Friday, October 31, 2014

The Church of the Most High Goddess

WARNING: Article below contains explicit material on sexuality and controversial spiritual practices

The Church of the Most High Goddess sought to revive the sacred-sexuality
 of Ancient Egypt 

Sometimes for new religions, timing is everything.

Appear too early or too late on the spiritual scene, and you might get totally ignored. Or worse still, be persecuted into obscurity or oblivion.

Perhaps if the Church of the Most High Goddess had emerged in 1967 instead of 1987, it might have been fondly remembered as just one of the self-consciously outrageous sects that shook American Puritanical sensibilities during the countercultural explosion.

Perhaps if it had appeared in 2007, it might have joined the erotic-freedom wing of the Goddess Spirituality movement, and been treated like any other quasi-Tantric or “sacred-sex” group.

It was Mary Ellen and Will Tracy’s misfortune to have formed their latter-day Temple of Sacred Prostitution in the late 1980s – too late to share the hippie-culture cachet of sex-sects like the Psychedelic Venus Church, but too early for “Third Wave feminism” and its message of divine female empowerment through sexuality.

During its brief life, the Church of the Most High Goddess managed to promote the sex-based worship of a feminine Deity via national-TV talk shows, initiate an estimated 2,000 worshippers into its erotic mysteries, and start a genuine legal and theological debate about how far one could stretch the First Amendment protections in the name of religious freedom. But it lost its battle to survive, and became yet another defunct Californian ecclesiastical curiosity, a victim of both bad timing and legal persecution.

Mary Ellen and Will Tracy, Church of the Most High Goddess

Founders Mary Ellen and Will Tracy were themselves adherents of that quintessentially American new religion, Mormonism, and raised seven children in that faith. At least, they did until Mary Ellen announced to the local LDS Bishop’s Council that she’d discovered that certain obscure Church teachings allowed married women to have extramarital sex. After all, polygamy had been a core doctrine of the Church for the first fifty years of its existence – why would God have not provided women a similar dispensation? Not surprisingly, the Mormon authorities disagreed, and excommunicated the couple for heresy.

Will Tracy was also courting trouble, albeit from secular authorities. In 1984 he sued his employer, the City of Santa Monica, over a conflict-of-interest dispute, and also tried to take ownership of a local nude-dancing club. Unsuccessful in both ventures, the onetime folk singer and movie producer quit his job as a building inspector, and looked for other work.

According to Will, he had a strange experience in his Santa Monica beach bungalow on April 24th of that year. ''To begin with, it was a brilliant light,'' he said, ''as though knowledge was being poured in without voice.'' Will then said a God-like figure appeared – an old man with long white hair, a white beard, and (oddly enough) a muscular and youthful body.

“What I experienced was beyond my conception, while my perception was completely distorted by what I had been taught was enlightenment. It was only when I set aside my prejudices--those beliefs which I had been conditioned to accept as fact, but which were in fact false--that I began to understand the experience.”

As Mormons, the Tracys had been raised to accept that an ordinary individual could have earth-shaking divine revelations.  But what they gained from the experience wasn’t exactly what Joseph Smith and his successors might have wanted. Following Mary Ellen’s insight about polyandry, they began to research the history of sexuality and spirituality, and soon decided that the first and purest form of religions was Goddess spirituality, where a female Deity was worshipped, and sexuality was a sacrament. They believed that the ancient Egyptian cult of Isis best embodied this path, and sought to revive her worship, with Mary Ellen as her priestess.

Although the “Goddess Revival” movement was gaining steam during this period, the Tracys had no initial contact with the Dianic Wiccans, or other sects that promoted feminine spirituality. Independently, they formed The Church of the Most High Goddess in 1987, incorporating it the following year in Nevada (albeit not as a tax-free religious group). Then Mary Ellen took the sacred name of “Sabrina Aset,” rented a four-bedroom house in West Los Angeles as a temple, adorned it with Egyptian symbols and a large nude portrait of herself, and began to seek communicants.

The Church advertised in The Hollywood Express, an adult-oriented weekly tabloid where Sabrina/Mary Ellen wrote a regular column. Ads featured nude photos of the 40-something Isian priestess, explained Church beliefs about sacred sexuality, and promised “hedonistic religious rituals” to interested parties. Mary Ellen also publicized the Church on her public-access talk show, Sabrina On, where she discussed subjects ranging from religious freedom to gender-changing, and occasionally danced on camera clad in nothing but in Egyptian-style jewelry.

Mary Ellen Tracy as Church Priestess/porn-star Sabrina Aset

Prospective Church initiates were invited to the Temple. Here’s how one source described what went on there:

There are four parts to the ritual: Confession, Dedication, Sacrifice and Purification/Negation.  Confession is much like you'd expect confession to be and the supplicant is expected to make restitution in such cases as is possible before continuing with the ritual.  Once the confession has been performed, the Dedication ritual takes place and this ritual is performed by both women and men.  The Dedication simulates the birth position of the supplicant who places his/her head between the legs of the priestess...and performs [cunnilingus].

Having completed successfully the Confession and Dedication stages, the supplicant is then asked to make a Sacrifice which is generally considered to be a tithe (10%) of their time or worth.  Once the Sacrifice is made, the male supplicant then proceeds to the Purification/Negation section of the ritual which consists of vaginal intercourse with the priestess....  The explanation of this is that the Egyptian word for semen is pronounced 'negation' and means essence of the man.  In order for the male supplicant to cleanse himself and prepare himself for Godhood in the after world, he must be willing to give up his essence to the personification of the Goddess, or the priestess.

…[A]ccording to Lady Sabrina, women supplicants undergo the same stages, yet the Purification/Negation process is different, preparing the woman for becoming a Goddess in the 'afterworld'.  Qualification for initiates involves religious instruction and an assessment of their readiness to undergo the rites.

The “Sacrifice” – a mandatory $100-$200 cash offering – was what triggered a raid on the Church. After a series of articles in their local paper, as well as the Sally Jesse Raphael TV show, profiled the Tracys and their revival of sacred prostitution, the LAPD set up a sting against the Church.

