CHURCH UNIVERSAL & TRIUMPHANT / SUMMIT LIGHTHOUSE TIMELINE
1918: Mark Prophet was born in Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin.
1930s: Raised as a Methodist, Mark Prophet began to explore Rosicrucian ideas.
1939: Elizabeth Clare Wulf was born in Red Bank, New Jersey.
1952: Mark Prophet began writing down messages he claimed were dictated by ascended masters, following the traditions of I AM Activity and the Theosophical Society.
1956: Mark Prophet attended his first event at the Bridge to Freedom, an organization in Pennsylvania founded by former I AM members.
1957: Elizabeth Clare Wulf encountered I AM books and began attending Antioch College.
1958: Mark Prophet moved to Washington, D.C. where he co-founded the Lighthouse of Freedom with Frances Ekey, the former co-founder of the Bridge to Freedom. He also founded the publishing house of the Summit Lighthouse to publish his “dictations.”
1959: Elizabeth Clare Wulf moved to Boston and transferred to Boston University. Mark Prophet split up with Frances Ekey and declared himself a “messenger” in the I AM tradition.
1960: Elizabeth Clare Wulf married fellow Christian Scientist Dag Ytreberg.
1961: Mark Prophet founded the Keepers of the Flame Fraternity. He met Elizabeth Clare Wulf in Boston and began training her as a messenger.
1963: After divorcing their spouses, Mark Prophet and Elizabeth Clare Ytreberg married.
1964: Elizabeth Clare Prophet gave her first public dictation and was officially “christened” as a messenger. She used her middle name on her publications but was generally known as “Elizabeth” in her personal life.
1966: The Prophets moved the Summit Lighthouse headquarters to Colorado Springs.
1970: The Prophets toured India with followers and met Indira Gandhi, Mother Teresa, and the Dalai Lama. They founded the Montessori International School.
1973: Mark Prophet died of a stroke. Elizabeth married Randall King. Summit University courses began.
1974: Elizabeth Prophet announced the founding of Church Universal and Triumphant.
1975: The Church Universal and Triumphant (CUT, known to its members simply as “the Church”) was incorporated as a non-profit religious organization. The Summit Lighthouse continued as publisher of the Church’s teachings. The Church held a large conference near Mount Shasta in California.
1976: CUT’s headquarters was moved to California.
1977-1978: Elizabeth Prophet embarked on a year-long “stumping” lecture tour around United States cities. She met with leaders of Liberia and Ghana. Elizabeth “took” a dictation giving her the title of “Guru Ma.”
1980: Elizabeth Prophet divorced Randall King.
1981: A 12,000-acre ranch in Montana was purchased and named “The Inner Retreat.” Elizabeth Prophet married Edward Francis.
1986: A jury verdict was rendered against CUT in a civil suit with former member Gregory Mull. Elizabeth Prophet began prophesying nuclear war and cataclysm. CUT sold the California properties and moved its headquarters to Montana.
1987: Elizabeth advised her followers to build fallout shelters near their homes or in Montana. Many did. Her dictations gave them a twenty-four month deadline for “preparedness.”
1989: The Church prepared a thirteen-acre shelter site on Montana property.
1990: Shelter preparations and overnight drills drew national scrutiny to the Church headquarters. The prophecies were “updated” to a twelve-year scenario.
1995: The Church began restructuring work with Gilbert Cleirbaut, a Canadian management consultant. CUT bylaws were revised to permit more participation from members.
1996: Cleirbaut became president of CUT.
1997: Elizabeth Prophet divorced Edward Francis. The Church announced she suffered from a neurological disorder.
1998: Prophet’s disorder was diagnosed as Alzheimer’s Disease. Splinter groups formed, and other messengers declared themselves.
1999: Cleirbaut was forced out. The Summit Lighthouse, which still existed, was reemphasized as the group’s primary identity.
2000: Prophet retired.
2009: Prophet died.
2011: Elders appointed David Drye as CUT’s spiritual leader. No messenger is officially recognized.
