Teen-Age Preacher

Jones’s journey toward self-worship ended in death in Guyana. But it began in the tiny eastern Indiana town of Lynn, where casket-making is the main industry. Jones apparently confessed Christ as a boy under the influence of a neighbor and Nazarene church member, Mrs. Myrtle Kennedy. He began preaching as a teenager and at the age of 18, he married Marceline Baldwin, a nurse at the Richmond, Indiana, hospital where they both worked.

Jones enrolled at Indiana University but dropped out during his sophomore year to give more time to preaching. He continued his studies, however, in night school classes at Butler University in Indianapolis and finished after ten years with a degree in education. In 1953, he became pastor of the Christian Assembly church (Methodist) in Indianapolis, but a dispute erupted and he left. Jones later said the congregation had opposed his bringing blacks into the church: others, however, attributed the conflict to his becoming a Pentecostal.

For the next few years, Jones held Sunday afternoon healing services in church buildings he rented. In 1956, Jones opened People’s Temple in leased quarters. He sold monkeys door-to-door to purchase a synagogue in a black neighborhood a year later. Interestingly, the synagogue had been headed by Rabbi Maurice Davis, who in recent years has been an organizer of efforts to deprogram cult members.

Persons who attended People’s Temple in those early years recalled in interviews that the services were much like those in any old-fashioned Pentecostal church. Blacks and whites got along relatively well, they said.

But there were things that disturbed members in the inner circle.

Jones and a few Temple members attended a spiritualist camp meeting in the late 1950s, and Jones came back a believer in reincarnation, said the man who served as Jones’s associate pastor until 1963 (when he was replaced by an Assemblies of God minister). “Quite a few spiritualists began attending the church after that,” he said.

Jones had ESP, some ex-members insist. “He accurately predicted events, including the death of a woman who jumped from a hospital window,” said one. Jones believed he was “guided” by a supernatural “spirit,” said a former university classmate.

Fateful Visit

The next major change within Jones occurred in 1961 when he and some young people visited Father Divine in Philadelphia. Following that visit Jones frequently alluded to the black preacher whose interracial following regarded him as the personification of God. It was soon evident to the inner circle that Jones no longer believed in the virgin birth of Christ, that he believed in evolution, and that he wanted people to pay more attention to him than the Bible.

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“The Bible is a black idol; you people worship it,” he charged. Jones, known for years as “Jimmy,” assumed the title of “Father.”

“He did some good things,” says former member Judy McNaulty. “But he just got power and changed.” (Mrs. McNaulty’s brother, Charles Beikman, was being held in Guyana in the throat-slashing deaths of a mother and three children.)

Jones began emphasizing pacifism and brotherhood in his sermons, but he also warned that blacks might perish some day at the hands of white racists. He complained that bigots had persecuted him. At that time, white members began leaving the church, some because of the racial emphasis, others because of theological differences.

Indianapolis resident Edward Mueller remembers another side of Jones: “He tried to get me to be a minister, but he wasn’t sincere. He said there was no easier way to make it. Once he told me, ‘Just look at my hands: they’re not dirty.’ ”

On the side, Jones ran a community center and two nursing homes. In 1961, the mayor of Indianapolis appointed him director of the city’s Human Rights Commission. Then Jones spent nearly two years in Brazil where he studied the methods of a Brazilian faith healer. When Jones returned to Indianapolis, he found the spirits lagging and attendance dwindling at the Temple.

In 1964 Jones applied for ordination within the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), a 1.3 million-member mainline denomination that is very prominent in the ecumenical movement. John Harms, now retired in Oklahoma, was regional executive minister of the denomination at that time, and he served on the committee that examined Jones. Harms was uneasy about Jones’s “emotion-oriented religious background” and about his lack of seminary training. “But because he [Jones] seemed to be groping for a more rational approach to religion, and because he was an effective leader of the poor and oppressed,” said Harms, “the committee decided to recommend that People’s Temple proceed with his ordination.”

Harms, who never heard Jones preach, says he did not favor the decision, believing that Jones needed the discipline of an academic preparation and a good theological foundation.

The Migration

On the advice of his good friend Ross Case, Jones took more than 150 followers to California in 1965 and set up spiritual shop there. From his new pulpit in Redwood Valley outside Ukiah, Jones began preaching that the Bible was an unreliable document. He denounced its moral standards, often throwing the Bible to the floor, spitting and stomping upon it. Before his congregation, which soon grew to 3,000 members, Jones called Jesus a bastard and Mary a whore.

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Richard Taylor, an American Baptist pastor in Ukiah during Jones’s tenure there, recalls one frequent Jones liturgy: “Who am I?” Jones yelled. “Jesus Christ,” the people answered.

Jones’s name was substituted for Jesus in tradition hymns. He believed himself to be the reincarnation not only of Jesus Christ, but of Lenin, Buddha, and the Bahai prophet Bab, all rolled into one. His followers believed him “The Living Word,” and Jones’s magazine by that name glorified his powers on every page.

