Book Reviewed: The Road to Jonestown: Jim Jones and Peoples Temple by Jeff Guinn

Genre: True Crime, Biography, Religious Studies

Publisher: Simon & Shuster in 2017 ($28 for hardcover; $18 for paperback)

One of my guilty pleasures is an ever developing obsession with cults and madmen. I’ve read extensively on Scientology and its creator, L. Ron Hubbard (the book Going Clear is an excellent resource on the subject), and I’ve read briefly on Charles Manson and his family of oddballs. As a Southern Baptist I’ve listened to my share of stories concerning my own faith; being a religious person in this day and age has its baggage, and that’s coming from my involvement in a mainstream religion.

But what about for those who practice a much more esoteric, and perhaps even a more violent, brand of faith? That’s the question I sought to have answered by Jeff Guinn’s book on the Reverend Jim Jones, the man who led more than 900 of his followers into drinking a poisoned punch-drink in the jungles of South America.

Jim Jones was the son of an injured WW1 veteran and a self-important mother named Lynetta, a woman whose own beliefs in reincarnation and other similar beliefs helped to shape her own son’s theology later in life. Growing up in small town Indiana, Jim became obsessed with the various Protestant denominations near home; this festering obsession led him to memorize much of the Bible, and many of the local townsfolk remarked that the young Jones was destined to become a minister. And a minister he became, though his church didn’t preach the traditional gospel so much as it preached a mix of racial integration, civil rights, socialism and spurious faith healings. The church moved from Indianapolis to California, and from California to Guyana—it was in Guyana where he set up Jonestown, made infamous by the ritual mass suicide in November of 1978.

The book goes into great detail concerning Jones’ many transgressions: the mad thirst for power, money, and control; the sexual liaisons with the female members, and even with some of the men; the rabid egomania and the paranoid verbal screeds against the government. But what’s strange about this cult leader was the fact that at the beginning of his career, Jim Jones was a tireless defender of the African American community. The poor black community at the time remembers a pastor who worked endlessly towards making their collective lives better—this was one white man who practiced the social gospel, not just preached it. What happened to this early religious leader, and what made him turn into such a dangerous man? The book gives a lot of information, and plenty of interesting stories, but it couldn’t answer that one question for me.

In the end I would highly recommend this book. It’s well worth a read.

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