Reverend James Warren "Jim" Jones was an American preacher, leader of the Peoples Temple, founder of the Jonestown commune in Guyana, the man responsible for the deaths of almost 1,000 people on November 18, 1978, and the Trope Codifier for Drinking the Kool-Aid.
Jones was born in Crete, Indiana, on May 13, 1931, and was a product of the Florence Nightingale Effect: his father, James Thruman Jones, was a World War I vet who suffered ill health from a gas attack. His mother, Lynette Putnam, served as James' nurse and later married him. They were later forced to move to Lynn, Indiana, due to the Great Depression, where Jones grew up in a shack with no plumbing. As a child, he was often left to his own devices while his mother worked multiple jobs and his father showed little interest in him. One of their neighbors offered to take him to her church, which later became a regular occurrence and sparked Jones' interest in religion.
He began visiting different churches and preaching to other kids when he was 10, actively objected to drinking and dancing as "sinful," and held funerals for small animals on his parents' property, including one for a cat he personally stabbed to death. Due to all this Troubling Unchildlike Behavior, Jones was an outcast for much of his early life. His peers and neighbors described him as a weird kid, obsessed with religion and death. Still, he was very well-read and studied men like Stalin, Mao, Marx, Hitler, and Gandhi. He graduated from both high school and college early and with honors. Jones' status as an outcast also helped him sympathize with the African-American community. This drove a wedge between him and his father, especially after he refused to let one of Jones' black friends into their house.
After his parents split up, Jones moved to Richmond, Indiana, where he finished high school and met his future wife Marceline Baldwin. The two married in 1949. While attending the University of Indiana Bloomington, Jones was impressed by a speech made by Eleanor Roosevelt about the plight of African-Americans. He was also continuously harassed by the McCarthy hearings after he attended a meeting of the Communist Party USA. Jones became increasingly frustrated with the open hostility toward communists, especially from the Rosenberg trial and after his mother was harassed by the FBI in front of her co-workers for coming with him to such an event.
After many years of struggling, Jones decided that the best way to demonstrate his own brand of Marxism was to infiltrate the church. In 1952, he became a student minister at the Somerset Methodist Church located in a very poor and predominately white Indianapolis neighborhood. While the Methodist superintendent helped him get a start, he didn't comply with Jones' request to hold racially integrated congregations. It was also around this time that Jones witnessed a faith healing session at the Seventh Day Baptist Church, which he saw as another means to gain financial resources to accomplish his social goals. So, in 1954, Jones decided to begin his own church in a rented space in Indianapolis, known as the Community Unity Church. In 1956, Jones bought his first church building in a racially mixed neighborhood. Initially known as the Wings of Deliverance, it was later changed to the Peoplesnote Temple Full Gospel Church.
It was also around this time that Jones donned his famous sunglasses.
Jones and the Peoples Temple garnered a lot of publicity. They set up large conventions that drew thousands of attendants, held faith healing sessions, impressed people by revealing private information supposedly through clairvoyance, preached egalitarian ideals, happily accepted members of all races, opened a soup kitchen, and even bought time on a local AM station to air his sermons over the radio. Jones was later appointed to the Indianapolis Human Rights Commission for his deeds. Of course, Peoples Temple really only existed to fund his own social goals and spread his Marxist doctrine. Accounts from former members have revealed that they didn't learn about religion but about socialism. Jones discouraged romantic and sexual relationships between Temple members, but engaged in many adulterous relationships of his own with both male and female temple members, even fathering a child from one of them. Jones would later state to his Temple that he was "the one true heterosexual."
Jones also knew full well that the faith healing treatments were all fake and likely hired private detectives to acquire personal info about churchgoers and people in Indianapolis, while also pocketing everything they gave to the Temple. Still, he did practice what he preached about racial equality. He sought to encourage interracial friendships among the Temple, he publicly did everything he could to help local businesses integrate as a member of the Human Rights Commission and, in 1961, he and Marceline became the first white couple in Indiana to adopt a black child.