In April 1989, an undercover officer visited the Temple. He testified that Mary Ellen solicited him for oral sex there in exchange for a $150 donation. When he refused to pay and was asked to leave, Vice officers stormed the temple, and charged Mary Ellen with prostitution, and Will with pimping. Four months later, the Tracys were convicted of the charges, and sentenced to one year and six months’ in jail, respectively.

In May 1990, they appealed the conviction, claiming religious persecution and violation of their civil and Constitutional rights. US District Judge William M. Byrne, Jr. dismissed their case, saying that the Church of the Most High Goddess “has no basis to it other than sexual conduct,” remarking that its rituals “were also planned, conceived and put into operation…to make detection of actual plans more difficult.” Judge Byrne also noted that Mary Ellen had been arrested for prostitution two times before the Church was formed, and opined that its ads and publicity efforts weren’t genuine appeals to religious devotion but rather, “invitations – enticements if you will – to the effect that ‘I love sex.’”

Still fighting the convictions, Mary Ellen found time to not only continue her cable-TV show, but to also appear on national TV. In January 1992, she was interviewed on the Phil Donahue and Montel Williams shows, where she explained Goddess-oriented sacred prostitution and defended her practice of the same. She also starred in two adult films of the era, Club Head 2 and Positively Pagan 6.

In one interview, Mary Ellen/Sabrina claimed to be the 537th High Priestess in a line of temple courtesans going all the way back to 3200 BC in Egypt (Cleopatra had been #469). She testified to her work thusly:

In my calling as a priestess, I have sex with men of all sizes, shapes, colors, backgrounds, professions -- an infinite variety -- every day, several times a day (and even more often would be better). To date I've had vaginal sex with over 2,779 different men, oral sex with over 4,000 different men, and being bisexual, I have eaten a couple of hundred pussies along the way. Since I'm a very sexual person, I've had sex, not just in the religious rituals, but in a wide variety of places in addition to the usual bedrooms, sofas, chairs and back and front seats of cars - like doctor's examination tables, college professor's offices, faculty lounges, dormitories, showers, swimming pools, Jacuzzi, beaches, woods, tents, campers, business offices, back rooms of stores, warehouses, rest rooms, government offices, parking lots, trucks, elevators, on the hood of cars, in adult films--on and off camera. I've even sucked cocks through the open window of my car and through a hole in a wall. No! I hadn't met the men before. Men hit on me everywhere I go and I'm not one to pass up an opportunity to enjoy myself sexually.

Her flamboyance, as well as the Church’s pay-to-play policy, disturbed more orthodox Goddess worshippers and neo-Pagans. On an Internet discussion group sponsored by the Covenant of the Goddess, some posters noted that “name” Pagans like Aidan Kelly had appeared alongside Mary Ellen on the Montel Williams show, lending her what they felt was an undeserved legitimacy. The Tracys, they believed, were just middle-aged neurotics working out their Mormon sexual repression – look at the quasi-Christian “Confession” aspect of their ritual, they said. Others defended their practices, saying that, aside from the Church’s commercial aspect, it was a legitimate revival of Goddess-based sacred sex, and that the Tracys deserved some consideration for their efforts.

After serving five and two-and-a-half months of their respective jail sentences, Mary Ellen and Will Tracy fought one more legal battle to clear their names, and establish sacred prostitution as a protected religious practice. In Sabrina Aset v. Garcetti, they took the Los Angeles County District Attorney to court, demanding that they be granted a legal exemption to the anti-prostitution laws.

According to the Tracys, they were training new priestesses for the Church. Each priestess was required to have sex with 100 different men before she could be fully initiated into the sect, and they feared that their new charges would also be arrested and jailed if modern temple courtesanship remained illegal. Once again, the Tracys lost their suit; when they appealed to the state Supreme Court two years later, the justices refused to hear the case.

By that time, ironically enough, professional sacred sexuality was coming into its own via the Internet, and the advent of more sex-positivity in both Feminist spirituality and the mass culture. Web-based “Tantric Priestesses” and “Dakinis” openly advertised their services as sacred courtesans, often showing video clips of themselves and their worshippers performing the same acts that landed Mary Ellen in the Sybil Brand women’s jail. In conservative Arizona, the Phoenix Goddess Temple’s “Mystic Sisters” offered “full-body healing services” for offerings from $200-800 out of a suburban home far more opulently appointed than the Tracy’s rented edifice. It was apparent that the Church, like so many other offbeat spiritual groups, had been ahead of its time.

Few traces of the Church of the Most High Goddess remain today save for a Web site, Therein are collected the Tracy’s writings on Goddess spirituality, sexuality, and the intersection of the same. Perhaps because of their experiences at the hands of the State, many of the essays have a distinctly bitter tone, excoriating patriarchal civilizations and the Abrahamic religions for destroying the sacred erotic culture of the ancient world and instilling 5,000 years of repressive, anti-sex, anti-pleasure attitudes in the human race. Yet a hopeful note is sounded in another one, where the author speaks of the long-awaited return of “The Lady of the New Dawn” and her sex-positive faith, and concludes with “I have arrived.”

And She seems to have arrived indeed—at least, for the countless thousands of Tantric priestesses, Goddess-worshipping neo-bacchantes, and others whose sacred-sexuality practices have dodged the sad fate of the Church of the Most High Goddess. 


Los Angeles Times, April 16, 1989. "Is Church Old-Time Religion or Prostitution? Arrested Canyon Country Couple Claim Beliefs Involve Sex for Sacrifices"
New York Times, May 2, 1990. "Religion Based on Sex Gets a Judicial Review"

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Art Bulla and the Church of Jesus Christ

Art Bulla, Founder and Head of the Church of Jesus Christ

Art Bulla is Mormonism’s Loneliest Prophet.

For over forty years, the Calexico- and Baja-based would-be Patriarch has had a direct line to the Lord Himself, and has busily transcribed hundreds of revelations he’s received from the Most High. Much like Joseph Smith, Bulla has anthologized them into a Holy Book that supplements the canonical Bible of the Christian faith. And much like Brigham Young, he has sought to establish a New Zion in the American West based on the teachings of the Holy Bible and the Book of Mormon, as well as his own revelations and prophecies.

