Jonestown, Radicals, and Third Worldism

A Reexamination of Jim Jones and The Peoples Temple Through the Lens of the New Left


  • Kate Nuechterlein Student


20th Century, Social Movements


In the 1960s and 70s, the charismatic Reverend Jim Jones spearheaded a religious, social, and political movement, the Peoples Temple. During a period of tumultuous social discord in the United States, Jones’ focus on civil liberties, anti-racism, and solidarity with third world nations immediately attracted thousands of leftist followers. Jones founded the Temple in Indianapolis in 1955, relocated to Ukiah, California in 1963 and San Francisco in 1970, and eventually convinced a chunk of his followers to move to an agricultural commune in Guyana in 1977. On November 18th, 1978, Jones ultimately coerced and forced remaining members to commit “suicide.” This paper examines the social and political nature of the Peoples Temple and argues that Jones weaponized his clout with leftist politicians and social activists to attract a primarily African American following. Legends of the New Left movement, such as Angela Davis and Harvey Milk, supported the Temple and Jones even after rumors of the Reverend’s abuse emerged in San Francisco newspapers. This paper strives to demonstrate that Jones’ followers were not loonies, but rather dedicated members of the New Left movement, who were committed to enacting social and political change in the U.S.