Through these charitable acts and his own natural charisma, Jones garnered an extreme devotion among his congregation on par with that of a Cult of Personality. Jones took this to heart and used it to tighten his grip over the Peoples Temple. Members were required to spend Thanksgiving and Christmas with members rather than their relatives, slowly veering them away from society and increasing their obedience to the Temple. Jones actively preached an Us vs. Them message in his sermons concerning the government, even later stating that the United States was The Antichrist and that capitalism was "the Antichrist system." After claiming to have received a vision about a nuclear war on July 15th, 1967, Jones convinced many of his followers to leave Indianapolis with him, while also researching places that would be safe during World War III.
Jones and 140 members of the Peoples Temple resettled in Redwood Valley, California, in 1965. It was here that Jones ultimately abandoned the Bible was "white man's justification" and instead penned his own booklet known as "The Letter Killeth." In this, he pointed out what he saw as atrocities, contradictions, absurdities, lies, and truths in the scripture. It was in this letter that he began to disguise socialist ideals as a gospel of his own, which he called apostolic socialism. It was also in Redwood Valley that Jones began to weave tales of America persecuting its racial minorities elsewhere, further indoctrinating his followers as the Temple truly began its metamorphosis from a church to a full-blown cult. He began claiming to be a reincarnation of both Jesus and Lenin, while members called him "Father."
In the 70's, the Peoples Temple began its expansion throughout California. It was here that Jones earned his greatest number of both followers and detractors. By this point, the Temple had become powerful enough to influence elections and gained public support and contact with prominent politicians even on a national level. Jones met privately with vice presidential candidate Walter Mondale on his campaign plane days before the 1976 election, leading Mondale to publicly praise the Temple, and he later also met with First Lady Rosalynn Carter. In these sorts of meetings, he expressed disappointment in not being able to visit countries like the USSR and the People's Republic of China. Jones also cited Mao Zedong as a major influence for him. Of course, he also drew the ire of many, such as the Nation of Islam. Reporter Marshall Kilduff also planned to publish an exposé on the Peoples Temple, which detailed the physical, emotional, and sexual abuse that had been endured by the group.
On December 13, 1973, Jones was arrested and charged for soliciting a man for sex in a movie theater restroom in Los Angeles. Said man happened to be an undercover cop. The legal fallout from this drove Jones further and further into paranoia. Such to the point that he bought some land in western Guyana to begin establishing his own "socialist paradise," which he named Jonestown. In the summer of 1977, Jones and nearly 1000 of his followers abruptly left California for the new settlement. Immediately after arriving, Jones ordered everyone to hand over their passports and laid out a list of punishable crimes in Jonestown: wanting to leave, speaking out against their "father," anything capitalistic in nature, keeping secrets, people not pulling their weight, disappearing without permission, and questioning anything. Punishments for this were often physical and psychological, including being dropped in a pit and told you would have snakes dumped on you. The people were surrounded by dense rain forest and under constant surveillance. They couldn't even trust their own families. The Guyanese government did not intervene due to Jonestown's proximity to their disputed border with Venezuela. They knew their neighbor wouldn't risk an invasion that would put American lives at risk, so they were willing to let Jones operate unimpeded. Jones grew more and more paranoid over the months, in part due to a serious drug addictionnote and he started using the Temple to smuggle illegal goods into Jonestown, including guns. Back in the United States, support for him and the Peoples Temple was waning. Defectors from the Temple and those who had relatives in Jonestown revealed the dealings, abuses, and ideology within the organization, and that Jones was now holding hundreds of people hostage. Others rushed to defend Jones as a man of high moral character being smeared by "bald-faced lies."
