Religious Tolerance logo

Destructive cults

The People's Temple, led by
James Warren (Jim) Jones

horizontal rule

Sponsored link.

horizontal rule

Background of the Peoples Temple:

This was a Christian destructive, doomsday cult founded and led by James Warren Jones (1931-1978). Jim Jones held degrees from Indiana University and Butler University. He was not a Fundamentalist pastor as many reports in the media and the anti-cult movement claim. He belonged to a mainline Christian denomination, having been ordained in the Christian Church/Disciples of Christ. (At the time of his ordination, the DoC allowed a local congregation to select and ordain a minister on their own. However, ordinations conducted without denominational endorsement were not considered valid within the rest of the church.)  

The Peoples Temple was initially structured as an inter-racial mission for the sick, homeless and jobless. He assembled a large following of over 900 members in Indianapolis IN during the 1950's.

"He preached a 'social gospel' of human freedom, equality, and love, which required helping the least and the lowliest of society's members. Later on, however, this gospel became explicitly socialistic, or communistic in Jones' own view, and the hypocrisy of white Christianity was ridiculed while 'apostolic socialism' was preached." 1

It was an interracial congregation -- almost unheard of in Indiana at the time. When a government investigation began into his cures for cancer, heart disease and arthritis, he decided to move the group to Ukiah in Northern California. He preached the imminent end of the world in a nuclear war; Esquire magazine listed Ukiah as one of nine in the U.S. that cold survive a nuclear attack. They later moved to San Francisco and Los Angeles. After an expose during the mid 1970's in the magazine New West raised suspicions of illegal activities within the Temple, he moved some of the Temple membership to Jonestown, Guyana. The Temple had leased almost 4,000 acres of dense jungle from the government. They established an agricultural cooperative there, called the "Peoples Temple Agricultural Project." They raised animals for food, and assorted tropical fruits and vegetables for consumption and sale.

Jones developed a belief called Translation in which he and his followers would all die together, and would move to another planet for a life of bliss. Mass suicides were practiced in which his followers pretended to drink poison and fell to the ground.

During the late 1970's, Jones had been abusing prescription drugs and appears to have become increasingly paranoid. Rumors of human rights abuses circulated. As in most high-intensity religious groups, there was a considerable flow of people joining and leaving the group. Tim Stoen, the Temple attorney and right-hand man to Jones left to form a group called Concerned Relatives. They claimed that Jonestown was being run like a concentration camp, and that people were being held there against their will.

These concerns motivated Leo Ryan, a Congressman, to visit Jonestown in 1978-NOV for a personal inspection. At first, the visit went well. Later, on NOV-18, about 16 Temple members decided that they wanted to leave Jonestown with the visitors. This came as quite a blow to both Jones and the rest of the project. While Ryan and the others were waiting at Port Kiatuma airfield, the local airstrip, some heavily armed members of the Temple's security guards arrived and started shooting. Congressman Ryan and four others were killed; three were members of the press; the other was a person from Jonestown who wanted to leave. 11 were wounded.

Fearing retribution, the project members discuss their options. They reach a consensus to commit group suicide.  Most appear to have committed suicide by drinking a grape drink laced with cyanide and a number of sedatives, including liquid Valium, Penegram and chloral hydrate. Some sources say it was Kool-Aid; others say FlaVor-Aid. Other victims appear to have been murdered by poison injection. The Guyanese coroner said that hundreds of bodies showed needle marks, indicating foul play. Still other victims were shot. A very few fled into the jungle and survived.

In all, 914 died: 638 adults and 276 children. Some sources say 911 died. Their bodies were in a state of extensive decay when the authorities arrived. There was no time to conduct a thorough investigation. TV station KTVU in San Francisco CA has a collection of photographs of the "Peoples temple Agricultural Project." Some are quite disturbing. Unfortunately, their web site implies that all of the dead committed suicide. 14

The Peoples Temple organization did not survive the mass suicide/murder in Guyana. Their former headquarters building in San Francisco was demolished by the Loma Prieta earthquake of 1989.

horizontal rule

Conspiracy Theories

The murder/suicide of over 900 people sent shockwaves through the world. It generated enormous public support for the anti-cult and counter-cult movements. As with many  major political assassinations or mass murders, Jonestown has spawned a number of conspiracy theories which attempt to explain this remarkable occurrence:

bullet Some people believe that the People's Temple was an experimental laboratory operated for or by the CIA in order to perfect mind-control techniques. They speculate that Leo Ryan uncovered this information and that he and over 900 of Jones' followers had to be assassinated in order to maintain secrecy. We have not been able to uncover any hard evidence that would support this belief. U.S. government records relating to the mass deaths have never been made public. This contributes to the conspiracy theory. "In 1980, the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence announced that there was 'no evidence' of CIA involvement at Jonestown." 11
bullet Some have suggested that Jones worked closely with the communist governments of Cuba and the USSR in the hopes of eventually moving the Temple to the USSR.
bullet The anti-cult movement also cites mind-control techniques by Jim Jones and his officials as the cause of the disaster. It is often claimed that the Jonestown disaster was a mass suicide made possible by mind-control. The many victims who were shot or forcibly injected with poison are ignored.  Some surviving members claim that they were exposed to mind-control methods. However, others claim that living there was the best experience of their life.
bullet Some claim that Jonestown was a spectacularly successful grass-roots demonstration of what people could accomplish if they break free of capitalism and join in a common cause. They speculate that the U.S. government assassinated the people at Jonestown because they could not tolerate its success. 12
bullet Some in the academic community view the disaster as having been primarily caused by the hounding of Jonestown by anti-cult groups, news reporters and federal investigative agencies. If this theory is true, then the mass death at Jonestown was a self-fulfilling prophecy. 1,2,3,4

horizontal rule

Sponsored link:

horizontal rule

Our Assessment:

