Tri-City area residents recall dark side of Peoples Temple
FREMONT — The Rev. Don Anderson first met Jim Jones in the late 1960s, at a Christian retreat in Auburn.
Jones, leader of the Peoples Temple — a church that had just moved from Indianapolis to California — invited Anderson to go for a walk in the forest.
“Jim seemed very open to me,” said Anderson, then-pastor of Fremont’s First Christian Church. “For some reason he seemed to like me, and I took a liking to him.
“But I always had this suspicion about him.”
About a decade later, Jones, who had established churches in San Francisco, Los Angeles and other places, moved to Guyana — where he and 912 followers died together, most in a mass suicide after drinking a toxic mix of Kool-Aid and potassium cyanide.
Anderson, who served on a Christian committee that had begun investigating allegations of abuse within the Peoples Temple just before the suicides, said he was set to go to Guyana to talk to Jones. He volunteered to go, he said, because he and Jones had developed a friendly rapport over the years.
Anderson wrote articles about faith for a national Christian magazine, The Disciple. Each time one of the articles appeared, Jones would call to discuss it, Anderson said.
“I was well-impressed with him,” Anderson said, “but he seemed to have a persecution complex.”
Anderson became more suspicious after Jones stationed armed guards at the doors of his churches. And once, Jones told Anderson that he took the name “Jim Jones” because those were the initials of Jesus, Anderson said.
“He said he was a reincarnation of Jesus,” Anderson said. “I thought he was a bit off.”
Other Tri-City area residents who knew members of the Peoples Temple agree that things never seemed quite right.
Fremont resident Larry Swaim, founder of an organization that promotes religious tolerance, was working at the Post Office in 1978 when the tragedy occurred.
One of his co-workers eventually had to quit her job because the church overwhelmed her entire life, he said. “They couldn’t take criticism,” Swaim said. “Even superficial criticism they seemed to overreact to. It seemed like they were trying to convince themselves of something, and seemed to have an investment that on the one hand was admirable, but on the other hand was extremely dangerous.”
The cult was particularly attractive to African Americans, like his co-worker, Swaim said, because the country was in the midst of dealing with contentious issues of social injustice. The goal of the Peoples Temple was to create a “religious utopia” where all would be equal.
“It was sort of the American dream,” he said. “But there was an extremely dark side to it.”
Both Anderson and Swaim said they learned a lot from their experiences.
Faith, Swaim said, “is something that can be so beneficial and can help us in our spiritual path in so many ways, but has the capacity to turn totally evil.”
“I think it taught us to be careful about who we associate with,” he said, “and who we get involved with.”