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.

Thursday, December 31, 1981

Collecting paintings by old masters

"Horse Stable" by Gerard ter Borch in Robert Burton's Fellowship of Friends cult collection
"Horse Stable" by Gerard ter Borch in Fellowship of Friends Collection

The painting "Horse Stable" by Gerard ter Borch was purchased in London. It was placed on display at Robert Burton's residence, the Goethe Academy.

The painting remained in the Fellowship collection until 1986, when it was sold through Marco Grassi (New York, New York) to the J. Paul Getty Museum, 1986.

(Exact date in 1981 unknown)

December 1981 Notes

Robert Earl Burton's Fellowship of Friends cult Lincoln Lodge and Renaissance Vineyards
The Lincoln Lodge nestled in vineyard slopes at sunset, circa 1982 (Photo: T. Campion)

"Renaissance Vine" newsletter [summarized]
Auditions are underway for "As You Like It"

Other Notes

December 14:
Beaux Arts Trio concert at the Town Hall. Program: Haydn opus 33, Brahms opus 101, Smetana, Mozart, Schumann and Mendelssohn.
December 19 and 20:
Mao to Mozart shown at Town Hall
December 31:
Guitarist Pepe Romero performs
At Renaissance there's a celebration of the Fellowship's twelfth anniversary

Monday, November 30, 1981

November 1981 Notes

"Renaissance Vine" newsletter [summarized]
The Renaissance Vine will now be one page.
No more “census” numbers will be published. [There has been a slight decline in membership lately]
November 26 and 27: Zara Nelsova, Lee Luvisi
November 28 and 29: American String Quartet
December 12 and 13: Beaux Arts Trio
December 17 and 18: Eudice Shapiro, Ron Leonard (cello)
December 25 and 26: Alma Trio
December 28 and 29: Istvan Nadas
December 31 and January 1: Pepe Romero

Saturday, October 31, 1981

October 1981 Notes

Sunset over Milton Pond (Photo: T. Campion)

"Renaissance Vine" newsletter [summarized]
October 1: contraction exercise rescinded (members can now use contractions)

October 3 and 4: Philadelphia Quartet

October 24 and 25: Istvan Nadas

October 31: Maureen Forester, contralto

November 7 and 8: Alma Trio
1,354 members

September 19: Matthias McDonald passed away

Photos: sunset over Milton Pond

Other Notes

October 25:
Incident of rock-throwing at students’ cars on Rice’s Crossing Road. [Based upon license numbers, the culprits were traced to Oregon House and Olivehurst.]
October 26:
Harvest of Riesling the day before it rains.
October 29:
Robert in Los Angeles

Wednesday, September 30, 1981

September 1981 Notes

"Renaissance Vine" [summarized]
August 29: 5.8 tons of Cabernet and 2.7 tons of Zinfandel harvested

Wit exercise rescinded

1,357 members

Photo: apples (orchard?)

Other Notes

September 2:
Children’s Play. [At Hans Christian Andersen House?]
September 4:
Harvest the white varietals [Suavignon Blanc, Chenin Blanc, Riesling?]
September 5:
Harvest Petite Sirah

Friday, September 25, 1981

Stella Wirk's letter to Robert Burton

[ed. - This text is taken from a webcache of Stella's old Geocities website. The Stella Wirk collage below is from a Fourth Way School tribute.]

Letter to Robert Burton
September 25, 1981
Stella wrote this letter for almost a week, trying to have it "just right" to effect the desired results. It was not written in haste or in anger, nor out of personal displeasure or likes and dislikes. Each page began with a quotation Stella felt was appropriate.

"The stage of external conformity is useful in its own way as a spiritual discipline; but it is by no means free from evil effects, for it not only tends to make a man dry, rigid and mechanical, but it often nourishes some kind of subtle egotism. However, most persons are attached to the life of external conformity because they find it the easiest way of placating their uneasy consciences...." Discourses III, pg. 112, Meher Baba.

September 25, 1981

Dear friend Robert,

Perhaps it is prudent to mention at the outset that the writer is not negative. What is written here is with an even tone of voice. There are some current aspects of the school about which the Teacher may need or wish to know. Conditions mentioned herein have been increasing for years. Simple observations are presented, and questions fall where they may, without malice and without justification.

Some information has to do with the growing intolerance for differing manifestations and views, several older students seeming to forget entirely about different levels of being, knowledge and perception. (A variety of expressions can be expected from a variety of students, and can be tolerated provided they do not express negativity.)

The emotional level or morale of the school is being threatened when center directors, traveling teachers, and visiting older students make obvious judgments and open condemnations of other students. Newer students are quick to imitate, and the infection spreads, making feminine dominance [sic - a term coined by Burton] a legitimate way to express negative emotions.

The negativity is expresseed either directly and blatantly, or by manifesting a disregard for personal feelings, that which we formerly labled "using the Work to destroy." Students spy on one another, an activity that is producing an increasing distrust of the heirarchy.

Meaning no disrespect whatsoever, the question arises if the Teacher knows today how many tasks are set upon students (or that they think are tasks)? When it was exclaimed by the Teacher that "all suggestions, requests and exercises would henceforth be considered tasks," the formatory apparatus in people was quick to identify with the "all or nothing" terms.

Formatory thinking has produced a sort of "flypaper" effect of all this, sticking together the word "tasks," roles in the teaching (the "visible vine"), and just about everything the Teacher has ever uttered, to where the Confusion of Tongues is enormous, and the results may be psychologially damaging to some people.

Formatory thinking cannot cope intelligently with the circumstances. There is an unconscious "group collusion" that exists; that is, a kind of "group-think" that everything that happens is "all part of the teaching" which turns out among many students to be merely an alibi for all sorts of meanness of spirit and incredible pettiness.

