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The Violence of Jim Jones A Biopsychosocial Explanation

Cultic Studies Review, 4(3), 2005, 268-294

The Violence of Jim Jones: A Biopsychosocial Explanation

Candice Lys

University of Alberta


This article argues that intrapsychic (biopsychosocial) factors of Reverend James (Jim) Jones’ personality contributed to the religiously sanctioned violence that Jones, as the powerful leader of Peoples Temple, inflicted upon his devoted followers. Particular components of Kenneth Roy’s biopsychosocial model, modified by Stephen Kent to focus specifically on the role of sectarian leaders in religious violence, will help to identify the risk factors that provided the framework for violence within Peoples Temple. Using secondary sources to situate Jones biographically, I investigate intrapsychic contributors to Jones’ personality, including his mental illnesses, his alcohol and other drug use, and his religious irrationality, which led to the mass murder and suicide of more than 900 members of the Jonestown, Guyana, commune on November 18, 1978.

Despite many exceptions, religion has taken violent forms throughout history. Frequently, sects[1] (often alternatively known in popular culture as cults), have been instigators of religious violence. Ken Levi (1982:7) argues that in times of radical social change such as the 1970s in America, members disconnect their psychic and economic ties to mainstream society so they may pledge total allegiance to sects that offer alternative social and political views and goals. A prime example of such commitment occurred with the followers of Peoples Temple of the Disciples of Christ (known simply as Peoples Temple) and its leader, Reverend James (Jim) Jones. Absolute loyalty and dedication to the group and its leader was a necessary prerequisite for the November 18, 1978, mass murder and suicide of 909[2] Peoples Temple members at their Jonestown, Guyana, commune. Although dedication to Jim Jones and his sect was a crucial factor in his ability to manipulate and command his followers, other contributors played an important role in the religious violence that led up to and included the Jonestown tragedy.

Kenneth Roy (2000:390, 392) argues that because no variable exists that definitively portrays a causal relationship with violent acts, nor a variable that even perfectly correlates with violent acts, no single factor is the cause of violent behaviour in humans. Rather, complex relationships among multiple variables of human life shape violent behaviour and cause some people to become violent. Roy (2000:394) states that the intrapsychic (biopsychosocial), interpersonal, intragroup, and intergroup domains are the four categories that all of human behaviour comprises,[3] which would presumably include acts of violence. Although all of these categories are active at any time, each category might range independently in its level of salience throughout an individual’s life cycle (Roy, 2000:394). Roy (2000:400) argues that the interplay among risk factors in each of these domains causes the violent actions of some people.

Specific tenets of Roy’s biopsychosocial model, adapted by Stephen Kent (2004) to focus particularly on the role of sectarian leaders in religious violence, will help to identify the risk factors that led to the Jonestown tragedy. Using secondary sources to situate Jones biographically, I explore the intrapsychic (biopsychosocial) contributors[4] of Jones’ personality that provided the framework for violence within Peoples Temple.
Intrapsychic (Biopsychosocial) Contributors

Intrapsychic factors, which the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders IV-TR (DSM-IV-TR) calls biopsychosocial factors (American Psychiatric Association, 2000:27), include the psychiatric and psychosocial analyses of sect leaders. These biopsychosocial contributors are especially important if they stem from one’s childhood because they “provide foundational experiences whose lessons last a lifetime” (Kent, 2004:104). Biopsychosocial factors are vital to the understanding of religious violence because they “limit or frame what many people can experience or understand, and the restrictions that they impose carry into adulthood” (Kent, 2004:104).

Roy (2000) emphasizes the importance of intrapsychic factors as precipitators of violence in individuals. According to Roy’s biopsychosocial model, violent individuals have an unresolved “pool of anger that does not dissipate” (Roy, 2000:394) that often is rooted in childhood. This pool of anger might be “tapped,” and violence can result when biopsychosocial factors such as alcohol and drug use, trauma, and genetic or biological conditions combine (Roy, 2000:394). The contributions of these intrapsychic factors to an individual’s pool of anger might cause the individual to lack a “reasonably integrated sense of self that allows for reasonable goal-directed thinking and acting” (Roy, 2000:395). Thus, that disastrous, violent consequences can result is no surprise when the mental illnesses, substance use, and religious irrationality of an influential sectarian leader such as Jim Jones merge.
I. Mental Illnesses

The first biopsychosocial factor that influenced Jones’ personality was his mental illnesses. Mental illnesses are “psychological dysfunction within an individual associated with distress or impairment in functioning and a response that is not typical or culturally expected” (Barlow and Durand, 2002:2). This breakdown in functioning might include cognitive, emotional, behavioural, occupational, or other aspects, all of which can have profound effects on an individual (Barlow and Durand, 2002:2). Jones suffered from paranoid delusions of both persecution and grandeur. These psychological disorders had a major impact on Jones and the choices he made as leader of Peoples Temple.

From an early age, Jones was fraught with paranoia, which escalated as he grew older. Clinically, paranoia is “a disordered mode of thought that is dominated by an intense, irrational, but persistent mistrust or suspicion of people and a corresponding tendency to interpret the actions of others as deliberately threatening or demeaning” (Fenigstein, 2001:301). According to faulty-development theory, an intricate relationship among personality traits, inadequate socialization, and environmental events that emerge in early-childhood family dynamics is responsible for laying the foundation for a paranoid mindset (Fenigstein, 2001:306). To understand the intense paranoia that Jones experienced later in his life while he served as leader of Peoples Temple, we must investigate the roots of that paranoia, which involved his early relationships and the events of his childhood.
The Childhood Origins of Jones’ Paranoia

Jim Jones was born in the small Indiana town of Lynn on May 13, 1931, during the Great Depression, to poor parents who paid him little attention throughout his younger years. His father, James (also known as Big Jim), was disabled during World War I as the result of a lung injury. Big Jim’s injury, bad health, and the fact that he had only a grade-school education, left him feeling worthless in a period when having a strong work ethic was very important (Reiterman and Jacobs, 1982:11). John Hall argues that this sense of worthlessness was the basis for the “very bitter, cynical” (1987:4) attitude Big Jim had toward his son. Big Jim’s injury forced Jones’ mother, Lynetta, to be the breadwinner for the family. Between Lynetta’s factory jobs and Big Jim’s love of gambling, Jones was often left to care for himself from an early age (Reiterman and Jacobs, 1982:13). The problematic relationship that Jones had with his parents set the tone for the rest of his faulty development and contributed to his paranoid mindset.

