I AM . The "I AM" Religious Activity emerged in the 1930s as a major new representative of the Western Esoteric tradition, drawing most of its theology and imagery directly from the Theosophical Society. It subsequently gave birth to a number of groups that have, with minor variations, generally adopted the unique ideas and practices of the "I AM" while organizationally separating from the parent body.
"I AM" founders Guy Ballard (1878–1939) and Edna W. Ballard (1886–1971) were already steeped in esoteric thought when the seminal events in the movement's formation occurred. Guy Ballard had been employed as a mining engineer when in the early 1930s he visited Mount Shasta in northern California. In several esoteric books, Mount Shasta previously had been identified as a location of spiritual significance, most recently in 1931, in a book published by the Ancient and Mystical Order Rosae Crucis, Lemuria, the Lost Continent of the Pacific.
On the slope of the volcanic mountain, Ballard claimed he encountered a man who identified himself as Saint Germain, an important personage in the eighteenth-century European esoteric community, who since his earthly existence had become an ascended master. In Theosophical lore, ascended masters are spiritually evolved individuals who formerly had incarnated in earthly bodies but who no longer participate in the cycles of reincarnation. From their exalted state, they now collectively guide humanity's spiritual destiny.
Saint Germain described his current purpose as initiating a new spiritual activity, the Seventh Golden Age. He had found Ballard as an embodied human fit to receive and pass on to humanity the Laws of Life. He eventually designated Ballard, his wife Edna, and their son Donald as the only accredited messengers of the ascended masters. Operating as a messenger entailed allowing different masters to speak through oneself (in a manner analogous to Spiritualist mediums or channels). During his lifetime, Guy Ballard was the only one of the three to operate as a messenger. Edna operated as a messenger only briefly in the last years of her life, and Donald, though active in the movement, never functioned as messenger.
Ballard initially described his experiences with Saint Germain in a set of letters to his wife, sent from Mount Shasta to the family residence in Chicago. It is of some interest that at the time he wrote these letters, he was also reading a set of books by Baird Spaulding, The Life and Teachings of the Masters of the Far East, whose description of the masters and their work coincided with what Ballard was learning from Saint Germain. Ballard described his own experiences in more detail in the manuscripts of two books, Unveiled Mysteries (1934) and The Magic Presence (1935), both written under the pseudonym Godfré Ray King. Upon his return to Chicago, Ballard founded the "I AM" Religious Activity in stages. After deciding in 1932 to release the two books, the Ballards founded the Saint Germain Foundation and its publishing arm, the Saint Germain Press. In 1934 they held a ten-day class at which Guy Ballard for the first time operated as a messenger in a public setting. The first book, Unveiled Mysteries, appeared in 1934, and a periodical, The Voice of the I Am, which carried the text of newly received messages, was first issued in 1936.
"I AM" Beliefs
The "I AM" Religious Activity centered its attention on the "I AM" Presence, God in Action, which emanates from the Great Central Sun, the impersonal source of the universe. The Great Central Sun is a knowable aspect of the supremely unknowable and transcendent God. The universe has come into being as a series of emanations from God, the material world being the lowest level of those emanations. Each emanated level of the universe is inhabited by evolved beings that together constitute a spiritual hierarchy, frequently referred to as the Great White Brotherhood. At the lowest level of the spiritual hierarchy are the Lords of the Seven Rays (of light), spiritual beings who most easily and often communicate with humans. Saint Germain is seen as one of those Lords, as is Jesus and El Morya (one of the masters believed to have initiated the Theosophical Society).
Individuals are seen as sparks of the divine "I AM" Presence now embodied in the physical word. However, individuals have through history misused the powers available to them, resulting in the individual and social discord that is the current lot of humanity. The problems created by humans are carried over from one incarnation to another. Most individuals remain trapped in a limited situation characterized by evil and discord, but a few people have risen above and learned to attune themselves to their divine nature, the "I AM" Presence. Those who have completely aligned themselves with the "I AM" become ascended masters. The present Lords of the Seven Rays had previously incarnated as outstanding spiritual leaders. Saint Germain, for example, was at different times on Earth as the Jewish prophet Samuel, the British Christian leader Saint Alban, and Francis Bacon. Ballard, who is now seen as having ascended in 1939, was previously on Earth as George Washington.
The "I AM" Presence individualizes as the essence of each embodied soul. Activated, it is the means of cleansing the person of karmic conditions and assisting the process of spiritual evolution. The best means of activating the "I AM" is the use of decrees, affirmative commands calling upon the "I AM" Presence to initiate actions, a practice that appears to have originated early in the twentieth century within the New Thought movement. Decrees are spoken aloud in a chant–like fashion. Decrees, like prayers in other movements, may be of a general nature or directed to specific and immediate concerns. The words I am that begin the decrees serve to identify the individual with the divine action being affirmed.
Whereas most decrees are very positive, emphasizing the spread of positive virtues, decrees may also be directed specifically to the dissipation of evil forces. The "I AM" movement has become its most controversial when it has identified specific evils that were subsequently targeted and against which decrees have been directed.
Color forms an important element of "I AM" belief. Those masters who oversee humanity most closely are the Lords of the Seven Rays (of the light spectrum), each color being associated with a particular virtue or character trait. Saint Germain is associated with violet, and the most important activity in the "I AM" Religious Activity is calling upon the Violet Flame pictured around each individual to burn away undesirable personal conditions. Most colors are positive, but two—red and black—are to be avoided. Thus, all "I AM" literature is printed with colored (usually purple) ink rather than black ink.
