Whom the gods would destroy they first make mad—Euripides
Jim Jones’ grisly downfall began when he committed the hustler’s biggest mistake: He started believing his own con. Who can say when he lost the simple faith that first called him to the ministry? But in its place came the dizzying hint that down the glory road lay not just mere salvation—if indeed that at all—but fame, riches, power, sex. And those rewards were claimable now, not in some hereafter.
Jones had gone off in the 1950s to examine the style of the old mojo man, Father Divine. When he returned to his simple church in Indiana from Father’s heaven on earth, it was not for long: Jones set out to build his own in California. Faith healing, raising the dead (43 parishioners brought back to life, Jones bragged, and many followers accepted the lie), magic potions, talismans against misfortunes from auto accidents to burglary and fire—the preacher said he could work the miracle. From a church, his “Peoples Temple” became a tawdry burlesque, then a product, a money machine yielding millions. Jones invented a new self too—mascaraed and macabre as the psychosis that fueled it. He proclaimed he was no less a personage than God himself, creator of earth and heaven; again, there were people willing to accept this new gospel.
Church and self and godhood, too, became terrible burdens. The awful truths kept leaking out: beatings, slavery, blackmail, sexual humiliation, child abuse and at least one suspicious death. Nonetheless, when Dad Jones—he reveled in the name—moved from California to Guyana with his wife, Marcie, and a child he claimed he sired out of wedlock, the shepherd did not lack for sheep. “I still follow you,” wrote one subject, “because you have the gift to protect me. I like to look strong, but I know I’m weak.”
To outsiders, in this bewildering era of Moonies, Children of God, Hare Krishnas, Synanon and Scientology, Jim Jones may have seemed just one more plastic messiah. Those on the inside wanted to believe and did. “I have found it, the meaning, the way,” rejoiced one resident of Jonestown.
When Congressman Leo Ryan and a party of newsmen threatened Jones’ kingdom, the minister had gone so far into madness that their murder seemed the only solution. The unconverted world was left to ponder how Jones could have led anyone to the vat of cyanide and Kool-Aid, what unspeakable urges provoked parents to kill their own children. One who was meant to take the obscene communion with Jones that day, but regained sense and fled, had an answer: “They wouldn’t know what to do without him.” It was the echo of Dostoevski’s Grand Inquisitor in The Brothers Karamazov, who says of religious zealots, “Too, too well, they know the value of complete submission.”