Jones lived a painful childhood as a loner and an outcast, and he described the anguish and anger that it caused him:

I was ready to kill by the third grade. I mean, I was so fucking aggressive and hostile, I was ready to kill. Nobody gave me any love, any understanding. In those days a parent was supposed to go with a child to school functions.... There was some kind of school performance, and everybody’s fucking parent was there but mine. I’m standing there. Alone. Always was alone. (Jones, cited in Reiterman and Jacobs, 1982:16-17)

These feelings of distance from others, hostility, and humiliation are typical characteristics of a paranoid individual (Fenigstein, 2001:306).

Several factors contributed to Jones’ feelings of alienation and loneliness. To begin, Jones felt different from his peers because his mother was not his primary caregiver, his father was unemployed, and his parents were not active churchgoers like the rest of his conservative community (Reiterman and Jacobs, 1982:13). Jones also did not fit in physically with the other children in his town: Most of his peers were fair-haired and light skinned with German descent, and Jones appeared to be a “conglomeration of every nationality in the world. His eyes were slanted, almost Oriental, his face round, his hair shiny, black, and straight like an Indian’s” (Reiterman and Jacobs, 1982:10). Jones no doubt also felt unloved because of his mother’s opinion that her son was “ugly” (Reiterman and Jacobs, 1982:10) because of his multiracial appearance. Big Jim also had a deeply racist mentality and was reportedly a member of the Ku Klux Klan (Levi, 1982, xi). These feelings of difference that Jones experienced were both positive (in that they fueled his later search for social justice within Peoples Temple) and negative (because they intensified his “internalized struggles” [Fenigstein, 2001:306]), which led to further development of a paranoid frame of mind.
Jones’ Delusions of Persecution and Grandeur

Jones’ childhood paranoia gradually evolved into the psychiatric condition of a delusional disorder. The DSM-IV-TR designates five criteria that are necessary for a diagnosis of delusional disorder (American Psychiatric Association, 2000:329). First, nonbizarre delusions must occur for a period of at least one month. Second, the individual must never have met Criterion A for schizophrenia.[5] Third, other than the impact of the delusions or its implications, the individual’s level of functioning is not “markedly impaired and behaviour is not obviously odd or bizarre” (Kaplan and Sadock, 1998:515).[6] Fourth, if mood episodes occur along with the delusions, their total duration must be brief when compared to the length of the delusional periods. Finally, for a diagnosis of delusional disorder, the direct physiological effects of a substance (such as illicit drugs or medications) or a general medical condition should not cause an individual’s delusions (American Psychiatric Association, 2000:395). Jones did abuse drugs, which likely worsened his delusional thoughts; though importantly, he experienced these thoughts long before he began using drugs (Nugent, 1979:16; Reiterman and Jacobs, 1982:65, 125).

Jones’ troubled childhood experiences left him angry, alienated, and inadequately socialized. Consequently, Jones suffered from the inability to properly understand the motives of others, which may have “led to a pattern of suspicious misinterpretation of unintentional slights” (Fenigstein, 2001:306), common in individuals with delusional disorder. This tendency for paranoid people to misconstrue the actions of others is the basis for delusions, which are “psychotic symptoms involving disorder of thought content and presence of strong beliefs that are misrepresentations of reality” (Barlow and Durand, 2002:G-5). Jones suffered from nonbizarre delusions, [7] which are disordered thought processes neither based in reality nor commonly shared by other members of society, though the delusions could conceivably occur in real life (Fenigstein, 2001:302). These nonbizarre delusions are systematic, logically developed, and well ordered, which make them hard to reject despite clear opposing evidence (Fenigstein, 2001:302). In the sociocultural context of the American 1950s, Jones’ delusions involving both fear of Communism and widespread racial segregation had elements of reality (Halberstam, 1993:52, 430). Delusional individuals also often face different themes in their delusions, which allows for simultaneous diagnoses of different subtypes within the context of delusional disorder. Jones experienced paranoid thought dynamics that laid the foundation for both a persecution subtype and megalomaniacal delusions of grandeur.

Delusions of persecution are the most common subtype of delusional disorder (Fenigstein, 2001:302). These persecutory thoughts revolve around the notion that someone is treating the individual (or someone with whom the individual is close) malevolently, such as by poisoning, conspiring against, spying upon, cheating, or obstructing, to name just a few examples (Kaplan and Sadock, 1998:517). Often, people involved in the individual’s life become incorporated into his or her system of delusions (Munro, 1999:131); this was certainly true for Jones.

Jones was notorious for believing that others were out to get him. For instance, he once accused a woman of trying to murder him after she gave him a playful “shove” while they were standing on a balcony (Reiterman and Jacobs, 1982:65). Although it is plausible that the woman was attempting to murder Jones by pushing him off a balcony, it is more likely that he overreacted in a delusional context. His other persecutory delusions were not so tame, however. After his establishment of Peoples Temple in 1956, Jones’ delusions became more intense and pervasive, frequently changing in subject matter from hour to hour. He believed that his food was being poisoned (Reston, 1981:285), that he was being targeted for murder, that he was dying of an illness, that other ministers were spreading rumors that he had been committed to a psychiatric facility, and that the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) was investigating him (Reiterman and Jacobs, 1982:94). He also was convinced that the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) was scrutinizing his every move (Committee on Foreign Affairs, 1979:18; Hall, 1982:50). According to one former Peoples Temple member, “the Temple’s modus operandi was to always assume you were being followed” (Layton, 1998:84-85).

