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, March 12, 1995

"In the name of Religion" - First of two parts

[ed. - Material for this article and that of March 13, 1995 comes from two sources: culteducation.com and olsufiev.com.]



A religious group is rocked by allegations of sexual impropriety by leader Robert Burton
By Gordon Smith
Staff writer
San Diego Union-Tribune
March 12, 1995
Oregon House, Yuba County - To anyone driving the two-lane roads that wind through the foothills of one of California's poorest counties, the international headquarters of the Fellowship of Friends - one of the state's most unusual and controversial religious groups - comes as a shock.

Mile after mile of mobile homes and aging ranch houses, tucked into the forests of oak and pine some 50 miles north of Sacramento, suddenly give way to this: 1,300 acres of rolling hillsides and dazzling vineyards.

The Fellowship produces wine as part of an esoteric belief that observing refined traditions can help lead to spiritual enlightenment. Its award-winning winery has been the subject of flattering articles in Sunset and Los Angeles Times magazines.

But a growing number of former members - including some who served on the group's board of directors - say the Fellowship's practices are those of an exploitive cult.

These practices and the group's convoluted philosophy are used, they say, to support founder and leader Robert Burton's penchant for traveling worldwide, collecting expensive artwork and having frequent sex with a virtual harem of male members.

Most of the critics emphasize they are offended not by Burton's homosexuality, but by what they contend is the use of his position of power to have sex with dozens of members, most of them heterosexual men.

Wave of resignations and expulsions following a member's open letter
Charles Randall, the Fellowship's former business manager, noted that Burton is known within the group as the Teacher and is revered for having extraordinary knowledge and spirituality. Thus, many members don't anticipate having sex with him, and feel awkward resisting any sexual interest that he expresses, Randall said.

"They don't see it coming, and when it comes, they don't know what's happened," he said.

Wave of leave-taking

Randall resigned last fall, part of a wave of resignations and expulsions of longtime members in the group that occurred in the wake of an open letter written by member Richard Laurel to the rest of the Fellowship.

The letter- circulated widely among members and former members-told how Burton performed oral sex on Laurel one night after asking Laurel to give him a massage. It led to a similar open letter by another man in the group.

Burton-tall, handsome, described by many as alternately charming and intense -did not respond to repeated requests to be interviewed for this article.

"It's just his policy not to make public statements," said Abraham Goldman, Burton's attorney.

Goldman said Burton had sexual relationships with both Laurel and the other member who circulated a letter last fall, but said the relationships were consensual.

"We don't think a (sexual) relationship between a leader and a member of the congregation is abusive in and of itself," he added.


Meanwhile, Cynthia Hill, the Fellowship's director of public relations, denied that the group is a cult.

"People leave all the time, so if we are 'brainwashing' people, we are certainly not very good at it," she said.

But Margaret Singer, a professor emeritus of psychology at UC Berkeley who has counseled thousands of former cult members, including people from the Fellowship, said the group has all the hallmarks of a cult.

"It was started by one man, who gets followed and adored like cult leaders do," she said.

"It's just that this group has upper-class manners. And most people expect cults to be youth-oriented, rather than full of grown-ups."

Singer said cults are increasingly targeting mature adults, who tend to have better sources of income than youths.

And the groups are proliferating, she added-particularly in California.
"There are more cults today than there were during Jonestown," said Singer, referring to the infamous mass suicide of more than 900 members of the Rev. Jim Jones' People's Temple in Guyana in 1978. "People are catching on how easy it is to manipulate other people."

Randall said that's exactly what Burton does. The Teacher even promises that Fellowship members will somehow re-civilize the world after a catastrophic earthquake and nuclear holocaust.

"Most of the people I know in the Fellowship were walking around with a hole in their heart where religion should have been," Randall said.

"And that's right where they got hooked."

It starts with bookmarks tucked into selected works in metaphysical bookstores around the world. The bookmarks-diligently planted by members of the Fellowship of Friends-bear small portraits of George Gurdjieff, a Greek-Armenian philosopher who died in 1950, and Peter Ouspensky, a Russian journalist who became Gurdjieff's student in the early part of this century.

Next to the portraits are phone numbers for nearby Gurdjieff-Ouspensky "centers." There are about 40 of these centers around the world, including one in San Diego. Most are rented houses staffed by half a dozen or so members of the Fellowship.

People who call up are invited to a series of three introductory meetings at which center leaders present some of the arcane theories of Gurdjieff and Ouspensky, along with the notion of seven fundamental "body types" that supposedly provide broad insight into human psychology.

