Marshall Herff Applewhite heaven's gate

October 9, 2015

I sometimes begin my module on new religious movements by telling students that I am the Messiah, and that I am organising a mass suicide the following day. How many of them, I ask, would like to join me? Predictably, there are no volunteers. This raises a question which has for a long time intrigued me: how did a religious leader like Marshall Herff Applewhite manage to exercise such power over 39 followers so that they were all prepared to commit collective suicide on his instruction? And how did that number of people – who, as far as we know, do not appear to have been unintelligent or mentally disturbed – become persuaded to comply? Those of us who work in higher education know only too well the problems of persuading students to undertake ordinary essential tasks, such as doing the prescribed reading for their course of study. (This raises issues relating to authority and power, which I shall discuss later: I possess the former, while Applewhite had the latter.)

In what follows is I intend to make some observations about the nature of power in religious communities, with particular reference to new religious movements – popularly known as “cults” – which has been one of my research interests for many years now. The Heaven’s Gate suicides occurred in 1997, and are now outside many people’s memories, so a brief reminder of the details of the tragedy may be useful. Marshall Herff Applewhite and his co-leader Bonnie Lu Nettles (who died of cancer in 1985 before the disaster) claimed to be the Two Witnesses of the biblical Book of Revelation (Revelation 11:1-12), and invited members of the public to attend lectures on UFOs. They taught that a race of extraterrestrials was about to arrive to collect their chosen individuals to take them to a higher plane – The Next Evolutionary Level Above Human (TELAH). In 1997, Applewhite convinced them that their spaceship lay behind the Hale Bopp comet that appeared at that time, he persuaded them that they must leave their bodies in order to link up with these advanced beings from the Next Level. Drawing on instructions from Derek Humphry’s (1991) suicide manual Final Exit, he directed them to pack their belongings, don special uniforms, put polythene bags over their heads, and cover themselves in purple shrouds, having consumed a kind of porridge containing alcohol and barbiturates.

In what follows I want to avoid discussing explanations involving brainwashing, mind control and mass hypnosis. Scholars of new religions have devoted much energy to combating such theories, which continue to be championed by the media and the anti-cult movement (Barker 1989:17-23). “Brainwashing” is a nebulous concept, which is derived from studies of Korean prisoners of war in the 1950s, whose conditions in no way resemble what is found in any religious group. Slightly more promising are notions relating to charismatic leadership, although such leadership must be distinguished from an alleged ability to control the minds of one’s followers.

“To describe a leader as charismatic does not entail that his personality is universally compelling by any means.”

The concept of ‘charisma’, however, needs considerable refining and discussion. To say that a religious leader attracts a following because of his (occasionally her) charisma could simply be tautologous, if charisma is taken simply to mean the ability to attract the following. Further, as I have argued elsewhere, there is no inherent characteristic of charisma that individuals possess (Chryssides 2012). If this were the case, I could have charisma which no one noticed, and a leader who may appear charismatic to one person may be quite repulsive to another. I can recall going to hear the Reverend Moon in 2011, shortly before his death. To be candid, his speech made little sense to me, yet his followers cheered and clapped throughout, and made highly enthusiastic comments when he eventually finished. To describe a leader as charismatic, therefore, does not entail that his personality is universally compelling by any means.

The study of charisma is important in understanding new religions, but the concept is more complex than is popularly assumed, and one colleague at a recent conference proposed the term ‘charismalogy’ to designate the study of the phenomenon (Setta 2015). The sociologist Max Weber distinguished between three types of authority: charismatic, traditional, and legal-rational (or institutional). The first of these provides the power that accompanies the personal magnetism that is attributed to the authority figure, and is not enforceable in the ways that the other two types of authority are. The charismatic leaders’ authority simply derives from followers being favourably disposed to him or her. Traditional authority is impersonal, and derives from conventions that have accrued over time: a parent, for example, exercises authority as a result of parenting being a traditional power role, and through the child being dependent on parental power. Legal-rational or institutional authority is legitimated through a contractual relationship. In the world of work, the employee has obligations that derive from his or her contract with the institution, and these are enforceable whether or not the line manager is a source of inspiration.

