1875 (June 24): William S. Sadler was born in Spencer, Indiana.
1911 (Summer): Sadler was introduced to the “sleeping subject” for the first time.
1924 (February 11): The Contact Commission was created. It asked questions to angels accessed through the “sleeping subject,” resulting in “The Urantia Papers.”
1934-1935: The Commission completed reception of the papers that will constitute The Urantia Book.
1942 (August): An angelic message was sent to the Commission informing it to copyright The Urantia Book.
1950 (January 11): The Urantia Foundation was created to preserve the text of The Urantia Book and distribute its teachings.
1955 (January 2): The Urantia Brotherhood was created to organize believers of the teachings of The Urantia Book into local fraternal societies.
1955 (October 12): The Urantia Book was first published.
1964: Vern Grimsley started the popular “Family of God” radio broadcasts in San Francisco that shared Urantian teachings to public.
1966: The Urantia Foundation created a policy requiring permission to quote from The Urantia Book or use the name “Urantia.”
1969 (April 26): William S. Sadler died.
1971 (June 29): A trademark on the name “Urantia” was registered by the Urantia Foundation.
1974: The Urantia Foundation sent a “Confirmatory Agreement” to Urantia Societies requiring them to acknowledge the Foundation’s legal ownership of The Urantia Book and associated trademarks.
1977 (March 21): The Urantia Foundation won a copyright lawsuit against Burton King for creating unauthorized educational materials that copied portions of The Urantia Book.
1980 (August 27): The Urantia Foundation won a copyright lawsuit against Robert Burton for copying and distributing sections of The Urantia Book without permission.
1982: The Center for Urantia Book Synergy (CUBS) was founded in Santa Barbara, California.
1982 (June 14): The Urantia Foundation issued further copyright permission guidelines restricting uses of The Urantia Book by societies and individual readers.
1982 (September 23): The Urantia Foundation won a trademark infringement lawsuit against the Urantia Society of Houston.
1983 (August 19-21): A CUBS Conference was held in Santa Barbara despite the Urantia Foundation’s demand to approve in advance all printed materials to be used at the conference.
1983 (October 6): Vern Grimsley announced a prediction that World War III was imminent, causing a rift between his Family of God Foundation and the Urantia Foundation.
1983 (December): A Joint Statement by the Urantia Foundation and Urantia Brotherhood on “The Dissemination of The Urantia Book and Statement on Publicity,” was released, which suggested limiting distribution rather than engaging in aggressive outreach.
1987: The Urantia Brotherhood suggested doing a marketing study for The Urantia Book resulting in legal threats from the Urantia Foundation.
1987: CUBS subsidized the cost of The Urantia Book to facilitate broader sales and distribution.
1988 (April 29): The Urantia Foundation sued CUBS for unauthorized use of the word “Urantia” in its name.
1989 (October 30): The Urantia Foundation de-licensed the Urantia Brotherhood, which changed its name to the Fifth Epochal Fellowship (and later to the Urantia Book Fellowship).
1991: The Urantia Foundation sued Kristin Maaherra for the unauthorized distribution of The Urantia Book on compact disc.
1992: Reader Matthew Block began a project in which he discovered bibliographic sources for the Urantia Papers.
1995: Well-known skeptic Martin Gardner published Urantia: The Great Cult Mystery.
1995: A District ruling in the Maaherra case determined that the Urantia Foundation’s copyright in The Urantia Book was invalid due to a mistake made in its renewal.
1997: An Appellate Court in Maaherra case reversed the District ruling and restored copyright in The Urantia Book to the Urantia Foundation.
1999: The Urantia Foundation filed a lawsuit against the Michael Foundation for publishing Part IV of The Urantia Book as a separate book titled Jesus: A New Revelation.
2001 (June 20): A jury determined in the Michael Foundation lawsuit that The Urantia Book was in the public domain.
2001 (October 14): The Urantia Book Fellowship decided to publish its own version of The Urantia Book. \
While the Urantia movement does not have a clear leader, its origins (and the origins of the movement’s central revelatory text The Urantia Book) might be credited to the Chicago-based psychiatrist, Dr. William S. Sadler. [Image at right] According to his book The Mind at Mischief, in 1911 Sadler discovered an individual with unique psychic abilities (later dubbed the “sleeping subject” or sometimes referred to as the “contact personality”) who was able to produce mysterious communications from an otherworldly source (Sadler 1929). While the process by which these communications were produced is unclear, Sadler and others within his circle were convinced of their angelic origins and sought to interrogate the sleeping subject further. They then organized these responses into a series of papers that were to become known as “The Urantia Papers.” The name Urantia is the revealed name of our planet, otherwise known as Earth.
By the mid-1920s, Sadler had organized an informal group of like-minded friends called “The Forum,” (later known as the “Contact Commission”) that discussed the papers generated by the “sleeping subject” and posed additional questions for the angelic authors to answer (Sprunger 1983; Lewis 2007). The Forum was subsequently established as a closed group with members required to sign a pledge of secrecy and tasked with the responsibility of compiling material related to the Urantia revelation throughout the 1930s and 1940s (Sprunger 1983). As early as 1942, the angels responsible for delivering the revelation guided members of the Forum to prepare for the publication of the papers. To do so, they asked that the Forum register the work with the U.S. Copyright Office and protect the name “Urantia” and its associated concentric-circle mark (three blue circles used as a symbol for Urantia) through trademark registration (Kendall 1984).
In 1950, the developing Urantia movement created its first formal structure with the Urantia Foundation, an entity tasked with the responsibility to act as “custodian of the inviolate text of The Urantia Book and [to ensure] that the book’s teachings are spread…to all people,” (Urantia Foundation). With the Urantia Foundation established as caretakers of the angelic revelation, the organization assembled and published the first edition of The Urantia Book in 1955. Subsequently, the leaders of the Urantia Foundation also created a supplementary group, the Urantia Brotherhood, which was designed to organize followers of the Urantia revelation into reader groups thereby providing a sense of community and social belonging in the absence of the trappings of traditional American Christian religion (places of worship, services, pastoral guidance, etc.) (Sadler Jr. 1958). These twinned organizations were expected to work in unity and thus provide some shape to the Urantian movement while avoiding what they considered problematic “over-organization.” Readers were thus permitted to “enjoy religious liberty in the full expression of his own personal interpretation of the truths of religious belief” (Myers 1973).
Rather than seeking to create a traditional religious structure with an identifiable prophetic leader, the Urantia Foundation instead concealed the identity of the sleeping subject responsible for bringing the revelations into existence and focused all its efforts on strategically managing the distribution of The Urantia Book itself. While not entirely obvious at the time, these efforts were supported by the Foundation’s ownership of copyright in the book, which acted as the legal foundation for its organizational authority (Lewis 2007). Because of its ownership in the text, the Foundation was able to license use of the book to reader groups thereby establishing some parameters on how reader groups should engage with, interpret, and further distribute the revelation. For those that deviated too far from sanctioned practices (for instance, by created unauthorized commentaries on the text or copying and distributing individual papers to the general public), the Foundation threatened and often engaged in legal action (Ventimiglia 2019).
The Urantia movement steadily gained momentum in the latter half of the twentieth century as exemplified by the efforts of figures like Vern Grimsley, [Image at right] a believer who began the “Family of God” radio broadcast in the San Francisco area. These broadcasts shared teachings from The Urantia Book without mentioning the book itself, a process described as “bootlegging” Urantia material into the broadcast (Grimsley 1966). However, Grimsley’s evangelizing efforts also demonstrated the risks involved in relying on people, rather than the book itself, as carriers of the Urantian revelation. Around 1983, Grimsley became increasingly concerned that World War III was immanent and that the United States would face nuclear bombardment, a prophecy based in part on his reading of passages from The Urantia Book (Grimsley 1983). Grimsley’s message precipitated widespread concern within the movement and required members of the Urantia Foundation and Brotherhood to inform readers that Grimsley’s prophecies were not a sanctioned part of Urantian teaching. By 1985, Grimsley’s influence had declined, and his Family of God organization ultimately dissolved, but his story demonstrated the risks of allowing any charismatic individual to control the direction of the Urantian movement.
Due, in part, to the Grimsley saga, the Urantia Foundation and Urantia Brotherhood jointly developed a strategy for distribution of The Urantia Book in 1983. In it, the organizations agreed to a more measured approach to distribution in opposition to those who advocated for more aggressive evangelization and circulation of the revelation (Urantia Foundation 1983). A statement outlining this approach also objected to the creation of derivative works (brochures, presentations, pamphlets, etc.) that might be created by readers and used to explain the Urantian teachings because these human interpretations were subject to error and didn’t allow the “spirit of the teachings” to be adequately expressed as it was in The Urantia Book itself. The Urantia Foundation was then able to assert authority over the community by leveraging its legal rights in The Urantia Book to control how readers discovered and engaged with the text.