Jim Jones had an obsession for power. Almost every abberant feature of his church can be traced either to that or to his obsession with sex. Richard Taylor explains that “He achieved successive levels of power over his followers until he actually controlled their lives.” And according to Jeannie Mills, who was instrumental in blowing the whistle on Jones following her exit from the Temple in 1975, Jones’s decision in 1964 to join the Disciples of Christ was the result of a deliberate search for an organization in which he could remain completely autonomous.

Jones’s thirst for power was slaked by political interests. He held political office in every place he lived. Throughout California, Jones was respected by politicians as a man able to mobilize thousands of people.

The politicians failed to realize that Jones was manipulating them, not serving them. A favorite game was to get endorsements from important public figures by giving them carefully staged tours of the church’s clinic, legal aid office, and dining facilities for the indigent. Members of the Temple acted the part of cured heroin addicts, indigents glutting themselves on Temple feasts, and sick people being treated at the clinic—all following a Jones script. Visiting dignitaries were invited to address Temple worship services. A guest would be photographed, unaware that militant-looking blacks with raised fists were part of the picture—blackmail material.

Evolving Commitment

Jones’s manipulation of politicians appears almost comic compared with what he did to his followers. Grace Stoen, an outspoken defector from the church, said that Jones gradually but drastically changed his followers. A commitment evolved until Jones possessed the body, mind, and soul of someone.

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Initially a Temple member pledged a portion of his time. But what was so attractive about this bizarre outfit? “Warmth,” says Mills, “first, last, and most important.” The individual was never alone but genuinely part of a community. People were not judged according to their status in the secular world. In the People’s Temple, a white man with a Ph.D. from MIT could direct the junior choir and a black man with a sixth-grade education could be associate minister. “I found people who weren’t impressed by what I had, but by what I was,” says Mills. Although she confesses to have been a racist when she first entered the Temple in 1969, Mills changed when she discovered that “It’s very, very beautiful to see black and white people together in a living, working, functioning society.”

The electric atmosphere of Temple worship services also attracted people—enough to retain their interest for four hours at a stretch. Worship began with singing by a polished choir and then moved into a testimony service during which members of the congregation told of the miraculous healings and prophetic revelations of their leader. They expressed gratitude for the protection and sense of security they received from Jones’s ministry. Following an offering Jones would begin his “sermon.” Jones never preached expository sermons. Rather he ranted about local, state, and federal politics, interspersed with four or five or more offerings for various causes. The last hour of the service was given to healings and revelations. Week after week, he appeared to make good on his original promise to Archie Ijames to perform miracles. Supposedly people were freed from their wheelchairs and crutches. The blind were made to see and the deaf to hear. Often someone would appear to dramatically die. Then Jones would “cure their maladies” and resurrect the “dead.”

Few people knew that Jones hired people on whom to perform these miraculous healings and resurrections. Neither did they know that his henchmen snooped in their files, medicine cabinets, garbage cans, and so forth, to provide Jones with material for his mysterious revelations. Those who did know were either discredited, paid off, or party to the charade.

Jones extolled the virtues of Temple membership: “Ask the city hall if they know your pastor. They won’t. But they know us.… Do they care about you at your church? People love you here, even if they don’t know you.”

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After Jones got a person’s time, he went for their material possessions. Jones used a variety of tactics to get his parishioners’ dollars. He shamed them publicly and encouraged them to compete with their donations. Nonresidents of the Temple were expected to tithe 25 per cent of their income; residents gave everything they had in return for maintenance by the Temple and an allowance as low as two dollars a week. The Temple from 1968 to 1976 received thirty real estate properties. The block-long parking lot behind the San Francisco Temple is still crowded with cars donated by church members for resale by the Temple.

Draining Schedule

Next, Jones demanded total participation in the Temple community to the exclusion of the outside world. Here is a typical week of Temple life, as recounted by a member.

Sunday: morning meeting in Redwood Valley from 11 A.M to 3 P.M., evening meeting from 6 P.M. to 2 A.M.; Monday: planning commission meeting from 7 P.M. to 7 A.M.; Wednesday: catharsis session from 7 P.M. to 1 A.M.; Friday: meeting in San Francisco from 7 P.M. to 1 A.M. followed by overnight travel to Los Angeles on eleven Greyhound-type buses owned by the Temple; Saturday: meetings from 2 P.M. to 1 A.M.; Sunday: meeting in Los Angeles from 11 A.M. to 4 P.M. followed by the return trip to Redwood Valley in time for school or work Monday morning. (Asked how many of the meetings were actually for worship, Jeannie Mills said, “All of them. They were all worship-Jim-Jones meetings, including the planning commission meetings.”)

Besides meetings, fulltime workers had other demanding responsibilities. Service projects were expected from everyone, ranging from work in the Temple clinic, legal aid service, and dining room, to writing letters to politicians (each person writing up to 100 such letters in a week), and other forms of political activism. Many members only got four to six hours of sleep a night. In the process, they were drained physically and emotionally, becoming more malleable in Jones’s hands. Fraternizing by important members of the community with old acquaintances was forbidden, and a punishable offense.