Page 2:

"We need very strong ears to hear ourselves judged frankly; and because there are so few who can endure frank criticism without being stung by it, those who venture to criticize us perform a remarkable act of friendship; for to undertake to wound and offend a man for his own good is to have a healthy love for him....Plato prescribes three qualities in a man who wants to examine another man's soul: knowledge, good will, boldness." Michel de Montaigne

It is not that these things "should not be happening" since they are happening; it is a small example of the Ray of Creation, where initially things start out conscious and finish mechanically at the moon.

The very nature of the school makes it difficult to notice or acknowledge that something may be awry. Spiritual work is ripe for the full range of human foibles (features) because of the excellent coverup that self-deception lends for the use of the spirit in the service of false personality. The memory is evoked of the "play" of James Vincent Randazzo. The particulars are quite different, of course, and the mechanics are the same --- "Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely."

When handing a long list of rules to a group of machines to enforce, with impunity to themselves, the results are well known ("I was only following orders"). It may be that the Teacher is expecting that everyone is doing his or her inner work properly (he said once that it was difficult for him to remember that students are not Men No. 5).

Positive results cannot be gained by violence, repression or coercion. The manner in which many students work with the present volume of tasks is violent and repressive, making the tasks themselves an instrument of coercion rather than tools for awakening. The fines resulting from infractions are exorbitant, producing inordinate fear unrelated to evolution (or the wishes of higher forces as explained by the Teacher). The internal direction of the school is becoming emotionally impoverished. The situation is will-defeating.

Sincere second-line work of any depth is not encouraged; it is not emphasized from the top, so it cannot be promoted from the bottom. Those who try to do second line work, are met with a popular bufferthat re-defines everything as "heresy" if it does not coincide withthe present "Renaissance approved imagination currently in vogue." The momentum for this aspect began about 1978 when the Teacher stopped teaching publicly, and students increased lying at meetings.

Naturally, there is a need for structure, and some effort was made in the past to prevent the organization from becoming an institution. Nevertheless, organizations become formatory.

It was reported that at the Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, Oregon, recently, the director of the festival said, "When we began the festivals, a group of actors came together to do plays. In order to do plays, an organization was formed. Now we do plays to keep the organization alive."
People in the Fellowship who are paying a minimum of $450 per month, which often is half or more than half of their income, eventually begin to feel they merely are "keeping the organization alive." the outward appearance belies that which is really going on inside people.

Page 3:

"The transition from external conformity to the life of inner realities involves two steps: (i) freeing the mind from the inertia of uncritial acceptance based on blind imitation and stirring it to critical thinking, and (ii) bringing the results of critical and discriminative thinking into practical life. In order to be spiritually fruitful, thinking must be not only critical but creative!..." Discourses III, Pg. 117 Meher Baba

In California, there is an increasing trend to advise students that "anyone who admits of any personal difficulty is merely admitting that they have not turned themselves over to higher forces." Therefore, who would dare to admit difficulties? These kinds of buffering angles come from people who sit at thefront of the meeting, and students assume that anyone who sits at the front of the meeting is speaking for the Teacher himself. Thus, anyone who is credentialed may intimidate others by inuendo, implication or direct threats ("higher forces will release you for this!"), which effectively silences people.

Those who have somewhat begun to penetrate the inner circle are aware of the value of this work and the school. This valuation, for some people, is being diminished by their observations. Can it be that the school will disregard individual differences, capacities, body type, centers of gravity, features, education, family wealth, and other affluence gained through the law of accident?

Belinda Rockwood recently verified the message she is giving,which is: "The aim of the school is to produce consciousness in the students; the task of the school is to produce the Ark. The Teacher is most interested in the Ark, and is leaving the aim to be accomplished by Influence C." (Quote is approximate; message is the same.) This announces that the Teacher approves of the "blind leading the blind," since most students merely speak about Influence C and do not experience it for themseles (some people experience it in imagination such as the fellow who heard "angel footsteps behind him" while he worked at the Goethe Academy).

One cannot "talk" the emotional center into feeling something that it does not feel. Mechanically, there are people who will accept anything, do anything, say "yes" to anything, and for all appearances they seem to be in the inner circle -- and they are not. Several older students feel that the inner circle is very small.

A school is said to be for healing and then for regeneration; presently there seems to be little evidence for either. Healing is required now, and is described as the "return to an original principle." The original principle is that this Work is for inner psychological transformation, the ultimate aim of awakening. The identification on the part of many students with the emphasis on external activity is sacrificing the aim.

The concern here is that people are not being healed, nor are they being shown the direction toward healing; they are being made insane. There does not seem to be something "to do" about this, since the way everything has progressed the responsibility for changing anything is that of the Teacher.

Page 4:

"If I am not for myself, who will be for me?
If I am for myself only, what am I
If not now --- when?" Talmudic Saying

Michel de Montaigne says that it is very difficult to turn one's gaze inwards on oneself. He says that it is akin to asking ocean waves to flop backwards on themselves when they hit a beach (and the only way that they can do this is if they hit a wall). A lot of members find that following the external structure is sufficient, gazing outwards and forcing themselves on others, although they imagine they are working, and they are very sincere.

A review of the rules is needed to effect beneficial results since, presently, if the results of the rules are not "wrong" they are unfortunate. "Fools do not need watering." (Verdi).

The school has had refreshing changes in the past, and this suggestion does not seem to oppose the wishes of higher forces.


Thank you for always being my friend, and for being so generous to both Harold and me. My interest is to be of help and perpetuate the atmosphere for inner work that was so available to everyone in former years. I am very thankful and grateful for my continuing association with you.

Most sincerely and fondly, your friend,

(signed) Stella.

Stella's Notes:

10/10/81: Robert's reaction to reading this letter was to put the letter hastily into his coat breast pocket saying, "Well, you just can't please everyone with the form of the school" (as told to me by Barbara Haven who said Burton read the letter in her presence and made this remark -- he was in England at the time).

Notes added later.

