Erin Prophet, Prophet’s Daughter: My Life with Elizabeth Clare Prophet inside the Church Universal and Triumphant. Guilford, CT: The Lyons Press, 2009.
“I am not a prophet, nor am I a prophet’s son …”
But Erin Prophet, whom I had the pleasure of meeting this past September, is the daughter of two prophets–and not just by the accident of her last name. She’s also been a prophet in her own right.
A little over 25 years ago, inspired by a supernatural entity called “El Morya,” Erin proclaimed the disastrous oracle that induced her mother’s “Church Universal and Triumphant” to storehouse a seven-year food supply in their massive bomb shelters so that the faithful might survive the nuclear war they were sure was going to happen in March 1990. In this convulsion of faith and enthusiasm, Erin wasn’t entirely a willing participant. Not, however, altogether unwilling.
She tells the story in her memoir Prophet’s Daughter. Everyone who’s ever pondered the riddle of what it is not only to believe in but to know first-hand the reality of things unseen, and to declare that reality to others, owes it to him- or herself to read this book.
Not just because it’s a great read. Erin is a born storyteller, and her tale carries you spellbound from the first page to the last. But the book’s great virtue lies not in its narrative skill but in the intelligence and compassion that suffuse it.
Like the rest of Elizabeth Clare Prophet’s flock, Erin once venerated her mother as divinity’s representative on earth. She came at last to recognize her as a gravely flawed human being, “ethically challenged” some might say, on the whole more pathetic than tragic. Yet at the same time “Gura Ma,” as she was called, was no Elmer-Gantry style huckster and hypocrite, although often enough she behaved as one.
Erin was no saint either. In her memoir she’s unsparingly honest about her own acts of collusion–not coerced, but not exactly free either–with an often fraudulent and abusive religious system. That’s what makes her testimony so powerful.
The story begins several years before Erin was born, at the end of the 1950s, with the church founded by a forty-year-old Wisconsin native named Mark Prophet. (This was his real name; we can only guess how it influenced him and his family in their choice of vocation.) The church venerated Jesus but wasn’t Christian in the usual sense. A statue of the Buddha adorned its early services, and it fused what Mark Prophet understood as the spiritual traditions of East and West. Its roots were in the “New Thought” of the early 20th century, transmitted through the slightly sinister, fascist-tinged “I AM” movement of Guy and Edna Ballard.
(The Unity church where I worship Sunday mornings is also an offspring of New Thought. I found it a bit disconcerting to come across in Erin’s memoir her parents’ slogan of our being “co-creators” with God, which I first heard from the Unity pulpit.)
Elizabeth met Mark Prophet in 1961 at one of his services. In 1963 she married him. When he died ten years later, she succeeded him in the leadership of the church.
He was the second of her four husbands, although it would be years before she would admit this even to her children. Elizabeth’s powerful sexuality, and her utter inability to acknowledge or accept it, runs like a thread through her daughter’s narrative. No wonder Erin once imagined a past life for her mother in which she’d been “a power-hungry and puritanical queen on Atlantis … begun with good intentions but ended as a tyrant, executing those who broke her moral code.”
“Guru Ma’s” charisma soon eclipsed her late husband’s. Under her the church burgeoned, first in California, afterward in Montana where it would build at her demand—at the cost of some twenty million dollars—what may have been the largest bomb-shelter complex in the world. The bombs, said “Gura Ma,” were soon to come.
In 1985 Elizabeth informed her daughter (whom she declared a reincarnation of Mahatma Gandhi) that it was time for her to begin training as a successor-prophet. Erin, now 19, would gladly have tasted a bit more of the world and the fun it offered. But her mother “made me feel that I was the only one in the universe who mattered to her. And now she was offering me the chance to prove myself, not only to her but to my absent father and all of the mysterious masters.” How could she say no?
She sought a vision. But El Morya, the “ascended master”–the Church Universal and Triumphant had a whole pantheon of these–who once had given Elizabeth her call to the ministry, remained invisible and uncommunicative. Erin never had the gift of hallucination, visual or auditory.
As her apprenticeship proceeded, however, she began “to ‘see’ the spiritual world, not with my two eyes, as I had once imagined it might appear, but as images in my mind.” This was fortunate, or as things turned out horribly unfortunate. For as the 1980s drew to a close and “Guru Ma’s” prophecies took an apocalyptic turn, the once hyper-confident seeress began to lose her nerve.
