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What Was the People's Temple?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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The People's Temple was a cult which was founded in the United States in 1955. Over its 23 year history, the People's Temple actively contributed to social causes in Indiana and later in Northern California, after the cult's headquarters were moved. Despite the cult's long and complex history, it is most remembered for the distinctive and horrific way in which it collapsed on 18 November, 1978, when over 900 members of the People's Temple committed suicide or were killed in Jonestown, Guyana.

This organization was founded by the Reverend James Warren Jones, better known as Jim Jones. The beliefs of the People's Temple were left-wing and quite radical for their time; one of the most important precepts of the Temple was the concept of racial integration and service to disadvantaged people such as the poor, sick, and homeless. The People's Temple was based in Indianapolis, Indiana until the 1960s, when it moved to Northern California to take advantage of the liberal climate and less expensive real estate.

Once the People's Temple moved to Northern California, the organization began recruiting members from major cities like San Francisco. It ran a number of shelters for the homeless, and also provided services like a camp for disabled children, residential treatment programs for the elderly, and homes for foster children. Under Jim Jones, the People's Temple was run essentially as a charitable organization, cooperating with other charities and the state welfare system to provide needed services.

However, in the 1970s, the People's Temple began to undergo a shift. This shift was partially triggered by external pressures, such as a growing interest in the cult and its activities among journalists, law enforcement, and other members of government. The organization also began to suffer internally, as Jim Jones began experiencing signs of mental illness, manifesting extreme paranoia. In 1974, he moved the People's Temple again to the more hospitable climate of Guyana, where he established Jonestown, intending to create a community where people could live and raise their children in a friendly environment.

In the late 1970s, however, strange reports about Jonestown began to emerge. These reports included allegations that American citizens were being held against their will in Guyana, and eventually an investigative team traveled to the region, visiting Jonestown on 17 November, 1978. At the time, several residents of Jonestown expressed a desire to leave, and as the group reached the airstrip and prepared for departure on the afternoon of the 18th, they were gunned down by members of the People's Temple; the massacre was captured on film by a journalist who was killed in the attack.

The community met to decide on the best response to the killings, and regrettably chose mass suicide. Investigations of the site later proved that many of the victims appear to have been coerced; Jonestown victims were shot, strangled, suffocated, and injected with toxins. 270 of the victims were children; by the time investigators reached the site, many of the victims had badly decayed, making identification and cause of death determinations difficult.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a Historical Index researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments

By alex94 — On Nov 03, 2010

It was also said that during the 70's, Jones started abusing prescription drugs and that led to him becoming increasingly paranoid.

There has been so many rumors over the years about what really happened. I found one article that was very interesting. Apparently, some believe that the People's Temple was some kind of experimental laboratory ran by the CIA to perfect mind-control techniques. It was speculated that a man named Leo Ryan provided that information and that the people had to be assassinated in order to maintain the secrecy. So far, there have been no evidence to support that theory.

By WaterHopper — On Nov 03, 2010

@googie98: Yes, Jim Jones was pretty educated. He held degrees from both Indiana University and Butler University. He belonged to the the mainline Christian denomination and was ordained in the Christian Church/Disciples of Christ.

By googie98 — On Nov 03, 2010

Wasn't Jim Jones a pretty educated man? I was surprised when I was told that he did all those things with the education that he supposedly had.

By BoatHugger — On Nov 03, 2010

There is a great documentary by PBS Home Video called “Jonestown; The Life and Death of People's Temple”. It is an excellent film to watch if you are wanting to learn more about what happened in Jonestown.

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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