5/25/94 Hindsight: Eleven years after meeting the man Robert Burton, my knowledge of his private life and activities was almost nil! A few months later, the truth came out which offended my naive sensibilities. I did not know the depth of my naivete until much later. Hence, I wince at some of the foregoing letter, for trying so hard to not offend Burton, when probably it was impossible to actually offend the man.

11/18/94: Very few people have ever seen this letter. I did not send it to everyone. My current understanding is that FOF has a collection of letters praising RB and FOF over the years, and may try to use them as a form of "defense" for the situation.

I don't know if my letter was kept, and they could extract my last comments to RB to try to infer my support for RB. Out of context it may sound supportive; in context I was trying to get my larger message across to someone whom I thought would be able to receive it. He was not able.
Rumors over the years have claimed I begged RB to come back to FOF, and this is not true. Neither Harold nor I ever once asked anyone about returning.

All contact with FOF was terminated sometime in July 1982, twelve years to the month that we began this unusual experiment.


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Monday, August 31, 1981

August 1981 Notes

Terracing Slope 23 for new vineyard (Photo: T. Campion)

"Renaissance Vine" newsletter [summarized]
Rome center to open in October
September 5 and 6: Carmen
September 12 and 13: Zara Nelsova, Lee Luvisi
1,357 members
Photo: KPM portrait plate

Other Notes

August 15:
Due to the coincidence of a full moon and a meteor shower (and the "friction they cause instinctive centers,") salaried members at Renaissance are given a half-day off!
August 29:
Cabernet Sauvignon harvest
August 30:
Cabernet and Zinfandel harvest

Friday, July 31, 1981

July 1981 Notes

The D-8 terracing Slope 23 (Photo: T. Campion)

"Renaissance Vine" newsletter [summarized]
New parking lot has been created at Renaissance

The Blake cottage and Franklin Complex [structures only] have been sold

A second pond is now under construction

Learning other languages (besides English and French) is now permitted

July 11 and 12: Sydney Harth and Menahem Pressler 
July 19: Maureen Forester [died 2010]
August 8 and 9: Istvan Nadas [died 2010]
1,362 members

Photos: Iris Walk at The Court of the Caravans

Other Notes

July 24:
Walt Whitman recital at the Marin Teaching House
July 26:
Robert leaves for Europe

Tuesday, July 14, 1981

Star belongs to bizarre cult

[ed. - Laurie Walters (also known within the group as Laura Walters) was a member of the Fellowship of Friends from 1975 until 1984.]

"Whalerider" wrote on the Fellowship of Friends Discussion blog, March 13, 2019:
The FOF cult had its own well known TV actress as a follower during my time…

"Eight is Enough" star belongs to bizarre cult of robot-like followers (shown above)

To make an impression as part of my indoctrination, burton arranged for her to give me a ride in her Mercedes once when I accompanied him on a trip down in LA.

[ed. - Article text:]

"Eight is Enough" star belongs to bizarre cult of robot-like followers

by Kitty MacNab
World Weekly News
July 14, 1981

Cutie-pie actress Laurie Walters - who played Joanie Bradford on TV's "Eight is Enough" - is in the grip of a sinister cult whose zombie-like followers worship a Jim Jones-type leader who claims that he is Jesus Christ.

Laurie's worried friends fear that she is pouring her money into the cult and ruining her career by linking her image to the bizarre group.

"Laurie has been hanging out with the Fellowship of Friends for a long time," said ex-member James Trattner of Sacramento, Calif.

"She goes up to their luxurious, 1,310-acre estate at least once a month

"She's really been taken in by the group."

The 1,375-member fellowship is led by a dictatorial leader named Robert Burton, said Trrattner. A 41-year-old former schoolteacher, Burton lives like a king on the estate, buying millions of dollars worth of art objects while group members donate their money and free time working to make the cult rich.

One distraught father who lost his child to the group told how his son became a mindless robot-servant for Burton, who has convinced his followers that he's Jesus Christ.

"These kids are zombies," said the anguished father. "My son went from being a normal, extroverted kid to being a complete robot.

"He can't talk with us anymore.

"We have nothing to say to one another.

"He only wants to see things the way they have indoctrinated him to see them.

"The teacher (Burton) lets it be known that he's Jesus.

"Well, I think he's the devil himself."

Another source described the group as a "professional operation" that binds the minds of its members so it will have slaves working to make the cult rich.

"People are afraid to leave partly because they become so brainwashed that they begin to believe that Burton has the key to truth," said the source.

Sources say cult members give 10 percent of their incomes to the cult plus "special donations" of $115 per month. Meanwhile, Burton dresses in expensive clothes, drives a plush Mercedes car and surrounds himself with luxuries.

The group teaches that appreciation of the finer things in life is the path to spirituality. Members are told to avoid newspapers and TV and the modern world and devote themselves to studying art, fine music and classical literature.

At special sessions, members discuss negative feelings and emotions which block the development of their spirit.

Laurie believes her visits to the cult's estate in Yuba County, Calif., have opened her eyes to the secrets of life.

"I realized before I met them that I couldn't change myself by myself," said the pretty young actress.

"I come to the Fellowship every four to six weeks and spend a weekend washing dishes, ironing linens and I go to dinners, look at the art collections, work in the garden and spend a lot of time just visiting with my friends.

"What I want is a higher consciousness and I feel like I get what I pay for."

Members like Laurie deny that the group is a cult. They look at Burton as a "teacher" and feel they are studying a philosophy that will change their lives for the better.

But experts on cults say that the Fellowship is as dangerous as any of the so-called true followings.

"And in the Fellowship of Friends, just like many of the other cults, you have to sign your life away and do as you're told.

"So people like Laurie are in danger of losing their personal freedoms," said Ted Patrick, who works as a cult de-programmer.

Meanwhile, a source from the industry says that Laurie's link to the group could destroy her chances for new acting jobs now that "Eight is Enough" has been canceled.

"It's really disturbing to see a young actress of Laurie's talent involved in one of these cults," said the source.

"It is not good for her career because it creates bad publicity about her and because she gets a reputation in the industry as being a kook.