Church Universal and Triumphant was founded by Elizabeth Clare Prophet in 1975, but it continues the traditions and organizational structure established in the Summit Lighthouse by Mark Prophet in 1958 and continuing until his death in 1973. The Summit Lighthouse is once again the group’s primary identity, and the two organizations are essentially one, though the requirements for membership in CUT are more stringent.
Born in Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin, in 1918, Mark Prophet lost his father, a Canadian logger, to tuberculosis when he was nine. Raised by a single mother during the Great Depression, he showed a strong interest in religious topics. As a young boy, he upset neighbors with his claims of clairvoyance, briefly became a Pentecostal, and spent hours in prayer and writing religious poetry. While working on a railroad during the 1930s, he had a mystical experience that he later identified as a vision of a “master” known as El Morya in Theosophical circles; the experience served as a catalyst for his spiritual work. He served in the Air Force during World War II as a radio operator; settled in Madison, Wisconsin; trained as an electrician; was briefly a union leader; held a variety of sales jobs; and fathered five children with his wife, Phyllis. Having encountered Rosicrucian ideas during the 1930s, he unsuccessfully attempted to spread mystical Christian ideas within the Methodist church. After being rejected by traditional Christianity, he embarked on several avant-garde spiritual initiatives, including in 1952 a group studying yoga as taught by Paramahansa Yogananda’s Self Realization Fellowship. Mark Prophet was briefly a disciple of Yogananda.
In 1950, Mark Prophet began work on a novel entitled Madonna, later published as A Prophet in Wisconsin, about an Indian miracle worker who brings controversy to a small Wisconsin town. In 1952, in a similar style, he began “dictating” a series of “Ashram Notes” from the Master “M,” or “Morya,” who had been introduced by Helena Blavatsky in the nineteenth century. In 1951, Mark came across dictated messages from ascended masters to the Bridge to Freedom organization, which had been founded by former members of the I AM Activity. In 1956, he met Frances Ekey, a leader in the Bridge. After Bridge leaders demoted Ekey in April 1958, she began to explore the idea of starting a new group with Mark as a “contact” with the masters. Under her influence, and seeking a new life free from creditors, Mark Prophet moved his family to Washington, D.C., where in August 1958, he and Ekey founded two organizations: The Lighthouse of Freedom and the Summit Lighthouse. CUT members perceive all of the events related to its founding and the decisions of its messengers as divinely inspired.
Mark Prophet gave live, real-time “dictations” before select groups, but he was only an anonymous “contact” to the members of the Lighthouse organizations until August 1959. At that time he broke with Ekey and her Lighthouse of Freedom, which she continued to run until her death in 1968. In 1959, Mark Prophet began to take public live dictations (i.e., not prepared or written down in advance) and to call himself a messenger for the ascended masters, as well as to publish written messages from masters as Pearls of Wisdom. Later, the Pearls also incorporated transcripts of his public dictations. In 1961, Mark Prophet founded the Keepers of the Flame Fraternity as a companion organization to the Summit Lighthouse, and modeled it after Rosicrucian fraternities.
In 1961, Prophet met Elizabeth Clare Ytreberg, who had attended one of his lectures [Image at right]. They began working together and were married in 1963. In February 1973, Mark Prophet died of a stroke, leaving Elizabeth with their four young children (Sean, Erin, Moira and Tatiana). Elizabeth announced that her husband had become an ascended master, henceforward known as Lanello, from whom she also took dictations. Mark Prophet is today revered as Lanello by the group, and his date of death, February 26, is celebrated as his ascension day. He is considered the “twin flame” of Elizabeth, who assisted in running the group in his ascended state.
Elizabeth Clare Prophet was born Elizabeth Clare Wulf in 1939 to a Swiss mother with esoteric interests and a German boat builder and former submarine commander who had settled in New Jersey. At the age of eight, she developed a seizure disorder, which led her to seek out the Christian Science church for healing. Her seizures became unnoticeable as she entered adolescence, though she continued to experience “absence,” or “petit mal” seizures throughout her life, which prevented her from driving a car. As her parents did not attend church regularly, she attended on her own, and continued her study of Christian Science through college.
