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Cults – Jonestown: The Terror Within Essay, Research Paper

Jonestown: The Terror Within.

Cults have existed throughout history since the beginning of time. A cult is defined in Webster’s dictionary as a “system of religious worship with a devoted attachment to a person, principle, etc.” Over the past thirty years numerous religious cults have caused “ tens of thousands to abandon their families, friends, education’s, and careers to follow the teaching of a leader they will never meet”(Beck 78).

Opinions vary as to why people are drawn to cults. “Martin Marty, professor of religious history at the University of Chicago, attributes the growth of cults to the frustrations of seemingly rootless people”(U.S. News and World Report 23). Marty’s classification of a rootless person is a person who is overly frustrated by modern life and is at a loss for direction. Often the rootless individual will “short-circuit and try to hook their lives to any guiding spirit” (U.S. News and World Report 23).

The psychological classification of people who join cults are those who feel neglected by their society. ”Cults are picking up on these people who feel their interests have been overlooked” (U.S. News and World Report 23).

The sociological studies on cults and those who join them have found “that many of the converts are young people, often without strong family ties, who are unsuccessful in dealing with life’s problems and are seeking instant solutions supplied by others” (U.S. News and World Report 23).

The People’s Temple was religious cult founded and lead by Jim Jones, based in Jonestown, Guyana. The converts belonging to Peoples Temple may have joined for various reasons differing from one another, yet the one common bond they all shared was Jim Jones. They loved Jim, they feared Jim, and eventually they died for Jim .

Jim Jones was “a self-proclaimed messiah in a polyester suit, a man who played God from behind mysterious dark glasses that gave his followers the impression that he was omniscient”( Axthelm 54). Born in 1931 in Lynn, Indiana to James Thurmond and Lynetta Jones, he was looked upon by his parents as a gift from Saint Francis. Jim’s father was white and an active member of the Ku Klux Klan. His mother was part Cherokee which lead Jim in later years to refer to himself with pride as an “ All-American mongrel”

The Jones family was financially in the lower class. Jim’s father fell sick and died early in Jim’s life leaving Lynetta to raise and support Jim on her own. Hard times and lack of money lead to Lynetta occasionally having to work in a factory twenty miles away from their home. Jim still being a youngster was left in the care of a neighbor. Even though Jim and his mother were separated frequently they still kept close ties with each other.

Jim was brought up as a Methodist. He became quickly fascinated with the pulpit oratory. Vera Price, a childhood playmate remembers, ”He’d always be the preacher, standing up making sermons”(Axthelm 54). Even at the young age of seven Vera, recalls Jim’s speeches encouraging strict discipline. She remembers occasions when Jim was playing with other children and “he’d hit them with a stick and make them cry. He had a power that most boys don’t have”(Axthelm 54). As Jim matured into a young adult this internal power he possessed was not fully matured. In high school Jim was in the popular crowd, but never the leader of the pack. “Only in retrospect does anyone claim to have spotted seeds of the horror to come.’ I had a hunch something bad was going to happen to him,’ says a middle-aged man in Lynn. He was smart as a whip. But he had some strange ideas. He never fit in with the town. He was different”(Axthelm 54).

Jones graduated from Richmond High School just outside of Lynn, It took him ten years of off and on schooling to receive his Bachelor of Arts degree from Butler University. After graduation he worked for a short time as an orderly at a local hospital where he met his future wife, Marciline Baldwin.

Jones’s strong dedication to the church soon led him to becoming a pastor at a Methodist church in Indianapolis. Jones vocalized his strong views favoring integration, throughout his sermons. These opinions made him a clear target for bigots. Jones endured harassment not only verbally but it went as far as having dead cats tossed into his church. Soon after these incidents Jones “decided that ‘there was no love ‘ in the Methodist Church”(Axthelm 55). This revolution sparked him to create his own church. To raise the funds enabling him to create a liberal minded place of worship he sold pet monkeys door to door for twenty nine dollars a piece. The taunting and torment Jones was faced with by bigots while raising funds only made him more determined to reach his goal.

In 1956 his dream was born. The doors to the first People’s Temple on North Jersey Street in Indianapolis were opened. The temple was a textbook model of integration and liberalism. It offered a soup kitchen to feed anyone that was hungry regardless of race, creed, or culture. The temple staffed an employment desk offering assistance to those needing help finding a job. The nursing home of the Peoples Temple offered care to the sick and elderly. In 1961 Jones was appointed to the city’s Human Rights Commission. “As his mother’s dream had promised, Jones seemed to be making at least a dent in the wrongs of the world”(Axthelm 55).

