The Modus Operandi of Modern Religious Movements

“Nobody joins a cult; nobody joins something they think is going to hurt them. You join a religious organisation, or a political movement, and you join with people that you really like” (Deborah Layton, quoted in Jonestown: The life and death of Peoples Temple, 2006). This quote appropriately summarises the gradual breakdown of identity within modern religious movements that turn destructive. When examining Jonestown, it is easy to examine the issue at an arm’s length; however, when you study it for long enough, you come to know the people who lost their lives as individuals, with different stories and purposes for going to Jonestown. These were once ordinary people with ordinary lives, until they were guided into a religious movement that gradually turned destructive, by a demagogue disguised as a seemingly well-meaning leader of the people. These powerful instances of persuasion have happened all throughout history, in small and large scales. There have been some notable examples, some of which were highly publicised worldwide. Scholars and interested citizens alike have often wondered the same thing: could a tragedy like Jonestown ever happen again?

Before any person can begin to ponder that question, the modus operandi of these destructive organisations must be examined thoroughly. Modern religious movements which gradually turn destructive often follow markedly similar patterns of operation, with their differences dependent on variables such as historical/geographical context, purpose, religious doctrine and denomination. There have been a few religious organisations in modern history which could be classified as turning “destructive,” which have both similarities and differences. This paper attempts to juxtapose two religious movements in the history of the modern world: Heaven’s Gate and Peoples Temple of Jonestown.

In March 1997, 39 members of the group Heaven’s Gate were found deceased, all wearing identical outfits. They had all seemingly met their end in a highly uniformed manner, and some of the male members of the group had even been castrated. The deaths were clearly methodical, and every detail had been planned and executed with extreme care and caution. Investigators were initially puzzled by the macabre scene, but soon discovered a mounting pile of evidence that the group had left in its wake, including hours of videotapes that explained their final exit. The group followed a religious doctrine that combined science fiction, spirituality and modern Christianity; they believed that the Hale-Bopp comet was their marker in the sky for a UFO which would take them to “heaven” if they committed physical death and departed their Earthly bodies. They also believed their leader, Marshall Applewhite, to be the second coming of Christ (Chryssides, 2011).

The group had its beginning as early as 1975 in the form of a UFO group; by the later years, Marshall Applewhite was acting under the belief that he was an incarnation of God. Prior to this psychological manifestation, he had his own personal crisis which served as a catalyst for the entire trajectory of events. Living in difficult times of prejudice and homophobia, Applewhite was grappling with the inner conflict of his emergent homosexuality. Being unable to accept this orientation, he sought conversion therapy and fell into contact with a spiritual mentor, Bonnie Lu Nettles. Together, they embarked on an unlikely spiritual friendship, one which became a union of their minds alone and not of their bodies (Robinson, 2009).

The personal crisis and repressed sexuality that Applewhite was suffering from seemed to be the basis of many of the group’s ideologies. For instance, the group demanded that the members be both androgynous and celibate, some members even proving their faith to the extreme by undertaking castration (Chryssides, 2011). This repression of sexuality was clearly projected onto the rest of the group’s members, almost creating a community of suffering in which Applewhite was able to have a degree of control over. This allowed him to feel as if he wasn’t suffering alone, and gave rise to the gradual increase of his control and power. One marked difference between the two groups, however, is that members were free to leave Heaven’s Gate at any time. They were never held against their will, whereas Peoples Temple members were held against their will once they had moved to Jonestown.

Personal inner conflict

Before religious organisations even begin to gain followers or a reputation, their leaders construct a vision and a purpose. In many cases, these visions are for social justice, worship or social support, and generally comprise positive mission statements and goals. Destructive religious organisations start similarly, but are often driven by a subconscious agenda which is disguised with pure intentions and work for the collective good of the demographic that choose to follow. From an outsider’s perspective, it can even be seen in hindsight that negative personal experiences can inspire people to devote their lives heavily to religion.

