Thursday, March 08, 2012


"those who remained drugged with the opiate of religion had to be brought to enlightenment."

Reverend Jim Jones is a name that will live in infamy, having turned the idea of Kool Aid from a kids drink or an acid test into a term for collective madness. It was November 18, 1978 when an entire religious community, hiding in South America, killed themselves using bullets and poison. They all drank the poison voluntarily, and they all died religious zealots for a charismatic leader.

You can guess what they were like: religious nuts, fixated on God and guns, a crazy cult of right wing radicals who were so anti-government they had to flee the country, and when cornered killed themselves rather than face reality and the truth.

Except... that's almost entirely false. First off, they didn't use Kool Aid at all. They used Flavor Aid, a cheap alternative that tastes even better in some flavors, if a bit too sweet. And not all of them drank the poison. Some apparently refused and were shot instead. And they didn't all die in Jonestown in Guyana, they were scattered in several locations. To understand the rest, you have to look closer at Jones and his cult.

Jim Jones started out a pastor in the Methodist church, and had always been interested in religion, if not personally religious. He split off and began his own Peoples Temple Christian Church Full Gospel in Indianapolis, Indiana, and only got involved in religion to begin with because he thought it would be the most effective way to bring about communism in America; "using religion to free people from the opiate of religion" was how he put it.

Yes, Jim Jones was a hard left radical. He studied Marx, Stalin, Hitler, and Gandhi as a child1 and soon became a communist. He joined the Communist Party USA in 19512 and stayed that way his whole life, although he began to build his own version of hard left orthodoxy after seeing a split between Maoism and Russian communism. In 1960, he was appointed the city's head of the Civil Rights Commission3 by the mayor of Indianapolis and was often targeted by local racists.

However, in 1961, he became obsessed with the threat of nuclear destruction and studied where he could move for safety. He chose Brazil, and moved his family there, but first stopped in Guyana, and apparently liked the place. However, by 1965, he was frustrated with the lack of resources and low growth in his temple, so he moved his family to California after claiming that a nuclear war would bring about a new socialist Eden.

Living in Redwood, California, he eventually rejected the Bible entirely and instead started to create his own religion, with him at the head. Jones claimed he was the "reincarnation of Jesus of Nazareth, Mahatma Gandhi, Buddha, Vladimir Lenin, and Father Divine."4 However, the IRS began to investigate the cult to check into its tax-exempt status and handling of funds, and Jones panicked moving the entire operation to San Francisco in 1975.

Jim Jones' efforts helped George Moscone become elected4, and he was a rising star in the Democratic Party. Both Jim Jones and Mayor Moscone privately met with vice presidential candidate Walter Mondale on his campaign plane days before the 1976 election5 and Mondale publicly praised the Temple6. Later, First Lady Rosalynn Carter also personally met with Jones on multiple occasions and spoke with him at the grand opening of the San Francisco Democratic Party Headquarters7.

At a dinner for Jones attended by Democrat luminaries such as Jerry Brown, Jones was praised as "a combination of Martin King, Angela Davis, Albert Einstein... Chairman Mao,"8 and Harvey Milk later Mayor of San Francisco, wrote Jones after a visit to his temple "Rev Jim, It may take me many a day to come back down from the high that I reach today. I found something dear today. I found a sense of being that makes up for all the hours and energy placed in a fight. I found what you wanted me to find. I shall be back. For I can never leave."9

He also began to force alliances with groups such as the Nation of Islam10 and had close ties with many reporters and editors.11 However, an expose published in News West Magazine brought up allegations of sexual and emotional abuse in the cult, and Jones got nervous again. He'd already bought land in Guyana and created Jonestown as an agricultural project, and decided to leave the US for Guyana, taking his entire temple and all his followers with him in 1977.

By this point, Jones' drug use was becoming so obvious that his reputation and influence was beginning to decline in the temple. He'd already begun speaking of "the translation" in which he and his followers would all die and move to another utopian planet. He had "white nights" on which the whole cult membership would drink liquids that he said were poisoned, but then later on noted that they weren't but it showed their faith.

Although by this point, many of Jones' Democratic Party allies had abandoned him, Harvey Milk for instance had not. Jones hired a Kennedy assassination conspiracy theorist to help rehabilitate himself as a victim of government oppression and coverup, and intended to return to the US with his reputation restored.

To see what was up, a fact finding commission led by US Congressmen Leo Ryan (D-CA) and Jackie Speier (D-CA) and several NBC reporters and camera crew flew to Guyana. Five people were gunned down at the airport, and the rest survived with various injuries and partial footage of the shootings. Jones knew his time was up, that he could not come back after killing two congressmen.

Jones told the people that the US would send fascists in on parachutes, that they would gun down some their children, torture others and the elderly, and turn the survivors into "fascists." He told them that drinking the poison was "revolutionary suicide" and that they would all be in essence taking a plane to a better place. Over 900 people died, including Jones, who had shot himself in the head, although he was full of barbiturates.

Jim Jones was a lunatic communist who was an ally and friend of leading Democrats of the day. He helped several gain power and was praised and lauded by Democratic Party leaders.  He was not a right wing Christian, he was not remotely right wing in any sense.  You don't hear much about that, and never really did. That aspect of his life was simply erased like an operation from the Ministry of Truth.

And while the main Democratic Party leadership did move away from Jones when his LSD use and ideas were getting out of control, they did not do so because of his politics.
1 Reiterman, Tim and John Jacobs. Raven: The Untold Story of Rev. Jim Jones and His People. Dutton, 1982. ISBN 0-525-24136-1. p. 24.

2 Wessinger, Catherine. How the Millennium Comes Violently: From Jonestown to Heaven's Gate. Seven Bridges Press, 2000. ISBN 978-1889119243.

3 Reiterman, Tim and John Jacobs. Raven: The Untold Story of Rev. Jim Jones and His People. Dutton, 1982. ISBN 0-525-24136-1. p. 68.

4 Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple. American Experience,

5 Jones, Jim. "Transcript of Recovered FBI tape Q 799." Alternative Considerations of Jonestown and Peoples Temple. Jonestown Project: San Diego State University.

6 Los Angeles Times, "First Lady Among Cult's References; Mondale, Califano also listed", November 21, 1978.

7 Reiterman, Tim and John Jacobs. Raven: The Untold Story of Rev. Jim Jones and His People. Dutton, 1982. ISBN 0-525-24136-1. p. 302-4.

8 Kilduff, Marshall and Phil Tracy. "Inside Peoples Temple." Alternative Considerations of Jonestown and Peoples Temple.

9 Reiterman, Tim and John Jacobs. Raven: The Untold Story of Rev. Jim Jones and His People. Dutton, 1982. ISBN 0-525-24136-1. page 308

10 Reiterman, Tim, and John Jacobs. Raven: The Untold Story of Rev. Jim Jones and His People. Dutton, 1982. ISBN 0-525-24136-1. page 282.

11 Reiterman, Tim, and John Jacobs. Raven: The Untold Story of Rev. Jim Jones and His People. Dutton, 1982. ISBN 0-525-24136-1. page 285, 306 and 587.
*This is part of the Common Knowledge series: things we know that ain't so.


steve l said...

think your source in footnote 9 is mistaken, Harvey Milk was never mayor.

Christopher R Taylor said...

Nah, that's my error, he said the statement but apparently was not mayor, as you say.