“The charismatic leader is not simply a “nice guy” who is persuasive, but often makes special claims about himself or herself, or prompts followers to do so.”

Applying these distinctions to religions, then, it is clear that in the early days of a religious community, there can be no traditional or institutional expectations of followers, and their decision to follow their chosen religious teacher can only relate to the personal magnetism that he or she exudes. Having a pleasing personality is only a small part, if it is a part at all, of charismatic religious leadership. The charismatic leader is not simply a “nice guy” who is persuasive, but often makes special claims about himself or herself, or prompts followers to do so. Not all charismatic religious leaders make the same claims: they may claim to be an enlightened being, the Messiah, a prophet, or guru (in the strict technical sense of the word). I have elsewhere suggested that there are different types of charismatic religious leader and they need to satisfy the criteria that are appropriate to that type – ‘dynamic leader’, prophet, thaumaturge, messiah, guru, and so on (Chryssides 2012). The prophetic leader might claim an inaugural vision, like the Old Testament prophets – as was allegedly the case with the Rev. Moon, Joseph Smith, and Raël – or they may claim privileged communication with the superhuman realm, which their followers lack. Another device that is sometimes used is what one author has called ‘fictional self-invention’ – the creation of a hagiography or creatively constructed life story which, to those outside the movement, is barely credible, but nonetheless is accepted unquestioningly by followers (Karalis, forthcoming). This is probably true of G. I. Gurdjieff, L. Ron Hubbard, and Anton LaVey.

Another technique in securing a following is non-explicit disclosure. Followers may be led to believe that they are specially privileged or particularly insightful to have found this leader, and thus it is not exclusively the leader who gains credit in this regard. It was quite common at Unification Church introductory seminars for the lecturers not to impart the teaching that Moon was the Messiah. If asked about Moon’s status, the seminar leader would advise the questioner to pray about the matter. To the best of my knowledge, no one ever prayed to find that God told them that someone else held this office! A similar claim is made by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints regarding the Book of Mormon: “I would exhort you that ye would ask God, the Eternal Father, in the name of Christ, if these things are not true; and if ye shall ask with a sincere heart, with real intent, having faith in Christ, he will manifest the truth of it unto you, by the power of the Holy Ghost. And by the power of the Holy Ghost ye may know the truth of all things.” (Moroni 10:4-5).When one of Applewhite’s followers suggested that it was a remarkable coincidence that all the specially “tagged” individuals (those who were chosen to ascend to the Level) were to be found in roughly the same and geographical location, his response was that the extraterrestrials had specially selected them and brought them there. The effect of such scenarios is not only to vindicate the status of the founder-leader, but to suggest that the follower possesses sound spiritual insight or divinely endowed favour, for which he or she is to be commended.

In these examples, a special status accrues not only to the charismatic leader, but to the followers who respond to his or her charisma. They are normally not students, but disciples, and the two concepts bear an important difference. An educator aims to enable students to engage with the salient topic, to discuss it, to question prevailing ideas, and to reach their own conclusions. Such aims are not shared by the charismatic religious leader: in the early days of Heaven’s Gate the advertisements for Applewhite and Nettles’ seminars clearly stated, “This is not a discussion of UFOs.” The follower is seldom encouraged to explore alternative belief systems, which is understandable. Some new religions only make available their own in-house publications to members: examples are Scientology, the (Buddhist) New Kadampa Tradition, and Jehovah’s Witnesses. (The avoidance of exploration of other belief systems is of course not confined to new religious movements: one would not expect a vicar to incorporate a Buddhist or Hindu ideas in a sermon, or to suggest that there were several different parts to salvation, although the congregation are of course free to explore such ideas on their own.)

“The lack of awareness of spiritual alternatives is fostered by a poor level of religious literacy.”

