The Rev. Jim Jones
Long before the mass suicides in Guyana, he founded the People's Temple in Indianapolis
By Michael Jesse
The stories of apocalyptic cult leaders don't often end well, especially for their most devoted followers. In the case of a preacher from Indianapolis named Jim Jones, the story ended with the deaths of more than 900 people -- most of them by suicide.
That was on Nov. 18, 1978, in Guyana, South America, where Jones and his flock had built a community nicknamed "Jonestown." In the days that followed, Americans followed the news in horror as photos and video from helicopters showed a panorama of dead bodies sprawled and already bloated in the tropical sun.
Jones' early ministry in Indianapolis:
Somehow all of this had its origin in Indianapolis in the early 1950s, where Jones started his ministry. He had grown up in rural Indiana. area north of Richmond near the Ohio border. At Ricmond High School he met his future wife Marceline Baldwin. After graduating from high school in 1949, Jones, attended Indiana University for a while and then transferred to Butler University in Indianapolis. graduated from Butler and was ordained by the Disciples of Christ.
In 1953, Jones was 22-year-old student pastor at Somerset Methodist Church in Indianapolis. A story published July 4, 1953 in The Indianapolis Star describes The story describes a dynamic young minister working with orphans at the Marion County Children's Guardian Home. According to the article, Jones organized softball games and picnics and arranged transportation so all of the kids could come to his church on Sundays. A photo from that year found in The Star's archives shows Jones singing with a group of children from the guardian home.
During this period, Jones was also importing monkeys from India and South America to sell as a fundraiser for his church.
Founding of the People's Temple
After being affiliated with several different Indianapolis churches, Jones started his own congregation in 1955. At first they met at 1502 N. New Jersey, but as the congregation grew it moved to a larger building at 975 N. Delaware, just south of 10th Street. Jones named his new church The People's Temple.
In those early years of his ministry, Jones seemed to truly walk the walk. He set up a soup kitchen that fed the homeless not just once or twice a week but feeding hundreds every day. He organized an employment assistance service in which church members helped the jobless find work and gave them decent clothes to wear to job interviews. Jones and his wife, Marceline, adopted eight children of all races.
The healing of America's divide between blacks and whites was always at the core of Jones' message, and the People's Temple reflected that in the diversity of its congregation -- a rarity then and even 30 years later.
In 1961, Indianapolis Mayor Charles Boswell appointed Jones to be director of the city's Human Rights Commission, which had been created to address racial problems in Indianapolis. Boswell later said Jones helped pressure certain store owners and theater managers to be more welcoming of black customers.
Jones' focus on racial integration stirred up a backlash among some whites and the newspapers reported on harassment of Jones and his flock. Marceline was reportedly spat on as she walked with a black child.
As the People's Temple grew, Jones' preaching style became more messianic and more based on his own word than Biblical scriptures. Some members began to leave the church while others became more fervently devoted to Jones.
Like other Pentecostal preachers, Jones sometimes performed faith healings. At first these were of the sort where a person's strength of faith could make him feel stronger and less burdened by pain. After a while, however, Jones started pulling cancerous tumors right out of people's mouths right there in front of the congregation.
One former Temple member later told The Star that the "tumors" were just chicken livers Jones palmed like a magician who seems to pull a coin out of a child's ear. Whatever may have been in Jones' heart at the beginning of his ministry had been replaced by something that he knew was a lie.
During the last few years before the People's Temple left Indianapolis for California, Jones was often gone. He spent a lot of time in Brazil where the church was supporting mission work, but he also had another reason: He now believed (or said he believed) that the world was coming to an end and that the end would come in the form of a nuclear holocaust. In the early 1960s, this was not necessarily a crazy idea given the massive buildup of missiles between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, which they had aimed at each other. Jones was interested in Brazil because he'd read it was one of the places on the planet where people were most likely to survive if the Cold War turned hot.
When he came back to Indianapolis, Jones told his congregation they were moving. Not to South America -- not yet anyway -- but to California. In 1965, Jones and 145 Indianapolis residents got on buses and left Indiana. It would later be revealed that Jones made each of them sign over to him all of their worldly possessions. Not many owned their own homes, but they gave over their savings, furniture – even their Social Security checks.
The People’s Temple settled in a little town called Ukiah, about 150 miles north of San Francisco and for the next several years most people in Indianapolis forgot all about Jones.
About 145 Hoosiers followed Jones west, leaving behind friends and family members who lost their infatuation with the man who used to say "just call me Jim" but later turned to having his followers call him "the Prophet." In 1972, Star reporter Carolyn Pickering heard from one such family and began looking into their stories. The Star published a series of stories that year in which Pickering reported on claims of brainwashing, intimidation and the constant flow of money and property. She looked into local records and found that Jones owned several properties in Indianapolis; some in his own name and others in the names of his wife, mother or business entities he had incorporated.
The Star wasn’t the only news organization to report these stories, but nothing seemed to come of any of the exposes. Jones was now 41 and had become an expert at controlling people -- and not just his own followers. In Ukiah, he worked his way into influence within local government and law enforcement. He showed politicians and business owners that he could just as easily produce an angry crowd of protesters as he could a wave of supporters who would shop and vote as he directed them to. Newspaper editors received a flood of letters from Jones’ supporters who alleged that those quoted in the stories were drug addicts, liars or con artists.
By the late 1970s, Jones was making arrangements to move his church out of the United States and he picked a spot in Guyana, South America. There, he employed the same tactics of bribing local officials to gain their collaboration.
The day it ended
It all began to fall apart in November 1978, when California congressman Leo Ryan flew to Jonestown to investigate allegations made by relatives of some of Jones’ followers. While there, he announced that anyone wanting to leave could accompany him on the flight back to California. Several people took him up on the offer, but as they reached the air strip where the plane waited shooting erupted. Ryan was killed, along with several others.
Back at the compound, Jones gathered the faithful and told them it was time to die. They had prepared for this day, even rehearsed it. They brought out big tubs in which they mixed the cyanide in with a powdered grape drink similar to Kool-Aid, and one by one they drank it and died. Not everyone took it willingly. Some were forced to drink it, and those who resisted were shot. A small few survived by fleeing into the jungle.
Jim Jones died there, too, shooting himself after killing his wife and one of his children. It was rumored that Jones had escaped, but when the bodies were brought back to the U.S., fingerprints taken from Jones' body confirmed that it was really him.