I have recently recalled a most irritating discussion I had with a person I no longer know about eight years ago, in which she said, despite a heap of evidence to the contrary, that Jim Jones was an evangelical Christian and that he was NOT a communist or in fact an atheist because her professor said so and that professors cannot lie. She was in truth what we would be called an “SJW” nowadays. Her professor was not alone among staunch left-wingers in this denial of a deeply uncomfortable truth, especially in California. It is the truth that not only was Jim Jones a communist and an atheist, but how close-knit he was to the political powers that were in San Francisco in the 1970s. It reminds me of the late Reverend Sun Myung Moon and his Unification Church and their extensive ties to the American right (including ownership of The Washington Times for years through his company, New World Communications), although unlike Jones, Moon never killed anyone.
James Warren Jones (1931-1978) would make his greatest political mark in the California Bay Area, but his start would be in the state of his birth, Indiana, and would engage in his earliest political activities in Indianapolis. He went to church with his parents from a young age but there were already troubling signs of where he would eventually go. Jones was obsessed with Pentecostalism and death and claimed that he had special powers, including the ability to fly, which he attempted and broke his arm in the failure. It didn’t help that his mother told him that she had a vision that he would be a great religious leader one day. Jones also came to idolize Adolf Hitler as an adolescent and would even play a game of “dictator” in which he would have kids goosestep and hit them if they disobeyed him, but he later expanded his influences to communists such as Stalin, Mao, and Marx. He also admired the fact that Hitler committed suicide rather than be captured. As a teenager, Jones became disturbed by society’s treatment of black Americans, including his own father’s. By 1948, he considered himself a communist and three years later, he moved to Indianapolis and attended his first Communist Party meeting. The following year, Jones opted to join the church and reflected back on the matter, “I decided, how can I demonstrate my Marxism? The thought was, infiltrate the church”, and he went on to say, “The early years, I’d approached Christendom from a communalist standpoint, with only intermittent mention of my um, Marxist views. However, in later years, there wasn’t a person that attended any of my meetings that did not hear me say, at some time, that I was a communist, and that is what is very strange, that all these years, I have survived without being exposed” (Jones). In 1977, Jones’ wife Marceline admitted “Jim used religion to try to get some people out of the opiate of religion” and had slammed the Bible on the table yelling, “I’ve got to destroy this paper idol!” (Lindsey) Disturbingly, he also claimed to his followers that he was God, but did not do so outside of Peoples Temple meetings. This was an odd proclamation given that he was quoted as saying, “Off the record, I don’t believe in any loving God. Our people, I would say, are ninety percent atheist” (Jones, Q622). This tendency to seeing himself as God was confirmed by the testimonies of former members. Former member Hue Fortson Jr. reported that he said, “What you need to believe in is what you can see…If you see me as your friend, I’ll be your friend. As you see me as your father, I’ll be your father, for those of you that don’t have a father…If you see me as your savior, I’ll be your savior. If you see me as your God, I’ll be your God” (PBS).
Civil Rights Leader in Indianapolis
In 1961, Jones was named by conservative Democrat Indianapolis Mayor Charles Boswell as director of the Indianapolis Human Rights Commission. He had been interviewed by a priest, a rabbi, and a black judge without investigating his background. What they knew was that Jones was an advocate for civil rights and an advocate for poor people. Boswell had appointed him as he was in truth the only candidate, and despite being advised to keep a low profile and minimize antagonism to the business community, he drew a lot of attention to himself and engaged in militant rhetoric, although in practice Jones’ actions were more moderate (Alternative Considerations, 2013). He was credited with pushing certain business owners to be more open to black customers. In a life otherwise filled with darkness, this is the bright spot. This was brief, however, as in the following year Jones moved to Brazil with his family, trying to get a Peoples Temple foothold there, but was unsuccessful and moved back to Indianapolis in 1963.