The lack of awareness of spiritual alternatives is fostered by a poor level of religious literacy. Seekers are not always aware of the available competition. On asking a couple of members of the New Kadampa Tradition (NKT) why they had embraced that form of Buddhism rather than some other, they expressed incredulity at my question, and simply responded, “This is Buddhism.” Presumably these members had responded to public notices that advertised an “Introduction to Buddhism”, without indicating that the NKT was one type of Buddhism among many. When a teacher such as Applewhite claimed to expound a difficult religious texts such as the Book of Revelation, it is unlikely that his listeners would have been familiar with alternative interpretations. This is particularly the case in this example, since mainstream churches themselves are reluctant to attempt to interpret the book.

Thus far I have focused on the doctrinal aspects of new religions. However, not all followers of religions attach high importance to religious doctrines. What a spiritual organisation claims to do has greater significance for many. The sociologist of religion David Bromley (2014) has suggested that one aspect of charismatic leadership is offering a highly ambitious goal: followers will sometimes claim that the aim of “changing the world” was what attracted them, or that spiritual enlightenment is the desired aim. Curiously, despite the fact that nirvana is held up as the supreme Buddhist goal, it is rare for any follower to claim to have attained it, although if enlightenment is attributed to the leader, this gives further impetus to the charismatic leader’s claim to be special and to have greater authority than the disciple.

Acquiring a power relationship with one’s following is just the beginning of the charismatic leader’s career. Weber had a further theory concerning the rise of new religions. Few, if any, emergent religions are content to rest with a loose cult following surrounding their charismatic leader. Religions soon become organised, and Weber identified two further stages of their development: routinisation and institutionalisation. Routinisation occurs when the group begins to devise a schedule of tasks, regular study periods or lectures, rites and ceremonies. Institutionalisation takes place when the movement becomes established formally as an organisation, for example by adopting a constitution, having formal criteria of membership, with members having contractual or quasi-contractual relationships with the organisation, or by legal incorporation.

It is at this point that the charismatic leader is able to exercise additional power over the members. One method is to ensure that he or she controls the authenticity of the teachings. If the leader has claimed some special revelation it is important to ensure that no other member is able to make rival claims. In his classic study When Prophecy Fails (1956) Leon Festinger reported that Mrs Keech (a pseudonym for Dorothy Martin, the leader of the UFO group Sananda) insisted that she was the only one with whom the expected extraterrestrials communicated. Similarly Raël does not encourage his followers to go UFO-spotting: there is only one single reported occasion when two very close friends claim to have seen the extraterrestrial Elohim with whom he claims a relationship, and that incident was with Raël being present. Yet another example is in The Family International, where co-leader Maria David (born Karen Zerby) is responsible for scrutinising prophecies that members claim to receive, in order to adjudicate on their authenticity.

As the power relationship between leader and disciples develops, the organisation gains a hold on its followers. When someone has belonged to a religious organisation for some time, disengagement becomes increasingly difficult, for a multiplicity of reasons. It can be embarrassing to admit that one has had a loss of faith or has had a quarrel that has precipitated the decision to leave. The leaver can feel disloyal, and there is a serious risk of losing a circle of friends that is often drawn substantially from those in the same religious community. In the case of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, who are notorious for shunning those who disassociate or become disfellowshipped, the apostate has lost his or her entire community of friends, and can even be cut off by family members who remain in the organisation.

Where the member has belonged to the religion for some considerable time, particularly if belonging entails living in accommodation provided by the community, the organisational hierarchy has additional power, since anyone contemplating leaving has the difficult task of finding a new place to live. In some cases leavers may have donated most or all of their possessions to the group, and thus their wealth, livelihood and shelter are bound up with the organisation. Where might the leaver live, and how might he or she gain employment outside the movement? New religions are notoriously unpopular, and declaring on a CV that one has spent years – sometimes decades – in a minority religious group is unlikely to impress a potential employer. As members get older – and most of those who joined in the 1960s and 1970s have advanced a generation, or maybe two, since they entered – the difficulties of securing employment become worse. In short, the longer one belongs to a religious organisation the more power it has acquired over the member, who becomes effectively locked in.