The problem is that hardly anybody seems to be listening to his words, much less heeding his call.

Yet Bulla is far from alone in his mission. He is just one of many self-appointed leaders in the Mormon Fundamentalist subculture – a shadowy underground of the Latter-Day Saints’ church and society that has existed almost from the sect’s earliest days.

Far from being a monolithic movement, Mormonism has been rent by schisms from the beginning. According to researcher Steven L. Shields, at least a dozen Mormon splinter groups existed at the time of Joseph Smith’s death, and currently over 100 churches, sects and cults claim to be the true inheritors of his spiritual vision. They range from the quarter-million strong Community of Christ, which rejected Brigham Young as Smith’s successor and hunkered down to await the Second Coming in Missouri, to lone visionaries and self-declared prophets like Bulla, who compete for a small pool of potential followers dissatisfied with mainstream Mormonism.

Of the schismatic Mormon bodies, the so-called “Fundamentalists” are among the most noteworthy and notorious. These groups reject the 1890 Church Manifesto that banned polygamy among Mormon faithful, even though it had been taught as a revealed truth by Joseph Smith in the faith’s earliest years, and had been practiced officially and openly by Brigham Young and other Church leaders for decades afterwards.

Along with “plural marriage”, Mormon Fundamentalists also adhere to traditional Church teachings later deemphasized or rejected by the mainstream LDS denomination, and tend to live in isolated parts of the American West or Mexico, where they can practice their faith unmolested by the establishment Church or the law. Notable polygamy-practicing Fundamentalist groups have included Utah's low-key Apostolic United Brethren, Texas’ much-beleaguered Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, and Ervil “The Mormon Manson” LeBaron’s murderous Church of the Lamb of God.

Although a by-the-book Fundamentalist, Art Bulla is a desert-dwelling loner with no wives, and his Church of Christ has few (if any) genuine disciples. Bulla himself is both the spiritual and lineal descendant of itinerant religious dissidents, and traces his own ancestry to Irish Quakers who immigrated to Lancaster County, Pennsylvania around 1680, seeking the religious freedom promised by the New World. Later, they relocated to North Carolina, and it was there that future Prophet Artis Brent Bulla was born on August 2, 1948. Years later, Bulla claimed that his father had prayed “that a servant of the Lord should be born unto him,” and that his birth was God’s answer to the petition.

Raised as a Baptist in Greensboro, Bulla attended the University of North Carolina, graduating with a Bachelor’s Degree in Biology in 1969. Shortly thereafter, he enlisted in the U.S. Army.

Bulla was on his way to the Raleigh, N.C. armed-forces induction center when he, like Saul of Tarsus on the Damascus road, was struck down with an overpowering vision of God. Says he:

It seemed that I, Art Bulla, was removed out of my body, or whether in the body or out of it I could not tell, and I beheld his face, and He spake unto me face to face as one man speaks unto another for forty-five minutes or an hour, and whether in the body or out of it, I could not tell, for I beheld his glory, which surpasses all understanding, and spake while in the vision, in a much better tongue than any spoken by man at this time, which I supposed to be the Adamic Tongue…. it seemed that I was transfigured before Him of whom I speak, my God in whom I bear record as others have before me, that He lives, for I too have seen Him. And tongue cannot express his matchless might, glory, power and intelligence, and I shall forever adore his glory, for having once beheld his face and felt of his love and might and power and beheld things which I cannot convey, for there is no language, I must, I MUST obtain his presence, and I shall not be content with anything else, this world or its allurements. And having been ordained unto the Holy Order of God which is after the Order of Melchizedec, even the Holy Apostleship, the keys of which I hold, I bear record of my Father, for I have seen Him and conversed with him, and I testify that He shall return in this the Latter Day….

Unlike Saul, however, Bulla didn’t immediately follow the vision into apostleship. He served faithfully in the Army as a Medical Technologist, and married Cathy Washam, who would eventually bear him five children. Knowing of her husband’s spiritual visions, Cathy introduced him to the Book of Mormon, and while stationed at Fort Sam Houston, Texas, he joined the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.

Bulla's current calling card
Mormonism was a perfect religious home for Bulla. One of the faith’s central tenets is that God still speaks through His prophets in the Church, beginning with Joseph Smith and continuing through the current Church president, who is also known as the First Prophet. Although one of Smith’s earliest Divine revelations was that “No one shall receive commandments and revelations in this church excepting my servant, Joseph Smith, Jr.”, successive Church leaders and visionaries have nevertheless claimed direct lines of communication with God, and ongoing revelations are an important part of the Mormon spiritual experience. The canonical ones are anthologized in The Doctrine and Covenants, which rivals the Book of Mormon as the sect’s most important text.

An eager convert to Mormonism, Bulla began to evangelize his fellow servicemen. One time, Bulla says, he was preaching to a group of soldiers when a hulking Green Beret sergeant snuck up behind him, intending to mock or prank the evangelist. All of a sudden an angel appeared above Bulla’s head, and then grabbed the sergeant, “hurled him off his feet picking him up effortlessly and setting him on his back on the floor, with great force.” Another time, a First Sergeant was ridiculing Bulla’s testimony when “a voice of thunder proceeded forth as it were from heaven and the ground felt as if it would split open and swallow the asshole whole, for it was the voice of God which spoke with such effortless power and authority that the element would have moved if it had been his will….”

The experiences convinced Bulla that he was indeed under the power of the Holy Spirit, and gifted in prophecy as Joseph Smith had been. Unfortunately, he was only able to attain one disciple during his military service – “Jim”, who would later join the mainstream LDS church and repudiate Bulla.

