Review: The Road to Jonestown: Jim Jones and the Peoples Temple by Jeff Guinn
When people hear the name Jim Jones, I think it’s fair to say that most would also think immediately of suicide by Kool-Aid. In November of 1978, 909 people—304 of them children—died of poisoning in Jonestown, Guyana. All were members of Jim Jones’s religious group, the Peoples Temple. Jeff Guinn’s Edgar Award-nominated work, The Road to Jonestown: Jim Jones and Peoples Temple, begins with this horrifying and well-known end, but it also reveals that there was far more to Jim Jones than we know.
Jim Jones was a complicated man. Born in 1931 in a small town in Indiana, he was far ahead of his time, seeking a way to lift up the oppressed, especially blacks. In the ‘50s, around the time that Jones began his new Christian organization, racial segregation was the norm, but Jones’s own experiences with the ostracization of his mother for her own religious and political beliefs as well as observations he had made of how black people were being treated caused him to rebel against this norm. As a believer in Marxist principles, Jones felt that a true socialist society could not exist without full integration of races.
Of course, in the McCarthy era, it was dangerous to declare oneself a socialist, as most people felt that it was no different than communism. Fear of Russia was everywhere, and our nation was entering into the Cold War. As Guinn’s documentation of Jones suggests, the best way for Jones to get his socialist messages out to the people was via Christianity. Jones was a flamboyant and enthusiastic man and a bit of a huckster. Keen to recruit, he gleaned tidbits of information from audiences before his evangelical performances to convince them of his supernatural healing powers. And people stayed with Jones because of his commitment towards the social good.
Black residents were pleased when their spokesmen reported that there had been another meeting and things looked promising. They mistook access for influence. Nothing changed in Indianapolis.
Nothing changed until Jim Jones began his church and used his incredible powers of persuasion to create actual, real-world change for his black church members. And for Jones, it wasn’t just altruism. It was a perfect recruitment tool aimed at poor blacks, who via word of mouth, came to learn that Jones promised not just the typical heaven of Christianity but also actual help and change in the here and now.
Whether or not he was a true believer, the man did do an astronomical amount of work towards the racial integration of Indianapolis in the name of God. And it seems difficult to reconcile how someone capable of opening free nursing homes, drug rehabilitation centers, and education and job recruitment centers would one day be capable of killing over 900 people through coercion. But the signs are there, as laid out by Guinn, throughout Jones’s adult life.
Jones usually stopped just short of declaring himself to be God. But from that time forward, he led his congregation toward that conclusion. A sermon he delivered in 1975 offers the best example: “The mind that was in Christ Jesus is in me now.”
Guinn’s book is a fascinating look at the formation and transformation of Jim Jones. Many of the red flags in his behavior that are sprinkled throughout are clear indicators of a cult-leader mindset, and if you’re familiar at all with the story of David Koresh or of the Heaven’s Gate cult, you’ll recognize the signs as well. Filled with photographs and interviews with key people, friends, family members, and former Temple members, the book’s narrative flow will keep readers immersed in the strange life of Jim Jones and what ultimately led to his death at Jonestown.