In 1978, my teenage mind was stunned by a massacre from which I am yet to recover. The facts were stark: Reverend Jim Jones had built a camp for his redeemed in the jungles of Guyana, 240 kilometres from the capital, Georgetown. He called it Jonestown. A thousand congregants followed him there from the USA, and he intensified the financial, emotional, physical and sexual abuse of his congregation that had begun in his network of churches from Indiana to California.
He took their passports. His armed guards patrolled the camp to prevent escape. Presently, news of the abuses of Jonestown filtered back to the US. On 17th November, 1978, a Californian congressman came on a fact-finding visit. A dozen defectors plucked up the courage to leave with him. As they boarded their flights in Port Kaituma the following day, Jones’ armed guards opened fire, killing Congressman Ryan and four others, injuring many more.
This was clearly the end of the line for Reverend Jones, it was clear that even the remote jungles of Guyana was not going to save him from the retribution of the USA. But he was not going to go down alone.
He summoned the entire population of Jonestown to the central pavilion where services usually took place. He ordered a mass ‘revolutionary suicide’. In the past he had rehearsed such an event during ‘White Night’ vigils in which his followers would drink pretend-poison. This time it was for real.
The young were murdered first. Parents syringed cyanide into the trusting mouths of their own children. Death followed five minutes of excruciating pain. We know this because a 44-minute recording of the last moments of Jonestown survives. Adults followed, drinking grape juice laced with cyanide. Those reluctant to follow through were forcibly injected with cyanide. Even their pet dogs and Mr. Muggs – Jonestown’s mascot chimpanzee – were poisoned.
Jim Jones, with a cowardice that was pathetic in the context, chose a less painful bullet in the head. 918 people died in total, including the 5 murdered at the airstrip, and the mother in Georgetown, who heard Jim Jones’ instructions on the radio, and – having no cyanide – led her three children, aged 10, 11 and 21, into the shower stall. With a kitchen knife. 909 dead bodies were recovered in Jonestown.
304 of the dead were children.
I was a 15-year-old teen myself when Jonestown happened. From my A-level classroom in Odogbolu, I followed the story in pre-internet weekly magazines. I saw pictures of dead children whose parents’ faith had crossed the line from gullibility into homicidal criminality. Four decades have passed, but the horrors of Jonestown, refracted through contemporary Joneses, has never left me: the horror of a people who went in search of God, found the Devil, and sat in his infernal pew. Of a people who looked for Salvation, found Damnation and sipped his suicidal brew. Of parents whose final sacrament of love was the sacrifice of their children’s lives.
Jim Jones’ son, Stephen, was sent away by his mother just before the massacre. He would later say, ‘It is also important to talk about the sickness of the people. Jim Jones by himself cannot kill 913 people. I believe that madness can happen to people under the right circumstances. If I don’t try to understand that, then those people would have died in vain.’
Behind Jim Jones’ usual chair at the central pavilion of Jonestown was nailed a signboard that read: ‘THOSE WHO FAIL TO LEARN FROM HISTORY ARE CONDEMNED TO REPEAT IT’. What follows now, in 10 bullets, is my own attempt to make sense of Jonestown’s collaborative madness of preacher and congregation, in order to better understand contemporary acts of congregational insanity everyday and everywhere, and the spectrum of abuse that goes with it.
- Jim Jones’ ministry of murder started conventionally enough. Ordained by the Independent Assemblies of God, Indiana, he founded one of the first desegregated churches in ‘50s America. As a Caucasian family, his was the first in Indiana to adopt a black child. He named that child Jim Jones Jr, although he also had a son by his wife. He adopted Korean and Native American children. His church had rehab centres for drug addicts, soup kitchens for the poor, shelters for the homeless and day care centres for children. He did not just care for the souls of his congregation, he actively cared for their bodies, too. He preached social justice from the pulpit and practised a form of communalism. He was a gifted and charismatic preacher and his message resonated with down-trodden Americans of the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s. He boldly challenged the biggest issues of his day – public and personal – from capitalism to segregation. And he offered cures for them.
- Unfortunately, those cures were often faked. To increase his congregation, he regularly faked miracles. At a ‘healing service’, he once got a secretary to fake a spinal cord injury in a wheelchair. Jones then prayed for her and she rose, dancing and running. His followers didn’t care about the corners he cut. Alethia Orsot was a Jones follower who missed the ‘revolutionary suicide’ because of a dental appointment. Her admiration of Jones survived the massacre. “The healing of the mind,” she said, “what Jim was really after, can never be false.” Jones had argued that fake miracles helped build the congregational faith that brought real miracles. Although, of course, nothing screams a pastor’s knowledge of the impotence of his almighty louder than a miracle faked to prove the Almightiness of his God. When the government started investigating his cures for heart disease, cancer and arthritis, Jones moved his church from Indiana to California.
