Jim JonesI stumbled upon this RadioWest episode today about a new documentary entitled: Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple (you can listen directly, or via podcast subscription).

Most of you will likely not remember the Jim Jones / Jonestown tragedy (heck…I was only 9 years old at the time). Here is the summation:

In the summer of 1977, Jones and most of the 1,000 members of the Peoples Temple moved to Guyana from San Francisco after an investigation into the church for tax evasion was begun. Jones named the closed settlement Jonestown after himself. His intention was to create an agricultural utopia in the jungle, free from racism and based on quasi-communist principles. Jones told his followers to think of him as the incarnation of Christ and God.

People who had left the organization prior to its move to Guyana told the authorities of brutal beatings, murders and of a mass suicide plan, but were not believed. In spite of the tax evasion allegations, Jones was still widely respected for setting up a racially mixed church which helped the disadvantaged. Around 70% of the inhabitants of Jonestown were black and impoverished.
I believe in Jim Jones
In November 1978, U.S. Representative Leo Ryan led a fact-finding mission to the Jonestown settlement in Guyana after allegations by relatives in the U.S. of human rights abuses. Ryan’s delegation arrived in Jonestown on November 14 and spent three days interviewing residents. They left hurriedly on the morning of Saturday November 18 after an attempt was made on Ryan’s life. They took with them roughly twenty Peoples Temple members who wished to leave. Delegation members later told police that, as they were boarding planes at the airstrip, a truckload of Jones’ armed guards arrived and began to shoot at them. When the gunmen left five people were dead: Representative Ryan, a reporter from NBC, a cameraman from NBC, a newspaper photographer and one defector from the Peoples Temple. The present-day California State Senator Jackie Speier, a staff member for Rep. Ryan in 1978, CIA officer Richard Dwyer and a producer for NBC News, Bob Flick, survived the attack.

Later that same day, the remaining 914 inhabitants of Jonestown, 276 of them children, committed mass suicide that Jones referred to as “revolutionary suicide” on Jones’s instructions by drinking cyanide-laced Flavor Aid, by forced cyanide injection, or by shooting. Jones was found dead with a shot in the head, sitting in a deck chair. The autopsy on his body showed levels of the barbiturate pentobarbital that could have been lethal to humans who have not developed physiological tolerance. His drug abuse (including various LSD and marijuana experimentations) was confirmed by his son, Stephan, and Jones’ doctor in San Francisco. [2]

Anyway, the final minutes of the podcast were quite powerful (to me). 2 things that really stuck out: fundamentalism (of any sort) can be really, really dangerous….and it is SUPER important and even healthy for organizations to allow dissent.

May we never forget the lessons of Jonestown.


  1. Hyrum June 28, 2006 at 9:31 am


    I find this very interesting. Thanks for the post. Here are some helpful links:



    I always like to remember that we wouldn’t have this great country if there weren’t people brave enough to ENCOURAGE dissent. People like Thomas Paine, Thomas Jefferson, Harriet Tubman, etc … they are REAL HEROES!

    I suppose if you must have some SMITH quote to back it up, this one works:
    (Although that defeats the purpose, because you shouldn’t have to see something from a prophet figure to give the final absolute … that’s not healthy!)
    “It looks too much like the Methodists, and not like the Latter-day Saints. Methodists have a creed which a man must believe or be asked out of their church. I want the liberty of thinking and believing as I please. It feels so good not to be trammeled. It does not prove that a man is not a good man because he errs in doctrine.”

    However, there are always those pesky contradictory quotes from Smith and the Danites. And of course when actions speak louder than words, namely the destruction of the Nauvoo Expositor. Hmmm …

  2. Just for Quix June 28, 2006 at 5:15 pm

    This was a great podcast. I like how they emphasized the community over the personality of Jones as a driver for the growth of the Temple. It really touches of the mechanics that drive people to believe even when negative evidence continues to mount.

    The really sobering part for me was when Jones was testing their loyalty. They drink. He tells them it is poison. People get hysterical. Then he says, “I was only a test of your loyalty.” Eventually the poison became real and the Temple members willingly drank. It reminds me of Joseph Smith asking Heber Kimball and John Taylor for their wives. They each anguish and then finally give in, and Joseph responds, “Just kidding. I was testing your loyalty.” Those are creepy stories.

  3. Guy Murray June 29, 2006 at 12:33 pm

    So John, are you suggesting there is not enough dissent in the Church today, and that we should be wary of anyone passing out Kool-Aid on Temple Square?

  4. Matt Elggren June 29, 2006 at 1:45 pm

    Guy, are you suggesting that we have too much dissent? I think you’ve been hanging out in the ‘nacle too much.

