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.

Sunday, June 23, 1985

Retreat's ruler: Stealer of minds or a superman?

Robert Earl Burton portrait found in Fellowship of Friends teaching houses in 1984
Portrait of Robert Earl Burton commonly found in
Fellowship of Friends "Teaching Houses" in 1984
Sacramento Bee
By Dale Maharidge
Published on June 23, 1985, Page A01

OREGON HOUSE - No one knows what goes on up there, whispers the woman as she points to the hills beyond the dead-end road.

At the end of that winding lane is an unmarked guard shack, beyond which lies the object of her bewilderment - the 1,300-acre worldwide home for a mysterious group called the Fellowship of Friends.

It's a fiefdom ruled by a recluse who uses the group to seduce men into homosexual acts and gain wealth, according to allegations in a $2.5 million lawsuit filed in Yuba County Superior Court.

Robert Burton, 46, has created a "cult-like organization to psychologically hypnotize" people to "satisfy his voracious appetite for sexual perversion and seduce young men into a life of degenerative sexual involvement," according to the suit which alleges fraud. It was filed last year by Samuel L. Sanders, a former member of the Fellowship's board of directors.

The allegations have rocked the group of men and women, who seek elevated consciousness according to the teachings of obscure turn-of-the-century Russian philosophers George I. Gurdjieff and Peter D. Ouspensky.

"There should be a law against stealing your mind," says one former member, and an in-town grocery clerk says there is fear of another Jonestown. But one Yuba County official calls members of the cult "law-abiding citizens doing their own thing."

The lawsuit illuminates this group that reveres secrecy near this remote town in the Sierra foothills about 20 miles northeast of Marysville.

Burton has predicted Armageddon. His followers view their retreat as an "ark" of culture with 44 gods who will protect them in a nuclear holocaust, ex-members have said. Burton calls himself a "god" and an "angel," according to the lawsuit and former members. He feels members are a chosen race superior to ordinary people.

Some at the Fellowship live a lordly existence - the documents say - surrounded by some $10 million worth of splendor.

They strive to enjoy the finest in wine, food, classical music and literature in a setting of rooms decorated grandly with Persian rugs, Steinway pianos and 16th and 17th century art. Everything is terribly proper - some members change their names so they sound of English heritage, no one speaks in contractions, and buildings are kept scrupulously clean.

What is known about the Fellowship was pieced together from interviews with former students, court records and other documents.

Burton and Fellowship leaders have declined to talk or allow a tour. Most members - who call themselves students - won't discuss it, either. Local residents don't know much about the group, though some felt the Fellowship has moved in and taken over the village.

Oregon House, population 420, is the kind of town you've got to work to find. Once you find it, you find there's nothing much here.

As in many foothill towns, residents either are refugees from big cities or were born here and distrust those big cities.

It's a perfect place to build a retreat from the rest of the world. In 1971, Burton and some others did just that - they filed with the state as a non-profit corporation, bought a chunk of property, closed a county road passing through it and called it Renaissance.

A new religion came into being, one less known than others such as Scientology, Hare Krishnas or followers of the Rev. Sun Myung Moon's Unification Church, which were at the peak of popularity at that time.

Some of those religions recruit aggressively. Not the Fellowship. Members are as soft-spoken and low key as their leader, Burton.

The roots of the Fellowship date to the era of revolutionary Russia. Gurdjieff was an eccentric Russian born in the 1870s who once made money by selling live sparrows, dyed and clipped to resemble American canaries. His philosophy was interpreted and expanded upon by Ouspensky.

In essence, it says ordinary humans are not conscious - they are all asleep, even when awake. Only through extensive schooling can people become aware and realize their full potential. The movement became known as "esoteric Christianity."

One of Ouspensky's proteges, Rodney Collins [sic], had a student named Alexander Horn who established a school in San Francisco called "The Theater of All Possibilities." [ed. - Alex Horn was not a student of Rodney Collin.] Burton, a fourth-grade teacher, was Horn's follower in the 1960s but broke off to form the Fellowship.

