James Warren Jones, founder of the Peoples Temple of the Disciples of Christ, was a charismatic and powerful leader. His powers of persuasion led to one of the most horrific mass suicides in recorded history. But what made so many people listen to this young man from the small town of Crete, Indiana?
A preacher who founded his cult in 1955, Jones made his way west to San Francisco and gained a following that was estimated to be around 20,000. Backed by an army of devotees, Jones dreamed of creating a colony outside the US where he could obtain full control without any government intervention. This would be realized in 1977 when 1,000 of his followers followed Jones to the South American country of Guyana. Their new settlement would be called Jonestown.
Conditions were harsh in this new makeshift community. Cabins were overcrowded and the heat and humidity of the country made it hard to breathe. Members were forced to work long days and were subjected to Jones’ sermons over loudspeakers every night.
Leo Ryan, a California Congressional Representative, visited Jonestown in 1978 to investigate the colony after he had heard about the dictatorial conditions Jones’ followers were being subjected to. He quickly identified that most were unhappy there, and some were even being held against their will. Jones knew he couldn’t let Ryan head back to the US with this confirmed information as it would end his reign and influence — so he attacked and killed the Congressman and many of his reporting crew.
With the inevitable US response looming, the 47-year-old Jones persuaded hundreds of his followers to commit suicide by drinking the infamous mixture of “Flavor Aid” laced with cyanide. (Though the common saying has become “Don’t drink the Kool-Aid” due to its greater name recognition.)
This ended with 918 people dead on November 18th, 1978, a third of this number being children.
With the Jonestown cult resulting in such a bitter end, the question must be asked, how did nearly 1,000 people choose to call Jones their leader? What possessed so many to follow this young man to a foreign country that would ultimately result in their deaths?
Jones was a persuasive person.
From a young age Jones showed skill in getting people to do what he wanted. His ability to persuade and speak comfortably in front of groups led him to become a preacher, where he enacted “miracles” (which were later discovered to have been staged). One example was when he disguised his secretary as someone in a wheelchair and proceeded to “heal her” publicly so that she may walk again. These recurring “healings” led many to believe he was a messiah who had come to save them from the world’s evils.
Jones made many promises and bombarded his followers with propaganda.
He promised utopia, or as he called it, “Heaven on Earth.” It was a place free from the trials and tribulations that plague the world. He told his followers that if they stayed in California they would be put into concentration camps, but if they chose to follow him to Guyana, they would be safe and free. While there, he released constant propaganda of how great life was.
He would convince his followers to give him their savings, not caring how much they gave, just requiring it to be enough to make them completely dependent on him — hence making it so that once they arrived in Guyana, they could not leave.
After the murder of Congressman Ryan, Jones urged his people to their deaths, promising a painless transition and a rapid ascent into heaven. He warned that if they didn’t take his advice, the US would torture and kill them all anyway.
Jones preached issues of morality that resonated with oppressed people.
Promoting diversity, Jones welcomed people of all ethnicities who wished to join the temple. He was an advocate for racial equality and social justice which drew flocks of minorities into his grasp. He also adopted children of different ethnicities, dubbing themselves “The Rainbow Family.”
The Peoples Temple in California had facilities that housed the homeless, as well as rehabilitation centers, senior centers, daycares, and medical clinics. He would refer to these facilities as proof of his goodness, and effectively use them to recruit followers.
Jones utilized tools for widespread distribution of his message.
The Peoples Temple had its own radio show. Jones knew the power of radio would help him reach a widespread audience. The more people he could reach, the greater the odds of convincing them to follow.
Let’s examine the similarities we can draw from some of these same aspects of power in terms of other people in leadership positions, both past and present. (While the following are not cult leaders, they serve as examples of people in great power and influence. There are no parallels to the good and evil they have created.)
Those who use persuasion for the greater good:
Martin Luther King Jr. —
A persuasive speaker, recordings of Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous sermons still inspire to this day. His wavering inflections and melodic words could (and still can) silence a room of thousands. A preacher and advocate for racial equality and social justice, he was someone who many listened and looked up to. Where Jones used his ability as a speaker and preacher for personal gain trying to get donations and followers, MLK Jr. used it for the greater good. MLK Jr.’s speeches tended to appeal to the goodness in people’s hearts to convince them of his message for absolute equality.
Malcolm X —
Another towering figure of the Civil Rights Movement with the ability to move crowds with his words was Malcolm X. He spoke to people’s fears and the injustices they had suffered in order to help them resonate with his reasoning. We see this reflected in Jones when he tried to convince people of the terrible things that would befall them if they didn’t move to Guyana. This strategy of using people’s fears, hatred, and blame are used by all demagogues.
Those who use persuasion to gain power:
Adolf Hitler —
Promising to deliver the German people out of the hardships of World War I, Adolf Hitler relied on hatred to place blame on foreigners and the entire Jewish population. He used people’s fear to consolidate more power for himself, just as Jones had convinced his people to give him their savings. Also like Jones, Hitler executed his propaganda campaign relentlessly. His promises for a better life in South America paralleled Hitler’s promises of a “perfect society.”
Donald Trump —
The current president is famously known for using Twitter to help spread his opinions and messages, and is perhaps one of the greatest modern examples of how lies can be so evident to some, while being viewed as absolute truth by others. Jones’ deception seemed clear to many, but to his followers, it wasn’t… even as they participated in a mass suicide.
These individuals all share similarities in the ways they obtained and maintained power. Today, people have the ability to reach millions across the globe easily and for free, thus making it simpler than ever before to create (or be drawn into) a cult. There are many parallels you can see in the ways people rise to power, whether that strength is used for good or evil — maybe it’s to end segregation, inspire a revolution, or create a group effort to head south of the border. Next time you’re met with a powerful figure’s words and promises, remember to ask yourself, “What Kool-Aid do they want me to drink?”
Kena DeLong and Premananda Drew are college students living in Santa Cruz, both studying Political Science.