913 members of Jim Jones' People's Temple cult in Jonestown,
Guyana, committed suicide or were murdered on November 18, 1978. Barring rivalry
from east German towns overrun by the Red Army, this is the
largest mass suicide in modern times. This was a deliberate act, a
'revolutionary suicide.' What were these people trying to achieve,
and what did they believe?
From his early youth, Jim Jones was a Communist. Yet he also had
a long history in and out of Christian churches, including 'Oneness'
Pentecostalism: "First way, uh, because I was never accepted — or
didn’t feel accepted — I joined a Pentecostal Church, the most
extreme Pentecostal Church, the Oneness, because they were the most
despised." (Jim Jones, Jonestown Audiotape Primary Project, Q 134).
He would even speak of 'infiltrating' the church, as a Communist:
"So on down the road, I became even more alienated by that event. I
decided, how can I demonstrate my Marxism? The thought was,
infiltrate the church." (Reverend Jim Jones, Jonestown Audiotape Primary Project, Q
134, The Jonestown Institute).
His two touch-stones met in Acts: "Not only my brand of Marxism, but
in Pentecostal tradition, I saw that when the early believers came
together, they sold their possessions and had all things common. So
I tried very hard to live up to that concept throughout my years."
(Reverend Jim Jones, Jonestown Audiotape Primary Project, Q
The Jonestown Institute):
"And all that believed were together, and had all things common;
and sold their possessions and goods, and parted them to all men, as every man had need.
And they, continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, did eat their meat with gladness and singleness of heart,
Praising God, and having favour with all the people. And the Lord added to the church daily such as should be saved."
"And the multitude of them that believed
were of one heart and of one soul: neither said any of them that
ought of the things which he possessed was his own; but they had
all things common. And with great power gave the apostles
witness of the resurrection of the Lord Jesus: and great grace
was upon them all. Neither was there any among them that lacked:
for as many as were possessors of lands or houses sold them, and
brought the prices of the things that were sold, and laid them
down at the apostles’ feet: and distribution was made unto every
man according as he had need." (Acts 4:32-35).
One point about the Jerusalem church's practice
not to be overlooked is that it was strictly voluntary: "Whiles it
remained, was it not thine own? and after it was sold, was it
not in thine own power? why hast thou conceived this thing in
thine heart? thou hast not lied unto men, but unto God." (Acts
5:4). Paul's Gentile churches do not seem to have taken things
to this extreme. The Jerusalem church's egalitarian sharing has
mostly fallen by the way-side in the Christian church, though
there have been revivals here and there, in monastic orders, in
the radical Reformation. In common experience with similar
institutions in the hands of fallen humanity, what results from
a redistribution of wealth is not equality: the wealth does not
fall equally into everyone's hands, but rather it is transferred
from the prior proprietors, wealthy land-owners like Ananias and Sapphira, into the hands of the administrators of the new
system, the nomenclatura. They may spend it in flamboyant
conspicuous consumption in the face of a starving people, as did
some of the radical Reformation communards, or they may allot it
more fairly and equitably, but they now have effective control
of the wealth, and so they are the new ruling class. In
practice, failing the zeal of the apostolic age, people can feel
like they are trading one form of oppression for another. The
Jonestown commune had trappings of democracy, the bewildered senior
citizens could vote; and yet they were powerless. All wealth was shared; and
yet the people ate meals consisting of little more than rice and
gravy, while the church sat atop a huge pile of cash amounting
to millions of dollars. The 'new class' ran the commune.
Jim Jones' Marxist views came increasingly to the fore,
though they were his bed-rock throughout his ministerial career: "The
early years, I’d approached Christendom from a communalist
standpoint, with only intermittent mention of my Marxist views.
However, in later years, there wasn’t a person that attended any
of my meetings that did not hear me say, at some time, that I
was a communist, and that is what is very strange, that all
these years, I have survived without being exposed." (Reverend
Jim Jones, Jonestown Audiotape Primary Project, Q 134,
The Jonestown Institute). Toward the end, they were discussing
defecting to the Soviet Union, though the murders at the air-strip firmly closed that door.
Some of the features of the Jonestown commune that strike observers
as 'cult-like,' as if sui generis, are in fact standard operating
procedure for Marxist-Leninist communes of the period, such as for
example the self-criticism sessions. These were the same whether one
was in the jungle with Pol Pot or in a trendy Paris commune.
This dyed-in-the-wool Communist just fell into the pulpit,
"I'm wandering down the street, stopped at a
used car lot, and I meet a man. And I find out he's a Methodist
Superintendent. And I think, "Oh shit, a religious nut." So I
start knocking the church, just raising hell. He said, "Why
don't you come to my office?" Here I am, raving against the
church, knocking the church, ridiculing God, all this shit and
he says, "why don't you come to my office?" I thought, "You
f**ker. I'm not coming to your goddamn office." But I did. For
some instinctive reason I did. He said, I want you to take a
church." I said, "You giving me a church? I don't believe in
anything I'm a revolutionary." He said, "Why don't you take a
church, why don't you take a church?" And he appointed me, a
f**king Communist, to a goddamn church. And I didn't even meet
him through the Party. I met him in a fucking used car lot.
"This was 1953 I think. McCarthyism … Whatever, I took this
goddamn church as a Communist who believed in nothing – that's
how religious I was (and still am). And I preached to Marceline.
I said, "What am I going to do with this goddamn thing? This
guy, he's obviously, obviously a Communist or at least
sympathetic and he wants me to do something with this goddamn
church." That’s how the church wandered into it. The
church fell in my lap. He's the one who started it. I hope he's
dead. Martin was his name. He did die, yeah, he died.'"
(An Untitled Collection of Reminiscences, by Jim
Once ensconced behind the pulpit, he tried to remold his congregation in his image:
"And that's how the goddamn religious career got rolling. I was
preaching integration, against war, mixing in a little Pentecostal
crap – they're all shouting and hollering and raising
hell – and I'm preaching integration, against war, and throwing in
some Communist philosophy." (An Untitled Collection of
Reminiscences, by Jim
Even before the final cataclysm, controvery swirled around
Reverend Jim Jones. There are recorded statements on tape in which he clearly
identifies himself as God. What did he intend by these claims? Who
was he claiming to be?: