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.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Deadly Cults: The Crimes of the True Believers (excerpt)

Fellowship of Friends leader Robert Burton and his "boys"

[ed. - Also see "Dr. Robert J. Lifton on Destructive Cults."]

"Bares Reposting" wrote on the Fellowship of Friends Discussion blog:
Excerpt from Deadly Cults: The Crimes of True Believers, Chapter 11
Other Cults:
“It’s all very stimulating stuff in the beginning . . . ,” said a former member of the Fellowship of Friends in a 1996 Los Angeles Times article. “But there’s no doubt it’s a cult. Our lives were totally controlled.”(1)
Is this man talking about a cult formed around a wild-eyed guru who preaches that all members should embrace poverty and the simple life? Is he talking about a cult that rejects all worldly pleasures, and whose members spend their days praying, chanting, or meditating?
Hardly. According to reports in several California newspapers, the Fellowship of Friends is a pleasure- and consumer-oriented cult. Founded in 1971 by former schoolteacher Robert Burton, the Fellowship of Friends believes that true spiritual awakening can only come through experiencing the finest things life has to offer: fine food, fine wine, great art, great writers, great music. In his book Self Remembering, Burton stresses “the education and discipline of the emotions, the importance of living in the present, a love of beauty, and an understanding of its capacity to create higher awareness.”(2)
True to his beliefs, Burton, who lived out of his car before founding the Fellowship of Friends, has built a lavish mansion, which he named Apollo, in the style of a French chateau on a 1,300-acre estate in the northern California Sierra foothills. There, among terraced hills supporting a vineyard that produces award-winning wines, the members of the Fellowship of Friends can come and study under a man whom they believe to be both spiritually advanced and a prophet.
Burton, who claims he is guided by 44 angels, including Benjamin Franklin, Jesus, and Plato, is believed by members of the Fellowship of Friends to be near godlike and also privy to information from “higher sources.” As a result of his claimed direct contact with these angels and higher sources, Burton predicted that an earthquake in 1998 would swallow up all of California, except for Apollo. He has also predicted that a nuclear holocaust will destroy most of world in 2006, but again spare Apollo, which will then become the center of the movement to reestablish civilization in the post-holocaust world.
While his prediction of a California-swallowing earthquake, of course, didn’t come true, this didn’t humble Burton. He carries on as though he’d never made a mistake. Like most cult leaders, Burton either ignores or attempts to rationalize his mistakes, while also attempting to control every aspect of his followers’ lives. Within the Fellowship of Friends, this control includes regulating the members’ sex lives and diets, ordering them to abstain from any form of negativity, and even directing them to abstain from the use of certain common words, such as I or thing. Burton has also forbidden members to dye their hair, have mixed-breed pets, ride bicycles, or smoke. Smoking, incidentally, is so strenuously outlawed that Burton has instructed cult members to sniff when greeting each other to catch renegades. Burton fined one couple $1,500 each for violating the no-smoking rule. One former member of the Fellowship of Friends claimed that the cult leaders, besides barring him from having sex with his girlfriend, also ordered him to urinate only on the side of the toilet so as to make less noise. While most Fellowship of Friends members have jobs and homes, Burton discourages members from mingling or socializing with people outside the Fellowship, including family, whom Burton sees as “spiritually dead.”
The leadership of the Fellowship of Friends doesn’t see these constraints as brainwashing, however. “The Fellowship does not engage in brainwashing,” said Girard Haven, a member of the group’s board of directors. “We may have a charismatic leader and strong feelings about higher forces and our own spirituality, but we know what we are doing. We are not doing it blindly.”(3)
Unlike many cults, though, the Fellowship of Friends doesn’t recruit from the masses, but instead recruits mainly from groups of well-educated and well-heeled individuals. New recruits are often located after Fellowship of Friends members go to bookstores and plant Fellowship of Friends’ bookmarks in selected metaphysical books that reflect the beliefs of the cult. Prospective members who respond to the telephone number on the bookmark are invited to attend lavish dinners at expensive homes. Only after being appraised by Fellowship of Friends members can prospective recruits be invited to join the cult, whose membership includes many doctors, lawyers, artists, and musicians.
Recruiting well-heeled members certainly paid off. In the late 1990s, the Fellowship of Friends had 65 centers around the world (in late 2003, their Web site, which is translated into 10 languages, states that they now have only 30 centers) and employed approximately 500 people. The group’s overall worth in the late 1990s was estimated at $26 million, while Burton’s annual salary was at least $250,000. Many of the Fellowship of Friends’ employees work at the cult’s winery, which is located on their property in northern California. According to recent news articles, the Fellowship of Friends produces 25,000 cases of wine a year, which is reported to be of high quality.
