In 1974 Elizabeth Clare Prophet started Church Universal and Triumphant (CUT), which has been called a "cult." It was officially incorporated in 1975.
Her deceased husband Mark Prophet, previously founded the Summit Lighthouse to publish teachings supposedly transmitted from heaven. The couple claimed they were "anointed messengers" for "enlightened beings," that were providing spiritual guidance.
These enlightened beings or "Ascended Masters" included Jesus, Buddha, Saint Germain (formerly Columbus and St. Joseph) and El Morya (formerly Abraham and King Arthur).
Prophet's idiosyncratic theology was an eclectic mix of Christianity and Eastern mysticism, which incorporated beliefs in both karma and reincarnation.
CUT moved from Colorado to Pasadena to Malibu, but eventually ended up in Montana.
CUT finally settled down near the Yellowstone River in the Paradise Valley. In 1986 its founder Elizabeth Clare Prophet persuaded hundreds of her followers to move onto the 12,000-acre Royal Teton Ranch, formerly owned by publisher Malcolm Forbes. The massive property is six miles from Yellowstone National Park and the small town of Corwin Springs.
Prophet continued to claim that she was a chosen channel for "saints in heaven" that were now sending their messages to Montana.
The setting for Prophet's preaching was impressive. She would sit upon a throne-like chair perched on a platform above her audience, beneath portraits of Jesus and Saint Germain. Also on display within the worship building her followers could see displays of Mother Mary, a nativity set, the archangel Michael, Buddha, a statue of the Hindu god Shiva and a copy of the famous World War II photo of the stars and stripes being raised over Mount Suribachi.
One stop shopping for almost any belief with a touch of patriotism.
"It seemed to be all the things I've ever been interested in as far as spirituality," one CUT member told a reporter.
And the group's compound became a kind of self-contained world.
Many members lived in apartments within modular housing on the property. The ranch also has a community cafeteria and preschool. An odd and disjointed collection of portable buildings, trailers and warehouses.
Residents also could be seen wearing color-coded clothing on certain days of the week. And staffers were expected to receive permission from Prophet before marrying.
At its peak CUT controlled 25,000 acres in Park County and the compound had guards posted. And at one point in the 1990s ten percent of the population of Park County (16,000) were CUT members. The group once claimed as many as 200 congregations internationally, including the Summit Lighthouse Study Group of San Diego.
But CUT had a history of problems including disputes with local authorities over everything from a hot-water well to leaking fuel tanks. Former CUT members made repeated complaints about abuse. There were also reports about weapon stockpiles. In 1989, Edward Francis, who was Prophet's husband at the time, plead guilty to conspiring to buy weapons under false names. The next year CUT members went literally underground and lived in bunkers. Prophet predicted that a nuclear attack might be coming and her followers paid thousands of dollars for spaces in a network of fallout shelters. One was large enough to accommodate 750 people.
In 1997 a 58-yea-old Prophet was in the midst of a public relations campaign attempting to change the public perception that CUT was a "cult" according to a San Diego Union-Tribune.
"I want to see our church so open, so wide, and so large and so big in its heart that there's room for everyone," she said.
However, Kathy Schmook a former follower and critic of CUT told a reporter, "Once a cult always a cult."
A local Montana minister agreed with that assessment. "I have observed and watched and listened for years," the Rev. Maynard Mathewson of Paradise Valley Community Church told the San Diego Union-Tribune. "They definitely demonstrate the characteristics of a cult."
"If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it's a duck," John Sullivan, editor and publisher of The Livingston Enterprise said. "Most of the definitions of a cult I've seen are of an organization revolving around a single, unquestioned leader."
"There's been an ongoing problem ever since they got here over whether we can trust what they tell us," the local newspaperman added.
"They've brought development and pollution and crowding to this area," said Julia Page, president of the Upper Yellowstone Defense Fund, an environmental group in Paradise Valley.
"When you criticize CUT, they twist it around and say we're criticizing their beliefs," Page added. "This is America ... we don't criticize beliefs, we criticize behavior."
"I love decrees," the public relations spokesperson gushed to a reporter.
"Decreeing," also called "prayerful chanting" is a central practice of CUT. And it goes on so long that participants bring water bottles for drying mouths and throats. Leaders call out a decree number, participants flip to the right page and begin chanting. For example they may chant "Come, come, come Surya dear, by thy flame dissolve all fear," over and over again. Diction gives way to speed and reportedly an auctioneer would be hard pressed to keep up with the chanting pace of CUT. There are decrees for fear, protection, against journalists, against the Mafia, strikes, layoffs and Communism. And decrees against "those who attack or try to impede" the faith.
One former member demonstrated such a decree for a reporter. As her hand moves through gestures she says, "Smash, blast, annihilate, shatter, dissolve and consume ... "
But one CUT spokesperson nevertheless insisted in 1997, "I think we need to normalize a bit...we're going to lose our image as a cult."
The "normalizing" began when Prophet announced she was turning over "administrative direction" to Gilbert Cleirbaut, a Belgian-born organizational expert. Cleirbaut became president, though Prophet remained the group's spiritual leader and designated "messenger for the Ascended Masters."
Supposed reforms in 1997 included the first-ever democratic church election. And permission was no longer required for dating.
"Some people were completely dependent, 'Just tell me what to do and I will do it,'" Cleirbaut told a reporter. "And that's not very healthy."
CUT revenues dropped almost $1.6 million between 1994 and 1996. During 1997 more than half the CUT staff was laid off. The church sold its farming equipment and closed its elementary school. Cleirbaut, however, attempted to exude confidence. "We want to become a more mainstream organization to reach out to the world," he said.
Prophet told the faithful it was Saint Germain who had decided upon these changes. Germain had supposedly dictated the message through her saying "Let there be a restructuring ... Let us trim the fat."
However, CUT had many disillusioned former members and some spoke out in 1997.
"This is a very destructive organization," said Peter Arnone. "It has hurt many, many people." Arnone began his more than twenty-year involvement in 1970 as a college student, but left near the end of 1992.
When asked by a reporter if CUT is a cult Arnone responded, "Absolutely. You have an individual who is playing God and that's Elizabeth Clare Prophet."
Jan Carlson, who was in the group for a dozen years agreed with Arnone's assessment, "You don't think, you just do. You think you're thinking but you're not thinking." She eventually concluded there was reportedly too much "control," "hysteria" and that Prophet was "bogus."
"You have to be able to stop believing in her (Prophet) before you can get out of the church," Carlson told a reporter.
"I didn't know I was going to end up spending 15 hours a day doing wild decrees, not being able to talk to the opposite sex...that stuff came later," said Harmony Gates another former member that spent six years in CUT.
Arnone, Carlson and Gates followed Prophet from California to Montana. They all told the press that the 1997 claims of reform and change were "a smoke screen."
"I think they're dissolving and trying not to admit it," one said.
CUT had also announced it was selling more than half of its Montana ranch. The proposed deal included 7,850 acres, which would be sold to a conservation group.
But Prophet still wanted to keep her fallout shelters. "Our insurance policy...if something happens, we are prepared," she said.
Even a long-time cult apologist had doubts about CUT.
"Their theology is so different that they'll never be just another denomination," said J. Gordon Melton, who has received funding from groups called "cults" for his research. Melton had been a guest of CUT at its compound several times. "They're always going to be out there on the fringe, so to speak," he said. Note: This news summary is based upon an article titled "New age church wants to go mainstream" by Sandi Dolbee and Philip J. Lavell published by the San Diego Union-Tribune November 12, 1997