That was not enough. Not only was the community raised to a position of supreme importance, but the individual was reduced to almost total submission, to what could be called a state of “mortification.” During the so-called catharsis sessions, members of the community were expected to confess to various sins (real or not) for which they were physically punished. Mills wryly noted that people seldom volunteered confessions. Other members readily accused them.

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Until several years ago, punishments were relatively mild. Over time they increased in severity. What began with three or four swats of the belt became in Jonestown a week in solitary confinement in a small, subterranean cubicle. Jones also enjoyed watching ill-matched boxers or tormenting people with snakes.

Jones also at times forbade married couples to have sexual intercourse—at least with each other. But reports indicate that Jones freely indulged in relations with both sexes. Should a woman be tempted to leave the Temple for lack of sexual activity, Jones would either satisfy her needs (if he found her attractive) or commission one of his lieutenants to do so.

Exclusive Loyalty

Case said Jones could tolerate no loyalty to anyone but himself. Breaking the sexual bonds between husband and wife was the surest way to undermine interpersonal loyalty.

With an arsenal of psychological weapons, Jones succeeded in robbing his followers of their time, their property, and their dignity. Against this background, perhaps the murders and suicides of his disciples is less mystifying. The last supper of cyanide-laced Flavour-Aid was merely the final act of servitude to the man who wanted and tried to be “God.”

Since the death orgy in Guyana took place, the secular media has given massive coverage to this religion-related story. Before the deaths occurred, press investigations of People’s Temple were few, though New West magazine published an investigative feature on People’s Temple in August, 1977, alerting at least the San Francisco area to the bizarre practices of the cult.

A first investigative report was filed in 1972 by Lester Kinsolving, an Episcopal priest-turned journalist. Writing for the San Francisco Examiner, Kinsolving prepared an eight-article series on People’s Temple that was killed after publication of only the first four articles.

Upset by Kinsolving’s revelations of cruelty, fake healings, and immorality within the Temple, Jones had placed more than 100 pickets outside the Examiner offices on the third day of the article series. Kinsolving contends the Examiner killed the series as a result of pressure from lawyers and politicians who owed favors to Jones.

At that time, Kinsolving tried to arouse the attention of law-enforcement bodies. (He says he received numerous threats in the aftermath of the series and that his house was burglarized.) In addition, Kinsolving chided officials in the Disciples of Christ for not disavowing Jones.

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Church In Action

Indeed, many complaints have been directed toward the Disciples of Christ since the killings. Why did the church take no action?

The regional headquarters of the denomination had organized a committee to review allegations against Jones and People’s Temple. Tim Stoen, a 1960 graduate of Wheaton (Illinois) College who joined the Temple and later defected, had given the committee documents showing what really was happening behind the Temple’s closed doors, says cult defector Mills.

She said, “They [the committee] were told … They were made aware of things going on inside the church, and they did not care to check into it.”

Asked about these charges, review committee chairman Scott Lathrup contends this was a case of the the words of Temple defectors against the words of Temple members.

Mills said, however, that the documents taken by Stoen to church officials contained an affidavit from several former Temple members. Stoen was a deputy district attorney for Mendocino and San Francisco Counties during his years in the Temple; many say he was Jones’s right-hand man for a time.

Cult defector Mills alleges that Disciples of Christ regional president Karl Irvin did nothing because Jones had blackmailed him. Irvin denies this.

He, like Disciples of Christ president Kenneth Teegarden, says no action was taken against Jones because Disciples of Christ bylaws do not provide for the expulsion of a local congregation.

In a news release issued after the killings and after a deluge of questions from church members, Teegarden explained the official church stance. He said, at present, congregations can withdraw only at their own initiative. (He also said the committee investigation of Jones was never completed since Jones was out of the country and could not be confronted.)

As a result of the killings, however, Teegarden said, “We [the church] will initiate … a proposal … for removing congregations from fellowship.”

Still, the question remains why so many people joined the cult. Many, like Stoen, came from evangelical backgrounds and were initially attracted by the urban outreach of People’s Temple.

Cult defector Mills said she had found the warmth of the community attractive. Ever since her departure, Mills says, she has been “looking desperately” for a similar environment. “In no church [I visited] did more than perhaps the usher and one greeter say hello to me,” she said.

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Reflecting upon her first visit to People’s Temple, she said, “I felt like I had died and gone to heaven.”

Religion In Transit

A second printing of the New International version of the Bible by Zondervan will bring the total number of copies in print to 1.6 million by year-end. Bookstores ordered all the initial 1.2-million press run before the October 27 publication date. With an exclusive thirty-year contract to publish the new translation, Zondervan expects a sales windfall. The Wall Street Journal reported that the company already has upped its sales prediction for this year by $3 million to a $41 million total.

Gambling opponents have “I told you so” crime statistics from Atlantic City, New Jersey. Within the two months after the first casino gambling houses opened there last May, street crime increased by 25 per cent. Public safety Commissioner Edwin J. Roth blamed the increase on the influx of visitors to the resort city.

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