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What Was the Peoples Temple?

One of the most obvious signs of a potential cult is a leader who claims they are receiving special revelation from God that is treated with equal authority as Scripture. This is exactly how Jim Jones, leader of the Peoples Temple, pulled off one of the most horrendous tragedies of the 20th century.

Christianity.com Contributing Writer
Updated Jul 20, 2020
What Was the Peoples Temple?

The Peoples Temple was a new religious movement that turned into a cult, culminating in a mass murder-suicide in 1978 of over 900 people, including almost 300 children. This movement began in the 1950s by charismatic pastor and faith healer, Jim Jones, and grew in popularity, attracting people from all over the United States and foreign countries.

The group began in Indiana, relocated to Redwood Valley, California, then to San Francisco, and finally, in 1977, to Guyana, South America, where Jones promised that his followers would live in a utopia on earth in a community nicknamed “Jonestown.” Just a little more than a year later, he and his followers were found dead after ingesting a flavored drink mixed with cyanide.

Historians, psychologists, and the general public have puzzled over this atrocity for the past 40 years. Questions surround the deaths — were they murdered, or did they commit suicide? Who was Jim Jones? What persuaded people to move all the way across the country and then to a foreign country to be part of his group?

There’s a saying that “those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Is there a lesson we can learn from this so that a tragedy like this never happens again?

Who Was Jim Jones?

Though he is now infamous, and history has labeled him as a dangerous cult leader, there was a time when Jim Jones was seen as the superstar of a popular, progressive religious movement that was considered by many to be a Christian church.

He was an advocate for racial integration, drug rehabilitation, and poverty reduction. There were claims that hundreds of people were being healed of various diseases and that he was an anointed messenger of God who spoke with prophetic accuracy.

At one point, he advertised that he had baptized over 1,000 converts. At the height of the movement, they were boasting a membership of 20,000 (although the actual numbers have now been estimated somewhere between 3,000-8,000). People from all parts of America and from foreign countries moved to Redwood Valley, California to join the Peoples Temple.

The leader of the denomination said this about Jones: “Here was a guy who could walk into the most gosh‐awful slum and give people hope…in the 1960s the church was looking for this kind of man.” Members of the Peoples Temple were described by another church leader as “the most committed and dedicated group of people I have known in any church anywhere.”

Later, there were stories of some of the most horrendous abuse that Jones had inflicted on members. He controlled and terrorized adults and children through physical, emotional, and sexual abuse and terrifying threats.

How Did Jones Deceive People into Believing He Was a Christian Pastor?

Jesus warned us that false prophets would come. He said they would be dressed in “sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves” (Matthew 7:15). Because Jesus referred to his followers as sheep (John 10:9-29), this is a warning that false prophets will come posing as true followers of Jesus to lead people astray. Jesus told us that the way to recognize these false prophets is “by their fruit” (Matthew 7:16).

In examining the fruit of Jim Jones, a mixture of both good and evil can be observed in his behavior. Similarly, his teachings contained a mixture of both truth and error. In the book, A Different Gospel by D. R. McConnel, he points out that this is the most dangerous type of deception because the heresy can be disguised by the appearance of orthodoxy. He writes, “The most dangerous of lies is not the bald-faced lie, for that is easily detected and rejected. A half-truth always does far more damage than a bald-faced lie.”

Jones would teach from the Bible, but he would often twist biblical concepts to support his own agenda. When teaching principles of socialism, he labeled it “apostolic socialism” and cited scriptures from the early church. Perhaps as a way to silence objections from those who knew God’s Word, he spoke down about formal Christian education (not having any himself). He also spoke disparagingly about other churches and complained about the number of denominations, perhaps to elevate his own teachings in the eyes of his followers.

He would also speak out of both sides of his mouth. On the one hand, he would say his goal was to exalt Christ, but he simultaneously claimed a special status for himself, with titles such as anointed messenger, prophet, father, eventually equating himself with Christ, and in the last few years with God himself. He undermined Christians’ confidence in God’s Word by teaching them that they couldn’t understand it for themselves and they needed to be taught by God’s anointed messenger.

