The People’s Cult

Over 900 died at Jonestown in 1978 in a murder-suicide that shook the world. How did Peoples Temple go from emancipatory project to disaster?

Illustration by Mark Harris

On November 18, 1978, Harold Cordell had to make a decision that few could ever fathom: leave behind his family and save his life or join them in committing suicide. He was a member of the Peoples Temple Agricultural Project, also known as “Jonestown,” and at that moment, it was all unraveling. Defectors were gathering their possessions to leave.

Cordell turned to his fourteen-year-old son James, known to the local community as “Jim Stalin.” “Come on, Jimmy, let’s get out of here,” Harold said. “We gotta go.” But his son refused. James would die a few hours later after ingesting cyanide, along with more than nine hundred others.

Peoples Temple was founded in Indianapolis in 1954 as a church committed to racial integration and social justice. The group moved to California’s Redwood Valley in 1965 and increasingly embraced a socialist worldview. By the 1970s, the organization had grown to thousands of members, concentrated in California’s urban centers, and was headquartered in San Francisco. Pro-Soviet Marxist-Leninism became its guiding philosophy. In 1974, Peoples Temple purchased and began settling a plot of land in the jungles of northwest Guyana, commonly referred to as “Jonestown.” Large-scale migration of adherents to Guyana began in 1977 and continued until their demise in November 1978.

How did a fighting organization based in the poor and working class come to such a violent and fanatical end?

Rituals of Deception

Hyacinth Thrash was fifty years old when she first encountered Peoples Temple in 1955. She had recently moved to Indianapolis from Alabama and was cautious about joining a new church, afraid of encountering the kind of racism she had witnessed in the South. But she soon fell in love with the Peoples Temple Choir. When she found a lump in her breast, Jim Jones, the enigmatic founder and leader of Peoples Temple, laid his hand upon her and prayed. Miraculously, the tumor disappeared within days. For the next two decades, she would follow Jim Jones across the country and the world.

Peoples Temple conducted faith healings of this kind for a few different reasons. For people not completely convinced of his political program alone, these spectacles gave Jim Jones an extraordinary, supernatural quality. Onlookers regularly witnessed cancer spontaneously go into remission and sight suddenly return to blind eyes. Some of these faithful would go on to devote their entire lives to the man they credited for these miracles.

Peoples Temple members pick up trash off the street. (Peoples Temple Collection/California Historical Society)

This strategy proved successful, attracting not just important sections of the black working class but also many young white socialists of the era who were in awe of the Temple’s ability to get black and white folks alike in the same room to talk about socialism. For these socialists, there was no need for further evidence that this was the way forward. They were no less devoted to Jones for his success at introducing socialism to working people than those who were convinced of his healing powers.

But the faith healings were also conducted as tests of loyalty for the people who helped stage the “miracles.” The truth behind this deception bound much of the early leadership to one another — these were heavily guarded secrets until the church’s final days. The rewards were often getting to be closer to Jones, increased status within the organization, and the honor of being trusted in completing future deceptions. A conspiracy was born.

Eventually, as Jim Jones’s aura of divinity began to fade, Peoples Temple’s brand of “apostolic socialism” became less and less religious. Although the occasional Bible verse would still find its way into a speech up until the very end, Peoples Temple eventually disavowed its Judeo-Christian origins entirely. As Jones’s addiction to sex and drugs grew harder to deny, it became difficult to maintain his public piety.

The truth was that Jones’s relationship to religion was opportunistic from the beginning, meant primarily to draw people into the Temple’s socialism. In the end, the healer had his own ailments that could not be cured, so the show was over.

White Socialism, Black Exploitation

In postwar America, the black church was the driving center of black social life. The Great Migration of African Americans from the South to the North and West brought with it a familiarity with the Protestant black church tradition, along with a willingness to part with some of its doctrine for the greater principles of egalitarianism and justice. This can be seen in both the origins of Peoples Temple in Indianapolis and the large number of black congregants who joined in Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Much of the New Communist Movement at the time subscribed to a “rainbow coalition” strategy, of which an important tenet was that black and white people could organize to support one another but must do so in separate organizations. Peoples Temple was a testament against that credo, but that didn’t mean the knowledge of how to be a multiracial organization would drop from the sky. In fact, black congregants were deceived and exploited at every step of the Temple’s history.

As members of Peoples Temple, black congregants were expected to sign away all their possessions to the church. Social security checks surrendered from hundreds of black members provided a steady source of income for the Temple’s finances. But though black congregants largely bankrolled Peoples Temple as well as comprising up to 90 percent of its membership, they had very little representation in the central leadership, which was dominated by the younger white socialists.

The inequity did not go unchallenged. When Peoples Temple was still centered in Northern California’s Redwood Valley, some youth began attending Santa Rosa Junior College, including children of the church’s foundational families. When this group, dubbed the “Gang of Eight,” left the Temple in 1973, they made it clear their primary grievance was with the racism of white staff and administration, and the power structure that had evolved from it. That power structure would dismiss them as “Trotskyite defectors,” but members of the Gang of Eight would go on to challenge Peoples Temple and its exploitation until its final moments.

