Its ‘Mother’ Dead, Doomsday Sect’s Future in Doubt

By Beacon Staff

BOZEMAN – 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’s death, 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 claimed to channel 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, he claims the ability to channel the words of Jesus, Buddha and more obscure spiritual figures such as St. Germain and El Morya.

Church leaders have denounced Lewis and said it’s too soon to say if another messenger will step forward.

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 now 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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