Burton molded the Fellowship on his belief that the path to spiritual enlightenment can come through the worship of material goods. Burton is called The Teacher. Students believe he is a person of superior evolution.

Although everyone shares the genteel life, lower-level workers commonly put in 18-hour days for meager pay, say ex-members. The work is followed by things such as poetry readings, choir practice and Latin or Greek classes.

As far as "new religions" go, it's not large - some 1,500 members around the world. But many are wealthy, highly educated and work at a variety of normal jobs. There are chapters in about 40 cities - Paris, London and all over the United States. There are roughly 50 students in Sacramento and a dozen or so in Davis. An estimated 275 students live permanently in the Oregon House area.

From a distance, Fellowship holdings in Oregon House don't look like much. On any day, the steady grind of cement mixers drifts off a mountain where the Fellowship constructs a winery to replace the temporary one beneath a huge inflated plastic bubble at the site. Workers appearing the size of ants toil on the steep mountainside where 400 acres of grapes grow.

Dorota Starr stands at the edge of her property, listening to the mixers, looking across a field at Burton's House, an edifice reminiscent of a Victorian-era mansion.

When she joined nine years ago, the Fellowship seemed to her like a good idea. But now it's hard for her to explain how she and others became so involved.

She quit four years ago, saying she realized she had been "brainwashed." She now spends much of her time fighting the group and is local representative of the Citizen's Freedom Foundation, an anti-cult network based in New York.

She lives next door to the Fellowship on property she bought as a member but now no one wants to buy. These days, the only times she sees Burton is when he passes in his Mercedes-Benz. Most of the time, he is travelling in Europe or other places. He is rarely seen in public.

"There is nothing wrong with looking for something," says Starr. "Everyone is looking for something. What is wrong is they exploit people's deepest wishes. Is this illegal? No. But if there's a law against stealing a TV set, there should be a law against stealing your mind."

Sanders' suit, alleging members were defrauded, names the Fellowship and Burton. Sanders says he donated more than $100,000 and is seeking $2.5 million for monetary and psychological damage.

"For a long time we have been part of a criminal process which has hurt many individuals," Sanders wrote in a letter to fellow board members in March 1984.

"He (Burton) has used his position to seduce these young men with the promise of immortality," the letter contained in the suit continues. "We in our blindness have allowed some dear individuals to be defiled and damaged by his appetites. Some of these young men have become seriously psychologically impaired through this process."

Sanders says in the suit he was astounded to learn that many fellow board members "actually aided and abetted such acts." There were no reports of minors being involved. [ed. - That would come later.]

Shortly after the letter was written, Burton threw Sanders out of the church for attempting to "undermine its...spiritual aims," according to the suit.

One Los Angeles member who asked not to be named says several male friends were brainwashed and then seduced.

"A lot of people wanted to be around him," says this member. He would invite them to live with him and then lavish a lot of attention on them, He only likes to seduce straight people."

This ex-member's friends don't want to talk about it. "One friend told me, 'This may take the rest of my life to get over this.'"

One of the Fellowship's attorneys on the case, Robert C. Epley, says he can't talk about the suit because of a gag order issued by Yuba County Superior Court Judge Thomas Mathews. The case is not expected to be heard until late this year. On Thursday, Mathews ruled against a defense motion to dismiss portions of the suit.

"It's not an everyday case," says Epley. "We're opposing it on constitutional grounds - the separation of church and state." Last year, another Fellowship attorney called the suit "the worst type of sensationalism." Neither Sanders nor his attorney would agree to an interview.

Istvan Nadas, a Fellowship member and world-known pianist, doesn't pay much attention to the suit. He first heard of Gurdjieff and Ouspensky while studying at the University if Budapest in Hungary. He now makes his home in Oregon House.

