A Comparison Of American Suicide Religions

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There have been only two known cases of religiously motivated mass suicides in the United States. Those two make up half of all known on earth. They are the Peoples Temple and Heaven’s Gate. One might think that because these two religions shared one gruesome end that they are similar, or follow a similar path or structure. This couldn’t be further from the truth. In fact, the histories of the new religious movements Peoples Temple of the Disciples of Christ and Heaven’s Gate and their leaders have several differences including the preachings they taught, the way they lived, and the endings they had.

Peoples Temple founder Jim Jones gained his first following as a young minister in the 1950s. His mother’s relaying of the terrible work conditions and the inequality of the upper and lower class led him to preach a combination of Marxism and Christianity and his racially integrated following made him highly valued among minority communities and popular with left-wing politicians (Guinn, 91). With a small following of about one hundred people, Jones migrated from Indiana to Northern California (Kopsa). There amassed thousands of people devoted to his cause. He founded his gospel on the premise that everyone should be treated equally and pushed for a form of “Christian communism” that would exist outside of the government (Guinn, 43).

Jones was able to manifest this idea in his sermon through preachings of a Promised Land that would provide a sanctuary for his followers. This Promised Land would later be known as Jonestown. Because Jones had made “the members were sufficiently afraid of government oppression”, Jonestown was meant to be a haven from the government that threatened the values of the Peoples Temple of the Disciples of Christ (Mills, 251). It was decided that this Promised Land would be in the country of Guyana. This was attributed to the fact that Guyana had a socialist government and that it was an underdeveloped country (Guinn, 291). When people first started migrating to Jonestown in the early Spring of 1977, there were only a little more than fifty people staying there. However, when May came, followers started coming in by the dozens (Guinn, 354). Housing all of the settlers became a problem, and most had to sleep in crowded dorms or far off cottages.

When 1978 came, Jones was already extremely paranoid. Jim Jones developed an addiction to prescribed drugs, he was facing legal issues in Guyana, and the U.S. government was starting to ask questions (Schnepper). The suffering of the Jonestown residents reached new heights. Jones would demand that they performed public sexual acts with each other, fight each other, and even flog specific residents, but not even the pleasure he received from this was worth the trouble of maintaining Jonestown (Mills, 319). However, Jones had an ace in the hole: mass suicide.

In the hours leading up to the massacre, Jones gathered all the members of Jonestown into a pavilion. He preached to them about how the media would slander the name of the People’s Temple and how their only option was death (Guinn, 441). At the end of his final sermon, nurses with syringes crowded near the edge of Jones’ stage. He encouraged mothers and their children to be the first to ingest the poison, so parents handed over their babies to be fed cyanide (Guinn, 443). After the children had all been killed (approximately 6 PM), the nurses procured a vat of cyanide-laced Flavor-Aid and proceeded to serve it to the adults. Some elderly who weren’t gathered at the pavilion were injected with or served cyanide in their cottages. A few residents managed to escape but most who tried were held down and injected with poison against their will (Schnepper). Jones’ body was discovered six days later with a gunshot wound to the head (Kopsa).

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Before he committed suicide, he gave his most trusted aides large sums of money and letters introducing his religion to other countries (Mills, 318). What the plan to do with these items remains unknown but escaped Jonestown resident and close aide to Jones, Jeannie Mills says in her book that she is “certain that Jones did not plan to die with his followers” and that “Jim Jones had planned to begin his monster-ministry some place else” (319). Whatever the case is, Jones did die among 909 of his followers in Guyana on November 18, 1978. But in San Diego, California - the very state where Jones amassed his own following- something just as sinister was starting to take form.

Marshall Applewhite and his wife Bonnie Lu Nettles founded Heaven’s Gate in 1972. The religion, formerly known as Human Individual Metamorphosis, was based on a combination of beliefs including astronomy, zenology, Christianity, and the occult (Zeller, 22). After being shunned by active religious leaders for referring to themselves as biblical figures, Applewhite and Nettles (having dubbed themselves the UFO Two) decided to gather a group of like-minded individuals and form their religious ideas independent from all other religions (Harris).

The religion didn’t actually gain momentum until shortly after Nettle’s death in the early 1990s. The birth of the internet age allowed the group to gain massive media coverage and rapid attention in UFO social circles (Zeller, 98). Applewhite had convinced his members that he was Jesus Christ, come to take them to another plane of existence. He often preached of an event known as “the Demonstration” in which members of Heaven’s Gate would board a UFO and live among higher evolutionary lifeforms (Zeller, 214).