Nevertheless, she was exposed to other esoteric influences by her mother, including teachings of the Theosophical Society and the books written by Guy and Edna Ballard, founders of the I AM Activity. She began reading these books in 1958 on her way to attend Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio. Transferring to Boston University in order to be closer to the Christian Science headquarters and its “Mother Church,” Elizabeth met her first husband, Dag Ytreberg, in the Christian Science youth group at the university. She taught Sunday School in the Christian Science Mother Church in Boston, worked at the Christian Science Monitor, and undertook advanced training to become a practitioner (see Elizabeth Prophet 2009).
In 1961, after having sought out students of the I AM books in Boston, Elizabeth attended a meeting at which Mark Prophet was a guest speaker. Upon hearing him take a dictation, she decided her life’s calling was to be a messenger, and begged him to train her. She moved to Washington, D.C., that summer, and married Mark in 1963 after both had divorced their spouses. They held events such as services and conferences in rented halls in the D.C. area, and cultivated a growing mailing list for the printed dictations from their headquarters in suburban Virginia.
After the headquarters moved to Colorado in 1966, Elizabeth Prophet was appointed “Mother of the Flame,” an office in the Keepers of the Flame fraternity that Mark had founded, and many staff and followers began calling her Mother (Palmer 1997). A growing “staff” at headquarters began to arrive at the headquarters, which was located in a large mansion called “La Tourelle.” The “staff” was a core group of members who volunteered or worked for small stipends. Their primary task was to publish Summit Lighthouse teachings. In 1972, the Prophets published their first book together, Climb the Highest Mountain. Attendance at quarterly conferences numbered in the hundreds. They also nurtured growing groups in Africa, and they took followers on pilgrimages to India (1970) and the Middle East (1972).
In 1975, after Mark’s death, Elizabeth Prophet founded the non-profit Church Universal and Triumphant (CUT) which, while meant to be a companion organization to the Summit, eventually assumed most of its functions. Her message attracted followers of both sexes (no figures exist, but the authors estimate about sixty per cent female and forty percent male). During the 1970s, the Church grew rapidly, with the staff soon numbering in the hundreds, and attendance at conferences in the thousands. The Church occupied a series of increasingly larger properties. In 1978, it opened a 218-acre former Catholic seminary in the Santa Monica Mountains, which was renamed Camelot. [Image at right]
In October 1973, Elizabeth Prophet married Randall King, who had joined the Summit Lighthouse staff in the early 1970s and worked as a chef. During their seven-year marriage, King held a variety of positions with the various organizations affiliated with the Church. After their 1980 divorce, he joined other former CUT leaders in public criticism of Prophet.
In 1973, Elizabeth Prophet founded Summit University to systematically present the growing body of “ascended master teachings” issued through her and Mark. It held three-month retreats (later also two-week retreats), but neither claimed nor sought accreditation. She and Mark had also founded a school called Montessori International in 1970, which later grew into a K-12 school, and also trained teachers under the auspices of the Pan-American Montessori Society during the 1980s and 1990s. The school was initially a non-sectarian school which accepted students from the local community, but over time it incorporated more of the Church’s teachings into daily routines and became exclusively a school for children of Church members, although it also followed Montessori precepts. It was accredited by the states in which it functioned (Colorado, California and Montana), but eventually the Church closed the school for financial reasons. [Image at right]
In 1981, the Church purchased a 12,000-acre ranch near Yellowstone National Park in southwestern Montana. It was named “The Inner Retreat,” and also the Royal Teton Ranch, and it was originally intended to serve only as a retreat facility. The Church later purchased several other properties nearby, bringing its total land in Montana to about 30,000 acres. Two of the properties were subdivided into planned communities of North and South Glastonbury. Lots were leased (later sold) to Church members who wanted to live near headquarters but did not want to join staff. The Church began holding annual conferences in a tent set up in a valley known as the Heart of the Inner Retreat, which attracted up to 5,000 people over a period of several weeks.
