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Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple



Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple

The most tragic and alarming thing about the extensively researched documentary Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple by Stanley Nelson is the transition of Jim Jones’ infamous ministry from that of redemption to little more than a cult figure. One wonders how so many people were convinced to follow Jones on his bizarre exodus and ultimately heeded his call for mass-suicide. This evinces just how institutions, political, religious or otherwise start with noble intentions, but end up doing evil and in the process remind us time and again how power corrupts. By tracking down surviving members of the Peoples Temple and providing them with the opportunity to recount their ordeals while in Jones’ church, director Stanley Nelson seeks to explore and discern the reasons that made Jones’ church to have so much influence over people to the point where nearly one thousand followers committed suicide.

In the 1960s and 1970s, there was a widespread belief that the force of social change could revolutionize the world as Kipp (2006) asserts. In their search for answers in various movements, people opened themselves to the idea of novel political and spiritual answers. The vaguely socialist and multi-cultural church of Jones was one of the avenues that provided such answers for people. Jones easily attracted people to his church because his sentiments on civil rights were revolutionary. He was a man who practiced what he preached in that he adopted several children from discordant racial backgrounds. It was during this time that black people and other minority races pushed for equality and abolishment of racial discrimination through civil rights movements. As such, Jones’ views on economic and social equality were not only inspiring but also resonated with numerous people, especially the non-white individuals.

The differences in classes and social statuses in the 1970s also encouraged people to seek religious answers to their problems. Jones provided this answer through his focus on the life led by Jesus Christ in his teachings. Jones believed that “Jesus Christ had the most revolutionary teachings” because they entailed clothing the naked, ministering to the poor, the ill and the elderly in their suffering, feeding the hungry and providing shelter for strangers (Emerson, 2006, N. p). While the socialist preaching of Jesus as depicted in Jones’ church in the earlier years does not get much play in the critically materialistic culture of the United States today, the selfless nature and appeal of the love of agape was strong and resonated with a lot of individuals in the idealistic political, revolutionary and social climate of the 1960s and the 1970s. In fact, some former followers of Jones believe that the Peoples Temple had the potential to become phenomenal and world-changing if Jones had not pursued the megalomaniacal, dark and self-destructive trajectory he took.

The mass suicide is both a consequence of the people not questioning the authority of Jones and the immense power and influence that corrupted Jones. As a preacher with a relatively small congregation, Jones preached Christian ideals and championed equality and civil rights. However, as the ranks of his followers grew tremendously in the 1970s, one could see and hear the change in Jones. He went from being a brother to father to savior to God as his influence on his followers grew at an alarming pace (O’Leary, 2007, N. p). This can be attributed to Jones’ twofold personality. As a young Pentecostal minister, Jones possessed idealistic views which he put forward through his polished oratorical skills. Coming from a humble background in Indiana, Jones was a man that was sensitive to the plights of African-Americans and his preaching was based on breaking down economic and racial barriers. The interracial and self-sufficient community that Jones established in Guyana promised utopia to his followers, especially for the black followers. In exchange for their life savings, Jones followers would work for twenty hours a day and were given allowances and provided with comfortable accommodations. The other Jones was a boy who came from a struggling family and carried out funerals for dead animals. Jones was not only a social outcast among whites but also a paranoid sadist (Holden, 2006, N. p). This dark side of Jones was manifested in the latter stages of his ministry when he commanded a huge following. He declared that he was the only person in the community who was heterosexual and that everyone else was struggling with homosexuality and lesbianism. Thus, while discouraging liaisons among church members on the basis that sexual relationships shifted people’s focus from the church, Jones verbally coerced women and men into having sexual relations with him based on the fact that it helped them recover. Seeing the immense influence he had on his followers, Jones began preaching about giving into death.

As Jones paranoia grew following investigations on his conduct and that of his church from the testimonies of defectors, he began to urge his followers to “die with a degree of dignity” instead of “lying down in tears and agony” (Holden, 2006, N. p). He argued that death was not a big deal, but a crossing line and through communal self-destruction, the church would be protesting the unfortunate conditions of the inhumane world. On a particular New Year’s Eve in California, Jones rehearsed the upcoming mass suicide by giving punch to one hundred and twenty-six people and telling them that they had consumed poison (Holden, 2006, N. p).  However, when nothing transpired, he labeled that ordeal a loyalty test. The day of the mass suicide came when Leo Ryan came to Guyana to investigate complaints from people whose relatives had moved to Jonestown. Nonetheless, when Jones learned that many of his followers from California wanted to return with him to the United States, there was mayhem and Jones was among the five people who were killed on the airstrip. After the death of Jones, the mass suicide followed on the November 17, 1978.

From the documentary Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple, one finally begins to discern why numerous individuals would voluntarily die and how Peoples Temple is an extreme example of the religious cultural trend of the 1970s. The mass suicide can be attributed to the belief that people have in their leaders, as well as, the feeling that even when they know things have gone too far, they are still committed to the cause. The cause might have started off with the best of intentions, but ended up straying away from its moral principles. While most of the religious movements in the 1970s focused on ministering the gospel to their followers, Peoples Temple was discordant in that it had imbued in it the precepts of racial, social and economic equality. Thus, similar to most of the black dominated churches during the civil rights movement in the 1970s, Peoples Temple was not only a religious movement but also a political movement. This fusion of social justice and religion is what got the members of the Peoples Temple so committed to the cause that they were willing to end their lives and die with dignity rather than lie down in anguish and tears.

Works Cited

Emerson, Jim. “Jonestown: The Life And Death Of Peoples Temple Movie Review (2006) | Roger Ebert.” Rogerebert.Com, 2006,

Holden, Stephen. “Jonestown: The Life And Death Of Peoples Temple – Movies – Review.” Nytimes.Com, 2006,

Kipp, Jeremiah. “Jonestown: The Life And Death Of Peoples Temple | Film Review | Slant Magazine.” Slant Magazine, 2006,

O’Leary, Devin. “Jonestown: The Life And Death Of Peoples Temple Review.” Alibi, 2007,