The recent arrest in Israel of eight apocalyptic cult members, who reportedly planned to take their own lives at the millennium or provoke authorities into killing them, revealed that yet another cult had embraced the idea of using mass death to make a statement of faith. The Denver-based Concerned Christians, who hoped their action would evoke the Second Coming of Christ, joined ranks with the Heaven’s Gate comet-following suicides in California in 1997, the Solar Temple adherents in France and Canada in 1995 and the besieged Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas, whose refusal to surrender to authorities in 1993 ended in deadly conflagration. The collective ambitions of these groups suggest a rejection of the American ethos of individualism and the potential destructiveness of the surrender of self to the tightly closed ideological world so central to the cult phenomenon. But such groups also inevitably bring to mind the tragedy of Jonestown, Guyana, twenty years ago this past November, when 913 members of the Peoples Temple died at the command of their leader, Jim Jones. At the time, there was no historical precedent for such an incomprehensible event.
Jonestown could not have occurred without the idiosyncratic and intensely driven personality of Jim Jones, who came to his calling early. When Jones was a boy, a neighbor recalled, “He could preach a good sermon…. He would have about ten youngsters in there, and he would…line them up and make them march. He’d hit them with a stick and they’d scream and cry.” They always came back to play the next day, however, and Jones cultivated his identity as a powerful religious leader all his life. In Protestant fundamentalist Indiana, Jones became a pastor by age 19, and the Peoples Temple he began six years later in 1956 contained in microcosm the organizational strategies he would later practice in more bizarre and violent ways. His bogus, emotionally charged faith healings were offset by religious unorthodoxy, a socialist, multiracial vision and a commitment to welfare service that included a soup kitchen, animal shelter, job training and elder care. Even in Indiana, Jones demanded unquestioning loyalty, creating an interrogation committee to root out and punish the deviant; he also learned there to charm the liberal political establishment. His accusations that his wife and black son had been spat upon and dead animals thrown at the church were the first in what became constant claims of persecution. Finally, his removal of his Midwest faithful to Ukiah, California, was a precursor to his move to Guyana. Expanding his congregation in California, he pursued an undeviating line of purpose that reached its own apocalypse in Jonestown.
A large part of that purpose was personal and political power, for, although ordained, Jones was not religious in the traditional sense. His wife, Marceline, told the New York Times, “Jim has used religion to try to get some people out of the opiate of religion.” In autobiographical tapes made in Guyana, Jones recalled, “I’ll never make a revolution, I can’t even get these fuckers to integrate…. I was preaching integration, against war, throwing in some communist philosophy.” Jones would throw the Bible on the floor during sermons, spit on it and urge his followers to discard it. “If you believe I am a son of God in that I am filled with love, I can accept that,” Jones said after being called “God Almighty” by a parishioner. “But I don’t want to be interpreted as the Creator of the Universe.” Instead, Jones preached a dogma whose idea was roughly that God was love and love was socialism and that therefore God was socialism. In calling himself the “Prophet of God” and “Father,” he substituted flesh and blood for the traditional invisible entity he scornfully called “the Sky God.”