Through the 1980s, some readers expressed concern about the level of control the Urantia Foundation was asserting overt the shared revelation. This concern resulted in a number of actions challenging the Foundation’s legal authority. Some reader groups like the Urantia Society of Houston refused to sign a new licensing agreement with the Foundation and as a result were sued for using the registered trademarks “Urantia” and “Urantian” without authorization (Ventimiglia 2019). A few years later, an unaffiliated organization called the Center for Urantia Book Synergy, or CUBS, challenged the Foundation’s policy of “slow growth” by buying and distributing (subsidized) copies of The Urantia Book itself, resulting in similar legal threats from the Foundation (Mullins 2000). Finally, disagreements about the book’s distribution even led to a rift between the Urantia Foundation and Urantia Brotherhood with members of the latter organization seeking to adopt advertising and marketing strategies to help popularize The Urantia Book. The Foundation responded by asserting that those actions were “not permitted within the scope of the licensing agreement” and pursuing them would result in potential revocation of the Agreement that authorized the Brotherhood to act as “agent of the Urantia Foundation in the distribution of The Urantia Book” (Myers, 1987).
These conflicts inevitably resulted in a series of lawsuits throughout the 1990s that challenged the legitimacy of the Urantia’s Foundation’s ownership claims in The Urantia Book and significantly damaged the momentum of the Urantia movement such that it has never fully recovered. While not the first copyright infringement lawsuit initiated by the Urantia Foundation, one of the most notable disputes involved a reader Kristin Maaherra who in 1991 distributed an unauthorized version of The Urantia Book on compact disc. This ensuing lawsuit revolved less around the act of infringement conducted by Maaherra, something no one contested, but rather on the legitimacy of The Urantia Book’s copyright registration. As the defense noted, the registrant Urantia Foundation was not the author of the book (the book was authored by angels) but rather the self-appointed Trustee of the revelation. Yet, the Foundation had listed itself as the book’s author in both registration and renewal documents (Urantia Foundation v. Maaherra 1995).
While the Urantia Foundation ultimately succeeded in its lawsuit against Kristin Maaherra by arguing that, in the words of the Appellate opinion, “inadvertent mistakes on registration certificates do not invalidate a copyright,” the Foundation was less successful in a subsequent lawsuit between the Foundation and an organization called the Michael Foundation. This lawsuit involved the production of the book Jesus: A Revelation, which was simply a reprint of the fourth section of The Urantia Book that retold the life of Jesus. The Urantia Foundation considered this to be a derivative work. It further believe that this publication adulterated and mutilated the original revelation, which was only to be circulated in unabridged form. This lawsuit ultimately resulted in a jury trial in 2001, in which the jury determined that the Urantia Foundation was no longer the rightful copyright owner of The Urantia Book. The jury instead determined that the Foundation was an assignee of the original copyright (given copyright by the original author, the “sleeping subject”) but was unable to renew it thus resulting in the book entering the public domain (Ventimiglia 2019).
As these disputes played out in the courtroom, the Urantia Foundation and Urantia Brotherhood formally ended their relationship in 1989. The Brotherhood thenceforth became an independent organization currently known as the Urantia Book Fellowship. Upon learning that The Urantia Book was in the public domain, the Fellowship published its own version of the text, a version that has continued to circulate today alongside the original Urantia Foundation version (Urantia Book Fellowship 2001).
At the same time, the Urantia movement witnessed other lesser controversies. First, a reader named Matthew Block began a project identifying the various bibliographic sources for The Urantia Book, thereby raising concerns about the authenticity and reliability of the revelation. This research suggested that some of the book might have been plagiarized, a particularly damaging accusation given the Urantia Foundation’s repeated reliance on copyright (Block 2016). Second, famous skeptic Martin Gardner took aim at the Urantia movement by publishing a book that criticized the movement, particularly the story of its angelic origins (Gardner 1995). While these incidents were minor controversies compared to the legal disputes, they nonetheless added to the embattled nature of the movement at the end of the twentieth century.
After this period of legal and intraorganizational conflict, the Urantian community settled into a period of relative stability in the twenty-first century. However, these conflicts undoubtedly halted the momentum of the movement and contributed to The Urantia Book becoming a lesser-known spiritual text. Nonetheless, both the Urantia Foundation and Urantia Book Fellowship, alongside other unaffiliated satellite organizations, continue to operate and conduct various efforts to maintain interest in The Urantia Book, including holding regular conferences, supporting efforts to create new reader groups, and digitizing nearly all relevant historical materials. Like some other religious organizations (for instance, the Church of Scientology or Church of Christ, Scientist), the Urantia Foundation continues to maintain control over its trademarks in both the name “The Urantia Book” and the concentric circles design [Image at right] but has not engaged in active litigation over the marks since the early 2000s.
