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Founding of Heaven's Gate - Timeline Event


Bonnie Lu Nettles and Marshall Applewhite

Time Period



Heaven's Gate was a New Religious Movement founded by Bonnie Lu Nettles, with Marshall Applewhite. Though many refer to groups like Heaven's Gate as a cult, this word carries negative connotations including the assumption that groups such as Heaven's Gate brainwash their members. However, there is very little evidence to support the claim of mass coercion. Many scholars of American religion consider Heaven's Gate a New Religious Movement.

Heaven's Gate received widespread media attention following the ritual suicide of nearly forty members in 1997. The group and the mass suicide entered American popular culture via numerous television documentaries and books. Many saw parallels between Heaven's Gate and the mass deaths at Jonestown less than 20 years prior. Heaven's Gate teachings include a mixture of worldviews including the Christian Millenarian Movement, New Age perspectives, and UFO conspiracy theories, all of which have been utilized separately and/or together by other American religious groups.

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Founded in 1973 by Bonnie Lu Nettles (1927-1985) and Marshall Applewhite (1932-1997), who went by various names such as Guinea and Pig, Bo and Peep, Ti and Do, and "The Two."

The reclusive group changed names over time, calling themselves Human Individual Metamorphosis, Total Overcomers Anonymous, and "the Class." They referred to themselves as Heaven's Gate only at the end of their almost twenty-five-year history.

Heaven's Gate teachings include a mixture of the Christian Millenarian Movement, New Age perspectives, and UFO conspiracy theories. Applewhite and Nettles claimed to be extraterrestrials living in human form and predicted that, following their martyrdom and resurrection, a UFO would appear and carry away the Two and their followers. Their followers would then become immortal extraterrestrial beings in the "Next Level" or "Evolutionary Level Above Human." Applewhite described Jesus as an extraterrestrial visitor, promoted platonic relationships among group members along with androgynous appearances, and stressed that the Two's teachings were educational, not religious.

In the early days, Heaven's Gate attracted approximately two dozen members and by the end their numbers grew to around twice that number. However, Applewhite and Nettles at one point in a 1976 interview estimated that the group consisted of somewhere between three hundred and one thousand members.

For their final ritual, on March 22 and 23, 1997 all thirty-nine active members of Heaven's Gate committed suicide. They did so in three waves, to help assist each other in the process, each ingesting a strong dose of barbiturates and alcohol, then asphyxiated with plastic bags tied over their heads. Why exactly members of Heaven's Gate chose ritualistic suicide at that particular time remains a mystery. Unlike the People's Temple, whose members also committed mass suicide (some consider it a mass murder-suicide), there were no external hostile forces seeking to eliminate or persecute the group. While the leaders of groups such as the Branch Davidians faced criminal charges, which led to the group's demise, the leaders of Heaven's Gate did not face government intervention. Some scholars point to the appearance of the Hale-Bopp comet and the lack of government hostility as contributing factors in compelling them to end their lives.


Applewhite, Marshall
Nettles, Bonnie Lu

Related Dictionary Terms

Brainwashing, Branch Davidians, Christians, Cult, Millenarianism, New Religious Movements, People's Temple, Resurrection


Heaven's Gate logo
Heaven's Gate logo
Heaven's Gate logo. Heaven's Gate official website.

Book/Journal Source(s)

Zeller, Benjamin E., 2014. Heaven's Gate: America's UFO Religion New York, NY: New York University Press.
Wessinger, Catherine, 2000. How the Millennium Comes Violently: From Jonestown to Heaven's Gate New York, NY: Seven Bridges Press.
Tumminia, Diana, 2005. When Prophecy Never Fails: Myth and Reality in a Flying-Saucer Group New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Web Source(s)
Heaven's Gate official website
"Heaven's Gate,"

Web Page Contributor

Nathaniel Wynne, MSED
Affliated with: The Association of Religion Data Archives

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