January 12, 2020
The Peoples Temple was a religious community led by Jim Jones from the mid-1950s to 1978 (Melton, 2014). The community came to international infamy after the largest mass death in American history that spawned the metaphor: “don’t drink the kool-aid,” meaning to not follow someone/something into a potentially dangerous situation. This is from the cyanide ingested by the followers in the compound via drinking kool-aid. Over 900 members died at the compound, Jonestown, in Guyana (Eldridge, 2019).
Jim Jones was born in Crete, Indiana on May 13, 1931. He was a self-proclaimed messiah of the Peoples Temple that was eventually branded as a cult. He died on November 18, 1978 in the mass-rite murder-suicide with hundreds of his followers (Biography.com Editors, 2019). He originally gained a positive reputation in Indianapolis during the 1950s and ‘60s as a charismatic churchman and a proponent of racial integration. This push for integration led him to eventually leave the church and spawn his own. Jones worked with the homeless and as the director for Indianapolis’s Human Rights Commission (The Editors of Encyclopedia Britannica, 2019).
His trademark dark glasses, suits and slicked-back hair amassed him followers that were equally as drawn to his evangelistic sermons and “healing” seminars (Biography.com Editors, 2019). Jones’s charisma and charm led to an impeccable dynamism that followed him throughout the years and stuck with his followers beyond the grave. He drew inspiration from Father Divine, a 1930s preacher (Hall, 1988), and the Marxist “liberation theology” (Melton, 2014). Analyzing Jim Jones’s actions through the social movement model, allows a clear path to be seen in his rise to becoming the figurehead of the Peoples Temple. His charisma still stands the test of time as he is still researched, studied, and fascinated over (through movies and media) to this day. No matter the campaign type or specific tactics used, all are similar in that they take time and promote a message attached to the charismatic individual (Larson, 2013). Jim Jones was able to construct and influence the followers of the Peoples Temple by luring them in the genesis stage with a promise of utopia and providing safety and a sense of family, promoted social change through self-actualization in the social unrest stage to combat growing dissent, physically moved his followers away from society and proclaimed himself as a messiah during the enthusiastic mobilization stage, transformed the group into a collectivist society during the maintenance stage, and killed off the group when faced with a real threat in the termination stage.
The Genesis Stage
In 1955 Jones established the Wings of Deliverance that would eventually become the Peoples Temple (The Editors of Encyclopedia Britannica, 2019). He bought time on a local radio station that would air his sermons that eventually grew to around 100 members. They moved to Ukiah and Redwood, and eventually San Francisco in an attempt to recruit more people and attract large numbers to further spread the message (Biography.com Editors, 2019). Jones offered a blend of spiritual, social, and material salvation to his followers (Hall, 1988). He wanted to embrace intercultural religious gatherings and pushed the idea of a utopia to all those who followed him.
The Peoples Temple focused on those in the welfare system and established themselves as a surrogate extended family (Hall, 1988). This inserted Jones into his followers lives as he supplemented their love and esteem needs as well as their belongingness and affiliation needs. It allowed for an emotional security as those underprivileged had somewhere to go and a group of people to turn to when they did not have their own stable home base. Followers were given a sense of safety and Jones was portrayed as someone who kept people off the streets and helped underprivileged youth who would otherwise be forgotten. Jones made sure that the Peoples Temple also helped the less fortunate, such as the elderly or the mentally handicapped. Those of whom were being left behind by the state (Hall, 1988). This allowed for a reassurance of worth from the beginning and helped build his trust as he was seen as a credible source and someone who could be believed in. His strong use of ethos, in identifying as being a friend, confidant, and a deity was enough to confuse his audience in how he wanted to be perceived. He wanted to be viewed as an equal but also be able to assert dominance and persuade them. He wanted to be seen, in part, as to the man’s man and a man for the people. Jones proposed the loose idea of a coming of a messiah, in which he was the answer to his follower’s needs.
