Jim Jones Biography: Religious Cult Leader Responsible for Mass Suicide

Jim Jones, leader of the People’s Temple, has come to symbolize the ultimate in sleazy, evil cult figures. Through a forceful personality, charm and genuine good works, he managed to draw a massive following and lead them, like a modern-day pied piper, to the jungles of Guyana. There he promised them a modern-day Garden of Eden. What they found was confinement, mental and physical control and enforced suicide. In this week’s Biographics, we discover the real Jim Jones.


Early Years

James Warren Jones was born on May 13, 1931 to Lynetta Putnam and Jim Jones, Senior in Crete, Indiana. The older Jim was a disabled war veteran. Lynetta was some 15 years younger than her husband and the marriage was not a happy one. Jim was often away working on road crews, leaving Lynetta isolated and lonely in Crete. She didn’t help her cause by her unsocial manner. She smoked, cursed and voiced obtuse opinions at every opportunity.

Lynetta had never wanted to be a mother. The addition of a child to the family only increased the stress that the Jones’ were facing. Shortly after the child’s birth Jim suffered a complete nervous breakdown. Unable to work any longer the finances became dire, leading to their eviction from the family farm.

The homeless family were taken in by Jim’s relatives in the small town of Lynn, Indiana. Lynn was a conservative, orderly town, with the vast majority of the towns’ people being church goers. The town also had a prominent Ku Klux Klan membership.

The Jones’ lived in a derelict shack that lacked plumbing. When young Jim began school at age six, his mother took a factory job. This provided the child with the freedom before and after school to roam the streets. He was a needy child who was terrified of his father. Finding it difficult to make friends, he spent a lot of time alone reading.

Often the child could be seen wandering around town looking disconsolate. Elderly widows around town felt sympathy for the young waif and would invite him in for a piece of cake. The boy was so polite that he soon won them over. It was through one of these local matriarchs that Jim got his first exposure to religion, by way of the church of the Nazarene. Jim was constantly attentive, even quoting scripture back to the elderly woman.

To his mother’s ambivalence, Jim began attending church with the old woman. He hung on every word coming from the preacher’s mouth. He also showed an amazing ability to recite sermons and quote lengthy Biblical verses.

But Jim was not exclusively committed to the Church of the Nazarene. His natural inquisitiveness caused him to attend every denomination in town. During the week he would wander into the woods and prop himself up on a stump where he would proceed to deliver fiery sermons of his own to the local forest animals. This was far from the norm and was just one reason why people would remember young Jim Jones as a weird kid. His great interest in religion led to an equally obsessive fascination with death.

There were other things that set Jim apart from the other kids in Lyn. He cried a lot and swore far too much. He would also steal candy from the local store. And his odd religious obsession led him to come out with all sorts of strange things such as that he was being held down by the angel of death.

By the age of nine, Jim was claiming that he had special powers. One day he climbed on a roof and called out for everyone to watch him fly. Catapulting himself from the roof he promptly fell to the ground and broke his arm.

About that same time, Jim took to wandering around town and collecting roadkill in order to give each dead animal an elaborate animal funeral. The other kids looked on in morbid fascination.

Jim was 10 when America entered the Second World War. While all of his schoolmates sent their recess playing as marines or GI’s, he insisted on playing the Nazis, particularly their leader, Adolf Hitler, with whom he was absolutely enraptured. He even went as far as recruiting smaller children and turning them into mini stormtroopers. When they didn’t goosestep high enough he would whack them with a twig.

When he became a teenager, Jim’s new favorite topic changed from religion to sex. He established himself as the young people’s authority on the subject and would set up court on his porch to teach the facts of life in minute detail to an eager audience. His mother was happy for him to share his dubious knowledge, but the parents of the other children were incensed.

At high school, Jim set himself apart not just by strange beliefs and actions but by his dress. Rather than the casual dress that was normal he wore his Sunday best every day. He never spoke unless he instigated the conversation. However, he loved to engage his teachers in debates, attempting to highlight  his superior intellect.

Although not in any sense a talented sportsman, Jim was an exceptional organizer. At age 14, he established a baseball league. During one team meeting some kids saw Jim drop a pet dog from his loft to its death. After that the players became scared of him and the league fell apart.