Elizabeth was a dynamic and active leader who traveled widely and nurtured groups around the globe. She met with heads of state in India, Ghana, Liberia, and the Philippines. Her books sold more than 1,000,000 copies in her lifetime, and were translated into a variety of languages. With a cable television show having audiences in the millions, she achieved maximum visibility during the
late 1980s. She published her own books, as well as audio and video tapes through Summit University Press, which she had founded to publish her and Mark’s work. She also became a frequent topic of press attention. [Image at right]
In 1986, a $1,500,000 jury verdict was rendered against Elizabeth Prophet and the Church in a civil lawsuit filed by former member Gregory Mull. The lawsuit is discussed below in more detail. That summer, Prophet sold the Camelot property and moved the headquarters to the Montana ranch. She also began predicting nuclear war and a variety of other calamities. In October 1987, she gave a dictation with a twenty-four month deadline for “preparedness,” and soon afterwards warned of the high likelihood of a Soviet first-strike nuclear attack on the United States, followed by a period of cataclysmic “earth changes.” Prophecy had been a part of her and Mark’s ministry since the early days, and it was generally couched in terms of preventable events. She never predicted a war with certainty, and always held out hope that prayer would “turn back” her prophecies (see Elizabeth Prophet 1990). During the 1980s, she also elaborated on her theology of evil, and warned that fallen angels could incarnate in human form, creating war and chaos.
In 1989, the Church began building a thirteen-acre, 700-person bomb shelter for its staff in the Heart of the Inner Retreat. The shelter project included a large underground structure designed to store seven years of food and supplies. Numerous other smaller shelter projects were begun by Church members in Glastonbury and around the world. Thousands of Church members converged on Montana (see Egan 1990). In March 1990, two overnight underground drills were held at the main shelter. [Image at right]
Elizabeth Prophet released a prophecy update, which extended the prophecies to a twelve-year period, and shifted the focus towards prayer work, though still urging preparedness (Elizabeth Prophet 1990). Between 1988 and 1990, Church members engaged in extended prayer vigils to prevent the predicted calamities, which were not seen as inevitable. An accidental fuel spill (discussed below) rendered the main shelter inoperable. Issues surrounding the shelters and prophecies led to disillusionment among Church members, many of whom had been led into financial difficulty by their preparations. At least a third of Church members disaffiliated after the shelter episode, according to Erin Prophet (2009).
However, Elizabeth Prophet resumed her ministry and continued to be active, traveling to South America and attracting many new members. The Church continued to hold large summer gatherings in the Heart. Elizabeth Prophet also acquiesced to members’ requests for participation in leadership. In 1996, she gave power to a president, Gilbert Cleirbaut, a Belgian management consultant who had worked for the Canadian government, though she remained the spiritual leader.
In 1993, her daughter Erin Prophet had ended ten years of training to become a messenger and resigned from CUT, followed by Sean in 1994 and Tatiana in 1995. Moira Prophet, who had left the Church in 1988 and had become an outspoken critic, reconciled with her mother in 1993. Elizabeth had also given birth to a son, Seth, with Edward Francis, in 1994.
Beginning in the late 1980s, Elizabeth Prophet’s epilepsy had begun to worsen. Whereas she had previously experienced only “absence,” or petit mal seizures, she began to experience grand-mal, or tonic-clonic, seizures in 1987. By the early 1990s, she had begun to exhibit memory problems. In 1997, she was diagnosed with an unidentified neurological disorder, which was eventually identified in 1998 as Alzheimer’s Disease. During this time of illness, she had become estranged from her husband Edward, and they divorced in 1997. A temporary guardianship shared by long-time Church staff member Murray Steinman and daughter Erin Prophet eventually became permanent. In 2000, Elizabeth Prophet retired to Bozeman, Montana, where she was cared for by followers until her death in 2009 (see McMillion 2005; Grimes 2009).
