Content warning: This post series discusses the mass death of People’s Temple members at Jonestown.
In November 1978, over 900 people lost their lives as part of a mass “suicide” at the Jonestown settlement in Guyana, mostly Americans. It is one of the largest mass deaths in history and the largest mass cult death out of US groups. Each of the nearly 1,000 people who died that day from drinking cyanide laced fruit punch was a victim of the “Reverend” Jim Jones, and their deaths should be remembered in that light.
Jim Jones never attended seminary, but he did declare himself a preacher in the 1950s in his home state of Indiana. Unlike most churches then and now, The People’s Temple was intentionally racially integrated. Jones, whose father was a member of the KKK, fought to desegregate many local establishments in Indianapolis. When he was mistakenly placed in a black ward in a hospital, he refused to move to the white ward, instead making the beds and changing the bed pans of the other patients in the ward. Political pressure from Jones and his church helped push the hospital to end the practice of racially segregated wards.
In the 1960s, Jones and some of his followers moved to California to start outreach ministries. In the early 1970s they relocated once again, this time to San Francisco. It was in San Francisco that Jones rose to fame, and notoriety. The People’s Temple ran a soup kitchen, and they also offered free legal aid and drug rehabilitation for poor Californians. Jones cast himself as a philanthropist, donating money to causes and lending his clout to help local politicians win elections. As his good deeds gained attention, so did his bad. Former members spoke of abuses up to and including kidnapping of their children.
Jones was a member of the Communist Party and a Marxist. He saw starting a church as a way to spread these ideals and show another way of doing things. Members of the People’s Temple were overall young, idealistic, and dedicated to racial integration. They wanted to be good and do good, to make the world a more fair and harmonious place. Many of them had been rejected by their families or had nowhere else to go.
The state of California placed foster children with the Jones family, and the couple adopted six children in all, one white, one Native, one black, and three of Korean and American heritage. They also had one biological child together. Jones and his wife were the first white couple to legally adopt a black child in Indiana state history. Jones called them his “rainbow family”. He also called the members of his church his rainbow family, and they in turn called him Father.
(Continue to part 2)