Jim Jones

Religious mystery at heart of Jonestown: Why did this madman's disciples follow him?

Religious mystery at heart of Jonestown: Why did this madman's disciples follow him?

Whenever I think about the Jonestown massacre in 1978, I always think of one question.

No. It’s not, “Why did he do it?”

The Rev. Jim Jones was a classic “cult” leader in every sense of the word, in terms of sociology and doctrine (click here for background on that tricky term). He was an egotistical control freak who was used to having his own way. He took a congregation that started out in liberal mainline Protestantism and then took it all the way over the edge.

No, the question that always haunted me was this one: “Why did THEY do it?”

Why did 900-plus people, to use the phrase that changed history, “drink the Kool-Aid”?

What happened inside their heads and their hearts that led them to follow their preacher into what he called “revolutionary suicide,” rather than face legal authorities?

Yes, they were following a madman. But what was Jones preaching that created this hellish tragedy? WHY did they follow him?

That’s the mystery that host Todd Wilken and I explored during this week’s GetReligion “Crossroads” podcast. Click here to tune that in.

It’s pretty clear that religion was at the heart of this tragedy, even though very few mainstream news organizations — especially those blanketing TV screens with the ghoulish images from Jonestown — saw fit to explore that fact. Few, if any, religion-beat specialists got to cover that story.

Why did editors and producers settle for a splashy, simplistic take on Jonestown? That was the question that I explored in my earlier post on this topic: “Thinking about the Rev. Jim Jones: A classic example of why religion reporters are important.”

As I wrote in that earlier post:

There was no logical explanation for this gap in the coverage (especially in network television). To me, it seemed that newsroom managers were saying something like this: This story is too important to be a religion story. This is real news, bizarre news, semi-political news. Everyone knows that “religion” news isn’t big news.

Yes, there was a deranged minister at the heart of this doomed community. Journalists described him as a kind of “charismatic” neo-messiah, using every fundamentalist Elmer Gantry cliche in the book. OK, so Jones talked about socialism. But he was crazy. He had to be a fundamentalist. Right?

Please respect our Commenting Policy

Monday Mix: Jonestown significance, blue Orange County, Pittsburgh's New Light, Jews for Jesus

Monday Mix: Jonestown significance, blue Orange County, Pittsburgh's New Light, Jews for Jesus

Welcome to another edition of the Monday Mix, where we focus on headlines and insights you might have missed from the weekend and late in the week.

The fine print: Just because we include a headline here doesn't mean we won't offer additional analysis in a different post, particularly if it's a major story. In fact, if you read a piece linked here and have questions or concerns that we might address, please don't hesitate to comment below or tweet us at @GetReligion. The goal here is to point at important news and say, "Hey, look at this."

Three weekend reads

1. “You could make a strong case that GetReligion.org started with the Jonestown Massacre. Yes, this massacre — a mass ‘revolutionary suicide’ of 900-plus — took place in 1978 and this website launched in 2004.”

The connection?

By all means, check out Terry Mattingly’s fascinating weekend post on this subject.

Meanwhile, The Associated Press notes that “ceremonies at a California cemetery marked the mass murders and suicides 40 years ago of 900 Americans orchestrated by the Rev. Jim Jones at a jungle settlement in Guyana, South America.”

2. “They were Christians whose social circles often revolved around church. And they wanted none of the cultural and racial foment that was developing in Los Angeles and San Francisco.”

But the script has flipped in California’s once reliably Republican Orange County, as the Los Angeles Times reports.

Please respect our Commenting Policy

Friday Five: Minister tax break, Mormon death, The Crown's religion, Trump's dirty words and more

Friday Five: Minister tax break, Mormon death, The Crown's religion, Trump's dirty words and more

I watched the first season of "The Crown" on Netflix with my wife, Tamie.

I enjoyed it, although I wouldn't say I was goo-goo over it. When the second season came out, we caught an episode or two. Then my bride binged on the rest of it one day while I was busy with something more important (probably playing Words With Friends on my iPad). 

Suffice it to say that I haven't made it to the part featuring Queen Elizabeth II and the Rev. Billy Graham. (Right now, Tamie and I are in the middle of "Greenleaf," an Oprah Winfrey-produced drama featuring a black megachurch in Memphis, Tenn. That series reminds me of "Dallas," but with religion, not oil, as the family business. But I digress.)

Back to "The Crown": The Washington Post published an excellent Godbeat piece on it this week. More on that in a moment.

First, thought, let's dive right into this week's Friday Five:

Please respect our Commenting Policy