Tag Archives: Jonestown

Jonestown Revisited

18 Nov

Some of you will, no doubt, remember with horror the shocking event which occurred 40 years ago today. On 18th November, 1978, over 900 people, a third of them minors (including babies), died in what has come to be known as the Jonestown massacre.  But how could a progressive church famed for its humanitarian work and led by a widely respected pastor, who had dined with the First Lady (Rosalyn Carter) and flown with the Vice-President (Walter Mondale) in his private jet[1], come to such a tragic end?   For readers of 2 Peter 2, the writing had always been on the wall.

James (Jim) Warren Jones was born in the town of Lynn (Indiana) on 13th May, 1931, and preached his first sermon to a group of children when he was just 12 years old.[2]  He married Marceline Baldwin, a local nurse, when he was 18, and they remained together until their deaths in 1978.  He dropped out of Indiana University after just one year so as to concentrate on preaching, but obtained a degree in secondary education through studying at night school.

Despite not having any theological training, Jim Jones became a pastor in a Methodist Church, but left following a dispute over doctrine (v 15).  He then founded his own Church, which was racially integrated (long before such a thing was acceptable), and emphasised “practical Christianity” in the form of a soup kitchen and two nursing homes.  Furthermore, he and his wife (both white) adopted a Korean orphan and two black children.  He legitimated his ministry by affiliating his Church, by now known as the People’s Temple, with the Disciples of Christ, which “allowed him to say that he was an officially ordained member of a 1.4-million-member denomination[3].

However, things started to go badly wrong after he attended a spiritualist meeting and began to believe in reincarnation. He also began to outline supposed errors and contradictions in the Bible, which would not deceive a mature Christian but which could easily disturb those new to the faith, and used them to denounce the Bible as an “idol” (v 1).

Jones, who insisted that his followers call him “Dad” (contrary to the teaching of Jesus – Matthew 23:9), eventually came to believe that he was God’s “heir on earth” (v3).  “Central to Jones’s appeal were his displays of mind reading and faith healing[4] – all of which were fake (v 18) – which he used to attract new members and larger donations.  At the time of his death, Jones was estimated to be worth 26 million dollars, most of which was in overseas bank accounts (1 Timothy 6:10).

In 1964, Jones prophesied that there would be a nuclear war on 15th July, 1967 and “Many gave up everything to follow him from Indiana to Northern California where he assured them that they would be safe”.[5]  In 1970, he opened a new Temple in San Francisco and another “Temple” in Los Angeles two years later.  In 1974, his first failed prophecy having been forgotten, Jones prophesied that a great persecution was about to begin.  A couple years later, many fled with him to land in the Amazon jungle, which the movement had purchased for $1 million, to escape the impending persecution.

Jones, who was by now becoming drug dependent and increasingly paranoid (v 19), offered his followers freedom from non-existent threats while keeping his followers oppressed.  “While the Peoples Temple was active in humanitarian causes in its communities, Jones’s treatment of his followers was often less than humane.”[6]

Jones maintained control through family separation, interrogation sessions, regular humiliation, ritualistic beatings of children and blackmail.  “Many were coerced or brainwashed into signing over their possessions—including their homes—to the church.”[7]  Not surprisingly, members feared Jones, who sought to keep them in sexual bondage by breaking-up partnerships and not only encouraging, but expecting, “sexual preference for himself from both men and women”.[8]

False prophets like Jones despise authority (v 10) while demanding obedience even to death from their followers.  Jones devised a ritual, which he called “White Night”, in which he would “order his followers to drink an unknown liquid and syringe some into their children’s mouths, telling them that death would follow in 45 minutes.[9]  When the 45 minutes had elapsed, Jones would tell them that it was to test their loyalty to the cause.

Members, who were encouraged to inform on one another, were kept in a state of exhaustion, psychological isolation and poverty, which made defection difficult enough in the USA but nigh impossible in the Guyanese jungle[10], where the camp was patrolled by an armed security team.

The few who did manage to leave told of their experiences and claimed they had been threatened with reprisals; some were reported to have “died mysteriously” [11] soon after their escape. Though there were a few stories in the press, nobody took the rumours very seriously, except for one politician, Democrat Congressman Leo Ryan, who decided to investigate them himself and was given an invitation to visit Jonestown.

Ryan, accompanied by journalists, lawyers and relatives of members of the cult, flew to Georgetown (the capitol of Guyana) on 14th November and visited Jonestown on the 17th, where they were fêted by smiling and dancing cult members,[12] though tapes later recovered showed that Jones had carefully rehearsed the whole display.  All seemed to be going well until Ryan and his entourage came to leave the next morning, when a grandmother “begged Ryan to get her out[13] and 20 others made a similar plea.  They all left on Ryan’s truck, despite one of Jones’s aides trying to stab Ryan, and headed for the airfield, where they were caught by some of the Temple’s security team who shot and killed Ryan, 3 journalists and 3 defectors and wounded 11 others.[14]

Jones then gathered his followers around him and told them that Ryan’s plane was going to be shot down and that “they” (which his followers would have understood to mean the CIA or mercenaries) would parachute in seeking revenge.[15]  As in previous “White Night” ceremonies, a vat of fruit drink was brought in, but this time it was laced with cyanide and barbiturates.  Parents dutifully syringed the liquid into the mouths of their babies and children before drinking it themselves. Death occurred within 5 minutes.  Jones died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound.  “Fewer than 100 of the Temple members in Guyana survived the massacre; the majority of survivors either had defected that day or were in Georgetown.”[16]

Behind Jones’ chair was a sign that said: “Those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it.[17] But how can we avoid repeating such a tragedy?

For the wider church, it highlights the importance of oversight of pastors, both within the church and independently from without, which would have identified that the church was becoming a dangerous cult.

It also points to the necessity of pastors having sufficient theological training, the lack of which allowed Jones to interpret the Bible to suit his own purposes and ambitions, before ditching it entirely.

Furthermore, churches (mainly within the charismatic and evangelical traditons), in which respect for the pastor (a right and fitting thing which should be met with humility) becomes twisted into an authoritarian demand for blind obedience, are at greater risk of being led astray.

As individuals, the only way to avoid falling victim to such false prophets is to humbly ground ourselves in the Word of God through daily reading and study (2 Timothy 3:16-17), testing every spirit (1 John 4:1) and “fixing our eyes on Jesus” (Hebrews 12:2), who alone is “the way, the truth and the life” (John 14:6).


Footnotes:

[1] Butterworth, John (1981), The People’s Temple, “Cults and New Faiths”, Tring, Herts: Lion Publishing, p37

[2] Ibid. p36

[3] Ibid. p36

[4] The Jonestown Massacre, Encyclopaedia Britannica, https://www.britannica.com/event/Jonestown-massacre#  accessed 28/10/2018

[5] Butterworth, John (1981), p36

[6] The Jonestown Massacre, Encyclopaedia Britannica

[7] Ibid.

[8] Butterworth, John (1981), p37

[9] Ibid. p36

[10] Ibid. p37

[11] Ibid. p37

[12] Ibid. p37

[13] Ibid. p37

[14] The Jonestown Massacre, Encyclopaedia Britannica

[15] Butterworth, John (1981), p37

[16] The Jonestown Massacre, Encyclopaedia Britannica

[17] Butterworth, John (1981), p37

 

Additional Sources:

Wikipedia, Jonestown https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jonestown  and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jim_Jones both accessed 28/10/2018

Bible Gateway: New Revised Standard Version (Anglicised) https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=2+Peter+2&version=NRSVA  accessed 28/10/2018