Jim Jones attracted a large following to his Peoples Temple through sermons on tolerance, social responsibility and community. As the church grew, however, the sermons on equality and tolerance were belied by his own increasing demands for personal loyalty and obedience. The extent of his authority meant that his eventual breakdown transformed a personal tragedy into one of the largest mass deaths in American history.
Jones’ parents were James Thurman Jones, a veteran of the Great War and victim of mustard gas who lived on disability payments, and the much younger Lynetta Jones, a feisty, independent woman who would eventually follow her son to Guyana. James came from Baptist and Quaker lineages but Lynetta had doubts about a “sky god” and laughed off the neighbors who were sure she “was going to hell straighter than a bird could fly.” Jones’ father was emotionally absent and his mother was constantly working, so neither had much time or desire to discipline their son. “I didn’t have any love given to me — I didn’t know what the hell love was,” he later told his congretion.
Much of what is known about Jones’ early life came from his own later recollections. He described being a young hellion in his Indiana hometown: “I was considered the trash of the neighborhood.” He identified with the underdog, fighting off kids who bullied other children, rescuing stray pets, and taking home beggars. He explored every church in town — Quaker, Nazarene, Methodist, Apostolic and the Church of Christ — throwing himself into their particular rituals before becoming disillusioned and moving on to the next.
Born to Preach
Jones had the skills to be a preacher. Phyllis Wilmore, who dated him in high school, remembered a pep rally before a basketball game. “Jimmy decided to stage an elaborate funeral for the other school. He got up and started preaching and did an incredible job. He had the control and inflection. It was like the real thing, but was all intended to be a joke. He was very self-assured on stage. He had that coal black hair and piercing eyes that would look right through you.”
A Church of His Own
Jim graduated from high school with an interest and aptitude for medicine. While working as a hospital orderly, Jones met Marceline Baldwin, a nursing student, and they married in 1949. In Indianapolis, he served as a student pastor in the Methodist Church in 1952 but chose to found his own church, Peoples Temple, in 1956. The Temple joined the Disciples of Christ in 1960 and Jones was ordained in 1964.
Inspired by Father Divine
Religious leader George Baker, also known as Father Divine, founded the Universal Peace Mission Movement in the 1920s. In the late 1950s, Jones made visits to see Father Divine, a charismatic black preacher with a multiracial congregation. Divine, who had known Marcus Garvey, promoted economic empowerment for his Harlem flock through redistributive cooperative enterprises. Members worked for low or no wages, pooled their resources and benefited from the common good. Divine held unusual spiritual beliefs, claiming that he was God and demonstrating supernatural powers.
A major source of Jones’ unhappiness with various mainstream churches was segregation. During the 1950s and early 1960s, segregation was widespread across the country, and many religious congregations followed the practice of keeping the races separate. Having grown up an outsider, Jones empathized with the downtrodden, the poor, the non-whites in society. He preached integration and racial equality, and his own family reflected these beliefs. He and Marceline adopted a part-Native American child named Agnes, three Korean children, Stephanie, Lew and Suzanne, and in 1961 were the first white couple in Indianapolis to adopt a black child, a boy they named James Warren Jones, Jr. The Joneses also had a biological son, Stephan Gandhi, and later adopted a white son named Tim from a Peoples Temple mother. They were, according to Jones, a rainbow family. “Integration is a more personal thing with me now. It’s a question of my son’s future.”
Creating Social Change
Peoples Temple participated directly in the social shifts of the emerging civil rights movement. As the head of the Indianapolis Human Rights Commission, Jones desegregated movie theaters, restaurants, the telephone company, hospitals and the city police department. The Temple ran a free restaurant, and homes for the elderly and mentally ill.
Targets of Abuse
Jones’ actions were ahead of his time, and residents who felt threatened by integration targeted Jones and the Temple with intimidation and assaults. Strangers spat on Marcie as she walked with her multiracial family. Letters arrived announcing that people were “praying for [Jim, Jr.] to die.”
Escaping Nuclear Danger
In the midst of this antagonism, Jones began to consider larger issues of the Cold War. An article in Esquire magazine listed the places on earth where one might survive a nuclear war. Taking the list to heart, Jones moved his family to Brazil for a while before returning to the United States and settling in Northern California.
Playing a Part
The next time a childhood acquaintance, Max Knight, saw Jones in Indiana was many years later. “Jim Jones had his hair combed back, and he had on — not a zoot suit — but certainly not a suit that was 'Indiana.’ He had big sunglasses sitting up on top of his head and a goon on each side of him … “ 'Jim,’ I said, 'I’m curious. Why the change? Why the sunglasses? The bodyguards?’ He grinned and said, 'Max, when you reach the top, you’ve got to play the part.’”
In California, Jones had either reached the top — or was playing the part.