‘Drinking the Kool-Aid’ is a catchphrase these days in the ghetto suggesting unswerving loyalty. It grew out of a tragedy in 1978 when nearly a thousand members of the People’s Temple committed mass suicide. They drank a cyanide-laced grape drink at Jonestown in the jungles of Guyana in South America. It was the closing chapter in a tale that seemed to begin with great promise.
Born in the city of Crete, Indiana in the U.S.A on the 13th day of May in 1931, James Warren Jones or fondly known to his followers as Reverend Jones was born into a very normal Christian family and from a very early age, he was a very radical thinker reading and studying the works of many world leaders like Joseph Stalin, Karl Marx, Mao Zedong, Mahatma Gandhi, and Adolf Hitler. He also developed an intense interest in religion. Childhood acquaintances recalled Jones as a “really weird kid” who was obsessed with religion and death, alleging that he frequently held funerals for small animals on his parents’ property and that he had stabbed a cat to death. One childhood acquaintance noted that, after German prisoners of war arrived in Lynn during World War II, one patted young Jones on the back of the head, to which he responded by giving the Nazi salute and shouting “Heil Hitler!”
Jones drew controversy from the moment he started the People’s Temple in Indiana in 1955. He claimed to be God, to have the power to heal the sick, and he offended many by preaching a gospel of racial integration and socialism. The church grew in power and influence as it moved to Northern California and then San Francisco in the 1970s. Jones made large donations to civic causes, ran food programs and put temple members to work campaigning for powerful local politicians. His Teachings were simple and it was based not on material wealth, but it was based on who you were as a person and what you were willing to give up and what you were willing to do, not just for yourself, but for the elders, for the children, for those who come in behind you to make a path easier for them. This attracted a lot of men and women of color into his ranks.
Jones and his wife adopted several non-white children, referring to the household as his “rainbow family”, and stating: “Integration is a more personal thing with me now. It’s a question of my son’s future.” He also portrayed the Temple as a “rainbow family”. In 1954 the Joneses adopted Agnes, who was part Native American. In 1959, they adopted three Korean-American children named Lew, Stephanie, and Suzanne, the latter of whom was adopted at age six, and he encouraged Temple members to adopt orphans from war-ravaged Korea. Jones was critical of U.S. opposition to North Korean leader Kim Il-sung, calling the Korean War a “war of liberation” and stating that South Korea “is a living example of all that socialism the north has overcome.” In June 1959 Jones and his wife had their only biological child, naming him Stephan Gandhi. In 1961, they became the first white couple in Indiana to adopt a black child, naming him Jim Jones Jr. (or James Warren Jones Jr.). They also adopted a white son, originally named Timothy Glen Tupper (shortened to Tim), whose birth mother was a member of the Temple.
Jones traveled with his family to Belo Horizonte, Brazil, with the idea of setting up a new Temple location, after preaching at the Temple about the fears of nuclear war and reading an article in the January 1962 issue of Esquire magazine which listed the city as a safe harbor in the event of an atomic exchange. On his way to Brazil, Jones made his first trip to Guyana, which at the time was still a British colony.
Jones returned from Brazil in December 1963 and told his Indiana congregation that the world would be engulfed by nuclear war on July 15, 1967, leading to a new socialist Eden on Earth and that the Temple had to move to Northern California for safety. Accordingly, the Temple began moving to Redwood Valley, California, near the city of Ukiah.
According to religious studies professor Catherine Wessinger, Jones always spoke of the Social Gospel’s virtues but chose to conceal that his gospel was actually communism until the late 1960s. By that time, he began partially revealing the details of his “Apostolic Socialism” concept in Temple sermons. Jones also taught that “those who remained drugged with the opiate of religion had to be brought to enlightenment on socialism.” He often mixed these ideas, once preaching:
By the early 1970s, Jones began deriding Christianity as a “fly away religion”, rejecting the Bible as being a tool to oppress women and non-whites, and denouncing a “Sky God” who was no God at all. He wrote a booklet titled “The Letter Killeth”, criticizing the King James Bible. Jones also began preaching that he was the reincarnation of Father Divine, Mahatma Gandhi, Jesus, Gautama Buddha, and Vladimir Lenin.
In a 1976 phone conversation with John Maher, Jones alternately said he was an agnostic and an atheist. Marceline admitted in a 1977 New York Times interview that Jones was trying to promote Marxism in the U.S. by mobilizing people through religion, citing Mao Zedong as his inspiration: “Jim used religion to try to get some people out of the opiate of religion.” He had slammed the Bible on the table yelling “I’ve got to destroy this paper idol!” In one sermon, Jones said. You’re gonna help yourself, or you’ll get no help! There’s only one hope of glory; that’s within you! Nobody’s gonna come out of the sky! There’s no heaven up there! We’ll have to make heaven down here!
Jones had started building Jonestown several years before the New West article was published. It was promoted as a means to create both a “socialist paradise” and a “sanctuary” from the media scrutiny in San Francisco. Jones purported to establish it as a model communist community, adding that the Temple comprised “the purest communists there are”. Jones did not permit members to leave the settlement.
Religious scholar Mary McCormick Maaga argues that Jones’s authority decreased after the exodus to Jonestown because he was not needed for recruitment and he could not hide his drug addiction from rank-and-file members. In spite of the allegations prior to Jones’s departure, he was still respected by some for setting up a racially integrated church that helped the disadvantaged; 68% of Jonestown residents were black. Jones began to propagate his belief in what he termed “Translation” once his followers settled in Jonestown, claiming that he and his followers would all die together, move to another planet, and live blissfully.
Life in the commune was not very satisfying for his followers due to various factors like misinformation and lack of food and an overcrowded environment. Due to many other misgivings, some of Jones closest advisers defected and talked to reporters about beatings and sexual exploitation. Jones feared exposure and abruptly moved nearly a thousand members of the temple to the jungles of Guyana in 1977. A year later California Congressman Leo Ryan visited Jonestown as part of an investigation. Jones ordered the murder of Ryan and members of his party. Then he ordered 913 followers and their children to drink from a vat of cyanide-laced grape drink. Others were shot. Below is an account of an escapee who managed to risk their life to bring their stories to us.