Afterward, the curious can either join or not. Those who do join agree verbally to give 10 percent of their income to the group.

But Joel Friedlander, an author and former teacher and spokesman for the Fellowship who resigned last year, charged that the group's recruitment process is deceptive.

Friedlander's book, "Body Types," is one of those that Fellowship members target with their bookmarks. He said it has become a hobby of his to visit metaphysical bookstores and take the bookmarks out.

The bookmarks "use the aura of Gurdjieff and Ouspensky to entice people to call up," Friedlander said.

"But the group has virtually nothing to do with the Gurdjieff system ... it's basically Robert Burton's ideology grafted onto a Gurdjieff base."

Gurdjieff and Ouspensky, he pointed out, never talked about body types.

"There are more cults today than there were during Jonestown. People are catching on how easy it is to manipulate other people."
Margaret Singer, UC Berkeley
They likewise didn't talk about 44 angels-also called higher forces, or "C influence" - that Burton claims he communicates with personally, and who supposedly watch over the Fellowship. The angels include Jesus, Plato Goethe, Benjamin Franklin and Abraham Lincoln.

Another deceptive thing about the introductory meetings, according to Randall, is that "they don't explain that you're going to be heavily indoctrinated with the idea that you better never leave" the group.

Only through Burton

Members are told they can have a relationship with C influence only through Burton, and that if they leave the Fellowship their spiritual progress will end and their friends who are members will never talk to them again, Randall said.
Goldman, Burton's attorney, said that when Friedlander and Randall left the Fellowship, they told Burton how much they appreciated him and how much they had gained from his teaching.

"It's not an uncommon thing, when people have been in a religious group like this and have devoted the better part of their adult lives to it, that they see things differently and say something very different (after) they leave," Goldman said.

As for Burton's ideas about C influence, public relations director Hill said the group believes higher forces are working with it, but that members have great freedom and diversity in interpreting what that means.

The group's philosophy "is not just somebody's idea about something," she insisted, but an expansion and interpretation of the teachings of Gurdjieff and Ouspensky, which in turn were based on ancient spiritual traditions.

Nevertheless, Girard Haven, who recently resigned as president of the Fellowship but remains a key leader, noted: "We believe Mr. Burton is a (fully) conscious being, and has an understanding that we do not have. He's a very active force in directing and providing guidance."

That guidance includes the prediction that California will be stricken by a massive earthquake in 1998, followed by a nuclear war in 2006-yet another idea that isn't presented to prospective members until after they have committed themselves to joining the Fellowship.

"Our position as a group is that we are preparing these things, although we don't know if they will actually happen," Haven said.

"I would discourage people from setting a great deal of faith in it. And yet it is realistically a possibility, and we can see that Mr. Burton understands things that we don't understand."

In this doomsday scenario, the Fellowship will preserve the world's fine art and culture through the divine intervention of C influence. A new civilization will sprout at the group's Yuba County headquarters.

"Burton talks about it all the time," said Randall. "He's even talked about being able to get the Mona Lisa after the holocaust. What you read in the Gurdjieff and Ouspensky books becomes a doomsday theory."

Burton also predicted a worldwide economic collapse in 1984. While some members may not have set a great deal of faith in it, former member Charles Preston recalls being advised to buy 100-pound sacks of rice at the time and store them as a hedge against the coming global depression.

The collapse never took place, of course. But some members of the group found their faith shaken even further later that year, when a prominent member of the group, Samuel Sanders, filed suit against Burton and the Fellowship.

In charges remarkably similar to those leveled by Richard Laurel last fall, Sanders said that after nine years in the group, he was dismayed to discover that Burton regularly had sex with numerous male members.

In fact, Burton manipulated the beliefs and assets of the entire membership in order to satisfy his own "voracious appetite for perverted sexual pleasure and elegant lifestyle... ," the lawsuit alleged.

Former Fellowship board member Carl Mautz was one of the lawyers who helped defend the group in the long, bitter court battle that followed.

"When Sanders said that he had been brainwashed, we looked down at him and said, 'You (jerk),'" Mautz recalled not long ago.

"But he was right"

Fellowship Founder Robert Burton
'The Teacher' who predicts a holocaust

By Gordon Smith
Staff Writer

The Fellowship of Friends has been recognized by the state and federal governments as a tax-exempt, nonprofit religious corporation since 1971.
In other words, it's a church.

About the only thing required to obtain that status is to hold regular meetings and have a statement of religious purpose, said Judith Golden, a spokeswoman for the Internal Revenue Service.