The Church’s teachings are rooted in the I AM Activity founded by Guy and Edna Ballard in 1930s America, and of the Theosophical Society and its offshoots, founded by Helena Blavatsky in 1875. The central teaching of the Church is that each person has a divine potential, or “spark,” which, if developed, will permit the soul to become reunited with God through the ascension, which may take place before or after death. After ascension, the soul will no longer be reincarnated on earth. The soul is said to retain its individual personality after death as well as characteristics it held while living on earth; it is believed to continue to grow and learn in other “planes” or “octaves.” [Image at right]
Ascension takes place when the individual unites with the “Holy Christ Self” and “I AM Presence,” which are depicted above the individual’s head in the Chart of Your Divine Self, the central icon of the Church’s teachings. In addition, each individual is believed to have a “twin flame,” or spiritual other half, an opposite-gendered individual with which it is destined to unite after each has achieved the ascension. The purpose of the Church’s teachings is to help people to become closer to the Divine Self, an incremental process that is helped by the dissolving of karma through good works and prayers known as dynamic decrees. A variety of testimonials about their efficacy were published in the “I AM the Witness” section of the Church’s weekly Pearls of Wisdom newsletter. All individuals are believed to have an equal opportunity of achieving ascension, and the church welcomes members from every race.
The Church does not preach eternal damnation, but rather that souls may become trapped in the “astral plane” after death if their spiritual condition is not in order. Extremely evil people who do not choose “the light” after many lifetimes may undergo a soul extinguishment known as the “second death.” During the 1980s, Elizabeth Clare Prophet began teaching about “soulless ones,” who are believed to be individuals destined for a “second death.” The church preaches non-violence and a respect for life, and “soulless” individuals were not to be physically attacked or targeted, although a variety of individuals were identified as evil incarnate, and prayers directed against the evil energies they were believed to wield.
The Church acknowledges the Bible as sacred scripture, but also incorporates scriptures from all major religious traditions. Both Mark and Elizabeth Prophet were believed to have had a number of previous incarnations in other religious traditions, including Elizabeth as Martha of Bethany and Saint Clare, and Mark as the Gospel writer Mark. They taught that they had been inspired with “progressive revelation” and the ability to interpret the scriptures for the twentieth century, which they saw as the dawning of the Aquarian Age (see Erin Prophet forthcoming a).
Many of those who follow the Prophets’ teachings are not formally affiliated with the Church as “communicants.” But those who choose to take the extra step to become Church communicants formally agree to a set of eleven tenets, which include a requirement for tithing ten percent of their income. A lesser level of commitment is available to Keepers of the Flame, who pay nominal annual dues, and subscribers to newsletters and other publications.
In 1984, Elizabeth published The Lost Years of Jesus, which claimed that Jesus had visited India in his youth. It was followed soon after by The Lost Teachings of Jesus, in which she expounded on what she believed were Jesus’s true teachings, including support for Hindu and Buddhist ideas (1986). Although the Jesus in India legend has been debunked by scholarly sources (see Lewis 2003; Joseph 2012), the union of East and West suggested by this story explains some of the popular appeal of the Prophets’ work. (For more on the thought world of the Church, see Melton 1994; Abravanel 2013; Erin Prophet 2017).
Mark and Elizabeth Prophet are believed to be twin flames, as are many other ascended master couples and living individuals. Marriage on earth is not necessarily with the twin flame, but can also be with “soul mates,” or others with whom the individual has “karma” to work out. Sex within marriage is sanctioned, even if non-procreative, and contraception is permitted. Divorce is considered a private matter. Members of CUT are advised to limit intercourse for spiritual benefit. Homosexuality, abortion, oral sex, masturbation and sex outside marriage are forbidden for Church members but at lower levels of affiliation, sexual practices are left to the individual conscience. (See Erin Prophet 2017 for more on the Church teachings on gender and sexuality.)