Not all of Jones’ persecutory fears were unfounded. Repeatedly, Jones and the Peoples Temple organization and members were faced with opposition from former members, reporters, and government agencies, though Jones’ paranoia likely over-inflated the criticism and investigations into conspiracies (Hall, 1982:50). Also notable is the fact that Peoples Temple was a sect that originated in the conservative, racially segregated 1950s American Midwest. The sect’s primary goals were racial equality and socialism, and many community members satisfied with the status quo criticized Jones’ theology (Richardson, 1980:249-250). Jones and his church received hate letters and prank phone calls; a swastika was painted on the church door; a dead cat was thrown at Jones’ house; and his wife, Marceline, was spit on while she carried their adopted African American son (Reiterman and Jacobs, 1982:72). Although several attacks on the church were real, Jones often “magnified real hostility from the outside community, blowing it into a siege mentality that would remain to the end” (Reiterman and Jacobs, 1982:200). Jones’ already paranoid personality; real opposition from former members, the media, and government agencies; and America’s historical lack of tolerance for racial equality and socialistic ideals combined to further encourage his conspiracy theories of persecution, thus strengthening his delusional disorder (Richardson, 1980:249-250).

Jones also suffered from grandiose delusions, which are “delusions of inflated self-worth, power, knowledge, identity, or special relationships to a deity or famous person” (Kaplan and Sadock, 1998:515). He exaggerated his own sense of importance by claiming an extraordinary relationship with God. Indeed, early in his religious career, he often referred to himself as the Messiah, chosen by God to spread the message that the Jonestown community was the “precursor of heaven on earth” (Levine, 2003:225). Subtly, as his mental condition deteriorated over the years, he encouraged his followers to refer to him in more “Christlike and Godlike terms” (Reiterman and Jacobs, 1982:74). Indeed, to his followers, Jones was a prophet. Members had seen his “faith healings”[8] for years during church services; and through humanitarian programs, Jones motivated his followers to care for the elderly, promote racial integration, and rehabilitate alcoholics and other drug addicts (Committee on Foreign Affairs, 1979:16). He rationalized that his people “needed the false illusion of his deification in order to dedicate themselves totally to the Temple’s worthwhile goals” (Reiterman and Jacobs, 1982:74). Eventually, Jones denounced the Christian religion and God altogether, claiming that he, himself, was the God his followers sought:

I came in the power of religion.... All the power you said God had, I have. I’ve come to make one final dissolution, one final elimination of all religious feeling. Until I have eradicated it from the face of earth, I will do all of the miracles you said your God would do and never did.... I come as God socialist! (Jones, cited in Reiterman and Jacobs, 1982:147-148).

With admiration and awe, Jones’ followers trusted their leader and thus unquestioningly accepted his claims of divinity. This obedient devotion served as an important source of unrestricted power for the delusional Jones to abuse, further facilitating his violence against Peoples Temple followers.
The Progression of Jones’ Delusions into Violence

Marc Galanter (1999:180-181) argues that when the grandiosity of a sectarian leader merges with delusions of persecution and paranoia, the result is often religious violence. The belief that one is unique and supreme creates a need for leaders to retain total control over their followers, which in turn facilitates paranoia. This paranoia then reinforces delusions of persecution, motivating leaders such as Jones to construct a “siege mentality” to protect the group from its dangerous outside enemies (Galanter, 1999:180-181). Consequently, in Jones’ case, a vicious cycle emerged, with Jones as the all-powerful leader who had the capacity to control both religiously sanctioned violence against any defiant group members and violence against outsiders.

Alistair Munro (1999) provides another explanation for how violence transpires from the mental illnesses of a powerful sectarian leader. Munro (1999:137) contends that delusional individuals, such as Jones, who also suffer from deficient judgment and lowered inhibitions, are especially dangerous for three reasons. First, delusional disorder is usually chronic, and this persistency “allows an individual enormous time to brood on his beliefs” (Munro, 1999:137). Second, one’s intellectual ability and capacity for reason are generally unimpaired, which often can make the delusional individual’s actions appear lucid to those around him. This tendency for others to believe that the delusional individual is actually a rational person is all the more dangerous when a powerful leader, such as Jones was, has command over devoted, unquestioning followers. Finally, delusional individuals often remain functional as members of society, which most people consider a measure of relative sanity. Because Jones remained part of society, both in mainstream civilization and then in the Jonestown communal society, he was able to entwine his imaginary beliefs with real events, which made his delusions seem all the more plausible and justified.

In contrast to scholars J. Gordon Melton and David Bromley (2002:47), Kent (2004:105) emphasizes that the personality of an influential leader often has important effects on the “organizational outcomes” (Melton and Bromley, 2002:47) of a sectarian group. Clearly, Jones’ mental illnesses played a significant role in the development of the violence he imposed on Peoples Temple members. Within a milieu of total sectarian control and complete allegiance from followers, the potential for violence is evident when powerful leaders see themselves as unique and infallible, and believe they are the victims of persecution.
II. Drugs and Alcohol

Kent’s (2004) second biopsychosocial contributor to religious violence is the sectarian leader’s substance use. Psychoactive substances, such as alcohol and other drugs, are “chemical compounds that are ingested in order to alter mood or behaviour” (Barlow and Durand, 2002:350). The level of intake of such substances follows a continuum of harm that varies from use to intoxication, then to abuse, and finally to substance dependence. Substance use, at one end of the spectrum, involves moderate amounts of ingestion and is generally harmless because one’s level of social or psychological functioning is not significantly affected (Barlow and Durand, 2002:350). Intoxication involves the physiological reaction an individual experiences after ingesting the substances and is often associated with taking larger amounts to “get high” from the drug (Barlow and Durand, 2002:351). Substance abuse is a pattern of use that leads to significant distress or impairment in social, psychological, or other areas of functioning (Barlow and Durand, 2002:351). Finally, at the other end of the continuum is substance dependence, a clinical disorder wherein the individual “uses a substance in increasingly larger amounts, spends much time getting it and using it, and experiences negative physiological and psychological states when the substance is reduced or withdrawn” (Wills, 2001:403). Jones was dependent on several legal and illegal substances.
Jones’ Polysubstance Dependence

When Jones started being dependent on drugs is unclear, though it was likely during the late 1960s (Maaga, 1998:93; Nugent, 1979:24; Reiterman and Jacobs, 1982:125). Jones’ son, Stephan, described Jones as “pretty lost long before Jonestown,” due to increasing incapacitation from drug use (Maaga, 1998:91). Despite preaching to his followers about the evils of drug use and forbidding average members to use drugs (Maaga, 1998:91), Jones abused a multitude of substances. Among the many drugs he abused were stimulants such as amphetamines; depressants such as barbiturates, Quaaludes, and Valium (Nugent, 1979:24; Reiterman and Jacobs, 1982:125; Reston, 1981:284-285); opiates (painkillers) such as codeine and morphine (Lane, 1980:87); and alcohol (Reston, 1981:284). Because of inconsistent and incomplete facts in literature written after his death,[9] it is difficult to argue that Jones met specific diagnostic criteria for any one specific substance; but he likely met diagnostic criteria for polysubstance dependence[10] for several legal and illicit drugs. The essential feature of polysubstance abuse is a “cluster of cognitive, behavioural, and physiological symptoms indicating that the individual continues use of the substance despite significant substance-related problems” (American Psychiatric Association, 2000:192).

