Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Jonestown Massacre: A 'Reason' to Die

The Visionary

Over the twenty years preceding the events at "Jonestown," the Reverend Jim Jones's number of followers throughout America had grown considerably, as he drew to himself the outcasts of society, along with those who desired to help the downtrodden and serve those in need. During the early 1960's, Jones preached the need for racial brotherhood and integration, an unpopular doctrine at that time which brought him much criticism from the church hierarchy. To avoid such criticism, Jones founded the People's Temple in 1963, where both black and white worshipped side by side. The poor and society's misfits were welcomed with open arms. Jones's congregation worked to feed the poor, find employment for the jobless and help ex-criminals and drug addicts to put their lives back together.

As Jones's congregation grew, so too did the demands he made upon his flock. Greater sacrifices and dedication were required of the People's Temple membership. As criticism of the church's practices increased, Jones relocated to northern California in 1965, along with 100 of his most dedicated and faithful followers. Once in California, the People's Temple grew considerably until there were several congregations, with its headquarters based in San Francisco.

To attract new members to his "church," Jones widely publicized his services, promising miraculous healings where cancers would be removed and the blind made to see. Upon arrival, potential recruits would witness a community of brotherhood and fellowship where everyone, no matter their social standing or colour, was treated as equals. Each new potential member was greeted with personal warmth rarely encountered in the more traditional churches. People's Temple members would stand before the crowd and recount stories of illnesses that Jim Jones had cured for them. To further convince his audience of his great powers he would make predictions of events that would always come to pass, and receive "revelations" about members or visitors, things that only they could have known. Before their eyes, Jones would heal cancer patients and a mass of putrid tissue would be torn from the patient's body.

The passing of a severe initiation was required by new members that had the effect of making entry that much more desirable. Something that has to be earned is naturally valued more highly than that which is obtained freely. It also had the effect of creating a much higher level of commitment from members. Each new level of commitment asked of the member was immediately justified by the fact that much had already been sacrificed. To reject the new situation would mean admitting that the previous acts of commitment had been wrong. It is a natural phenomenon that people will tend to prolong a previously made commitment, even when painful, rather than admit that they had been mistaken.

The demands made upon a new member were only small and the level of choice was high. The commitment of further time and energy into the organization was gradual; the desire to do so was increased by the promise of the achievement of a higher ideal. All members were taught that the achievement of this ideal required self-sacrifice. The more that was sacrificed, the more that would be achieved. The new members would gradually come to see the long meetings and hours of work done for the church as being worthwhile and fulfilling. Jones increased his demands on the member only in small increments. At each new level of commitment, any reservations the person may have had could be easily rationalized and justified. By the time Jones's demands had become oppressive, the individual members were so heavily committed that to not fulfill any new demands would require a complete denial of the correctness of all past decisions and behaviour.

Just as the demands on a member's time increased gradually over time, so did the level of financial commitment. In the early days of membership, giving money was completely voluntary, although the amounts given were recorded openly. By recording the amounts given, an unspoken expectation was conveyed. The new member could choose to give nothing or very little, but knew that his level of commitment was being measured. Over a period of time, the level of contribution was increased to 25% of each person's income and was no longer voluntary.

The highest level of commitment that could be demonstrated was when an individual or family lived at the People's Temple facilities, handing over all personal property, savings, and social security cheques to the Temple. The ideal of communal living was a large aspect of Jones's teaching as being the only truly spiritual ideal. The outside world of capitalism and individualism was seen as evil and destructive. Forces of that evil system would see the ideals and achievements of the People's Temple as a threat to its own stability and thereby want to destroy it. Through such teachings, Jones was able to create the illusion that the only place of safety and comfort was the People's Temple. The member saw any criticism of the church from the outside as being untrustworthy and proof of what Jones had taught.

From the earliest stages of their indoctrination each member was taught that the achievement of a higher spirituality would require a struggle against their own weaknesses. Any areas of resistance an individual harboured against the church were quickly suppressed as being an indication of that person's lack of faith. Jones would regularly bring critics before the assembly and chastise them for their 'unbelief.' He would then require other members of the group to mete out the necessary punishment. Parents would publicly beat their children for transgressions while husbands and wives would be required to punish each other. In this way, each person was made personally responsible for the action and had to find a way to justify and rationalize it. In this way, Jones was able to become more and more brutal in his punishments as each member had learned to internalize the belief that such punishments were necessary and just.

The desire to relinquish more and more control of their lives over to Jones was further encouraged by the new-found harmony and peace that committed members found in their lives. Disputes within families gradually diminished. There was no longer any cause for disagreement since the rules were clearly laid down by Jones. The everyday stress, and sometimes even turmoil, they had known in the past from the constant need to make decisions and choices was now gone. Life was easier with fewer choices.

Any idea about leaving the People's Temple was quickly dismissed by the individual for a number of reasons. Their total commitment to the church usually meant that they had isolated themselves from their family and friends, whether from lack of association or open enmity. To leave the fold of the church would mean either admitting their mistakes to family and friends or being alone without any support group. Church reaction to, and retaliation against, other defectors who were hated as traitors and enemies would also make leaving difficult. To deliberately put themselves into a situation of being despised by their friends was extremely daunting; especially when for so long the People's Temple had come to be seen as the only safe haven from an evil world. The final barrier to emancipation was economic. Each individual had surrendered all of his or her possessions and income to the People's Temple. To leave would mean to abandon all the possessions they had, leaving them penniless and homeless. Staying could easily be justified, and the consequences seem more appealing than what could be faced outside.

The individual's isolation from any outside forces meant that even when they disagreed with the teachings or actions of the group, that disagreement was nowhere confirmed. With no support or agreement from another source, the individual would soon repress his own reservations. This process was made doubly effective, as each person was required to report any expressions of disagreement or dissatisfaction to Jones. Children would report their parents, husbands their wives, and parents their own children. It was not safe to trust anyone with your negative feelings, to do so would risk the public humiliation and severe punishments meted out for such "offences."

At "Jonestown" this isolation was even more extreme. The community was situated in the middle of a jungle with armed guards along the few roads that led to civilization. Even if one succeeded in leaving the complex, he had no passport, papers or money to help him to escape. When Ryan and his delegation arrived at "Jonestown," anyone who wanted to leave had the option of doing so openly without the normal threats to their safety, yet only fifteen chose to do so. This is a strong indication of the effectiveness of Jones's indoctrination.