8 Nov 2010

Apocalyptic cult leader dies, doomsday predictions never materialized

The Los Angeles Times - October 16, 2009

Religious sect leader Elizabeth Clare Prophet dies, leaves legacy of Armageddon church behind

By Associated Press

BOZEMAN, Mont. (AP) — Elizabeth Clare Prophet, the spiritual leader of the Church Universal and Triumphant, which gained notoriety in the late 1980s for its followers' elaborate preparations for nuclear Armageddon, has died. She was 70.

Prophet suffered from advanced Alzheimer's disease or dementia for years, and was at her apartment when she died Thursday night, said legal guardian Murray Steinman. Steinman said he was not aware of any other complicating health issues.

"She just kind of wound down," Steinman said.

Prophet led the Park County church that once boasted 50,000 members. In the late 1980s, church members amassed assault rifles and armored vehicles in preparation for a nuclear missile strike that Prophet predicted was on the way. The plan brought national notoriety and a federal investigation.

The church's beliefs combined icons from the world's major religions, mixing western philosophy and mysticism. Despite her disease, videos and writings of Prophet continued to dominate church teaching, transformed into a New Age publishing enterprise and spiritual university.

The church was still prepared for Armageddon in recent years, and kept a bomb shelter stocked for 750 people deep in a forest near Yellowstone National Park. Gone are the weapons amassed in the late 1980s that got church leaders into trouble with federal authorities.

The church declined in the 1990s, after a doomsday prediction never materialized and Prophet's charismatic presence faded, but lived on with a smaller group of adherents and workers.

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In memoir, daughter of CUT leader comes to grips with where church went wrong


Bozeman Daily Chronicle - Montana October 31, 2009

Future of Faith: What’s next for the Church Universal and Triumphant?

By AMANDA RICKER | Chronicle Staff Writer

CORWIN SPRINGS -- Carol Nicholson was working as a nurse at Cornell Medical Center in New York City when she found the Church Universal and Triumphant.

NICK WOLCOTT/CHRONICLE The Church Universal and Triumphant incorporates elements of many of the world's religions. At the church's altar, the Hindu god Shiva sits in front of a painting of Jesus Christ and Saint Germain. It was 1978 and her supervisor had invited her to hear the New Age sect’s leader, Elizabeth Clare Prophet, speak at the Fashion Institute of Technology.

“I was 27 years old and it was a Friday night,” Nicholson, now 58, recalled. “I was all dressed up in my skirt and heels to go to the bar, but it was my supervisor, so I thought I’d go.”

Initially, Nicholson said she was turned off by the Indian spiritual music and followers weighed down with neck beads who filled the conference room. It seemed hokey, she said.

But then Prophet started speaking. “She started talking about all the things I had been looking for -- a marriage between science and religion,” said Nicholson, who was raised Presbyterian, but had pulled away because she disagreed with the belief that people who didn’t believe in Jesus didn’t go to heaven.

“I was captivated” by Prophet, Nicholson said. “I put down my Louis Vuitton purse, with my acrylic nails and my makeup, and I whipped out a pad and started taking notes.”

Nicholson is one of thousands of people around the globe who have joined the church, based north of Gardiner and perhaps best known for followers’ preparations for nuclear Armageddon in the late 1980s.

Prophet, who retired from the church 10 years ago and died in October from advanced Alzheimer’s disease, preached a mix of several of the world’s religions including Christianity, Buddhism and mysticism.

Yet even without Prophet, who served as an earthly conduit for the teachings of higher beings known as “Ascended Masters,” leaders say the church is growing.

“We have 250 groups around the world and a very growing international movement in Russia and in South America,” said CUT President Valerie McBride, who was a vice-principal at a charter school in Florida prior to taking the post as head of the church last year.

But 23 years after Prophet picked up and moved the church headquarters, complete with 100-plus staff members, from California to the Paradise Valley ranch, local church membership appears to be dwindling.

And religious-movement experts say that without a charismatic leader like Prophet, the Church Universal and Triumphant may just slowly fade away.

“Followers want to be connected to someone like Elizabeth Clare Prophet, who had a direct line to God,” said Joe Szimhart, a former CUT member and exit counselor who is now a consultant specializing in religious movements. “Without that excitement, direction, people tend to lose interest.”

‘Path to attainment’

The chapel on the Royal Teton Ranch is kept locked except during regular service times. Inside the foyer, beneath an Austrian crystal chandelier, are floor tiles painted with a purple fleur-de-lis.