Jones illustrated several characteristics typical of polysubstance-dependent individuals. First, he likely developed a tolerance[11] for the drugs he ingested. Several years before his death, his doctor commented that Jones was “frying his brain with drugs” (Maaga, 1998:91). Because of the highly addictive nature of drugs such as amphetamines, opiates, Valium, barbiturates, and Quaaludes, increasing doses are necessary to maintain the same levels of intoxication with repeated, long-term abuse (Schuckit, 2000:6). Tolerance of the tranquilizer phenobarbital was evident in Jones’ autopsy: Levels found in his kidneys and liver would normally be lethal in nonusers (Maaga, 1998:91). Tolerance and withdrawal[12] are related physical effects of substance dependence. If individuals who have developed tolerance for a substance suddenly stop taking the drug, then they will experience withdrawal. In Jones’ case, it was not possible to locate information to confirm that he ever experienced withdrawal as a symptom of his substance dependency. However, there also was no available information to indicate that he had ever been without access to the substances he abused.

A second feature of polysubstance dependence exemplified by Jones is that he spent a significant portion of his time obtaining drugs and using the substances. Although little information exists on Jones himself obtaining drugs, he likely commanded members of his close, inner circle of devotees to attain drugs for him. A few members made recurrent trips to Venezuela from Jonestown to buy drugs for the Jonestown clinic and presumably for Jones’ private use, as well (Maaga, 1998:93). Mary McCormick Maaga (1998:93) even speculates that Jones chose to move his commune to Guyana because that location provided easier access to drugs than had California, and it also gave his followers an easy excuse to travel frequently to South America.

More significant than Jones’ acquisition of drugs is the considerable amount of time he spent using substances. Jones used stimulants, depressants, painkillers, or tranquilizers, depending on his different moods and purposes. His mood cycled from the highs caused by stimulants to the lows of depressants; over the years, his drug use steadily escalated out of control. That drug use, at first known only by his family and his inner circle of closest followers, was evident to all Peoples Temple members, and even to outsiders by 1978, when two American Embassy officials visiting the Jonestown commune reported that Jones “‘exhibited erratic behaviour, slurred speech, and mental confusion’” (Moore, cited in Maaga, 1998:95). Although members probably knew of his growing incapacitation from drugs, to acknowledge that they were being led by a sick, drug-dependent man would call into question the commitment and sacrifices they had made to Jones and the Peoples Temple (Maaga, 1998:96). In fact, at least during his earlier years as leader, many followers probably perceived Jones’ ill health and dependence on drugs as evidence of his sacrifice to Peoples Temple (Maaga, 1998:93).

Jones’ escalating drug use and resulting mental and physical deterioration[13] led to a reduction in his ability to function as leader of Peoples Temple, a third common feature of polysubstance dependence. Tim Reiterman and John Jacobs (1982) describe his declined capacity as a powerful, charismatic leader:

The drugs ... had taken hold of him. His voice, once so riveting, now sounded pathetic, raspy, as if he were very drunk or his tongue coated with peanut butter. Words collided with each other in slow motion. He would read from typed notes, but often not finish sentences. Sometimes ... he could not read at all (Reiterman and Jacobs, 1982:446).

Jones was once a great, charismatic leader with a knack for public speaking and mobilizing followers, but after years of drug dependence, he became an angry, unpredictable, and violent sectarian leader. Most noteworthy among the many reasons for these patterns was that his substance dependence had both catalyzing and disinhibiting functions (Kent, 2004:105) on his behaviour.
The Catalyzing and Disinhibiting Functions of Polysubstance Dependence[14]

Jones’ substance dependence acted as a catalyst for his delusional disorder, mutually intensifying and multiplying the content of his delusions. Both short-term, severe intoxication and repeated, long-term abuse of stimulants (such as amphetamines) is linked to paranoia (Fenigstein, 2001:306), paranoid delusions (Barlow and Durand, 2002:361), and psychotic episodes (American Psychiatric Association, 2000:225). As well, amphetamine intoxication often results in feelings of grandiosity (American Psychiatric Association, 2000:226); such intoxication likely strengthened Jones’ delusions of grandeur. While he was intoxicated with substances that intensified his delusions, Jones also experienced disinhibition and impaired judgment, which provided the framework for substantial abuses of power.

During the last few years before his death, when his drug dependence was at its height, Jones’ attitude toward sex and sexuality became increasingly harmful to Peoples Temple members (Nugent, 1979:74-75). Jones instigated many sexual policies that were potentially psychologically, sexually, and even physically harmful to group members. He often abused his power as a leader of extremely devoted followers by promoting himself as the supreme sex object, using his body to “discipline, elevate, and reward, as well as to assert his own superiority and to humiliate” (Reiterman and Jacobs, 1982:172). On occasion, he promoted sexual liberation amongst his followers, only to quickly change his mind and preach that total abstinence, even for married couples, was the dogma of Peoples Temple (Layton, 1998:54). Jones used sex to manipulate Peoples Temple members by forcing them to publicly admit homosexual feelings, past sexual partners, and sexual acts they had committed (Reiterman and Jacobs, 1982:173). The sexual atmosphere in Jonestown was one of “intolerance, guilt, repression, and division” (Reiterman and Jacobs, 1982:173). Clearly, Jones and his delusional, drugged mind had serious, violent consequences for members of Peoples Temple.

As another form of religious violence, Jones began instigating ‘White Nights’ in 1975[15] (Reiterman and Jacobs, 1982:294), which were practice mass-suicide drills that he thought would become reality when outsiders inevitably attacked Jonestown. During these drills, Jones forced his followers to drink liquids that he said contained cyanide. Several minutes later, when members believed they were on the verge of death, he would declare that there was actually no poison involved, and that the White Night was simply a test of loyalty (Reiterman and Jacobs, 1982:295). Reiterman and Jacobs (1982:391) compare the emotional turmoil of the White Nights to “hearing that your relative’s plane had crashed, killing everyone, then learning they had missed the flight.” Such manipulation, fuelled by Jones’ delusions of persecution and subsequent fears of attack, was violent and harmful, and caused many followers great emotional stress and fear.

According to Kent (2004:104), substance abuse “complicates people’s personalities, including their ability to express and cope with feelings such as anger, disappointment, and shame.” Roy (2000:395) argues that these ineffective intrapsychic coping mechanisms leave individuals with fragmented senses of self. Thus, these troubled individuals have both the “pool of anger that does not dissipate” (Roy, 2000:395) and also lack the ability for “reasonable goal-directed behaviour and acting” (Roy, 2000:395). When each of these factors came together in a sectarian leader such as Jones, who had virtually unquestioning obedience from his devoted followers, religious violence was inevitable.
III. Religious Irrationality

In addition to Jones’ mental illnesses and substance abuse, a third interrelated biopsychosocial contributor to violence within Peoples Temple was the collective religious irrationality of both Jones and his followers. Kent (2004:108) argues that though faith alone rarely generates violence, when they are combined with other important factors, religion and violence go hand in hand:

For people whose cognitive capacities are dulled or compromised by biogenetic imbalances, social-psychological stressors, chemical alterations, or aggressive theologies, violence may (and often does) flare up. When it flares up in religious contexts, the results can be especially severe (Kent, 2004:108).

Jones, as founder and leader of Peoples Temple, was the driving force behind the religious irrationality that began with his early childhood fanaticism and culminated in the death of 909 of his followers on November 18, 1978. Thus, to better understand the later religious irrationality of Peoples Temple, we must briefly examine Jones’ childhood and his establishment of Peoples Temple.
The Origins of Jones’ Religious Irrationality

As previously mentioned, Jones' parents often left him alone when he was a child. When his neighbour, Myrtle Kennedy, saw this neglect, she appointed herself as Jones’ surrogate mother and cared for him when his parents were not home (Reiterman and Jacobs, 1982:13). Kennedy introduced Jones to the Nazarene church, and he quickly became fanatical about religion (Reiterman and Jacobs, 1982:14). Although he initially attended church with Kennedy and her family, he soon set out on a search for a church of his own that would accept him and fulfill his spiritual needs. He found the emotional bond and acceptance he was looking for in the Gospel Tabernacle church, where he was quickly taken in by a Pentecostal female minister who “groomed Jones as a child evangelist” (Reiterman and Jacobs, 1982:18). He often cared for farm animals, and he used these animals to attract neighborhood children to listen to the mock church services that he held in his garage (Hall, 1987:10). It was not long before his love of religion and his knack for public speaking led Jones to preach in Lynn and in surrounding towns (Reiterman and Jacobs, 1982:18). By the time his parents divorced in 1945 and Jones moved with his mother to Richmond, Indiana, to attend high school, he was already well on his way to fulfilling his goal of becoming a religious leader.

After he graduated from high school, Jones worked as a part-time orderly at a Richmond hospital, where he met and began dating a devout Methodist nurse, Marceline Baldwin. Marceline was attracted to “his musical voice, his chesty posture, his gaze, his unquestionably sincere manner, his dark hair, and dazzling mind” (Reiterman and Jacobs, 1982:30); she quickly became a follower of his Christian words. Shortly after Jones married Marceline in 1949, he began feeling irreverence toward what (in his opinion) were hypocritical churches that, on the one hand, preached equality under God, while, on the other hand, supported segregated congregations (Reiterman and Jacobs, 1982:44). Jones’ views took on a new twist when, soon after these feelings emerged, he abandoned his “evangelical mouthings” (Reiterman and Jacobs, 1982:37) and announced to his wife that he no longer believed in God. When Marceline continued to pray and practice her religion, Jones first reacted by insisting that she stop, and then by threatening to throw himself out a window (Reiterman and Jacobs, 1982:37).

In 1952, when Jones attended a Methodist church sermon with Marceline, he read the Methodist social creed that discussed social goals such as diminishing poverty, providing security for the elderly, making employment available to everyone, ensuring free speech, and supporting prison reform (Reiterman and Jacobs, 1982:1). Finally, he had found an organized religion that was willing to collectively care for all people. Ironically, just a few years after swearing off God, he decided to enter the Methodist ministry.

Jones’ Methodist preaching focused on moral lessons taken from the Bible (Weightman, 1983:20). Although he had finally found his ‘calling with God’ within the Methodist church, Jones “had neither the temperament nor the will to be a joiner or follower of a particular religion for very long…. He wanted his own house of worship, his own following, and his own mission” (Nugent, 1979:10). In 1956, he started a Pentecostal sect called the Community Unity Church, which he renamed Peoples Temple a year later.

Trying to collapse racial and religious barriers, Jones concentrated on a message of social justice for Peoples Temple. He refused to participate in the racial segregation that was common with Christian churches in America in the 1950s; he believed that inclusiveness should be not only a fundamental tenet of his faith, but also a central focus of all religions (Chidester, 1988:3-4). During a sermon, he once declared, “‘In our church we don’t call ‘em white or Negro. We call ‘em by name’” (Jones, cited in Reiterman and Jacobs, 1982:60). Jones and Peoples Temple also set out on a mission to conquer social problems in their community. They opened soup kitchens, established a free grocery store, and distributed free clothing to the poor, among other good will practices (Chidester, 1988:4). Jones required more from his followers than most Christian churches, and he used the Bible to justify the socialism he deemed as “religious communalism” (Reiterman and Jacobs, 1982:55).

Over the next several years, as the result of Jones’ gift for public speaking, his charismatic personality, and his enthusiasm to recruit people to his religious sect, Peoples Temple gained momentum as it rapidly acquired new members. During one particularly powerful sermon in 1959, Jones proposed a new direction for his followers. He declared that the members of his congregation should sell all of their belongings and donate the proceeds to his church so that Peoples Temple could “fight communism with communalism” (Reiterman and Jacobs, 1982:61). Reiterman and Jacobs (1982:61) argue that this suggestion was an attempt by Jones to keep his members within the Peoples Temple organization and his way of gradually moving his followers toward living in the “Promised Land” (Layton, 1998:60) of communal life.

During the early 1960s, as Jones’ delusional disorder spiraled out of control, he dramatically altered Peoples Temple theology, renouncing his belief in the Virgin Birth (Levi, 1982:xii), publicly criticizing contradictions in the Bible’s scripture (Reiterman and Jacobs, 1982:75), and eventually rejecting the Christian faith altogether (Reiterman and Jacobs, 1982:147). In October 1961, Jones preached to his congregation that he had experienced an apocalyptic “vision” of Indianapolis, Indiana, coming under nuclear attack in the near future (Reiterman and Jacobs, 1982:76). Naturally, his followers understood this vision as another sign that Jones was God’s prophet, and most members were consequently willing to do whatever was necessary for salvation in the afterlife. Thus, fuelled by paranoid fear after having read a magazine article about the nine safest places in the world[16] during a nuclear holocaust, Jones easily relocated Peoples Temple members from Indiana to a commune in Ukiah, California, and then again later to the Jonestown, Guyana, commune in 1977 (Chryssides, 1999:39). Just more than a year after Jones arrived at Jonestown, the epitome of religious irrationality occurred with the mass murder and suicide of nearly one thousand members of Peoples Temple, including Jones.
The Misattribution of Suicide as Revolutionary

Karl Marx once notoriously described religion as the “opium of the people” (Marx, 1963:44). Indeed, religion, like opium, has the ability to relieve anxiety, though Marx (1963:44) argued that any relief is illusory. Religion acts as a framework that leaders can use to justify and make sense of the otherwise illogical or unexplained events of their follower’s lives. The meaning that followers apply to these events is socially constructed, and thus is illusory because it is not objectively “real.” Attribution theory contains one of the best examples of religion’s illusory powers over people.

The central tenet of attribution theory is the notion that “people seek to make sense of their experiences and events by attributing them to causes” (Spilka, Shaver, and Kirkpatrick, 1985:2). Causal attribution is an attempt by individuals “to maintain effective control over events and experiences, in order to increase the probability of positive outcomes and avoid negative outcomes” (Spilka, Shaver, and Kirkpatrick, 1985:4). Religion provides followers with a “broad-scale meaning system” that individuals can use as “a frame of reference for interpreting the whole range of life events” (Spilka, Shaver, and Kirkpatrick, 1985:2). Thus, individuals create casual attributions for all experiences through the lens of their chosen religious meaning systems. When members of a deviant sect, such as Peoples Temple, attempt to make causal attributions for the irrational preaching of their delusional and drugged leader, misattribution and subsequent perceived justification of religious harm often occur.

Wayne Proudfoot and Phillip Shaver (1975:327) contend that religious systems allow for a misattribution of life events by allowing the follower to “interpret events that are potentially discouraging as further evidence of the truth of the system, and for the efficacy of appropriate religious action.” Furthermore, Kent (1994b:29) argues that members of deviant religions, such as Peoples Temple, misattribute the divine authority of religious leaders and thus “sanctify” religious violence. In this context of misattribution, Jones’ followers endured physical,[17] medical,[18] sexual,[19] academic,[20] financial,[21] social,[22] and emotional[23] harm.[24]

Using misattribution, Jones justified committing mass suicide as “revolutionary self-destruction in the face of the enemy” (Reiterman and Jacobs, 1982:374). Reiterman and Jacobs (1982) describe Jones’ motivation for revolutionary suicide this way:

By choosing the time, place and manner of the death of his movement, Jones could deprive his enemies of the chance to bring him down; he would avert defeat. And this escape would not be forgotten—it would have meaning. Their statement: that members of the Peoples Temple could no longer tolerate the cruelties of the world. Their statement would define Jones’ place in history: from the filthy depths of defeat, ‘one gallant, glorious screaming end’ (Reiterman and Jacobs, 1982:294).

Clearly, Jones’ growing irrationality and his ability to manipulate followers by misattributing revolution as a reason for suicide made him a dangerous and violent leader.

Jones’ notion of revolutionary suicide is akin to Emile Durkheim’s theory of altruistic suicide. Altruistic suicide arises when an individual “so completely identifies with the group that its goals and its identity become his, and consequently the individual has no autonomous existence separate from the group to which he belongs” (Hassan, 1998:169). In this context, individual suicide is selfish and irrational, while collective, “revolutionary” suicide is both a logical and rational means for achieving other-worldly salvation. The individual, as part of a group, views suicide as “dying for a cause” (Richardson, 1980:249). In the eyes of Peoples Temple members and their dangerously irrational leader, suicide was the ultimate form of sacrifice.

Kent argues that religion can often “foster violence to the extent that it subverts... self-preservation ... by substituting faith for reason and obedience for questioning” (Kent, 2004:108). Indeed, religious irrationality is undoubtedly an important biopsychosocial contributor to religious violence, since “like people, sometimes the gods are crazy, and in a divinely (mis)attributed craziness, people can, and do, hurt and sometimes kill themselves and others” (Kent, 2004:107). Using misattribution, Jones successfully justified the harm that his followers endured, and even convinced members that revolutionary suicide was a necessary act for their salvation. Thus, the religious devotion expressed by Peoples Temple members is perhaps best explained with the words of philosopher Albert Camus: “‘What is called a reason for living is also an excellent reason for dying’” (Camus, cited in Hassan, 1998:169). Indeed, for members of Peoples Temple who had devoted their entire lives to Jones and the Jonestown commune, death was a logical act of dedication to their cause.

In the case of Peoples Temple, as with many other sects, the interaction of different biopsychosocial features of the leader’s personality plays an important role in the development of religiously sanctioned violence. Within a milieu of religious irrationality, when the persecutory and grandiose delusions of a mentally unstable sectarian leader (such as Jim Jones) combine with his or her dependence on substances that compound these delusions, a dangerous, violent leader emerges. In an environment of total, unquestioning obedience from Jones’ followers, these interrelated biopsychosocial factors of Jones’ personality became some of the many driving forces that led to the Jonestown tragedy on November 18, 1978.

