Yes, we know: Guiding 913 well-meaning followers—including hundreds of children—to their deaths is absolutely indefensible. So this is not an apology for Jim Jones, the cult leader who established the Peoples Temple in Indianapolis in 1955.
It is, rather, an attempt to point out that perhaps a small ray of light emerged from the dark day in 1978, at Jonestown, Guyana, when Jones orchestrated the largest known mass suicide in modern history.
At enormous cost, the tragedy has proven an invaluable case study for psychologists exploring the dynamics of manipulation in groups. According to a report in Monitor, a publication of the American Psychological Association, “Social psychologists continue to examine how Jones came to command such enormous influence over his followers’ thoughts and actions. Jonestown, they say, offers important lessons for psychology, such as the power of situational and social influences and the consequences of a leader using such influences to destructively manipulate others’ behavior.”
Maybe now, through the prism of time, we can view Jonestown as a painfully instructive worst-case scenario—God willing.
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