“The Road to Jonestown: Jim Jones and Peoples Temple” by Jim Guinn— The Definitive Story

Guinn, Jim. “The Road to Jonestown: Jim Jones and Peoples Temple”, Simon and Schuster, 2017.

The Definitive Story

Amos Lassen

In the 1950s, a young Indianapolis minister named Jim Jones preached a strange mix of the gospel and Marxism. His congregation was racially integrated, and he was a much-lauded and loved leader in the contemporary civil rights movement. Eventually, Jones moved his church, Peoples Temple, to northern California and he became involved in electoral politics, and soon was a prominent Bay Area leader.

Writer Jeff Guinn examines Jones’s life, including his extramarital affairs, drug use, and fake faith healing his decision to move almost a thousand of his followers to a settlement in the jungles of Guyana in South America. We get new details about what led to the day in November, 1978 when more than nine hundred people died—including almost three hundred infants and children. They had been ordered to swallow a cyanide-laced drink.

Guinn’s research included thousands of pages of FBI files on the case, including new material that was released during the course of his research. He traveled to Jones’s Indiana hometown, where he spoke to people who had not been never previously interviewed, and discovered 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.

Guinn shows who Jones was through interviews with the people who themselves knew him, from townspeople to his parishioners to his the reverend’s own family. When Jones was just a 12-year-old he would walk into Indiana back roads wearing a black suit and carrying a bible in hand. He would conduct an imaginary funeral services alone, in the woods. He rose to power after he honed his charisma and inclusive, Marxist ideals and eventually became a megalomaniac and began a descent into madness. Guinn answers many of the questions that have hung around for almost 40 years. We all want to know how did this happen.

The level of research and detail in this book is amazing and it really The Road to Jonestown is the best ever, and really lets readers understand not only what happened, but how and why. We see here that listening only to one point of view, and surrounding yourself only with people who agree with you, you lose the ability to think for yourself.

Jim Jones’ ministry began around such a good thing— the idea of equality and dignity for everyone. He believed in helping people attain these ideals. Living the perfect socialist lifestyle (later with definite leanings toward communism) was how Jones took his small town Christian revival teaching to the front pages of the world’s newspapers. His followers showed their ultimate love and loyalty to him by dying for him. However, Jim Jones didn’t follow his own teachings—- he chose to die another way unlike those who went through an agonizing death by cyanide poisoning. Some might have needed persuading by the armed guards before they gave the infants and children the poison squirted from syringes while adults drank it from cups, but most were willing participants. Some members simply told the guards they wanted to leave and they were allowed to go. Down to the bitter end this was a contradiction of good intentions versus evil manipulation.

Jones was able to fool so many people by his charm and telling people what they wanted to hear and this gained him the loyalty and love of his congregants. Good people joined Peoples Temple because Jones promised them racial equality and dignity and/or because they saw through his religious façade to his socialist intentions and agreed that was the way the world would work best. Not everyone remained with Peoples Temple, some left.

As a young man, Jones studied the writing of Marx, Stalin, and Hitler and Gandhi. He was once affiliated with the Communist party and his ideology was based on racial equality, economic and social justice; religion was used as a means to promote his agenda through his church.

Jones’ temple attracted followers from every walk of life. Members lived communally, pooling income and resources, caring for the sick, disabled, young and elderly in church sponsored homes. There were social services of food banks, thrift stores, farming catered to the community and needs of the poor. Jones supposedly healed the sick and cast out demons in dramatic charismatic services of loud singing and praise. However, underneath it all, there were highly disturbing things that were profoundly wrong. Most of the shocking aspects related to his conduct and behavior were unknown to general membership.

By 1974, Peoples Temple had expanded to San Francisco and busloads of Temple members arrived at various political rallies. They helped elect officials were elected that supported socialist causes and tolerance for racially diverse and LGBT populations. However, in 1976 problems involving Jones and his temple began to surface and investigations were begun. Relatives of some Temple members were upset that their loved ones were being held against their will after JJ suddenly moved the majority of his followers to Jonestown.

The book reads as if we are watching a documentary narrative and while questions are answered here, we are still left with a feeling of immense loss, once that did not have to be.




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