10 of the World’s Most Infamous Cults

The People's Temple
Empty bottles of cyanide found at the commune known as Jonestown.
Empty bottles of cyanide found at the commune known as Jonestown.
Matthew Naythons/Liason/Getty Images

The epitome of the charismatic cult leader, Jim Jones was a preacher from the Pentecostal tradition. Although white, Jones attracted a large African American following because of his preaching style as well as dedication to integration and racial equality. His teachings were influenced by liberation theology and socialist beliefs.

Jones began the People's Temple in the 1950s in Indianapolis. After reading in Esquire magazine about places to survive a nuclear holocaust, he moved his congregation to Ukiah, Calif., in 1965. In the next five years, the People's Temple membership went from less than a hundred to thousands. With thriving churches in San Francisco and Los Angeles, Jones also built up a significant amount of political clout.

Meanwhile, Jones began building a commune called "Jonestown" in Guyana, a socialist-led country in South America. In 1977, when Jones heard that New West magazine was to publish an expose on life in the People's Temple as "a mixture of Spartan regimentation, fear and self-imposed humiliation" he and his congregation quickly fled to the commune [source: Kilduff].

Convinced by former members and relatives of members to go, U.S. Congressmen Leo Ryan flew down to visit Jonestown to learn more about it. Just before Ryan was about to leave on Nov. 18, 1978, Jones's men arrived at the airstrip and killed the congressman, as well as several others. That same day, Jones convinced his congregation to kill themselves. More than 900 people died, including 276 children.

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