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Jim Jones

Messiah of Death

Jim Jones

by Dennis Pollock

From his youth, it never seemed to enter Jim Jones’ head to become anything other than a minister. Like so many cult leaders he was incurably religious from his earliest years. In 1952, at the age of twenty-one, he was appointed the assistant pastor of his Methodist church. Although he never earned a seminary degree, he received the necessary papers and became pastor of a Disciples of Christ church by the time he was thirty. Early on he felt that dynamic preaching and the healing of the sick would be the keys to seeing his dreams come true. The preaching he could do; he was gifted with an oratorical flare and an authoritative way of preaching that impressed, if not intellectuals, at least many of the common people. The healings were a little more difficult.

Jones decided to give God some help. Feeling the need of some sort of supernatural endorsement, he began to develop a healing ministry with a little help from his friends. Jones began to stage healings. Young girls would sometimes come to the services disguised as old crippled women who would “miraculously” be cured at Jones’ touch, and begin to dance and jump around just like … young girls. It didn’t take very many of these events to convince the crowds that Jones had a special gift. Chicken gizzards were useful props. These versatile organs could be passed off as tumors, cancers, etc. that were supposedly coughed up or passed through the body, leaving the “healee” completely cured. Jones staged fake deaths and “resurrections” in his services as well, eventually claiming to have raised 43 people from the dead.

To further improve his stature, Jones had his helpers ferret through the trash of prospective new members, finding out details that he could incorporate into personal prophecies and “words of knowledge” during his revival meetings. When these people heard the handsome, charismatic preacher tell them things which he had no way of knowing, they were easily convinced that Jones was God’s man. Jones justified his actions to those in his inner circle as being necessary to build faith in the others, so that they too could be healed and blessed.

It was an interesting show and brought about the desired results. Of course many walked away unconvinced, but others stayed, and eventually gave their lives and fortunes to this man with such apparent supernatural power. In a relatively short time Jones’ church achieved a measure of growth that most ordinary pastors and traditional churches could not match.

The New Religion of Socialism

During this time Jones had essentially quit reading the Bible and was drawing all his inspiration from writers like Karl Marx and Chairman Mao. Socialism would become his god, and he, its messiah and herald. Of course the church could not be taken along too fast in these things, and so he gave lip service to God for a while, and kept many of the trappings of Christianity. His wife, Marcie, once stated in an interview that Jones regarded himself as essentially a Marxist who “used religion to try to get some people out of the opiate of religion.”

As the years passed and Jones' hold on his followers grew ever tighter, he became emboldened to express his true feelings. He began to openly mock the God of the Bible calling Him the “sky God” or sometimes “the buzzard god.” He once challenged the God of the Bible to strike him dead. With no lightning strike forthcoming, he triumphantly proclaimed that he had proved there was no such God.

As his perceived self-importance grew, he took to himself numerous grandiose titles. Among the offices he claimed to hold were: Revolutionary, Liberator, Magnetic Force, Electrifier, Captain of salvation, Healer of all healers, the Deliverer of the ages, the Beginning and the End, the Door, the Key, and the Locksmith to salvation. The “hymns” of the People’s Temple were songs that you wouldn’t hear at your local Methodist or Baptist church. Rather than glorifying God the Father or Jesus Christ, they glorified Jim Jones. One such hymn states:

Father (Jim Jones) is God,
In every atom and cell of his bodily frame,
Father is God,
He is the Word made flesh.

And so the church grew. Jones had packaged a show that entertained and impressed a certain level of society. True, there weren’t many intellectuals or Bible-readers among his devoted, but there was no shortage of willing workers. A handsome, dynamic preacher, amazing “miracles” from time to time, and a philosophy of compassion for the poor and downtrodden had a magic appeal to many. Being told that you were this world’s “cream of the crop” and that you were on the cutting edge of a new socialistic revolution didn’t hurt either. Jones didn’t mind telling his people how wonderful they were, as long as they kept in mind that he was the most wonderful. He proudly announced, “You can call me an egomaniac, megalomaniac or whatever you wish, with a messianic complex. I don’t have a complex, honey. I happen to know I’m the messiah.”

While Jim Jones practiced his self-deification, many leading politicians from the outside came to admire his social efforts. On his church bulletin board was posted a thank-you note to him signed by Governor Ronald Reagan. Then-California State Assembly Speaker Willie Brown once introduced Jones at a banquet as “a combination of Martin Luther King, Angela Davis, Albert Einstein, and Chairman Mao.” He was named one of 100 outstanding clergymen by Religion in Life magazine in 1975. He received the Los Angeles Herald’s “Humanitarian of the Year” award in 1976.

Relationships

Like many cult leaders Jones had little regard for the family unit. He could allow no familial ties to compete with the devotion he demanded only for himself. He insisted that all biological and family ties be broken. There would be but one family. Jones would be the father, Marceline, his wife, the mother, and all the others were brothers and sisters. Marriage relationships must be sacrificed for the grand socialist cause.

