Biography of Jim Jones, Leader of the Peoples Temple Cult

The Story of the Jonestown Massacre

Jim Jones and his family

Don Hogan Charles / Getty Images

Jim Jones (May 13, 1931–November 18, 1978), the leader of the Peoples Temple cult, was both charismatic and disturbed. Jones had a vision for a better world and established the Peoples Temple to help make that happen. Unfortunately, his unstable personality eventually overcame him and he became responsible for the deaths of more than 900 people, most of whom committed "revolutionary suicide" or were murdered at the Jonestown compound in Guyana.

Fast Facts: Jim Jones

  • Known For: Cult leader responsible for the suicide and murder of more than 900 people
  • Also Known As: James Warren Jones, "Father"
  • Born: May 13, 1931 in Crete, Indiana
  • Parents: James Thurman Jones, Lynetta Putnam
  • Died: November 18, 1978 in Jonestown, Guyana
  • Education: Butler University
  • Spouse: Marceline Baldwin Jones
  • Children: Lew, Suzanne, Stephanie, Agnes, Suzanne, Tim, Stephan Gandhi; several children out of wedlock
  • Notable Quote: "I'd like to choose my own kind of death, for a change. I'm tired of being tormented to hell. Tired of it."

Early Years

Jim Jones was born in the small town of Crete, Indiana, on May 13, 1931. Since his father James had been injured in World War I and was unable to work, Jim's mother Lynetta supported the family.

Neighbors considered the family a little odd. Childhood playmates remember Jim holding mock church services in his home, many of which were funeral services for dead animals. Some questioned where he kept "finding" so many dead animals and believed he had killed some himself.

Marriage and Family

While working in a hospital as a teenager, Jones met Marceline Baldwin. The two were married in June 1949. Despite an extremely difficult marriage, Marceline stayed with Jones until the end.

Jones and Marceline had one child together and adopted several children of various ethnicities. Jones was proud of his "rainbow family" and urged others to adopt interracially.

As an adult, Jim Jones wanted to make the world a better place. At first, Jones tried to be a student pastor at an already established church, but he quickly quarreled with the church's leadership. Jones, who strongly opposed segregation, wanted to integrate the church, which was not a popular idea at that time.

Healing Rituals

Jones soon began preaching specifically to African-Americans, whom he most wanted to help. He often used "healing" rituals to attract new followers. These highly staged events claimed to heal people's illnesses—anything from eye problems to heart disease.

Within two years, Jones had enough followers to start his own church. By selling imported monkeys as pets to people door to door, Jones had saved enough money to open his own church in Indianapolis.

The Origins of the Peoples Temple

Founded in 1956 by Jim Jones, the Peoples Temple started in Indianapolis, Indiana as a racially integrated church that focused on helping people in need. At a time when most churches were segregated, the Peoples Temple offered a very different, utopian view of what society could become.

Jones was the leader of the church. He was a charismatic man who demanded loyalty and preached of sacrifice. His vision was socialist in nature. He believed that American capitalism caused an unhealthy balance in the world, where the rich had too much money and the poor worked hard to receive too little.

Through the Peoples Temple, Jones preached activism. Although just a small church, the Peoples Temple established soup kitchens and homes for the elderly and mentally ill. It also helped people find jobs.

Move to California

As the Peoples Temple grew increasingly successful, scrutiny of Jones and his practices grew as well. When an investigation into his healing rituals was about to begin, Jones decided it was time to move.

In 1966, Jones moved the Peoples Temple to Redwood Valley, California, a small town just north of Ukiah in the northern part of the state. Jones picked Redwood Valley in particular because he had read an article that listed it as one of the top places least likely to be hit during a nuclear attack. Plus, California seemed much more open to accepting an integrated church than Indiana had been. About 65 families followed Jones from Indiana to California.

Once established in Redwood Valley, Jones expanded into the San Francisco Bay Area. The Peoples Temple once again established homes for the elderly and the mentally ill. It also helped addicts and foster children. The work done by the Peoples Temple was praised in newspapers and by local politicians.

People trusted Jim Jones and believed he had a clear view of what needed to be changed in the United States. Yet, many did not know that Jones was a much more complex man; a man who was more unbalanced than anyone ever suspected.

Drugs, Power, and Paranoia

From the outside, Jim Jones and his Peoples Temple looked like an amazing success; the reality, however, was quite different. In fact, the church was transforming into a cult centered around Jim Jones.

After the move to California, Jones changed the tenor of the Peoples Temple from religious to political, with a strong communist bent. Members at the top of the church's hierarchy had pledged not only their devotion to Jones but had also pledged over all of their material possessions and money. Some members even signed over custody of their children to him.

Jones quickly became infatuated with power, requiring his followers to call him either "Father" or "Dad." Later, Jones began to describe himself as "Christ" and then, in the last few years, claimed that he was himself God.

Jones also took large quantities of drugs, both amphetamines and barbiturates. At first, it might have been to help him stay up longer so that he could get more good works done. Soon, however, the drugs caused major mood swings, his health deteriorated, and it increased his paranoia.

No longer was Jones just worried about nuclear attacks. He soon believed that the entire government—especially the CIA and FBI—was after him. In part to escape from this perceived government threat and to escape from an exposé article about to be published, Jones decided to move the Peoples Temple to Guyana in South America.

The Jonestown Settlement and Suicide

Once Jones had convinced many of the Peoples Temple members to move to what was supposed to be a utopian commune in the jungles of Guyana, Jones's control over his members became extreme. It was apparent to many that there was no escape from Jones's control; this control was leveraged, in part, by his use of mind-altering drugs to manage his followers. According to The New York Times, he had stockpiled and was administering "Quaaludes, Demerol, Valium, morphine and 11,000 doses of Thorazine, a drug used to calm people with extreme mental problems." The living conditions were horrible, the work hours were long, and Jones had changed for the worse.

When rumors of the conditions at the Jonestown compound reached relatives back home, concerned family members put pressure on the government to take action. When Rep. Leo Ryan of California took a trip to Guyana to visit Jonestown, the trip ignited Jones's own fears of a government conspiracy that was out to get him.

To Jones, greatly addled by drugs and his paranoia, Ryan's visit meant Jones's own doom. Jones launched an attack against Ryan and his entourage and in so doing used that to influence all his followers to commit "revolutionary suicide." Ryan and four others were killed in the attack.

Death

While most of his followers (including children) died from being forced at gunpoint to drink cyanide-laced grape punch, Jim Jones died on the same day (November 18, 1978) of a gunshot wound to the head. It is still unclear whether or not it was self-inflicted.

Legacy

Jones and the Peoples Temple have been the subject of many books, articles, documentaries, songs, poems, and movies about the events in Jonestown, Guyana. The event also gave rise to the expression "drinking the Kool-Aid," meaning "believing in a flawed and potentially dangerous idea;" this phrase derives from the deaths of so many Peoples Temple members after drinking poison-laced punch or Kool-Aid.

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