Christine Miller tried to stop the Jonestown Massacre
As cult leader Jim Jones led followers to their deaths at Jonestown, a lone dissenter stood up and bravely defied the false prophet.
“I look at all the babies, and I think they deserve to live,” Christine Miller, 60, told Jones as armed guards passed out cyanide-laced Flavor Aid. The ugly scene was captured on the Jonestown “death tape.”
History remembers Jones as the evil mastermind who staged the “Jonestown Massacre,” claiming the lives of 909 members of the Peoples Temple Agricultural Project, including 304 minors, in a remote jungle in Guyana on Nov. 18, 1978. Most of the dead had followed the preacher from California to the South American country for an experiment in utopian living.
Largely forgotten is that Christine Miller attempted to prevent the mass killing by challenging Jones at the height of his madness. While her argument did not halt the death march, Miller showed the strength of character to undertake a courageous protest under oppressive conditions. It is a story worth telling.
Born in Brownsville, Texas, Miller possessed a strong work ethic, perhaps because her survival depended on it. Miller’s mother died when she was very young, forcing her to find work in the cotton fields. After her teen years, she won white-collar work as a teacher and county clerk.
Miller took pride in her successes. She bought a home in Los Angeles, where she was introduced to Jones. She fell for Jones’ bold idealism and faithfully contributed to the Peoples Temple.
Jones held Miller in esteem. She, unlike most members, wore jewelry and furs. Miller went to San Francisco — the headquarters of Peoples Temple — before she moved into Cottage 07 at Jonestown on Jan. 3, 1978.
Jones had founded Jonestown to escape growing scrutiny of the Peoples Temple in the U.S. Members bought into his vision of building a socialist paradise without racial constructs.
Miller, however, never quite settled at Jonestown. Members were overworked and underfed, increasingly subject to Jones’ erratic behavior. “Unlike many in Jonestown, Christine did not leave a slum or ghetto to live in the jungle community,” wrote Michael Bellefountaine, author of Christine Miller: A Voice of Independence.
Miller had a history of standing up to Jones, according to Bellefountaine. One time, Jones reportedly became so exasperated by Miller’s independent spirit that he drew a gun and threatened to kill her. “You can shoot me, but you are going to have to respect me first,” Miller told Jones. He backed down.
A day before the mass killing, U.S. Congressman Leo Ryan arrived at Jonestown with journalists and relatives of Temple members to check on the welfare of the followers and investigate claims that some were being held against their will.
Temple members put on a show of unity for the visitors, but that facade started to crumble when two slipped notes to those in Ryan’s entourage, saying that they wanted to leave Jonestown. The next day, Jones’ control over the group weakened even more as several residents packed their bags to return with Ryan to the U.S.
The defections humiliated Jones, who appeared visibly shaken. A man haphazardly tried to slash Ryan’s neck with a knife, causing the bloodied congressman to flee the compound with his team and 16 Temple defectors. The group made it to a nearby airstrip to catch two small planes, but a tractor with a trailer pulled up before they could depart. Multiple gunmen emerged from the trailer, murdering Ryan, three members of the media, and a woman defector. Several others were severely wounded and escaped into the jungle.
Back at the compound, Jones summoned all followers to a pavilion and informed them about the assassination of the congressman. He spun his rhetoric for the last time in a creepy speech that urged Temple members to commit “revolutionary suicide.” Jones said off-handedly, “Anyone who has any dissenting opinions, please speak.”
Seated near the front was Christine Miller, who took the microphone and firmly opposed Jones’ fatalistic vision. She told him that it didn’t make sense for everyone at Jonestown to die just because a small number of followers had left. As an alternative to mass suicide, she suggested emigrating to the Soviet Union, an idea that had been discussed vaguely in the past.
Jones said it was too late for that due to the killings at the airstrip. “We had some value, but now we don’t have any value.”
Miller didn’t buy it. “Well, I don’t see it like that. I mean, I feel like that — as long as there’s life, there’s hope. That’s my faith.”
“You’ve always been a very good agitator,” Jones told Miller, steering the conversation back to death. “I’m going to tell you, Christine, without me, life has no meaning,” Jones said to applause. “I’m the best thing you’ll ever have.”
Miller then confronted Jones with a concept that he had once championed. Free will.
“I still think, as an individual, I have a right to say what I think, what I feel. And I think we all have a right to our own destiny as individuals. And I think I have a right to choose mine and everybody else has a right to choose theirs.”
Anywhere else, that would have been a mic-drop moment. But with the conversation see-sawing at Jonestown, it was “paramount that the discussion of individual choice (be) stopped, and the topic of collective death again be pushed to the forefront,” Bellefountaine writes.
Peoples Temple members started hissing and condemning Miller for her failure to conform. One follower, Jim McElvane, interrupted and berated her. “Christine, you’re only standing here because (Jones) was here in the first place. So I don’t know what you’re talking about, having an individual life. Your life has been extended to the day that you’re standing there because of him.”
Miller’s voice had been silenced. She met the same tragic fate as the others at Jonestown. But she apparently did not die from drinking the “Kool-Aid.”
The New York Times reported in December 1978 that Miller appeared to have died from a cyanide injection. Other reports say that her upper arm was riddled with injection marks. Miller’s remains were buried in Evergreen Cemetery in Oakland, CA.