Jones would often instigate sex with his more attractive female followers. But often after having sex he would have them called up before the inner group the next night, and inform the others of how they had seduced him into having sex with them. Jones would then encourage the others to verbally berate them for their carnality in "catharsis" sessions that might last a couple of hours. The confused young woman would then have to confess her sinfulness in “seducing” Jones and demanding sex with him, when the opposite was clearly the case. After a while, with all the women of the church at his sexual disposal, Jones began to tire of heterosexual sex. He began seeking out men as well. As he degenerated more and more into every form of sexual deviancy, his sermons began to be filled with frank and perverted sexual references. While shocking to most at first, like nearly every other abuse, they endured it and eventually it seemed perfectly normal.

Controlling the Flock

For those who might contemplate leaving the flock, Jones promised a terrible future. They would lose all their karmic advances, and be regressed about 100,000 years back to the state of an amoeba. While it seems comic to most of us to hear such childish threats, many of Jones’ committed followers took this seriously, and in times when they wavered in their allegiance, were persuaded it would be better to stay than to have to start all over again on the reincarnation ladder.

Another way by which Jones manipulated his followers to do his bidding was the liberal use of punishment. Jones administered discipline to his flock with an iron hand. As strange as it seems, this bizarre church would have times in which members would be punished for infractions of the rules with spankings or “licks.” This was not just for the children. Adults were as likely or more so to be given licks.

One former member noted: “Things got bad gradually. First they started whipping with a belt, giving a few whacks for minor infractions (drinking or smoking, or being late for work). Then they went to the board, and my daughter received 75 whacks with this board. When she dressed out for gym at school, the other girls said her backside looked like hamburger.” Another member stated, “If you did something wrong, he would have your whole family to come in and beat you. They would have to do it, because if they didn’t do it, he would punish them.”

Control over the finances of the believers was a gradual process. In the early stages of his church, his demands were more for the time and energy of his people than for their money. At times he would even give money to help the poor. But as control over his people tightened, he wanted more and more of their money. All the members who wanted to live under his protection must give 25 percent of their income to the church. This was a stiff demand for most of his followers, but it was insisted upon. Those who wouldn’t comply would have counselors come to them and ask them to explain why they weren’t giving as father commanded. Later the figure rose to 30 percent.

Jonestown

As Jones continued to seduce and abuse his followers in their church in Redwood Valley, California, it was inevitable that some of them would leave, throwing verbal stones as they went. Other young people had parents that were deeply concerned about their children, and tales began to be told of the fanatical church led by the strange man in the dark glasses. Some of the local press began to hear some of these stories and do some investigating. As these pressures began to swirl around The People’s Temple, Jones began to look for a way out.

As he searched for a possible place where they could be free of inquiring newspaper reporters and prying social workers, he came to believe that Guyana would be the best place for him and his followers to wait out the coming storm, and position themselves for preeminence in the brave new world that was to come. After purchasing a huge section of real estate in the jungle, Jones sent a crew down to work the land and create his socialist paradise.

Until Jones’ arrival things had been fairly peaceful in Jonestown. Once the master appeared, a much harsher discipline was established and the workers’ paradise became more like an armed prison camp. Jones had become increasingly paranoid as the years had passed. He not only feared American press and politicians, but his own people as well. He felt the need to continually harass, humiliate, and intimidate them to keep them servile. Nearly every night there was a “catharsis” session where some unlucky follower who had broken a rule, or not worked as hard as Jones demanded, or simply incurred Jones’ disfavor for some unknown reason, would be held up before the rest, and subjected to verbal, and sometimes physical abuse.

A sixty-year old man named Charlie was unfortunate enough to fall asleep during one of Jones’ “emergency sessions.” Jones was furious, ignoring the fact that working in the fields all day long in the blistering sun was enough to wear out even the young men. He decided that Charlie must be punished with the group’s pet boa constrictor. He ordered the ten foot snake brought out and commanded that it be placed around Charlie’s neck. The older man was terrified, and begged Jones not to do this, reminding him of how hard he had been working in the fields. Jones coldly told him to stop his “sniveling.” Deciding to add to Charlie’s humiliation, he commanded that the man’s own son be the one to place the snake around his father’s neck. The son dutifully obeyed his pastor, and draped the boa constrictor around his father’s neck with tears in his eyes. Charlie’s terror was such that he urinated on himself as the rest of the group watched his face become red while the snake unmercifully began to squeeze his neck. Finally Jones ordered the snake removed, and promised that this would be the punishment for anyone else who would dare fall asleep during one of their meetings.

