On the Furthest Fringes of Millennialism

New York Times/March 28, 1997
By Gustav Niebuhr

The mass suicide in a wealthy Southern California enclave casts a brutal light on a millennialist sect that earned notoriety in California 22 years ago, before disappearing into isolation to teach its members that the Earth was corrupt, that civilization was doomed and that only the disciplined few could be saved, rescued by a UFO.

San Diego police linked the 39 people to a group called Heaven's Gate that maintained an elaborate Internet site under that name. Documents on that site indicate that it was the same as a UFO-obsessed group once known as Total Overcomers Anonymous, founded in 1975 by a couple from Houston, Marshall Herff Applewhite and Bonnie Lu Nettles, whose charismatic preachings were vividly described in an article in The New York Times magazine in February 1976.

In a group in which members shed their birth names, Applewhite was identified on the Internet site simply as "Do," as in the musical tone, while the late Ms. Nettles was "Ti."

The group's most recent posting on its Internet site declared that the approach this week of the comet Hale-Bopp provided "the 'marker' we've been waiting for -- the time for the arrival of the spacecraft from the Level Above Human to take us home to 'Their World' -- in the literal Heavens."

In its documents, the group described a world view on the furthest fringes of millennialism, with disconnected elements of Christianity interpreted through a thick lens of science fiction.

In essence, its teachings boiled down to a belief in exalted purpose for a few, combined with an exceptionally grim view of life on an Earth where evil was in control -- a heady mixture of profound hope amidst utter isolation.

Heaven's Gate left no shortage of clues as to its negative thinking about the value of this-worldly life. The group subscribed to a gnostic religious view of the soul as a separate and superior being, temporarily inhabiting a physical form.

Bodies, wrote "Do" in 1995, were merely "the temporary container for the soul." A soul, he added, could evolve to a higher level of being at which point it would receive a new physical form to house it. "The final act of metamorphosis or separation from the human kingdom is the 'disconnect' or separation from the human physical container or body in order to be released from the human environment," he wrote.

In another document posted on its Internet site, Heaven's Gate declared itself "against suicide" -- but with such nuance as to leave ample opening for it.

Yes, the group said, its members expected to exit Earth in their "physical vehicles (bodies)" when a spaceship arrives to take them to the "Next Level." But should the forces of the world turn violently against them, it added, the group would be "mentally prepared" for whatever came their way. The document asked readers to consider the example of the Jews at Masada who killed themselves rather than submit to Roman legions in 73 A.D.

Furthermore, the group said its understanding of suicide was not at all conventional: "The true meaning of 'suicide' is to turn against the Next Level when it is being offered." In the group's thinking, a spaceship, thought to be following in Hale-Bopp's wake, would be offering just such an opportunity.


Brief Taste of Notoriety, Then a Long Silence


The group came together 22 years ago under the charismatic preaching of Applewhite and his companion, Ms. Nettles, a former nurse. It enjoyed a short-lived burst of notoriety, before the couple took it underground in 1976.

After existing in deep seclusion in various Southwestern cities, the group surfaced again briefly three years ago, when members sought out new members with a series of public lectures.

In the group's documents, Applewhite and Ms. Nettles are described as representatives of an extraterrestrial plane called the Kingdom of Heaven, come to earth "to offer the way leading to membership" there for those who could "overcome" their attachment to money, sex and family life.

Such total separation, the group preached, was necessary because Earth's human structures -- governmental, economic and, especially, religious -- were under the control of demonic forces, "Luciferians" and "space aliens," in the group's parlance.

The urgent belief in a coming end to a hopelessly corrupt world is a long and recurrent tradition in American religious culture. In one of its best-known episodes, followers of the Bible student William Miller, anticipating Christ's return in 1843, gathered on hillsides, anticipating transport to Heaven.

But as the 20th century wanes, the millennialist impulse has taken an increasingly dark cast among some smaller and socially isolated groups.

More than 75 Branch Davidians, anticipating a coming end of the world, died in a fire during a siege of their Waco, Texas, compound by federal agents in 1993. In the last three years, more than 70 members of a sect called the Order of the Solar Temple committed group suicides in Canada and Europe in the belief they could transcend a corrupt world and reach a higher state.

As they told an interviewer from the Times magazine in 1976, Applewhite and Ms. Nettles came to believe they were beings from outer space, incarnate in human bodies, with a mission to teach others about the possibility of reaching a new stage of existence.

In time, they began calling themselves "the Two," a reference to the "two witnesses" of Christ foretold in the Bible's Book of Revelation, whose dense allegory has long attracted all manner of religious believers seeking prophetic knowledge of the future. (It was Revelation that David Koresh insisted he was in the process of de-coding as federal agents besieged the Davidians' compound.)

According to the Bible, the two witnesses are prophets who will be slain by a beast from the bottomless pit, then be resurrected and ascend to Heaven.

In 1975, Applewhite and Ms. Nettles, who then used the names "Bo" and "Peep," toured the West Coast, holding forth on college campuses and in private homes, declaring that a spacecraft would arrive to take away a select few. Who was ready, they asked, to "walk out the door" of their lives, to join the movement and reach The Evolutionary Level Beyond Human?

