He belonged to a mainline Christian denomination, having been ordained in the Christian Church/Disciples of Christ. (At the time of his ordination, the DoC allowed a local congregation to select and ordain a minister on their own.
However, ordinations conducted without denominational endorsement were not considered valid within the rest of the church.)
The Peoples Temple was initially structured as an inter-racial mission for the sick, homeless and jobless. He assembled a large following of over 900 members in Indianapolis IN during the 1950's.
"He preached a 'social gospel' of human freedom, equality, and love, which required helping the least and the lowliest of society's members. Later on, however, this gospel became explicitly socialistic, or communistic in Jones' own view, and the hypocrisy of white Christianity was ridiculed while 'apostolic socialism' was preached." 1
It was an interracial congregation -- almost unheard of in Indiana at the time. When a government investigation began into his cures for cancer, heart disease and arthritis, he decided to move the group to Ukiah in Northern California. He preached the imminent end of the world in a nuclear war; Esquire magazine listed Ukiah as one of nine in the U.S. that cold survive a nuclear attack. They later moved to San Francisco and Los Angeles. After an expose during the mid 1970's in the magazine New West raised suspicions of illegal activities within the Temple, he moved some of the Temple membership to Jonestown, Guyana. The Temple had leased almost 4,000 acres of dense jungle from the government. They established an agricultural cooperative there, called the "Peoples Temple Agricultural Project." They raised animals for food, and assorted tropical fruits and vegetables for consumption and sale.
Jones developed a belief called Translation in which he and his followers would all die together, and would move to another planet for a life of bliss. Mass suicides were practiced in which his followers pretended to drink poison and fell to the ground.
During the late 1970's, Jones had been abusing prescription drugs and appears to have become increasingly paranoid. Rumors of human rights abuses circulated. As in most high-intensity religious groups, there was a considerable flow of people joining and leaving the group. Tim Stoen, the Temple attorney and right-hand man to Jones left to form a group called Concerned Relatives. They claimed that Jonestown was being run like a concentration camp, and that people were being held there against their will.
These concerns motivated Leo Ryan, a Congressman, to visit Jonestown in 1978-NOV for a personal inspection. At first, the visit went well. Later, on NOV-18, about 16 Temple members decided that they wanted to leave Jonestown with the visitors. This came as quite a blow to both Jones and the rest of the project. While Ryan and the others were waiting at Port Kiatuma airfield, the local airstrip, some heavily armed members of the Temple's security guards arrived and started shooting. Congressman Ryan and four others were killed; three were members of the press; the other was a person from Jonestown who wanted to leave. 11 were wounded.
Fearing retribution, the project members discuss their options. They reach a consensus to commit group suicide. Most appear to have committed suicide by drinking a grape drink laced with cyanide and a number of sedatives, including liquid Valium, Penegram and chloral hydrate. Some sources say it was Kool-Aid; others say FlaVor-Aid. Other victims appear to have been murdered by poison injection. The Guyanese coroner said that hundreds of bodies showed needle marks, indicating foul play. Still other victims were shot. A very few fled into the jungle and survived.
In all, 914 died: 638 adults and 276 children. Some sources say 911 died. Their bodies were in a state of extensive decay when the authorities arrived. There was no time to conduct a thorough investigation. TV station KTVU in San Francisco CA has a collection of photographs of the "Peoples temple Agricultural Project." Some are quite disturbing. Unfortunately, their web site implies that all of the dead committed suicide.
The Peoples Temple organization did not survive the mass suicide/murder in Guyana. Their former headquarters building in San Francisco was demolished by the Loma Prieta earthquake of 1989.
The murder/suicide of over 900 people sent shockwaves through the world. It generated enormous public support for the anti-cult and counter-cult movements. As with many major political assassinations or mass murders, Jonestown has spawned a number of conspiracy theories which attempt to explain this remarkable occurrence:
-Some people believe that the People's Temple was an experimental laboratory operated for or by the CIA in order to perfect mind-control techniques. They speculate that Leo Ryan uncovered this information and that he and over 900 of Jones' followers had to be assassinated in order to maintain secrecy. We have not been able to uncover any hard evidence that would support this belief. U.S. government records relating to the mass deaths have never been made public. This contributes to the conspiracy theory. "In 1980, the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence announced that there was 'no evidence' of CIA involvement at Jonestown." 11
-Some have suggested that Jones worked closely with the communist governments of Cuba and the USSR in the hopes of eventually moving the Temple to the USSR.
-The anti-cult movement also cites mind-control techniques by Jim Jones and his officials as the cause of the disaster. It is often claimed that the Jonestown disaster was a mass suicide made possible by mind-control. The many victims who were shot or forcibly injected with poison are ignored. Some surviving members claim that they were exposed to mind-control methods. However, others claim that living there was the best experience of their life.
-Some claim that Jonestown was a spectacularly successful grass-roots demonstration of what people could accomplish if they break free of capitalism and join in a common cause. They speculate that the U.S. government assassinated the people at Jonestown because they could not tolerate its success.
-Some in the academic community view the disaster as having been primarily caused by the hounding of Jonestown by anti-cult groups, news reporters and federal investigative agencies. If this theory is true, then the mass death at Jonestown was a self-fulfilling prophecy.