Jones began to have frequent drills at night, so that they might be ready for the possibility of invasion by government forces, either from the U.S. or Guyana. He began to institute practices for a mass suicide, should this be necessary. At times they were told this was just a drill, but at other times they were told it was the real thing, and then later informed that there had been no poison in their fruit juice. Gradually the idea of taking their lives lost its shock and began to seem a normal response to the enemies that Jones convinced them were surrounding them in their remote jungle outpost.

The Final Night

Due to pressure from defectors and a California press which was beginning to smell a rat, Congressman Leo Ryan decided to visit Jonestown in Guyana. He had been told that Jones was holding people there against their will, and labeled his trip a fact-finding mission. It quickly became apparent that there were people there who desperately wanted to leave. As the Congressman and his group began to board the planes to fly back to the U. S., they were attacked by temple guards armed and ready to kill for their leader. They opened fire on the group, killing Congressman Ryan, three members of the press, and one defector. Those not killed scattered into the jungle.

The squad of assassins returned to Jonestown, and Jim Jones wasted no time. Knowing that his tenure as god was at an end, he could not face the future. He ordered another suicide exercise, but this time it was the real thing. Armed guards made sure everyone complied. Jones stayed on the microphone to oversee the operations, encouraging members to “die with dignity” and to “stay calm.” He told his people that it was a million times better to die this way than to live ten more days in such a miserable world. The children were given the poison first. Afterwards the parents lined up in long lines to take the poison, and then chose a spot on the ground to die, many of them dying with their arms around one another. Jones, however did not die of the poison. He either chose to kill himself with a gun, or was shot by one of his members. No one knows for sure. He was found with a bullet hole behind his temple, looking far more like a man than a god.

Only One Messiah

While Jim Jones liked to think of himself as unique and beyond all others, in truth he was only one more in a long list of demagogues, false messiahs, and large and small dictators that have appeared for a season, made some noise, gained ascendancy over men and women, and then brought about their own ruin, dragging many others down with them. As you read about the lives and "careers" of men like Jones, David Koresh, Charlie Manson, and others you find a number of common attributes. But the one characteristic that stands out above all others is an arrogant belief in their own superiority, and in their right to rule the lives of others with absolute and unquestioned authority. With men such as these, you see it in its worst manifestation and highest degree but we err if we assume that cult leaders and dictators are the only ones in whom this is found.

The truth is that regardless of how mild the personality or how pleasant the demeanor, there is a little dictator in every one of us. The Bible labels it "the old man" or "the flesh." It is selfish, ruthless, and controlling, and if not sharply reigned in, it can bring about the destruction of relationships and all that is good and pure in our lives. As long as we remain without influence over others, it's presence is not always obvious, but once a man or woman is placed in a position of authority, the potential for the manifestation of this ugly, demanding nature is always present. It can be seen in presidents, congressmen, CEOs, school teachers, construction foreman, pastors, bishops, husbands, small business owners, and bosses of every kind.

It is not that leadership and authority are inherently evil. The Scriptures strongly emphasize leadership and encourage us to submit to those in authority over us. But human authority always carries limits and can never be absolute. When Peter was commanded by the Jewish leaders to stop speaking about Jesus, he replied, "Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you more than to God, you judge. For we cannot but speak the things which we have seen and heard" (Acts 4:19,20). When there is a clear conflict between what God asks and what man demands, the will of God must prevail and the authority of man must be refused. No man, no boss, no husband, no pastor, no political leader, no policeman, no, not all the combined armies of all the nations of the earth have the right to tell you to do that which the Holy Spirit has forbidden.

Because men are imperfect and because we all carry a sinful nature which is susceptible to corruption stimulated by too much power, placing absolute authority in the hands of a single individual always and without exception leads to a bad end. This is why in the church of Christ, God placed elders in authority and not single individuals. The idea of a single pastor, carrying all the authority, making all the decisions, and answering to no one, is neither Biblical nor smart. The saying goes, "Absolute power corrupts absolutely," and it has proven its truth time and again. Pastors may find their elders frustrating to work with at times, CEO's may chafe at the conservative nature of some of their board members, prime ministers may find it exasperating to deal with parliament, and presidents with Congress, but in truth checks and balances are desperately needed wherever leadership exists. Man was never intended to rule with absolute, unquestioned, unchallenged authority.

There is one exception to this. If ever a perfect man could be found, someone without a sinful nature, utterly impervious to pride and corruption, such a one could be trusted to rule without the balancing effect of board members or parliamentary bodies. One could submit to this individual entirely and without reservation. There is such a Man, and that Man is Jesus Christ who is both man and God simultaneously. He will never ask us to do anything that does not line up with the will of God, and He will lead us tenderly as a gentle Shepherd. He has proven His great love for us through His death on the cross for the forgiveness of our sins. Every other person or group to whom we entrust ourselves must recognize that our loyalty has its limits, but with Jesus there are no limits. We will go where He asks, do as He says, speak what He commands, and place our lives entirely at His disposal. This we call Lordship, and He alone is worthy.

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