The Prophets and their early students carried on the ultra-patriotic traditions of the I AM Activity and maintained an American flag on all of their altars. Dictations predicted that it was the destiny of the United States to bring spiritual enlightenment to the world. Ascended masters, such as Saint Germain, were said to have inspired the establishment of the United States and to have promoted its success in war and its struggle against Communism. Elizabeth Prophet actively promoted Republican causes during the 1980s (see Whitsel 2003 for more on the Church’s patriotic stance). However, she also took more liberal stances, criticizing the Watergate scandal, supporting organic farming, and opposing nuclear power. She often criticized the U.S. government in her annual Fourth of July Address, which she delivered in front of a gigantic American flag. Some church altars included an American flag with gold stripes replacing the red, as a symbol of the destiny of the nation and its people to become more spiritual and transcend warfare. [Image at right]
The fundamental rituals of CUT-TSL are conducted by way of spoken affirmations and prayers, and ritual acts, such as the burning of letters to divine beings and the use of swords to “clear” and purify the mind and feelings. Membership in CUT-TSL is not required in order to practice most of the rituals. A significant portion of the Church’s teachings are directed at the alleviation of mental, physical and spiritual illness and unrest through rituals based in spoken prayer. The entire system of spoken prayer is known as the “science of the spoken Word.” It incorporates decrees, meditation, visualization, chant, and songs, including prayers from a variety of religious traditions, such as rosaries. These prayers are organized according to a color scheme based on seven “rays.” Each ray is associated with a different type of “energy,” or quality, such as blue for protection.
The seventh ray is associated with an energy known as the violet flame, and violet flame decrees are used to dissolve karma. Special services violet flame services are held on Saturday evenings, but violet flame decrees may be given at any time. A Wednesday night healing service is held, and general and specific healing prayers are given. Prophets also frequently gave healing prayers for their followers while alive. Those who members of CUT are required to engage in specific services and rituals weekly. These include a “Sacred Ritual” for Sunday morning, a “‘Watch with Me’ Vigil of the Hours” on Wednesday evenings, and a Saturday evening violet flame decree service. Ministers of the Church offer sacraments including baptism, marriage, communion, confession, and last rites.
A good part of the teachings of the Prophets focus on how individuals can protect themselves and innocent souls from malevolent forces, which are characterized as invisible spirits who have “chosen” darkness and death, or have become controlled by evil forces. The Church has rituals of “clearance” and exorcism. These employ a physical, unsharpened sword about two feet in length for “clearing” negative energies from around people, including a variety of “entities” that are believed to contribute to bad habits, such as smoking or drug use. Decrees are also believed to clear “negative karma” from the planet, and improve general well-being. Weekly rituals and services for healing and purification take place. The Church also conducts rituals to “rescue” souls of the departed from the “astral,” a kind of after-death limbo state.
Another common practice is the giving of a prayer to bless food prior to eating. The Prophets also promoted a wide variety of alternative healing modalities, which were used by staff and members on an optional basis. These included chiropractic, fasting, and various “cleansing” regimes, some of which were incorporated into the Summit University curriculum at various times, or required for staff. Healing modalities also incorporated principles of Asian medicine such as Ayurveda and Qigong. Presently, the church leadership does not promote any particular system of health, but many members are active in the alternative medicine community.
As the only official messengers for the divine beings known as ascended masters who were believed to have founded Church Universal and Triumphant, Elizabeth Clare Prophet and her husband Mark were considered sole and nearly unquestioned leaders during their lifetimes. However, the organization was a non-profit corporation and, as such, also had a governing board, which has taken on greater and lesser degrees of authority for the temporal and spiritual direction of the organization since its founding in 1958.
After Mark Prophet’s death in 1973, Elizabeth Prophet began developing her leadership style. Although she initially collaborated with the board, she soon took a more forceful attitude, and by 1980 had dismissed all of Mark’s appointees, with the exception of Edward Francis, whom she married in 1981. Her children, Sean and Erin, were appointed to the board in the 1980s as soon as they turned eighteen, and from 1984 to 1990 the board was controlled by the Prophet family.
