Robert Earl Burton founded The Fellowship of Friends in the San Francisco Bay Area in 1970. Burton modeled his own group after that of Alex Horn, loosely borrowing from the Fourth Way teachings of Gurdjieff and Ouspensky. In recent years, the Fellowship has cast its net more broadly, embracing any spiritual tradition that includes (or can be interpreted to include) the notion of "presence."

The Fellowship of Friends exhibits the hallmarks of a "doomsday religious cult," wherein Burton exercises absolute authority, and demands loyalty and obedience. He warns that his is the only path to consciousness and eternal life. Invoking his gift of prophecy, he has over the years prepared his flock for great calamities (e.g. a depression in 1984, the fall of California in 1998, nuclear holocaust in 2006, and most recently the October 2018 "Fall of California Redux.")

According to Burton, Armageddon still looms in our future and when it finally arrives, non-believers shall perish while, through the direct intervention and guidance from 44 angels (recently expanded to 81 angels, including himself and his divine father, Leonardo da Vinci), Burton and his followers shall be spared, founding a new and more perfect civilization. Read more about the blog.

Presented in a reverse chronology, the Fellowship's history may be navigated via the "Blog Archive" located in the sidebar below.

Wednesday, July 1, 1970

The Fellowship of Friends as of July, 1970

Robert Earl Burton's Fellowship of Friends cult in July, 1970
The Fellowship of Friends as of July, 1970. Drawing by Harold Wirk. Source: The Internet Archive

[ed. - For a sense of this period, see a 1997 interview with Bernard C. Berger, M.D. (below), a Fellowship of Friends history written by Bonita Guido, Robert's first student, and Stella Wirk's Fellowship history. Drawing by Harold Wirk. (All pictured above.)]

"Veronicapoe" wrote on the Fellowship of Friends Discussion blog, September 20, 2007:
(Quoting "Still Trying", post 125)
My own “wiseacring” speculation on the school is that the FOF started out on the right track, founded by mostly good people with good intentions, but somewhere along the line (fairly early on perhaps) an interval was not bridged, the FOF lost its aim and is now descending into perhaps the opposite of what it started out to be.
This is the collective myth. It is an attractive belief but it is not evidence based. I investigated the collective myth and found it to be untrue. There was intentional deception and pathological narcissism and unconscionable manipulation going on from the very beginning of the Fellowship of Friends.

"Veronicapoe" wrote on the Fellowship of Friends Discussion blog, April 23, 2007:
Group myth 1: The Fellowship was something that started out good and true and right and wholesome and somehow along the way became corrupt or faltered or something.

Response to Group myth 1: The Fellowship was thoroughly, fatally corrupt from the very beginning.

(Which is not to say that all the people, or even most of them, were or are corrupt. The key thing is deception. The more innocent, naive and idealistic the person, the more manipulable he or she is, generally speaking. And deception works even better when people at all experience levels are led to disable their critical thinking faculties by “separating from the ‘I’s.”)

Foundation for response to Group Myth 1: Accounts of Bonita G. Discussions with Harold W. and the late Stella S. Discussions with the late Don B. Discussions with Jordan F-S whose whole family was in FOF in 1971. Discussion with respected student who left in 1971. Attendance sheet from 1971 showing the degree to which peoples’ attendance at events was monitored. Handwritten note in R.’s handwriting from period of silence stating “It is good when weak students leave as they are weight. It used to bother me but now it’s like a useless object being gone.”

According to people who were there, R. intentionally broke up almost all marriages and relationships of people who joined during the first two years. Someone knows the quantity of relationship splits; I don’t. The number I heard was in the 20s or 30s, a huge number in a small group.

In 1971, R. screwed Student #1 (female), who had separated from her husband after she had an affair with another FOF member. The day after, R. told her she hadn’t valued the experience of sex with a conscious being enough, and made a public announcement, reported in the Via Del Sol Journal, that he had been celibate since the beginning of the school. Her response was “why would he lie? It just didn’t make sense.”

