By Bradley C. Whitsel
Syracuse University Press (Religion and Politics Series: editor, Michael Barkun), 2003. 221 pages, $19.95 for paperback edition, ISBN 0-8156-3000-X (pbk.)
Reviewed by Joseph P. Szimhart
For better or for worse part of my personal history is linked with the apocalyptic group, the Church Universal and Triumphant, comprehensively analyzed in this new book by Bradley Whitsel. In 1980 I ended my brief, fringe membership in CUT and began a controversial stint as a vocal critic of the group and as a “cult deprogrammer” personally responsible for reversing the devotion of dozens of committed CUT members. CUT was only one of many groups that lost members due to my interventions, but few attracted my attention as much. So I begin my review, in fairness to the reader and the author, with the disclaimer that I hardly claim disinterest or lack of bias. I will also claim, however, that I have read and studied a wide variety of apologetic and critical material about CUT during the past 25 years, so my bias is relatively tempered.
When I first browsed through Bradley Whitsel’s study it impressed me with the author’s choice and sequence of chapter topics, long list of references, a solid index, and extensive notes with easy page references. He began this project originally as a political science doctoral dissertation. The author visited the group headquarters in Montana in 1993 and interviewed members and defectors as well as the CUT Messenger, Elizabeth Clare Prophet, in 1994. His goal was to analyze CUT as a millenarian sect in its relationship to the outside world. He described CUT as an armed, apocalyptic, New Age religious sect prepared for survival and self-defense that recovered from an intense period of doomsday paranoia without a violent outcome. He also reports on several significant events that caused a radical decline in CUT membership and support in the decade following Elizabeth Prophet’s March 15, 1990 doomsday prophecy.
On that day thousands of anxiety ridden group members either descended into elaborately constructed (though not all habitable) underground shelters or personal survival spaces only to emerge the next day with essentially nothing changed in the world outside. Whitsel compares and contrasts CUT with several concurrent millennialist groups that did experience or perpetrate violence and death, i.e., Aum Shinrikyo, the People’s Temple, the Order of the Solar Temple, Heaven’s Gate, and the Branch Davidians. In Chapter Two Whitsel traces CUT’s ideological roots in the “I AM” Activity movement launched in 1934 by Guy Ballard and Edna Ballard. Mark Prophet had been a member of an “I AM” splinter group in the 1950s before breaking away to start his own Lighthouse of Freedom, later named the Summit Lighthouse. The “I AM” assimilated fascist ideology from William D. Pelley’s Legion of Silver Shirts. Both of these groups (as well as CUT) adapted many elements from Helena P. Blavatsky’s Theosophical Society, especially the exclusive metaphysical contact (channeling) with Ascended Masters. According to Whitsel CUT “exhibited tendencies commonly associated with millenarian movements” since its inception in1958, and the “I AM philosophy…created the Summit Lighthouse’s political orientation—a perspective defined by patriotism and staunch anti-communism.” Whitsel gives an overview of CUT’s New Age milieu within which it operates and from which most of its recruits appear.
Later in the book in Chapter Six however we learn from a 1994 interview the author conducted with CUT’s leader, Elizabeth Prophet, that she had harsh criticism for New Agers as “self-indulgent” and prone to “adoption of shallow phenomena.” Whitsel refrains from cynical commentary, and properly so in keeping with his academic approach, but the irony was not lost on me. Nor will it be lost on anyone else familiar with CUT’s history of bizarre self-purification rituals and claims to magical power in its decrees or high speed chanting rituals. In Chapter Five Whitsel reports CUT’s rationalization of why the doom prophecy failed to materialize: The “diligence” of group members who conducted spiritual warfare (decreed) and their hard work to build survival shelters mitigated the evil energy that would have produced the disaster.