    And don’t forget that, even though the Kool-aid (er, Jello-o) is currently more or less harmless to physical life, back in the mid-1800s there were many Mormons who lost their lives under the influence of Kool-aid:

    “Many of the immigrants paid with their lives in the effort to follow the advice of Church leaders to gather with the Saints in Zion. THe exact number of Saints who died is not known, but estimates suggest that between 1846-69, some fourty-two hundred to five thousand perished during some phase of the journey.”
    (Source: “Illness and Mortality in Nineteenth-Century Mormon Immigration“, Shane A. Baker, 2001)

    It may seem wrong to make this comparison, but there were certainly those among the Jones followers who would have felt the same way. Just something to think about…

  5. Just for Quix June 29, 2006 at 4:38 pm


    If one can be a little objective I don’t think it is bad to make the comparison, especially in light of the podcast content. What the authors were clear to point out was that the Peoples Temple didn’t revolve completely around Jones, rather many followers joined and stayed because of the ideals they equated with the community and their associations therein.

    Many a Mormon immigrant from the Kirtland period onward found their money taken, church rail/trail support lacking, or other tribulations. Whether such tribulations were within Mormon control and power to correct/improve them or not, those immigrants were most often emotionally vested far beyond the personal behavior and charisma of Joseph Smith. Or Brigham Young. Maybe that is what helped them sacrifice so much for the “establishment of Zion”.

  6. Matt Elggren June 29, 2006 at 5:23 pm

    The podcast does say that the members put significantly greater weight on the community experience than on the personality of Jones.
    Could it be that their community experience was such that, when it looked like it was about to end, they chose to die rather than return to the world they had left behind?

    As Mormons, can we imagine this?

  7. Matt Elggren June 29, 2006 at 5:39 pm

    “a religion that does not require the sacrifice of all things never has power sufficient to produce the faith necessary unto life and salvation.” (Lectures on Faith, Lecture Sixth, paragraph 7.)

    Can we empathize in this context?

  8. Guy Murray June 29, 2006 at 6:04 pm

    Matt . . .gee I’m sorry on my first reading of this post, I must have missed the subtle nuances in the comparison of Jim Jones and the Peoples’ Temple with Joseph, Brigham, and the early Saints who willingly congregated not only to Kirtland but to Nauvoo, and on to Salt Lake City to establish Zion pursuant to direct commandments from God. Thanks for pointing them out to me–and for the warning on the Kool-Aid

  9. Matt Elggren June 29, 2006 at 7:18 pm

    Sorry, sometimes I can be a little cheeky. Though I have no problem drinking kool-aid with everyone else, as long as I know it’s the real thing…oh yeah! :)

  10. Mike Thomas June 30, 2006 at 10:45 am

    “If we believe absurdities, we shall commit atrocities.” Kevin Courcey quoting Voltaire in ‘Religion a Natural When it Comes to Terrorism’

  11. BEA June 30, 2006 at 2:27 pm

    Jonestown has always been my example that people are capable of believing and doing just about anything. I always found it interesting that in many ways all religion falls into the same category. For example the street derelict that talks to “god” is considered insane or mentally ill but the mormon bishop or lay member of any church having conversations with an un seen being is considered “completely” “normal”? Why are some people commited to a mental hospital and others roaming free when both are claiming the same thing? Seriously, if someone were to walk up to you and say “I talk to god” what would you think? I guess the difference is one has on a nice suit and tie and one smells of urine… but aren’t they really saying the same thing with equal “proof”?

    All religions are KoolAid just in varying flavors.

  12. CraigBa! June 30, 2006 at 9:41 pm

    Why are some people commited to a mental hospital and others roaming free when both are claiming the same thing?

    Hmmm. Can’t imagine that it might have anything to do with the fact that the “mormon bishop or lay member” seem to be perfectly capable of managing their affairs. Not sure you can saythat for the street derelict. In fact I’m pretty sure they lock up street derelicts who are atheists, too.

  13. CraigBa! June 30, 2006 at 10:16 pm

    What I find interesting is that no one has yet mentioned our more modern examples of this phenomenon: The Heaven’s Gate cult, David Koresh & The Branch Davidians and the FLDS group in Southern Utah.

    The FLDS Church prophet, Warren Jeffs, actually has the power to take a man’s wives and children away from them and reassign them to a “more faithful” man. He has done so several times.

    The whole of human history is one case after another of oppressive/egomaniacal/violent men telling people they should hand over their thinking or their rights to someone else, for their own best interests. Kings claimed they had “divine rights” granted to them by God. Pharaohs claimed they were gods. Even today we see a similar phenomenon, if secular and more camouflaged. Judges (unelected, lifetime appointed – hmmm, what does that sound like?) who claim to have the final say on the which laws are acceptable and which are not. The PC Gestapo – self-appointed enforcers, marching in the footsteps of Urban VIII, of what speech is and is not allowed.

    The irony is that it is the Protestant Reformation that removed the power of interpretation from the robed ones and placed it back in the mind of the individual. A man’s conscience became the ultimate judge of what is right (though not uninfluenced by the community of believers or of the Christian cannon). The priesthood of all believers and the primacy of scripture were the fundamental reforms made during the Reformation. There is a reason that Western Europe rose to preeminence over the last 500 years, and that reason is the tolerance of dissent that was the foundation of the Reformation.