A further issue in power relationships occurs when the religious leader appears to break the rules which he or she has laid down for the organisation, and are sometimes at the very heart of the message that is proclaimed. One notable recent example has been the case of Sun Myung Moon, the heart of whose teachings entailed the need for pure sexual relationships. His Divine Principle teaches that the Fall of Man was due to Eve having an illicit sexual relationship, first with Satan, and subsequently with Adam, and that these sinful acts tainted the entire human race. When Jesus came as the Messiah, he was crucified before he was able to marry a bride who was free of sin, and hence establish the sinless family which would mark the beginning of pure earthly families. The Unification Church has therefore awaited the arrival of the Lord of the Second Coming, and the marriage between him and his bride in 1960 is referred to as the Marriage of the Lamb, mentioned in the Book of Revelation (Revelation 19:6-9).

“From the beginning of the Unification Church’s history it was rumoured that Moon had engaged in sexual impropriety himself”

Throughout his ministry Moon preached about the need for sexual propriety and about the sinfulness of sexual relationships outside marriage, requiring married couples to observe periods of abstinence from sex. From the beginning of the Unification Church’s history it was rumoured that Moon had engaged in sexual impropriety himself, that orgies occurred in the first church in Korea, and that a newly married Unificationist bride was required to have sex with Moon before consummating her own marriage. All these allegations were dismissed as malicious rumours propagated by the anticult movement. However, more recently Moon’s children did not behave as one might expect of sinless children, and then around 2012 it was established beyond doubt that Moon had an illegitimate son – contrary to all that he had taught throughout his ministry. One might have thought that such hypocrisy would be sufficient to cause disillusionment throughout the organisation. True, some members were seriously disappointed and left the organisation, but others stayed on, apparently loyal. Commentators on new religions have previously noted the phenomenon of the cult leader being beyond the law, and far from encouraging censure, this actually appears to increase his power over his followers (Blake 2011). The Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard suggested the concept of “the teleological suspension of the ethical”, and his Fear and Trembling analyses the biblical story of Abraham and Isaac. At a human ethical level it is plainly reprehensible to attempt to kill one’s own son, but yet Abraham is commended for his willingness to do so because God’s command presents a religious obligation, superseding human ethical conventions. The religious leader who breaks the rules can thus be viewed as having special spiritual insights which are presently beyond the comprehension of the rank-and-file member.

“One further factor that affects empowerment and disempowerment, and is often neglected in the study of religion, is the role of money.”

One further factor that affects empowerment and disempowerment, and is often neglected in the study of religion, is the role of money. We tend to think of religious organisations as establishments that encourage spiritual practices such as prayer, meditation and the study of scriptures, and religions often outwardly express contempt for worldly material wealth. However, religious leaders and followers need their means of subsistence, and as the spiritual organisation moves from charismatic leadership through routinisation to institutionalisation, the need for material resources becomes all the greater: one needs premises, resources for the production of literature, wages, and much more.

Money is not merely a means of exchange: it is a standard of value. New religious movements – in particular the Church of Scientology – have sometimes been criticised for the amount of money they charge for their services. One consequence of high charges is that they secure commitment, not only in the form of willingness to pay, but in the seeker’s acknowledgement that he or she must have acquired something valuable. If something is free, it is tempting to regard it as worthless, but if seekers have parted with hundreds or even thousands of pounds, they are less likely simply to abandon their commitment.

As institutionalisation progresses, the charismatic leader may experience some loss of power, being now subject to the rules and regulations of the institution. In theory, he or she might be voted out of office, for example, and it is therefore important that the leader finds ways of retaining power. If the leader is wealthy, the leader’s wealth can be a means of doing so. In the early years of the Watch Tower Society legal incorporation required a board of directors (including office-bearers such as a president, vice president and secretary-treasurer) who were voted into office at an annual general meeting, as well as shareholders. Being wealthy himself, founder leader Charles Taze Russell was able to ensure that he retained 58 percent of the Society’s shares, with the voting rights that went with them, thus retaining power (Russell 1894: 31).