"That never helps!

"Now that her series is no longer a regular on the air, her involvement in the fellowship could really be a problem for her. There are hundreds of good actresses like her out there competing for jobs - and something like a weird religious involvement could be just the thing that could keep her out of work."

Tuesday, June 30, 1981

June 1981 Notes

Skyline Community Church where Robert Burton's Fellowship of Friends cult held meetings in the 1970s
Present day Skyline Community Church in Oakland. In the 1970s and early 80s, The Fellowship of Friends held weekly meetings here.

"Renaissance Vine" newsletter [summarized]
May 27: Last Bay Area meeting at Skyline Church. Beginning June 13, Northern California meetings will occur at Renaissance.
July 1: Mozart’s Abduction from the Seraglio
July 3 and 4: Sequoia String Quartet
July 11 and 12: Menahem Pressler
When encountering former members, a cordial greeting is appropriate. [ed. - But members are still not to associate with former members.]
1,374 members
April 23: Henry Scott passed way
Photos: Barn, pond [ed. - A before and after view. The Milton Pond takes the place of the former maintenance barn.]

Sunday, May 31, 1981

May 1981 Notes

Fellowship of Friends Court of the Caravans Iris Walk
The Court of the Caravans Iris Walk, April 1981 (Photo: T. Campion)

"Renaissance Vine" newsletter [summarized]
Robert’s letter to San Francisco Chronicle (written April 28)
May 15 and 16: Menahem Pressler and Oscar Shumsky
May 17 and 18: Menahem Pressler
June 6 and 7: American String Quartet
1,373 members
Photo: entrance to Renaissance

Other Notes

May 8:
Robert sought to order "4TH WAY" personalized license plates. They were not available.
May 11:
"Maxwell’s Plumb" restaurant opens at Ghirardelli Square, in San Francisco. Fellowship members were involved in the construction. [ed. - The flamboyant owner, Warner LeRoy, had something in common with Burton – love of glitz, crystal, stained glass, porcelains, Lalique, Tiffany, etc.]

Friday, May 1, 1981

Robert Burton responds to San Francisco Chronicle

[ed. - Apparently Robert Burton responded to the Chronicle's story with a Letter to the Editor, dated April 28, 1981. This was reported in the May 1981 "Renaissance Vine." It appears the Chronicle did not publish the letter. A review of their archives shows only the following related Letter to the Editor, transcribed in its entirety, published in the April 28, 1981 issue of the Chronicle. It is reported that Burton requested that Fellowship members not display photographs of their "life families" inside their residences. His effort to destroy family ties is one of Burton's most grievous crimes.]
Life in a Cult

Editor - My husband and I are extremely grateful to Michael Taylor for his article last week [April 20] on the cult known as the Fellowship of Friends, which for years worked our son 20 hours a day without holidays, paying him $50 a month. For the first year he was there he was forbidden to contact us and when he was married there we were not allowed to be present.

All expression of negative emotion was frowned upon, causing him eventually to sink into a deep depression which prevented him from working. Thank God this meant that he was no longer useful to cult leader Robert Burton and he was urged to leave.

It has been two years now and even after much intensive psychiatric care he is only beginning to re-learn simple communications skills. So much for the Gurdjieffians' allegedly higher consciousness.

[ed. - The following is a perspective from within the Fellowship of Friends at the time. The following was included in a letter to the author's family. The author's name is withheld.]
The Fellowship has been receiving a bit of attention lately after appearing in an article on the front page of the San Francisco Chronicle recently. It seems that a few former members found that they could capitalize on suspicions that have been cast upon “cults” in the last two years or so. Now we find certain people and some of the media referring to us as a cult, and immediately there are the preconceived notions and the fears that are directed towards such groups. I think though that it will be the people who know us, the merchants, the local citizens that will prove to be our strongest support. As for the rest, they will imagine what they wish - there is not much we can do for that, except maybe try to explain our goals to those who are willing to listen.

Thursday, April 30, 1981

April 1981 Notes

Fellowship of Friends property, Meadows Knoll in foreground, winery site on knoll beyond pond, March 1981 (Photo: T. Campion)

"Renaissance Vine" newsletter [summarized]
It is now okay for married couples to plan families
Restrict television viewing
May 15 to 18 concerts: Menahem Pressler
1,378 members
Photo: aerial view of Renaissance

Other Notes

April 18 and 19:
Zara Nelsova performs at Renaissance
April 20:
Article about Robert Burton and The Fellowship of Friends appears in the San Francisco Chronicle

From the Fellowship of Friends Wiki Page [Defunct]:

[ed. - thoughts from The Teacher, Robert Burton, with apparent index number shown.]
Taking influence C for granted is an unpardonable offence. (041581.84)

From one angle, Armageddon, the supreme battle at the end of the world, is only being postponed until we are prepared. (041581.44)

Gurdjieff/Ouspensky Followers Controversial

[ed. - From ICSA website ( webpage is no longer functional]
A community called Renaissance, headquarters for Fellowship of Friends, a monastic group of well-educated men and women devoted to the teachings of two Russian spiritualists of the early 20th century, Georges Gurdjieff and Peter Ouspensky, has recently become an object of much controversy.

The group, which is located in Yuba County, California, is led by 42-year-old Robert Burton, known as “The Teacher” and revered for his self-control and ability to explain and understand the two philosophers as well as to teach others that life can be enhanced through worship of beauty and materialism. [ed. - It should be noted that, by all accounts, Burton has little familiarity with Gurdjieff's work, save what has been passed along by Ouspensky.]

According to the San Francisco Chronicle (March 20), a few ex-members and parents of members have become concerned with the way followers are treated.

One ex-member, Randall Moffett, says “The trouble with the Fellowship, is that they take advantage of people’s imagination.

"The people who are into it now are so hypnotized. This is a very sophisticated operation.”