Jones and California Democratic Politicians
In 1965, Jones moved the People’s Temple to Redwood Valley, California, a few miles outside Ukiah after he read in Esquire Magazine that Ukiah would be an area that would likely survive a nuclear war. He declared that there would in the future be a nuclear war and that from the ashes would spring a socialist utopia. In 1971, Jones bought an abandoned synagogue in San Francisco and set up the new headquarters of the Peoples Temple. The Temple would also have locations in Sacramento, Santa Rosa, Fresno, Bakersfield, and Los Angeles. He spread money around for charitable causes in the city to gain support, including a fund for policemen’s widows and the local NAACP. Jones also curried favor with the media by speaking in defense of Fresno reporters imprisoned for refusing to reveal their sources. Jones’ newspaper, Peoples Forum, in practice according to a 1977 expose, “regularly exalts socialism, praises Huey Newton and Angela Davis and forecasts a government takeover by American Nazis” (Kilduff & Tracy).
Jim Jones had numerous ties with prominent Democratic politicians in California, especially ones in the Burton machine in San Francisco. They either looked approvingly at his Marxism or did not care, as they could be characterized as “anti-anti-communists”; Burton and his ilk were the staunchest of foes of the Vietnam War and the House Committee on Un-American Activities. They also ignored any signs of trouble from him as they saw him as a useful supporter given all the people he could bring to campaign events and canvass for them. Future San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown praised Jones as “What you should see every day when you look in the mirror” and that he was a combination of Martin Luther King Jr., Angela Davis, Albert Einstein, and Mao (Reiterman & Jacobs, 308). Mayor Tom Bradley of Los Angeles visited the Los Angeles Temple, and Lieutenant Governor Mervyn Dymally visited Jones’s Guyana agricultural location. As Kilduff and Marshall (1977) wrote, “The source of Jones’s political clout is not very difficult to divine. As one politically astute executive puts it: “He controls votes.” And voters. During San Francisco’s run-off election for mayor in December of 1975, some 150 temple members walked precincts to get out the vote for George Moscone, who won by a slim 4,000 votes. “They’re well-dressed, polite and they’re all registered to vote,” said one Moscone campaign official.
Can you win office in San Francisco without Jones? “In a tight race like the ones that George or Freitas or Hongisto had, forget it without Jones,” said State Assemblyman Willie Brown, who describes himself as an admirer of Jones’s”.
In a San Francisco rally for First Lady Rosalynn Carter, 600 of 750 people in the crowd were members of the People’s Temple. Jones also met with Mrs. Carter as well as Jimmy Carter’s running mate, Walter Mondale. Harvey Milk attended his rallies and considered him a partner in the struggle for liberation.
Kilduff and Tracy (1977) wrote this in their expose on Jones, “Finally, something must be said about the numerous public officials and political figures who openly courted and befriended Jim Jones. While it appears that none of the public officials from Governor Brown on down knew about the inner world of the Peoples Temple, they have left the impression that they used Jones to deliver votes at election time, and never asked any questions. They never asked about the bodyguards. Never asked about the church’s locked doors. Never asked why Jones’s followers were so obsessively protective of him. And apparently, some never asked because they didn’t want to know”.
The 1975 San Francisco Mayoral Election
Jim Jones saw value in cultivating support from Moscone, so he rallied his followers to work for the mayoral candidate, sending them out walking precincts. The 1975 mayoral election was close and it ultimately set San Francisco on the course to where it is today politically. In opposition was John Barbagelata, a conservative Republican member of the San Francisco City Council, who ran on a platform of bringing the city back to the values of decades past. However, come election day Moscone prevailed by 4,400 votes, but was the election legit?
Former Temple members would later state that “busloads” of members were taken from Redwood Valley to San Francisco to vote and that refusal would be met with physical violence (Fund). Jones required his followers to produce ballot stubs proving they had voted. Although there was an investigation by the city government into allegations of voter fraud, the man assigned to lead the investigation was Timothy Stoen, who at the time was chief legal adviser to…you guessed it…Jim Jones (Fund). As expected, Stoen found no wrongdoing by Jones or his Peoples Temple. Jones would be appointed to the San Francisco Housing Authority by Moscone and then made head of it. Additionally, Supervisor Harvey Milk was strongly supportive of Jones as he was pro-gay rights, had provided his campaigns with “volunteers”, positive press in his newspaper, and had his followers send him condolence letters after his lover committed suicide (Dreher).
Exposure, Stoen’s Defection, and Jonestown
Although Jones had managed to gain the support of many Democratic politicians and that of the local media, reporter Marshall Kilduff of the San Francisco Chronicle, which had refused to print his stories of former members speaking out, published an expose through an independent paper, New West, in August 1977. These revelations included how Jones controlled his followers through psychological manipulation, regimentation, fear, humiliation, and violence.