Five additional members were appointed in 1990. After the resignations of Sean and Erin, and the appointment of Gilbert Cleirbaut to the presidency in 1996, the board had more authority. A new set of by-laws also gave more power to individual groups and members. Following the ouster of Cleirbaut in 1999, the headquarters leadership took control and subsequently ran the Church (see Palmer and Abravanel 2009). They rewrote the bylaws to restrict participation of members and retain power in a council of ministers and group of twenty-four elders. A spiritual leader, David Drye, was appointed in 2011. No living messenger has been currently recognized. Splinter groups that formed from the Church included the Temple of the Presence, led by Monroe Shearer, a former minister of CUT, and his wife, Carolyn, and the Hearts Center, led by former CUT staff member David Lewis (founded in 2004).
In the early 1970s, the first ministers were ordained in the Summit Lighthouse, a tradition continued once CUT was founded in 1975. Ministers are required to undergo training, and they have the power to administer sacraments. Until the mid-1990s and the appointment of a ministerial council, ministers did not have any authority over the leadership of the organization. However, after Prophet’s retirement, a ministerial counsel was given some power.
With respect to group size, the Church never released its membership figures, and media and academic estimates have varied widely, from 5,000 to 150,000 members. Erin Prophet has given the following estimates from her time on the board (1983-1993), in categories with overlapping membership: Church mailing list of interested parties, 50,000-75,000; Subscriber to the Pearls of Wisdom, 15,000; Keepers of the Flame Fraternity, 10,000; Communicant of Church Universal and Triumphant, 5,000, Headquarters staff, 200-600. Montana conference attendance: 5,000. Although reduced from that time, the Church has continued to maintain study groups and teaching centers in dozens of cities, and to hold conferences for up to 1,000 people (see Burkhart 2002; Erin Prophet forthcoming a).
Through its history CUT was involved in a number of controversies that impacted its public image. Former members alleged that they had been brainwashed and that the organization mistreated its members and staff. They also revealed that military-style weapons had been stored on church properties. Critics were concerned about the Church’s environmental impact, particularly at its Montana properties. These concerns, together with concerted campaigns by the anti-cult movement provoked negative public reactions to the church, especially after the move to Montana and during the shelter episode. The Church was the target of numerous incidents of vandalism and several violent attacks by local residents during its early years in Montana, and dozens of members underwent kidnappings and forced deprogrammings between the 1970s and 1990s.
The 1986 lawsuit Church Universal and Triumphant vs. Gregory Mull (and cross-complaints) provided a forum for many of the criticisms of Elizabeth Prophet, her Church and leadership. The Church had first sued Mull for repayment of $38,000 advanced to him while he was employed doing architecture work for the Church during 1979 and 1980. He had been a Church member since 1974 but resigned in 1980. Mull responded with a lawsuit alleging that the funds were in payment for his services. He complained of intentional infliction of emotional distress, involuntary servitude, fraud, quantum meruit and assault; he requested $253,000,000 in damages. The jury verdict resulted in a $1,560,000 verdict in favor of Mull, with approximately $500,000 assessed against Elizabeth Prophet personally. (The lawsuit is reviewed extensively in Erin Prophet forthcoming b). The trial reviewed many of the allegations that had been made in the press by former members, including from Prophet’s former husband Randall King, concerning financial manipulation and sexual hypocrisy (see Plummer 1985).
The suit employed arguments about coercive persuasion (also known as mind control or brainwashing), which had been used in a number of lawsuits against minority religions during the 1980s. These arguments centered on the theories of psychologist Margaret Singer, and were later rejected by U.S. Courts (see Anthony and Robbins 2004). The fraud allegations centered primarily around the contention that the entire religion was a fraud and that its sole purpose was to deprive its members of their time and assets. Mull did not present evidence that he himself had been defrauded of money, rather he contended that he had lost income by closing his business and moving to Church property for fifteen months.
However, serious allegations of misconduct (many probably irrelevant to the case itself) were made during the trial. Numerous former staff members testified as to harsh and abusive treatment. Other current and former members presented a happier picture. Among the allegations were misuse of confessional materials, the use of religious arguments to convince individuals to give up their savings, lifestyle disparities between the Prophet family and members of the Church’s staff, and allegations that the Church owned military-style weapons.