An anonymous parent expressed his concern this way: “It’s the kind of discipline that blocks out any kind of thought,” he said. “It’s so far detached from reality—it’s not like you and I know life to be—and I don’t believe those kids are there of their own free will.”

The community owns more than $1 million worth of European paintings, Meissen china, Baccarat crystal and Wedgewood plates. Its income is nearly 4 million tax-exempt dollars per year. James Trattner, a 41-year-old psychologist who spent 4 years in the Fellowship of Friends, told the Chronicle that members have no money of their own and in that sense are prisoners, working up to 17 or 18 hours a day.

Monday, April 20, 1981

"Mystical Cult Prospers – And Stirs Some Fears"

A 'Holy' Teacher

Robert Earl Burton 1981 by Gary Fong for The Chronicle
"Robert Burton, leader of the Fellowship of Friends, with one of his valuable paintings." (Photo by Gary Fong for The Chronicle)

"When asked if he thinks he is Jesus Christ, Burton stared for a long moment into the fire flickering warmly a few feet away, then murmured: 'Thou sayest it.'

"He had chosen the words of his answer from the Bible. That was Christ’s reply (in Matthew 15:2) to Pontius Pilate when asked if he was king of the Jews."

From the Fellowship of Friends Discussion Blog:
Mystical Cult Prospers – And Stirs Some Fears
San Francisco Chronicle
By Michael Taylor
Chronicle Correspondent
Images by Gary Fong

Oregon House
Yuba County, California

Robert Earl Burton, leader of Fellowship of Friends in Oregon House, CA, San Francisco Chronicle story

On a blustery, gray morning in the foothills, the only spot of brightness is the figure of a yellow-slickered ranch hand trudging up a muddy road to a distant house, his head down against the wind and the rain.

The two-level house with broad eaves and circular driveway sits near the top of a hill, amid terraced vineyards and near the concrete foundations of a new winery.

But this is no ordinary house, and the ranch hand is no ordinary worker.

They are part of a community called Renaissance, a rural splendor on the southern edge of one of the poorest counties in California. The community serves as headquarters for the reclusive, metaphysical Fellowship of Friends, a monastic group of well-educated refugees from the 20th century – its men and women devoted to the teachings of two arcane Russian philosophers whose works are found mainly on the “occult” shelves in bookstores.
Lunch was served to community members under an elaborate chandelier while Bach came from wall speakers
A Cult That Worships Beauty, Materialism

They are led by Robert Burton, a mystical 42-year-old former Bay Area fourth-grade teacher who is deified and worshiped by his followers – not for any emotional or physical reason, but rather because the group’s members believe he is the best man to interpret their complicated philosophies and ultimately lead them to better lives.

He is known as The Teacher, and he is revered for his self-control, as well as for his ability to explain that life can be improved and enhanced through a deep, thoughtful worship of beauty and materialism concomitant with an understanding of the writings of the two Russian philosophers. The system of thought, which embraces philosophy, religion and psychology, is supposed to lead to self-improvement.
A former member still feels both awe and hatred

In recent months, though, murmurs have begun to be heard about the cult’s seeming secretiveness and about the way it treats its followers. A few ex-members, as well as some parents of those still in the group, have begun to express their fears that the fellowship’s rigid ideas, and the unswerving loyalty shown its elliptical teacher, are similar to the magnetism of the Rev. Jim Jones, who led his Peoples Temple followers to mass suicide in Guyana in 1978.

Lunch for the ranch hand and four dozen other workers is freshly baked cornbread, creamy rich clam chowder and a crisp tangy salad, all of it washed down with a vintage Riesling wine. The meal is served by silent waiters while Bach hums soothingly from wall-mounted speakers.

In the evening, the fellowship’s officers will gather in a room reserved for contemplative dinners, where a Rembrandt print keeps watch over priceless Meissen china and ornate antique dining table set with Baccarat crystal and Wedgewood plates.

Elsewhere on the 1310-acre tract of rolling hills can be found more than $1 million worth of European paintings from the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries, marble busts of Homer and Milton, Aubusson carpets and ornately inlaid turn-of-the-century Steinway pianos.

Funds for such revered riches of civilization and for construction of new Renaissance buildings come from members’ monthly donations of 10 percent of their incomes, supplemented by “special donations” to improve the art collection. The group says its income, exempt from corporate income tax because it is a religion, is nearly $4 million a year.

In one document made available to The Chronicle, an unnamed fellowship officer notes that because one 18th century painting “requires payment in six installments of $35,000 per month . . . our monthly special donation (for members) will be increased to $115.”

The same document says the group plans to “bring two museum-quality paintings each year to Renaissance so as to preserve the arts for a future humanity.”

Requiring a rigid adherence to its ideals – both philosophically and financially, the cult has attracted a membership of about 1350 worldwide, with chapters all over America and in major cities in Europe. Only about 250 of the members live at or near this Yuba County community. The remaining 1100 members lead normal lives – many of them in lucrative professions, such as electronics, medicine and design – in the world’s major cities.

They attend periodic meetings at local chapters and discuss the cult’s philosophy – one revolving around a way of believing that life for its members can be improved and enhanced by a worship of beauty and materialism through an understanding of the writings and teachings of George Ivanovitch Gurdjieff and Peter D. Ouspensky, as well as 40 other philosophers, writers, musicians and artists.

The magnetism of Gurdjieffian philosophy has attracted the likes of intellectual and cultural luminaries Frank Lloyd Wright, Rudyard Kipling, Georgia O’Keeffe, Katherine Mansfield and J. B. Priestley, all of whom “have been affected by Gurdjieff’s ideas,” according to Kathleen Riordan Speeth, author of “The Gurdjieff Work.”

Some ex-members say that actor Marlon Brando once flirted with the idea of becoming a member. Brando, however, is not answering questions about his relationship with the fellowship.

What most followers, who come from the middle- and upper-middle classes of society, appear to be drawn to is the rigid sense of self-discipline and personal control, which are considered important virtues here. Speaking only when necessary is encouraged and, until a recent visit by a reporter and photographer, anonymity has been something of a hallmark of the fellowship.

