Jim Jones & Jonestown — A Lesson on the Risks of Fundamentalism and the Importance of Tolerating Dissent

John Dehlin Mormon, Mormon Stories

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.