By the early 1940’s, old Jim had become a hopeless alcoholic. His body was now ruined and he had suffered a stroke that left him unable to speak legibly. Lynetta took another man, a secret that was not so secret in the small town. Inevitably the marriage irrevocably broke apart and Jim and Lynetta were divorced in 1945.

Lynetta took Jim and moved to Richmond, Indiana. While attending High School, Jim worked the night shift as an orderly at the Reid Memorial Hospital. In December 1948, he graduated with honors, quite an accomplishment for a 17-year old who was also working a full-time job.

Civil Rights

It was while working at Reid Memorial that Jim met, courted and fell in love with a young nurse by the name of Marceline Baldwin. Marceline was entranced by Jim, who was four years her junior, and the couple were married in 1949. Together they moved to Indianapolis, Indiana.

In Bloomington, Marceline found work as a nurse, while her husband attended Butler University. The couple now found themselves living in the heart of Ku Klux Klan country. It was in the midst of this redneck country that Jim developed a passion for two things – racial integration and socialism.

Marceline Jones with her children

Marceline Jones with her children

In the Spring of 1952, Jim accepted a position as student pastor at Somerset Methodist Church. He excelled in the role and had quickly set up a youth center which was open to children of all faiths. He soon recognized that the way to attract the crowds, and therefore to increase church donations, was to adopt a flamboyant Pentecostal style – and to make faith healing a central part of his ‘performances.’ These performances began to garner wider attention and, before long, he was being invited to preach at conventions and assemblies throughout Indiana and in surrounding states.

Regular services were held at the Elmwood Temple in Cincinnati, Ohio where he would invite those suffering from ailments to come forward for the laying on of hands. He even traveled as far afield as Los Angeles to participate in a healing convention.

By the mid-1950’s Jones was filling the churches with his dramatic healing sermons. At each one he insisted that the audience be completely integrated, and that the black members of the congregation sit up front, facts which further ingratiated him to the local black people.

It was his insistence on racial integration within his flock that led to a split with Jim’s church employer. Churches in Indianapolis at the time were strictly segregated and Jim’s allowance of Blacks was causing real problems. Jim quit in disgust and set up his own Community Unity Church. This soon morphed into Wings of Deliverance, which was renamed in 1955 as The People’s Temple Full Gospel Church.

People’s Temple

From the start People’s Temple grew large crowds of both black and white parishioners. The healing dramas were still the highlight of every sermon, but Jim’s prime concern appeared to be building a truly racially integrated ministry.

In recognition of his efforts to achieve racial harmony, Jim was appointed in 1960 by Indianapolis Mayor Charles Boswell. The Mayor had intended the role to be low profile, but Jim immediately took to the limelight, appearing on TV and radio programs dramatically proclaiming ‘Let my people go!’

Jones's first church in Indianapolis, Indiana.

Jones’s first church in Indianapolis, Indiana.

Jones threw himself into the civil rights movement. Through his efforts other churches, restaurants, amusement parks and movie theatres were integrated.

In 1961, Jim collapsed as a result of over exhaustion. He was mistakenly taken to a black hospital but, when the mistake was identified he refused to move. He even took to making the beds and emptying the bed pans of sick black people in the wards. This caused publicity which directly led to pressure on hospital authorities to desegregate the wards.

Not surprisingly, white controlled churches and businesses were highly critical of this upstart preacher who dared to challenge the status quo. Threats were received, a swastika was painted on the wall of the People’s Temple church building and a dead cat was tossed at Jim’s house.

Throughout the 1960’s, the Jones’ adopted three children of Korean descent. Jim referred to these children as his ‘rainbow family.’ In an attempt to extend the rainbow family, he also encouraged members of his congregation to likewise adopt war torn refugees.

In the early ‘60’s Jones became obsessed with the prospect of nuclear holocaust. In September, 1961, he announced to his congregants that he had had a prophetic dream in which the entire American Midwest had been destroyed in a nuclear conflagration. After reading a magazine article entitled ‘9 Places in the World to Hide’ he took his young family on a trip to one of them, Belo Horizonte in Brazil. There they stayed for two years. During this time his distrust of and personal hatred toward the government of the United States intensified. He was convinced that American political and economic self-interest had brought the world to the brink of destruction.