“New religious movements are often criticised for creating an imbalance of wealth between the leader and the rank and file member.”

New religious movements are often criticised for creating an imbalance of wealth between the leader and the rank and file member. Sun Myung Moon has been accused of having a large financial empire and palatial living conditions, while his followers often lived in dormitory-style accommodation with poor facilities, and hard working conditions involving up to 18-hour days with mobile fundraising teams, selling flowers and candles. Practices like fasting are often commended as being spiritually beneficial, encouraging the follow-up to place less reliance on bodily needs, as a method of pursuing the organisation’s spiritual goals. However, fasting has the additional practical benefit of reducing the organisation’s financial outlay: less food needs to be ordered! The leader’s wealth, of course, not only affords the benefits of financial power, but it is a symbol of power. Although there have been religious leaders who have renounced material wealth, such as Jesus of Nazareth and the Buddha, wealth underlines the follower’s belief that the leader is superior, and even that he or she is more deserving than the hard-working but impoverished follower. It becomes a means of expressing the power relationship between master and disciple.

It may seem that this arrangement places the follower in a situation of subjection and dependency. To some degree this is an accurate observation, but there are benefits for both parties in this arrangement. Apart from the spiritual benefits that the religion promises, the follower gains a measure of security. Particularly if they are in a contractual relationship, or are living in a community, they have secured a means of livelihood – albeit a modest one – in the form of (modest) financial remuneration and job security. Although “intentional communities” now appear to be in decline, communal living has the additional advantage of enabling the follower to be “looked after”. Someone who is not good at handling money, for example, now finds that personal financial management is no longer so important, since others attend to the organisation’s financial affairs. New religious movements are often accused of micro-managing their followers’ lives, but if someone is not good at making personal decisions, then he or she may welcome being relieved of such responsibilities. Even in matters of personal relationships, some religious organisations will take responsibility for these: the Unification Church, for instance, gained high profile publicity for its “mass marriages”, which were arranged by Sun Myung Moon, or in later years by the movement’s hierarchy.

Financial control has the additional power of fending off schism. One recent publication lists nearly 50 Watch Tower splinter groups, and there are a few others (Bergman 1999). Most of these are either defunct, or have a very small following, and it is only the Jehovah’s Witnesses who remain in the public gaze. The major surviving groups may want to persuade their followers that the reason for their survival is their loyalty to “the truth” or providential guidance. More accurately, the survival of the main organisation is due to money. After Russell’s death, the second leader Joseph Franklin Rutherford was faced with the problem of fending off dissent. Some of Russell’s followers contended, with some justification, that Rutherford’s innovations were a departure from Russell’s teachings and methods of organisation. However, one major factor in his success was his status as a lawyer (he is sometimes known as “Judge Rutherford”), which enabled him to retain the financial control of the society. Deprived substantially of funds, the progress of rival groups was severely hampered.

I began by commenting on Heaven’s Gate and Marshall Herff Applewhite’s power to persuade his followers to commit collective suicide. Such incidents, of course, are very rare, and hence difficult to explain. Particularly in the case of this group, their actions appear to have been voluntary: they understood to what they were doing, and they were not under any external threat, unlike Jim Jones’ Peoples Temple in Guyana or David Koresh’s Branch Davidians of Waco. So why did they do it, and what benefit did they perceive in their actions? From our own “normal” perspective, the prospect of committing collective suicide has little appeal. However, one should not underestimate the powers of persuasion by a religious leader. One should bear in mind, of course, that the vast majority of the US population were not attracted to Applewhite’s teachings, and the group had only 200 followers at its height. His followers were subjected to extended lectures that drew largely on the Bible’s apocalyptic teachings, and they actually found them convincing. Even so, they were not unassailably compelling: one member, on hearing Applewhite mention suicide, challenged the wisdom of such a course of action, and promptly packed his belongings and left (DiAngelo 2007: 48). The rest, however, believed they were about to receive the supreme form of empowerment – access to The Evolutionary Level Above Human, leaving behind an earth that was about to be destroyed. Were they successful? From my standpoint of conventional normality, I doubt it. But who knows?

