Jim Jones was born to James and Lynetta Thurman Jones. Jones graduated from high school at Richmond High School in Richmond, Indiana. He became a preacher in the 1950s. After graduating from Indiana University in Bloomington, IN, Jim sold pet monkeys door-to-door to raise the money to fund his own church that would be named Wings of Deliverance. He later renamed his church the Peoples Temple, located in Indianapolis. He gained respectability when he became an ordained minister in 1964 in the mainstream Christian denomination Disciples of Christ, which was later rescinded. The church was exceptional for its equal treatment of African Americans and many of them became members of the church. He started a struggle for racial equality and social justice, which he dubbed apostolic socialism. Jones authored a booklet, called “The Letter Killeth” pointing out what he felt were the contradictions, absurdities, and atrocities in the Bible, but the booklet also stated that the Bible contained great truths. He claimed to be an incarnation of Jesus, Akhenaten, Buddha, Lenin, and Father Divine and performed supposed miracle healings to attract new members. Members of Jones’ church called Jones “Father” and believed that their movement was the solution to the problems of society and many did not distinguish Jones from the movement. The group gradually moved away from mainstream.
George Moscone, the mayor of San Francisco, appointed Reverend Jim Jones to the city’s Housing Commission.
In the summer of 1977, Jones and most of the 1,000 members of the Peoples Temple moved to Guyana from San Francisco after an investigation into the church for tax evasion was begun. Jones named the closed settlement Jonestown after himself. His intention was to create an agricultural utopia in the jungle, free from racism and based on quasi-communist principles. Jones told his followers to think of him as the incarnation of Christ and God. His followers were known to perform sex acts on him in front of the entire congregation. While the children watched, they were fed LSD and mushrooms, creating a feverish psychedelic environment.
People who had left the organization prior to its move to Guyana told the authorities of brutal beatings, murders and of a mass suicide plan, but were not believed. In spite of the tax evasion allegations, Jones was still widely respected for setting up a racially mixed church which helped the disadvantaged. Around 70% of the inhabitants of Jonestown were black and impoverished.
The religious scholar Mary McCormick Maaga argued that Jones’ authority waned after he moved to the isolated commune, because there he was not needed anymore for recruitment and he could not hide his drug abuse from rank and file members. Consequently, he lost some of his power to inner-circle members, according to McCormick Maaga.
In November 1978, U.S. Congressman Leo Ryan led a fact-finding mission to the Jonestown settlement in Guyana after allegations by relatives in the U.S. of human rights abuses. Ryan’s delegation arrived in Jonestown on November 14 and spent three days interviewing residents. They left hurriedly on the morning of Saturday November 18 after an attempt was made on Ryan’s life. They took with them roughly twenty People’s Temple members who wished to leave. Delegation members later told police that, as they were boarding planes at the airstrip, a truckload of Jones’ armed guards arrived and began to shoot at them. When the gunmen left, five people were dead: Representative Ryan, a reporter from NBC, a cameraman from NBC, a newspaper photographer, and one defector from the Peoples Temple. The present-day California State Senator Jackie Speier, a staff member for Rep. Ryan in 1978, Richard Dwyer, the Deputy Chief of Mission from the U.S. Embassy at Georgetown and allegedly an officer of the Central Intelligence Agency, and a producer for NBC News, Bob Flick, survived the attack.
Later that same day, 909 of the remaining inhabitants of Jonestown, 276 of them children, died in what has commonly been labeled a mass suicide, although many who died were murdered. While some followers obeyed Jones’ instructions to commit “revolutionary suicide” by drinking cyanide-laced grape flavored Flavor Aid, others died by forced cyanide injection or by shooting. Jones was found dead with a shot in the head, sitting in a deck chair. The autopsy on his body showed levels of the barbiturate pentobarbital that could have been lethal to humans who have not developed physiological tolerance. His drug abuse (including various LSD and marijuana experimentations) was confirmed by his son, Stephan, and Jones’ doctor in San Francisco.