This, for me, is the most fascinating and instructive part of Erin’s story.
Building the shelters in preparation for the coming nuclear strike, the community’s leaders “came to Mother requesting more specifics from El Morya about what kind of scenario to expect. Mother was unwilling to deny that she was capable of receiving such specifics, and so decided to take it to the altar” for divine guidance.
Which meant, taking it to Erin.
“Mother, how can I be expected to get answers to these questions? I don’t trust myself.”
Nonsense, said Elizabeth. With “the mantles of El Morya and the messenger” over her, Erin could not go wrong.
The young woman still hesitated. “It’s your carnal mind surfacing,” her mother told her. “You need to get into your Christ mind and stop being a Doubting Thomas.”
(At Unity we talk about “Christ consciousness.” I suppose that’s the same thing as our “Christ mind.”)
Putting aside her “carnal mind,” Erin found, “was like walking blindfolded through a Pac-Man maze. … My doubts would come along like Pac-Man ghosts—but the only way I could kill them was not by chasing them as in the game but by ignoring them. ‘Use the Force, Luke.’”
So Erin began to prophesy. She comforted herself that her father’s spirit was with her and would not allow her to stray. She spoke in El Morya’s name while her mother wrote down “his” words. On the absolute authority of the supernatural, the half-willing, half-believing girl answered one momentous question after another.
“How much food should we store? The answer that fell into my head bore symmetry to the Biblical Egyptian storehouses. I said, ‘You should have enough to stay for seven years.’”
Before this, the community had assumed a year’s worth would be enough. Cultivating so much food, building places to store it, was already a daunting task. Now, thanks to Erin’s unlucky association with the Joseph story in Genesis, it was magnified sevenfold. El Morya had spoken; and when the consequences became clear, you couldn’t go back to him and ask if he’d really meant it.
It occurred to Erin that, with these stupendous preparations, the church would be well equipped to survive a nuclear war if it happened. But how would they survive if it didn’t?
The Ides of March 1990, when the first nuclear strike was to happen, came and went. Erin, skilled now in the seer’s craft, gave March 26 as the new “corrected” date. This time the war had to come. If it wouldn’t start on its own, it had to be prayed for.
The scene that follows is horrific. “Beloved Mother Mary,” these spiritual folk pray, “let the right arm of your Son Jesus Christ descend in vengeance for the evils continuing in the earth!” “Blue lightning bombs descend!” Guru Ma cries out, swinging her “sword of the Archangel Michael” through the air. “Blue lightning bombs descend! … Archangel Michael, let the bombs descend!”
Erin writes: “After the drill, few people spoke about what we had done: praying for the destruction of our country. Some tried to say that it never happened but others could not forget.”
Erin was among those who couldn’t forget, or justify or explain away. The Church Universal and Triumphant survived, more humbly and minus the apocalypse; Erin drifted away. The last 30 pages of her memoir tell of her long-delayed entry into the world, her sexual awakening, her struggle toward a new life that honors her charismatic past while acknowledging its plentiful delusion. (She’s currently completing her doctorate in religious studies at Rice University.)
There’s a particularly moving scene of reconciliation with her younger sister Moira, who broke with the church long before Erin did. “We hugged … we reminisced about our growing-up years–how much we loved the community, the almost sacred way the food was prepared, and even the decrees and songs, yet we both hated Mom’s manipulations and the idolatry that surrounded her.”
At the end of the book, speaking of her move to Boston, Erin reflects that this city was a place where her mother
“had lived before she began to be corrupted, a place where I could think of her that way. Sometimes I imagine accosting her former self as she ran to meet my father in 1961. She’s racing along Commonwealth Avenue toward that fateful gathering to hear the messenger Mark Prophet. I pull her arm and beg her to stop.
“‘You don’t know where this is going,’ I say. ‘I know you want to help people, and you will. But you’ll also end up hurting yourself and the people you love. The burden of infallibility will be too much.’ She stops and looks at me searchingly, like a sister. I draw her toward another future, a better use of her talents, and we walk back up the street together, arm in arm. But I know this is a fantasy. In reality, she would have brushed me aside and continued toward her destiny, believing in the power of her intentions.”
Elizabeth Clare Prophet died on October 15, 2009, the year her daughter’s book came out. She could not have a truer, more loving, more honest memorial.
by David Halperin
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