Image | Lordgamblor


Dr. George D. Chryssides presented this Keynote Address at The European Conference on Ethics, Religion and Philosophy 2015 held at Thistle Brighton, Brighton, East Sussex, United Kingdom.

Photography by Thaddeus Pope, IAFOR Media.


Barker, Eileen (1989). New Religious Movements: A Practical Introduction. London: HMSO.

Bergman, Jerry (1999). Jehovah’s Witnesses: A Comprehensive and Selectively Annotated Bibliography. Westport CT: Greenwood Press.

Blake, John (2011). ‘Why people stick by scandal-plagued pastors.’ 27 May. Accessible at Accessed 26 August 2015.
Bromley, David (2014). ‘Charisma and Leadership’; in Chryssides and Zeller (eds) (2014): 103-117.

Chryssides, G. D. (2012). ‘Unrecognized charisma? A study and comparison of five charismatic leaders: Charles Taze Russell, Joseph Smith, L. Ron Hubbard, Swami Prabhupada and Sun Myung Moon’. Max Weber Studies. Vol.12.2, July, pp.185-204. ISSN: 1470-8078.

Chryssides, G. D. and Zeller, B. E. (eds) (2014). The Bloomsbury Companion to New Religious Movements. London: Bloomsbury.

DiAngelo, Rio (2007). Beyond Human Mind: The Soul Evolution of Heaven’s Gate. Beverley Hills, CA: Rio DiAngelo.

Festinger, Leon, Henry W. Riecken and Stanley Schachter.2008 [1956] When Prophecy Fails. London: Pinter and Martin. Hastings, James.

Holy Spirit Association for the Unification of World Christianity 1996 Exposition of the Divine Principle. New York: HSA-UWC.

Humphry, Derek (1991/2010). Final Exit: The Practicalities of Self-Deliverance and Assisted Suicide for the Dying. New York: Delta.

Karalis, Vrasidas (forthcoming). A Reading of G. I. Gurdjieff’s Meetings With Remarkable Men (1963). Journal for the Academic Study of Religion.

Kierkegaard, Søren (1843/1954). Fear and Trembling. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Russell, C. T. (1894). A Conspiracy Exposed. Zion’s Watch Tower 25 April (Supplement): 3-88.

Setta, Susan (2015). ‘Rising Charisma as a Tool for Success in Pre and Post-Charismatic Phases of Creciendo en Gracia’. Paper presented at CESNUR (Center for Studies on New Religions), Tallin University, Estonia; 17-20 June.

Weber, Max 1968/1978 Economy and Society. Berkeley: University of California Press.

George D. Chryssides

About George D. Chryssides

Dr. Chryssides is Honorary Research Fellow in Contemporary Religion at the University of Birmingham, after being Head of Religious Studies at the University of Wolverhampton, UK, from 2001 to 2008. George Chryssides obtained a First Class Honours M.A. degree in philosophy at the University of Glasgow, and a First Class Honours Bachelor of Divinity in systematic theology. He subsequently undertook postgraduate research at the University of Oxford, obtaining his doctorate in 1974. From the 1980, George Chryssides’ main interest has been new religious movements, on which he has authored numerous books and scholarly articles. Recent publications include Historical Dictionary of Jehovah’s Witnesses (2008), Heaven’s Gate: Postmodernity and Popular Culture in a Suicide Group (2011), Historical Dictionary of New Religious Movements (2012), The Bloomsbury Companion to New Religious Movements (co-edited with Benjamin E. Zeller,2014), and Jehovah’s Witnesses: Continuity and Change (2015). He is a regular presenter at national and international conferences.

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