One family who left the Peoples Temple, the Mertles, reported that when they first joined they were first treated with great love by Jones and his followers, but this gave way to discipline for minor infractions which started as denouncing and humiliation of the person in front of the entire congregation and then spankings with wooden paddles in front of the congregation. These would end with the punished person saying, “Thank you Father” and Jones would praise how much better they had become (Kilduff & Tracy). These beatings escalated in their severity. One day, one of their daughters, Linda Mertle, was disciplined for hugging and kissing a female friend who was reputed to be a lesbian, and was swatted on the buttocks 75 times (Kilduff & Tracy). Elmer and Deanna Mertle subsequently left the Peoples Temple and changed their names to Al and Jeanne Mills to void the power of attorney had given Jones. Jones also controlled people by making them write false confessions of crimes and indecent acts and having people give the church their money and property.
Jim Jones would also trick his followers into believing that he had healing powers. Wayne Pietila and Jim and Terri Cobb reported that a people purportedly ill with cancer would be taken into a restroom with Jones and his wife and they would come out apparently healed with the cancer cupped in a napkin. One time, Terri managed to get a look at a bag full of the cancers, and reported, “It was full of napkins and small bits of meat, individually wrapped. They looked like chicken gizzards. I was shocked” (Kilduff & Tracy). He also faked multiple assassination attempts on himself as a demonstration of his ability to heal himself and as a demonstration that the Peoples Temple and Jones had dangerous enemies.
Another issue that arose for Jones was the custody battle over John Victor Stoen, son of Tim and Grace Stoen. However, Grace was also having relations with Jim Jones and the couple had signed the child over to Jones. However, Stoen broke with the group after the 1975 election and he joined forces with the Mertles to provide support for people getting out of the Peoples Temple.
New West magazine editor Rosalie Wright had informed Jones about the publication ahead of time and read him the story over the phone because of the numerous letters of support she had received from numerous California politicians, including Governor Jerry Brown (Layton, 113). After the revelations, Jones and around a thousand followers fled to Guyana. Despite this expose, Mayor George Moscone refused to investigate the Temple, and Councilman Harvey Milk remained a supporter of the Peoples Temple. The latter even wrote a letter to President Jimmy Carter accusing Timothy Stoen of lying about Jones and the group.
Support for Communist Dictators and The Kim Connection
Jones’ publication wrote in support of the Chinese Communist Party Chairman Mao Zedong and the North Korea regime of Kim Il Sung. As early as the 1950s, Jones criticized the American role in the Korean War, holding that Kim Il Sung’s invasion was a liberation of South Korea, holding, “The south is a living example of all that socialism in the north has overcome” (Thayer). In the case of the latter, support went beyond favorable coverage; North Korea initiated contact with the Peoples Temple. In March 1978, Jones went to a meeting in the North Korean embassy of Guyana and on over a dozen occasions he and his family met with the North Korean ambassador and other officials in Georgetown, Guyana, and he and the North Koreans exchanged propaganda materials. Jones would indoctrinate his members with North Korean propaganda and extol Kim Il Sung. The North Korean government would in turn praise Jones in its propaganda. He viewed North Korea’s effort and his effort at Jonestown as similar in their pursuit of a socialist utopia. As Jones said, in reaffirmation of his atheist and utopian views, “There is no Heaven up there, so we are going to have to make Heaven down here” (Thayer).