Released from the Army in 1974, Bulla and his family moved to Provo, Utah, where he attended Brigham Young University. There, Bulla received a revelation that the Mormon Church had committed apostasy when it rejected the so-called “Adam-God Doctrine”. This was Brigham Young’s contention that the First Man had been a Deity who had incarnated on Earth (along with “one of his wives”, Eve), but then lost his divine powers in the Garden, started the human race, died and returned to Heaven as the God of the Earth, and then incarnated once more to become the literal Father of Jesus. The doctrine was later downplayed or reinterpreted by mainstream Mormonism, but it became an article of faith among Mormon Fundamentalists, who felt it, along with polygamy, were two core concepts that defined the faith of the Latter-Day Saints.

Bulla became even more alienated from the Church later that year. Ordained to the Seventy – the Mormon order of priesthood that answered directly to the “stake president,” or regional Church leader – Bulla brought new converts into the Latter-Day Saints, and was even asked to join the Third Quorum of Elders in his stake. One of his converts was a young hitchhiker, whom Bulla picked up and then housed at his home for two weeks. (Like most Mormons, Bulla practiced hospitality to strangers, in accordance with Hebrews 13:2’s words about “entertaining angels unaware.”)   Yet when the young man applied to be baptized into the Church, the local Mormon elders rejected him because of his period-1974 long hair, and his “indigent circumstances.” When Bulla went ahead and baptized the convert himself, local stake authorities stripped the evangelist of his titles, and threw him out of both the local ward (a Mormon parish), and BYU.

Bulla and his family relocated to Salt Lake City, where he attended mechanical-engineering classes at the University of Utah. Although he was allowed to attend a local ward, and was eventually taken back into the priesthood, Bulla soon ran up against political opposition once more.

This time, the issue was the integration of the Mormon Priesthood. The Church had recently decided to admit African-Americans to its clergy after a 140-year ban. Unfortunately, Bulla had just received his first two written revelations from God on the issue, both of which upheld traditional Mormon teachings about how “the black race of Cain” could never comprehend nor preach the spiritual truths of Joseph Smith and Brigham Young. When Bulla revealed this to his superior, the man attacked him, breaking his nose and blackening his eyes. The fight was blamed on Bulla, and when he attended a Church trial to answer for his actions, he packed a 9MM automatic pistol in his briefcase, fully expecting to be martyred in a firefight like Joseph Smith himself.

Nothing so dramatic happened. Instead, he was excommunicated from the LDS Church. Frustrated, Bulla and his family moved back to North Carolina, where he vowed to continue his ministry. By now, the revelations were coming faster, sometimes as often as two or three a week, and Bulla struggled to transcribe them, and to also incorporate them into his vision of a restored Mormon Church.

The Tarheel State was unimpressed by Bulla’s ministry, and he was soon in trouble with the law as well. When he tried to preach to the local Protestant “Charismatics”, he was “mobbed on one occasion by them, and almost killed.” Worse still, when he accused President Jimmy Carter of using the IRS to force the Mormon Church to integrate its priesthood, the Secret Service came to his house and interrogated him. Finally, his family decided he was insane, and tried to have him committed. Although a judge ruled in his favor, Bulla was subsequently charged with other crimes, and fled North Carolina with Sheriff’s deputies hot on his trail.

Although without a family, penniless, jobless, and on the run, Bulla began to believe that he was more than a mere Mormon prophet. Around 1983 he began preaching that he was the so-called “One Mighty and Strong” whose arrival Joseph Smith himself had prophesied over 150 years earlier:

[I]t shall come to pass, that I, the Lord God, will send one mighty and strong, holding the sceptre of power in his hand, clothed with light for a covering, whose mouth shall utter words, eternal words; while his bowels shall be a fountain of truth, to set in order the house of God, and to arrange by lot the inheritances of the Saints, whose names are found, and the names of their fathers, and of their children enrolled in the book of the law of God: while that man, who was called of God and appointed, that putteth forth his hand to steady the ark of God, shall fall by the vivid shaft of lighting….

Smith’s prophecy was later declared canonical, and can be found in Section 85 of the Doctrines and Covenants. Although the modern Church interprets the prophecy as only concerning events in early Mormon history, many contemporary Mormons believe it predicts the coming of a righteous Prophet who will set an apostate Church in order. Since the death of Joseph Smith, dozens of his would-be successors, as well as self-declared church reformers and eccentric Mormon visionaries, have declared themselves the One Mighty and Strong. The title has been particularly popular among Fundamentalist Mormon leaders seeking to return to the days of polygamy, a White-only priesthood, and a “United Order” socioeconomic system that operated wholly apart from Gentile society.

As the self-proclaimed One Mighty and Strong, Bulla believed that he “held the Keys of the Kingdom of God”, and that he was the head of the true Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, rather than the apostate body currently headquartered in Salt Lake City. Bulla dubbed his ministry “The Church of Jesus Christ,” and traveled to Utah to preach to establishment-Mormonism’s lost sheep.

For over ten years, Bulla preached his revelations and asserted his spiritual authority across the Beehive State. During much of this time, he lived in a tent in the mountains, testifying to a largely-uncaring Utah populace long accustomed to self-proclaimed redeemers of Zion. For a while, he ran a small book store in Provo, where he sold The Revelations of Jesus Christ, his self-published anthology of teachings and divine prophecies.

Foreword of The Revelations of Jesus Christ

The Revelations of Jesus Christ opens with passages from the Holy Bible, the Book of Mormon, the Doctrines and Covenants, as well as scattered writings of historical Mormon figures that Bulla interprets as supporting his claims. It then reprints scores of revelations received by Bulla from God Himself, all delivered in the lyrical Jacobean English of the King James Bible and the Book of Mormon, concerning His teachings and how to interpret and apply them. Many are addressed specifically to individuals Bulla knew. Others deal with the historical doctrines of Mormonism, and how far the current LDS Church has strayed from them.

A few sample section titles give the general flavor of the revelations that Bulla received during this period:

SECTION 3. REVELATION on life after death. Future state and progression of souls of all men and women delineated. Pre-existance [sic] of spiritual bodies. War fought in this state among spirits. Rebellious spirits cast out. Memory blotted out concerning events….

SECTION 10. REVELATION received May 6, 1982 on the association of man and woman after death. Marriage, under certain conditions, to continue forever. Sexual union denied in the resurrection to the majority of men and women because of disobedience and rebellion….

