John-Roger, a coal miner’s son who founded the controversial new-age Movement of Spiritual Inner Awareness church in the 1970s that had thousands of followers, multimillion-dollar enterprises and celebrity endorsements, died Wednesday at St. John’s Health Center in Santa Monica. He was 80.
He had been in frail health for several years and died of pneumonia, said MSIA board member Mark Lurie.
In its heyday, the nondenominational church gave out annual awards to figures such as Desmond Tutu, Jonas Salk, Stevie Wonder, Mother Teresa and Ralph Nader at events so celebrity-studded that “Entertainment Tonight” covered them. Its Insight Training seminars for personal growth and productivity were purchased not only by individuals and several corporations, such as Lockheed and McDonnell Douglas, but also the U.S. Social Security Administration.
John-Roger was referred to in church teachings as the Mystical Traveler, and among those closely associated with the church were author Arianna Huffington, Carl Wilson of the Beach Boys and actress Sally Kirkland.
The teachings of John-Roger were not laden with complex philosophical or liturgical discourses. “To awaken, keep going back inside of you,” he wrote in a 1989 church publication. “The greatest challenge is not outer space; it’s inner space. The last frontier is inside.”
He advocated daily “spiritual exercises,” some of which were akin to traditional meditation techniques, to achieve inner peace and banish negative thoughts.
But in the 1980s, several former members said that MSIA had become a cult with an all-powerful leader. In a Times series on the inner workings of the organization, there were reports that any deviations from rules set down by John-Roger could lead to banishment from the church that members had come to rely on for emotional well-being.
Financial irregularities were alleged, and John-Roger was said to be living a lavish lifestyle while keeping staff members at near poverty level. Additionally, some male devotees said they had been “spiritually seduced” into having sex with him.
The organization and John-Roger denied the accusations, but some high-ranking members of the church left and many celebrities distanced themselves. Huffington downplayed her association with MSIA in the 1990s when her then-husband Michael was running for the Senate. On Wednesday, she commented by email, “John-Roger was an important teacher and a dear friend, and I’m very grateful both for his teachings and for our friendship.”
In 1988, John-Roger stepped down as the spiritual head of the organization and took on a lower profile, as did MSIA. But unlike many other new-age organizations that began in the same era, MSIA continues to function — Kirkland and other longtime adherents remain aligned with it.
It has been several years, however, since John-Roger led a seminar or gave a talk. His public appearances had been mostly limited to church retreats and fundraising and book-signing events, Lurie said.
John-Roger was born Roger Delano Hinkins into a Mormon family on Sept. 24, 1934, in the small town of Rains, Utah. He worked briefly in the nearby mines, but it didn’t go well. “I broke out in a rash all over my body,” he said in a rare Times interview in 1987. “I think I created that not to have to go home every night to get coal dust out of my ears and out of my eyes. I hated working in the coal mines.”
He graduated from the University of Utah with a psychology degree in 1958 and headed to California, where he eventually got a job teaching English at Rosemead High School. The turning point in his life, as he described it, came in 1963 when something went wrong during a kidney stone operation and he fell into a coma.
“When I woke up nine days later,” he said, “there was another being in me and he called himself John.”
He combined the names to become John-Roger.
Back at Rosemead High, where he was a popular teacher, he started to instruct students in a form of self-hypnosis to ready themselves for exams — a practice the principal angrily disapproved of. John-Roger left the school and started to have small gatherings at his Baldwin Hills home to impart spiritual and practical teachings for $3 donations.
His movement grew quickly — MSIA was founded in 1971, and within a few years he had followers across the nation reading his monthly “Soul Awareness Discourses” and doing his daily spiritual exercises. John-Roger made ample use of media, distributing his messages not only in print, but also by audiotape and later by videocassette.
His followers needed a guide, he told them, to reach a state he called soul transcendence. “You can’t do it your way,” he said in an undated videotaped talk on the MSIA site.
“If you could do it your way ... you wouldn’t be here.”
He is survived by a brother, Delile Hinkins of Orangeville, Utah; and sister, Linda Hansen of Phoenix.