The Jim Jones cult massacre that took place in Guyana in late 1978 was one of the worst single acts of violence in recent American and Caribbean history. It’s incredible that one man had such power to influence 1,100 people to uproot themselves from their cozy lives in the United States to move to the little-known country of Guyana. And even more, to influence nearly 900 people to commit mass suicide at his mere command.
Jim Jones, officially James Warren Jones, was a charismatic American raised in the corn state of Indiana. He was a monkey salesman in his early 20s. He imported small monkeys from South America and sold them door-to-door in Indianapolis.
Jones founded his church in the early 1950s and grew in notoriety for being Indianapolis’ first white church to include black people, for which he received a lot of criticism. This church later became known as the People’s Temple Full Gospel Church. Jones’ church had Pentecostal undertones and was known for his ‘psychic’ abilities and faith healings.
Under Jones’ leadership, the People’s Temple created outreach programs to mostly black, underprivileged residents of Indianapolis. His programs included food drives for the poor, support and assisted care for the elderly, and lobbying for racial equality in the former hotbed of the Klu Klux Klan. He also practiced what he preached. He and his wife adopted several non-white children, referring to the household as his “rainbow family” and encouraged Temple members to adopt orphans from war-ravaged Korea.
Soon his churches spread to other states, with main headquarters in California. His churches spread to San Francisco and Los Angeles. He grew in influence and began making connections in the business and political world. And his small church grew from a mere handful to hundreds and eventually to thousands.
Thousands of followers, a large percentage of them African American, flocked to him; central to Jones’s appeal were his displays of mind reading and faith healing. And his most extraordinary trait was his ability to win over and influence people.
The video below depicts a typical Sunday service lead by Jim Jones. Notice the interracial mix of the congregation. Notice also, how loved and admired Jim Jones was by his enthralled congregation.
Jones preached unconventional socialist and progressive ideas that were new and attractive to his congregation, particularly to people who felt typically ostracised by society. These included black people and even people from the gay community. Notably, Jones was closely followed by the first openly gay politician of California, Harvey Milk.
His Marxist and socialist stance gained the attention of the authorities and Jones and his church were often under scrutiny. The prying eyes of the US authorities and the media made Jones become increasingly paranoid and in 1977 he and over 1000 of his followers packed their bags and migrated to Guyana. There, they formed an agricultural commune in a rural and remote part of the country. Jones dubbed the commune, Jonestown.
The Route to Jonestown
Jones and his followers negotiated some 3,o00 acres of land from the Forbes Burnham regime in Guyana and were allowed to settle there. Jones received this dispensation under Burnham’s policy of agricultural expansion and development.
In addition to the aligned policies of Guyana’s leadership with those of Jones, i.e. agricultural development, Guyana is an ideal country of choice for a number of reasons.
First of all, it was remote enough to be away from the prying eyes of the media. Guyana is the only English-speaking country in South America. Consider that Guyana has enormous rivers, rain and timber forests, amazing wildlife, natural attractions (such as the tallest single-drop waterfall in the world – Kaieteur Falls), and lots of protected areas (e.g. Iwrokrama). Guyana is full of wood and water and is ideal for the settlement of an agricultural commune with its rich and fertile soil and bountiful water.
However, a few months later, on November 18, 1978, Jim Jones encouraged hundreds of his church members to commit mass murder-suicide at their agricultural commune in Jonestown, in Guyana.
Many of Jones’ followers willingly ingested a poison-laced punch while others were forced to do so at gunpoint. The final death toll that day was 909 including Jim; a third of those who perished were children.
People have wondered how Jim Jones, a man who preached racial and social equality, turned so evil. Jones’ wickedness – his need to control people, his deceit, and his anger toward people who betray or abandon him – could be easily traced to his dark childhood. He was a loner and was cruel to animals. One friend recalls how he killed a cat with a knife, performed experiments on animals and was obsessed with death in general, according to 2006 documentary, Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple.
Besides the fact that Jim Jones himself was a troubled man, the other side of the coin needs to be examined as well. He might have gone bad, but what was the underlying cause for so many people to blindly put their faith, and ultimately their lives, in the hands of this disturbed man. It boiled down to one word, “need”. Imagine living in a place that look unfavourably upon you because of the colour of your skin? Then imagine being pleasantly surprised that a white man (a symbol of your oppressors) would open his arms, his church and his community to an outcast like yourself. Jones reached out to the marginalised in society and preached a message of inclusiveness and love. He played on Maslow’s need for belonging and community.
He preached a completely different narrative from the typical politicians, priests and pastors of the day – a narrative that all are created equal and should be treated as equals. Match that with his ‘benevolent’ and charismatic qualities that he conveniently displayed, and his so-called healing and psychic abilities and out comes a perfect recipe for people to easily fall in love with him.
The Jonestown tragedy was a symptom of a broken, divisive world. A world that thrived on fear and inequality. A world that bred racial tensions; that created a ‘them and us’ atmosphere. A world where people were looking for leadership, answers and something to focus their energies.
When we look around us today, are these not the very ingredients that are rising to the surface? Are we not lead by troubled leaders that are poorly influencing their followers. Look at how one leader was able to rile up his followers to storm the Capitol in the United States.
Are we not still living in a racially divided world? Do Black Lives Matter?
Isn’t Covid-19 and the vaccine creating a ‘them-and-us’ society of the vaccinated and unvaccinated; breeding fear and divisiveness?
Aren’t people today looking to their leaders for answers and leaving unsatisfied? Aren’t some people sitting on the side lines of society looking in and feeling like they don’t belong?
Doesn’t it feel as if the pot is stirring and the right (or wrong) ingredients are being added to create more Jim Jones scenarios?
Are we not laying fertile soil and planting the seeds that could lead to future cult-like situations and followerships?
Aren’t people already blindly following others today? What about those who get or don’t get the Covid vaccine just because of something they read or saw on Facebook or WhatsApp? They do it without thinking. Isn’t that the same thing?
People simply want answers. They want to feel listened to AND loved. They want purpose and focus. They want to believe; to have trust; to dream; and to have hope again; They want a vision to work towards. People want leaders to guide them. And if we do not play our cards right, could Jim Jones 2.0 await us?
It all boils down to what we’ve been saying from the beginning. We need to learn to love ourselves and feel confident about who we are. When we love ourselves; when we look inwards for answers rather than blindly giving over our power to others (leaders, see-ers, influencers) and seeking validation and love from external sources, only then can we avoid the future Jim Jones of this world.
In addition, and critically, leaders must be ready to lead, to foster trust and transparency, to inspire, and to truly Lead! Otherwise, we will provide fertile soil for future Jim Jonses!
Kevon Wilson, is a premier researcher and strategist. He has more than 16 years’ experience in research and digital marketing.
He is co-author of many of Leve Global’s research publications such as Big Data – Delivering the Big Picture to Drive Competitiveness, Everything You Need to Know About Internet Marketing, and The Top Ten Emerging Markets.