The flower represents the love, wisdom and power that CUT members believe make up the Violet Flame that burns in each person’s heart. Members also believe the flame allows people to transform bad karma with the power of “light.”

Inside the chapel, which seats several hundred people, high ceilings create an airy space, yet there are no windows. Paintings of the Ascended Masters line the walls leading up to and behind the altar. There’s Lady Master Nada, who once served in the temples of Atlantis; Afra, patron saint of Africa; and Guy Ballard, founder of the I AM Movement. Elizabeth Clare and her second husband, Mark Prophet, borrowed heavily from the I AM Movement when Mark started their church in 1958.

On the altar, a golden Buddha statue is perched near statues of the Hindu god Shiva and Guanyin, the “Mother Mary” of Eastern religion.

Behind them, portraits of Jesus Christ and an obscure French count, St. Germain, flank the church’s Chart of Your Divine Self, which demonstrates church teachings that everyone has the ability to ascend like Jesus.

“Mrs. Prophet teaches that there are many, many paths to that attainment,” McBride said. “It’s like going up a mountain. There are many ways to reach the summit.”

Global presence

About 40 people -- many middle-aged and older -- live at the ranch. It’s a much smaller crew than the roughly 700 people that called the ranch home during the “shelter cycle” in 1989 and 1990, when followers built bomb shelters to prepare for the nuclear missile strike Prophet had predicted.

“After the end of the world didn’t happen it must have been quite a disillusion and people started slowly going away,” said Julia Page, a Gardiner businesswoman who has watched the CUT go through several incarnations since it moved to Montana. “Things have quieted down over time. Their impact is not as a group anymore.

“I think that’s the biggest thing. Back then, they were this force. Now it’s just people doing their own thing.”

Church leaders declined to say how many people belong to the Church Universal and Triumphant, claiming it’s hard to track. McBride would only say that there are “several thousand” members globally and the church’s international presence is growing, especially in Russia and South America.

People can belong to the church on a number of different levels. Informal followers may periodically visit one of the centers around the world or view the church’s teaching material on its Web site for free. To become a formal member, a person must agree to give the church 10 percent of their annual income.

In the past decade, the church has put a lot of its resources into expanding overseas. Neroli Duffy, a church minister, said she ordained 12 other ministers at a church center in Accra, Ghana, this year. The CUT has about 50 ministers worldwide.

“The church there -- it fits several hundred people -- and it was packed,” said Duffy, 55, a former family practice doctor from Perth, Australia, who read one of Prophet’s books in high school and decided to be a minister after attending a conference at the Royal Teton Ranch years later.

To facilitate its overseas expansion, Prophet’s books have been translated into more than 25 languages. Videos of Prophet taking “dictations” from the Ascended Masters are broadcast on the church’s Web site.

And these days, it’s possible to get church updates on social-networking sites. On Facebook, the CUT has 675 “fans” and 95 people are following the group on Twitter.

“We have the opportunity to spread the teachings globally on the Internet and we’re trying to be very proactive in doing that,” McBride said.

But as for solid membership numbers, the CUT won’t provide them.

Szimhart said the church is probably smaller than church officials lead people to believe. Many people left after the nuclear strike Prophet predicted never happened.

“I don’t think the membership ever really reached more than 15,000 hard-core people,” Szimhart said.

Robert Balch, a sociology professor at the University of Montana in Missoula who has tracked the CUT for years, said Prophet had a recruiting advantage in the early years -- the 1960s and 1970s.

“There were a tremendous number of people caught up in the hippie counterculture that joined,” Balch said. “They were sort of burnt out on the whole sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll thing and just wanted a little more spirituality in their lives.”

But today, he said, young people are few and far between at the ranch.

Church assets

The chapel at the ranch is flanked by an office building on one side and a cafeteria and church store on the other.

This past Tuesday, workers in the office building fluttered about two small rooms of cubicles, transcribing teachings and taking book orders over the phone and online.

When Prophet paid Malcolm Forbes $7 million for the 12,000-acre spread in 1981, her goal was to move the organization to Montana and create a self-sustaining community. At one point, the Church Universal and Triumphant operated construction, engineering, food processing and engineering businesses. It raised cattle, grew food and ran a publishing company. It developed housing subdivisions near Emigrant and sold lots only to its members.