In his autobiographical statement, Jim Jones cites his own experiences as a poorer member of the community and an outcast as being pivotal in his development of sensitivity for the plight of African American people (Jonestown Audiotape Primary Project, Q 134). Racism was a common ideology in the historical and geographical context of his upbringing, and attempts to change these beliefs were often met with stiff resistance (Donaldson, 2009). Early on, Jim would befriend African Americans, and on one instance, he brought the only African American in the town to his family home. His father rejected him, and they did not speak for many years as a result (Jonestown Audiotape Primary Project, Q 134). The strained relationship between Jim Jones and his parents, in addition to his father’s racism, appears to have created a significant personal conflict for Jones and provided an impetus for his desire to create an integrated church. This stage of the process can be juxtaposed with Marshall Applewhite’s repressed homosexuality, which led him to seek help and eventually undertake extreme measures to change his situation. In Applewhite’s case, it was castration, sexual repression and the construction of a doctrine that repressed sexuality; in Jim Jones’ case, it was the establishment of an integrated church, which gained followers very quickly. These personal conflicts were also entirely valid in their respective historical and geographical contexts. For Jim Jones, the racist viewpoints of his hometown in Indiana provided social validity to the purpose of his church. For Applewhite, the homophobia instilled in him from his upbringing in Texas influenced the shame and guilt he felt about his own sexuality and body. These prejudices were not out of place in their historical or geographical context, but they were negatively exacerbated with resistance and religion.

Gaining of followers and power

Once a vision is constructed for a church, promotion, preaching and persuasion are relied upon to bring followers to the door. Religion and spirituality can provide liberating and powerful personal experiences for many people. It can help people feel connected to their community, and allow them to construct morals that guide the decisions they make in their life. However, for vulnerable people who have had traumatic life experiences, religion can also be used as a crutch or a purpose to influence other people to achieve collective or individual goals. This can have dire consequences, as excessive ego, illegal activity, procurement of assets and financial control often follow with grandeur and inflated social power. This gives the religious leader a tremendous amount of power, particularly in historical or geographical contexts in which the followers are part of an “oppressed” social group (for instance, African Americans in the 1960s).

In the cases of Marshall Applewhite and Jim Jones, the beginnings of their religious movements were based around common human interests, ones which attracted like-minded individuals to the causes of social justice and spiritual enlightenment. Jim Jones’ church boasted integrated worship (Folmer, 2012), whereas Applewhite’s group attracted New Age spiritual individuals from the fringe of America’s countercultures (Wegner, 2008). Both groups claimed to offer solace and radical social change to people who came seeking something they believed the leader could offer, whether that was a change in ideology, or a new beginning. Within all demographics of followers, there were also people who just desired spiritual enlightenment or worship. Both leaders enamoured their followers with charisma and the promise of keys to the afterlife.

Both groups gradually obtained or rented buildings to hold meetings and advertised through pamphlets or door-to-door preaching. Jim Jones even advertised using newspapers, and kept in contact with early followers by visiting them in their homes. Peoples Temple purchased Greyhound buses to take its members on cross-country trips to recruit more church members (Layton, quoted in PBS, 2006). Both groups also initially had a sense of positivity. As Deborah Layton stated, “Every single person felt that they had a purpose there, and that they were exceptionally special. That is how he brought so many young college children in, so many older black women in. So many people from diverse backgrounds, who felt there was something bigger than themselves that they needed to be a part of, and Jim Jones offered that” (PBS, 2006). Comparably, Heaven’s Gate offered social acceptance, spiritual growth and unique keys to the afterlife, with the gateway allegedly being held by Marshall Applewhite and Bonnie Lu Nettles (Heaven’s Gate, 1997, source 1). Once the groups had followers, they gained momentum, assets, and consequently, power.


Although the groups started positively, the eventual influx of power and influence began to shape the leaders negatively. For Marshall Applewhite, it was delusion and the negative expression of long-term mental health issues; Jim Jones’ had a plethora of negative influences, including drugs, sex and an inflated ego (Maaga, 1998). These negative influences are often the predecessor to further delusions, such as “autotheism,” which is the status of a person believing they are God.