In the Pacific Coast village of Waldport, Ore., 20 people who heard them lecture pulled up stakes and left town with them. One couple, said articles at the time, turned over their infant children to friends.


The message that Applewhite and Ms. Nettles preached was well-suited to a nation traumatized by the loss of the war in Vietnam, the resignation of President Richard M. Nixon and years of social upheaval and violence. They were both anti-establishment and puritanical, calling for total separation from established society, simple living with shared resources and adherence to a moral code that eschewed drink, drugs and sex.

At one point, the couple was estimated to have attracted between 200 and 1,000 followers, who roamed the country in free-spirited pairs and small groups, spreading the word.

But in 1976, as numerous followers became disillusioned and drifted away, the couple took the remnants of their group underground. Those who went with them severed contact with loved ones, creating a mystery that lingered in the hurt suffered by the families they left behind.

Sociologists who originally tracked the group estimated that it had shrunk considerably by this time, comprising fewer than 100 members.


Group Published Book To Tell Its History


The years that followed are known mainly through the group's documents. In a 200-page book, self-published last year, one member wrote that they had spent 17 years undergoing a type of re-education, "a 'metaphoric' classroom experience of changing over their consciousness and behavior," evolving to reach a stage in which they could enter the higher realm that Applewhite and Ms. Nettles preached.

In this and other documents, the group elaborated its theology, fitting out a skeletal Christian framework with the flesh of a wholly new set of beliefs.

The beliefs are these: 2,000 years ago the beings of the Kingdom Level Above Human appointed an "Older Member" to send to Earth a "Representative" (Jesus) to teach people how to enter the "true" Kingdom of God. But humans inspired by demonic forces killed this individual, also called "the Captain" and transformed his teachings into "watered-down Country Club religion."

According to the documents, a new chance was offered to humanity in the 1970s, when the Kingdom Level dispatched a second team of two Older Members to take up human bodies (or "vehicles") and resume the teachings.

The documents also make clear that group members had taken peculiar new names, another sign of their total break with the outside world. The book, for example, contains an overview written by "Jwnody -- a student."

Much of the group's essential beliefs are spelled out in a lengthy, first-person statement published on the Heaven's Gate Website and updated two months ago. Apparently written in 1995 by Applewhite (under the title, "An E.T. Presently Incarnate"), it reveals that Ms. Nettles died in 1985 (or, as he wrote, "separated from her borrowed human container and returned to the Next Level").

The document also says the group's followers arrived on Earth in "staged" spacecraft crashes and were temporarily disembodied before taking human form in bodies especially designated for that purpose by "other crews from the Level Above Human."

The document is full of foreboding about the state of the world, warning that the government, the wealthy and "moral" leaders are controlled by evil space aliens, who have also used all religions to deceive humans about God. It warns, too, of a coming Apocalypse that will destroy civilization (gang wars and ethnic cleansing are offered as proof the process has begun); later, there will be a "restoration period" in which another civilization will be born.

The document, too, reveals the group's rigidly authoritarian code. "The only way an individual can grow in the Next Level is to learn to be dependent on his Older Member as that source of unlimited growth and knowledge," it says. "So, any younger member in good standing, forever remains totally dependent upon (and looks to) his Older Member for all things." An End to Seclusion,


A Move to Go Public


Five years ago, Heaven's Gate put aside its seclusion and took its message public. In its book, the group said it undertook a series of "satellite television broadcasts" in 1992. Then, the next year, it took out an advertisement in USA Today, with a brief description of its philosophy, titled, "Last Chance to Advance Beyond Human."

In their book, the group said the ad was reprinted in "alternative newspapers" and publications overseas, allowing them to enter into correspondence with a far-flung audience.

In 1994, the group, its book said, "sold all our worldly possessions except for a few cars and changes of clothing, and set out cross-country holding free public meetings" in various cities. Press reports from that time suggest that this met with mixed results.

Five members who gave a two-hour lecture on the group's philosophy at the University of Illinois at Chicago in July 1994 drew only 40 people, some of whom left when a videotape of Applewhite was shown, according to The Chicago Tribune. The newspaper reported that members of the group referred to their bodies as "vessels" that contained souls from a super-human level.

But the group's outreach accomplished two ends: Membership was "nearly doubled" (the group's book did not give numbers); the group also concluded that those who joined were not part of the "public in general," but rather lost "crew members," beings from the higher level. "It was quite evident to them and to us that we were of the same family, of the same mind," the book states.

As happy as this experience might sound, it was also the last positive interaction that Heaven's Gate would experience in trying to function publicly. The group, its book said, spent the next year in seclusion, undergoing new training, "an accelerated version of the 'metamorphic classroom.' "

In September and October 1995, the group published major statements on its Internet site, one titled, "Undercover 'Jesus' Surfaces Before Departure," the second one Applewhite's "E.T." statement.

The documents drew a mixed response, but the prevailing reaction struck the group as "ridicule, hostility or both."

Ominously for what was to take place in San Diego this week, Heaven's Gate read this response as final, an indication that its mission was finished, that the "weeds" of humanity had taken over Earth's "garden," and that civilization was finished.

"This was the signal," the group wrote in its book, "for us to begin our preparations to return 'home.' "


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