In 1971, Jim Jones loaded up some buses in California and took members of his Peoples Temple across the country to Pennsylvania — to Woodmont, the estate of the late spiritual leader Father Divine, who had a much bigger church (and a lot more money) than Jones did.
Reaching Woodmont, Jones tried Plan A, announcing the glorious news that he was the reincarnation of Father Divine and had come to lead his church again, and we might as well just go ahead and put my name on all the bank accounts; the dead leader’s wife suggested, in fairly clear language, that Jones get back on his bus while he could still walk. The delegation from Peoples Temple took the hint. But Jones also executed Plan B, with modest success: He poached some congregants, and drove them across the country to his own church in Ukiah.
Back home, Jones worried that people who had followed Father Divine would struggle to make the transition, feeling more loyalty to their old leader than to their new one. So he showed them that he couldn’t be crossed. One day, as the refugees from Philadelphia sat eating a meal with everyone else in the communal dining room, Jones walked in and caught several of the earlier members of his church being disloyal to him — and so, pointing a finger, he ordered them to die.
They did, immediately. Bodies littered the floor. Jones let the silence linger, standing over the lifeless bodies of the people who had betrayed his trust, the power of death shooting through his fingertips. And then he showed his merciful side: He resurrected them, a choice that allowed the dead to share the horrible feeling of being struck down by the indescribably vast and awesome power of Jim Jones. Terrified, the new members of the church fell into line.
He did this shit all the time. During recruiting trips to rented churches in other cities, visitors had mid-sermon strokes and heart attacks; nurses in the congregation frantically tried to resuscitate them, but announced that it was too late. But no, the Reverend Jones wouldn’t allow death to strike in his own holy church! Rushing forward and shoving the nurses aside, he commanded the dead to ARISE, ARIIIIISSSSEEE yadda yadda whatever. In 1972, a church bulletin proudly announced that Jones had personally resurrected forty dead people so far in just that one year. And here you are feeling proud that you remembered to make the bed this morning.
I take these stories from Raven, a doorstop-thick history of Jones and Peoples Temple written by the journalist Tim Reiterman (with research assistance from a colleague, John Jacobs). Reiterman decided to write about Jones after he was shot at Jonestown, visiting the final Peoples Temple location with the congressional delegation led by Leo Ryan. The research task was made easier by the self-regard the Reverend Jones had felt, because he left behind a giant catalogue of taped sermons and lectures, and a long paper trail of church bulletins and memoranda. The resulting book is an extraordinarily detailed look at every step Jones took along the path to mass murder, starting with the sadistic hucksterism of his strange childhood.
We wonder, now, how people believe all this shit about our own moment. Anthony Fauci says not to wear a mask, it won’t protect you, and so people don’t wear a mask, because Dr. Fauci said so, and then Dr. Fauci says to always wear a mask, and so the same people always wear a mask, because Dr. Fauci said so. And you think, they don’t notice?
Joe Biden signs an executive order requiring masks on federal property for 100 days, and he says if you wear a mask for 100 days, we’ll end the pandemic, and you’ll never have to wear a mask again, and then — about 465 days later — we’re still in the same pandemic, and you should keep wearing your mask.
The vaccines are 95% effective against infection! Well, okay, they’re 60% effective against severe illness. Well, okay, uh….
And still people are on the bus. How?
The first part of the answer is that people routinely believe way dumber things, to the point of dying for them, and the dark art of making them believe is not a mysterious art.
Jones started his ministry as a Christian church, steering clear of mainstream congregations and hunting for believers who spoke in tongues and followed ministers who healed the sick by the laying on of hands. He wanted people who were capable of fierce and extreme belief, details unimportant, and he built a church around them. Within a few years, he began to reveal to them that he had been wrong — but no worries, because he’d thought deeply about the problem, and he was figuring it out. It turns out, he helpfully explained, that the Bible is nonsense, and there actually isn’t really a god; then, reaching a little deeper, he helped them to finally break through to the understanding that he was god, and the only spirituality that mattered was “apostolic socialism” — the spirituality of deep and selfless human kindness, so you should be spiritual and sign over all your property to me. He started with hardcore Christians, and within a few years had them shouting with joy as he performed his go-to move of hurling down the Bible and grinding it under his feet in contempt while he screamed, actual quote, “I AM GOD!”
So yes, you can get people to overlook inconsistency in your messaging about wearing cloth masks. I mean, gasp.
Jim Jones had great charisma and shrewdness, and all that crap we usually think about cult leaders, but the truth is that he was a hokey clown show of a human being, a sideshow freak in Elvis sideburns who made carnival barkers look dignified. He hid chicken livers up his sleeve so he could rip “cancer” out of the bodies of the sick; he kept an elite staff of inner-circle dirty tricksters who stole from trash cans and mailboxes so he could use his divine ESP to shock people with the secrets he knew from seeing into their very souls. He was pure shit, a misplaced pimp in a fake pulpit.
People saw this. Routinely, constantly, unremarkably, people watched Jim Jones “resurrect the dead” and pull “cancer” from the bodies of the sick, and they laughed and rolled their eyes and walked out of his idiotic church. Ministers invited him to give guest lectures, then threw him out of their churches. Many people invited to attend services at Peoples Temple went once.
Eventually Jones trained a cadre of front-door staff to screen visitors, sidling up to people they hadn’t seen before and initiating conversations. People who were too alert, too shrewd, too conventional, too conservative, too radical, too likely to see through the bullshit were turned away on the front steps. Sorry, private service today. Leave your phone number, and we’ll call you if we have a public event sometime. He didn’t even want them in the room; he wanted the people who were equipped to believe, and he knew the markers well enough to train his staff at seeing them.
Once he got rid of the people who saw that he was a scumbag and a clown, he was left with a roomful of the people who didn’t see. And he went from there, with a toolkit of very plain and direct tools.
“Nudge groups” and SPI-B weren’t blazing trail. “Behavioral science” has been picking pockets since the dawn of time, though we’ve called it other things.
What’s remarkable about Jim Jones, in 2022, is how familiar he is, and how much his unremarkable techniques of social manipulation and personal control match our own moment.
Consider buying Tim Reiterman’s book. More tomorrow.