The Reverend James Jones was a charismatic young man of 24 when he founded the Peoples Temple in Indianapolis in 1955. He preached racial equality, and, amazingly, more than half the Peoples Temple members were of racial minorities—a level of diversity almost unheard of in the 1950s. The church quickly grew to more than 900 members. Jones preached social awareness, too, and the church soon ran a homeless shelter, soup kitchen, food bank, and job placement service. City leaders honored Jones by appointing him to the Indianapolis Human Rights Commission.
In 1961, Jones had a vision of a nuclear apocalypse. He told members they needed to move where they would be safe from nuclear attack. Jones and about 140 loyal followers moved to Ukiah, California.
Jones became more protective and controlling. He urged members to live communally and pressured them to give their money and homes to the church. He began punishing those who had contact with "outsiders," including family members. Jones told parents when and how to punish their children. Eventually, he started publicly punishing children and adults himself, with verbal humiliation or a heavy wooden paddle. Jones's shift from being kind to controlling was so gradual that the members who were drawn into this oppressive culture were hardly aware of it. No one outside the Temple had any idea what life was like on the inside. Members protected the Temple's privacy, and armed guards allowed only members inside.
Peoples Temple was a favorite with California politicians. The Temple provided relief for the poor and voted as a bloc however Jones told them to. By 1970, the Peoples Temple had 3,000 members, and attracted 20,000 to Sunday services at its three California locations.
Life inside the Temple grew more intense. Jones told frightened members that the fascist American government wanted to gas African Americans like the Germans gassed the Jews; he assured them the Temple was their only protection. Jones punished anyone who disagreed with him—disagreement was betrayal. He required what he called loyalty tests, involving sleep deprivation and physical pain. Pressure intensified for members to give the church all their possessions. Jones said the church would always take care of them. But then, if members wanted to leave, they had no money and no place to go, and they were threatened with physical harm.
Through all this, Jim Jones still preached love, diversity, acceptance, and a New Eden on earth after the nuclear holocaust he said was inevitable. Members' hope in the New Eden and their trust in Jones kept most of them in the group willingly. Others stayed because they were scared, or thought they had no choice, or wanted to protect their family.
In 1973, the group came under investigation, and Jones's paranoia grew. He told members they needed to be ready to commit suicide as a form of protest. Routinely, the entire Temple membership practiced mass suicide. They lined up to drink cups of "poisoned" fruit drink, then fell down, pretending to be dead.
Jones dreamed of escaping from prying eyes and interference. The church bought a tract of land in British Guiana, now called Guyana, in South America. A few dozen members moved there and began building their private paradise. They called their little community Jonestown. In 1977, Jones and his closest aides moved to Jonestown. During the next year, more than 900 men, women, and children followed.
As more people relocated to Jonestown, reports of problems there increased. Family members in the States grew alarmed, reported human rights abuses, and feared their relatives were being kept against their will.
U.S. Congressman Leo Ryan initiated a new investigation. With Jones's permission, Ryan and a news crew arrived in Jonestown on November 17, 1978. Congressman Ryan, the reporters, and a camera crew toured Jonestown and interviewed Jones and others. Several families asked to leave with Ryan's group. Jones agreed to let them go, but a team of Peoples Temple gunmen attacked the entire group at the airstrip, killing all but a few who fled into the jungle.
When the killers returned to Jonestown and reported that Congressman Ryan was dead, Jones immediately announced that the group had no choice: They had to commit "revolutionary suicide," right now. If they did not, all of them would be taken prisoner, mistreated, and brainwashed by the U.S. government.
Jones's aides mixed up vats of fruit-flavored drink, with real poison this time. Most members drank the mixture willingly. A few escaped by pretending to be dead or hiding. Those who resisted were forcibly killed. Jones himself did not die by poison but from a gunshot wound, although it is not clear whether he shot himself. In all, 914 Peoples Temple members died in the mass murder/suicide; 217 of them were children.
The Peoples Temple dissolved after this horrific event, but it made a lasting impression on American culture. The term "drink the Kool-Aid," meaning to completely buy in to something or follow a crowd without questioning, comes from the Jonestown tragedy. It is not a phrase to be used lightly.
Until the September 11, 2001 attack on the World Trade Center, the Jonestown Massacre, as it is sometimes called, was the largest loss of civilian life in one event outside of natural disasters in American history.