The Jones’ returned to Indianapolis in December, 1963. Jim immediately made plans to move his congregation who had been waiting patiently for their leader’s return, to another of the 9 safe places on the list – Northern California. In the summer of 1964, the family, along with about 140 congregants moved to the town of Ukiah in the Redwood Valley area above San Francisco.

Over the next few months, church services were held in rented church buildings, and then on a ranch at Ridgewood. Throughout the week, Jim worked as a high school teacher. After three years of steadily building up its membership, the People’s Temple was granted official standing by the Christian Church, Disciples of Christ, Northern-California- Nevada region in 1968. The following February, the People’s Temple Redwood Valley complex opened. The complex included the Jones’ home, a swimming pool, child care center, old folks ‘homes, the temple meeting place and a ranch. All of this, of course, was completely integrated. This ‘little Garden of Eden’ sat in the middle of strictly segregated Redwood Valley.

Within a year, the People’s Temple had expanded into San Francisco. Buses were put on to transport new parishioners there to Redwood Valley for weekend services. Jim also took to the road by bus, touring from one city to the next, winning new converts in each place, many of when were so captivated by the charismatic preacher that they picked up stakes and moved to the Redwood Valley ranch.

The Controversy Begins

Peoples Temple experienced rapid expansion during the early 1970’s. However, it was also during this time that the church received it first negative media coverage. A series of articles in the San Francisco Examiner profiled the church, painting Jones as a false messiah who had claimed to bring 43 people back from the dead. The authority structure of the church was also put under the spotlight. The Examiner articles drew the interest of other media outlets. From then on, Jones come to view the media as his enemy, an agent of the Devil.

Houses in Jonestown, Guyana, 1979.

Houses in Jonestown, Guyana, 1979.

Things got worse when, in 1973, 8 prominent members of the People’s Temple defected. Stories emerged of financial abuse, mind control and tax evasion. In response to the pressure brought upon the church by the media and the defectors, Jim first proposed the idea of mass suicide. Such a grand action would establish the congregants as martyrs and shame those who were out to get them. As for now, however, Jones’ words were nothing more than bluster.

It was during the Summer of 1973 that Jones made the decision to relocate the People’s Temple to the South American country of Guyana. Two months later he visited the country in order to open negotiations to purchase 27 thousand acres of land in the Matthew Ridge area near the Venezuelan border. The Guyanese Cooperative Republic was a socialist country and, for Jones, who had passed through on his return trip from Brazil in 1963, it was the ideal haven.

The first People’s Temple members arrived in Guyana in March, 1974 to begin the mammoth task of clearing the jungle and breaking ground for construction on what was to become Jonestown.

A year later there were 50 People’s Temple pioneers in Guyana. Day and night, they worked to construct buildings and establish a massive agricultural project.

By 1977, Jonestown was an established community. But things were getting worse back in California. On Memorial Day, 1977 along with six hundred congregation members, Jones made an appearance at a commemoration for suicides who had jumped off San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge. In his address on that day, he declared, “I have been in a suicidal mood myself today, so I have personal empathy for what we are doing here today.”

Rev. Jim Jones, 1977 at an anti-eviction rally in front of the International Hotel, Kearny and Jackson Streets, San Francisco Photo by Nancy Wong

Rev. Jim Jones, 1977 at an anti-eviction rally in front of the International Hotel, Kearny and Jackson Streets, San Francisco Photo by Nancy Wong

By now there was renewed pressure on the church from the American media. On August 1st, 1977 an article appeared in New West magazine that alleged that members had been beaten, the church was rife with financial misdealings and that Jim Jones was nothing more than a charlatan. By the time that the article hit the newsstands, Jones was already in Guyana.

By September, there were more than a thousand People’s Temple members in Guyana, with only about fifty or so left back in the States. The sudden influx of people placed severe strain on the facilities at Jonestown. However, members enthusiastically pitched in to extend the village in order to accommodate the demand.

Three quarters of the transplanted residents were black, with the remainder being white, Hispanic, Asian and Native American. The task of feeding, housing and clothing the community was a massive undertaking. But the Temple members found a great sense of pride in the feat that they were accomplishing – a Utopian heaven on earth. Despite the harsh conditions and hard work, the people appeared, in those first months, to be genuinely happy.