Combining biological, psychological, and social aspects of leader’s personalities represents a growing trend in the study of religiously sanctioned violence. For instance, Susan Raine (2005) explored how the former schizophrenic leader of Heaven’s Gate, Marshall Applewhite, incorporated distorted personal views of his body and sexuality into the group’s theology. Furthermore, Kent (1994a) linked the psychosexual history of Children of God founder David Berg to the harmful, sexually based group polices that he implemented for his group members. In addition, Ronald O. Clarke (1988) investigated the narcissism of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh that affected the leader’s interpersonal relationships and contributed to the emotional manipulation that he inflicted on his followers. Exploring the interplay of various sociological, psychological, and social factors that contribute to religious violence may provide more complex and complete explanations for how this violence develops and why it continues in sectarian environments.

Undoubtedly, understanding the dysfunctional biopsychosocial aspects of Jones’ personality is a vital step toward comprehending the religious violence that occurred within Peoples Temple. Further research should focus on the interpersonal, intragroup, and intergroup contributors that the remainder of Kent’s (2004) biopsychosocial model of religious violence comprises. It is easy to see how the three contributors that I do not discuss here likely have application in the case of Jones and Peoples Temple. For instance, Kent (1994b:29) discusses the interpersonal contributor of fictive familial relationships that justify exploitation and abuse of ‘child-like’ members by their ‘parental’ leaders. Peoples Temple members routinely referred to Jones as ‘Dad’ or ‘Father,’ and Jones likely used this power differential to rationalize the abuse he inflicted on his ‘children’ as divinely sanctioned discipline. Despite, however, even the most careful research, the death of Jones and nearly all of his followers makes it impossible to identify fully all the contributors to the religious violence that occurred during his tragic reign over Peoples Temple. A troubled, paranoid, and increasingly delusional man eventually brought his world crashing down upon himself; and when that happened, he destroyed the very persons who had helped him maintain absolute power over a period of many years.
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Clarke, Ronald O. (1988). The narcissistic guru: A profile of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh. Free Inquiry, 33-45.

Committee on Foreign Affairs. (1979). The assassination of Representative Leo J. Ryan and the Jonestown, Guyana tragedy. 96th U.S. Cong., 1st sess. Washington: GPO.

Fenigstein, Allan. (2001). Paranoia. The Disorders: Specialty Articles from the Encyclopedia of Mental Health, 301-310. Howard S. Friedman (Ed.). San Diego: Academic Press.

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Cultic Studies Review, Vol. 4, No. 3, 2005, Page

[1] Definitional issues are common with religious groups such as Peoples Temple. I define a sect using Stark and Bainbridge’s concept of a schismatic movement, which is a “deviant religious bod[y] ... in a state of relatively high tension with their surrounding sociocultural environment ... founded by persons who left another religious body for the purpose of founding the [breakaway group]” (1985:25). Jones founded the Peoples Temple sect during the 1950s when he was a minister in the Methodist church.

[2] Reports of death totals vary among sources, from 909 (Committee on Foreign Affairs, 1979:6) to 914 (Chidester, 1988:1). For the purpose of this article, I use the figure of 909 members, including Jones, as the total number of deaths.

[3] A similar model is Barlow and Durand’s multidimensional integrative approach, which combines biological, social, psychological, emotional, and developmental domains to describe psychopathology such as violent behaviour (see Barlow and Durand, 2002:28-29).

[4] Because of space constraints, this study investigates only the intrapsychic (biopsychosocial) contributors of Roy’s (2000) and Kent’s (2004) four domains of violence, though the other three domains remain important for a comprehensive understanding of the violent behaviour of any sectarian group.

[5] To meet Criterion A for schizophrenia, the individual must have two (or more) of the following symptoms for a significant period of time over the course of one month: delusions, hallucinations, disorganized speech, grossly disorganized or catatonic behaviour, and negative symptoms such as affective flattening, alogia, or avolition (Kaplan and Sadock, 1998:467). Alternatively, Criterion A is fulfilled if delusions are bizarre, if hallucinations are paired with a voice that provides a running commentary of the individual’s actions, or if two voices converse with each other (Kaplan and Sadock, 1998:467). Note that tactile and olfactory hallucinations might occur with delusional disorder if they relate to the theme of the delusion (Kaplan and Sadock, 1998:515).

[6] Despite being delusional, Jones was able to function quite well in his early years with Peoples Temple, working hard as a reverend to solve social problems. Toward the last years of his life, however, and especially after he moved to Guyana to live at the Peoples Temple commune in 1977, Jones did become increasingly dysfunctional and irrational. Later in this study, I explore the gradual breakdown of Jones’ rationality.

[7] In contrast, bizarre delusions typically occur in schizophrenic individuals (which Jones most likely was not) and are an “absurd, totally implausible, strange false belief” (Kaplan and Sadock, 1998:282), such as aliens implanting electrodes into one’s brain. An easy way to distinguish delusional disorder from schizophrenia is that with delusional disorder the imagined events could be happening but are not, while with schizophrenia, the imagined events are not even possible (Barlow and Durand, 2002:431).

[8] In faith healings, “success hinges heavily upon the faith of the sufferer” (Reiterman and Jacobs, 1982:44), relying on the follower to attribute his or her own meaning to the event. To reinforce his followers’ belief in him as a prophet, Jones purposely deceived members by creating fake “healings.” For example, he often claimed the ability to cure cancer. Using animal blood and innards, and “a quick hand, a knack for concealment, a calculating mind, and ... a willingness to deceive” (Reiterman and Jacobs, 1982:49), he appeared to make the disease disappear. His followers mistakenly attributed their leader’s magic tricks as the capacity to cure cancer.

[9] For instance, the sources that I have read about Jones’ drug use vary considerably in their discussion of the types and specific drugs he used. In addition, they make little mention about why or specifically when he began using drugs.