The Urantia Book’s most significant legacy may come from its legal efforts to protect an angelically authored text, as the lawsuits generated attention from legal scholars interested in the religious uses of intellectual property law (Ventimiglia 2019; Simon 2010; Cotter 2003; Silversmith and Guggenheim 2001; French 1999). In this respect, the Urantia Foundation’s attention to textual distribution as a central feature for organizing a religious movement links to a longer lineage of religions that made similar efforts to limit or strategically control the circulation of sacred or prophetic texts. In this way, The Urantia Book is both a unique twentieth-century artifact (an angelically authored text recounting an alternate narrative of human spiritual and physical evolution) while also being broadly emblematic of long-standing text-based religious traditions.
As a movement that prides itself on being open to all spiritual seekers, readers of The Urantia Book do not require adherence to one share one set of beliefs or doctrines. [Image at right] However, the community generally presumes that all readers understand The Urantia Book to be an angelically authored revelation that accurately reveals the true reality of the multiverse, the history of Earth (known as Urantia), and the life of Jesus, an incarnation of Christ Michael, the creator of our own local universe. This commitment to the revelatory status of the book then assumes a certain degree of allegiance to its findings despite the community’s tolerance for divergent interpretations of the text itself.
Despite the self-proclaimed openness of the Urantia movement, The Urantia Book still depicts a specific history and understanding of humanity, the universe, and the broader cosmos. The book is divided into four parts, ordered from an expansive description of the “Central and Superuniverses” and narrowing to the final part involving a unique retelling of the life of Jesus. Part I depicts the structure of the multiverse, made up of seven superuniverses with one eternal central universe at the center. The extensive descriptions of the structure of the universe provided in this first section are not to be taken as metaphorical but rather are considered a scientifically grounded description of cosmic reality and humans’ place within it. Part I also includes detailed descriptions of God (his divine nature and attributes) as well as God’s relation to humans and the universe. Part II recounts a specific history of the “Local Universe,” presumed to include over six million inhabited planets. The second part also describes the afterlife, during which humans are expected to make a pilgrimage from their home planet Urantia (also known as Earth) to Paradise, a motionless eternal isle at the center of the central universe (Belitsos 2023).
Part III provides a full chronology of the history of Urantia (Earth) including the evolution of life, emergence of humankind and various “evolutionary races,” and development of modern civilization. This part also describes how traditional religions evolved from angelic teachings, with particular attention paid to Judaism and the links between narratives and details in the Hebrew Bible (Adam and Eve, the “Lucifer Rebellion,” etc.) and the Urantian revelation. Part III also introduces the concept of the “thought adjuster,” a key term that describes the divine spark or inner voice within individuals and capable of guiding humans in accordance with the will of God. Finally, Part IV involves an extended retelling of the life of Jesus understood as an incarnation of the creator of the local universe, Michael. This part includes details from the life of Jesus including the “lost years” of his childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood (Belitsos 2023). This final part holds great significance for many readers to the extent that it has been published separately.
Readers of The Urantia Book have developed no rituals or practices beyond the act of reading the book itself whether in solitude or in local reader groups. The format for reader group meetings may vary but often involves the appointment of a moderator to lead discussion and the practice of having each attendee, in turn, read an excerpt from the group out loud to the rest of the group. The book is usually read in sequence with any reader permitted to stop the reading to discuss a sentence or passage and its meaning. These groups are important as they allow more experienced readers to explain terminology or difficult passages to novice readers and introduce them to key concepts without imposing any one interpretation on the text. Group prayer and worship may be incorporated into reader group meetings, particularly practices like holding a short moment of silence or a prayer for understanding.
Importantly, many readers of The Urantia Book are members of other organized religions and thus understand the practice of reading as supplementary to the religious rituals and practices of their primary faith group. Christians make up a large portion of readers given that the fourth part of The Urantia Book involves a retelling of the life of Jesus (squarecircles 2022).
In addition to regular local reader groups, the primary organizations involved with The Urantia Book regularly organize conferences and retreats for extended engagement with the book and with other readers around the world. Many online forums also provide a venue for readers to interact, discuss, and analyze the text. Readers are also sometimes encouraged to work toward group growth through “Service Ministry.” This type of ministry primarily involves sharing The Urantia Book with others who may be prepared to receive and appreciate the text, which in turn is understood to facilitate the growth of a healthy community of readers (Urantia Book Fellowship 2022b).