The fellowship was formally started in 1971 as a non-profit California corporation. Its officers were students of the Gurdjieff-Ouspensky philosophy, and their guiding light, the man who would actively interpret that philosophy for his followers, was Burton, a speech pathology graduate of San Jose State and a former teacher of fourth graders in Lafayette.

In 10 years, this disciple of Gurdjieff and Ouspensky has attained what many people think of as a rather exalted position in life. He is paid $48,000 a year by the fellowship, and he has an annual expense account of $24,000. He spends six months of every year visiting the European chapters of his organization while hunting old paintings, sculpture, porcelain, chandeliers, pianos and jewelry. The other six months, he is in residence in his art-drenched house on the fellowship estate.

Burton dresses in finery and, until a few months ago, rode around in a Rolls-Royce with the license plates reading “ORACLE.” The Rolls-Royce was sold (“maintenance got too expensive”) and replaced with a new $46,000 Mercedes-Benz 380SEL sedan. It is part of a fleet of Mercedes-Benz cars at the compound in keeping with Burton’s interpretation of the fellowship’s philosophy.

‘Beauty produces its likeness in those who pursue it’

“Beauty produces its likeness in those who pursue it,” Burton says. The idea behind how he inculcates this beauty in what he calls “my students . . . my children” is that one’s level of consciousness can be raised through an appreciation of beauty and materialism, “the finer things in life.”

As he sits in his Aubusson-carpeted living room, with the $210,000 18th century Vigee-LeBrun painting on the wall, Burton waits in silence as a carpenter (and fellowship member) lays a fire and lights it. The carpenter then disappears, back to his task of building what appears to be a reproduction of a French chateau – Burton’s future home. Until it is finished, Burton lives in an adjacent three-bedroom house. When the new palatial home is finished, Burton’s current home, called the Blake House, will be moved elsewhere to make room for another wing which will be added to the chateau.

Burton’s gaze moves around his living room, alighting for minutes at a time on the artwork.

“There are superior impressions,” he says. “You know, in buying this kind of art, someone has to be knowledgeable so the money is not misspent. It is not easy. Once, I spent nine hours in the National Gallery of Art in Washington looking at paintings and decided what we should seek for our collection.”

Burton’s mission, as he sees it, is to cultivate in his students the philosophy that “one is elevated by” the abundance of art, music and other examples of culture that are strewn about Renaissance like baubles in a king’s court.

This ability to appreciate fine art, Burton says, is something that one acquires through a sense of discipline. He is proud of one incident in his life that illustrates the strength of his own self-discipline:

“My mother was in a hospital and she was dying. They had to do open-heart surgery and I was in the 15th month of a 16-month period of silence. I was denying myself speech. I saw her in the hospital and I did not speak. It was my aim not to speak.”

Such a penchant for discipline has lead Burton to the notion that his vast plantation is “an ark” that will preserve, as Noah did with animals, the finest art in the world for future generations – much like a museum, but with the important difference that the collection rarely will be seen by the public.

An internal fellowship publication, called the Renaissance Vine, quotes Burton in a toast to Renaissance as a place “which carries a great responsibility for posterity,

(Map) The site of Renaissance in Yuba County, California
Second caption: Beyond the vineyard (foreground) sit 25 Airstream trailers, where about 60 members live

The Fellowship of Friends – Reclusive, Mystical, Rich

[An internal fellowship publication, called the Renaissance Vine, quotes Burton in a toast to Renaissance as a place “which carries a great responsibility for posterity,]

for it is here the Gods have taken their stand to ensure humanity shall survive Armageddon.”

Although what is meant by Armageddon is not spelled out in the newsletter, several students said Burton believes that in the next few years there will be a total worldwide economic collapse, followed quickly by a nuclear holocaust. And Renaissance will be the surviving apostle of culture and civilization, nestled in the remote foothills of the Sierra, far from the urban centers which will take the brunt of worldwide disaster.

Over the past 10 years, according to Yuba County records, the Fellowship of Friends has carried out a land-buying effort that has secured 1310 acres of rolling hills, just east of Rice’s Crossing Road. For $344,270, the fellowship obtained real estate that, with its buildings, landscaping and terraced vineyards, is now conservatively estimated to be worth more than $4 million.

The fellowship is administered by Miles Barth, its corporate president, with the help of other senior officials such as Karl Werner, who runs the group’s modern winery, Charles Randall, who keeps the books, and Carl Mautz, the resident attorney.

Scattered around the compound and connected by twisting roads are:
  • The Lincoln Lodge, named after Abraham Lincoln and used for dining and informal discussions;
  • The Town Hall, a medium-sized auditorium where a stage supports a 1904 Steinway concert grand piano, picked up in London for a reported $50,000, a Persian rug reported to have cost at least $10,000, and a breakfront full of Sevres china;
  • The Court of the Caravans, a collection of 25 Airstream trailers, considered to be the Rolls-Royce of the trailer industry, housing about 60 of the group’s members;
  • The printing shop, where a collection of 2000 engravings is used to emboss the covers of a finely printed “Renaissance Journals,” collections of quotations from cult leaders, culled and edited and then sent out to fellowship offices around the world;
  • The Renaissance winery, still under construction and reported to be costing more than $1 million. Werner, who formerly was the winemaker for Callaway Vineyards, says the winery does not expect to sell any of its product until it has matured in the bottle;
  • Large and well equipped metal, woodworking and automotive shops, where stainless steel tanks for the winery and finely framed windows, rosettes and doors for the various houses are made, and where the Mercedes-Benzes are maintained;
  • The Goethe Academy, now under construction. This is the reproduction chateau that will house Burton in isolated splendor, surrounded by by more than $1 million worth of European Old Master paintings.
The construction at what some members call Mount Renaissance is busy and feverish, but in the long run not very expensive because the labor is practically free.

