As we have mentioned, the 1920s and 30s were an explosion of alternative spirituality, centered in California, proliferated by endless mail order correspondent courses, many encapsulating ideas derived from the now dying Theosophical Society. Over these two decades what was left over from Theosophy was slowly mutating into what would soon be the New Age movement and our featured movement today was key in bringing about that transition.
The I AM Activity was a major player during the 30s. They were enormously huge in their heyday. By 1938 they had a million followers, hundreds of centers and made millions of dollars off their incredibly successful merchandising operation, which would be a template for many later movements. Indeed, The I AM Activity, like another alternative spirituality organization called Psychiana, an hysterically popular mail order correspondence course, showed that during the height of the great depression, enormous success in the alternate spirituality was indeed possible.
We have covered the Compte St. Germain previously, our prolific Ascender of the Higher Planes returns to center stage once again in the I AM Movement.
The Compte St. Germain was a tall tale telling socialite of the 1700s who was later dug up and giving a fresh coat of spiritual spackle by Helena Blavatsky, the leader of the enormously influential Theosophy movement. St. Germain was made into a purified and dazzlingly holy Ascended Master. The Ascended Masters were a group of great, holy teachers which included Jesus who had become spiritually perfect, and were working together to secretly guide the rest of mankind to become enlightened.
Blavatsky, the founder of the Theosophy Society, died in 1891 and over the next 30 years the Theosophical Society ebbed and splintered due to the craziness of Blavatsky’s successor Annie Besant. Thus it is we come to the early 1930s when a gentleman by the name of Guy Ballard is hiking Mt Shasta in California when lo and behold St. Germaine appears to him.
Guy Ballard was an avid reader of Theosophy and he started a movement which focused on the Ascended Masters which Blavatsky had invented some decades before. St. Germain became on par with Jesus (who was also an Ascended Master and thus why The I AM Activity considered themselves a Christian organization). Saint Germain supposedly assigned Ballard the task of initiating the Seventh Golden age, the permanent “I AM” age of eternal perfection on earth. The saint designated Ballard, his wife, and their son Donald as the only accredited messengers of the masters.
In 1934 and 35 Ballard published two books Unveiled Mysteries and The Magic Presence, which describe Ballard’s experiences with the masters. Unveiled Mysteries is of course reminiscent of Blavatsky’s famous Isis Unveiled, a seminal Theosophical work. Ballard set up shop in Los Angeles and used the profits from the books to advertise heavily on radio. He began holding public classes in which he would channel St. Germain and deliver expositions on morality and the state of the upper worlds.
“Through Ballard the masters taught of the “I AM,” the basic divine reality of the universe, God in action. Individualized, the “I AM” is the essence of each person, they said, and should be constantly invoked and activated. It is pictured as an entity residing above each person’s head and surrounded by golden light and a rainbow of color. It is connected to the person by a shaft of white light. The “I AM” presence is invoked by use of decrees, affirmative commands that the “I AM” presence initiate action in the self and the world. Basic in the daily activity of an “I AM” student is the violet flame decree, in which a violet flame is pictured surrounding the person and purifying him spiritually.”
Ballard was both a showman and had the right product at the right time. He channeled, he wrote, he held mass gatherings where he would exorcise any of the countless psychic entities plaguing the earth and humankind. He held services that were classic seances He led audience in prayers and affirmations. He held classes and let the attendees hear directly from the great disembodied St. Germaine Himself (channeled through Ballard of course) and he sold a cascade of merchandise “including books, records, pins, rings, posters, and portraits of the Masters, including Saint-Germain and Guy Ballard himself. I AM rings sold for $12, photographs of Ballard for $2.50, a Chart of the Magic Presence for $12, and $1.25 bought a special binder in which to store the flood of continuing I AM edicts. New Age Cold Cream was also available.” He made millions.
By the late 30s The I AM Activity was unstoppable.
I AM had its detractors. Cult critic Carey McWilliams described “Ballardism as “a witch’s cauldron of the inconceivable, the incredible and the fantastic… a hideous phantasm. The movement was attacked by occultists no less than skeptics, because of I AM’s bastardized version of esoteric teachings, and its vast appeal to New Age believers. Theosophical magazines rejected Ballardism as a perversion (and of course it tread upon and plagarized their own teachings), and in 1937, Rosicrucian H. Spencer Lewis denounced these “mystical racketeers:” he ruefully confessed that his own writings on Lemuria had provided Ballard with some of his sources.
The most powerful condemnations are found in the pamphlets produced from 1936 onwards by the former Ballard student, Gerald Brya who comprehensively attacked the dubious origins of the movement, its plagiarized scriptures, and the mercenary motives of the founders. He also charged that I AM devastated the lives of its members. Bryan argued that “probably in no other movement has there ever been such widespread interference with the personal lives of its members as in this cult of the Mighty I AM.” Members were told to sever all contact with anyone who rejected I AM teaching, even family members, and the strain on family life was enhanced by the Ballards preaching against sexual desire, which was an enemy to be suppressed. I AM prohibited sex except for procreation, and recommended against bringing children into a world so close to its end. “Husband, wife, mother, or some other relative living in a fanatical Mighty I AM family has actually been kept in another part of the house and denied former privileges because he or she would not embrace the Ballard doctrines.” Intolerance was demanded of “hundred percent students.” Also bizarre was the Ballard view that animal life was the creation of black magicians, and that spirits in animals should be freed, in other words, that members should “release” their animals by having them killed.
The I AM leaders instructed movement followers to buy and burn Bryan’s work, which they did “with all the fanaticism of a witch-burning rite, reminiscent of a former age of bigotry and superstition,”
Ballard taught that followers could become spiritually pure and Ascend straight to heaven, bypassing physical death just like Jesus and His buddy St. Germain had. But in 1939, at the absolute peak of his popularity Ballard did the dumbest thing he could possibly do for the movement. He died. He didn’t ascend, he just died and was cremated. This has been the downfall of many a spiritual leader claiming superhuman abilities. Few have come out unscathed, although Hubbard managed it, But Hubbard had learned an enormous amount from Ballard.
Ballard’s wife, Edna, quickly redefined Ascention to mean dying normally but ascending to the highest plane of the afterlife. Edna had been right there with her husband the entire time and could have carried business forward admirably, but in 1942, she and her son were charged with eighteen counts of mail fraud on the basis of claims made in books and pamphlets sent through the mail.
In the trial the prosecutor argued that Ballard had made up the religion and that he and other members did not believe it and operated the foundation purely as a fraudulent moneymaking scheme. Although the defendants were initially convicted, the convictions were eventually overturned in an important Supreme Court decision holding that one’s religious faith could not be put on trial. No matter how nutty sounding a belief system, a defendant’s faith in it cannot be put on the stand.
However, during the prosecution the movement was stripped of the right to use the postal service as well as their tax exempt religious status, neither of which was returned until 1957. Edna removed the group from public spotlight but quietly continued on and indeed The I AM Activity is still in existence today, although no knew messages from the Masters have been received since Edna’s death in 1971.