Analysis of Jonestown Tragedy Based on 1970s Historical and Cultural Influences



Analysis of Jonestown Tragedy Based on 1970s Historical and Cultural Influences

On November 18, 1978, one of the most dreadful tragedies in the history of America took place in Johnstown, Guyana under the instruction of Jim Jones, an enigmatic cult leader. More than 900 People’s Temple members lost their lives from ostensible cyanide poisoning. Among those dead were over 200 children. Until the September 11 bombing of the Twin Towers in 2011, Johnstown was the largest mass suicide incidence that resulted in the huge loss of life. A close connection exists between this event and the historical and cultural events that were going on in the 1970s. During this time, the American society was transitioning through great political and social upheavals. Moreover, it was a period in which many people in America were seeking new religious solutions to their problems. The prevailing circumstances provided the right opportunity for Jones to offer his answers. In the end, it became easier for him to convince them to do anything without them questioning his motives.

The case of Johnstown can be approached on the basis of social and political factors that prevailed at that time. Additionally, the presence of religious deception played a role. For one to understand how these factors worked together, it is important to consider the processes that resulted in the formation of the Peoples Temple.  According to Richardson, Jim Jones started the People’s Temple as a religious movement in 1955 in Indianapolis, Indiana. Through it, he spread messages that consisted of the ideas contained in socialist and communist movements as well as Christianity (Richardson 240). Jones took advantage of the social milieu that characterized the American society between the 1960s and 1970s. Before the end of this decade, the cruelty of the American military in the Vietnam War began to emerge and millions of people around the world became enraged. In the US in particular, middle-class citizens and millions of students mobilized themselves to oppose the war through protest movements.Analysis of Jonestown Tragedy Based on 1970s Historical and Cultural Influences

At the same time, other movements that would have a major impact on the society’s landscape were taking shape. For instance, Martin Luther King was leading a large movement in the southern states with the aim of uprooting segregation. Moreover, there was increased activity in the US to protect the civil liberties of minority including African-Americans. As the years progressed, there was an increase in insurrections and the social structure of the society was challenged. During the same period, millions of working citizens both in the industrial sections and social service took part in strikes. They sought to show their anger towards anti-strike acts enacted by the government to make them meet the cost of inflation.

Moreover, Peoples Temple was formed at a time when the society of America was experiencing turbulence in other sectors. The provocative war initiated by Joseph McCarthy against communism made many Americans to dread the possibility of mass social movements that would result in the spread of communism to America. Additionally, an increased number of youths had become disillusioned. During the same period of time, many people became hungry for new religious answers to their problems following massive changes that took place in American religious practices that made many people become disillusioned. Among them was the growth of feminism, the introduction of pills to control birth, and the Vietnam War. Moreover, the Evangelical movement grew while new technology resulted in televangelism. For Jews, Yom Kippur War had a negative impact on the Jews. The creation of Vatican II or Second Vatican Council., which focused on settling doctrinal issues, impacted Catholics negatively (McCormick, 2006). Many of them objected the changes. The 1970s brought radical changes to most people of faith. Church members began to decline.Analysis of Jonestown Tragedy Based on 1970s Historical and Cultural Influences

The advocacy for equal rights by American feminist even in places of worship brought dramatic changes in churches. It was the first time for most churches to have women in the clergy. Additionally, the introduction of birth control pills in the 1960s had a negative impact on morality in America society. While women were given sexual freedom, the court legalized abortion through the case between Roe and Wade that was settled in 1973. The society was beginning to accept homosexuality, especially after the 1969 Stonewall Riots. As churches became engaged in the discussion on whether or not to legitimately ordain homosexuality, church doctrine and membership became negatively affected. Moreover, an increasing number of US citizens became dissatisfied with their government. Low-class citizens, especially from minority groups, were exposed to social injustices and inequalities. Developments made an increasing number of Americans to seek new religious answers to the issues they faced.

The chaos that characterized the American society during the 1970s gave Jim Jones the opportunity to introduce his revolutionary ideas, which offered an answer to most of the problems that the people were facing. His views appealed to different Americans that felt disillusioned and disenfranchised. Jones made passionate attacks on the abuses brought about by American capitalism. Moreover, he argued against segregation that had affected a huge number of African-Americans. His dream of creating a Utopian society whereby all persons will be treated equally irrespective of their position in the society attracted many people.Analysis of Jonestown Tragedy Based on 1970s Historical and Cultural Influences

According to Lys, the radical social changes that were taking place in the American society has the potential to make some people pledge their allegiance to sects that claimed to offer alternative views. Usually, such cults can cause their followers to break from economic and psychic ties. For the present case, Jim Jones employed several strategies to convince hundreds of his followers to voluntarily end their lives. Several factors led to the tragic outcome (Lys 268) First, Jones created delusions of persecution among members of the Peoples Temple. The fear that developed among them culminated in the violence that was to follow. Second, a considerable proportion of members of the temple obtained guidance from Jones that they could not obtain from anywhere else. According to Pozzi et al., many of them were drug addicts before they were recruited to join the temple movement (Pozzi et al 151). Others were homeless while some were escaping bad situations in their lives. It became easy for Jones to convince such people to commit suicide due to the trust they had built in him.

Moreover, Jones embellished a Messianic figure that he used to exert supremacy over the congregation. He demanded his followers to refer to him as “Father”. Additionally, he made his followers believe that he was equipped with divine powers through several methods. For instance, he staged fraudulent demonstrations of healing and drugged some of them in an effort to create the illusion of raising a person from the dead. Furthermore, he exploited the unquestioning devotion that his followers exhibited towards him by making them to increasingly depend on him. This way, it became easy for him to manipulate them. Additionally, the introduction of the “white nights” at the People’s Temple made it easy for Jones to convince his followers to end their lives. He used the events to control their brains and to practice mass suicide.

The Peoples Temple forms part of the religious cultural trend that emerged in the 1970s. The period had witnessed an increase in religious sects and cults as people turned to alternative religious and social views. Moreover, new religious movements including the Evangelical ones began to emerge. The Peoples’ Temple posed similar dangers that had been witnessed from tragedies that had occurred in connection with other movements that were beginning to emerge at that time. However, Jones’ temple differed from other religious movements of the time given that it was all inclusive. It brought together people from different races. It also maintained a close association with other religions including Islam.Analysis of Jonestown Tragedy Based on 1970s Historical and Cultural Influences

The Peoples’ Temple is a clear indication of the power of religion to foster violence and undermine self-preservation. The replacement of faith for reason among the followers contributed to Jim Jones’ success in convincing them to end their lives. Moreover, by substituting obedience for questioning, Jones successfully abused the power that he had obtained through his relationship with members of his congregation. Consequently, his mission had to end in tragedy.


Work Cited

Lys, Candice. “The Violence of Jim Jones: A Biopsychosocial Explanation.” Cultic Studies Review 4.3 (2005): 267-294.

McCormick, R. A., & Cahill, L. S. (2006). The critical calling: Reflections on moral dilemmas since Vatican II. Georgetown University Press.

Pozzi, E., D. A. Nesci, and G. Bersani. “The narrative of a mass suicide: The People’s Temple last tape.” Acta Medica Romana 26 (1988): 150-175.

Richardson, James T. “People’s Temple and Jonestown: A corrective comparison and critique.” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion (1980): 239-255.