39 Cult Members Committed Suicide
Son of Heaven's Gate Cult Leader
has the Answer
by Mark Applewhite
It started the Thursday morning before Easter, 1997. As I was walking out the door
to start a busy day I heard something on television about a mass suicide in California.
I was only able to ponder this for a few seconds in the rush to leave. It was such a
busy day, in fact, I didn?t think about the story again. Little did I know that it was
about to affect me personally and become the hardest thing I?ve ever had to face.
When I arrived home, my wife Judy said, "Hurry, sit down and watch the news."
The picture of a wide-eyed man speaking with a soft voice and a big smile flashed on the
TV screen. I knew that smile and I knew those eyes. After 25 years of wondering where he
was and what he was doing, I was staring at the face of my father on national news.
In shock, I just sat in my recliner unable to think or move. The news report went on to
say that 39 members of a cult, led by my father, had committed suicide. The gruesome video
of the bodies lying in their bunk beds, each covered with a strange purple cloth, was
shown, and I went deeper into shock. Not only was my father dead, but 38 others had
followed him to his death.
This was the beginning of an Easter weekend unlike any I had ever experienced. For the
next three days the phone rang about every 5 minutes, from 4:30 a.m. until midnight , as
all manner of media sought information.
From the beginning my mother, sister, and I had decided to reply ?no comment? to all
requests for interviews. We didn?t want our words twisted out of context so as to
dishonor either our heavenly Father or our earthly father. My father?s sister, Louise,
took the brunt of the media frenzy by being interviewed for well over fourteen hours.
Four families offered us their homes for the weekend as a safe haven from the media
barrage. By Saturday every third call was from a friend, family member, or a brother or
sister in Christ, calling to encourage us and assure us of their prayers. I heard from
people who had known my father when he was younger; they reminded me of ways he had helped
or blessed them in years past. There were calls from people I hadn't seen in over 30
years, telling me they were praying for me and my family. These calls of encouragement and
prayer continued throughout the weekend, and by Sunday night they far out-numbered the
calls from the media. God had begun healing our family.
"Good Friday"morning I was awakened at 5:00 a.m. by a reporter's call. When I
tried to go back to sleep after giving the 'no comment' reply, God seemed to impress on my
heart the need to write down a statement that could be released to the press. I sat down
at my computer, prayed for the right words, and spent most of Saturday faxing the
statement to TV stations, newspapers, and magazines across the country.
To: anyone hurt by the actions of Marshall Herff Applewhite
From: his son, Mark Applewhite
I must first say that I am appalled by
the things that have resulted from the actions of my father and others involved in that
cult. I am deeply hurt by the knowledge that people have lost their lives in connection
with my father. My sympathy and prayers go out to all those who are suffering the loss of
I would, however, like everyone to know that this strange bent that my father went off
on has not been passed on to his family. By the grace of God Almighty, the creator of the
heavens and the earth and author of the Bible, there is hope. By that same grace, my
family and I are born-again Christians with a real ticket to heaven, faith in Jesus Christ
as Savior and Lord.
When I was five my father left our family. He set up circumstances that could have
become just another broken home that perpetuates itself to the next generation. But God,
the One True God, intervened in our family. I have not heard or seen anything from my
father in over 25 years, and I know nothing about the cult he was leading. In those
intervening years I came to know a new Father, the Father in heaven who has now taken what
could have been a disaster of a family and turned it into a family with a 20-year marriage
and two children who love and serve Jesus.
I say this to bring glory to God for what He's done and who He is, and also to give
hope to all people who might hear this. God has a way of taking things that are terrible
and turning them into good. At this Easter season I am reminded of the fact that God took
the terrible death of His Son Jesus on the cross and turned it into salvation for anyone
who would believe. In the same way I pray that God will take this terrible news of a mass
suicide and turn it into a message of hope, the hope found only in the Bible, for all to
If there is a lesson to be learned here it is to find the truth in the Bible and teach
it to your family so that they cannot be swayed by false teaching.
I hope and pray that those touched by this tragedy in San Diego would find comfort in
the God of the Bible and come to know true life after death as a gift from God through
faith in Jesus Christ. I also pray that those who are still searching for answers, as
members of this cult were, would find that Jesus in the Answer. "For God so loved the
world that He gave His one and only Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but
have eternal life. For God did not send His Son into the World to condemn the world but to
save the world through Him " (John 3:16-17).
P.S. For the protection of my family's privacy, I am not doing interviews and request
that you please honor that.
When I had a chance to search my memory, I realized I was actually seven when my father
left. Even so, I knew very little about him. One thing I do remember is that he was always
referred to as Herff. I also remember his fun-loving playfulness, his friendly smile, and
his beautiful voice. He was a strong, caring gentle father; we used to wrestle together on
the floor. When my sister and I visited him after the divorce he would always go out of
his way to have lots of fun things planned. The memories I have are good and I will always
As I was faxing my statement, my prayer was that God would use it to offer hope to the
families of the suicide victims and to anyone else hurt by this tragedy.
I also wanted to ease any doubts of
people who knew me as an elder at my church and as a principal of a Christian school. I
knew God could turn tragedy into blessing and prayed He would use my words to do so.