"You don't apply to be a church. You're a church" if you say you are, she said.

The Fellowship, in its unorthodox way, says it is.

Founder and leader Robert Burton, 55, earned a bachelor's degree in elementary education from San Jose State College in 1963. He taught elementary school in Lafayette and for the Emeryville Unified School District in the San Francisco Bay Area before studying the writings of various philosophers on his own.

He also attended a Quaker church in Berkeley off and on during the mid-1960s, which may have eventually inspired the name for his Fellowship of Friends.

In 1968, Burton became captivated-along with a number of other Bay Area residents-by the works of George Gurdjieff and Peter Ouspensky.

In the first half of this century, the two men developed a complex philosophy called the Fourth Way that revolves around the core idea that people are spiritually "asleep."

Acquiring true consciousness, they argued, requires diligent "self remembering"-a concept often likened to the Buddhist philosophy of concentrating on the present moment.

Another key is to refrain from expressing negative emotions, which waste energy and distract from spiritual pursuits, they said.

In 1970, Burton convinced a small coterie of acquaintances in Contra Costa County that he was a "man No.5"-defined by Ouspensky as a self-conscious being-possessed of higher knowledge and emotions than most people.

The group quickly attracted other believers, all of whom gave monthly fees to Burton as their teacher.

The Fellowship incorporated in 1971 and, that year, purchased property in Yuba County near the tiny community of Oregon House. By 1973 members were clearing land, planting vines and starting construction of an enormous winery there.

About 600 of the Fellowship's 1,900 members now live at or near this property, known as Apollo. Many others operate "centers"-usually a rented house staffed by half a dozen or so members-in major cities throughout the United States, Europe and Latin America.

Most give 10 percent of their income, in the form of monthly fees, to the group. Members are also often asked to make additional special donations for the purchase of sculptures, paintings and other works of fine art which they believe uplift the human spirit and help in "self remembering".

The average contribution for American members is $5,000 a year, according to the group's former business manager, Charles Randall, who resigned last October.

Foreign members-who have increased steadily in number and now comprise a majority of the group-tend to earn less and thus contribute less, but even so, the FeIlowship's total annual income from monthly dues and donations is about $4 million, Randall said.

None of that money is taxable and, since the Fellowship has legal status as a religious organization, it need not be reported to the IRS, Golden said.

The group includes many college-educated professionals, from doctors and lawyers to musicians and artists. They meet once a week at Apollo to discuss ideas on which the Fellowship is founded, with particular emphasis on their practical application," said Girard Haven, who stepped down as the group's president recently, but is still a key leader.

From time to time, Burton- known by members as the Teacher - has also decreed some unusua1 rules, or "exercises," for his flock.

No swimming. No joking. No smoking.

Until 1993, homosexuality was banned, although Burton himself is a homosexual who frequently has sexual relationships with members.

Formal dinners at which everyone wears tuxedos or gowns are held regularly. Lavish parties have been thrown to celebrate Burton's gradual spiritual advancement to a "fully conscious being."

The Teacher also predicts California will be destroyed in an earthquake in 1998, followed by a worldwide nuclear holocaust in 2006. But Apollo and Fellowship members wil1 be spared, he says.

In an interview with the San Francisco Chronicle in 1981-one of the few interviews Burton has ever granted-he was asked if he thought he was Jesus Christ.

"Thou sayest it," Burton replied - Christ's words to Pontius Pilate upon being asked if he was the king of the Jews.

About 200 members work at Apollo, doing everything from administrative work to gardening. They are paid a stipend of $300-$400 a month, with food provided by the Fellowship.

Meanwhile, Burton is paid about $250,000 a year in salary and benefits, according to Randall, and spends much of his time traveling to research art and teach at the group's centers around the world.

At various times the Fellowship has collected Meissen china and European Renaissance paintings. It owns a collection of about 130 pieces of finely crafted Chinese hardwood furniture from the 17th and 18th centuries.

The pieces range from desks to beds, with some valued as much as $100,000.

The Fellowship also makes wine under the label of Renaissance Vineyard and Winery.

Renaissance's late-harvest Riesling and Sauvignon Blanc, both dessert wines, have won international awards and have been poured for the Prince of Wales, former President George Bush and other world leaders. The winery has a capacity of 40,000 cases of wine a year and currently produces mostly Cabernet Sauvignon and Sauvignon Blanc.

All of that makes for an unusual religious organization, to be sure. But Golden said the IRS launches an inquiry into a church "only if we have a reason to suspect it is not fulfilling a religious purpose."

For the most part, she said, "A church is a church is always a church."

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