The Fate Of The Eternal Flame: The Immortality Cult That Turned Non-Profit

Immortality is a dream as old as humanity itself. To the ancient Greeks, the gods were gods precisely because they didn't die, and humanity was humanity because it did. Thousands of years before then, the 21st-century B.C.E. "Epic of Gilgamesh" — the oldest narrative story in existence — tells the tale of King Gilgamesh, who can't accept knowing that he, and all those he loves, will die. In his case, he settles on leaving something behind: his legacy and the city of Uruk. In the modern, technological era, the desire for immortality has flipped from the alchemical philosopher's stone to its technological equivalent: mind uploads. In the end, though, death is a defining characteristic of life itself, from the smallest cell to the grandest galaxy.

Some people, however, want to defy death and choose not to accept the inevitable. Some propose swapping out organ after organ to keep a body alive like swapping out parts in an old clunker car. The New Yorker talks about this strategy, often raised in Silicon Valley circles. As the article discusses, perhaps aging is the consequence of some unknown biological process we might be able to control. The wellness and longevity industry — which convenes annually at the Global Wellness Summit — plumbs this same line of inquiry and seeks to tweak the human machine to last longer and longer. In the 1980s, discussions and desires like these gave rise to the Eternal Flame: an immortality cult that itself didn't die, but merely changed shape.

Immortality via cellular intercourse

The origins of the Eternal Flame go back to one person: Charles Paul Brown. There are a host of organizations connected to Brown and the Eternal Flame: People Forever, Flame Foundation, and most notably CBJ. The latter is an acronym for Charles Brown (C) and his two lead associates — his wife BernaDeane Brown (B) and friend James Russell Strole (J), per AZ Central. Whether trying to escape scrutiny from non-believers and the press, bury their past, rebrand and rebuild an audience at each turn, or twist their way out of financial restrictions, Charles, BernaDeane, and Strole eventually managed to do all of the above when they finally landed on the non-profit People Unlimited in 1996. But make no mistake: Each organization is the same one at heart, long since dubbed a cult by the Cult Education Institute. And out of all of them, People Unlimited is still active.

As the Cult Education Institute reported in 1991, the Eternal Flame preached that death was nothing more than the result of being "brainwashed." Everyone is born into a "death-oriented culture" and the "biggest cult in the world" by believing that death is inevitable. "It is normality not to die," The Seattle Times quotes BernaDeane, and, "It's not intelligent to die, it's embarrassing to die." Members of the Eternal Flame, its leaders preached, belonged to a new species of immortals. Through willpower alone Eternal Flame members would not die. That is, willpower plus a whole load of money and "cellular intercourse" at annual retreats.   

Fire, brimstone, and cash

If you're thinking that the Eternal Flame sounds like the most absurd grift in the history of grifts, you're not alone. Articles like that on The Washington Post call it "preposterous," "ridiculous," and flat-out "weird." And yet, the article — written in 1994 when the cult was at its height — admits how easy it is to get caught up in the fervor when attending a meeting in person. 

The Cult Education Institute describes a typical meeting, when founders Charles Brown, BernaDeane Brown, and James Russell Strole took turns giving emphatic, rousing speeches full of howling, fist-pumping, cheering, and weeping in the crowd. BernaDeane says things like, "I want you to see how important it is to lay some money down on the three of us!" That's all immortality took, apparently. Simply gather in a group, give them money, and let the power flow from them to you, particularly Charles. Per another Cult Education Institute article, Charles said, "The intelligence of my body will penetrate every cell of yours!" and, "The immortal genetics of Jesus Christ, who was and is the perfect body of man before the acceptance of the imposition of physical death, is now being revealed in every cell and atom of those who still carry the encoding of their immortal heritage." If this sounds like bizarre-o-world Christianity, that's because Charles is a former Assembly of God preacher, a Pentecostal Christian branch that some take for a cult, as The Cult Vault outlines.