- In California, his popularity grew. Politicians courted him. He endorsed, met with and appeared at rallies with major politicians, like the 1st Lady (Rosalyn Carter), Vice President and presidential candidate (Walter Mondale), California governor (Jerry Brown), the Mayor (George Moscone), Assemblymen and Congressmen (John Burton) and many others. He was appointed to political positions like the headship of the San Francisco Housing Authority. His abuse of his congregation grew but he used his increasing influence in politics and the media to restrict public scrutiny of his deviancy.
- Jim Jones understudied Father Divine, a famous African-American preacher who had claimed to be God. He used his charisma and the principle of Gradualism to take over the lives of his congregation. Jones had started his ministry preaching God and Bible. Gradually, the focus shifted to Himself. His followers began to call him ‘Dad’, ‘Father’. He claimed to be the reincarnation of Lenin and Jesus. Gradually, he isolated his church members from their family and friends, teaching them to associate only with other temple members. Jim demanded more and more of their time until they were working full time, under virtually slave-like conditions, for the Temple. It was the metaphor of the boiling frog.
- At first donations were voluntary. Gradually, they became a mandatory 10%, then 25%… it kept rising until members were required to hand over all their assets to the temple in return for a monthly allowance of $8 and ‘wall-to-wall’ care. Most of those who moved to Jonestown from the U.S. no longer owned any property or funds and had no relationships outside the People’s Temple. His followers bought into a Utopia of apostolic communalism and trusted Jim Jones to take them there. He led them into a nightmare instead.
- He had started out preaching the Bible. Then he pointed out the inconsistencies and errors in the book and told his congregation to tear it up for toilet paper. They obeyed. By then, years of obedience had atrophied their independent ability to think. Jim Jones established strict rules for his flock, that did not apply to him. Gradually, he claimed the divine right to have sex with anyone in his congregation, male, female, or child. Husbands surrendered their wives, wives their husbands. Yet, in the words of Alethia Orsot, an educated member of his congregation, “The matter of sex is a private affair.”
- Despite his political clout, a newspaper researched a major expose. On the eve of publication, Jones uprooted his congregation. His destination was Jonestown in the North West District of Guyana, away from US jurisdiction. He was not the first white preacher there. In 1845, Prophet Smith had taken a band of AmerIndian worshippers to a camp of the redeemed in the jungle to await a Utopia where they would see God, be free of all calamities and have land of boundless fertility. When God failed to turn up, Prophet Smith told his worshippers they would have to cross over to meet him, and would be reincarnated as white men. 400 worshippers died.
- 133 years afterwards, Reverend Jones followed the same formula. With cynical irony, he preached to his 70% black congregation in front of a signboard that said: ‘THOSE WHO FAIL TO LEARN FROM HISTORY ARE CONDEMNED TO REPEAT IT’. But his followers had delegated thinking to their reverend. They failed to learn the lessons of the 1845 Massacre. Jones worked them hard in the fields during the day, and at night when they were supposed to be resting, he set up loudspeakers throughout Jonestown and preached all night rants and sermons. There was no space for independent thought. Hue Fortson, a former Jones follower, lost his wife and infant son in the 1978 massacre. He later confessed, ‘I did allow Jones to think for me because I figured that he had the better plan, I gave my rights up to him. As many others did.’
- Jonestown is not a merely American tragedy. The spiritual inflammation of necromantic thought recognises neither political nor racial boundaries. It knows nor class nor gender. A Ph.D can fall victim to the seductions of cultic thought as easily as an illiterate can prey on congregations as predator. For thousands of years in the spiritual evolution of mankind, shamaans and witchdoctors have, claiming superior connections to the divine, preyed on terrified victims, demanding material and human sacrifice. It continues today, for all the sophistication of our concrete jungles. Indeed, in this digital age the infection of magical thinking spreads with greater virulence, seducing us at our most vulnerable, swamping swathes of anonymous victims with no smoking tape to tell the tale. Yet, the ability to build impossible temples on the rock of implausible faith and incredible towers on the bed of rational vision is uniquely human. It is a fine balance, but the further we fly from the rational, the faster we slide down the greased pole of sentient life.
- Jim Jones’ driving principle seems simple enough: There is nothing a sincere worshiper will not give, if a charismatic preacher has the gumption to ask for it in the name of God. This principle still drives thousands of obscure and mainstream cults today. From Boko Haram to the Order of the Solar Temple, from the Branch Davidians to the Lords Resistance Army, the sacrifice of money, property and life – the worshippers’ and the public’s – is now old hat. Every day, in Everytown, in the decades since Jonestown, this principle is exploited in more and more creative ways. Congregants have eaten grass like cows, drunk petrol, murdered innocents and practiced every perversion known to man, in the name of God. These cases of congregational madness may lack the body count or the shock value of the atrocity of 18th November 1978. They may not make the headlines like Jim Jones’ massacre, but they are daily reminders that the beast of Jones still prowls the basement of the human soul, that he still calls the faithful to Hell in the name of God, and that Everytown folks, who don’t learn from history, still cry Amen.