After the end of 1970, R. began to require people to give him large amounts of money in order to continue to remain in the group. R. had been living at home with his mother and decided that people should give him money so he could get wheels, a VW bus. From dismissed elementary school teacher (March 17, 1967) to living with Mom at age 32 and giving tennis lessons at the Claremont, to conning Student #1, a woman older than he was who was obviously fascinated with him and was a married with kids in school. He soon monopolized her time 6 days a week. Go figure that one out. She’s married, she has responsibilities to husband and kids, but he monopolizes her time. The word parasitic comes to mind.

Anonymous 1971 defector, who knew nothing of FOF’s subsequent history, stated, “During the period of silence, R. would blow kisses to people. The ones he blew to me were contemptuous. There was something contemptible and contemptuous about him. I sensed in him a radical lack of integrity. My take on him was ultimately sociopathic. This was the social archeology of 1971 cognitively uncontaminated by anything that came later.

Don B. indicated that when R. used to park at Nut Tree he would take up three spaces so as to keep anybody from scratching his Rolls Royce. Classic narcissistic behavior immune from standards which apply to other people. [ed. - Burton may not have been aware of this "practice" as he was often dropped off and picked up at the establishment door.]

The thing I have never quite fathomed is that, if accounts of people without axes to grind are to be believed, R. was a popular and well liked elementary school teacher by both students and parents. How did he go from that to creating, in the FOF, such a hostile environment for children?
[ed. - The following remembrance by Stella Wirk is reprinted from a cache of her old Geocities website .]
The beginning... 
We [Stella and Harold] met Robert Burton in July 1970, as described somewhat in the next page in this sequence.

The following here is a "new beginning particulars" as the result of inquiries received about the early days of our experience with the start up of the Fellowship of Friends.

My reply to inquiries sent to me:

Subject: Re: RB in the beginning
Date: Sat, 20 Sep 1997 01:36:17 -0700
From: Stella Wirk 

> Stella,
> >Maybe read the pages about the FOF and early years at
> > the web site:
> >http://www.xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx(OLD URL)
> >(follow link "About CULTS")/Stella
> So it started out as a kind of study group?...

No. Burton said he had started a "school." He said that someone at a party had asked him a question and that's when he knew he was to be the teacher and the questioner was to be the student, starting the "school."

The person who asked the first question was Bonita.

> Did RB say that he had "passed his teacher" from
> the very beginning?

Yes. We were not at all sure what was meant by that, except in the ordinary sense -- as we had no understanding then of ideas about knowledge, being, and levels of consciousness. We guessed that maybe Burton had learned all he could learn from his former teacher.

> How did RB become the leader?

and from Xxx: 

> Good question from Xxxxx. I also would be very interested in the
> very beginning of the FoF. It seems that Robert was the only
> single person in the group. Did you pick on the single guy? "Hay,
> your [sic] single, you be the teacher!"

Hahaha! No, read on. 

Xxx also wrote to first inquirer:

> Great questions. I have a lot of imagination about the beginnings.
> Insights would be much appreciated.

One suggestion in the activity of seeking insights about past events is to keep in mind that the responses from me, although most sincere and intended to convey "how it went" are necessarily the "tip of the iceberg," as we are dealing with memory, some admixture perhaps of what is known "now" with my early less informed reactions. Then, of course, the imagination already occurring can "click" on something written by me, and what I write is susceptible to misunderstanding because I have no control over what is added to this by you.

Thus what you are receiving is "the likely story" not what could be classified as "verifiable facts." This means that what you may think about my posts at best is, "according to Stella...(blahblah)" if you wish to exchange your "insights" derived from this sketchy (at best) information. That is, there is not really a way for me to transmit the whole and exact picture in the course of an inquiry into what happened in 1970. I'll do the best I can, of course. 

Burton started his "school" so, naturally, *he* was the leader. We called him by his first name, and referred to him as "the teacher."

It was at this first meeting with him he also told us his birthday was May 4, but that he changed it to May 5 because "5/5" sounded better as he was a "budding Man No. 5." (I'm surprised now that we didn't hear "Outer Limits" music at the time. ) (As I've mentioned before, his birthday actually IS May 5; we didn't know that then, though. Thus, we accepted that he LIED about his birthday for effect, and later found out he LIED about LYING! We never did understand this game.)