These days, the church is a pared-down entity. It sold off chunks of the ranch, which is now down to 7,500 acres -- still a lot of land, even in Montana. It still runs a publishing company, Summit University Press, rents out two vacation homes on the ranch and owns church buildings in Livingston, Minneapolis, Chicago and the Philippines, McBride said.

Church leaders, however, declined to peg the assets to a number, citing its status as a private entity. Church members who tithe receive annual financial statements, McBride said.

One thing that has remained on the property is the CUT’s attention-getting 756-person underground bomb shelter.

Prophet ordered the shelter built, and filled with enough food and supplies for its inhabitants to live for seven years, a couple of years before she announced the coming of the end of the world.

Church leaders said they still maintain the shelter, but declined to show it to the Chronicle.

“We consider it an insurance policy,” McBride said. “We think of that Boy Scout motto, ‘Prepare for the worst and hope for the best.’”

However, in Glastonbury, one of the members-only subdivisions further up the valley, some members who built smaller bomb shelters to comply with Prophet’s orders have since advertised them for sale.

Who channels the teachings?

Balch, for awhile, took his students on field trips to the Royal Teton Ranch.

But he hasn’t done that since 2007. It’s just not as interesting anymore, he said.

“Church headquarters is kind of like a ghost town now compared to what it used to be,” he said. “If you pull the messenger out of it, then suddenly everything becomes stagnant and people lose interest and leave.”

In order for the Church Universal and Triumphant to continue moving forward, Szimhart said, it needs someone to take Prophet’s place as messenger.

“You would need someone rising up at the Church Universal and Triumphant that’s both approved by the system and dynamic enough to bring it to the next level, and I don’t see anyone like that,” Szimhart said.

Several people have tried to take Prophet’s place, but none have been deemed worthy.

“At one stage, we counted about 15 people who wanted to be the messenger,” Duffy said.

And while the church isn’t actively looking for or expecting a new messenger, she said it’s open to the possibility.

To be accepted as the messenger, a person would first need to be approved by the church’s board of 24 elders.

“There has to be a clear sign of the Holy Spirit,” Duffy said. “We felt the Holy Spirit when (Prophet) spoke and that’s the clear sign that has to be there. Nobody has given that sign yet.”

If someone were approved by the elders, they would also need to go through a multi-year training process to “train one ear to God and one ear to the world,” Duffy said.

Several people who have claimed to be messengers for the church have wound up splitting off and forming their own groups.

Former minister Monroe Shearer founded The Temple of The Presence, based in Tucson, Ariz., in 1995. Former church official David Lewis founded The Hearts Center in Livingston in 2002. And former church students Kim and Lorraine Michaels in 2002 founded Shangra-la Mission, which disseminates teachings via books and the Internet.

Choose what you want

Without someone to take Prophet’s place, church members continue to watch recorded “dictations” that Prophet took from the Ascended Masters.

But church leaders say that’s no problem.

“The dictations are extremely relevant, even from 10 and 20 years ago,” Duffy said. “They’re part of our sacred scriptures -- just like Christians would read the Bible over and over again.”

And the CUT has a bank of Prophet’s dictations and teachings; McBride estimated that only 45 percent of Prophet’s teachings have been transcribed and released so far.

Nicholson, who owns a marketing firm in Los Angeles, lives part time in Bozeman and serves as a church representative, raised her three kids in the church. She required them to attend services until they were 13 years old, but after that, she told them they could choose their own spiritual path, something she said the church supports.

One of her children practices Buddhism, another is Christian and the third stayed with the CUT.

“Mrs. Prophet taught that each of us has a personal connection with God,” Nicholson said. “Are we the only way? No. That’s just it -- you can pick and choose what you want.”

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Google News - Associated Press November 5, 2009

Its 'Mother' dead, doomsday sect's future in doubt


BOZEMAN, Mont. — It wasn't long ago that thousands of members of the Church Universal and Triumphant followed their leader's call to donate their life savings to build underground shelters against a coming nuclear apocalypse.

Yet Armageddon never came, and after a decade-long decline caused by Alzheimer's disease, Elizabeth Clare Prophet — "Mother" to her followers — died last month at age 70.

In the waning days of Prophet's reign as the church's divinely chosen messenger, its focus shifted from civilization's end to the development of a New Age publishing juggernaut, producing hundreds of books and recordings drawn from Prophet's mystical declarations.

The church still keeps its 750-person shelters stocked with food — "insurance," its leaders say, against possible dark days ahead. Yet with Prophet gone, it's uncertain the spiritual movement she embodied will prove as lasting as all the concrete and steel hidden beneath a Montana mountainside north of Yellowstone National Park.