"I am very happy with the philosophy," says Nadas. "The basic philosophy is to prepare people to go into the mainstream of life. It is like a driver's school that teaches you to meld together with traffic on a freeway. It is not life-changing, but life-enhancing.

"The people who are truly educated in the Fellowship, they go for the finest in the arts. I performed the full cycle of (Franz Joseph) Haydn's 52 piano sonatas in eight concerts. This is only the third place in the World where that has been done. Most people don't understand the essence of this philosophy. They interpret it as isolation from humanity."

Burton predicted in a 1983 church journal that the world was entering "a chain of events that will eventually lead to Armageddon" in the year 2006.

"Renaissance is the world's next eternal city," Burton said. "Armageddon will occur in a flash, and in a flash, our new civilization shall rise. We are all that is real in the world when we are present, and we shall be the only reality after Armageddon. We are mortals selected by angels to become like them."

Anne Rodney, who left Renaissance in May and returned to her native London, says, "We were encouraged to feel elite. Burton would say we're not better than other people, just luckier. We were told we were an ark, that we would survive the nuclear war. [ed. - Anne Rodney was reported to have been forcibly deprogrammed at the urging of her parents.]

"We were also told the gods would have an effect on weather and spare the area from nuclear fallout. There were 44 gods working - dead poets, writers and others."

Rodney says she was told there was "nothing out there for us" and that she could never leave.

A mother in Miami, who asked not to be identified, says her daughter left the group a few years ago but mentally has not broken her ties. She says her daughter has "been in an out of mental hospitals ever since."

"My daughter is very sick. She tried to kill herself. I don't know if we'll ever get her out. My daughter said, 'I don't know how to live in this real world.'"

One night says the woman, her daughter was having nightmares. "I heard her scream, 'Robert, help me, Jesus Christ, help me.' This is what he does to them. They do it subtly."

In describing her encounter, a Chicago woman says the Fellowship is soft in its approach.

"I found them through a bookmark in a store. I went to a meeting," says the woman who asked that her name not be used. She belonged to the Chicago branch of the Fellowship based in suburban Evanston. "I thought it was just a bunch of nice people getting together. I thought it was a club.

"It didn't seem heavy and weird at the time. They try to have you apply things to your life. They get you so that all you talk about is them. They aren't a typical cult. They're more philosophical than religious. People in the group are very yuppie, if you want to call them that. It's not a bunch of young kids."

As for Oregon House, some residents say the Fellowship has taken over the town in an equally subtle way. They once tried to change the name of the town to Renaissance, but postal authorities turned them down.

"I feel they've imposed themselves on Oregon house and Yuba County in general," says Donald Storm, a local resident. "These bunch of strangers are messing up my home. They've changed the social fabric of the community. Their lifestyle in a rural county is out of place."

In addition to the Fellowship's core of 1,300 acres, many members own nearby properties so that now there are checkerboard land holdings all over Oregon House - privately owned but Fellowship-related.

"If they ever decided to get into politics, they could have their own person on the Board of Supervisors," says George Deveraux, a member of the board. But the Fellowship has been politically silent.

"They haven't flexed their muscle because there has been no need, " says Storm, 37. "They've gotten what they wanted with the planning department and others. There's been a great deal of favoritism toward them."

The Yuba County Planning Department says there hasn't been favoritism - they've been treated like any other property owner.

"What they do on the hill, I don't know. And I don't care," says Carol Barnett, who works the Oregon House Grocery. "Most people here are afraid of it. They say it's a cult that will end up like Jonestown. As far as I can see, I see no reason to believe it. I think it's a fear of the unknown."

The Fellowship opens itself to inspection by locals. By appointment, it will give tours. Few politicians and residents interviewed have taken the tour.

The Fellowship spends a lot of money locally. "All and all, the total expenditures are...a big boon to the coffers of government and business as well," the Greater Yuba City-Marysville Chamber of Commerce wrote last year. The Chamber reported the group spends about $500,000 in the immediate area each year and another $500,000 in other areas of Northern California.

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