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 an ominous, yet unspecified new threat late in 2018.) While non-believers shall perish, through the direct intervention and guidance from 44 angels (including his divine father, Leonardo da Vinci) Burton and his followers will be spared, founding a new, and more perfect civilization.

Many regard Robert Earl Burton a narcissist and sociopath, surrounded by a largely greed- and power-driven inner circle. The following pages offer abundant evidence supporting that conclusion.

This archive draws from official Fellowship publications and websites, news archives, court documents, cult education and awareness forums, the (former) Fellowship Wikipedia page, the long-running Fellowship of Friends - Living Presence Discussion, the Internet Archive, the (former) Fellowship of Friends wiki project, and the editor's own 13-year experience in the Fellowship.

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

Friday, March 9, 2007

Alan Ely's story

"Alan Ely" wrote on the Fellowship of Friends Discussion blog, March 9, 2007:
I was in the Fellowship of Friends from 1974 to 1984. A friend of mine had introduced me to Work ideas several years prior to my joining, and I subsequently purchased a set of Nicoll’s Commentaries… I must have found a bookmark in one of these volumes – probably FOF’s first one gold and orange. After some two years absorbing the Commentaries I felt a need for a School and, with some trepidation attended prospective student meetings. I will never forget one of the directors’ sticking a lighted cigarette in my coffee at the first meeting.

From the outset I was looking more for the Work rather than a Teacher. In fact I found the idea of a Teacher somewhat repellent one reason I never got close to Robert Burton or his “inner circle.” So began for me the round of bi-weekly meetings, marathon drives to Seattle, Mt. Carmel and the Bay Area. Among many intense experiences and impressions I remember one in particular during my first visit to “the ranch.” I was sitting at the foot of the spiral staircase rinsing dishes from a late lunch in the Meissen Room, and while doing so was deeply impressed by the beauty of the peach glow of a late California winter afternoon.

Whenever at the ranch I usually worked in the vineyard, which in those days meant a lot of clearing and burning of manzanita. (I was amused at the comment in one posting that Donald McDonald left the School after he noted that vineyard workers were eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for lunch when Robert and the “inner circle” were enjoying sumptuous meals in the Lincoln Lodge.) They must have fixed this problem before I came on the scene because about every meal I had at Renaissance was excellent and plentiful. Had I not been a vineyard worker I’d have put on a lot of extra weight, to be sure!

One humorous incident – I forget what year – was what I called the “night of the rubber ducks.” Again I was stationed at the foot of that spiral staircase receiving dishes from upstairs. The entrĂ©e plates began to arrive with the ducks intact, uneaten. The Queen of Clubs thought it would have a feast on the deck of the lodge after my duties until I discovered the ducks were inedible and unchewable. Some freak gaffe in the kitchen, I guess. Perhaps some of you out there remember that event.

I moved to the Bay Area from Portland and six months later to Renaissance, becoming a tent dweller for a year and driving to Monday night meetings at the Skyline Church in Oakland. While in FOF I never got to go to Europe, play in an orchestra, do bookbinding or other occupations which I mistakenly envied others for getting to do. But I did enjoy the impressions octave. And the name of the group did reflect the sense of community and friendship to be had. Being a classical music person anyhow, I had little difficulty with that aspect. Except I did become tired hearing St. Matthew’s Passion, Magic Flute and Schubert’s “A Deer on the Rock” or whatever the name of that particular art song is.

At one point I played maitre d’ in the Lincoln Lodge, lasting six months in that octave. It was a relief to get back to the slopes after that! I did associate with a lot of fine people who were earnest about the Work and made some good friends. But I could observe the posturing and acts of “serious” students, including my own, that were among the more repugnant aspects of FOF. In 1978 I was requested by Linda Kaplan – perhaps at RB’s suggestion — to move to Minneapolis to help out with the center there. Not a prime travel destination, but I would not trade that three years for anything. Great cultural life there, good second-line work, and challenging weather.

About five years out from leaving FOF I had an emotional experience a conversion?– upon reading the Passion account in one of the Gospels. From then on I began reading the New Testament as well as other works on Christianity, notably the Imitation of Christ and Practice of the Presence of God. I increasingly realized that I was seeking something that was lacking in the Fellowship was it joy, love? We were often told that man was incapable of love until he became conscious. I have since learned from studying Kierkegaard in particular that love is often a matter of the will, to begin with. And that by making that effort to love regardless or whether or not the emotional sense followed can lead to heightened awareness.

It took almost four years after returning to the west coast from the Twin Cities before I left the Fellowship. My motives for doing so were mixed: the payments were becoming quite onerous, I increasingly perceived rigidity in the FOF, experienced friction with the current center directors, could not keep the no-smoking exercise (I’d become a closet pipe smoker!), and was just drifting spiritually. The first two years out were a rough patch in several aspects. I eventually joined a church in my new neighborhood, became baptized and made some new friends. Though this church was conservative, the “discipling,” as evangelicals call it, by the pastor was attentive, and I acquired a foundation in the Scriptures and the Christian life.

I got back on track with steady employment at the regional convention bureau and eventually met and dated my to-be future wife. I currently work in an administrative capacity at the local university, we go to a Methodist (!?!) church and are homeowners. We’ve taken trips to Hawaii, Alaska and the East Coast, and I’ve also traveled to China, Cambodia and the post-Katrina Gulf Coast. I’m also rather proud of the fact that I took up playing the cello at age 44, and play in recitals and in a community orchestra. (Take that, RB!)

In 1997 my wife Barbara and I went on a driving vacation to California (I’d not even been to that altered state since leaving FOF 13 years prior). During the trip I signed up for a tour of “Apollo.” I was incognito for the most part – except for one student at the Oregon House store who recognized me. I even “self-remembered” outside the Town House on the shore of Lake Nancy. The palm trees and garden at the Goethe Institute; manicured baseball/soccer playing field below the winery; and the bronze statue of Carl Werner. What a head trip! I bought two cases of wine – one was one of the early Leonardo da Vinci bottlings. Pretty strong stuff! I told people that a part of me was in those bottles. The Renaissance sauvignon blanc was excellent, however, and their other vintages are eminently drinkable. I guess no matter what one thinks of Robert Burton or the FOF they certainly have something going there. It takes some kind of charisma to marshal that kind of energy over a period of some 35 years. Even though things became disturbingly twisted.

The idea of, and desire for, self-remembering has never completely gone away for me. About two years ago I started reading Workbooks again (especially Maurice Nicoll), and actually made it entirely through All and Everything for the first time. And reading Rodney Collin’s Theory of Celestial Influence again is awe-inspiring. No church will ever be complete for me – though for awhile I studied and seriously considered converting to Eastern Orthodoxy. Christianity is foremost a way of love, of devotion, and its congregational form has never come easy to me, a head person. I have yet, I suppose, to take Kierkegaard’s leap of faith “into the 70,000 fathoms.”

Thanks, Sheik, for the privilege of posting this – and to Ralph for pointing this site out. May I commend several sites that have been helpful to me of late:

Praxis Research Institute
Robin Amis’ group, connecting 4th Way ideas with early Christianity. He’s the author of A Different Christianity and presenter of Mouravieff’s Gnosis in English.
New Life Foundation
Presents the teachings of Vernon Howard – many obviously derived from the 4th Way. Breezy, Queen of Hearts atmosphere but nonetheless valuable articles and podcasts.
Spiritual Journeys Teachings Run by a former student, Ted Nottingham. This is especially a fine group to subscribe to, with incisive podcasts on the meaning of the parables and the spiritual life.

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