Political Distrust and Cultural Uproars as the Basis for Jonestown Incident

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The in-class film, “Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples’ Temple”, clearly illustrated that what was going on both historically and culturally in the 1970s influenced the rise and popularity of cults such as Heaven’s Gate, the Manson Family (late 60s), and Peoples’ Temple. The 70s, which is often stated to be a continuation of the 60s, foresaw many of the problems that the 60s faced with political distrust, the Vietnam war, and the rise of new sexual diseases that at the time people did not understand. People were hungry from an understanding of what was happening, and searched religiously for that guidance, during what was said to be the “low point in America”. Many found those answers through Peoples’ Temple, more specifically in Jim Jones. The power that he demonstrated over the masses lead to the tragedy at Jonestown that left over 900 members, including children, dead in a mass suicide.

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To understand how Jim Jones was able to do this, it’s best to understand what was happening politically, culturally, and economically during the 60s and 70s. The assassinations of both John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr, in 1963 and 1968 respectively, brought about a sense of dejection in the country. The death of Kennedy was the death of leadership as the people were then led by his successor, President Johnson, who wasn’t well received. This political distrust deepened once Richard Nixon was in office and the Watergate scandal was exposed. Additionally, the assassination of King meant that blacks in America were now leaderless in the Era of Protest, their source of inspiration now gone. The Vietnam War, a war that many people believed to be unnecessary, was also at the forefront, adding to the divide in the nation that continued into the 70s. All of these combined made it to where the people were wary of the government and its political system. Added to this, there was a large surge of alcohol, drugs, sex, and poverty at the time, leading people to lose their way morally, and search for a meaning religiously. The political, cultural, and economic climate were all contributing factors to why people were searching for answers so desperately.

Jim Jones provided the people with a sense of comfort. Jones sought out a community that was diverse and equal, which appealed to a black audience whom had a white preacher tell them that they were welcomed with open arms. With race tensions escalating in America after King’s assassination, Jones provided a safe haven, by telling them, “I represent divine prinicple, total equality, a society where people own all things in common. Where there is no rich or poor. Where there are no races…” This message of a place where everyone is equal, no matter race or social status brought in many college students and black members into Jones’ church. He made people feel it to where they “[all] had a purpose there and were exceptionally special” (Deborah Layton).

He made a personal connection with his audience, and his audience responded by growing an attachment to Jones. Jones, needing that community, held on tight to his followers. Outside of the sermons, he would visit his members in their homes, creating a stronger bond to them, a friendship. Eventually, Jones showed the community communal living, and with those strong connections in place the community soon came in. The convinced elderly soon gave up their life savings and homes to Jones in exchange for being taken cared for, their families now being cemented into Peoples’ Temple. Along with this, during the time, people were needing help financially and sought out to Jones for that support, and Jones provided that welfare. For those who had abused drugs and alcohol, they sought out Peoples’ Temple because they saw Jones to be an inspirational figure and saw that the people around them were clean. This created a positive environment, and they saw Jones as the spearhead of that way of living.

Furthermore, Jones proclaimed the message of making a heaven on Earth. He conducted a sermon where he threw the Bible and asked if he had been struck dead by lightning. He told the people that they had to guide themselves, that there was no heaven, and that they would have to make that paradise on Earth. He would have sermons where there were“healings” and “life revivals”, further submitting the idea of him being a god-like figure and that there was indeed a heaven on Earth, Peoples’ Temple.

People submitted to Jones’ will once the time came. When he told his community that they were going to be moving to a place called ‘Jonestown’, it practically happened overnight. Many people left their friends and families to go with Jones to the middle of nowhere, that alone showcasing the power that he had. Soon, members were being flown into Jonestown, an isolated settlement in the middle of a jungle in South America where communication with the outside world was limited. Rules were set in place and soon Jones’ words was all they could hear- all the time. His messages were all they knew, and soon some people wanted to leave, however they couldn’t. Jones made it clear that escaping wasn’t an option and soon the trust within families was limited as sons would tell on their fathers, and daughters with mothers. The paradise that Jonestown was thought to be was soon discovered to be a nightmare. The lack of freedom the people had led to their lack of voice. This ultimately led to their deaths.

Under Jones’ guidance, the route to death seemed like the only means of escape once Congressman Leo Ryan was dead. He told them that escaping to Soviet Russia wasn’t an option, and that a “revoltionary suicide” was the only way to get out of this. That day, 909 members of Peoples’ Temple, 304 being children, died in the mass suicide conducted by Jim Jones. Jones’ manipulative ways combined with the troubled times in the 70s, along with the lack of freedom the people had led to this devastating tragedy.

Peoples’ Temple was apart of the religious cultural trend of the 1970s as it allowed for people to practice their religious beliefs on an extreme scale. Other groups around this time also expressed over the top teachings, such as the Manson Family and Heaven’s Gate. The Manson Family was led by Charles Manson whom believed that there would be a race war called “Helter Skelter”, and to start that war him and his “family” killed seven people. Heaven’s Gate was led by Marshall Applewhite, whom believed that he was the Second Coming and convinced his people to free themselves so that they can return to their “spiritual home”- a.k.a by suicide. All of these groups followed the trend of extreme religious beliefs during the time, and due to the political, social, and economic climate at the time, many people searched for religious answers in the wrong places.

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