The structure of the Urantia movement has long been determined by the entities that control the publication and distribution of The Urantia Book rather than organize and manage followers. In this regard, the most important institution in the Urantia movement is the Urantia Foundation, established in 1950 to act as “the custodian of the inviolate text of The Urantia Book” (Urantia Foundation). The Urantia Foundation was created after the Contact Commission had assembled the Urantia Papers and was preparing to publish them as a unified book. The Urantia Foundation held the copyright in The Urantia Book and thus crafted the policies for distributing the text to readers. The Foundation is led by elected Trustees and continues to operate today as an important entity distributing the book, organizing events, and providing other educational resources.
While the Urantia Foundation was tasked with organizing the distribution of The Urantia Book, another organization, the Urantia Brotherhood, was then created in 1955 to oversee the creation of “Urantia Societies” or semi-autonomous reader groups dedicated to the Urantian revelation (Urantia Brotherhood 1982). The Brotherhood was designed to complement the Urantia Foundation by providing a sense of belonging and community to readers without replicating a hierarchical Church-like organizational structure (derisively called “Churchification” within the Urantian community) (Myers 1973). The relationship between the Urantia Foundation and the Brotherhood has historically been contentious as various reader groups sought greater autonomy particularly in terms of more aggressively marketing and distributing The Urantia Book to new readers. These tensions ultimately resulted in the Brotherhood losing permission to use the Urantia trademark controlled by the Foundation and thus was renamed the Fifth Epochal Fellowship in 1989 and later renamed again to the Urantia Book Fellowship.
The Urantia Book Fellowship continues to be one of the most important organizations uniting Urantia Book readers and local Urantia Societies. The Fellowship website operates as a key resource through which readers can find autonomous local Urantia Societies. In addition, these local societies elect representatives to attend triennial assembly that, in turn, elects a General Council that leads the Fellowship through various Committees including an Executive Committee (Urantia Book Fellowship 2022a). These Committees have created a variety of initiatives designed to keep readers active and connected including a Fellowship Outreach Program, an International Program, and an Interfaith Program (tasked with presenting the book to religious leaders in other faith traditions). The Fellowship also produces newsletters and publications that help generate a sense of community as well as guidance through the Urantia teachings.
Beyond the Urantia Foundation and Urantia Book Fellowship, a number of other smaller unaffiliated organizations exist that engage with The Urantia Book in different ways. For instance, Urantia Association International considers itself a “grass roots membership organization” that also links readers worldwide (Urantia Association International 2022). Other organizations are involved in publishing materials or collecting relevant historical documents related to the Urantia Revelation. These organizations include the Urantia Book Historical Society (which has digitized a wide range of personal correspondence, newsletters, papers, etc. related to the discovery, publication, and distribution of The Urantia Book), Urantia Book Academy, and Square Circles Publishing, an organization that also chronicles the history of the Urantia Papers with a unique focus on tracing the previous textual and religious sources of the text.
As is evident from the history and development of the Urantia movement, the biggest challenge faced by the Urantia movement involved divergent efforts to distribute The Urantia Book and the subsequent legal battles over the book’s copyright. Rather than providing legal clarity on which organization could claim ownership and control of the book, these lawsuits (which extended over decades) had the effect of antagonizing followers and damaging any momentum the early movement might have had in spreading the Urantian revelation. However, these legal disputes only exacerbated preexisting differences within the community about how Urantia readers should be organized and how The Urantia Book was to be treated. Given that the Urantia movement explicitly chose not to organize itself as a traditional religion with an established hierarchy, distribution of the book was the central mechanism used to give some shape to the diffuse spiritual network of readers (Ventimiglia 2018). Disputes about ownership of The Urantia Book were simultaneously debates about what type of spiritual community was suitable for promoting the Urantian revelation.
While issues around copyright in The Urantia Book were ultimately resolved once the book conclusively entered the public domain in 2001, concerns around the optimal way to organize readers has persisted. Various organizations have sought to connect readers through a decentralized network of reader groups so that readers could share a sense of community and belonging. However, by design, none of these networks have sought to establish themselves as the leading organization for all Urantians and, as such, the Urantian movement lacks the strong bonds of association characteristic of a centralized religion. This approach has its benefits given that readers of The Urantia Book are not expected to abandon their prior religious identity, although assent to the book’s revelation inevitably requires an acknowledgement of the divine status of Jesus Christ and as such is clearly aligned with Christian belief. But the cost of this approach is that the Urantian movement more closely resembles a network of study groups rather than a spiritual community bound through a mutual and deeply held commitment to shared revelation.
Image #1: William L. Sadler.
Image #2: Vern Grimsley.
Image #3: Urantia three-concentric-blue-circles-on-white symbol.
Image #4: The Urantia Book.
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