Back in California, former members began a concerted attack on the People’s Temple. A woman who had borne a child to Jones sued for custody of the child, which was living at the commune. Jones refused to even consider giving up the child, declaring that any attempt to take the child would put the life of every member of Peoples’ Temple in jeopardy. Still, other defectors who had left children behind also sued for custody. Then a declaration of human rights violations committed by People’s Temple were issued by defectors to the media. It included the assertion that rehearsals for mass suicide often took place at Peoples’ Temple. A Committee of concerned relatives claimed that Jonestown was little more than a concentration camp, with armed guards constantly patrolling and the residents continually subjected to brain washing, forced labor and sleep deprivation.

Congressman Leo Ryan, who was shot and killed on Jones' orders as he and others attempted to leave Jonestown, Guyana in 1978.

Congressman Leo Ryan, who was shot and killed on Jones’ orders as he and others attempted to leave Jonestown, Guyana in 1978.

Attempts were made to pressure Congress to establish an official investigation of Jonestown. The challenge was taken up by congressman Leo Ryan, representing the San Mateo district of Northern California. Ryan had determined to lead a fact-finding mission to Jonestown in order to find out firsthand what was going on there. With reporters and relatives in tow, he flew into the airport at nearby Georgetown on November 15th, 1978. Two days later they flew to the airstrip at Kaituma and then were driven by limousine into the jungle towards Jonestown.

Jones had been preparing the Temple members for the Congressman’s visit for weeks. Every member knew that guards were watching their every move. They were commanded to portray a glorious, Utopian society. Role plays were conducted in which the members were told exactly what to say when spoken to by reporters. Any signs of dissatisfaction would be harshly dealt with away from prying eyes.

The congressman was warmly welcomed and a reception was held that first night. Ryan seemed genuinely impressed with the organization and order that he saw. But late into the night, one of the reporters who had come along with him was secretly passed a note from a man in the crowd. He wanted to leave with the Congressman.

Jim Jones receives a Martin Luther King, Jr. Humanitarian award from Pastor Cecil Williams, 1977.

Jim Jones receives a Martin Luther King, Jr. Humanitarian award from Pastor Cecil Williams, 1977.

The next morning the reporter showed the note to the congressman. Ryan brought the issue up with Jones who declared that anyone was free to come or go as they pleased. This prompted Ryan to make a public declaration that any who wanted to leave with him at the end of the weekend was most welcome.

Over the weekend, more people came forward. Then, on the afternoon of the second day of the visit, a People’s Temple member lunged at Congressman Ryan with a knife. This event soured the proceedings and the visitors were intent on getting out as fast as possible.


When the congressman’s party left there were 14 People’s Temple members with them. They got into two trucks and were driven back to the Kaituma airstrip. However, almost immediately that they had left, Jones ordered a tractor and trailer manned by armed bodyguards to follow them. Just as the congressman, reporters and evacuees were about to board the plane and head back to the safety of the United States, the truck and tractor rolled onto the airstrip. Jones’ guards immediately opened fire with sub-machine guns. Congressman Ryan and four others were killed. Then one of the supposed defectors pulled out a handgun and began shooting at those who had already made their way onto one of the two waiting planes.

The leader of the killer guards immediately radioed back to Jones and told him that the congressman was dead. Jones immediately began talking to his followers over a loudspeaker system. He told them that the congressman had been killed and, as a result, the Soviet Union, who he had been looking to for salvation, would no longer take them in. The Americans were now certain to send in armed forces to annihilate People’s Temple. He drove fear into his followers by telling them Americans would torture their children, rape their women and brutalize their old people. The only dignified response was to commit mass revolutionary suicide.

Large barrels of cyanide laced Kool-aide were rolled out and the people began lining up to lay down their lives in mass protest. When he heard people trying to beg off, Jones told them not to be afraid; they were simply stepping over to another plane.

That day, November 18, 1978, 914 members of the People’s Temple lay down their lives. Jones, however, did not succumb to the cyanide laced Kool-aide. He was found with a gunshot wound to the head. It was deemed as being self-inflicted.

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