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Jim Jones Had a Twisted Idea of 'Revolutionary Suicide'

In this series, Newsweek reconstructs the events leading to the Jonestown Massacre as it happened in 1978, day by day.

November 6, 1978: Killing people was something Jones had thought about for years.

His murderous fantasies began in California, after eight college students left the church in 1973. In a letter, the students told Jones that they were fed up with his double standards. He slept around while demanding that everyone else "re-channel" their sexual energy into the cause. He advocated racial equality, but the Temple leadership was almost all white. He claimed to be mounting a socialist revolution, yet very few of his followers knew anything about Socialism.

Their departure and criticism threw Jones off kilter. He worried that the defectors would try to discredit him publicly—and he began to question the loyalty of everyone around him, especially of his inner circle, known as the "planning commission." At a meeting one night, he asked members if they'd be willing to commit "revolutionary suicide" to support socialism and protest capitalism. He suggested they jump off the Golden Gate Bridge together; such an outrageous act would generate tremendous press for their cause.

Earlier that year, Black Panther leader Huey Newton had published a memoir titled "Revolutionary Suicide," a term he coined to mean risking death to fight oppression. Jones twisted Newton's term to mean actually committing suicide as a form of "revolutionary protest."

Black Panther leader Huey Newton
Black Panther leader Huey Newton returning from China in 1971. Newton had defined the term 'Revolutionary Suicide' in his 1973 book to mean the risks associated with fighting against systems of repression. Jim Jones adopted the term and gave it murderous intent. Getty Images

The planning commission members were aghast. One church member who'd followed Jones from Indiana yelled: "Go ahead and kill yourself if you want, but leave the rest of us out of this!"

But Jones wouldn't let it go. He kept harping on his notion of "revolutionary suicide." Good socialists should be willing to die for their beliefs, he insisted. He quietly toyed with the idea of loading the entire planning commission onto Temple buses and having them drive off the Golden Gate Bridge or loading them onto a plane and having someone shoot the pilot.

But then a much better opportunity fell into his lap: Guyana. In a secluded jungle 4,500 miles from California—cut off from meddling relatives and reporters—he could exact a far larger body count. He sold the jungle settlement to his followers in Biblical terms, referring to it as "The Promised Land": a socialist utopia where they could live free of all the evil -isms: sexism, racism, elitism and classism. It was a place, he told them, where the weather was "never too cold or too hot," where "women deliver babies with no pain whatsoever," where each family would have a private cottage and there was plenty of food. All lies to get as many of his followers to Jonestown as possible.

He had no desire to see his congregants flourish in South America, of course; he was fantasizing about their deaths.

Figuring out how to kill everyone, however, would present a difficult challenge.

Julia Scheeres is an award-winning journalist and author. Her books include Jesus Land and A Thousand Lives: The Untold Story of Jonestown.