Twentieth-Century Spiritual Expression

The people's temple

Although James Jones (1931–1978) held degrees from Indiana University and Butler University, he had received no formal training in theology when he was invited to speak at the Laurel Street Tabernacle, an Assemblies of God Pentecostal church, in Indianapolis in September 1954. Following his powerful sermon on racial equality, many members left the congregation to follow Jones and to form a new church, the Wings of Deliverance, which was renamed the People's Temple. Within a short period of time, Jones's gospel of equality and love attracted more than 900 members. In 1965 the temple moved to Ukiah, California, where Jones believed racial equality could be preached with greater openness and less fear of retaliation. Seventy families moved with him. A second congregation was added in San Francisco in 1972.

In 1977, following various exposes directed at the temple, Jones moved his community to the South American nation of Guyana, where he had acquired a lease from the Guyanese government for 4,000 acres of land to be used for colonization. The new community was called the People's Temple Agricultural Project, and eventually more than 900 men, women, and children would follow their charismatic leader to Jonestown.

Members were required to labor 11 hours per day, six days per week, and eight hours on Sunday, clearing land for agriculture, planting crops, and erecting buildings. They ate primarily of rice and beans, and their evenings were filled with required meetings before they were allowed to get some rest. Jones claimed to be

Jim Jones, founder of the People's Temple. (CORBIS CORPORATION)
Jim Jones, founder of the People's Temple. (
receiving messages from extraterrestrials that described a process called "Translation," in which he and his followers would all die together and their spirits would be taken to another planet to enjoy a life of bliss. Jones directed rehearsals of a mass suicide, having followers pretend to drink poison and fall to the ground.

On November 14, 1978, California congressman Leo Ryan and several representatives of the media visited Jonestown to investigate claims of civil rights violations that had reached the United States. On November 18, a temple member made an attempt on Ryan's life, and the visitors decided to leave Jonestown immediately. While they were boarding two planes on the jungle airstrip, some heavily armed members of the temple's security guards arrived and began firing on the group. Ryan and four others were killed and 11 were wounded before the planes could get into the air.

Jones decreed that it was time to put "Translation" into effect. Some members of the temple committed suicide by ingesting cyanide-laced Kool-Aid, and others injected poison directly into their veins or were shot. An investigation revealed that 638 adult

Actor John Travolta (center) standing with actress Jenna Elfman (left) and wife Kelly Preston (right) while attending a Scientology conference. (AP/WIDE WORLD PHOTOS)
Actor John Travolta (center) standing with actress Jenna Elfman (left) and wife Kelly Preston (right) while attending a Scientology conference. (
members of the community died, together with 276 children. A few fled into the jungle and survived.

Various investigations continue into the reasons why such a tragedy could have occurred and what appeal James Jones could have had to cause so many individuals to take their own lives. Conspiracy theorists argue that the deaths at Jonestown in November 1978 eliminated evidence of a CIA experiment gone bad. Others suggest that Jones subjected his followers to mind-control experiments of his own and lost control of the situation. And then there are those who insist that Jones was mentally ill and complicated his mental imbalance with drug abuse.

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