Jonestown: The Life and Death of the People’s Temple

Subject: Sociology
Type: Analytical Essay
Pages: 5
Word count: 1386
Topics: Racial Inequality, Documentary, Film Analysis, Leadership, Race
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Summary

This documentary looks into the People’s Temple of Jim Jones from its origins to its tragic end. It also makes an analysis of Jim Jones and the way that he was able to convince so many of his followers to eventually go with him to Guyana where he intended to establish a utopian society. Through a series of interviews with individuals that were a part of his movement, a picture of the man behind the Jonestown incident is revealed.  Jones is shown to be an individual that was extremely progressive in his time, advocating for civil rights as well as promoting ideas concerning racial equality. His progressiveness is shown to have been instrumental in the development of a strong following that would eventually evolve into an influential movement. There is an analysis of the different methods that Jones used to ensure that he gained influence as well as the unwavering support of his followers to such an extent that they believed everything that he said. A result of the blind, unquestioning, loyalty of his followers was that Jones was able to ensure that he made even rational people believe his increasingly outlandish theories to such an extent that he led them to their tragic ends. Thus, Jones’ leadership attributes and the manner through which he ensured the loyalty of his followers are analysed with the eventual deaths of the latter being considered the climax of the life of an individual that had begun so full of promise but ended up essentially becoming a mass murderer.

Review

Jonestown: The Life and Death of the People’s Temple is a documentary that covers the incidents involving Jim Jones and his followers. It shows that despite Jones’ progressive ways at the beginning of his ministry, he increasingly became out of touch, to such an extent that heled his followers to a tragic end (Nelson). Thus, the documentary is about the rise and fall of an individual that convinced many of his followers to believe in him; leading to their deaths.

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One of the most important red flags that came about concerning the personality of Jim Jones was that he begun as a leader, then a father, and finally declared himself to be God (Osherow 68). That his followers disregarded the warning signs of what was to come can be attributed to Jones’ charisma. This is because he was able to ensure that he continued to have the undivided support of his followers despite the steps that he was increasingly taking towards the irrational. His declaring himself God was highly significant because it showed that he was no longer hinged to reality, and was instead seeking to have absolute control over his followers.

Jones’ followers seem to have been brainwashed into believing that he was more than just the average person. This is especially considering that many of his followers were individuals who were not only well educated, but were also rational people. However, that they were all convinced to follow Jones’ teachings can only be attributed to brainwashing because it is most likely that under normal circumstances, they would not have followed Jones without first thinking of the consequences of their actions.

It is most likely that the events that took place in Jonestown involved mass murder. A considerable number of Jones’ followers were individuals who were willing to have a better, utopian life as was promised by Jones. A result of this was that they followed Jones to Guyana in order to ensure that a community with similar ideals was brought about. That they may have made the decision to commit mass suicide is unthinkable because these were individuals full of life and purpose. Under such circumstances, it is likely that it was a mass murder and the instrument of death was the cyanide inside the Kool-Aid, which many of Jones’ followers must have consumed unknowingly.

It is likely that such incidents will continue to happen, not only in the United States, but also in the rest of the world. This is especially the case in situations where religious leaders preach apocalyptic doctrines that encourage their followers to undertake irrational actions, such as giving up everything that they have in order to pursue idealistic goals (Abbott 39). There is an abundance of such leaders, who are often charismatic and seek to ensure that they achieve absolute dominance over their faithful through promises and coercion. A result of such situations is that everything ends tragically for the followers, as seen in the way that the Jonestown incident took place.

A possible reason behind his followers not leaving him when they realised that he was becoming irrational is because Jones essentially represented an ideal. Their decision to follow him was aimed at the establishment of a utopian society, and it is likely that these individuals felt that they could not back out because they had made a commitment (Gardner, Sadri and Williams). Therefore, even though there may have been some who harboured doubts concerning Jones, a majority may have believed in him and were fully committed to the cause. A result may have been that they persuaded, or coerced those who were not fully committed to take Jones’ side.

Jim Jones made use of a diverse number of tactics to ensure that his followers believed his theories. One of the most important was that he used his charism to ensure that they not only came to him, but also painted a picture of the ideal society that many of them craved. Furthermore, he sought to identify with the fears and expectations of his followers in such a way that they ended up believing in what he said since they felt that he understood them. In addition, Jones was an individual who advocated for extremely progressive ideas which made many of his followers admire him, and most of his theories ended up becoming an essential belief among them (Abbott ii).

One of the most significant aspects of his leadership style was that Jones was quite authoritarian. This is especially considering that he only promoted his own ideas, which he expected his followers to follow. Furthermore, he advocated for unquestioning following of his commands, in such a way that promoted his paternal image. Finally, Jones, by declaring himself God, sought to ensure that no one among his followers would challenge his leadership and authority to choose what was best for them (Barker 330). The result of all these actions was to ensure that he had unquestioning loyalty from his followers while at the same time silencing all those that doubted him.

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It is unlikely that Jones planned the mass murder from the beginning because he had everything that he wanted, including recognition from society. He was an individual who, because of his progressiveness before becoming more erratic, was considered a pillar of his society. Therefore, the mass murder must have taken place because of his disillusionment as well as his realisation that he could not deliver on his followers’ expectations, especially now that he had declared himself God. 

In conclusion, the documentary shows that the Jonestown incident was the culmination of a movement that had begun with so much promise. Jones’ charisma had brought to him a considerable following, which allowed him to gain authority over them while at the same time propagating his ideas. However, all these ended tragically because of a man who, because of his absolute power over his followers, convinced them to not only leave their homes and follow him to establish a settlement in Guyana, but also to believe in his ideas concerning life, and society and the promise of the establishment of a utopian one.

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  1. Abbott, Catherine Barrett. “The Reverend Jim Jones and Religious, Political, and Racial Radicalism in Peoples Temple.”  (2015). Print.
  2. Barker, Eileen. “Religious Movements: Cult and Anticult since Jonestown.” Annual Review of Sociology 12.1 (1986): 329-46. Print.
  3. Gardner, Phyllis, Mahmoud Sadri, and James L Williams. “Jonestown as a Total Institution: Why Some People Chose Death over Escape from Peoples Temple.” Alternative considerations of Jonestown and Peoples Temple  (2013). Print.
  4. Nelson, Stanley. “Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple.” 20 (2006). Print.
  5. Osherow, Neal. “Making Sense of the Nonsensical: An Analysis of Jonestown.” Readings about the social animal  (1988): 68-86. Print.
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