“We’re labor intensive,” smiles Burton, his delicate hands caressing the inlaid top of the Steinway piano that sits in his kitchen.

More than 200 of the group who live on the property or within a 30-mile radius work either for the fellowship – putting in days that can last up to 17 or 18 hours, by some reports – or for the winery.

Fellowship workers are paid $125 a month and they are given free meals, but since Renaissance Vineyard and Winery Inc., is a profit-making, wholly owned subsidiary of the fellowship, workers there must be paid the minimum wage, amounting to about $580 a month. According to fellowship president Barth, however, the winery workers “donate” all but $125 of that to the fellowship.

James Trattner is a 41-year-old psychologist who spent four years in the Fellowship of Friends. He says Burton is “a guy who lives like an absolute king. He’s buying art objects that cost in the millions. And then, right there at Renaissance, all around him, you have the worker beasts, going from morning till night, planting grapes, doing stonemasonry, carpentry. They’re flat broke; they have no money of their own. And in that sense, they’re prisoners.”

“The parallel with Jonestown,” Trattner insists, “is incredible.”

Continued on Page 14 Col. 1

(Also on page 13:)

The Followers of Gurdjieff and Ouspensky
By Michael Taylor
Chronicle Correspondent

Oregon House
Yuba County, California

Robert Burton’s Fellowship of Friends is just one of a number of groups around the world that study the ideas of George Ivanovitch Gurdjieff and Peter D. Ouspensky.

Gurdjieff, born in Russia in the 1870s, became popular in France, where his philosophy was discussed in various private salons from about 1921 to 1946. Gurdjieff died in 1949.

His oral lessons were explained in writing by Ouspensky, another Russian philosopher who lived during the same period. He put Gurdjieff’s teachings into several books, the most popular of which is “The Fourth Way.”

The essential idea of the philosophy is that people don’t work hard enough in their daily lives toward an understanding of what they really could be if they tried. The premise has been the cornerstone of many unrelated self-help human potential movements that have sprung up over the past 20 years particularly in California.

Burton, the “teacher” of the Fellowship of Friends, is the most recent in a long line of men who have espoused the ideas of Gurdjieff and Ouspensky. What makes Burton’s group different, however, is that it manifests its ideas through a worship of beauty and materialism, much of it displayed in the form of works of art.

Miles Barth, current president of the fellowship, prefers, like Ouspensky, to call it a “system which embraces religion, psychology and philosophy.”

Burton says he studied with Alexander Horn, who in turn was taught by, among others, Rodney Collins [sic]. Collins [sic] had studied with Ouspensky, the ultimate teacher and best known for his books, “In Search of the Miraculous” and “A New Model of the Universe,” in addition to “The Fourth Way.”

Horn once ran the “Theater of All Possibilities,” a bizarre offshoot of Gurdjieff-Ouspensky principles. Based in San Francisco, the theater abruptly closed in late 1978 and Horn left for New York, on the heels of news reports detailing allegations of beatings and possible child abuse within the theater’s company.

There are “Gurdjieff-Ouspensky Centres” – most of them private homes – in Berkeley, Marin County, New York, San Francisco, Chicago, Los Angeles, Paris, London, Frankfurt, Zurich, Copenhagen and Amsterdam.

The fellowship also has centers in Sacramento, Carmel, Santa Barbara, Newport Beach, San Diego, Boston, Philadelphia, Washington, Pittsburgh, Atlanta, New Orleans, Chicago, Portland, Ore., Seattle, Vancouver, Toronto and Mexico City.

Prospective members of the fellowship frequently first learn of the group through advertising bookmarks inserted by followers in the pages of the works by Ouspensky that are found in bookstores. The bookmarks have phone numbers of local Gurdjieff-Ouspensky centers around the world.  - Michael Taylor

The Billy Graham advertisement, with its "Channel 44" is not lost on critics.

Renaissance Can See Itself As Preserver Of Civilization

From Page 13

Trattner was one of the few ex-members who would allow The Chronicle to use his name. Other former members, as well as parents of people who either used to be in the group or still are, feared their past ties with the group would tar their future activities in the outside world, should their names become known.

Burton scoffs at allegations that he is ripping off his students by using their money to buy art that is enjoyed largely by him.

The real estate is now conservatively valued at more than $4 million

“They don’t wish to work hard enough,” he says of his detractors. “But I am not angry with them. This system of philosophy is not for weak minds; and there are not many strong ones.”

And of Jones and his suicide colony in Guyana, Burton says confidently: “Mr. Jones was close to the gates of hell. We would hope we are close to the gates of heaven.”

One distraught mother, however, describes the group as one “that has hurt and exploited sensitive young people who are in problems of one kind or another. The fellowship has been hiding behind a screen that is far more sophisticated and intellectual than the other cults.”

“The trouble with the fellowship,” ex-member Randall Moffett says, “is that they take advantage of people’s imagination. The people who are in to it now are so hypnotized. This is a very sophisticated operation.”

The father of a member told a chilling story. “We have gone through years of hell. Our son joined up, and when he came home for a visit he was an absolute zombie. There was no dialogue between us, and if you asked him about the weather, there was silence. He said it wasn’t important enough to discuss.

“He was always an extrovert,” the father said, his voice cracking, “and now . . it’s all so robot-like.

“I started reading up on cults, and I think what you have here is mind control. I don’t know if it’s illegal, but it’s humanly degrading for one person to do that to another. They suck you in and they get you into one of their indoctrination centers and it’s good-bye, Charlie.”

“It’s the kind of discipline that blocks out any kind of thought,” he said. “It’s so far detached from reality – and I don’t believe those kids are there of their own free will.”

Other ex-members remembered what they saw as a lack of any loose, spontaneous enjoyment of life at Renaissance. “Everything was quite serious; you were there to learn,” one said.

A woman with a graduate degree from Harvard who was a member for nearly two years said she still feels both awe and hatred of Burton and the fellowship.