The Social Unrest Stage
As previously mentioned, Jones relocated his church to Ukiah, California in 1965 and then San Francisco in 1971 (The Editors of Encyclopedia Britannica, 2019). Jones feared nuclear fallout and wanted to relocate to a compound where his followers would be separated from the rest of society. Originally to make money, the Peoples Temple held bake sales or rummage sales and helped out in the community by holding senior citizen dances. People joined with the idea that they could change the world with his dream beyond an eternal return, to a utopian society free from the negative outside world (Gardner, Williams, & Sadri, 2015). He promised a better world by promoting social change and being moralistic that encouraged members to feel a sense of self-actualization as they thought they were to reach their full potential as they helped others around them.
Quickly, the Peoples Temple became a socialist community, as they believed that people should only live with what they need. The original goal was to support the young and elderly through communal living and to then spread their ideology throughout the country. Members were pushed into local politics by staging large public demonstrations and letter-writing to officials. The group was a destructive group by insisting that the group was more important than the individual (Gardner, Williams, & Sadri, 2015), an extreme version of a collectivist society. Individuals were forced to sacrifice freedom and self-sufficiency for others. Propaganda through Jones’s testimonials and sermons, fear and guilt over the possibility of leaving, and thematic words to draw people into the group mentality made it hard for members to think outside of the group. An increasingly dreary tone can be seen as early as the initial turn away from the majority of society. As the Peoples Temple became more radical, they were turned against in mainstream society. This lesser harmonious operation then created a negative downturn (Walsh, 2001). People slowly began to dissent, complaining about having their days dictated to them, finances taken, relationships decided in a commune likened to a concentration camp (Gardner, Williams, & Sadri, 2015). Eventual claims of human rights violations by Jones (such as sexual and physical abuse) would continue the further downfall of the Peoples Temple.
The Enthusiastic Mobilization Stage
Jones moved hundreds of his followers to Guyana in 1977 and established the Jonestown compound amid the mounting accusations against him (both legal and ethical) (The Editors of Encyclopedia Britannica, 2019). Although social movements are questioned in a need to grow, one hypothesis is that instead of adapting to the outside world, the movement would rather reduce contact with those not a part of it (Della Porta & Diani, 2006). This is seen in the massive move of over 900 people to a different country at the direction of Jones. He immediately became the forefront of the institution as the messiah. Jones preached salvation to his followers only when they realized a state of divine socialism and to take the transformation of mankind into their own hands (Akerback, 2014).
His seemingly pragmatic style of logical speaking easily persuaded his followers. He would use his sermons as the vehicle to a map for his followers, but omit the territory by removing them from reality. Jones formed his own reality by using his own words and knowledge for the people to believe. He expressed milieu control by limiting contact from the outside world so as to continue the fabricated reality and limit any opposing influence from the other side. It was easier to completely ignore any opposing views than try to combat them. However, one major opposition was The Concerned Relatives, a group of former members of the Peoples Temple, family members, and critics. They called upon then-congressman, Leo J. Ryan, to visit Jonestown in 1978. They were the first to call the commune a concentration camp, they claimed members were being held against their will, and warned of a possible mass suicide. They pressured the mass media to publicize these allegations and bombard the public with their viewpoints to oppose the Peoples Temple (Peoples Temple and The Concerned Relatives, 2013). Their tactics of repetition (calling attention to the atrocities repeatedly), association (describing the human rights violations by Jones), and the composition of the messages portrayed on the mass media were able to plant a seed of concern in Jones that caused him to further withdraw his group from the mainland.
