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Jonestown Massacre

A Tale of a False Prophet

by Dr. Steve Elwart


False prophets and false prophecy are present through the New Testament. Jesus warns against false prophets in Matthew 7:15–23, pointing out that they can be recognized by their fruit. 1 John 4:1–3 also cautions believers about false prophets, noting that “spirits” that deny the reality of the incarnation are false and not from God. In Acts 13:4–12 a false prophet named Bar-Jesus opposes Paul and Barnabas. Paul calls the false prophet a “child of the devil” and someone who is “full of all kinds of deceit and trickery” (Acts 13:10). God then strikes the false prophet with blindness.

False prophets in the New Testament are often associated with the end times. Mark 13:22, for example, states that “For false messiahs and false prophets will appear and perform signs and wonders to deceive, if possible, even the elect.” The theme of deceit connects the work of false prophets with the work of Satan, who is known for his deceiving character and works (cf. Gen. 3). That is why Paul can call the false prophet in Acts 13 a “child of the devil.”

False prophets exist today. Even now they are in the business of deceit. Many were the founders of religions which are still in existence today. Many flourished for a relatively short period of time and ended tragically, some only with a loss of faith but others with a loss of physical and spiritual life.

In 1997 members of the Heaven’s Gate cult committed mass suicide, believing their souls would be transported to a spaceship trailing the Hale-Bopp comet. Their 65 year old leader Marshall Applewhite, who had a history of checking himself into mental institutions, believed he was a descendant of Jesus Christ. He told his followers that he had a divine revelation that the world was due to be ‘wiped clean’ by the alien founders and that they needed to leave the earth.

On March 26, 1997, Rio DiAngelo who had been chosen to ‘stay on Earth’ and continue preaching the group’s message went to the Heaven’s Gate House and found 39 people dead.

DiAngelo was the lone survivor.

One can read about these false teachers, but they seem to rarely hit home. For this author, an infamous case of a false teacher became very real when one witness to an eventual tragedy lived close to home.

Thirty-six years ago, a 20-year Mississippi native found himself locked in a jail cell in Guyana wondering what happened to his world — a world in which his family and friends were still alive. They were all lying dead in a grove in a South American jungle that he hoped would be their paradise.

November 18, 1978, Herbert Newell from rural Sharkey County had gone off one morning on the communal fishing boat only to return to find his loved ones dead; part of the 909 victims of a teaching promoted by a false prophet.

The mass suicide / murder was the largest such event in modern history and resulted in the largest single loss of American civilian life in a deliberate act until September 11, 2001.

Their leader was a man named James Jones and the place was called Jonestown. Jonestown was the informal name for the Peoples Temple Agricultural Project formed by the Peoples Temple. Jones formed the Peoples Temple in Indianapolis, Indiana, during the mid 1950s. Jones preached that “those who remained drugged with the opiate of religion had to be brought to enlightenment—socialism.”

Jones moved the Temple to Redwood Valley, California in 1965 and within a few years other Temples were established throughout California. In the mid 1970s, the Temple moved its headquarters to San Francisco.

When Jones moved the Temple to California, there wasn’t much of a future in Blanton, Mississippi for a poor, black family. “My parents were sharecroppers, and we lived on one of the plantation owner’s land,”

In the late 1960s, the family moved to California after one of his sisters and father found work. It was in Los Angeles that they were introduced to the Peoples Temple of Los Angeles. The family had never attended church together, so they decided to try this church as a place they could worship as a family. They were pleased with the fact that people of all races and ages were worshipping together. Little did they know then that Jones had already started to stray from The Word.

“Had we been in church and reading our Bible, we would have known that this was not something Christian-like or of God,” Newell said.

The more they attended the Temple services the more involved they became in the church. On weekends they would join bus loads of other members and travel from Los Angeles to San Francisco, Jones’ base of operations.

Instead of joining the military, Herbert took a Temple-sponsored bus tour of the country with other church members. This trip only deepened his commitment to Jim Jones and the People’s Temple.

“I thought it was a good thing, a good place for me,” Newell said.