“Some people see a great deal of God in my body. They see Christ in me, a hope of glory” (PBS, 2006). This quote from Jim Jones exemplifies his own belief that he was in, in fact, Christ reborn. As his church began to succumb to corruption, drug addiction and his own personal destruction, Jones increasingly emphasised his status as a messiah, and denied the presence of an actual, Christian God or heaven (Banister, 2002). Similarly, Applewhite claimed to be a prophet, stating that “My father is not a human father. My father is a member of the evolutionary level above human, the kingdom of God, the kingdom of heaven. That mind that was in Jesus, that mind is in me. I must admit, that I am here again, that I am here saying exactly the same thing that I said then” (Ramses, 2008). This autotheism, coupled with paranoia and pressure from outside parties, created tension, conflict and a catalyst for total disaster.

Breaking down of individual identity

“Nobody joins a cult.” Religious movements which become destructive over a period of time often start off as churches or organisations which often bring a sense of joy and connectedness to their followers. The followers are not necessarily gullible, naïve or extraordinary people; rather, they are people seeking spiritual guidance or fulfilment. Many religious organisations that turn destructive are initially based around a collective social interest, but gradually seek, either purposefully or not, to break down each individual’s identity and thus confer complete power to the leader.

In Heaven’s Gate, for example, Marshall Applewhite and group members devised an extremely extensive doctrine, one which outlined every aspect of living, everything from eating to sexual conduct. Each member of the group had a “buddy,” and needed to check with their “buddy” to verify that almost everything they did was in line with the group’s ethos. It was designed in such a way that no group member ever had to think for themselves, thus breaking down individual thought processes and opinion. Applewhite also ordered his followers not to speak to their family, since contact or connection to the secular, mainstream world ran the risk that the followers would become “worldly.” Deep down, Applewhite likely believed that his followers would be persuaded by their relatives to leave the group, thus abandoning him and his cause. Unlike the residents of Jonestown, however, members of Heaven’s Gate had the freedom and autonomy to leave as they saw fit. The majority chose not to (Inside Story, 2011).

In the time leading up to their eventual mass suicide, each individual’s identity was slowly broken down. In addition to having “buddies” and not being allowed to express their own thoughts, the group ate communal meals and donned identical hairstyles, subjugated their evidence of gender and wore the exact same clothing (Inside Story, 2011). In different ways, Jim Jones also slowly removed identity from his followers. Once he had them in his grip, he dictated their every action and exhausted them completely so they were never able to think for themselves. Any person who tried to speak up or conspire to leave was labelled a “defector,” and ordered to be turned in to the rest of the church. Under such a strong and negative leadership, relatives and friends turned each other in and supported the public, draconian punishments that Jim Jones would administer to people he perceived as threats to the cohesion of the group (Scheeres, 2011).

One example of how individual identity was broken down within the doctrine of Heaven’s Gate is the strict guidelines that the group had to follow in order to validate their loyalty to the cause. These were split into “minor offences” and “major offences,” with major offences outlining infringements such as deceit and sexual urges. Minor offences included taking any actions without checking with somebody else first, having private thoughts, having likes and dislikes, and using the personal pronouns of “I” and “me” (Heaven’s Gate, 1997, source 2). It can be seen through these examples that individual growth and autonomy were of little value to the leader, with complete control and collective identity being of utmost importance.

Jim Jones similarly exercised total control over his church members. Their entire lives from dusk until dawn were devoted to Peoples Temple, and on many occasions, he held meetings in which members had to rehearse their responses to media questions and their opinion on life in the Temple. This was to ensure that concerned outside parties would not perceive Jonestown as deficient in any way when members spoke about their experience within the commune. Jones would take the group through drills in which each person would be asked questions about temple life, and they would “pass” or “fail” based on whether their answer reflected well on Jim Jones and Peoples Temple (Jonestown Audiotape Primary Project, Q 279). Despite members speaking positively about Jones and his church in the public eye, the reality of Temple life was much different.