“We never questioned any of it, the money, the teachings. We were told – and we believed it – that the money was making his environment beautiful for him and at the same time it was refining our tastes. And it really becomes so hypocritical . . . we were told to minimize our relationship with our ‘life’ family (relatives on the outside) and don’t talk to ex-students. But if we had rich parents, we were told to curry their favor.”

Another former student said, “Surrounding ourselves with this breathtaking beauty was actually a way of giving ourselves more energy. We could achieve a higher state of consciousness. But after awhile I thought, maybe he is just ripping everyone off.”

“I said to a close friend, ‘ Do you realize what we’re giving this man? He’s flitting around Europe, buying porcelain.’ And my friend, who is still among the convinced, said, ‘Nobody could pretend something this well.’”

“This was probably the most powerful psychological experience I’ve ever had in my life. But the very hypothesis that teaches you to think also makes you see that the emperor has no clothes,” the former student said.

One of the groups more famous members, actress Laurie Walters of the television series “Eight is Enough,” is still a strong believer.

In a telephone interview from her home in Southern California, Walters said she was attracted to the group because “I realized they were sincere and serious.”

“I realized, before I met them, that I couldn’t change myself by myself, and I had tried several groups – radical theater, Buddhism. My life is very enriched from this group.”

Walters said she comes to the fellowship every four to six weeks and spends a weekend washing dishes, ironing linens and “I go to the dinners, look at the art collection, work in the garden and spend a lot of time talking to my friends.”

“What I want is a higher consciousness, and I feel I get what I pay for.” she said.

According to ex-member Moffett, “Burton used to let rumors leak out that he was the second coming of Christ. ‘These two angels took me out of my body.’ One guy I know said he (Burton) rehearsed that story for months.”

When asked if he thinks he is Jesus Christ, Burton stared for a long moment into the fire flickering warmly a few feet away, then murmured: “Thou sayest it.”

He had chosen the words of his answer from the Bible. That was Christ’s reply (in Matthew 15:2) to Pontius Pilate when asked if he was king of the Jews.

[ed. - A related story about the Oregon House cult:]

"Shelley M." posted the following on the Fellowship of Friends Discussion blog, June 24, 2007 at 6:02 p.m.:
#207 Lust for Life

re my post #199

In 1981 there was an exposé in one of the large London newspapers about RB’s [Robert Burton's] homosexual behavior with students and the Fellowship as a cult. There was a connection between the article and the highly influential parents of a London student named Anne R. [Anne Rodney]. This article came out shortly after the article in the S.F. Chronicle. It caused a wave of “oh mys” in the London center, where Girard and Barbara were directors.

Linda T.R.K. [Tulisso Rockwood Kaplan, currently Linda Kaplan] visited London around that time and we went out to a pub together for a drink. I was telling her how horrible I thought the press was being and how absurd it was that ANYONE would accuse RB of deceiving us. She took pity on me and told me that everything in the article was TRUE. A chasm opened up from under my feet at that moment (wowie wooie, third state!) and the conflict between my experience with synchronicity, my friendships in the fof [Fellowship of Friends] and the politics of the fof was born.

Tuesday, March 31, 1981

March 1981 Notes

"Renaissance Vine" newsletter [summarized]
[ed. - In anticipation of the forthcoming Depression predicted by Robert Burton, the Vine starts recommending occupations for members]
March 28 and 29: Oscar Shumsky [died in 2000]
April 4 and 5: Eudice Shapiro and Brooks Smith
April 18 and 19: Zara Nelsova and Brooks Smith
April 25 and 26: Beaux Arts Trio
1,365 members
Photo: calendar

Other Notes

March 3:
Ed Power, the owner of the Nut Tree,  flies a photographer over Renaissance for aerial photo survey

Saturday, February 28, 1981

February 1981 Notes

Fellowship of Friends Renaissance Vineyard and Winery vineyard slopes 1 and 23 January 1981
The freshly-terraced "Meadows Knoll," January 1981 (Photo: T. Campion)

"Renaissance Vine" newsletter [summarized]
Two Joseph Vernet seascapes purchased
Request that members wear seat belts
March 7 and 8 concert: Lee Luvisi, Piano
1,350 members
Photo: Meadows Knoll with foothills in background

 Other notes

February 27: San Francisco Chronicle correspondent Michael Taylor and photographer Gary Fong visit Renaissance. The report from their visit, "Mystical Cult Prospers – And Stirs Some Fears" would appear in the Chronicle's April 20th edition.

Saturday, January 31, 1981

January 1981 Notes

Fellowship of Friends cult leader Robert Earl Burton's 1981 Mercedes-Benz 380SEL luxury car
The Fellowship purchased a 1981 Mercedes-Benz 380SEL for Robert Earl Burton's travels.

On the advice that it might not be wise for a "pastor" to flaunt his wealth in a chauffeured Rolls Royce, a more modest vehicle was suggested. The Mercedes-Benz 380 SEL sold for only $44,298 at the time.

[ed. - In Oregon at this time, Baghwan Shree Rashneesh's fleet of Rolls Royces was attracting widespread attention and casting cults in an unflattering materialistic light!] 

"Renaissance Vine" newsletter [summarized]
After three-and-a-half years of weekly publication, Renaissance Journal will move to twice-monthly publication.
New task: avoid gossip
The coming depression will last about 1,000 days [Robert's prophecy]
January 17 and 18: La Traviata
January 24 and 25: Pepe and Celin Romero (Spanish guitar)
January 30 and 31: LaSalle Quartet
February 7 and 8: Sydney Harth, violin (died February 11, 2011)
February 13 and 14: Nicanor Zabaleta (harp)(died 1993)
1,370 members
Photo: Swans on Milton Pond

Other Notes

January 5:
Robert departs Renaissance
January 7:
"The Goethe Academy" [later, "The Galleria"] opens for tours
January 22:
 1981 Mercedes-Benz 380 SEL is purchased for Robert. The Rolls Royce was sold/traded.