While the Temple was growing, there was another Temple facility being built—the Peoples Temple Agricultural Project, commonly known as Jonestown—in Guyana, a country on the Caribbean coast of South America. In 1977 Jones announced that the church members would be moving there. Jonestown was located in the middle of a lush, dense jungle that appeared isolated from the outside world. The place seemed ideal.

“It’s like the Bible says, many false prophets have gone out into the world,” Herbert said.

Temple members flocked to the new compound, including Newell and his family. He was part of the last migration to the newly established compound, but one family member didn’t follow. Newell’s father had never liked Jones’ teaching and had been adamant that his family not follow the man to South America.

“My father didn’t want to have nothing to do with it. ‘That man’s just going to take you over there and kill you,’” Newell said, “I always found it strange and haunting that he would say that.”

Herbert soon found out that his father was right.

Once at the compound, Jones, obviously on drugs, would slur propaganda over the public address system. Newell said that sometimes at the end of a workday, Jones would call town meetings known as “White Nights” that lasted long into the night.

“He asked each of us individually what we would do if we were invaded by mercenaries or whatever. This went on until like 2 or 3 o’clock in the morning,” Newell said. “You’ll do almost anything when you’re deprived of sleep. You’ve been working all day. You haven’t had time to take a shower and you’re doing all these things and he’s asking everyone what they would do. I’m thinking, ‘Hell, just let me get some sleep.’”

Jones kept his followers in line by turning them against each other. He encouraged them to report anyone who showed dissatisfaction or had broken his “commandments”.

“If someone wrote you up, you would be on the floor that night. You would have two people come up there and box you [in]. It was a way of inciting fear in you to make you conform to whatever it is that he wanted you to do.”

At the compound, as Jones descended ever further into his delusions, his grip on his followers tightened. Even though many people wanted to leave or send their children back to the United States, few dared to speak for fear of Jones’ wrath. Later, Newell would discover that his mother had wanted to send her own children home to live with their father, but at the time, it was never discussed.

Meanwhile Newell worked various jobs. He worked as a woodcutter, helped manufacture charcoal, and finally worked aboard the Temple’s fishing boat, the Cudjoe. For the most part, Newell found the work rewarding; he said that only toward the end did things turn really bad.

Not long after the move to Guyana, U.S. Congressman Leo Ryan’s (D-California) office in the 11th District began to hear of direct requests for assistance from concerned families whose relatives had disappeared into the Guyana jungle to join the Jonestown community. Newspaper articles also raised concerns. There were claims of social security irregularities, human rights violations, and people being held against their will at Jonestown.

In June 1978, Congressman Ryan read excerpts from the sworn affidavit of Debbie Blakey, a defector from Jonestown, which included claims that the community at Jonestown had, on a number of occasions, rehearsed for a mass suicide. Reports about the group, both favorable and unfavorable, poured in.

Ryan hired an attorney to interview former Peoples Temple members and relatives of members to determine whether the group had violated any Federal or California state laws.

Ryan received official permission from the Guyanese government in September 1978 for a visit to the compound. The official party consisted of Ryan, James Schollaert and Jackie Speier, Ryan’s personal assistant. Ryan’s party included nine people from an NBC news crew and other media representatives. Eighteen people from a delegation of concerned relatives also accompanied the group.

In the days of preparation for the trip to Jonestown, Ryan contacted Jim Jones to inform him of his intention to visit the settlement. After initially agreeing to the visit, Ryan was told by the attorney for Jim Jones that he would not be able to attend at the time they wanted, claiming that the visit was nothing more than a “witch hunt” against the People’s Temple. Ryan responded that he would visit the compound anyway, leaving for Guyana on November 14, 1978.

Problems began for the group as soon as they arrived in Guyana at midnight. Ron Javers from the San Francisco Chronicle did not have an entry visa and was detained overnight at the airport. The group of concerned relatives, despite having confirmed reservations, had to spend the night in the lobby of the Pegasus Hotel in Georgetown, because no rooms were available when they arrived.