SECTION 13. Prophecy concerning the destruction of the descendants of Ham (the Negro) upon this the American continent by racial conflict. Warned to flee to land of fathers. Boundaries and habitations of men determined before foundation of the world….

Bulla was also a regular on Utah’s radio talk-shows, calling in to promote his teachings and rebuke the established Mormon Church and its leaders. On one program, Bulla heard a man named Richard Lewis say that he considered himself a Mormon Fundamentalist, and that he was fascinated by Smith’s prophecy of the One Mighty and Strong. Bulla called the station and passed on his contact info to the host. They set up a meeting, and when Lewis met Bulla in person, he was convinced the 40-year old itinerant preacher was “God’s Anointed Servant”. Shortly thereafter Bulla baptized Lewis in Provo Canyon, passed on the “Melchizedek Priesthood” to him, and appointed him as an Apostle. Lewis and Bulla teamed up, and eventually gathered a small group of faithful followers.

Unfortunately, interpersonal strife once again bedeviled Bulla’s ministry. Lewis and Bulla had a falling out, and the little flock scattered, leaving the prophet once again alone in the Utah wilderness. Years later, his erstwhile apostle ended up as a guest of the State of Utah; while behind bars, Lewis reconciled with Bulla, had his apostleship restored, and penned a book, Zion Redeemed, that defended the Bullaite Church of Jesus Christ doctrines. Shortly after it was self-published, Lewis died in prison of cancer.

Bulla in his controversial appearance in THE GOD-MAKERS II. 
 Bulla’s biggest publicity splash of the time was somewhat ironic.  The 1993 anti-Mormon documentary movie The God-Makers II featured an interview with the would-be patriarch, and billed him as “Art, Polygamist, Mormon Fundamentalist Prophet and Leader”. The interview took place in front of LDS headquarters in Salt Lake City, which critics maintained was a cheap attempt by the filmmakers to associate Bulla with mainstream Mormonism. Not surprisingly, neither the film’s mostly-Fundamentalist Christian audience nor its LDS-Church critics deserted their respective denominations to join Bulla.

Like the other spiritual mavericks and misfits covered in this volume, Bulla eventually landed in California. He spent some time in San Francisco and San Diego, but finally established his Church in Calexico, an Imperial County border town where its current physical address – a mail drop – is located.

Bulla himself settled in San Felipe, Mexico, over 100 miles south of the American border. Mexico had long been a place of refuge for Mormon Fundamentalists, who established polygamous settlements in remote villages, as well as safe houses for faithful Americans on the run from Church authorities and Yankee lawmen. The Mormon exiles saw their mestizo hosts as Lamanites – descendants of an ancient Hebrew tribe that had immigrated to the New World and populated its lands – and actively ministered to them, often winning converts to their faith. For their part, the Mexican authorities generally left the industrious and otherwise law-abiding settlers and their polygamous communities alone.

With neither a brace of wives nor faithful followers in his tow, Bulla contented himself with a simple mobile-home by the Sea of Cortez. There, he continued to receive revelations, and worked on the theology that would guide his Church of Jesus Christ into the Third Millennium. A veteran’s pension, and the occasional donation, covered his living expenses in the sunny Mexican resort town.

As the Year 2000 arrived, Bulla, like virtually every other living religious visionary, took his ministry onto the Internet, where he competed for attention with countless other would-be electronic-prophets. Bulla updated and expanded The Revelations of Jesus Christ, and converted it into .pdf format so that anyone with Web access could download the two-volume work for free. He also uploaded a three-volume anthology of his talks and teachings, The Lectures on Truth, as well as three other self-published tomes, onto a Web site, And he did battle with mainstream Mormons, orthodox Christians, and atheists alike on both message boards and YouTube, defending his doctrines in front of a small but vociferous virtual audience of critics and trolls.

Bulla on a YouTube video
Yet despite his long hours logged online, and the densely-worded and heavily-footnoted writings that strained his Web site’s capacity, Bulla still had few followers, virtual or otherwise. He lacked the alpha-male leadership qualities of infamous Fundamentalist figures like fellow Mexican-exile Ervil LeBaron or FLDS Patriarch Warren Jeffs, and although he avoided their fates as prison-lifers, he also never maintained multi-generational polygamous tribes, nor made his name synonymous with Mormon Fundamentalism, as they had. Bulla, who had stopped cutting his hair or beard in the manner of the Biblical Nazirites, was much more of a Prophet than a Patriarch, and far more credible as a wild-haired desert visionary than as a suit-and-tie-clad community-leader.

At this writing, Bulla’s hardcore following consists of one San Diego-based apostle who assists him with an Internet-based radio program. Several times a week, the prophet holds forth on, discussing subjects ranging from traditional Mormon theology, to his feuds with various LDS Church authorities and apologists, to Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’ theories about out-of-body experiences and life after death. Bulla told the author that he has “many listeners”, but that because they “are afraid of exposing themselves to persecution from the Church and family,” they remain at a distance, unable to help the prophet form the polygamous Mormon-fundamentalist community that would properly apply his revelations and teachings.

Although the most obvious Biblical parallel to the hirsute, ascetic and outspoken Bulla would be John the Baptist, he also invites comparison to Moses. Like the Lawgiver, Bulla has received the direct commands of God to His chosen people, only to wander for forty years in the spiritual desert that is modern America, his followers being not a tribe of escaped slaves, but widely-scattered dissident Mormons and seekers of truth. Bulla nevertheless presses on, his lonely mission spurred by his vision of a Promised Land where he is a prophet with honor to Mormons and Gentiles alike.

Notes/Sources (Bulla's personal site, with PDF and Kindle-friendly downloads of his books, extensive writings, and links to his other online presences)
Divergent Paths of the Restoration, by Steven L. Shields (Las Vegas, NV: Herald House, 2001)
 Melton's Encyclopedia of American Religions - Eighth Edition (Detroit: Gale, 2009)

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Gridley Wright and Shivalila

Gridley Lorimer Wright IV, Shivalila founder

Of all the Fifties Establishment-types who Turned On, Tuned In and Dropped Out in the subsequent decade, few Turned On more completely, Tuned In more deeply, or Dropped Out more thoroughly than one Gridley Lorimer Wright IV. The scion of an upper-class Buffalo, New York family, Wright began the Sixties as a button-down Wall Street stock trader and conservative Republican, and ended them as a long-haired psychedelic guru and anarchist commune founder, as well as the leader of a small, nomadic, LSD-using and polyamorous sect that would become known as Shivalila.