Jones began espousing to his followers about the dangers of the outside world. He told them that the United States had gone "full fascist" and was now sending racial minorities to concentration camps to deter them from wanting to leave. Increasingly obsessed with the loyalty of his followers, Jones began calling meetings called "white nights," where he ordered followers to show their loyalty by drinking what they thought was poison. Jones claimed that the U.S. government would be coming to destroy their socialist utopia and that the only way out would be through "revolutionary suicide." Faced with no other choice, many followers obeyed, though none of the drinks were actually poisoned. Jones was simply normalizing the idea for them. Unfortunately for the people of Jonestown, Jones' doomsday predictions seemed to come to fruition in November of 1978. After hearing an ex-Peoples Temple member speak out, California congressman Leo Ryan lead a mission to investigate. He arrived in Guyana on November 15, and after two additional days of travel, arrived on a small airstrip near Port Kaituma. Accompanying him were congressional aids, concerned relatives, and journalists- all three groups that Jones hated and feared most. Jones became insanely paranoid and fearful of losing control, and he thus hatched a plan. During Ryan's visit, Jones ordered that a welcoming celebration be held to put up a good image for the community, but this gave some of the followers the opportunity to ask for help.
On November 18, as Ryan confronted Jones, he was attacked by a follower wielding a knife. While he managed to escape unharmed, Ryan decided it was time to leave and took fifteen Jonestown residents with him. Jones ordered that some of his armed guards pursue them on a tractor and trailer. They arrived and began firing at the crowd, while one of the supposed defectors pulled out a gun and began firing on people inside the plane. Among the five killed at the site were Ryan, reporter Don Harris, cameraman Bob Brown, photographer Greg Robinson, and Temple member Patricia Parks. Meanwhile, at Jonestown, Jones ordered that his predictions were going to come true and that they had to conduct an act of revolutionary suicide, stating that if they can't live in peace then they can die in peace.note As such, Jones ordered the creation of a drink made of grape Flavor Aid, Cyanide, and lethal levels of prescription drugs. The first ones ordered to drink it were the babies and children. Without their children, and with the belief that the full force of a fascist army was coming for them, hundreds of people in Jonestown drank it all. A 44-minute long "death tape" was later found by authorities. Jones also ordered that the Peoples Temple followers in Jonestown be told to take revenge against their enemies before committing revolutionary suicide of their own. After police arrived on the scene, follower Sharon Amos took her three children into a bathroom, stabbed them to death, then committed suicide.
In total, 909 people died because of Jones' actions, including himself. He was found sitting in a deck chair, dead from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. An autopsy also showed lethal levels of barbiturates in his system. The Jonestown massacre remained the largest loss of American civilian lives until September 11, 2001.
Appearances in fiction
- Jonestown: Provides a deep insight into his life and the Jonestown commune.
- The A-Team: The episode Children of Jamestown is clearly based on the events, with Martin James serving as an expy of Jones.
- The 1979 film Guyana: Crime of the Century (also known as Guyana: Cult of the Damned) is a dramatization that has the names of the central characters slightly tweaked from the historical ones: the film is set in "Johnsontown" rather than Jonestown, the cult is led by "Reverend James Johnson" rather than Reverend Jim Jones, and the murdered Congressman is "Lee O'Brien" rather than Leo Ryan. It was reviewed in The Cinema Snob.
- He was portrayed by Powers Boothe in the 1980 Made-for-TV Movie Guyana Tragedy: The Story of Jim Jones, for which he won the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Miniseries or a Movie.
- In the truly dystopian Alternate History tale For All Time, instead of moving to Indiana, Jones moves to Philadelphia and is elected to the city council, becomes governor of Pennsylvania, and then enters the 1976 presidential elections against Charles Manson. Jones wins and turns the country into the Oppressive States of America, locking up his opponents in labor camps, ruthlessly crushing militants of all stripes, creating a paramilitary force called the "National Volunteer Army" to help enforce his rule, and nearly starting a nuclear war to fulfill a religious prophecy. He's later deposed in a silent coup after he goes bonkers.
- In another Alternate History timeline, New Deal Coalition Retained, Jones manages to maintain his and the Peoples Temple's public image enough that he never needs to set up Jonestown as a retreat, instead ending up becoming Mayor of San Francisco as a member of the new Progressive Party. However, when "Squeaky" Fromme — who became his follower instead of Charles Manson's — tries and fails to assassinate Ronald Reagan, Jones' image is tainted by association. He doesn't run for reelection and steps aside, but is then tapped to be chairman of the Progressive National Committee. And then, after he spearheads humanitarian efforts in California during and after World War III, his public image is restored enough that he ends up elected Governor.