Over the next two and a half days, Ryan and the family members attempted to speak with a representative of the Peoples Temple at their headquarters in Georgetown, but could not gain entry. Eventually, Ryan informed Jones’ legal counsel that he and his party would be leaving for Jonestown.

The plane was scheduled to leave Georgetown at 2:30 pm that day. On board were Ryan, his Chief of Staff, the Deputy Chief of Mission for the country, Jones’ legal counsel, all nine media representatives, four representatives of the concerned relatives group, and Neville Annibourne, a representative of the Guyanese Government.

Upon their arrival at Jonestown, the delegation was served dinner and entertained by a musical presentation by Peoples Temple members. As the evening progressed, reporters interviewed Jim Jones while Ryan talked to Peoples Temple members whose names had been provided by relatives in the U.S.

During the course of the evening, a Jonestown member passed a note to NBC reporter Don Harris indicating that he and his family wished to leave. Another member made a similar verbal request to another member of the party. Both requests were reported to Ryan.

Ryan also was able to address some of the members of the Peoples Temple where he said, “Whatever the comments are, there are some people here who think this is the best thing that ever happened to them in their whole life.” They erupted with cheers and thunderous applause.

The next morning Newell was ordered out on the Cudjoe. He thought it strange since it was Saturday and the boat typically didn’t leave port until Monday. Newell thought it was just one of Jones’ idiosyncrasies.

“I told my mom, my girlfriend and my brothers and sisters that I would be back,” Newell said. He never had the chance to keep his word.

As he was boarding the Cudjoe, Newell’s friend Eddie Crenshaw made an ominous comment. “Crenshaw said ‘When you guys get back here tomorrow, we’ll all be gone; we’ll be dead.’ I told him that was a lot of B.S. I couldn’t picture it. I couldn’t believe it,” Newell said.

As the Ryan party was boarding their planes to prepare to leave, they were fired on by two of Jones’ disciples. Ryan, three members of the media, and one of the Temple members who chose to leave were killed. Six others were seriously wounded. The attackers left the airport soon after. One of the planes in the group was able to escape the melee and reported news of the attack to controllers at the Georgetown tower, who notified Guyanese officials. Back at the airstrip, survivors of the attack sought cover and protection for the night.

While Ryan’s delegation had prepared to board their aircraft, back at the compound Jim Jones had called the Jonestown community together. He explained to them that someone on the plane was going to kill Ryan, giving justification to people who wished to destroy the Peoples Temple to attack them. The “enemy” would then descend upon them and kill them mercilessly.

Jones’ followers had been expecting this. He had them living in fear of an unnamed enemy and destroyer for many years. He had also been preparing them for what he termed “revolutionary suicide” for some time. They had even had a number of practice runs to prepare them for such an eventuality.

According to the official report, the carnage at Jonestown began at about 5:00 pm as gunfire erupted at the airport.

Later that night while still out fishing, Newell was awakened in his fish camp and arrested by Guyanese soldiers. The soldiers told him that Ryan, members of the news crew and Temple members who had been attempting to flee were attacked and killed at the airstrip as they were preparing to leave.

“They got us and took us to the police station and locked us up. They didn’t know if we had anything to do with the shooting at the airstrip or whatever. We were in jail that night and morning,” Newell said. According to FBI reports, Newell’s friend Eddie Crenshaw was one of the shooters who helped assassinate Ryan on Jones’ order.

At noon, Nov. 19, 1978, soldiers brought word that at least 400 people were dead at Jonestown. “I told the guy he was lying. I couldn’t believe it,” Newell said. “My heart just sank. As the day went by, the body count got higher.”

While Newell and others were out on the boat and the Ryan party attacked, Jones had ordered what he called “revolutionary suicide.” Buckets of grape-flavored Flavor Aid (not Kool-Aid, a genericized trademark) laced with cyanide poison and various tranquilizers were brought out to the Temple members.

Jones ordered them to drink it, saying soldiers would soon come to torture their children and elderly at Jonestown.

“Had I known or thought something like that was going to happen, I would have tried to get my family out,” Newell said.