[10] To meet diagnostic criteria for polysubstance dependence, rather than simply dependence of a single substance, an individual must use substances repeatedly from at least three different categories of drugs (excluding nicotine or caffeine) for a minimum period of twelve months, even if the individual does not meet full diagnostic criteria for any specific substance (Kaplan and Sadock, 1998:390). The eleven possible drug categories listed in the DSM-IV-TR are alcohol, amphetamines or other stimulants, caffeine, cannabis, cocaine, hallucinogens, inhalants, opioids, nicotine, phencyclidine (PCP) or similar agents, and a category for sedatives, hypnotics, and anxiolytics (American Psychiatric Association, 2000:191).

[11] Tolerance is defined by either “a need for markedly increased amounts of the substance to achieve intoxication or a desired effect, or by a markedly diminished effect with continued use of the same amount of the substance” (American Psychiatric Association, 2000:197).

[12] Withdrawal is characterized by either the typical withdrawal syndrome for the particular substance, or it might be diagnosed if “the same (or closely related) substance is taken to relieve or avoid withdrawal symptoms” (American Psychiatric Association, 2000:197).

[13] There are many accounts of Jones’ poor health. His body often was swollen with edema (Reiterman and Jacobs, 1982:426, 468); he had problems urinating (Reiterman and Jacobs, 1982:426); and he often had problems with walking and even with standing (Maaga, 1998:92). There is speculation that he may have been diabetic (Reiterman and Jacobs, 1982:584; Reston, 1981:281), although most likely these problems were a combination of excessive drug intake and hypochondria (Maaga, 1998:92). Jones complained constantly of fictitious physical ailments such as cancer, heart conditions, fungus in his lungs, fever (Maaga, 1998:82), headaches, and dizziness (Reston, 1981:281). Also, he claimed to have a blood pressure reading of 480/130, which was a number much higher than his measuring apparatus’ capability (Reston, 1981:272). Jones’ hypochondria probably resulted from both a need to justify his extreme substance use (Maaga, 1998:92) and a belief that he was actually ill (which, each time he abused drugs, was further reinforced).

[14] See Kent (2004:105) for a discussion of the catalyzing and disinhibiting roles of substances in religious settings of violence.

[15] Jones held his first White Night around 1975, though he probably did not start instigating regularly held White Nights until 1977 (Reiterman and Jacobs, 1982:294-296, 390).

[16] The article Jones read was entitled “Nine Places to Hide” and was published in the January 1962 issue of Esquire magazine (Weightman, 1983:23).

[17] Members experienced physical harm ranging from deprivation of food and sleep to “the possibility of real and severe beatings” (Committee on Foreign Affairs, 1979:17). For example, misbehaving children were publicly beaten with a one-by-four-inch paddle, known as the “Board of Education” (Reiterman and Jacobs, 1982:259). Also, children and adults were encouraged to fight each other in boxing matches (Layton, 1998:114). Jones misattributed the outcomes by “conditioning people to believe that they would win if they fought for the church and would lose if they fought against it” (Reiterman and Jacobs, 1982:259). Forced labor in the Public Service Unit (PSU) was also a common punishment for misbehaving members over the age of six (Singer and Lalich, 1995:250).

[18] In the summer of 1978, Jones established the “Extended Care Unit” (ECU) or “Medical Unit” where unmanageable members were drugged on his orders (Layton, 1998:176), sometimes at “dangerously high doses” (Reiterman and Jacobs, 1982:449-450). Drugs used in the ECU, such as Demerol, Valium, Thorazine, and Quaaludes can cause medical problems such as “hallucinations, blurred vision, confusion and speech disturbances, involuntary movements, suicidal tendencies, or other emotional upheavals” (Reiterman and Jacobs, 1982:449-450). Members also were not permitted to visit doctors, even when they were ill (Layton, 1998:110).

[19] As previously mentioned, Jones at times forced members to be celibate with everyone but himself, giving him divinely attributed access to all members of both sexes (Layton, 1998:54), which he justified as “revolutionary sex” (Reston, 1981:243). He also inflicted harm on his followers by creating a sexually charged environment (Mills, 1979:255, 257; Reiterman and Jacobs, 1982:175-179, 222-223), and by forcing members into arranged marriages (Layton, 1998:61).

[20] Although I found little discussion regarding the academic life of Peoples Temple members, academic harm likely did occur for children in the Jonestown commune. For instance, children of school age (over the age of six) were required to work for up to eleven hours a day, from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m., in the jungle fields on construction crews (Singer and Lalich, 1995:250). Presumably, these long hours of labor mean that children did not have time to attend school. In addition, a former Peoples Temple member who cared for another former child member remarked that the child “was old enough for the third grade, but he didn’t know colours, numbers, or the alphabet. He had learned to scrawl his first name, but that was all” (Mills, 1979:73).

[21] Before Jones established the Ukiah commune, he encouraged his members to sell their possessions, including their homes, and give the proceeds to the church, misattributing the act as God’s will (Layton, 1998:58). Also, Jones expected members to give their paychecks, trust funds, and social security checks to Peoples Temple (Layton, 1998:58).

[22] For example, Jones justified White Nights as preparation for the inevitable violent assault by outsiders. Consequently, many members feared the world outside of Jonestown (Reiterman and Jacobs, 1982:200). Richardson (1980:251) argues that Jones “took advantage of the symbolic quality already present in consuming a liquid in a religious ritual, and he added new cognitive material concerning the ‘revolutionary suicide’ interpretation of the event.” That is, Jones added his own religious misattribution to frame the event. In addition, Jones inflicted social harm by creating an atmosphere of mistrust amongst children and their parents, with the intent of severing ties between family members (Committee on Foreign Affairs, 1979:18).

[23] For instance, during “struggle meetings,” followers were expected to divulge all secrets and “wrongdoings” to Jones and other Peoples Temple members. Jones used these member confessions as reason to inflict “harassment, humiliation, revilement, and degradation” (Committee on Foreign Affairs, 1979:17) on his followers.

[24] I thank Stephen Kent for providing me with these seven categories of religiously sanctioned harm.

I thank Dr. Stephen Kent for his support and editorial comments regarding this article, and for granting me access to the Kent Collection on Alternative Religions, housed at the University of Alberta.

Candice Lys is an award-winning Sociology Honours student at the University of Alberta.