What Was Jim Jones’ Theology?

Researchers have traced Jim Jones’ theology to his connection with William Branham, a Word of Faith healer who denied the biblical doctrine of the Trinity and “saw himself as the seventh angel to the church of Laodicea.” Jim Jones learned from Branham and later taught that believers have the potential in this life to be fully manifested as sons of God.

He taught that he had achieved this fullness himself so that when he spoke, he was speaking the very words of God. This unbiblical doctrine, referred to as the manifest sons of God, has been denounced as heresy by most Christian denominations, but still continues to be promoted in many churches today.

What Are the Early Signs of a Potential Cult?

Over the past 2000 years, there have been countless cults that have popped up and fizzled out. Though most cult followers do not end in committing mass suicide, the psychological, emotional, and spiritual trauma can be very destructive. One of the most obvious signs of a potential cult is a leader who claims they are receiving special revelation from God that is treated with equal authority as Scripture.

The Bible teaches that we don’t need any person to reveal special knowledge to us outside the Bible because each Christian has the Holy Spirit to guide them to the truth of God through the Word of God (1 John 2:27). Pastors in Christian churches usually encourage their members to test their teaching with the scriptures for themselves, just as the Bereans did after receiving the message from Paul (Acts 17:10-15).

This helps the body of Christ to be united around the Word of God, not human leaders. But leaders of emerging cults usually speak with presumptuous authority and do not welcome correction from God’s Word.

The scriptures also teach us to not be divided over human leaders (1 Corinthians 3:1-9) but united under Christ. A cult-like leader will often boast (sometimes subtly) about God’s blessing on their group and will speak about other groups as inferior. The culture of the group will begin to revolve around the leader, rather than Christ. Matt Slick expounds on some other signs of cults here.

How Can We Keep Ourselves from Falling into Deception?

Jesus warned us to be on the alert for false prophets and false messiahs. “See that no one leads you astray…. many false prophets will arise and lead many astray” (Matthew 24:4, 11). Jesus taught that some of these false prophets would perform “great signs and wonders, so as to lead astray, if possible, even the elect” (Matthew 24:24). According to this verse, Christians need to be on the lookout for false prophets.

Often, we expect that the threat of false prophets will be outside of Christianity, but these would not have the potential to deceive true Christians. Paul, also, taught that false teachers would rise up within the church and would “distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them” (Acts 20:30).

False prophets doing signs and wonders will claim to know the Lord and will claim they are doing miracles in the power of Christ, but Jesus will say to them “I never knew you” (Matthew 7:15-23). Paul writes, “For such people are false apostles, deceitful workers, masquerading as apostles of Christ. And no wonder, for Satan himself masquerades as an angel of light.

It is not surprising, then, if his servants also masquerade as servants of righteousness. Their end will be what their actions deserve” (2 Corinthians 11:13-15). We are also warned of another spirit, another Jesus, and another gospel (2 Corinthians 11:4, Galatians 1:6-9).

To prevent falling into deception, we must stand firm and hold fast to the teachings that were passed down to us by the apostles who were chosen by the Lord himself and inspired by his Spirit to write his authoritative word for us (2 Thessalonians 2:15). We must “contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to God’s holy people” (Jude 3).

Photo Credit: ©iStock/Getty Images Plus/Gudella


SWN writerJessica Miller is the pastor’s wife and outreach director at Bean Blossom Community Church in Indiana, where she loves serving the Lord together with her husband, Jeff. Prior to marriage, her perspective on life was radically altered while living as a single woman in the Middle East. She is passionate about growing in her relationship with the Lord and pointing others to the truth. Her degrees are in biblical studies and counseling and she carries a special passion for cross-cultural ministries. She enjoys learning, traveling, and creating. She tweets and blogs from time to time.

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