The Maintenance Stage
The Peoples Temple originally had legal means of earning money, and ethical reasons for their beliefs. However, this would turn sour as the ego of their messiah increased. In seemingly “helping” the community, he had allegedly stolen surplus food to profit financially and to save face to his followers (Hall, 1988). Jones illegally diverted the income of cult members for his own use, confiscated passports and extra income, and manipulated his followers with blackmail and beatings. There were reports that jewelry would be taken at collections and that the group would take advantage of the elderly as they would offer to take care of them in exchange for any monetary sum between $30,000 and $40,000 (Hall, 1988). Those who were classified as communal followers would give over income and any other assets to the temple and were then given an allowance for necessary resources; any other needs would have to be vetted by the “Needs Department” before the individual was given extra money (Hall, 1988). These people subordinately played along with this idea because Jones promised them all the spoils in return. Through the rule of reciprocity, Jones was easily able to ask the world of his followers as long as he promised them utopia in return. It was also easier to ask for more farther down the line there was a significant liking for the requester that overwhelmed them. Where, in comparison, a normally disagreeable character would have a much harder time taking the same advantages over them (Cialdini, 2009). Upon the move to Guyana, he would stage rehearsals for the eventual mass suicide where the members would kill their children and then themselves upon his command (The Editors of Encyclopedia Britannica, 2019). In more extreme social movements, there is a blend between individual and collective identities which are characterized by a false sense of empowerment and strengthening of self (Della Porta & Diani, 2006). The Peoples Temple focused on rule-following and norms within the community and relationships with each other as a new and important family over any outside relationships.
The Termination Stage
A year after the relocation, former U.S. congressman from California, Leo J. Ryan, visited Jonestown. Ryan’s visit was to investigate the alleged human rights violations within the Peoples Temple. During his tour of the compound, several members expressed their wish to leave Jonestown and claimed to be held against their will. Ryan attempted to take 15 people with him however he was murdered before they could get on the plane by some of Jones’s followers (Pehanick, 2015). Shortly after, the group in Guyana, at the direction of Jones, committed the murder-suicide where members were either shot or poisoned.
Leading up to the mass suicide, the followers were seated in a final sermon lasting 45 minutes in which Jones perpetuated an us vs. them depiction of the Peoples Temple members versus any defectors working with congress. Jim Jones’s use of logos is seen in his persuasion and leaving his audience no other option but suicide. He repeats the phrase “revolutionary act” six times during the final sermon in order to cement the idea of suicide (Pehanick, 2015). Making it seem that there is no other option but to die in dignity and claim respect for their lives as well as their children; the children would otherwise be tortured and killed if found by the army. Any objections were combated with quick rationalizations through illogical fallacies. He triggers a sense of pathos as he takes blame for his follower’s actions, as whatever his people do, he does. But he omits some of the truth by claiming to have no knowledge of the attack on Ryan prior. He wants his audience to feel bad for them, but also cement his ethos as a figurehead and friend on their side. Jones cited his actions as a protest against the inhumane conditions of the world. His final effect-to-cause reasoning is seen when he blames the outside world for their need to commit the mass-rite. In the final sermon tape, Jones says “This is a revolutionary suicide. This is not a self-destructive suicide. So they’ll pay for this. They brought this upon us and they’ll pay for that. I leave that destiny to them” (Q042 Transcript, FBI Transcription, 2019). The remaining members in California formally disbanded soon after (Melton, 2014).
Using the social movement model, and by breaking down each stage , it is easy to use deductive reasoning to figure out the seemingly absurd outcome of the Peoples Temple at the hands of Jim Jones. Originally birthed in Indianapolis at the hands of Jim Jones to preach social morality and utopia, the community moved around to different parts of California and eventually Africa as the followers became more and more submissive.
At the genesis stage, Jones was easily able to persuade people through the use of his charisma, insertion of the movement as a substitute for those in need of belongingness, and false acts of altruism. His ethos was birthed by a combination of his charisma, forward-thinking on the topic of racial equality. This then generated a sense of trustworthiness and perceived credibility among his followers that then allowed him to hold him as an authority figure.
The social unrest stage saw the beginning of dissent as the community began to turn into a socialist society, straying away from the original promises. Members began to complain about the controlling nature of the group and the unethical actions of Jones. In return he promoted a sense of change that could only be enacted by his followers to put them in the state of mind that they are important.
The enthusiastic mobilization stage saw literal movement of the group as Jones propelled himself as the messiah and moved his followers to Guyana to form the Jonestown commune. Instead of adapting to the world around them, Jones formed his own version of reality for his people as he brainwashed them into believing in divine socialism. At the same time, The Concerned Relatives became the main opposition that wanted to take the Peoples Temple down by using the mass media.