Misogyny & Charismatic Authority

Marceline Jones stood in front of the Planning Commission, the central leadership body of Peoples Temple. It was a typically long meeting — they regularly went on for hours at a time. “I realized that I have been very selfish. I want to make a public statement tonight that I am willing to share my husband for the cause, and I won’t resent it any longer.” Marceline then stood up and left the room, the first in a long line of women in Peoples Temple who sacrificed their dignity for Jones’s sexual appetite.

For much of its history, Peoples Temple was led and administered by a group of mostly white women. Beginning with his wife, Marceline, Jim Jones had selected women to help direct the organization. Some provided the Temple with vital legal, financial, and medical skills. Others joined as already dedicated Marxist-Leninist cadre, happily taking on the responsibility of disseminating the group’s political theories. Collectively, they drove every turn the Temple made. And in order to ensure their loyalty, Jones slept with many of them, even fathering their children.

Sexual liberation was a new phenomenon for many 1970s radicals to navigate. Suddenly, many women were afforded the space to express their sexuality for the first time. For Peoples Temple, this meant open and frank discussion of sex, even from the pulpit. However, this did not mean sexual freedom for members. Polyamory and homosexuality were now on the table — but for Jim Jones, not for everyone else.

Jones’s growing sexual belligerence became a problem for the group to navigate, including a custody battle over a child he claimed to have fathered with a woman in leadership who had since become a defector. Eventually, the consequences of Jim Jones’s sexual insatiability, including civil and criminal charges, became external attacks on the entire organization.

Political Repression, Fear, and Paranoia

One otherwise ordinary night in April 1978, Jim Jones asked his followers in the Peoples Temple Agricultural Project in Guyana if they thought they were going to live a long time. Of the sixteen who raised their hands to say yes, a determined two would live another year. A few days later, while most were gathered at the pavilion, Jones staged an episode to drive home the stakes of their struggle and the importance of his leadership.

A “mercenary,” allegedly hired by enemies of the Temple, would fire a shot in Jonestown, triggering an emergency. “We got one of them!” Jones proclaimed, but it was the people of Jonestown who were really captured by the event, as the supposed mercenary was “wounded” and “forced to retreat.” This kind of fear was baked into Jonestown’s crust.

It’s not hard to understand why many would believe Jones’s claims. Peoples Temple was at its height at a time when the FBI and the CIA were destroying both black civil rights and socialist movements all over the world, with sinister projects like COINTELPRO and Operation CHAOS. The goal of these agencies was to create an atmosphere of fear and mistrust. Some of those attracted to Peoples Temple — as largely black followers of Marxist-Leninism — already bore the scars of political repression. Be it real or conjured, their relationship to political repression was a driving force in their worst decisions.

It would be hard to deny, from the vantage point of a Peoples Temple member at the time, that the organization was being targeted by the FBI and CIA. Angela Davis and Huey P. Newton, both sworn enemies of those very agencies, praised the Temple and encouraged the group to continue resisting state efforts to bring it down. The Temple’s legal representation also matched its New Left contemporaries, having retained the counsel of Charles Garry, who had represented many Black Power and antiwar activists, and Mark Lane, known for his exposés on the John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr assassinations.

However, the Temple’s social activism in 1970s San Francisco, which had earned the organization widespread acclaim among New Left luminaries, was swiftly abandoned when the migration to Guyana began. Prior to this, Peoples Temple was involved in a coalition of faith leaders and tenant unionists, in particular a fight against the displacement of the predominantly Chinese and Filipino tenants of a building known as the International Hotel. Jim Jones was even named chair of the San Francisco Housing Authority in 1977, a post he would resign from months later via radio transmission from Jonestown. Struggling to find funds to allow the purchase of the building by eminent domain, Jones agreed to terms requiring the tenants’ association to buy it within thirty days. They would eventually denounce him and would be evicted later that year.

Peoples Temple had made its choice at that moment. The total migration to Guyana in the eighteen months preceding the mass suicide was a complete breakdown of members’ faith in the above-ground social movements of their day.

Into the Promised Land

Guyana made sense as a possible destination. The Temple saw it as a haven for its large black population. The official language was English. It was nominally socialist. Of particular importance to the Temple was the fact that its staff could access the Soviet embassy in the capital, Georgetown. However, Guyana was also nonaligned, seeking relationships with Western and Eastern Bloc nations alike, as well as being a recent recipient of International Monetary Fund loans. It was for these reasons that Peoples Temple did not see the country as its final destination and that Temple relations with the Guyanese government ranged from cordial to strenuous.