Born in 1934, Wright attended Westminster Prep as a teenager, and then entered Yale University. Years later, Libertarian political theorist Murray Rothbard remembered him as a young adherent of the early-1950s conservative movement at Yale, a disciple of William F. Buckley and Russell Kirk who saw atheism and materialism as the root evils facing America and the West. For awhile, Wright even served on the staff of the paleo-Right American Mercury alongside George Lincoln Rockwell, a Navy vet and illustrator who would later achieve infamy as the leader of the American Nazi Party.

When Wright graduated from Yale, he married, and found work as a stockbroker in New York City. Sometime in the early 1960s he moved to Southern California, settling in Malibu. Sociologist Lewis Yablonsky, who at the time was writing a book about the controversial nascent-cult Synanon, remembered first encountering Wright at a Malibu community meeting, where the conservative Republican broker spoke to support the group’s right to develop their property in the beachside town.

While in Malibu, Wright switched careers from broker to county probation officer. The new job kept him busy only three days a week; during the rest of the time, he experimented with marijuana and LSD, stretching his consciousness far beyond the upper-class-Yalie, Goldwater-Right universe of his young adulthood. Eventually he quit working altogether, stopped shaving, grew his reddish-blond hair to shoulder-length, and swapped Brooks Brothers suits and wingtip shoes for kaftans and sandals. Then in late 1966, the newly-minted hippie turned his Malibu Canyon home into a 24-hour-a-day crash pad for local freaks and runaways, which didn’t exactly endear him to his wealthy neighbors.

Gridley Wright with followers at Strawberry Fields, Malibu, California

In early 1967, Wright moved the party to a property in Decker Canyon, several miles west of Malibu proper, where he (loosely) organized a commune. He dubbed the settlement “Strawberry Fields,” after the Beatles song, and “decided to let anybody else who wanted to come, come.” There was no structure at Strawberry Fields – the only rules were that alcohol and hard drugs were verboten, and that residents and visitors had to confine their activities to the property boundaries. Otherwise, one could freak freely.

A young woman Freaks Freely at Strawberry Fields

At any time, Strawberry Fields boasted between 30 and 35 residents, with over 100 during weekends. About half the hippies and trippers there hailed from the San Francisco Bay Area – the Haight Ashbury was already losing its allure for its original denizens, and many were migrating to fresh freak enclaves across the West Coast. Wright envisioned the commune as “a place of accelerated evolutionary change,” where people could safely trip on acid or other psychedelics, and expand their consciousness without interference from, or with, straight society.

The Strawberry Fields garden. 
Wright's then-girlfriend Tatian is at center, in the red top.

As with so many other improvised communities of the time, Strawberry Fields didn’t last long. The place was a magnet for every misfit and crazy in California, and dealing with them and their less-than-salubrious lifestyles gave Wright cases of hepatitis and pneumonia. The would-be hippie guru barely escaped arrest when the law removed a five-year-old from the premises for smoking marijuana. And when a misplaced candle burned down the main commune house, he decided it was time to shut down Strawberry Fields. Wright tried to organize another commune at Gorda, near Big Sur, but that experiment turned out to be even shorter-lived, and more disastrous, than the Southern California-based one.

During this period, Lewis Yablonsky interviewed Wright, who would become the sociologist’s Virgil in a journey through the Sixties subculture. Wright, by now an unofficial spokesperson for Los Angeles-area hippiedom, spoke to Yablonsky from the comfort of his Malibu home, as naked teenage hippies paraded through the living room and the burnt-sage odor of marijuana wafted through the house.

When asked about his political leanings, Wright told Yablonsky he had none. The onetime right-wing activist eschewed the radical ideology and action of much of the counterculture. To change the world he said, one had to change one’s consciousness first, and Fighting the System not only wasted time and energy, but reinforced the oppressor/victim roles that were keeping people from truly open communication. On the other hand, Wright also spurned the “flower children” ideal; he believed anger and hatred were natural, healthy emotions that only became dangerous when they spurred physical violence.

The Los Angeles Oracle underground newspaper interviews Wright 

Wright’s own ideals were tested when he endured a well-publicized pot bust and trial. In May of that year, the hippie leader had appeared on a Los Angeles radio program, and when he discussed the sacramental use of marijuana and LSD, he casually mentioned on the air that he’d gotten high just before the interview. When he came out of the studio, cops were waiting with a search warrant at his car, which gave up a small amount of marijuana. Since mere possession of pot was then a felony, they arrested him.

Five months later Wright went on trial. He immediately dismissed his defense attorney, and chose to represent himself, confident that he could make a case for marijuana as a holy sacrament that deserved the same legal privilege that peyote did for American Indians. Wright said the hippie subculture “has every characteristic of any religion, especially the secret type of religion – one that is persecuted as the early Christians were, as small cults of secret societies have been all throughout history…The thing that we have that is secret about ours, from the Establishment, are the rites in which we use the dope. Those are not allowed to be observed by non-members. That is what it actually works down to.”

Although not only Yablonsky, but Unitarian minister and Harvard Divinity School graduate Ernest D. Pipes testified at the trial that Wright was a bona fide religious leader, and the hippies’ marijuana use was a key part of a legitimate spiritual quest, the law didn’t agree. After a two-week trial Wright was found guilty, labeled a “false prophet” by the presiding judge, fined $300, and put on five years’ probation with the understanding that he wouldn’t use, or advocate the use of illegal drugs during the term. True to his anarchistic philosophy, Wright continued to do both, and was sent to jail for the next eighteen months.