Psychological Deterioration, Jonestown
Jim Jones’ evil obsession with power and death grew worse as he was increasingly dependent on amphetamines and tranquilizers. This caused the whites of his eyes to be constantly red, thus his wearing of sunglasses. He would hold practice sessions for suicide, conditioning his adult followers for what would eventually come. Jones also lied about the conditions of the United States to his followers, telling them that blacks were being rounded up into concentration camps and that the Americans would come for them next. Upon Leo Ryan’s visit to investigate conditions at Jonestown and after he took some people who wanted to leave with him, Jones ordered his assassination. The purpose of this was to bring about the American troops that he had warned his followers of, thus fulfilling his own prophecy. Jones proceeded to direct his followers to commit suicide on November 18, 1978, through the consumption of grape “Flavor Aid” laced with cyanide, with the children first being murdered. He had managed to accrue a major supply of cyanide over several years as he had obtained a jeweler’s license, the cyanide officially being purchased in bulk to clean gold (Polk). Disturbingly an audio recording exists of this event. Among the disturbing and haunting content in it, Jones implores dissenters among his followers to commit suicide, “Stop these hysterics. This is not the way for people who are socialists or communists to die. No way for us to die. We must die with some dignity” (The “Death Tape”). Although Jonestown is often thought of as mass suicide, it can more accurately be thought of as mass murder. Those who did so “willingly” did so under brainwashing and many did so unwillingly, at gunpoint. And it cannot be said that any of the 276 children (including John Victor Stoen) chose to end their lives. Although Jones was commonly thought of as a champion for black people, most of his victims were black. His political allies Moscone and Milk would be assassinated by disgruntled former supervisor Dan White only nine days later.
Post-Jonestown Massacre Spin: The Mainstream Media Disassociates Jones from Marxism
After the Jonestown Massacre, those who had praised him before as a partner in social justice, “liberation”, or whatnot, were quick to distance themselves from him, not just on a personal level, but also to deny his ideology. Comedian Mort Sahl, for instance, cooked up a fine “no true Scotsman” fallacy with, “The exercise in Guyana was a fascist exercise, no matter what the label on the can. Socialists don’t do that” (Irvine). The legendary Walter Cronkite (a man who hid his really left-wing politics well for a time) retconned him, holding that he was a “power-hungry fascist” when in truth he hadn’t been fond of fascists since his teenage years and The New York Times labeled his philosophy “fundamentalist Christianity” (Dreher). The media’s immediate reports on Jones were that he was a fundamentalist Bible-thumping preacher, thereby buying the image Jones had presented to the public. One source that quickly reported the truth on him was none other than the left-wing magazine The Nation. The Nation wrote in the aftermath that, “The temple was as much a left-wing political crusade as a church. In the course of the 1970s, its program grew steadily more disaffected from what Jim Jones came to regard as a ‘Fascist America’ and drifted rapidly toward outspoken Communist sympathies” (Dreher). Yet, many Americans still believe the initial story the media told us, just like they grabbed onto “drinking the Kool-Aid” as a synonym for suicide or becoming brainwashed, even though what Jones’ followers were manipulated and forced into consuming was “Flavor Aid”.
Why Did People Follow Jones?
Part of why people followed Jones was because of the legitimacy he was lent by the press and politicians. As author Daniel J. Flynn stated in an interview with Rod Dreher (2018), “People lied. People died. People died. People lied. Jim Jones could not have killed 918 people without politicians, journalists, and activists running interference for him. They mistook ideology for ethics, a mistake common to fanatics of all stripes. Rather than learn from this mistake, they compounded it by portraying Jones posthumously as someone he was not to protect their ideology, shield their political skullduggery, and absolve themselves from the journalistic sin of performing PR instead of real reporting”. Another part of it was that Jones was a charismatic figure, stood for numerous liberal causes, and stood as a figure of hope for people who were vulnerable and looking for answers. As community activist Hannibal Williams observed, urban renewal specialist Justin Herman had “literally destroyed the neighborhood…people were desperate for solutions, something to follow. Jim Jones was another solution. He had a charismatic personality that won the hearts and souls of people. And people followed him to hell. That’s where Jim Jones went. That’s where he took the people who followed him” (Talbot). Jones himself represents what happens with a raw exercise of power in the promise of utopia. Even after his demise, there were still people who looked back with some positivity on their experiences following him, and more disturbingly, there were several murders of defectors after Jonestown. Not all of Jones’ followers had gone to Guyana. For instance, on February 26, 1980, Al and Jeannie Mills were murdered along with their daughter Daphne, execution style. While it is a significant possibility it was their son Eddie Mills, the case has remained officially unsolved.
I found that the more I read about Jones the more disturbed I got, and yes, found him to be even worse than people already think he is. Jones’ false dream of a utopia on earth is one that has in truth never died. Humanity has never created heaven on earth, but many, many times has created hell on earth and has sometimes done so in the pursuit of the former as happened with Jonestown. If you don’t believe in heaven, that’s your cross to bear, and the creation of it is not your cause to impose on humanity.
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