As an agricultural and socioeconomic experiment, Jonestown was an utter catastrophe. The topsoil was acidic, barely covering a useless layer of clay. Furthermore, its would-be farmers were besieged by pests and vermin — Acoushi leaf-cutting ants would destroy an entire crop of cassava root overnight, and brown silk moths would devastate the first harvest of corn. Then, of course, there was the brutal tropical climate, which was nothing like the temperate California weather to which members were accustomed. Guyana itself was in a food shortage crisis. All this meant that sufficient meals in Jonestown were hard to come by.

In these struggles against earth and soil, Peoples Temple members were guided by a principle of self-reliance. They believed wholeheartedly that socialism itself was to exist within the jungle confines of Jonestown. The Temple leadership was willing to accept harsh conditions rather than admit defeat by spending their coffers on resources from outside. When money was spent, it was often on farming equipment and livestock feed but also on bizarre purchases, such as uniforms for the Temple band, the Jonestown Express, or thousands of dollars in beauty supplies. Despite anxiety around food and resource consumption, at the time of its dissolution, the Temple had upward of $27 million on hand.

The Jonestown agricultural experiment was hardly novel or unique for the time. This kind of misguided adventurism drove many contemporary radicals “back to the land,” with a tenfold explosion estimated at more than one thousand communes established in the late 1960s alone.

By the end, it became clear to all that Jonestown was no longer the promised land. Only the Soviet Union could save them. Thanks to Freedom of Information Act requests by the Jonestown Institute, it’s now clear that Peoples Temple leadership even floated the idea of joining the Russian Orthodox Church in order to emigrate to the USSR, and that the Temple was, in fact, a topic of discussion at the highest levels of the Soviet Politburo. No one knows what such a move across the world would have meant for those who instead lost their lives at Jonestown. One thing is for certain: wherever Peoples Temple went, it took its problems with it.

These problems began to attract more and more attention back home. On November 17, 1978, California congressman Leo Ryan visited Jonestown with the Concerned Relatives, a group of former Temple members and their families. The following day, he walked off to the Port Kaituma airstrip with sixteen defectors, only to be slaughtered on the runway with four others in a hail of gunfire. The die was cast. There would be no more utopia.

The Final Act

Meanwhile at Jonestown, Charles Garry and Mark Lane were being escorted to the East House when they encountered nineteen-year-old Poncho Johnson. They had been an audience for Johnson the previous night, when he sang George Benson’s “The Greatest Love of All.” Johnson was a new father. “What’s going on?” Garry asked him. “We’re committing revolutionary suicide,” Johnson replied, smiling widely. “Is there no alternative?” Lane pleaded, desperate for Johnson to hear reason. Johnson maintained his grin and said no.

Revolutionary suicide had already been discussed at multiple junctures in Jonestown. Temple members not only rehearsed the suicides, they had taken oaths. Jonestown residents had already braced themselves for a potential siege by the Guyana Defence Force the previous year.

There has long been debate about whether to call the Jonestown tragedy a murder or a suicide. The Jonestown Institute’s Rebecca Moore refers to this as the “existential question.” Children could not and did not consent to drinking cyanide, and numerous adults resisted as well. However, it is very clear that many did willingly commit suicide and were emphatic about this in their letters and last words. Perhaps the only accurate way to characterize the death at Jonestown is “mass murder-suicide.”

In reality, the rationales were multifold. No illusions were required for those who saw the act as one of protest and defiance, like the self-immolations seen around the world during the Vietnam War era. “We died because you would not let us live in peace” was the last line of text by Annie Moore that was found in Jim Jones’s cabin.

“The world was not ready to let us live,” reads another note attributed to Richard Tropp.

The Enduring Legacy of Jonestown

Today the American left takes scant ownership of Jonestown. Most of the media portrayals focus on the eerie power of a single personality, holding others under his charismatic but tyrannical command. But even our own histories of the communist movement of the 1960s and 1970s give almost no attention to Peoples Temple. It would appear that we see little of ourselves in them.

However, the fact is that the Left went to great lengths to legitimize Peoples Temple — even to celebrate it. We can’t imagine people like us as ever supporting such an organization, but everyone from Angela Davis to Harvey Milk did. As former member Deborah Layton puts it, “Nobody joins something they think’s gonna hurt them. You join a religious organization, you join a political movement, and you join with people that you really like.” We can ruminate on all the ways in which Peoples Temple members were not true socialists — but at the time, that’s how they saw themselves and how others saw them.

Once properly situated, we can find some lessons from the Peoples Temple tragedy. For one, we must value a living, vital democracy as an integral part of socialism. The foundations of the greatest socialist parties in history exist not just in their unifying features but in the dynamics of the internal differences and disputes that helped propel them forward. When we undermine that, we collapse from within. Being in organizations with different principles among their members may not always be the easier road, but it’s the road that produces the best of our ideas. The working class deserves organizations in which they are not seen as simple means to ends, in which members do not see ends justifying all means. We cannot give up on the idea that socialism is a life-affirming experience that contributes to our well-being. Jonestown wasn’t just a cult. It was a tragedy of the twentieth-century left that we need not repeat.