When he emerged from custody in early 1969, Wright headed to the Far East. Like many Western hippies, he believed that Enlightenment lay beyond the repressive, rule-crazy confines of his own society, and could be found by exploring Asian spiritual and cultural ways.

In 1970, he ended up in Kuta Beach in Bali, then a sleepy village little frequented by tourists. Believing he’d found “home,” he burned his American passport as an offering to Shiva, the Hindu god of destruction, and then moved into a little shack on the beach.  There he meditated and wrote chapbooks of poetry, which he exchanged at a nearby coffee house for donations. Wright also befriended both expatriate hippies and locals, who sought him out as a yoga teacher.
Keith Lorenz and David Salisbury, two Americans who were recording an oral history of rapidly-modernizing Bali, encountered Wright at Kuta Beach. Fascinated by Wright, who was calling himself “Abra Lut” during this period, the two taped a lengthy interview with the gone-native guru, where he expounded on his ideals and life.

Gridley Wright in Bali

Wright told the pair that several years earlier, he’d had a vision of a shared community that would separate itself from modern society and the consumer culture, and live as a tribal, collective unit. After his time in Strawberry Fields and in jail, he realized that the vision wouldn't work in America, so he traveled to Asia to seek out ways of life more conducive to this ideal.

The interviewers noted that Wright smoked a lot of the local strain of cannabis during the interview. He said that pot enhanced his creativity, and served as a bonding agent for hippies and other potential members of the new world he was trying to create: “It’s the religion of today – religion started out as a turn-on like this, that brought people together so they felt closer.”

Intimacy – physical, emotional, spiritual – was what the seemingly egoless Wright was all about in Bali. “Everybody that I’m with is me,” he told the interviewers. “Right now I’m a witness in a mirror…anything [people] see in me is a projection. It’s the self talking to the self. I’m reflecting ways of perceiving, interacting, playing with the environment.” Wright believed that in his interactions he was recreating the immediacy and novelty of childhood – the ideal mental state for true learning and spiritual peace.

Wright, who believed in past lives, felt that he was in the final of a long series of incarnations, and that his current human existence was the last one in which he could fully transmit his gathered wisdom. “I am fulfilled, I’ve realized everything,” he said. “There ain’t a game that I’ve run into in a long time that I haven’t remembered from a long time back in all its variations, including this one.” He had transcended all worldly ideals or desires save one: “that the whole world would go crazy, so then it would finally be safe for me and the kids.”

As with the Yablonsky interview, Wright was speaking under the shadow of legal persecution. He claimed that some local Balinese had adopted him as a sort of mascot of Western hipness, but then got angry when he started to play his guru role too seriously with them. They reported him to the local authorities, who raided his hut, loaded him in a Jeep, and dropped him in a detention center.  His captors were puzzled by the passport-less, penniless American who accepted his fate with Buddha-like passivity, and endlessly played mind-games with them, so he was returned to his shack while they figured out their next move. Eventually he was seized again and forcibly deported to the United States.

Back in California, Wright was once again able to assemble a small coterie of followers. This time he organized it as a formal group, and dubbed it Shivalila, in homage to the Hindu deity to whom he’d sacrificed his passport, and who was often associated with ritual cannabis use. 

Shivalila’s basic beliefs and practices were recorded in a 1977 work, The Book of the Mother. According to Wright, who penned the work under the auspices of “The Children’s Liberation Front,” their vision of collective consciousness came about during a ten-year period, wherein the members took over 12,000 LSD trips. They had started out in the Western Hippie subculture, but had also journeyed to more traditional tribal societies, and had tripped with Third World peoples ranging from Afghani Sufis, to Tibetan Buddhists, to Indian Shaivite Hindus.  Wright claimed that when he dosed tribal peoples with acid, not a single one experienced the hallucinations or freak-outs traditionally associated with the drug in the West.

Two now-rare Children's Liberation Front books: Shivalila, and The Book of the Mother

The sect’s covenants evolved from these experiences, and according to the book, “represent the only known social contract specifically established to sustain group consciousness.”

The Covenants were:

I.                    Ahimsa. Shivalila is an open, nonviolent community. (Violence is an act that directly affects structural damage to cellular integrity. People of Shivalila will not under any circumstances resort to violence or call upon any institution that uses violence or threats of violence.

II.                  Sattva Ava. People of Shivalila will make no contract in respect to truth without stipulating that truth is relative and that body, mind, and environment are indissoluble. Correlatively, people of Shivalila will not testify in any matter involving issues of guilt or nonguilt.

III.               Bhramcari. People of Shivalila do not own anything on any plane – psychic, material, physical, or fantasy.* People of Shivalila do not acknowledge private or group ownership of anything. Correlatively, people of Shivalila will not participate in any relationship involving privacy or secrecy.

IV.                Tantra. A person of Shivalila will have sensual/sexual relations with another only after that person has manifested some identification with nature and babies.

The object of Shivalila was to manifest higher consciousness through these practices. Wright believed that there were nine stages of human consciousness, ranging from “Neuro-electro-atomic” to “Universal mind”, a God-like state of being that “will only manifest through the unified focus of no less than three persons.” The goal for Shivalila, and for the human race on the whole, was to achieve full use of all nine levels, so that full, honest communication could take place between individuals, egoistic differences could be erased and the tribal group mind would harmoniously direct human affairs. 

To Shivalila, the key to this consciousness was the experience of childhood. Wright said that the Western nuclear family instituted both patriarchal dominance and matrifocal dependency. A better way to raise children, he said, was in a commune, so that they would have multiple sources of both authority and sustenance, and would think more “tribally.” 

Wright discouraged mothers to identify with their birth children, saying that it created neurotic, egoistic attachments. Instead, he said that mothers should “facilitate the development of psychic/sensual relationships with a broad variety of people” so as to fully develop the child as a social, tribal being. He even banned books and toys from Shivalila, since such artifacts separated children from spontaneous experience and the collective play of the community.

