People’s Temple Members Commit Mass Suicide Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

On orders of their cult leader, Jim Jones, hundreds of adults committed suicide by poison, after first poisoning their children. Some reluctant cult members were shot, leaving a total of 917 dead. The event shows the effectiveness of enforced persuasion techniques and helps explain other forms of subculture-approved suicide, such as suicide bombings in the Middle East.

Summary of Event

Jim Jones was born in the small Indiana town of Lynn. After graduating from high school, he became an itinerant preacher in black and white churches in Indiana, Ohio, and Kentucky. He married and had one biological child and adopted five non-Caucasian children. Jones received public recognition for his civil rights work and was made director of the Indianapolis Human Rights Commission in 1960. Religious cults Cults, religious Jonestown mass suicide Suicide;mass People’s Temple[Peoples Temple] [kw]People’s Temple Members Commit Mass Suicide (Nov. 18, 1978) [kw]Members Commit Mass Suicide, People’s Temple (Nov. 18, 1978) [kw]Mass Suicide, People’s Temple Members Commit (Nov. 18, 1978) [kw]Suicide, People’s Temple Members Commit Mass (Nov. 18, 1978) Religious cults Cults, religious Jonestown mass suicide Suicide;mass People’s Temple[Peoples Temple] [g]South America;Nov. 18, 1978: People’s Temple Members Commit Mass Suicide[03440] [g]Guyana;Nov. 18, 1978: People’s Temple Members Commit Mass Suicide[03440] [c]Religion, theology, and ethics;Nov. 18, 1978: People’s Temple Members Commit Mass Suicide[03440] [c]Psychology and psychiatry;Nov. 18, 1978: People’s Temple Members Commit Mass Suicide[03440] [c]Terrorism, atrocities, and war crimes;Nov. 18, 1978: People’s Temple Members Commit Mass Suicide[03440] [c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Nov. 18, 1978: People’s Temple Members Commit Mass Suicide[03440] Jones, Jim Ryan, Leo Layton, Deborah

In 1965, Jones brought more than one hundred church members from Indiana to Ukiah, California. Four years later, Jones moved his growing congregation to Redwood Valley, California. The church actively recruited the urban poor in Los Angeles and San Francisco and operated outreach programs, such as a drug rehabilitation program and a legal aid office. Jones established large churches in Los Angeles and San Francisco with growing, largely African American memberships. In 1976 his church headquarters, named the People’s Temple, was established in San Francisco. Jones and his followers became active in San Francisco politics, and Jones was appointed chairman of the city’s housing authority.

Jones preached a theology in some ways traditional for urban churches: The People’s Temple condemned poverty and racism, and Jones performed healings at emotional services. In other ways his teachings were unusual. He did not emphasize prayer, promulgated a belief in reincarnation, and advocated socialism. He encouraged a strong fear of imminent nuclear war. Accompanying these teachings were extreme methods of controlling the church’s members. Jones censured church members who resisted his orders by bringing them before the congregation and requiring other members to punish them physically. He demanded that his followers sever ties with family members who did not belong to the church, and he branded defectors as traitors. As far back as 1973, Jones held obedience-testing “suicide drills” in which he instructed members to drink cups of wine that he untruthfully alleged were poisoned.

By the late 1970’s, the People’s Temple had more than one thousand members. Although the majority of the members were working-class African Americans, Jones recruited a small group of middle-class whites who were attracted by the church’s emphasis on humanitarian causes. There were three tiers of membership: The largest group, predominantly African Americans, served as followers; the second tier, the “Planning Commission,” consisted of about one hundred people, most of them white; and the top tier consisted of fifteen to twenty close aides, mostly white and mostly female. One member of this leadership clique was Deborah Layton, who later wrote of her experiences. Layton was one of Jones’s mistresses, and she performed such important jobs as establishing overseas bank accounts.

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In the mid-1970’s, adverse publicity concerning the People’s Temple appeared in magazine and newspaper articles alleging coercion of members and misuse of funds. By 1977, the Concerned Relatives Group Concerned Relatives Group had formed. Jones and his followers felt pressure to relocate outside the United States. The church had already planned a mission in Guyana, to be located on property leased from the Guyanese government. The project was anticipated to be a heaven-on-earth, a place to escape racism, fascism, and nuclear war. By 1974, church members had begun clearing the land and constructing buildings, including a large, open pavilion. In 1977, Jones and hundreds of his followers moved to the Guyana location, nicknamed “Jonestown.” About eleven hundred people were living at Jonestown in November of 1978.

