Introduction


Presented in reverse chronology, this history stretches from the present back to the Fellowship's 1970 founding, and beyond.
(See "Blog Archive" in the sidebar below.) It draws from many sources, including The Fellowship of Friends - Living Presence Discussion, the Internet Archive, the former Fellowship of Friends wiki project, cult education and awareness sites, news archives, and from the editor's own 13-year experience in the Fellowship.

The portrait that emerges stands in stark contrast to sanitized versions presented on the Fellowship's array of
alluring websites, and on derivative sites created by Burton's now-estranged
disciple, Asaf Braverman.

Monday, April 20, 1981

Mystical Cult Prospers – And Stirs Some Fears

"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."


Robert Earl Burton, leader of Fellowship of Friends in Oregon House, CA, San Francisco Chronicle story
Robert Burton, leader of the Fellowship of Friends, with one of his valuable paintings

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

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 fond 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 theacher, 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 impression,” 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,

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 tht 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. Collins 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

“is incredible.”

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 we 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 [blog post and blogger]

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 and the politics of the fof [Fellowship of Friends] was born.

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