> When you first became involved with him, did he seem (or did he
> present himself) to be someone who had attained a special
> degree of consciousness?
(again from first Xxxxx msg)

He said he was a "budding Man No. 5." Now, I'd like you to think back when you first heard of these ideas what you might have thought of someone saying they are very close to being Man No. 5. It would depend on what you understood at the time about this concept.
Basically, we could not know much about what he meant by that. We weren't even familiar with the idea of Man No. 1, 2, 3, 4, and so on, at that time. We also didn't know *then* what was meant by "man is asleep," or "man is a machine."

We had been spending a lot of time reading J. Krishnamurti, and had attended his talks in Santa Monica earlier in 1970. Krishnamurti's theme was that one did "not need a teacher." We thought, "maybe not, yet it might be easier for a little while; after all, we were listening to and reading Krishamurti!" haha We figured we had to "get a handle on this" some way or other. 

Mostly what we knew was that we were interested in the 4th Way ideas we had started reading a little about, maybe half-way through "In Search of the Miraculous," and he talked about them a little, as well as telling us something about himself.

The claim of being a "budding Man No. 5" meant very little to us, except that whatever it was, he said he was close to being it.

We did notice that he *noticed* a lot of little things. He gave Harold an observation. "Are you 'a-where' that every time you sip your coffee, after you swallow, you give off a little smack and 'ahhhh' sigh?" Harold was surprised to find that he was doing that! As nobody had ever done that with us before, RB seemed pretty observant to us at the time.

We also noticed, of course, that he spoke with an Arkansas accent when he said "a-where." We were being much too polite to mention it then, and when he again said at a meeting, "You must be *a-where* of yo-sef" we decided to speak up. This *emphasis* on "a-where" is because he did sort of emphasize that word in his tone of voice.

We told him the word was "Aware" and this activity eventually became personalized "elocution lessons" for Robert at meetings with the group! 

(Later years among old friends we've joked about the possibility that WE created what you see today in the form of a Burton well spoken. We were joking, of course, although it certainly was part of it. Still later, he imitated a dapper doctor's expensive three piece suits, and we were off onto the "impressions octave.")

More years later, with some experience, certainly we saw that we were easily impressed. All of this, the ideas, meeting him, etc., were very new to us, in spite of my brief experience with his former teacher, Alex Horn, whom he claimed to have "passed," whatever that actually meant.

At that first meeting, he pointed our attention to various things in the restaurant, an announcement over the loudspeaker, a bird outside the window, and other things like that. His demeanor was calm, polite, pleasant, and he explained that he was celebate, with lengthy comments about how this saved vital energy, sex enery - "the energy of creation," for the development of consciousness by controlling attention.

[Hindsight is 20/20 vision, of course, and now I realize I could do the same act myself today. I might have been able to do it in 1970, too, if I knew that was the "act of looking awake." That he was lying about being celebate was discovered ten years later when he admitted to me he always had a *big problem* keeping his "task" in this area.

[The "task" to which he referred was given to him by his former teacher, Alex Horn, and the task was to NOT pester the young men in the group for sexual encounters, and eventually we found out that Alex had expelled him from his school for not being able to keep this task!

[*Anybody* can *pay attention* to various ticks and habits people may not be aware of, and point them out to their surprise; anybody can point out things other people are not noticing -- if that's the game -- and it *does* look impressive to we uninitiated, sleeping neophytes we were at the time. EST and various "self improvement" groups do similar acts.]

Basically, Harold and I had no pre-conceived notions about how a "conscious being" would behave or somehow demonstrate himself as such. Without any criteria of this sort, we were just "there" with him as one would be in an ordinary conversation with someone just met. We were considering his offer to teach the ideas and help people to find their way through practical work to understand them.