Starting in 1976, U.S. congressman Leo Ryan (a Democrat from California) had received complaints about Jones from constituents who had family members in the cult. Allegations had been made that people in Jonestown were inadequately fed and being held against their will. Former People’s Temple members, including Layton, described the suicide drills. Ryan planned an investigatory trip to Guyana, on which he was accompanied by his legal counsel, a Guyanese government representative, nine individuals from the news media, and several members of the Concerned Relatives Group. On November 17, 1977, the congressman and his party arrived by plane at Port Kaituma, a village six miles north of Jonestown. At Jonestown they were greeted, served dinner, and entertained by a music program. During the evening, some People’s Temple members told the media representatives that they wanted to leave Jonestown.

Congressman Ryan interviewed members the morning of November 18, and many more told him they wanted to escape. By 3:00 p.m. the Ryan party and fifteen members wishing to leave rode back to the airport, arriving there at about 4:30 p.m. There were two planes, and part of the group boarded the first plane. As the plane taxied for takeoff, a Jonestown member who was on board, Larry Layton Layton, Larry (Deborah’s brother), shot the passengers. Ryan and his remaining group were boarding the second plane when they were fired upon by Jonestown members riding a tractor trailer. In all, four people, including Ryan, were killed, and five other members of the Ryan party were severely wounded. The attackers left the airport, and survivors of the attack found safe cover for the night.

At about the same time the airport shootings were taking place, Jones ordered a mass suicide back at Jonestown. Tape recordings verify that he called the community together at the pavilion, said that he had a premonition that someone would kill Ryan and cause the “enemy” to destroy Jonestown, and called for “revolutionary suicide” as the solution. With electric organ playing in the background, Jones described the suicide as a noble and dignified death. Using a strawberry-flavored sweet drink, adulterated with cyanide and a tranquilizer, church members killed more than two hundred babies and small children, injecting the poison into their mouths with syringes. The majority of the adults then took the poison, and those who resisted were shot by guards. Jones himself was shot. Some church members escaped into the jungle.

A Guyanese army force arrived at the airport the next morning (November 19) and rescued the airport survivors. The Guyanese troops reached Jonestown late that morning to find 911 bodies in early stages of decomposition in the jungle heat.

Some family members of individuals who died at Jonestown later made successful claims against the People’s Temple. In 1979, government hearings were held to investigate Congressman Ryan’s death. In 1986, one cult member, Larry Layton, was convicted of conspiracy to murder Ryan.

Significance

The events at Jonestown teach the persuasive power of a charismatic leader, group pressure, and brainwashing techniques. Jim Jones mesmerized some people with his preaching style, winning the hearts of his recruits by simulating emotional closeness and telling them things they wanted to hear. Jones imposed rules for group living that further increased his followers’ commitment. Church members spied on one another and reported misbehaviors, which were punished before the group. In small increments, members bowed to increasingly onerous demands. While financial contributions were initially optional, church members were ultimately forced to relinquish all their assets to the People’s Temple. Repeated group rituals, such as the suicide drills, accustomed members to behavior they would previously have found unacceptable.

Members were further swayed by classic brainwashing techniques similar to those used against American prisoners in the Korean War. Individuals were isolated from family and from outside information. They were forced into a regimented lifestyle and were compelled to confess their faults. They were indoctrinated into a paranoid “us versus them” worldview. In addition, they experienced sleep and food deprivation, along with a pervasive sense of terror. Deborah Layton told of frequent “white nights” cruelly ordered by Jones: Members were awakened by loud sirens and ordered to go to the pavilion, where Jones frightened them with claims that mercenaries were about to emerge from the jungle and kill them.

One of the most tragic aspects of the events that took place at Jonestown is that an organization with lofty humanitarian goals became a vehicle for the destruction of human life. The larger significance of these events speaks to the ways human minds can be manipulated to set aside accepted notions and right and wrong in the presence of charismatic leadership, group pressure, and psychological tactics. Religious cults Cults, religious Jonestown mass suicide Suicide;mass People’s Temple[Peoples Temple]

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Layton, Deborah. Seductive Poison: A Jonestown Survivor’s Story of Life and Death in the People’s Temple. New York: Doubleday, 1998. Firsthand account from a member of Jones’s inner circle who escaped before the mass suicide. Includes photographs.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Levi, Ken, ed. Violence and Religious Commitment: Implications of Jim Jones’s People’s Temple Movement. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1982. Essays by fourteen sociologists examine Jonestown comparatively and psychologically. Includes a chronology of events.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Maaga, Mary M. Hearing the Voices of Jonestown. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1998. Archival research was the basis of this scholarly description emphasizing female leaders of the movement. Includes a transcript of the audiotape made the night of the suicide.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Reston, James, Jr. Our Father Who Art in Hell. New York: Times Books, 1981. Discussion of the People’s Temple and the events at Jonestown by an author who traveled to Guyana to enhance his understanding and examined subpoenaed government documents and other original sources.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Stephenson, Denice, ed. Dear People: Remembering Jonestown. San Francisco: California Historical Society Press, 2005. Collection of personal letters written by People’s Temple members, editorials about Jonestown, and photographs gives the emotional flavor of the events.

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