Shivalila never grew beyond twenty or so members. Wright and his followers maintained a nomadic existence, spending the Seventies drifting through Asian ashrams and North America communes, in search of a place where they could expand their consciousness with LSD, and raise a new generation of children in the tribal consciousness Wright believed could save humanity. When Wright heard the story of the Tasaday, a tribe of indigenous Stone Age people on Mindanao in the Philippines, he took his people to the island to meet them, only to be turned back by government officials who believed the last thing the Tasadays needed was to be corrupted by a gang of Western acidhead cultists.

Wright also found himself unwelcome in stateside alternative-culture circles. In the book The Wizard and the Witch, Oberon and Morning Glory Zell, founders of the Neo-Pagan Church of All Worlds, recounted how Wright and his group, who had co-opted several members of a Missouri commune, tried to recruit their own preteen daughter by dosing her with LSD. The girl also told her parents that Wright had attempted to seduce her.

Enraged, Oberon Zell confronted Wright, grabbing one of his henchmen’s pistols and holding it to the cult leader's head. Coming to his senses, Zell instead invoked the Mother Goddess’ curse on Wright, and reported him to Child Protective Services, who showed a distinct lack of interest in the case. Frustrated, the Zells and their daughter relocated to Oregon, hoping that if the Show-Me State wouldn’t administer justice, the Goddess would.

In the late Seventies, Wright and his entourage landed at Black Bear Ranch in California’s Siskiyou Mountains. Black Bear seemed to be a more rural, and more disciplined version of Strawberry Fields twelve years earlier – “free land for free people” where anyone who was willing to work and cooperate was welcome, and where children were raised communally.

Initially, the Shivalila tribe seemed to fit right in the community. But tensions soon appeared between its members, and the longtime residents, many of whom were political radicals deeply suspicious of self-proclaimed gurus. A 2006 documentary about Black Bear, Commune, featured interviews with former residents who saw Shivalila as an arrogant cult whose members spent most of their time dropping acid and hanging around with the commune’s children, and who tried to impose their own visions on the essentially anarchistic settlement. Ex-Shivalila members who appeared in the film, on the other hand, felt they were merely being honest and open with the regulars, per Wright’s teachings of egalitarian, free communication.

Shivalila at the Black Bear commune, circa 1975. 

Eventually the Black Bear old-timers called in reinforcements from outside the settlement, confronted the Shivalilites, and forced them to leave the land. Wright and his people departed, along with a couple of Black Bear residents who’d shifted their alliance to the middle-aged guru, and – amazingly – at least two commune children who’d bonded with the child-centered clan, and had chosen to go with them rather than stay with their biological families.

Once again driven from California, Wright and his entourage returned to Asia. Imitating their leader’s action years earlier in Bali, the Shivalilites journeyed to India, destroyed their passports, and pled with Indian officials for asylum, claiming they faced persecution in the United States. (Ironically, asylum was denied them largely on the grounds that the cultists lacked valid passports.) They tried to settle in the arid Indian state of Rajasthan, but an epidemic of measles and diphtheria there claimed the lives of four of the group’s children. Wright, who claimed that Western medicine had no place in the primitive commune’s life, had forbidden inoculations to his followers.

By now, the 45-year old Wright was tiring of the conflicts and constant travel, and told his followers that he would die in India. He had been lately claiming that he’d lived before as Krishna, Buddha, Jesus and Muhammad, and that he’d taught all one soul could. Eternity beckoned.

Wright’s premonition came true on December 22, 1979. Weeks earlier, he had been visiting the Indian tropical seaside state of Goa when he was stabbed several times by a deranged Australian hippie. Complications from the wounds set in, and the 45 year-old guru died of double pneumonia in a Goa hospital ten days before the end of the 1970s. Five members of Shivalila were with him when he passed on, and they had his earthly remains cremated Hindu-style, and scattered near the sea in the town of Panjim.

Shivalila struggled to stay afloat in the wake of Wright’s death. Most members of the group returned to the United States, where they distributed The Book of the Mother and tried to live his ideals in a society that seemed less hospitable than ever to the Sixties psychedelic-tribal vision. Some settled on Hawaii’s Big Island, and eventually opened an intentional community called Dragon’s Eye, which combined Wright’s teachings with those of other social and spiritual reformers. The community continues to exist as of this writing, and is now considered “mainstream” enough to host 4-H sustainable-agriculture programs.

As for Wright, little trace today remains of his influence. Chris Lorenz, the nephew of one of the men who interviewed the guru at his Bali retreat, maintains the website, which sells a CD of the 1971 interview, and displays articles and news clippings about the “figure of the 1960s counterculture.” The Commune documentary revived some interest in Shivalila, although the group’s child-centric practices, and Wright’s flat-toned narratives over footage of the group, creeped out more than a few viewers.

Perhaps Shivalila, and the man that founded and directed it, can best be summed up in one of Wright’s own poems, “Kali’s Dance”:

 I am, of course, quite mad
And when it became impossible to hide it any longer in my homeland
where madness is illegal,
I split,
Making the scene in just about every age, culture and whatnot
that was available around the world,
lookin to see if there was a place where madness wasn't either
immoral, illegal, heretical, or witchcraft;
in other words somewhere I could let it all hang out
without scaring everybody so they were blind
to the ultimate joke;
somewhere that was a stage for my brand of live theatre
and my cast of freaks.
I didn't find that place, for everywhere I went
I found fear
of nothin I ever did
but of the insanity in my eyes.

Sources/More Info:

The Book of the Mother. Bakersfield, CA: Children's Liberation Front, 1977.
Melton's Encyclopedia of American Religions, Eighth Edition. Edited by J. Gordon Melton. Detroit: Gale, 2009. "Shivalia", pp. 683-684.
The Hippie Trip, by Lewis Yablonsky. New York: Pegasus, 1969.
The Wizard and the Witch: An Oral History of Oberon Zell and Morning Glory, by John C. Sulak. Woodbury, MN: Llewellyn Publications, 2014.
Aquarius Rising, an unreleased 1967 documentary by Pierre Sogal (attributed). The segment on Wright and Strawberry Fields can be viewed here.
Commune, 2005 documentary film by Jonathan Berman. Trailer here

Special thanks to Shivalila member Natec Harijan for her feedback on this piece.