The views of the anti-cult movement are hopelessly divergent from those of sociologists and NRM (New Religious Movements) researchers. Our beliefs, for what it is worth, are that the main contributing factors to the Jonestown tragedy were:

bullet Jim Jones' mental illness, aggravated by his use of drugs.
bullet The group's intense fear of the imminent end of civilization.
bullet The extreme isolation of the Agricultural Project.
bullet Opposition and pressure from anti-cult groups, the media and U.S. government.

horizontal rule

Freedom of Information:

The Committee on Foreign Affairs of the U.S. House of Representatives (now called the Committee on International Relations) conducted an investigation into Congressman Ryan's death. Much of the documentation that they collected on Jonestown was classified and has "remained inaccessible for the intervening decades to scholars, individuals who lost family members at Jonestown, and the general public." 9  An academic group of  NRM scholars asked the House committee to declassify the documents. They held a press conference on the 20th anniversary of Ryan's death, 1998-NOV-18 in Washington. Dr. Gordon Melton of the Institute for the Study of American Religion said:
"Twenty years later there appears to be no compelling issues of national security or interest to keep these documents is our belief that the time has come for the release of these documents so that a more thorough assessment of what occurred at Jonestown can be made. Our understanding of the Jonestown deaths is still hindered by the unavailability of numerous key documents that would highlight the situation at Jonestown immediately prior to and during Congressman Ryan's visit, the relationship of the State Department to the Jonestown community, and the state of mind of Peoples Temple leader, Rev. Jim Jones."
Over 6000 pages of information were obtained from the U.S. Department of State by an unknown person who has posted it on the Internet. 7

horizontal rule

Movie trailer and reviews:

A movie trailer for "Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple" is available on YouTube. It was constructed from news footage and former peoples temple members. See: The movie is to be released on 2007-APR-10 by PBS Home Video and Paramount Home Entertainment for general sale.

A collection of movie reviews can be viewed at: Unfortunately, many reviews incorrectly refer to the tragedy as a mass suicide; it was actually a mass murder-suicide.

Read reviews or pre-order this DVD safely from's online store As of 2007-APR-09, Amazon sells it at 30% off for $17.49 plus shipping costs. You can select free but slower shipment on orders over $25.00.

Various TV stations started broadcasting the documentary in early 2007.

horizontal rule


  1. "Alternative Considerations of Jonestown and the People's Temple," Department of Philosophy and Religion, University of North Dakota, at: Keven Hozak has published "an alternative view to the usual anti-cult hysteria which characterized discussion of Peoples Temple... It will also raise questions about the treatment of Peoples Temple -- both in life and in death -- by various governmental agencies: local, state, and federal." See Report 1 and Report2
  2.  M. McCormick Maaga & Catherine Wessinger, "Hearing the Voices of Jonestown," Syracuse University Press, Syracuse NY (1998) Read reviews and/or order this book from the online bookstore
  3. Catherine Wessinger, Ed., "Millennialism, Persecution and Violence: Historical Cases (Religion and Politics)," Syracuse University Press, (2000). Read reviews / order this book
  4. John R. Hall, article in Stuart A. Wright, Ed., "Armageddon in Waco", University of Chicago Press, Chicago IL, (1996). Read reviews / order this book
  5. Tobin Dickerson, "People's Temple - Jonestown," at: This essay has an extensive bibliography and list of hyperlinks to People's Temple web sites.
  6. SF Gate at has a series of articles from the San Francisco Chronicle on Jonestown that you can find by entering jonestown in the "jump to:" box.
  7. "The Jonestown, Guyana Tragedy: Primary Source Materials From The U.S. Department of State" at: had over 6000 documents obtained from the State Department. Included on the website were parts of the House of Representatives' report on Jonestown. The web site is no longer online. but an archive copy may still be available at:
  8. Laurie Efrein Kahalas, is a surviving member of the People's Temple:
    bullet has written the book: "SNAKE DANCE: Unravelling [sic] the Mysteries of Jonestown," Trafford Publishing, (1998). Read reviews / order this book
    bullet has a website at: She was "contacted by an Angelic Presence four years prior to what the world would come to know as 'The Jonestown Tragedy.' "
    bullet has written an essay "About Jonestown: An open letter to scholars, activists, and advocates for religious freedom" which is online at:
  9. "Scholars present request to declassify Jonestown documents," at:
  10. Deborah Layton, "Seductive Poison: A Jonestown Survivor's Story of Life and Death in the People's Temple," Anchor (1998). Read reviews and/or order it
  11. Jonathan Vankin and John Whalen, "The Jonestown Massacre: CIA Mind Control Run Amok?," at:
  12. "Peoples Temple (Jonestown)," at:
  13. Tim Reiterman & John Jacobs, "Raven: The untold story of Reverend Jim Jones and his people," E.P. Dutton (1982). Read reviews / order this book
  14. "Somber Remembrance of Jonestown Massacre," 11 photographs, KTVU, at:
horizontal rule

Copyright 1996 to 2007 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update: 2007-APR-09
Author: B.A. Robinson

line.gif (538 bytes)

horizontal rule

Go to the previous page, or return to the "Destructive cults" menu, or choose:

Custom Search

Go to home page  We would really appreciate your help

E-mail us about errors, etc.  Purchase a CD of this web site

FreeFind search, lists of new essays...  Having problems printing our essays?

Twitter link

Facebook icon

GooglePage Translator:

This page translator works on Firefox,
Opera, Chrome, and Safari browsers only

After translating, click on the "show
original" button at the top of this
page to restore page to English.