We were not internally dissecting that he "did this" or "did that" as we went along. We were not thinking at all about how to "test" him, in other words, having had *no* prior experience of this nature (no gurus, no swamis, not even a psychology oriented person). In other words, we were dummies, and we were *ripe.* 

So, at $40/month, we said we would join, and our first meeting was at the home of a doctor in Orinda, where Harold and I were the 6th and 7th people to join. We sat around kitchen table, and Burton read aloud some passages from "Search" and explained how we could observe and verify them. He didn't tell us "what" to look for; he stressed just looking to see what we are able to see.

[ed. - The following text is transcribed from "The Account of Bernard C. Berger, M.D." pdf file. The questions from "Veronicapoe" are color-coded in red and answers from Dr. Berger are in blue.]
Subject: Re: Fellowship

Date: Tue, 10 Jun 1997 17:40:16 -0700

From: "Bernard C. Berger"

To: [redacted]

Dear Dr. Berger,

[Question redacted]
Yes we were members #4 and 5 of Roberts group.
Hmm. So, it was Bonita first, followed soon by David Guido. Then there was a third person of whom I know nothing. Then you and Elizabeth. Then Meg Gwynne (Stella) and Harold Wirk. Then Bill Schenker? Or did Bill precede you?
I was with Bill Shenker at an Esalen Style encounter group. He mentioned that Burton had some interesting ideas and that we should go to a meeting. He was in the group before me. I brought my wife along. We share everything together and still do. Shenker was interested in Sufism and in the idea that certain people have greater powers than others. I suppose that the Castenada Books were out by that time and reinforced that concepts.

The group quickly increased to perhaps 30. We developed some new friends in the group and 6 of us left after my wife and I were members for a year.
A year. So, you left in the Spring of 1971, prior to the purchase of the Oregon House property.

Hmm. Do you mind if I ask you some basic questions about yourself, and then also some basic questions about your perceptions at that time, as you remember them?

I have heard you are a physician. May I ask about your field of medical practice, and further, whether you have any training in psychiatry?

Yes I am a physician now retired and although at that time I was interested in Psychiatry I did not take a residency in thart [sic] field. ALL of my circle of friends from Med School became Psychiatrists. I did enjoy my practice and spent a lot of time listening to my patience [sic]. I do not give credence to psychoanalytic theory.
May I ask how you were persuaded to begin paying Robert money?
Robert asked for and received $100 per month from us. I felt it was worth it for his time and effort. He did open my eyes to Gurgeeffs [sic]concepts. It was not a bad deal for me to pay him.
How would you describe the Robert Burton whom you knew at that time?
He was a v. good teacher of the idea of being awake. He was also v. weired [sic]. His eyes always seemed to be remarkable. Very wide eyed but I was not uncomfortable with him. He really had a great shtick and did very well for himself. I also enjoyed the members. They were middle class, affluent and searching for something. Just like me. It was a hell of a lot simpler than trying to climb Everest.
Do you recall Robert ever discussing his personal life, i.e., where he grew up? I know that he was born in Arkansas, and that he later moved to California, attended San Jose State University, taught fourth grade in Lafayette. Did he ever say where he went to high school? Do you have any idea how he was keeping afloat financially prior to his requiring payments of you?
I believe that he lived with his mother and taught tennis. Robert wanted us to give him a sizable but non specific amount to purchase a ranch.
Yes. This became an institution, a dogma, a rite of passage. When I was a member ,[redacted], the "ranch donation" (one donation among many) was "one month's gross income, or $1000, whichever was greater."
It seemed like a very exploitative request and thus left the group.
Yes, it sounds like you had some basic common sense. I presume you have some concept of the group's subsequent history?

Oh, yes, another question. In reviewing the roster of members during the early years, I continue to be astonished at the number of physicians. Have you any notion of how this came about?

Physicians seem more gulible [sic] than real people. They may fool others that they know something but in their hearts they seek and have the money and time to fullfill [sic] themselves. I just finished the Everest Book Into Thin Air. There was a high percentage of Drs on that expedition. DRs are also poor investors and are an easy mark.

I would be happy to answer any questions.
I am grateful for your response and am very Interested in whatever you are able to remember from this remote time. Is It possible that you or your wife have notes tucked away, somewhere?
No notes I am sorry

Best Regards

Bernard Berger

[Name redacted]

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