Sunday afternoon I heard from a reporter who had good news. He had attended Easter
services at a large church in Rancho Santa Fe, the community devastated by this suicide.
He said the pastor read my entire press release to the congregation. He continued by
saying "After the service many people were talking about how the letter had helped
them to refocus on God's grace and had given them some hope in a terrible
circumstance." This was the first of many calls, letters, and cards with similar
stories about how God was using the statement, which greatly encouraged me.
I was so blessed by the prayers of the students for all the families who had lost loved
ones, including mine.
My children had been watching the news
reports all weekend. They saw the media invade our privacy, and were unsure how to deal
with it all. They had never met their grandfather; now he was bringing extreme grief into
their lives. They wanted to love him and hurt for him, but did not know how to do so.
Monday morning meant going to school and facing their friends. This could have been
difficult because children can be so hurtful. Instead, as we arrived at the Christian
school where I am principal, they were met by friends who gathered into a big circle
around them and prayed for them.
Knowing the students would have many questions about their principal and his father?a
cult leader who had just led 38 people to commit suicide?I called an all-school assembly
and talked honestly to them. Afterward I asked them to stand and pray for the families of
the suicide victims. High school, Junior High, and elementary students prayed together. I
was so blessed by these prayers for all the families who had lost loved ones, including
Throughout the ordeal, God, my heavenly Father, provided strength, patience, and
perseverance for us to go on. As I thought about it, I realized He had begun preparing me
three weeks prior to the suicides.
I had attended a seminar where the
speaker talked about how much his father had influenced his life for good and how he had
so many fond memories of special times with him. All of a sudden I was weeping. Although
God had provided me with a loving stepfather, I came to a new realization of how much I
had missed by not having my dad around as I grew up. While I had known this for years, it
hit me really hard at that moment. I now know God was breaking my heart so He could mend
it. Immediately after I quit weeping I experienced a deep peace in my soul. God reached
down and touched me. He seemed to be saying, "Mark, all the gaps in your growing up
and all the things that you missed out on without your earthly father I have filled
completely as your heavenly Father." This thought overwhelmed me. I really believe
God caused this to happen to prepare me for the upcoming death of my earthly father.
Because of the media attention, our family decided to wait for a "calm in the
storm" to have a memorial. We gathered secretly three weeks later for a service and
the scattering of my dad's ashes. They were the longest three weeks I've ever known. At
the service I wanted desperately to follow God's command and honor my father. I had not
been able to do this when I was younger, and it was hard to know how to do it now. We
decided to simply share about the Herff Applewhite we had once known.
Having read articles and listened to interviews, I know much more now about my father
and the cult he led. I kept seeing the same question recur: "Why would educated,
intelligent, gentle people do such a thing?' In these articles and interviews I began to
see some reasons.
Everyone is searching for something that is missing in this life on earth. We all have
a God- shaped void in our lives but each of us chooses to search in different ways.
I see my father's story in the Bible,
in Romans 1. My father knew God, knew about God, about His ways, and about His Word, for
he grew up as a minister's son.
'For although they knew God, they neither glorified Him as God nor gave thanks to Him,
but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. Although they
claimed to be wise, they became fools....therefore God gave them over to the sinful
desires of their hearts....They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshipped and
served created things rather than the Creato, who is forever praised. Amen. Because of
this, God gave them over to their shameful lusts....furthermore since they did not think
it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, He gave them over to a depraved mind, to do
what ought not to be done. They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil
greed and depravity....they are senseless, faithless, heartless, ruthless. Although they
know God's righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only
continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them" (Romans
My father came to appoint in his life where he no longer glorified God as God, or gave
thanks to Him, and his thinking became futile and his heart darkened. Eventually God gave
him over to the sinful desires of his heart. The potential for sin to ruin our lives is
great when we are allowed to go from His protective mercy to our own destructive desires.
Another fallacy was the cult's desperate attempt to earn its way to heaven through good
works. My father had made up dozens of rules for the cult members to follow?rules that
were meant to keep them pure, cleanse them and make them ready for Heaven.
I can see how these rules stemmed from
guilt my father harbored about things in his past. This kind of guilt, and the desire to
do good works to earn one's way to heaven, has plagued people for centuries. But God has
given us the answer for this too in His Word.
"For it is by grace you have been saved through faith?and this not from
yourselves, it is the gift of God?not by works, so that no one can boast" (Ephesians
"For Christ died for sins once
for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God' (1 Peter 3:18).
"Since they did not know the righteousness that comes from God and sought to
establish their own, they did not submit to God's righteousness. Christ is the end of the
law so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes" (Romans 10:3-4).
My desire now is to try to right some of the wrongs my father has done by spreading the
truth about God and His forgiveness through faith in His Son. My father had been teaching
his followers that by good works a righteousness could be achieved that would bring them
into God's kingdom. But God teaches us in His Word that righteousness, forgiveness for sin
and cleansing from all guilt, comes only by faith in what His Son did on the cross. As the
old hymn says,"Jesus paid it all, all to Him I owe; Sin had left a crimson stain, He
washed it white as snow"