Audio tapes left behind showed that it was not a mass suicide. While some people “drank the Kool-Aid,” others were coaxed by Jones to make their children drink the deadly drink. Children can be heard crying and gagging as the liquid was forced down their throats.

The hesitation is obvious. Jones tells Temple members they are going too slowly. A few agree with him, but most are heard arguing in the background, refusing his orders.

“Stop this nonsense!” Jones yells. “You’re exciting your children!”

Newell and other survivors view what happened as sheer murder. “You had three choices. Either you drank the stuff or you got injected with it or you got shot. Pick, one of those three you’re going to do,” Newell said. “It wasn’t like it was agreeing to do this.”

At the end of the 45 minute tape Jones is heard to say, “Take our life from us. We laid it down. We got tired. We didn’t commit suicide; we committed an act of revolutionary suicide protesting the conditions of an inhumane world.”

A few of the lucky ones were able to escape into the jungle, but most didn’t even try. “If you got out of Jonestown and tried to run through the jungle, you wouldn’t know where to go,” Newell said. “Jones always told us it was full of poisonous frogs and snakes and panthers, which was true.”

Eventually Newell and his brother Cleveland Jr. were eventually released from prison, but Newell wasn’t free. Not only did he suffer survivor’s guilt, losing twelve members - almost his entire family - in the jungle, he was marked with the stigma of being a member of the now infamous Peoples Temple.

“I almost didn’t want to come back to the United States when it first happened,” Newell said, “I didn’t want anyone to be telling me ‘I told you so’ or making me feel bad because I went over there. I just didn’t want to hear nothing like that.”

He also didn’t want to come back to church. “For a while after it first happened, I didn’t want to have nothing to do with anybody’s church. If my family had not been going to church, this probably would not have come upon us,” Newell said.

He fell into drug abuse.

“I was self-medicating trying to drown the pain of the loss of my family, but I came to the conclusion that doing drugs is not to be the answer. I was just making my situation worse. Once the drugs wore off, I went back to thinking about my family members that I lost.”

Newell eventually kicked the cocaine habit, but the pain still lingers. He is now a train conductor for the City of Los Angeles, but recently had to take a leave of absence. The memories were too much for him.

“The route that my train has, it goes across one of the streets where we used to live. Going down that route every day brought back memories of my family. I found myself thinking about them a lot. It gets easier as the years go by, but it’s something you never forget.”

The most puzzling question, which arose out of the tragedy at Jonestown, is how one man could achieve such control over a large group of people to the point that they would willingly die at his command.

The answer is that Jones was a “false prophet.” He drew in people with lies and deception. Jones’ followers were enticed with good “feelings” rather than Christ’s saving grace.

New members were awed by Jones. He widely publicized his services, promising miraculous healings where cancers would be removed and the blind made to see. Before their eyes, Jones would heal cancer patients and a mass of putrid tissue would be pulled from the patient’s body.

Jones was a true antichrist — a man who put himself up to take the place of Christ. Toward the end, he said he was their Messiah and those that believed his lie followed him into the jungle, never to return.

One recurring characteristic of the false prophets is that they are careful to speak pleasing, positive, and flattering words. Jeremiah condemned the false prophets who were always saying, “Peace, peace; when there is no peace” (Jer. 6:14; 8:11). Jeremiah also said, “The prophets prophesy falsely … and My people love to have it so” (Jer. 5:31). Even though Jeremiah was a true prophet of the Lord, the false prophets were rewarded by the king and Jeremiah was cast into a dungeon (Jer. 38:6).

Jesus predicted false prophets would arise and mislead many. If Jesus were telling the truth, then we should expect such false prophets to rise up, and be successful in misleading people.

“Many false prophets will appear and deceive many people,”

Matthew 24:11, ISV

The apostles instructed believers to be diligent in faith and understanding of Christian teachings, in order to discern false prophets when they arise (2 Pet. 1:10; 1:19–2:1; 1 John 4:1).

The instructions of the apostles were echoed by Herbert Newell when he said, “Had we been in church and reading our Bible, we would have known that this was not something Christian-like or of God.”


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