Indiana’s Jim Jones: Lessons from the Past

Posted on: March 16, 2019, by :

By Jeff Turner

Everyone, most everyone, in the United States has heard of Jim Jones. Jones was the infamous, megalomaniacal cult leader whose People’s Temple congregation of nine hundred and thirteen members committed suicide in Jonestown, located in French Guyana, in 1978, on Jones’ orders (the few who refused to follow these orders were executed, though a handful did escape). No one knows for sure what took place in Jonestown. A Congressman from California, Leo Ryan, who went to investigate Jonestown at the behest of his constituents was gunned down by Jones’ followers. Many believe that this is what prompted the mass suicide, as Jones feared the U.S. government would be putting an end to their way of life. What many don’t realize, however, is that Jones started his People’s Temple here in Indianapolis, more than fifty years ago now.

Jones’ First People’s Temple, 1502 N. New Jersey Street.
The site is now home to a Baptist Church

Jones was born James Warren Jones on May 13, 1931 in the small town of Crete, Indiana. After a childhood spent living in small towns, Jones, who started preaching at the age of sixteen, relocated to Indianapolis, where he would ultimately found the first People’s Temple. Jones’ views were considered highly unconventional at the time. He was an ardent communist during a time when the Cold War was at its peak. He was also an integrationist, who spoke in favor of racial harmony and reconciliation, which did not sit well with many Indianapolis residents in the churches Jones preached at prior to founding the People’s Temple. Jones and his wife were actually the first couple in the state of Indiana to adopt a black child, according to multiple sources. In fact, of Jones’ nine children, he and his wife only biologically conceived one; the rest were adopted and from a variety of different races, a “rainbow family” as he termed it, according to an Historic Indianapolis article.

Though many people associate racism and Jim Crow with the segregated South during this time, the North also exhibited its own racial biases and discriminatory policies, some worse even than the South. Indiana was no exception. In fact, this is the state where the Ku Klux Klan had its second rise during the early 20th century.

But Jones’ anti-racist worldview may have had more sinister intent, as it allowed him a greater number of individuals to prey on, allowing him to amass a greater following of people from a wide array of racial backgrounds. Jones founded his first People’s Temple on the old Northside of Indianapolis in 1955. He chose this area due to its more “racially integrated” population (by Indiana standards at the time that is), according to the same Historic Indianapolis article. The church still stands, albeit no longer the People’s Temple, serving as a haunting reminder of the city’s own dark past. This was the location where Jones put his carefully honed preaching style to use, performing “miracle healings,” and other sham acts of faith akin to the ones used by various religious charlatans to maintain control of their respective congregations. Such acts are meant to display that such an individual is the living incarnation of Christ in many instances, a “God complex.” And Jones clearly possessed one.

Followers of the church surrendered their assets without question, in accordance with Jones’ policy of “Communalism.” According to The Evil 100 entry on Jones (a book that ranks historical figures in regards to how “evil” they are; Jones ranked #28), this is a style of communism applied to the church rather than a central government. This, and the various forms of mind control made it impossible for followers to leave the church. Should they do so, they would remain poor and destitute. To defy Jones was the ultimate offense. As one Jonestown survivor, Odell Rhodes said, in regards to his conversations with Jones “I damned near thought I was talking to the devil.”

As Jones’ message began to attract more and more followers, in 1958 his People’s Temple relocated to another location, 975 North Delaware Street (according to an Indy Star article). The site is now a vacant lot, but Jones would remain here for six years before relocating to California. Jones’ integrationist views did not make him popular in Indiana. It is doubtful, however, that even those Hoosiers who despised him for their own racist views, or those who might have recognized him for the charlatan he was, could have imagined the fate that was in store for his congregation. Jones spent most of his life in Indiana. But his growing congregation, and most likely hostility from the city of Indianapolis, prompted his move to California. More than a decade after this, he would relocate once again, to French Guyana this time. Here he would establish Jonestown, a location he chose because it was far from the eyes of the U.S. government and relatives attempting to remove their loved ones from Jones’ “church.” And, the rest is history.

The Jonestown Massacre was single greatest loss of American life prior to 9/11. Few of the congregants of the People’s Temple survived to tell what happened during the final days of the church. Today Jim Jones does serve as a warning of what blind allegiance to a toxic, yet charismatic con artist can have by those taken in by such a figure. Today, some of those on the political left cite our current President, and his base, as a modern-day example of this type of “mind control” over a vulnerable segment of the population. Of course, this is an extreme example, but nonetheless one of the harsher labels certain progressives have bestowed upon the current Commander-In-Chief. Trump, however, is on the right of the political spectrum. If Jones is any indication, such a cult-like figure could easily arise from the political left as well.

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