Partners in business and bed

The Eternal Flame began back in 1959 in Scottsdale, Arizona, as the Cult Education Institute explains, after Charles Brown's wife died in a car accident. As he was grieving he says that he felt an electric "generator" wash over him like "electricity from the cells." From this he concluded that he was immortal. As AZ Central quotes of Living Unlimited — a magazine published by the Eternal Flame's newest incarnation, People Unlimited — he'd experienced "a piercing through to the core of the cells and atoms of the body, which awaken the DNA." 

One year later in 1960, per another Cult Education Institute article, Charles met BernaDeane, a preacher's daughter turned model who believed that "death is unnatural." The two got married and then took on business partner — and bed partner — James Russell Strole into the mix in 1968. Back during the Eternal Flame's height in the early 90s the three made about $150,000 a year through donations from members, speaking fees, and merch sales. Yet another Cult Education Institute article goes into detail about their finances, which got funneled through all their various subsidiary organizations, like Flame Foundation and CBJ.

From the 1960s through 1990s, Charles Brown, BernaDeane, and Strole traveled around the U.S. giving speeches, amassing a following, distributing the Eternal Flame newsletter, and honing their craft. As AZ Central says, they traveled to 26 different countries, cultivated a following of 30,000 people, and even got featured on "Larry King Live" and "20/20."

The flame dwindles and darkens

The Eternal Flame dwindled and shrank just when it was at its brightest. Come 1994 to '95, Charles Brown, BernaDeane Brown, and James Russell Strole's personal, cohabitated relationship went through some trouble that reverberated through the Eternal Flame community at large. At the same time one of the Eternal Flame's more well-known members died, which shattered members' confidence in the cult.

Meanwhile, the Cult Education Institute in 1995 reported very unsurprising rumors of forced sex rituals happening within the Eternal Flame, casting the whole "cellular intercourse" tagline into an even more distasteful light. Four years prior to that in 1991 the Cult Education Institute had already reported on creepy happenings within cult meetings, such as when the microphone got passed around from member to member. Members called out things to their leaders like, "I have such a praise for you," "I feel your penetration," "Your cells have impregnated me," and most disturbingly, "I'm yours 100 percent. You need it, you deserve it, you cannot go on without it, it's flesh, 100 percent. It's all I want. I want to give it to you, my flesh, 100 percent. You need it so much. You must be covered physically!" On top of all this, folks started accusing the Eternal Flame of plying the elderly, specifically, for money.

The very next year in 1996 the Eternal Flame underwent its final permutation and rebranded as People Unlimited. In 2014 original founder Charles Brown died of heart disease and Parkinson's.

Peddling promises to this day

People Unlimited still exists to this day, though its two remaining founders — BernaDeane and James Russell Strole — have pivoted toward the wellness and longevity industry, per Inverse. Officially, as AZ Central cites, People Unlimited is a non-profit, interfaith outfit. People Unlimited representative Joe Bardin, however, said, "We don't see ourselves as a religion," and, "People Unlimited is a company." That company more or less sidestepped the 2014 death of its supposedly immortal founder and ignored anything that came before, particularly in its marketing. Membership, meanwhile, plummeted to a mere 130 people worldwide that same year, per AZ Central.

And yet, founders BernaDeane and Strole continue to try and whip up crowds with fire-and-brimstone-like sermons about defying death, albeit without any mention of Charles' cellular intercourse doctrine. In one People Unlimited video on YouTube Bernadene says, "Don't die. Why die?" continuing, "You're gonna have to have a feeling or an experiencing of your own person that you've got a real sure answer within you ... that you are not just an ordinary person walking down the street that's only got death to face." In another YouTube video, Strole says, "We're not pushing anything," and, "We wanna stir in you ... that life that is already in their own body that cries out for the redemption of their own flesh." Such words might not constitute the most insidious gobbledygook on the planet, but they use and abuse nonetheless.