Through the 1930s, the movement had its creative center in the public classes at which Ballard brought forth messages from the masters. Beginning with the initial class, held in the Civic Opera House in Chicago, subsequent classes were held in New York, Philadelphia, Boston, and Miami. A class in Los Angeles a short time before Ballard's death attracted some 7,000 attendees. From these came a book of decrees and a hymnal that were used to provide a format for local groups to emerge, and the movement spread across North America. It claimed more than a million students by 1939, though the number who had had more than a single superficial encounter with the movement was far less.
The forward progress of the "I AM" Religious Activity was brought to an abrupt halt in 1939 when Guy Ballard, only in his early 60s, suddenly died. Many in the movement were distressed, as they expected him to bodily ascend rather than face a normal human death. A group of vocal critics arose, led by Gerald B. Bryan, who wrote a series of booklets challenging the integrity of the teachings. Legal authorities moved against Edna and Donald Ballard and the foundation staff. Given First Amendment guarantees of religious freedom, prosecutors found an opening in the movement's use of the mail to send out "I AM" material. They brought the Ballards to trial for mail fraud and argued that because no rational person could believe what the Ballards were teaching, they had to be knowingly perpetuating a fraud. It was a false religion, and they knew it to be false.
Convicted at the trial level, the Ballards' appeal took them to the U.S. Supreme Court twice and resulted in one of the most important rulings in American jurisprudence concerning religion. In his opinion in U.S. v. Ballard (1944), Justice Douglass suggested that the courts get out of the business of examining "other people's faiths." Individuals, he suggested, "may not be put to the proof of their religious doctrines or beliefs." The ruling did not completely end the "I AM" problems, however, as the initial trial verdict had led the U.S. Postal Service to reject the movement's right to distribute material through the mail, a privilege only returned in the 1950s.
Because of its experience in the courts, the "I AM" Religious Activity adopted a low profile, partially accounting for a paucity of scholarly comment on the movement. While continuing to exist, it became largely invisible on the religious landscape, many believing it had been dissolved. In 1978 the foundation moved into new facilities in Schaumburg, Illinois (a Chicago suburb), joined there four years later by the Saint Germain Press. The press continued to publish the messages originally received from Guy Ballard, becoming available in some fifteen volumes of "I AM" Discourses. Land purchased in the 1950s on the slope of Mount Shasta became the site for a range of summer retreats and an annual passion play depicting the life of Jesus (adapted to an "I AM" interpretation concentrating upon his final ascension). Over 300 "I AM" sanctuaries (local centers) exist across the United States.
Conditions internal to the "I AM" Religious Activity led to several schisms. Beginning in the 1930s, people emerged claiming also to be in contact with the masters, but the decades following Guy Ballard's death when no new messages were being received made many yearn for continued contact with the ascended masters. The movement also had strictures against translating messages into other languages, thus inhibiting its growth into Spanish-speaking communities. As early as 1944, Geraldine Innocente began to receive messages from Ascended Master El Morya and to publish them under the pseudonym Thomas Printz. Following Innocente's refusal to stop publishing the messages and her break with Edna Ballard, her work, which was also translated into Spanish for distribution in Puerto Rico and Cuba, became the basis of an organization called the Bridge to Spiritual Freedom.
Also in the 1950s, other groups formed which claimed they were receiving messages from the masters independently of the "I AM." One such group was the Lighthouse to Freedom in Philadelphia. Originally a member of the Lighthouse to Freedom, Mark L. Prophet (1918–1973) founded the Summit Lighthouse in 1958 and began publishing the messages he was receiving primarily from El Morya. The Summit gained a large following prior to Prophet's sudden death in 1973. Prophet's widow, Elizabeth Clare Prophet (b. 1939), however, picked up the messenger's mantle and expanded the organization's work as the Church Universal and Triumphant. The church grew significantly in the 1970s and, unlike the "I AM" Religious Activity, assumed a high profile and identified strongly with the New Age Movement. It also became quite controversial after being labeled a "cult" and being subjected to several lawsuits. During the 1990s, following the rise of a period of apocalyptic fervor, the church underwent a thorough reorganization, culminating in the retirement of Mrs. Prophet, who had become increasingly incapacitated by Alzheimer's disease. The church differs from the "I AM" Movement on several points, most noticeably in the manner in which decrees are repeated in a very fast mode and Prophet's emphasis on world religions (especially Buddhism) alongside esoteric Christianity.
Bryan, Gerald B. Psychic Dictatorship in America. Burbank, Calif., 1940.
King, Godfré Ray [pseudonym of Guy W. Ballard]. Unveiled Mysteries. Chicago, 1934.
King, Godfré Ray [pseudonym of Guy W. Ballard]. The Magic Presence. Chicago, 1935.
Melton, J. Gordon. "The Church Universal and Triumphant: Its Heritage and Thoughtworld." In Church Universal and Triumphant: In Scholarly Perspective, edited by James R. Lewis and J. Gordon Melton, pp. 1–20. Stanford, Calif., 1994.
Prophet, Elizabeth Clare. The Great White Brotherhood. Malibu, Calif., 1983.
Saint Germain [through Guy W. Ballard]. The "I AM" Discourses. Chicago, 1935.
Spaulding, Baird. The Life and Teachings of the Masters of the Far East. 5 vols. Los Angeles, 1924–1948.
Whitsel, Bradley C. The Church Universal and Triumphant: Elizabeth Clare Prophet's Apocalyptic Movement. Syracuse, N.Y., 2003.
J. Gordon Melton (2005)