The story of Rev. Jim Jones is the story of a prodigiously energetic and intelligent man who slowly went insane, paranoid and hungry for power. He could be exceedingly kind, generous and responsible, yet also insecure, fearful, deceitful, demanding, controlling and increasingly messianic. Many believers revered him as a God-like prophet.
Rev. Jim Jones’ first Peoples Temple located at 1502 North New Jersey St, Indianapolis, IN.
James W. Jones moved to Indianapolis, Indiana in 1951 with his wife of two years, Marceline, to continue his college studies at the Indiana University campus in Indianapolis, and then to maybe study law. He had been a prodigal student and graduated near the top of his high school class at the age of 16. But he became discouraged with his studies and worked odd jobs instead, while his wife worked as a nurse. He mulled around ideas about communal living, racial equality, helping the poor and needy, but he did not believe in denominational religion, or in God for that matter. He only knew he wanted to be a leader.
One day his wife, who was religious, talked Jim into attending a Methodist Church. He discovered that the Church’s social agenda compared to his own social beliefs and he became interested. In a few months the Minister of the church asked him if he would like to be a student pastor at the church, which Jim accepted hoping to use his leadership skills within the church to carry out his social beliefs. He eventually discovered that the congregation was not very enthusiastic about integrating their church, so he decided to start his own non-denominational church. By 1955 he was able to get a loan from Indiana National Bank and Arsenal Building and Loan Company to buy a small church building in Indianapolis at 1502 North New Jersey Street. He incorporated this church in 1955 as The Wings of Deliverance and named it the Peoples Temple.
During the next two years Jones continued to hone his speaking skills to captivate and mesmerize his audience, and learned how to faith heal by detecting the problems that were hurting his believers beforehand. He attended and preached at other evangelical churches to study successful evangelicals and to attract people to his congregation. He was only moderately successful until he organized in June, 1956, an evangelical convention at the spacious Cadle Tabernacle in Indianapolis. To attract a big crowd he arranged for William Branham, a popular evangelist and faith healer, to speak at the rally, together with Jones’ own sermons and faith healing.
The success of this rally attracted many more people to hear Jones preach at his little church, increasing the church’s offerings and gifts from $22, 536.37 in 1955, to 34,460.52 in 1956. With his increased success and growing integrated congregation, Jones found a larger church at 975 North Delaware Street. This impressive stone building had been the home of the Hebrew Synagogue before they moved to north Indianapolis. The Hebrew organization had not realized that Jones’ congregation was a non-denominational evangelistic group when they sold it to them.
This new home of Jones’ Peoples Temple was in an old, but prestigious area of Indianapolis, within sight of the historic President Benjamin Harrison Home, and the Jordan School of Music.
Jones’ new integrated, evangelistic Peoples Temple became well-known in Indianapolis for helping the poor and needy, serving free meals in its basement and providing medical help for the elderly. In February, 1961, the mayor of Indianapolis appointed Jones as the head of the city’s Human Rights Commission to help integrate the city’s public places such as restaurants, and to help integrate neighborhoods.
In December,1961, Jones took a two-year “sabbatical” in Guyana, Hawaii, and Brazil, using the church’s funds to pay his living expenses. For a many years Jones had a fear of dying in a nuclear holocaust, and he was looking for a place to move his congregation to a safer area. While in Brazil, Jones became interested in occult religions, especially their idea of the religious leader as a prophet from God.
After Jones returned to Indianapolis in December,1963, he found his congregation had dwindled without his leadership, but his thoughts were now focused on moving to California, to an area that was more receptive to his liberal social ideas. He asked his congregation to move with him, with the stipulation that they turn over all their assets to the Peoples Temple. Dozens of his worshipers decided to move to California with him in July, 1965.
In California Jim Jones increased his social work, developed a controversial reputation with his drug and sexual abuse and extremist religious and community views, believing himself to be a prophet of God and forming a cult around his personality. He eventually moved away to Jonestown, Guyana in the summer of 1977 with his 900+ converts. In November, 1978, California Congressman Leo Ryan led an investigative delegation to Jonestown. At first the delegation was treated cordially, but the situated soon turned deadly. Leo Ryan and four others were shot to death as they tried to leave, and others were injured. Fearful that he had lost control over his communal “paradise”, Jones persuaded his hundreds of converts to commit mass suicide by drinking cyanide-laced kool aid . Jones killed himself with a bullet to the brain when he knew his end was inevitable.
Reference: “Raven,The Inside Story of the Rev. Jim Jones and His People”, by Tim Reitman. This detailed, well-documented book tells the life story of James W. Jones.
Written by Bob Gilyeat, a volunteer at the Indiana State Archives.
Jmes W. Jones was born in 1931 and was raised in Lynn, Indiana, about sixteen miles from Richmond, Indiana. His father had been incapacitated during WWI by poison gas and spent his time in the small town’s pool hall. His mother took daytime jobs in Richmond. But James was a prodigal child; he could talk early and was independent. He felt different because his skin color was olive-like and his hair raven black. He was lonely. By the age of ten he started to attend the local churches on his own, and his favorite was the “holy-roller” Pentecostal Church. He felt more comfortable in the emotional brotherhood and feelings of equality with the poor parishioners. Even then he could keep his playmates captivated while attending his mock-pulpit lectures.
Bob, this is an amazing article you’ve written. Thank you so much for all the work you do for the Archives and helping to get both the good and the bad side of history out there. We have millions of stories at the Archives, so keep writing and sharing!