Along with the winery, the Fellowship of Friends has its own collections of fine art and rare literature, as well as its own opera company, orchestra, theater troupe, and museum. In addition, Burton has decorated the mansion at Apollo with expensive antiques and paintings. One of Burton’s favorite sayings is, “Beauty creates its likeness in those who pursue it.”(4)
Because of all these expensive possessions, belonging to the Fellowship of Friends is naturally very costly. The cult requires members to tithe 10 percent of their incomes, while wealthy members pay much more, in special assessments, to enable the Fellowship of Friends to purchase sculpture, paintings, rare books, antiques, and other items that will “lift the spirituality” of the cult members. The annual income of the Fellowship of Friends in the mid-1990s exceeded $5 million.
However, all is not rosy for the Fellowship of Friends. In recent years, large numbers of its members have been leaving, causing a serious cash flow problem. The trouble began for the Fellowship of Friends in 1995 when a cult member sent an open letter to the membership accusing Burton of sexually seducing him. He said Burton brainwashes members into a state of “absolute submission,” allowing him to feed a “voracious appetite for sexual perversion.”(5)
Following this disclosure, other male members came forward with similar accusations, including the cult’s former financial officer, who said he felt pressured to join Burton’s male harem.
“They don’t see it coming, and when it comes, they don’t know what’s happened,” said Charles Randall about Burton’s aggressive homosexual advances toward Fellowship of Friends members.(6)
Another male member of the cult who also claimed Burton aggressively pressured him into having sex said, ”I had never had a homosexual encounter before this. But he [Burton] told me it was the wish of C-influence (the group’s term for higher forces, or gods) that I have sex with him.”(7) At all-male dinners hosted by Burton, members say he has been known to boast that “one hundred boys would not be enough [for his sexual appetite].”(8)
To these charges, Burton’s attorney has responded, “We don’t think a [sexual] relationship between a leader and a member of the congregation is abusive in and of itself.”(9) However, two lawsuits filed by former Fellowship of Friends members claiming sexual abuse have been settled out of court.
Former Fellowship of Friends officials who have left the cult also aren’t kind in their evaluation of Burton and his organization. “The Fellowship is a dictatorship, a predatory dictatorship,” said Thomas Easley, an artist and former leader who left the cult after a homosexual relationship with Burton. “I should know. I was a leader.”(10)
Former Fellowship of Friends financial officer Charles Randall said, “I thought it was the one true way, but as it turns out, it was just a cult.”(11)
The point to the preceding anecdote is that a cult can be formed around almost any belief or philosophy. Also, this anecdote shows that, to succeed, a cult doesn’t have to be aimed at the uneducated, the emotionally challenged, or the poor. As shown by both the Fellowship of Friends and the Solar Temple (discussed in the previous chapter), cults can also attract well-educated, wealthy, and seemingly mentally competent people. All that’s needed is a charismatic leader who followers believe has some type of special insight, some type of special knowledge unknown to the rest of the world, or some type of special direct pipeline to God or ascended beings. To attract followers, the cult leader then offers to share this information or knowledge with cult members. This belief in the leader’s gift quickly becomes a strong magnet that pulls people in because gaining this insight or knowledge from the cult leader, members believe, will make them part of an elite group who are a step above regular human beings.
This special insight of the cult leader, incidentally, doesn’t have to be only knowledge gained through conversations with spirits, ghosts, or God. Some cults can be formed because followers believe that their leader has a special insight into how to make the world a better place. . .
Chapter 11 Notes:
1. Jenifer Warren, “Trouble Taints a Cerebral Sanctuary,” Los Angeles Times (November 4, 1996), p. A1.
2. Katherine Seligman, “Yuba Church or Cult?” San Francisco Examiner (October 12, 1997), p. 1A.
3. Ibid.
4. Warren, “Trouble Taints a Cerebral Sanctuary.”
5. Ibid.
6. Gordon Smith, “Wave of Resignations and Expulsions Following Open Letter,” San Diego Union-Tribune (March 16, 1995), p. 1.
7. Gordon Smith, “In the Name of Religion,” San Diego Union-Tribune (March 15, 1995), p. 1.
8. Seligman, “Yuba Church or Cult?”
9. Smith, “Wave of Resignations and Expulsions Following Open Letter.”
10. Seligman, “Yuba Church or Cult?”
11. Smith, “In the Name of Religion.”
Deadly Cults: The Crimes of True Believers
Robert L. Snow
Copyright © 2003
Praeger Publishers
ISBN: 0–275–98052–9

1 comment:

  1. No wonder my brother in law won't write back to me when I send him emails. The guy is always talking about being in the present and acts like he knows everything about fine wine.. He is apparently, a kook. Hope he doesn't bend over in the shower.

    ReplyDelete