"You had a clear figurehead that became the focus of the organization, the object of adoration. When that's suddenly removed it throws people into a tailspin," said Robert Balch, a University of Montana sociologist specializing in cults and unconventional religions.

He said Prophet's death sparks a "crisis of succession" over who will take her place.

As her followers convene at the church's sprawling Corwin Springs compound this weekend for a three-day memorial gathering, the struggle to lay claim to Prophet's legacy already has begun.

Within days of her death, former church member David Lewis announced he had channeled Prophet's spirit.

Lewis said this week he wants to "carry Elizabeth's message forward" and is inviting church members to "make a fresh start" with a spinoff group he started several years ago, the Hearts Center.

Like Prophet, Lewis claims the ability to channel Jesus, Buddha and more obscure spiritual figures such as St. Germain and El Morya.

Church leaders have denounced him.

Since Prophet fell ill, at least 15 people have stepped forward claiming to be the next messenger, said Neroli Duffy, who sits on the church's 24-member council of elders. None has met with council approval.

"We're moving ahead," Duffy said Thursday. "She didn't necessarily think there would be another messenger."

Prophet led the church since the 1973 death of her second husband, Mark Prophet, who founded the church's parent organization, The Summit Lighthouse, in 1958.

The couple preached that one's soul progresses through a series of earthly incarnations. His past lives were said to have included Aesop, Lancelot and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Hers included Nefertiti, Queen Guinevere of Camelot and Marie Antoinette.

Soon after her husband died and became an "ascended master," Elizabeth Prophet began to channel his holy dictations. Over the next two decades she attracted an estimated 50,000 followers around the world.

Melding mysticism, Christianity and Eastern religions with strong doses of patriotism and self-sufficiency, she promised adherents a newfound path toward personal enlightenment.

Yet long before Elizabeth Prophet's death, Balch and others who tracked her career saw her power base beginning to crumble.

The grip she held over her followers first began to loosen after her doomsday predictions went unrealized in 1990.

As the church's membership dwindled, she cut back its staff from an estimated 700 workers to fewer than 100. Thousands of acres of church property in Montana's Paradise Valley were sold to bring in extra income.

Prophet's five children — including two daughters once groomed as heirs — have since abandoned the church. Others who claim to be the next messenger, including Lewis, are regarded as charlatans by her more fervent followers.

Daniel O'Connell, a 42-year-old video producer and Web site designer who was attracted to Montana from California by Prophet's teachings, said he expects her would-be replacements to become more assertive now that she's gone.

"It's syrupy, sentimental hogwash," O'Connell said. "They make it up as they go along."

In contrast, he said, Prophet "spoke directly to your soul" and conveyed a "divine presence" in the dictations she delivered. O'Connell and his wife, Valery, said they planned to keep following Prophet's teachings but outside any organized group.

Church leaders contend that Prophet — the tie that binds the faith's disparate religious and historical elements — lives on through 22,000 hours of video and audio recordings of her teachings. "We were told this is the Bible of the next 2,000 years — the everlasting gospel of the Aquarian Age," O'Connell said.

The tapes and other material are stacked on pallets inside the bomb shelters on the grounds of the Royal Teton Ranch, the church's 7,000-acre Montana compound. Less than half has been transcribed or edited. Church leaders said it will be released gradually in coming years.

Church president Valerie McBride would not reveal the size of the church's membership except to say it was in "the thousands" and has spread recently across parts of South America and Russia.

Prophet's oldest daughter, Erin, said her mother's power and influence peaked in the late 1980s during the "shelter cycle," when preparations for the coming Armageddon were at their height.

Members of the church today appear chagrined by those events, which sparked a federal investigation into weapons amassed by Prophet's followers. They contend Prophet's warnings never carried a fixed date.

However, her children said Prophet singled out April 1990 as the time when nuclear missiles from the former Soviet Union would be launched. "It's right there in the dictations," said Tatiana Prophet, the fourth of Elizabeth's five children.

At a family memorial service for Prophet, her daughters described their mother as a commanding presence consumed by her role as spiritual leader. She once told her children that if they wanted to spend time with her, they would have to watch her work.

"I think what my mom did on balance was positive for the world," said Tatiana, an office manager and aspiring musician in Los Angeles. "But people who still believe she's a perfected being, that's really hard for me."

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