by Tim Gilmore, 9/10/2017
Ann Tillinghast’s parents started taking her to the “I AM” Sanctuary in Philadelphia just two years after Guy Ballard received his mystical revelation from the long-dead Count of St. Germain while hiking Mount Shasta.
Even in the mid-1700s, the Count claimed to be 500 years old. Ann was five years old when she visited her first sanctuary. She turns 85 this September. She’s been pastor at Jacksonville’s “I AM” Sanctuary for 15 years.
The tiny tin-roofed and plaster-walled church stands cut from another time between an empty 1990s strip mall and the lolling mud-colored oblongs of Southside Assembly of God. Kings Avenue lies grim beneath the highway here.
Ann says attendance at the sanctuary fluctuates: “For a while 10 or 15 people come, then nobody comes for a while, then a few more start coming.” Even a small congregation crowds the church, since it’s only 612 square feet.
The “I AM” Activity does not call itself a religion, and Ann’s not technically its Jacksonville pastor, since its ministers are called sponsors. Its organization is the Saint Germain Foundation. Its adherents are called “I AM” Students.
Having grown up in the “I AM” Activity, she brought her children to this sanctuary when her husband was assigned to Naval Station Mayport in 1966. Irma Smallwood led the congregation then. When Ann moved back to Jacksonville years later and returned to the Kings Avenue sanctuary, Phyllis Bozeman was “sponsor.”
“So the ‘I AM’ Activity grants more roles to women than many more traditional religions,” I say.
Ann shrugs. “I guess so. Everything about it is different.” She’s right.
Guy Ballard, founder of the “I AM” Activity, wrote the sacred texts Unveiled Mysteries and The Magic Presence under the name Godfré Ray King and, after his death, became the Ascended Master Godfre, who’d taken previous forms as Richard the Lionheart and George Washington.
After Guy Ballard died in 1939, he dictated to his wife Edna the ways the “I AM” Activity should continue. When Edna died in 1971, she became the Ascended Lady Master Lotus, who’d taken previous forms as Joan of Arc, Queen Elizabeth, and Ben Franklin. The Ballards’ son Edona Eros died in 1973.
The trope of “Ascended Masters” comes from Ballard’s studies in Theosophy, which sought to bring together the hidden, or “occult,” truths in the world’s dominant religious and philosophical systems. The approach, a portmanteau of “theology” and “philosophy,” shamelessly Orientalist, leant heavily on the most abstruse Eastern texts and ideas.
A two-volume copy of Madame Helena Blavatsky’s 1888 Theosophical masterwork The Secret Doctrine contains 1500 pages of very small print. A spirit medium who co-founded the Theosophical Society in New York in 1875, Blavatsky writes of the multiple distributions of creation, the “four orders of beings” that are the “prototypes of the First Race,” and are “termed gods, demons, progenitors, and MEN,” with “progenitors” defined as “the prototypes and Evolvers of the first Root Race of men,” themselves of seven classes.
The whole Secret Doctrine reads this way, but somehow its pages include the concept of advanced spiritual beings rare in humankind, hidden leaders in a secret spiritual hierarchy.
Ballard’s Theosophist explorations opened him to become the spirit medium for the ascended master, the Count of Saint Germain. Madame Blavatsky had met the count too, traveling the world with a secret name. Some said Le Comte de Saint-Germain was none other than the Wandering Jew, who’d spit in Christ’s face on the road to the Crucifixion and was cursed thus to roam the earth without finding ever the comfort of death.
Ann says “I AM” Students believe, “We shall ascend unto the Father as Jesus did,” and quotes Jesus in John 14:12: “Verily, verily, I say unto you, He that believeth on me, the works that I do shall he do also; and greater works than these shall he do; because I go unto my Father.”
In casual conversation, Ann doesn’t call herself a “sponsor” for the “I AM” Activity of the Saint Germain Foundation. It’s too much to explain. Instead she tells people, like her fellow members of the River City Republican Club and the First Coast Tea Party, that she’s “the pastor of a small church.”
Ann frequently writes letters to the editor of The Florida Times-Union. On August 22, she said she had some “advice for protestors.” It was “time to grow up.” Citizens offended by the continued presence of Confederate memorials throughout the city “should grow up about slavery,” since “America didn’t invent” it.
This little church first was a hardshell dirt-floor black place of worship, built in 1930, when the children of the slaves of the nearby Red Bank Plantation praised their Ascended Master Jesus.
Now I’m walking down the middle of Phillips Highway, cutting beneath the new highway expansion, hiking Kings Avenue. I’m looking for my Comte, some Wandering Jew, though I don’t know that I could call anyone “Master.”