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Its 'Mother' dead, doomsday sect's future in doubt

Associated Press/November 6, 2009

By Matthew Brown

Bozeman, Montana - Members of a Montana-based sect whose influence expanded as it prepared for a nuclear holocaust that never came, now search for new directions after the death of Elizabeth Clare Prophet - "Mother" to her thousands of followers.

The Church Universal and Triumphant still keeps its 750-person underground shelters stocked with food - "insurance," its leaders say, against possible dark days ahead.

Yet with Prophet gone, it's uncertain the spiritual movement she embodied will prove as lasting as all the concrete and steel hidden beneath a Montana mountainside north of Yellowstone National Park.

"You had a clear figurehead that became the focus of the organization, the object of adoration. When that's suddenly removed it throws people into a tailspin," said Robert Balch, a University of Montana sociologist specializing in cults and unconventional religions.

In the waning days of Prophet's reign as the church's divinely chosen messenger, its focus shifted from civilization's end to the development of a New Age publishing juggernaut, producing hundreds of books and recordings drawn from Prophet's mystical declarations.

After a decade-long decline caused by Alzheimer's disease, Prophet died last month at age 70 - setting off what Balch called a "crisis of succession" over who will take her place.

As her followers convene at the church's sprawling Corwin Springs compound this weekend for a three-day memorial gathering, the struggle to lay claim to Prophet's legacy already has begun.

Within days of her death, former church member David Lewis announced he had channeled Prophet's spirit.

Like Prophet, Lewis claims the ability to channel Jesus, Buddha and more obscure spiritual figures such as St. Germain and El Morya.

Church leaders have denounced him.

Since Prophet fell ill, at least 15 people have stepped forward claiming to be the next messenger, said Neroli Duffy, who sits on the church's 24-member council of elders. None has met with council approval.

"We're moving ahead," Duffy said Thursday. "She didn't necessarily think there would be another messenger."

Prophet led the church since the 1973 death of her second husband, Mark Prophet, who founded the church's parent organization, The Summit Lighthouse, in 1958.

The couple preached that one's soul progresses through a series of earthly incarnations. His past lives were said to have included Aesop, Lancelot and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Hers included Nefertiti, Queen Guinevere of Camelot and Marie Antoinette.

Soon after her husband died and became an "ascended master," Elizabeth Prophet began to channel his holy dictations. Over the next two decades she attracted an estimated 50,000 followers around the world.

Melding mysticism, Christianity and Eastern religions with strong doses of patriotism and self-sufficiency, she promised adherents a newfound path toward personal enlightenment.

Yet long before Elizabeth Prophet's death, Balch and others who tracked her career saw her power base beginning to crumble.

The grip she held over her followers first began to loosen after her doomsday predictions went unrealized in 1990.

As the church's membership dwindled, she cut back its staff from an estimated 700 workers to fewer than 100. Thousands of acres of church property in Montana's Paradise Valley were sold to bring in extra income.

Prophet's five children - including two daughters once groomed as heirs - have since abandoned the church. Others who claim to be the next messenger, including Lewis, are regarded as charlatans by her more fervent followers.

Church leaders contend that Prophet - the tie that binds the faith's disparate religious and historical elements - lives on through 22,000 hours of video and audio recordings of her teachings.

The tapes and other material are stacked on pallets inside the bomb shelters on the grounds of the Royal Teton Ranch, the church's 7,000-acre Montana compound. Less than half has been transcribed or edited. Church leaders said it will be released gradually in coming years.

Church president Valerie McBride would not reveal the size of the church's membership except to say it was in "the thousands" and has spread recently across parts of South America and Russia.

Prophet's oldest daughter, Erin, said her mother's power and influence peaked in the late 1980s during the "shelter cycle," when preparations for the coming Armageddon were at their height.

Members of the church today appear chagrined by those events, which sparked a federal investigation into weapons amassed by Prophet's followers. They contend Prophet's warnings never carried a fixed date.

At a family memorial service for Prophet, her daughters described their mother as a commanding presence consumed by her role as spiritual leader. She once told her children that if they wanted to spend time with her, they would have to watch her work.

"I think what my mom did on balance was positive for the world," said daughter Tatiana Prophet, an office manager and aspiring musician in Los Angeles. "But people who still believe she's a perfected being, that's really hard for me."

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