    The irony of this is that Mormonism is, in essence, a counter-Reformation. The final interpretation of scriptures was returned back to the sovereign (in the form of the prophet). Decisions on congregational leadership, while theoretically in the hands of the wards, were reclaimed as well. And of course the priesthood of all believers experienced a few, er…modifications.

  14. Matt Elggren June 30, 2006 at 11:10 pm

    “…a counter-Reformation.”

    So Mormonism wasn’t down on the Pope/Catholic Church in the same way as the Reformation…nothing novel in that…but because the Harlot represented the only church that could be considered a true rival.

    Very interesting idea.

    Could the Mormon Church be something of a modern counterpart to the historical Benedictines of darkening Europe? Just a crazy idea, but there’s some appeal there for me.

  15. CraigBa! June 30, 2006 at 11:40 pm

    …the Harlot represented the only church that could be considered a true rival.

    Or because the America of the Second Great Awakening was anti-Catholic?

    Could the Mormon Church be something of a modern counterpart to the historical Benedictines of darkening Europe? Just a crazy idea, but there’s some appeal there for me.

    Not sure what thou meanest. Explain.

  16. Matt Elggren July 1, 2006 at 12:20 am

    Oops…maybe it’s because I actually meant the Dominicans of the Thirteenth Century:

    “Founded to preach the gospel and to combat heresy…” going without purse or script… “selling” themselves through persuasive preaching… “An enormous number of its members held offices in Church and State — as popes, cardinals, bishops, legates, inquisitors, confessors of princes, ambassadors, and paciarii (enforcers of the peace decreed by popes or councils).” And champions of all things orthodox, but primarily of the supremacy of Catholicism and Papacy as opposed to more liberal sects and heresies.

    The Mormons of the High Middle-Ages? Just a thought experiment…

  17. Kempton July 1, 2006 at 11:07 pm

    I can’t help but compare Jim Jone’s KoolAid test with the LDS temple endowment law of sacrifice and swearing to “give up your life if necessary for the building up of the kingdom of God.” Not to mention the former blood-oaths. When I was 19 years old, I can recall the hypnotic appeal of the ceremony. I can understand how the people of Jones Town felt and what eventually compelled them to commit joint suicide.


  18. Confused July 2, 2006 at 9:29 am

    I think thousands of Mormons commit some kind of figurative suicide every day when they adhere closely to the teachings of the prophets–teachings that are later said to be just “opinions”.

    For example,

    There are single people (mostly those who grew up during SWK’s presidency) who believed Kimball when he said that if they wilfully choose to marry outside the temple, they will never be able to progress after this life. So they choose not to marry instead of marrying outside of the Church and waste their lives (especially single sisters), not having a spouse, children, often not having a purpose since they were taught since children that their reason for being was to be “mothers in zion” (and no…just having a uterus doesn’t qualify one for motherhood, despite what a spinster former presidency member has said).

    Gay members who believe in the Church teachings and who have social or family ties to the Church sacrifice a social, romantic, sexual and family life so that in the next life they can be straight and assigned to an opposite-sex partner forever (sounds like a Jim Jones-inspired doctrine to me).

    Thousands of others every day sacrifice their heritages, their rights to wear pants to church if they want to (e.g. women), their leadership skills that are gone to waste b/c they don’t have the right organs so can’t have the priesthood, etc., etc., etc.

  19. Confused July 2, 2006 at 9:51 am

    It also doesn’t help that millions of members wear underwear that the Church expects them to wear (and pay for!!!) and are SCARED to take them off for any length of time, and ceremonially dispose of them.

    To many normal people, this would seem “cultish.”

  20. Andrew Stahmer July 21, 2006 at 9:36 pm

    FUNDIMENTALISM and Jim Jones? What kind of fundimentalism are we talking here?? Obviuosly not fundimentalism to the bible…perhaps fundimental humanism?? I don’t think Jim Jones (especially later) believed or preached ANY fundimentals of the bible; if he did there would NEVER have been a mass suicide. Jim Jones (to put it very simply) is a great example of pride blinding a man! I don’t know about his early years, but in his latter years Jim Jones was about as far from fundimentalism as you can get!

  21. dona February 4, 2007 at 9:55 pm

    that is the most crazy thing i’ve ever herd about

  22. safraz April 28, 2007 at 8:20 am

    thats a wierd man hope he’s dead

  23. […] Check it out! While looking through the blogosphere we stumbled on an interesting post today.Here’s a quick excerptI stumbled upon this RadioWest episode today about a new documentary entitled: Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple (you can listen directly, or via podcast subscription). Most of you will likely not remember the Jim Jones / Jonestown tragedy (heck…I was only 9 years old at the time). Here is the summation: (more…) […]

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