If spirituality had a primal soup, it certainly must have been located somewhere within Los Angeles' city limits.
No other community on the face of the globe has given rise to half as many mystic, philosophical, psychological, occult, consciousness-raising, therapeutic and alternative creeds as 20th century L.A. And, among them all, none was quite as entertaining or as, well, Los Angeles-like as the I AM movement.
Founded by two self-described angels, it featured a blend of space travel accounts and prosperity tips that were a magnet to legions of the desperate during the Great Depression. Unfortunately, the only things that prospered under the group's influence were the bank accounts of the former salesman and the storefront medium--neither particularly angelic--who launched the movement in the early 1930s and, ultimately, numbered their adherents at more than 1 million.
It all began--as so many "religious" impulses have--with a vision atop a mountain.
Before Guy W. Ballard, a paperhanger, stock salesman, mining engineer and promoter, arrived in Los Angeles from Chicago with his wife, Edna, a part-time medium, he took a short journey to Mt. Shasta. Since his childhood in Kansas, Ballard had been obsessed with visions of buried gold and jewels and claimed to have "felt the energy" of this great mountain pulling him.
During his climb he claimed to have encountered a "majestic figure, God-like in appearance, clad in jeweled robes, eyes sparkling with light and love." His new master, whom he later identified--inexplicably--as St. Germain, tapped him on the shoulder and offered him a cup filled with "pure electronic essence," he said.
After Ballard imbibed it, the apparition proffered a tiny wafer of "concentrated energy" that Ballard said he also consumed. Soon he and St. Germain were surrounded by a "white flame which formed a circle about 50 feet in diameter," Ballard said, and together they whizzed through time and space, visiting fabled cities and discovering a cache of gold and jewels.
Empowered by the divine messenger, Ballard raced to Los Angeles--where else?--to form a religion based on God's identification of himself as "I AM"--a sort of Reader's Digest condensed version of the Hebrew deity's proclamation: "I am who I am."
Under the pen name Godfre Ray King, Ballard shared his experiences--for a fee--in "Unveiled Mysteries," which sold like hot cakes for the then-hefty sum of $2.50 a copy. His strange creed, lifted from a dozen sources, promised the faithful the power to acquire wealth and convinced them that he was bestowed with the gift to heal. His theology basically had two symbols, wealth and energy, and demanded that members abstain from tobacco, liquor and sex, which tended to divert the "divine energy."
As the "love offerings" rolled in from lectures, records, jewelry, photographs of the cult's beloved messenger, special electrical devices equipped with colored lights called "Flame in Action," and cold cream, the Ballards secured radio time and use of the Shrine Auditorium.
For a short time, the inner circle found a home in a large rambling tabernacle from the top of which a blazing neon light flashed "Mighty I AM." Buxom beauties, clad in evening gowns with orchid and gardenia corsages, ushered in the faithful.
The cult spread across the nation, enrolling converts through letters stating that the end of the world was coming and that the faithful should withdraw their funds from banks and life insurance policies and turn the funds over to their immortal leaders.
The high cost of spiritual enlightenment left many deeply in debt to family, friends and banks.
In 1939, the sect suffered a tiny setback when the immortal Ballard discarded the body that bound him to the physical universe and set off to his next phase of spiritual exploration.
A year after what skeptics insisted on calling his death, the I AM movement almost--but not quite--dissolved, when guru Edna, her son Donald and eight others from the "inner circle" were indicted on 18 counts of fraud for collecting about $3 million from followers.
Undaunted, hundreds of chanting supporters filled the streets outside the courthouse during their trials.
The defense said the nation's safety depended on Guy Ballard's divine power and influence. Before his death, the attorneys argued, an invisible force called K-17 had come to Ballard's aid and miraculously sunk a flotilla of undetected Japanese submarines ready to attack the United States.
Prosecutors declined to produce rebuttal witnesses.
Disappointed former disciples came forward with accounts of how the organization promised to restore the eyesight of a blind senator, but failed. Another member, a destitute 75-year-old woman, was assured she would be taken care of the rest of her life and guaranteed protection in "the next world," after handing over thousands of dollars of jewels and cash.
"We're no more obliged to return the money or pay her bills than any ministers would be," Edna Ballard said angrily. "I know how to turn their evil back into them. If she'd brought as much love and blessing into the world as I have, she wouldn't be in this fix."
Unusual for the time, the trial was conducted with scrupulous care for the defendants' 1st Amendment rights. U.S. District Judge Leon R. Yankwich even swapped his black robe for a light-colored business suit out of deference to those on trial.
"Many people here honestly believe that light and bright colors have a favorable effect on their soul's welfare," he said, "and I am not one to flout another's religious belief. I feel that if the situation warranted it, I could function as well in a bathing suit."
Two trials later, Edna Ballard and her son were convicted of mail fraud. After an appeal, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the conviction, but later on a rehearing reversed that decision on the grounds that women were excluded from the jury.
Rejoicing and leaving their scandalous past behind, mother and son, along with 300 loyal followers, packed and fled to Santa Fe, N.M., in the late 1940s.
Over the years, their numbers dwindled, and today a tiny remnant of the sect lingers in the shadow of Shasta, their own holy mountain.