Doomsday groups have responded in erratic ways to their failed prophecies, but as one seminal study by Leon Festinger and others demonstrated, true believers will tend to reduce dissonance by some sort of rationalization rather than take the more painful, identity convulsing alternative of rejecting the beliefs. The study found that believers also reduce “cognitive dissonance” by increased proselytizing. In Chapter Five our author refers to this study, When Prophecy Fails published in 1961, but finds that CUT showed no significant effort to immediately proselytize in 1990, thus not fully following the Festinger model. I would argue that Whitsel neglected to appreciate that CUT was much larger and far longer lived than the relatively tiny group in the Festinger study. By the time of the March 15 “non-event” (the author’s characterization) CUT was among the major new religious movements with “25,000” devotees worldwide. The Festinger study group called “The Seekers,” headed by the charismatic "Marian Keech," amounted to a household size cult in “Lakeland” that grew and dispersed within a year or so.*
CUT, contrary to Whitsel’s assertion (p.122), never ceased its proselytizing, so the Festinger model may still apply even though there was no immediate increase after March 1990. CUT has had extensive distribution of its books since at least the late 1970s, continued cable TV video presentations in many urban areas, and often had representatives at New Age or metaphysical fairs. The fledgling Keech group had none of this. Whitsel does report that CUT did reenergize its proselytizing years after its doomsday event by repressing its survivalist, patriotic image (communism was no longer viable as the ultimate evil enemy for CUT) and by reaching out to the New Age milieu with a more positive message about its teachings. Whitsel describes Elizabeth Prophet’s appearance on radio in 1997 on The Art Bell Show to promote her worldview. Bell had a national audience interested in government conspiracies, UFO phenomena, and paranormal events. But the author neglects to mention two significant Prophet appearances on television shows: One was the MTV special with a relatively benign segment about CUT in “New Religions: The Cult Question,” that aired many times since its release in 1995. The other was A&E Network’s “Prophets & Doom” feature (from its series The Unexplained) that aired initially in 1997 and repeatedly through 2000. Both TV programs gave significant, balanced overviews of CUT.
A third significant news event CUT hoped to use to improve its image not reported by the author regards a criminal trial of three ex-CUT members in Idaho in April 1993. Concurrently on trial in Boise was Randy Weaver, an alleged racist/survivalist who held anti-government views, in the infamous “Ruby Ridge” case. And it was in April that the Waco-Branch Davidian debacle came to a tragic head in a holocaust. All of these cases had political implications that deeply affected CUT at the time. Whitsel mentions only the Branch Davidian event. After a failed attempt arranged by her family to deprogram a CUT member in late 1991, the three accused deprogrammers were arrested and later brought to trial in State of Idaho vs Szimhart, et al (yes, this writer was involved). A jury acquitted two us of all charges, while charges were later dismissed against the third defendant. In its long-standing battle against “anticultists” CUT sent many operatives, including the current guardian of the disabled Elizabeth Prophet to closely advise the prosecutors with whom he sat throughout trial. The acquittals were another blow to the group’s struggle to improve its post doomsday image. Whitsel does document other significant image improvement efforts and setbacks in detail, especially in Chapter Six. For example, Whitsel reports that Elizabeth Prophet’s last major stump to recruit new members was a thirty three-day tour of South America in 1996. Prophet emphasized CUT teachings about reincarnation, not survival shelters.
Unfortunately, as Whitsel surmises in Chapter Six, CUT may never reincarnate as the vital, thriving group it once was. He offers a host of factors, including the leader’s decline in mental health—she was diagnosed with dementia by 1998 and stepped down officially as the group’s spiritual leader in 1999. Whitsel reports that Prophet suffered from epileptic seizures from a young age, a fact not known to the general membership. During the 1990s after the failed prophecy, CUT began selling off assets and radically downsizing staff to curtail the shortfall in donations from the declining membership.
Earlier in the book on page 157 Whitsel frames CUT as a “totalist” sect whose “[d]octrinal impenetrability allows the group to turn increasingly inward and further lock itself into its own belief structure.” He is absolutely correct as CUT’s teachings are rarely understood well or completely even by long-term members who have had a difficult time keeping up with the stream of subtle changes in “progressive revelations” from the leaders. A major reason I rejected it in 1980 was the long list of CUT’s internal contradictions I encountered after getting past the “impenetrable” language of the doctrine. Whitsel acknowledges that any group like CUT that defines the outside world as inherently evil tends to live in a paranoid state. Such groups necessarily attract suspicion and criticism, thereby bolstering their beliefs about outsiders.
Whitsel loses me, however, when he appears to lay much of the blame for the group’s negative image on something he and previous writers call the “anticult movement” (pp. 48, 123, 133) as if the group’s behavior was not responsible for its public image. Whitsel follows the opinion of a small group of scholars who have dominated sociological circles with a characterization of cult critics as monolithically naïve. For example, on page 48 the author states: “Observing no distinctions among new religious groups, the anticultists pursued a policy of discrediting all organizations that deviated from the religious mainstream. For this reason, the Church Universal and Triumphant became a tempting target for their attacks. Anticultists subscribed to anachronistic theories of mind control and psychological coercion.” Whitsel never defines what or who constitutes the anticult milieu, but I suspect he is referring to elements of the old Cult Awareness Network and to paranoid evangelicals who regard everything other than fundamentalist Christianity as a “cult.” Ironically, his overall analysis of CUT would satisfy those same “anachronistic theories” that more sophisticated cult critics might use to characterize CUT as totalist and to explain how the group managed to keep such a tight bond around so many devotees for any time at all. For example, on pp.52-53 Whitsel discusses “boundary control” citing a “widely used’ concept in social studies about groups: “Just as the self-contained group raises its defenses against the perceived encroachments of the outside, the surrounding society forms a reciprocal set of attitudes that is hostile to the insulated social system.”
