It is the 1970s, and out in the American heartland two small but devoted groups have begun spreading some pretty strange ideas about the future. Each follows a charismatic leader who preaches that the end is near. Salvation is possible only by following him, and deliverance will come from the skies.
But during the next two decades, an odd thing happens. One group turns "respectable," almost banal in its normality. The other turns to mass suicide.
The leader of the latter group, as you may have guessed, was a tranquil middle-aged man named Marshall Applewhite. His followers trekked across the West and Southwest in search of self discipline and alien spacecraft. They settled into a posh suburb of San Diego, put their teachings on the Internet, then killed themselves to rendezvous with a spaceship trailing the Hale-Bopp comet.
The other group's leader was a tranquil middle-aged man named Richard Kieninger, whose followers built themselves a town in northern Illinois called Stelle, an island of suburbia in an ocean of cornfields. They settled down with their truck gardens and Tupperware parties to await a seismic apocalypse in the year 2000, figuring to ride it out in airships.
Somewhere along the way their faith in Kieninger waned, and Stelle opened itself to newcomers of all beliefs. By 1991 the town was deemed conventionally laudable enough to rate a mention in a USA Today story on "intentional communities," and the article didn't once mention the town's apocalyptic origins.
Figure out these two cases and you will reach to the heart of what turns one group of like-minded people into a cult and another into a settled community.
The key, say cult experts, is not so much the offbeat nature of a group's principles as it is the charisma and manipulative skills of its leader.
Mike Kropveld, head of the Montreal organization Info Cult, explains, "The more closed and rigid a movement becomes, the greater the potential for harm."
To some outsiders, the Stelle community seemed primed for cult status from the beginning. All it took for them was one look at the book that brought the place together, Kieninger's 1963 publication, "The Ultimate Frontier."
Kieninger wrote of being taken aside at age 12 by a kindly gentleman from the Great Beyond, a certain "Mr. White," who represented a progression of world and galactic leaders going back 20,000 years, known as the Brotherhoods. Its roster read like an all-star team from the world religion league, including practically every spiritual notable from Jesus to Buddha.
Kieninger was merely a reincarnated Egyptian pharaah, Mr. White told him, but he had been designated by the Brotherhoods to lead the world's next era of civilization, by building a town to be known as Stelle in preparation for surviving a global upheaval due May 5, 2000.
Mr. White anointed Kieninger with oil and departed, leaving the boy to his task. The book drew a small but loyal following, and by 1970 Kieninger had formed the Stelle Group and purchased 240 acres of farmland in northeast Illinois. That's where a small group people began constructing a few square blocks of tract homes, a flatland vista of ranchers built to earthquake-code specifications. In a few years the population was up to about 225.
Applewhite didn't come along with his prophecies for another five years, and they, too, seemed outlandish. He, also, was a messenger of the gods, he said, carrying a visitor from space within his body. Rather than building a town, his followers would move from place to place until it was time for the great journey to their next life among the Higher Beings.
But whereas Applewhite and co-founder Bonnie Nettles left little room for dissent and democratic rule, Kieninger's leadership style was more open.
"He was kind of a passive-aggressive authoritarian," recalls Tim Wilhelm, who joined the Stelle Group in 1975 and is now its executive director. "He would say, 'Look, I don't want to be a guru, I don't want to be an authority,' although usually he could gradually bring people around to his way of thinking with what we called his 'whisper campaigns.' "
So, while Applewhite and Nettles achieved a status that moved them beyond the rules, Kieninger, by contrast, wasn't allowed a bit of leeway, no matter his supposed standing among the Brotherhoods. His followers quickly turned against him when allegations of womanizing came to light.
They kicked him out of Stelle, allowing him back only for monthly meetings as a sort of leader-consultant. He moved to Texas to start another settlement, the Adelphi Organization. The Stelle holdovers, already stretched thin, began to rely even more on their own counsel.
The result by the end of 1976 was that when key prophecies of both groups failed to come true, the two sets of followers were poised for decidedly different reactions.
Applewhite that year led his people to eastern Colorado to await an arriving star fleet that never came, while Kieninger's prediction that the United States would never live to see its 200th birthday was proved wrong.
Such failures tend to drive away less committed followers, Kropveld says. "But those who remain -- the ones in the core group -- become even more devoted."
By 1982 the groups were moving still further apart.
Applewhite's, stung by the public ridicule after the failed prophecy, had virtually gone underground, tightening discipline and moving between "camps" in the desert and the wilderness.
Stelle people reacted differently to ridicule, Kieninger recalls, in a phone interview from Texas.
"They didn't like the idea of being looked at as weird by the neighbors out there," he says. "We just decided not to be considered a survivalist community anymore."
So in 1982 the members of the Stelle Group decided to drop the town's membership requirements, as well as the required tithing of income to the organization. From now on, they declared, anyone who could afford to buy a home in Stelle could live there, as long as they were willing to pitch in with the town's neighborly and cooperative -- but not communal -- lifestyle.
Now, Wilhelm says, a bit more than a third of the town's 100 or so residents are Stelle Group members. Another third used to be. The rest never were. That occasionally makes for some awkward situations, such as the one a few years ago when new neighbors moved in next door to Wilhelm.
They discovered a pile of early Stelle Group literature while cleaning out their tool shed, Wilhelm says, and, "They came over saying, 'Holy cow, what's this weird stuff. This place was like some crazy cult commune! Boy, I'm glad we don't have any of those people still living here.' And I said, 'Well, to tell you the truth ' "
Wilhelm isn't quite sure what to make of the prophecies he once believed in.
"Who knows? We'll find out when we get there," he said.
Kieninger, meanwhile, lives among about 25 other followers in Texas, near the small town of Quinlan outside Dallas, and he will still gladly send you a copy of "The Ultimate Frontier" for $4.95.
Is he still preparing for the Big One on May 5, 2000?
Well, yes, he says, he is.
But asked what he thinks of his one-time followers still living in Stelle, he demurs, offering the sort of answer you probably never would have wrung from the likes of Applewhite.
"I really shouldn't speak for them," Kieninger says.
Pub Date: 4/04/97