Come October of 1996, some of Applewhite’s most devout stayed at what he referred to as “the Monastery” (Zeller, 144). The San Diego mansion boasted over 9,000 square feet of space and a $7,000 monthly rent. Residents slept in bunk beds and had little to no earthly possessions, as they were expected to reject everything of earth in order to be welcomed into the Kingdom of Heaven (Harris). Additionally, every member in the monastery wore Nike Decades sneakers and was given a new name that ended with ‘-ody’. This name was considered to be a family name given to each new member after they had proved themselves (Zeller, 156). One of the core beliefs of Heaven’s Gate had always been leaving earthly pleasures behind to ascend to a “higher level” (Zeller, 182). Applewhite hadn’t fully committed to the idea of group suicide until soon leading up to the events. In fact, Applewhite himself said on the subject of suicide that “this act certainly does not need serious consideration at this time, and hopefully will not in the future” (qtd. in Harris). However, in the months leading up to the massacre, the decision was made that the group needed to take their own lives during the comet Hale-Bopp’s approaching Earth (Zeller, 183).

After recording farewell messages, the members of Heaven’s Gate committed suicide in waves spread among three days: fifteen members the first day, fifteen the second day, and nine the last day. While the exact time of each death is unknown, it’s known they took place over the course of March 22-26, 1996 (Harris). Each member ingested a mixture of phenobarbital and vodka, then placed a tied plastic bag over their heads to induce asphyxiation. The following group would then remove the plastic bag, place the corpses on their beds, and cover them with a purple cloth (Zeller, 197). Their bodies were discovered by the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department after receiving an anonymous tip, later revealed to be given by former member Rio DiAngelo, but by the time an officer arrived, the bodies had already begun decomposing (Harris).

Unlike Jim Jones, Marshall Applewhite faced no government scandal. The members were not forced to suffer at Applewhite’s hands or bend to his will; they were just believers, as was he himself. However, Applewhite did exactly as Jones did in the end: he led his followers to early and unnecessary deaths. The tragedies of Heaven’s Gate and Peoples Temple of the Disciples of Christ both have left very bloody stains on American history. To determine which caused more pain and suffering is pointless. Both of them were devastating examples of humanity at its most desperate and wicked. That being said, these religions were very different. These religions’ differences, including sermon, lifestyle, and demise, make them unique and tragic in their own way.

Works Cited

  1. Guinn, Jeff. ​The Road to Jonestown: Jim Jones and Peoples Temple. ​New York, Simon & Schuster, 2017.
  2. Harris, Chris. “Surviving Heaven's Gate LIFE INSIDE A SUICIDE CULT.” ​People,​ vol. 91 no. 26, 6/24/2019, p62-63. ​Academic Search Complete, http://eds.a.ebscohost.com.db22.linccweb.org/ehost/detail/detail?vid=8&sid=a4940c7c-63df-4f75-af2b-cebad99bcfe3%40sdc-v-sessmgr02&bdata=JnNpdGU9ZWhvc3QtbGl2ZQ%3d%3d#AN=136930032&db=a9h
  3. Kopsa, Andy. “The U.S. Military Had to Clean Up After the Jonestown Massacre 40 Years Ago. What the Crew Found Was 'Beyond Imagination'.” Time USA, 16 Nov. 2018 Academic Search Complete, http://eds.a.ebscohost.com.db22.linccweb.org/ehost/detail/detail?vid=6&sid=a4940c7c-63df-4f75-af2b-cebad99bcfe3%40sdc-v-sessmgr02&bdata=JnNpdGU9ZWhvc3QtbGl2ZQ%3d%3d#AN=133070060&db=a9h
  4. Mills, Jeannie. ​Six Years with God. ​New York, A&W Publishers, Inc., 1979. Schnepper, Jeff A. “Jonestown Massacre: The unrevealed story.” ​USA Today Magazine​, vol. 127 no. 2644, 01 Jan. 1999, pp. 26-2. ​Academic Search Complete, http://eds.b.ebscohost.com.db22.linccweb.org/ehost/detail/detail?vid=0&sid=bacb4872-105c-4362-b0bd-2e6f90d301d9%40pdc-v-sessmgr06&bdata=JnNpdGU9ZWhvc3QtbGl2ZQ%3d%3d#AN=1427327&db=a9h
  5. Zeller, Benjamin E. ​Heaven’s Gate America’s UFO Religion. ​New York, New York University Press, 2014. http://eds.a.ebscohost.com.db22.linccweb.org/ehost/detail/detail?vid=8&sid=a4940c7c-63df-4f75-af2b-cebad99bcfe3%40sdc-v-sessmgr02&bdata=JnNpdGU9ZWhvc3QtbGl2ZQ%3d%3d#AN=136930032&db=a9h
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