In the 1950s, a young Indianapolis minister named Jim Jones preached a curious blend of the gospel and Marxism. His congregation was racially integrated, and he was a much-lauded leader in the contemporary civil rights movement. Eventually, Jones moved his church, Peoples Temple, to northern California. He became involved in electoral politics, and soon was a prominent Bay Area leader.
In this riveting narrative, Jeff Guinn examines Jones’s life, from his extramarital affairs, drug use, and fraudulent faith healing to the fraught decision to move almost a thousand of his followers to a settlement in the jungles of Guyana in South America. Guinn provides stunning new details of the events leading to the fatal day in November, 1978 when more than nine hundred people died—including almost three hundred infants and children—after being ordered to swallow a cyanide-laced drink.
Guinn examined thousands of pages of FBI files on the case, including material released during the course of his research. He travelled to Jones’s Indiana hometown, where he spoke to people never previously interviewed, and uncovered fresh information from Jonestown survivors. He even visited the Jonestown site with the same pilot who flew there the day that Congressman Leo Ryan was murdered on Jones’s orders. The Road to Jonestown is the definitive book about Jim Jones and the events that led to the tragedy at Jonestown.
This book feels like the most comprehensive look you’d ever want or need about Jim Jones and his followers. It’s a really deep dive into every aspect of Jones’ life and the path his life took to end up where it did.
What I really loved about this book was how much of a grounded view of Jones it was. It was able to showcase all the good things he encouraged through his church but didn’t talk about them in a way that was made to feel admirable. Guinn always made sure to highlight the less favourable things Jones was also doing at the time. He also did a good job at never belittling Jones’ followers. Those who followed him were not ‘stupid’ or ‘foolish’, they were normal decent people who were manipulated by a very charming preacher.
Once you know the Jim Jones and the Peoples Temple story in full, the tragic events that took place in Guyana become even more tragic than you initially think.
Jones started his preaching from a very young age and his belief system was one of equality. In his early childhood years, he stood nothing to gain but torment and bullying from his peers on what he spoke about, and in the early years of his church Jones set about and succeeded in making actual changes to how Black people were treated by local businesses. He also set up support systems that genuinely helped people in need. But as time went on, Jones became increasingly paranoid and developed a grandiose sense of self that ultimately became his downfall.
At the end of the day, Jones’ lifelong message was that all people were equal and all people mattered, but, in the end, he manipulated hundreds of Black and poverty stricken people to the point of convincing them that taking their own lives was the only option left for them. And for those who weren’t quite convinced, he murdered them instead.
This book is a really difficult read, especially when paired with the pictures of the massacre, but if you’re at all interested in this topic, this feels like the best book to pick up.
Edition Published: 2017
Genre: Nonfiction, True Crime
Goodreads Av. Rating: 4.16