BOZEMAN, Mont. — Elizabeth Clare Prophet, the spiritual leader of the Church Universal and Triumphant, which gained notoriety in the late 1980s for its followers’ elaborate preparations for nuclear Armageddon, has died. She was 70.
Ms. Prophet suffered from advanced Alzheimer’s disease or dementia for years, and was at her apartment when she died Thursday night, said legal guardian Murray Steinman.
The church’s beliefs combined icons from the world’s major religions, mixing Western philosophy and mysticism.
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Despite her disease, Ms. Prophet’s videos and writings continued to dominate church teaching, transformed into a New Age publishing enterprise and spiritual university.
The church was still prepared for Armageddon in recent years and kept a bomb shelter stocked for 750 people deep in a forest near Yellowstone National Park.
As the charismatic leader of the New Age sect that many considered cult-like, Prophet led her followers along a path that over the years included apocalyptic predictions, run-ins with local environmental groups, legal trouble and even a late-in-life “miracle” pregnancy that resulted in the birth of her fifth child when she was 55 years old.
Prophet retired from the church in 1999, but her followers still call her “Mother” and listen faithfully to the dictations she recorded while channeling messages from the “Ascended Masters” over the years. A much smaller CUT than the one Prophet moved from California to Montana in the mid-1980s continues to operate from its headquarters on the Royal Teton Ranch in Corwin Springs.
Although Prophet led a private life, largely away from the church, for the past decade due to her illness, CUT President Valerie McBride said Friday that the woman who led the church for 25 years will be greatly missed.
Murray Steinman, former CUT spokesman who, along with Erin Prophet, served as Elizabeth’s legal guardian for the past decade, said despite how the media painted Prophet, she had a brilliant mind and cared about people.
The church hasn’t been generated much in the way of news since Prophet retired, noted Carlo Cieri, a Park County commissioner from 1985 to 1995, the years when the CUT was making a lot of headlines..
“Now, they’re kind of a real low profile,” Cieri said.
Prophet, born in Red Bank, N.J. and also known as Guru Ma, became the church’s leader after her second husband and founder of the group, Mark Prophet, died in 1973. Mark Prophet had founded the group in 1958 under the name The Summit Lighthouse. Mark and Elizabeth had four children together.
After Mark’s death, Elizabeth Clare took over the teachings, which involved an eclectic mix of karma and reincarnations, belief in celestial beings that spoke through her, and bits and pieces of Christianity, Buddhism, Taoism, astrology and Confucianism.
Prophet was said to have extraordinary abilities, capable of serving as an earthly conduit for the “Ascended Masters.”
Even those who weren’t followers noticed her ability to mesmerize a crowd.
She intended to create an exclusive, self-reliant community on the ranch just north of Yellowstone National Park. Church members and their leaders considered the ranch their promised land, and moved — some from as far away as Europe and South America — to Park County in numbers that caught locals off guard.
But many locals had a hard time with the New Age theology Prophet was preaching, including the CUT’s emphasis on dictations from religious and historical figures that ranged from Jesus Christ to an obscure French count, St. Germain, who in past lives was believed to be Jesus’ father Joseph, from Merlin the Magician to Christopher Columbus.
Prophet also believed in reincarnation and told followers that in past lives she had been Marie Antoinette, King Arthur’s Queen Guinevere and the Biblical figure Martha.
After moving the organization to Royal Teton Ranch, Prophet put her staff and members to work building the largest private underground bomb shelter in the United States. CUT leaders were also quietly amassing an arsenal of weapons and armored vehicles, led in part by Prophet’s fourth husband, Ed Francis.
All of this revolved around Prophet’s prediction that the end of the world was imminent and that her followers needed to be prepared.
Construction of the 756-person bomb shelter, however, brought the CUT a lot of unwanted attention.
The state stepped in and did an environmental review, ultimately giving the CUT the go-ahead for the shelter.
Less than a year later, word got out that Prophet was predicting the world would end in March 1990.
On the night of March 15, 1990, hundreds if not thousands of CUT members entered the bomb shelters. Some had quit jobs and run up big debt, anticipating the apocalypse.
But nothing happened.
Church officials maintained the next day the whole thing had been a drill.
In its heyday, the church had 600 employees at Corwin Springs and many hundreds of followers in Park and Gallatin counties. It operated construction, engineering, food process and printing businesses.
But after the apocalypse never came, the church began to shrink.
Today, CUT President McBride said there are thousands of members who belong to 250 chapters across the globe and hundreds who attend the church-owned ranch in Corwin Springs. Church literature is printed in 29 different languages.
Montana Doomsday Religious Cult — “Church Universal and Triumphant”
The GAO investigators found a 1989 case in Montana in which members of a “doomsday religious cult” had stockpiled many weapons, including several fifty caliber weapons. The cult is called the “Church Universal and Triumphant” (C.U.T.), and its leader is Elizabeth Clare Prophet. The cult was in the process of building underground bunkers to prepare for the end of the world. This investigation began because Ms. Prophet’s husband and another cult member used birth certificates of deceased individuals to obtain driver’s licenses so they could purchase and stockpile weapons.
In an ATF crackdown, agents found that the cult members had illegally acquired hundreds of weapons and thousands of rounds of ammunition. Among this stockpile were ten semi-automatic fifty caliber weapons purchased with the false identifications. The cult members were convicted of illegally purchasing firearms. According to GAO, Ms. Prophet continues to lead the cult and was not charged in connection with these offenses.