Jones began looking for a "safer" place to move his congregation. Leaving his congregation in the hands of his assistants, Jones went in search of the ideal location. He travelled to Hawaii and then Brazil where he stayed for two years, teaching English to support himself. It was during his return trip from Brazil that Jones first visited Guayana where he was impressed by the socialist doctrines of the government.

In 1965, two years after his return to Indianapolis, Jones moved with 140 of his followers to Ukiah in Mendocino County, California, because he had read in Esquire magazine that the area would be safe in the event of a nuclear attack. Once they were settled, Jones found part-time work as a teacher and Marceline worked as a social worker at Mendocino State hospital.

They had not been there long before Marceline decided she wanted to end their marriage. Jones's extra-marital sexual encounters had become more frequent since the move to California and his lust for power and control had increased dramatically. Their son Stephan had little respect for his father because of his hypocrisy. He made rules to satisfy his own whims, yet lived up to none of them himself. Jones was using a variety of drugs to control his emotional ups and downs including Quaaludes, which Stephan used to try to kill himself.

In 1968, with his family falling apart and his congregation only numbering 68, Jones applied for, and was granted, affiliation with the Disciples of Christ, a denomination that boasted 1.5 million members. With very little supervision from the church administration, Jones was able to ignore its requirement for Holy Communion and baptism; instead he preached socialism and baptized new members "in the holy name of socialism."

Being a member of a recognised church gave Jones tax exemptions and higher esteem. His congregation quickly grew to 300. Jones and his followers spent much of their time promoting the church and its good works, not only in the community but also across the country. Over 30,000 copies of a newsletter were sent nationwide every month and Jones began radio broadcasting, ensuring that his good works would be known by all. By 1973, his congregation had grown to two and a half thousand and had spread to San Francisco and Los Angeles where he began to preach as well.

In 1974, Jones obtained permission from the government of Guyana to begin building a commune on a 300-acre allotment, 140 miles from Georgetown. The lease was signed and Jones named the commune "Jonestown". With some of his followers already living at the commune site, Jones decided to visit Georgetown and publicise himself there. Members of his staff approached Father Andrew Morrison to gain permission for Jones to give a service at the Catholic Sacred Church. Ill-informed of the nature of Jones's preaching, Father Morrison and others who attended were horrified by the obviously fake healings and miracles that occurred.

Disappointed, Jones returned to California where the reception for his staged antics was much more favourable. Staff members, usually intellectuals with a strong mystical bent, would pilfer the garbage of temple members to glean information Jones could use to fake clairvoyance in his meetings. Potential Temple members were invited to small meetings where they were carefully screened. Anyone who appeared to be too politically conservative was excluded from further involvement, while those with anti-establishment attitudes and sympathy with Pentecostal type services were welcomed. These criteria meant that the majority of recruits were African-American, the uneducated and the poor.

In response to Jones's teaching of Christian communalism, Temple members pooled their incomes and turned their property over to the People's Temple to be sold, in return they received room, board and a two-dollar a week allowance. Jones preached that only through socialism could anyone achieve perfect freedom, justice and equality. According to Jones, socialism was the manifestation of God. His miracles, healing of the sick and care for the poor were all proof that he was Christ incarnate.

Jones saw himself as a social revolutionary despite the fact that his own organisation was anything but socialistic. There was no collective leadership and his staff, nearly all white, was not able to question his ideas. There was one source of authority only - Jim Jones.

Jones's dualism and hypocrisy were reflected in his teachings on sexual relationships. He believed in sexual liberation yet advocated marriage. He attacked marriage without sexual freedom as being counter-revolutionary; any spouse who reacted jealously over their partner's sexual infidelity was attacked openly. At the same time he preached the virtues of celibacy and the sexuality of all members were under attack. Each person was required to confess their sexual practices and fantasies, while women were required to publicly complain about their husbands' lovemaking. Jones told his congregation that he was the only true heterosexual, yet in private he sodomised a man, justifying his actions as being the only way to prove to that man that he was really homosexual. In December 1973, Jones was arrested in MacArthur Park, a known meeting place for homosexuals, and booked for lewd conduct. Although the charges were dismissed, Jones was required to sign a document admitting that there was good reason for the arrest.

Jones was able to keep his arrest a secret and continued to gain acceptance in the San Francisco area. Left-wing groups welcomed him for his support of progressive causes and anti-establishment teachings. Temple members worked in political campaigns in San Francisco and Jones cultivated relationships with a variety of powerful political figures, using his large congregation and large accumulation of People's Temple funds to cement his influence.

While his outside influence was growing and his control over his congregation was almost unbroken, Jones was not able to prevent all negative criticism directed at the People's Temple, although he did attempt to do so. He had members of his congregation take jobs in some of the leading newspapers in the area to warn him of any plans to print negative material about him. Before the papers could take the story to print, Jones would begin threatening them with legal action. Any of his opponents who persisted in discrediting him would soon receive threatening mail and be awoken in the middle of the night with threatening phone calls. Defectors from the Temple were too terrified to tell of their negative experiences with Jones, as they were constantly threatened with grave punishments.

Having been well experienced in Jones's punishments and his uncontrollable anger towards anyone who dared to leave him, defectors believed that he would make good his threats if they pushed him. Grace Stoen, the wife of Tim Stoen who was the Temple's Lawyer, experienced first hand Jones's wrath when she dared to leave the community because of the brutal beating of a member who had criticised Jones. Jones was outraged at her betrayal in light of "all that he had done for her." With Tim's support, Jones began a fierce custody battle for the Stoens's son, whom Jones falsely claimed was his own.

It was this custody battle, along with a growing number of complaints from ex-members and relatives of members, which caused a great deal of public attention to become focused on the People's Temple. With the mounting negative publicity, Jones's paranoia became even more exaggerated and he began to prepare his congregation for the final move to Guyana.

Once in Guyana, Jones was able to maintain control over his community of followers without the conflicting input of outside agencies. Confined to the 300-acre property with no money or passports, Jones was guaranteed that no more of his followers could abandon him. He could now be in complete control of his people. When that control was again threatened by the departure of fifteen more people with Leo Ryan's party, Jones's vengeful act of murder at the airport was typical of Jones throughout his life. The order for the mass-suicide was his means to gain ultimate control, if he could not have control of his people in life, he would have it in death!

 

 

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