The Lessons of Jonestown

Thirty years ago, on Nov. 18, 1978, more than 900 people died in a mass suicide at the Peoples Temple in Guyana orchestrated by cult leader Jim Jones.

This CNN account recalls the deadly event, and highlights how an ego-driven, Christian-derived cult that’s not anchored in doctrine, tradition and a hierarchy based upon apostolic succession can be susceptible to going horrifyingly astray.

Jones is described in the article as a dynamic speaker who had the power to convince his followers of almost anything he said:

“Like all powerful speakers, Jones’ greatest asset was his ability to determine what listeners wanted to hear and give it to them in simple language that appealed to them on an almost instinctual level,” CNN’s David Matthews notes in his article.

“‘He was very charismatic, very charismatic,’ said Leslie Wilson, who survived that fateful day in Jonestown by walking away from the settlement before the cyanide that killed more than 900 Peoples Temple members was distributed. She was one of 33 people who began the day in Jonestown and lived to tell the tale.

“‘He could quote scripture and turn around and preach socialism,’ she said. ‘He appealed to anyone on any level at any time.’”

Jones’s mix of Pentecostal-inspired preaching and socialist advocacy was a powerful spiritual brew, one that was particularly attractive to African-Americans and idealistic young white liberals. But once they subscribed to his cult, both groups were swept along by the charismatic preacher as he descended deep into a worship of drugs, sex and self — and ultimately death.

“By the end at Jonestown, Jones was more rock star than preacher,” the article says. “His sermons and remarks at meetings were littered with obscenities. He regularly had sex with his followers and he abused drugs. By the last month of Jonestown’s existence, Jones was so intoxicated at times that he had great difficulty even reading the news aloud to his followers.”

The Peoples Temple, having transferred from California to Guyana in 1977, was also almost completely isolated from outside influences, increasing Jones’s hold over his followers.

“‘What Jones did was try to break all ties that were not to him,’ said former believer Vernon Gosney. ‘Transfer all that loyalty, all that bonding to him. And so families were broken apart. Relationships were divided.’”

All this combined to make almost every member of the Peoples Temple flock in Guyana willing to comply with Jones’s every command, up to and including the order to commit suicide en masse in 1978.

“Spurred on by their leader’s talk, Peoples Temple members were ready to follow Jones even into death,” CNN’s account concludes. “At his request, they even wrote personal notes to him expressing their willingness to die for their cause.

“This was the ultimate test of loyalty, and the absolute testimony to the power of his words. As history shows, Jim Jones the orator was chillingly effective.”

— Tom McFeely



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