Jones had attained all he had wished for. He had his own temple practicing his beliefs and views, a loving family, and a devoted congregation. The devotion and loyalty of his congregation is where the true “power” Jim Jones had over people became dangerously clear to him. Ross Case, a coworker of Jones for several years, as well as a Disciple of Christ minister, remarks, “I’ve never seen anyone relate to people the way he could. He would build them up, convince them that anyone as intelligent and sensitive as they were ought to do whatever it was he wanted them to do”( Axthelm 55). Father Divine, a famous black cult leader in Philadelphia at the time intrigued Jones. Jones took a group of young people to meet Father Divine. When they returned Jones had brought back not only Divine’s songs, but his vision as well. Jones began to implemented Divines “insistence on fierce personal loyalty” into his sermons(Axthelm 55). Jones ‘s meeting with Divine influenced him to the degree in which he “instituted an interrogation committee in the church to question anyone who dared to speak against him”( Axthelm 55) Those who dared to defy Jones would suffer. Jones’s threats as Thomas Dickson remembers where such that “he’d get awfully violent–not physical, but verbally”(Axthelm 55). In 1961 Jones began going public with his doubts and confessed that he no longer believed in the Virgin Birth. Jones then demanded a show of hands by his congregation signifying who agreed with his view. Only one hand was raised. The owner of this hand became an immediate trusted ally as well as aide to Jones. During a sermon soon after Jones’s first confession, Jones “threw a Bible to the floor and complained , ‘Too many people are looking at this instead of me’ ”(Axthelm 55). Jones a man who had once stood proud and strong against the evils of the world, was now condemning the Bible.

In 1963 Jones visited Guyana eventually to be the site of his ultimate vision of a remote utopian settlement. In 1974, Jim Jones, along with a handful of followers, moved to build his dream a “Christian, socialist commune in the wilds of Guyana”(Steele 62). Jones’s followers built a commune complete with housing and medical facilities advanced by Guyanese standards. Within the commune there was little racial tension and the children seemed content. “Maury Janaro 16, a member of Jonestown wrote in a letter to her mother who was living in San Francisco ‘I love it here’” (Steele 62). For a year the commune ran smoothly. All those who lived in Jonestown were happy with their society they had built, led by their caring and all knowing leader Jim Jones. In one short year all they knew, believed, and trusted in would change.

“Meat, served twice a day at first, was served once, then not at all. The workday increased from eight hours to eleven. The commune’s security forces began to impose harsher discipline. Jones himself seemed to deteriorate physically; he began to gain weight, he started to slur his words, he looked dazed–and the rumors began to spread that he was on hard drugs, or seriously ill” (Steele 62). Deborah Blakey, a long time trusted aide to Jones escaped from Jonestown. When Jones discovered her escape he shouted over the loud speakers, “I am the alpha and the omega.” Jonestown, once a commune promoting integration and liberal views, had turned into a place that resembled a Nazi concentration camp.(Steele 62)

“’Alert! Alert! Everyone to the pavilion!’ The Rev. Jim Jones was on the loud speaker, summoning the members of his Peoples Temple to their last communion. Dutifully, they gathered round; some of them, without a doubt knew what was in store”(Oblsson 38). It was November 18, 1978 just before sunset tragedy feel upon Jonestown. Earlier that day Larry Schact, a medical-school graduate who was acting as the camp doctor was instructed by Jones to prepare a potion of death, mixed in Flavor-aide. Schact “dumped a quantity of pain killers and tranquilizers into the pinkish-purple brew. Finally Jones ordered Schact and Joyce Touchette, one of the leaders of the commune, to bring forth ‘the potion’. Half-gallon jugs of cyanide was then poured into it”(Mathews 53). “ ‘Everyone has to die.’ Said Jones. ‘ If you love me as I love you, we must all die or be destroyed from the outside.’ “(Oblsson 38). Jones’s words over the loud speaker echoed through the camp. “It is time to die with dignity” (Oblsson 40). Babies were summonsed first. Mothers cried out in anguish as their children were taken from their arms by nurses. Second later nurses sprayed the potion down their throats with a hypodermic needle. Those who resisted were told by guards, “ you better do it or we’re going to shoot your ass off”(Oblsson 40). When then members were finished drinking their death they were told to lie in rows face down. Families laid down next to one another holding hands. Within minutes of ingesting the liquid they began to gasp and retch. Blood began to stream from their mouths and noses. Soon pain stopped and death took over. “On a raised chair on the pavilion stage, Jones kept saying .’I tried. I tried. I tried.’ Then he cried ‘ Mother! Mother!’ Finally, there was a shot. Jones toppled over backwards”(Oblsson 40). Jones had shot himself in the head as he watched his decibels die by his wishes.

November 24, 1978, the death toll count was 779. All the dead, with the exception of a Congressman, and a handful of reporters/pilots were residents of the former Peoples Temple, 200 were children as well as their leader Jim Jones. Why did Jones feel he had to resort to mass suicide? To this day that question is still unknown. One theory that has been accepted was a strong possibility is the visit of Congressman Ryan. On November 1, 1978, Ryan telegramed Jones “I am most interested in a visit to Jonestown and would appreciate whatever courtesies you can extend”(Oblsson 41). Jones’s drugged and paranoid thoughts ran wild through his head. Jones had lost his mind and saw the outside world as an enemy that would bring the end to the world he had created and ruled.

Jim Jones had a power over people that was unlike any other. Unfortunately, when a person is given that much power and control over a large group of people their decisions as well as reasoning can become altered. In the case of Jim Jones his power lead to an enflamed ego, which led to a greed, not only of loyalty but of money. Money then lead to drug use, and in the end, drug use led to insanity. Those who are gifted with the ability to influence others have a huge responsibility. They must recognize what they have as a gift and not abuse what God has given them. Jim Jones is a person who had this gift as well as good intentions, yet he could not balance and keep in perspective that what he was doing was to benefit the world, not to benefit himself.

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