Climax/”Passing over”

It is human nature to fear death. Given the chance, most humans would rather be alive than dead. Within religious organisations that turn to negative leadership, it is characteristic for the leader to feel there is no alternative to suicide when government organisations and concerned relatives start to put pressure on the organisation, for any reason. Within both Heaven’s Gate and Peoples Temple, there were groups of people concerned for the safety and well-being of the members. The main concern for members of Peoples Temple is that they were being held against their will and abused physically and emotionally. As this organisation preceded Marshall Applewhite’s leadership of Heaven’s Gate, many people were concerned that members of the latter would be coerced into a similar catastrophe.

These concerns turned out to be entirely valid, as the Heaven’s Gate group (aside from a few who disengaged before the end), were found dead on the 26th of March 1997. They had left behind hours of videotape, books and doctrine, as well as a couple of human representatives whose vision was to keep spreading Applewhite’s gospel. The group believed that the rapture was near and viewed death as a positive escape from the conditions of a world in which people clung to “human behaviour” and “worldly desires.” Applewhite stated that, “It is like living in a civilisation that is of history that is barbaric and primitive in comparison to the level above human (heaven). This life is saturated with lies and misinformation.” He also expressed “great excitement” at the prospect of death and passing over to the “next level above human” (Beyond Human, 2010).

In a similar way, Jim Jones made his followers feel that there was no other option than death; that death was the noblest way to escape negative consequence, and that it made sense to escape the conditions of a world that was inhumane and unjust. To Jones, to die by one’s own hand was to die with dignity, and that it should be viewed positively, almost as if death was merely “stepping into another world” (Jonestown Audiotape Primary Project, Q 042). Unlike Applewhite, however, Jones gave his followers no other choice.

Where to from here?

Jim Jones himself subscribed to the mantra that, “those who do not know history are condemned to repeat it” (Whitener, 2012). In the wake of such tragedies, scholars, government agencies and individuals try to critically analyse what has happened to prevent these tragic instances from transpiring in the future. However, religion in the 21st century carries its presence throughout the structure of society in institutions, politics and individual attitudes. Many people have posed the question, “could a tragedy like Jonestown happen again?” While there certainly has not been a mass suicide of that magnitude since, there have been mass suicides on smaller scales, and there are religious movements which seem to be following the same modus operandi which brought groups like Peoples Temple and Heaven’s Gate to their end.

One such example is the “Divine Truth” church in Kingaroy, Queensland, Australia, which boasts a large following and whose leader, Alan John Miller, believes he is the second coming of Jesus Christ. He is joined by his wife Mary Suzanne Luck, who believes that she is Mary Magdalene incarnate. He has acquired property and travels the world, preaching to different groups of people (Divine Truth, 2012). Like Heaven’s Gate and Jonestown, Divine Truth keep a very extensive record of their sermons and doctrine through the maintenance of a website and Youtube channel. Each respective religious group used the technology of their time (for example, tapes, videos and webpages) to keep detailed accounts of their experiences and beliefs. Followers are enamoured by a charisma similar to that of Jones and Applewhite, in addition to the belief that that Alan is, in fact, the saviour they have all been waiting a lifetime for. Many religious subcultures such as these exist in society and are quickly ignored or assumed to be harmless, which creates a dangerous apathy in which people feel powerless to act or speak out against the manipulation and psychological abuse which occurs in dangerous religious movements. Because religion and religious organisations have long existed and formed integral components of society, they are not questioned nearly enough as they should be. This allows scope for tragedy, heartache and abuse of innocent people, all in the name of God. These ongoing attitudes and ideologies towards any form of dangerous or destructive religion, is something that humanity should learn from in order to prevent suffering and counterproductive thinking.

Religion and spirituality are the gateways to life experiences that can create meaning and peace, but they can also pave the road to oblivion and torture. It is sometimes a fine line, and the patterns of operation which form any religious group must be examined to ensure the line between religion and destruction is never crossed with thousands of lives hanging in the balance.


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(Rebecca-Jayne Virgen may be reached at