In Chapter Four we read about CUT’s relocation from Southern California to Montana. The title, “The Road to Armageddon,” is utterly appropriate. Whitsel sketches the intriguing details of group end-time philosophy stemming from its inception and reveals the then clandestine plans as CUT staff secretly moved a cache of weapons and eventually got caught illegally purchasing and transporting more guns. The book contains photo images of the huge underground shelters under construction. Whitsel explains how the community “functioned more effectively as a self-contained social network” after the move. He describes the required and inadvertent information control as most members were just too busy and tired to read or watch any news had the “Masters” even recommended it. This chapter and the following, “The Apocalyptic Nonevent,” give the reader an in-depth view of how a large group of basically intelligent adults succumb to a frenzied preparation for an attack that was imaginary.
I can understand why any writer might overlook or choose to omit a good portion of CUT’s history, teaching, ritual, and belief—even with my extensive familiarity with the group I was regularly surprised by what new informants revealed. I am impressed with what Bradley Whitsel did manage to include as it gives any reader a solid basis from which to understand CUT. To his credit he avoids the apologetic, reactionary approach taken by the authors of Church Universal and Triumphant in Scholarly Perspective (1994) and he does mention the criticism of that pseudo-study by scholars who dropped out of the project. However, Whitsel neglected any mention of CUT’s extensive use of and claims to the Theosophist teachings and illustrations of Nicholas and Helena Roerich. This late Russian couple who founded the Agni Yoga Society had a significant international following, especially from 1921 through 1955, the year Helena died. Elizabeth and Mark Prophet claimed that their youngest daughter, Tatiana, was Helena Roerich reincarnated, and they also claimed in their early book The Chela and Path that the Ascended Masters appointed them to continue the work of the Roerichs as well as of the Ballards. Several books from the Agni Yoga series were teaching tools only at the higher levels of CUT’s Summit University, then a 12-week per level esoteric indoctrination program.
Whitsel does not suggest that the CUT leaders were at all cynical. He never ventures to ask if Elizabeth or Mark, the Messengers, knew all along that they had no psychic contact with Masters or future events. Although his thesis was not about psychoanalyzing the Messengers, I believe Whitsel missed an important discussion about a pervasive character feature that helps explain group anxiety and the high turnover rate among CUT staff—Mark’s and Elizabeth’s volatile tempers. Emotionally unstable and insecure, these Messengers could not trust their alleged psychic abilities, so they often and irrationally berated the performance and misinterpreted the motives of the inner core staff. Whether they deserved it or not, targeted staff were demoted or dismissed if they had not already managed to slink away. Though the Messengers claimed to represent and communicate with the same Ascended Masters, CUT staff reported observing them argue and disagree about the sacred teachings especially while composing CUT’s first testament, Climb the Highest Mountain. Not unlike an abusive spouse, the charismatic Messenger increased control of staff by not only keeping them very busy, but also with a labile, authoritarian style that kept sensitive devotees of the Masters back on their emotional heels. CUT members even had a label for the Messenger’s outbursts—they called it “blue-raying,” group jargon derived from CUT doctrine about blue rays of energy denoting the divine power they invoked daily in decrees and meditation.
To place CUT’s decline and domestication in context, Whitsel invokes a Weberian notion of “formal rationality” when authority seeks approval from social systems. Without charismatic leadership CUT has entered a “rational/legal” phase and is now led by a democratically elected committee of three. As he notes, CUT appears to be following the pattern of previous Ascended Master sects, especially the “I AM,” which operates quietly today with a small fraction of its peak membership while retaining significant properties. CUT continues to rationalize Elizabeth Prophet’s dementia as a metaphor of “forgetfulness” as it struggles to sustain the interest of current members and to attract new support during a “second life cycle.”
Despite my criticisms, I recommend this book by Bradley Whitsel as a must read for anyone interested in the nature and history of Church Universal and Triumphant.
*The Festinger, et al study in When Prophecy Fails assigned aliases to the group characters, but my research indicates that that the group was a “space brother” cult featuring Dorothy Martin (aka Sister Thedra, died 1992). Martin was a medium (not unlike Elizabeth Clare Prophet) who channeled Sananda and other Ascended Masters (she called them Space Brothers) who commandeered a space ship that was to materialize and save the group from a predicted catastrophic flood during 1956. Martin left “Lakeland” (Chicago) soon after the negative publicity and failure to recruit any new members caused the group to disperse. Martin, who used several aliases, first resettled in Arizona where she briefly studied with the then very new Scientology movement, and she continued her idiosyncratic Sananda cult activities in Arizona and Mt. Shasta, CA till her death.