In 1989, three years after the trial, weapons allegations again came to the fore. Edward Francis, the Church’s vice president and Prophet’s husband, and staff member Vernon Hamilton were arrested in connection with the illegal purchase of military-style weapons. The facts, as eventually revealed in an investigation by the Internal Revenue Service, were that weapons owned by staff men (but not the Church), including several dozen AR-15 assault rifles and other weapons, had been stored on various properties owned by the Church since the 1970s (Johnson 1995).
The assault weapons and ammunition purchased by Francis and Hamilton were legal to own, but since they had been purchased under a false name, they were confiscated by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. Various military-style weapons were stored in Montana during the “shelter episode” for defense in a potential situation of anarchy, but were never used. In the early 1990s, the IRS briefly revoked the Church’s tax-exempt status, offering among several reasons: unrelated income from the Church’s restaurant and other subsidiaries, and paying the portion of the Mull judgement that had been levied against Prophet personally. The Church regained its non-profit status in 1994 after agreeing not to own weapons or to store them on its properties and to refrain from other specified activities (see Skidmore 1994; see also Erin Prophet 2009 for an account of Elizabeth Clare Prophet’s involvement in the weapons purchases).
Environmental concerns surrounding the Church’s Montana properties also received a great deal of attention from government, the public and the media during the 1980s and 1990s. In the aftermath of the shelter drills, a fuel leak from underground tanks surrounding the Church’s main shelter site forced the Church to pump out thousands of gallons of diesel and gasoline fuel. Although only a small amount of fuel reached a nearby trout spawning stream, the soil around the shelters was saturated and an extensive remediation effort was required, which was completed in the early 1990s.
Other issues concerned the location of wildlife migration routes across the Church’s property, as well as water rights owned by the Church to a geothermal spring on the property. Eventually, these concerns were mitigated and the Church received rights to use the water where it emerges from the ground, without pumping a well which it had drilled, then capped. The Church also sold parts of the main ranch to the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation to facilitate wildlife migration. (See Reinhold 1990; Robbins 1998).
Faced with a host of public relations issues, the Church attempted to improve its public image. In 1993, the Church invited a group of scholars to visit the ranch and interview its members during a summer conference. Their study was eventually published and provided information useful to religion scholars (Melton and Lewis 1994). However, the study and the scholars who conducted it were heavily criticized for failing to address controversial issues involving the Church, further complicating the Church’s already contested public image (Balch and Langdon 1998).
Most of the controversies surrounding CUT through its early history have diminished. However, the leadership crisis surrounding Prophet’s retirement led to the expulsion of many long-term members as well as innovative group leaders. The Church was accused of abandoning the spirit of its 1995 reforms (see Palmer and Abravanel 2009; Prophet 2016). The Church maintains groups in major cities worldwide, and continues to hold public events, especially under the names of Summit University and The Summit Lighthouse.
Image 1: Mark and Elizabeth Prophet with son, Sean, 1964. Photo credit: Prophet Family Literary Trust.
Image 2: Overview of the 218-acre “Camelot” property in the Santa Monica Mountains north of Los Angeles, which served as the Church’s headquarters between 1978 and 1986. Photo credit Erin Prophet, 2016.
Image 3: Elizabeth Prophet with daughter Erin and followers in California, c. 1976. Photo credit Prophet Family Literary Trust.
Image 4: Elizabeth Prophet with Liberian president William Tolbert (l) and husband Randall King (r), 1978. Photo credit Prophet Family Literary Trust.
Image 5: A 13-acre site at the Church’s headquarters in Montana, the Royal Teton Ranch, with construction underway, 1989–1990. Photo credit Sean Prophet.
Image 6: Elizabeth Prophet in 1988 with the church’s altar behind her, showing paintings of the ascended masters Jesus Christ and Saint Germain, and the Chart of the Presence, along with statues of various deities. Photo credit Sean Prophet.
Image 7: Elizabeth Clare Prophet in 1988 following her annual Fourth of July address, announcing the publication of a new rosary recording. Photo credit Sean Prophet.
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8 April 2018