Jones doubled down on manipulating his followers during the maintenance stage as he wanted to make sure he had total control over them. He transformed the commune into a collectivist society by forcing communal living under the guise of living with only what you need only to take advantage of them and make it harder to physically leave.
Finally, the Peoples Temple reached the termination stage in November of 1978 when a congressman visited the commune. Although the visit was thought to have went well, Jones ordered the congressman to be murdered before he could leave. This then set off the chain of events that led to the mass-rite suicide, killing over 900 followers and Jones. What was seen as an unbelievable and unfathomable act happened through the years of charismatic persuasion and total domination.
Jim Jones was a delusional and narcissistic man who used his charm, intelligence, and persuasive wit to control followers who were weak and looking for a sense of belongingness. Although the largest mass suicide in American history was an extreme shock to those on the outside, former members who were able to break free knew the unfortunate ending that was to come from Jones and his brainwashed followers.
Akerback, P. (2014, February 28). The Peoples Temple’s Ideology in a Comparative Perspective. Retrieved January 12, 2020, from Alternative Considerations of Jonestown & Peoples Temple: https://jonestown.sdsu.edu/?page_id=33127
Biography.com Editors. (2019, July 18). Jim Jones Biography. (A&E Television Networks) Retrieved January 13, 2020, from The Biography.com website: https://www.biography.com/crime-figure/jim-jones
Cialdini, R. B. (2009). Influence Science and Practice (5th ed.). Boston, Massachusetts: Pearson Education, Inc. Retrieved January 12, 2020
Della Porta, D., & Diani, M. (2006). Social Movements an Introduction (2nd ed.). Oxford, England: Blackwell Publishing. Retrieved January 12, 2020, from https://www.hse.ru/data/2012/11/03/1249193172/Donatella_Della_Porta_Mario_Diani_Social_Mov.pdf
Eldridge, A. (2019, November 11). Jonestown. (Encyclopedia Britannica, inc.) Retrieved January 12, 2020, from Encyclopedia Britannica: https://www.britannica.com/event/Jonestown-massacre
Gardner, P. A., Williams, J., & Sadri, M. (2015, May 01). Peoples Temple: From Social Movement To Total Institution. Retrieved January 12, 2020, from Alternative Considerations of Jonestown & Peoples Temple: https://jonestown.sdsu.edu/?page_id=33160
Hall, J. R. (1988, December 01). Collective Welfare as Resource Mobilization in Peoples Temple: A Case Study of a Poor People’s Religious Social Movement. Sociological Analysis, 49, 64-77. doi:10.2307/3711144
Larson, C. U. (2013). Persuasion Reception and Responsibility (13th ed.). Boston, Massachusetts: Wadsworth, Cengage Learning. Retrieved January 12, 2020
Melton, J. G. (2014, November 20). Peoples Temple. (Encyclopedia Britannica, inc.) Retrieved January 13, 2020, from Enclyclopedia Britannica: https://www.britannica.com/topic/Peoples-Temple
Pehanick, M. (2015, December 31). Revolutionary Suicide: A Rhetorical Examniation of Jim Jones’ “Death Tape”. Retrieved January 13, 2020, from Alternative Considerations of Jonestown & Peoples Temple: https://jonestown.sdsu.edu/?page_id=30321
Peoples Temple and The Concerned Relatives. (2013, March 22). Retrieved January 13, 2020, from Alternative Considerations of Jonestown & Peoples Temple: https://jonestown.sdsu.edu/?page_id=13077
Q042 Transcript, FBI Transcription. (2019, March 12). Retrieved January 13, 2020, from Alternative Considerations of Jonestown & Peoples Temple: https://jonestown.sdsu.edu/?page_id=29081
The Editors of Encyclopedia Britannica. (2019, November 14). Jim Jones. (Encyclopedia Britannica, inc.) Retrieved January 13, 2020, from Encyclopedia Britannica: https://www.britannica.com/biography/Jim-Jones
Walsh, Y. (2001, June 01). Deconstructing ‘brainwashing’ within cults as an aid to counselling psychologists. Counseling Psychology Quarterly, 14(2), 119-128. doi:10.1080/09515070110058558
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