The History Of The I AM Movement Explained

Many so-called new religions are cults of personality, with the height of their popularity being limited to the lifespan of the founders. In some ways this is true of the I AM movement, which, as stated in Britannica, was at its height between the 1930s and 1950s. However, the I AM movement has its roots in 1800s theosophy, and has inspired many well-known New Age beliefs (and one doomsday cult).

As detailed in the "Encyclopedic Handbook of Cults in America," the central beliefs of the I AM movement came from a series of messages that founders Guy and Edna Ballard claimed they had received from a secret brotherhood of spiritual entities who controlled the fate of the universe.

Followers believed there was one sun at the center of the universe, which was the source of God's power. They also believed that every human being was created from a tiny piece of God (a force called "I AM.") The powerful entities that the Ballards believed they communicated with were supposed to be former humans – including everyone from ancient mystics to Jesus Christ – who had become one with the I AM presence inside of them. From its origins with mystic occultist Madame Helena Blavatsky to UFO worship, this is the history of the I AM movement.


Theosophy, meaning "divine wisdom," is a type of religious philosophy that focuses on the idea that there is a deeper spiritual realm beyond standard human understanding. Typically, followers of these types of movements attempt to tap into this mystical realm through various practices.

Followers of modern theosophy often claim that people have been worshiping as they do for all of human history and that their beliefs are the secret truth behind all major religions. As detailed by Britannica, similar beliefs predate the Middle Ages, but theosophy as a movement began in the 19th century when the idea that people could contact the dead became very popular, as mediums claiming to be able to conjure spirits became mainstream.

Theosophical beliefs influenced "New Age" beliefs from the 1970s onward. Followers of these movements often believe in one underlying spirit that everything humans perceive is a part of. They can also include belief in various supernatural powers, particularly psychic abilities. Often believers will study various religious texts in hopes of discovering secret messages.

Madame Helena Blavatsky

Theosophy became famous because of the mystic occultist Helena Blavatsky. At the height of the Spiritualist movement, during which mediums claimed to use seances to talk to ghosts, Blavatsky found a way to stand out. Rather than talking to the dead relatives of people in her audience, she claimed that she could contact powerful supernatural entities which had answers to humanity's problems. In 1885, The Society for Psychical Research (quoted in Atlas Obscura) declared that Blavatsky was, "one of the most accomplished, ingenious, and interesting imposters in history."

The Spiritualist movement was already in full swing when Blavatsky came to America – the Fox Sisters had been pretending to talk to ghosts by cracking their toes under tables since 1848 – but by claiming to talk to beings she called "Mahatmas," Blavatsky took it to another level. As described by JSTOR Daily, at this time Christianity was undergoing a major shift and losing believers. For the first time, science was able to fact-check some claims in the Bible (such as determining the age of the planet or finding humanity's origins in evolution.) Blavatsky was trying to create a religion that would appeal to modern followers. Using a blend of world religions and the Western world's orientalist belief in wisdom from the "mystic East" to legitimize her claims, Blavatsky convinced many that she really did have secret knowledge. Her claims shifted into the public consciousness, and continue to influence New Age spiritual beliefs over a hundred years after her death.

Blavatsky debunked

Theosophy gained a lot of attention thanks to Helena Blavatsky, but her reputation was so tied to the movement that when she was accused of fraud in 1884, the entire concept of ancient wisdom coming from mystical adepts was called into question.

As explained in Atlas Obscura, Blavatsky stated that the ascended masters could send physical letters containing mystic wisdom. The idea that the spirit world could manifest physically through the work of a medium was not unusual in the world of spiritualism. As described by the Guardian, some produced mysterious substances or had assistants wrapped in sheets pretend to be ghosts. Blavatsky also had an assistant – Emma Coulomb. Blavatsky gave Coulomb written instructions on exactly how to fake the messages that she claimed were from the ascended masters. In 1884, Coulomb gave those written instructions to the press.

As detailed by the Society for Psychical Research, those instructions were collected by William Hodgson as part of an investigation into Blavatsky's claims. Multiple handwriting experts confirmed that she had written the instructions. After reading Hodgson's report, the committee agreed that Blavatsky was intentionally deceiving her followers.

Ascended Masters of the Great White Brotherhood

Many groups which grew out of Helena Blavatsky's movement believed in supernatural entities with mystical powers that are the secret basis of all of mankind's religions. As stated in "Sects, Cults, and Alternative Religions" these beings are sometimes known as "the Great White Brotherhood" because of a white glow that ascended masters are supposed to have. These movements typically included the idea that these beings gave secret knowledge to their followers.

Madame Helena Blavatsky told believers that she was able to make contact with these entities, and the religions and spiritualities that she inspired also had leaders who claimed to be receiving mystical wisdom about the future of mankind. As explained in Britannica, in the "I AM" movement, those messengers were founders Guy Ballard and his wife Edna Anne Wheeler. The messages they claimed to have received were the basis of a belief system that would influence many spiritual movements in the decades to come.

Guy Ballard and Edna Anne Wheeler

In 1930, mining engineer Guy Ballard visited a dormant volcano in California. It was there, Guy would later assert, that he was contacted by one of the "Great White Brotherhood." This alleged meeting would be the start of the I AM movement.

As detailed in "Alien Intervention: The Spiritual Mission of UFOs," Guy Ballard went hiking at Mount Shasta, where he claimed that he met a man who said he was Saint Germain. Madame Helena Blavatsky had claimed to be able to receive messages from Saint Germain in the 1880s. Saint Germain was supposed to be one of the group of magical entities called "Great White Brotherhood." According to Guy, he, his wife Edna, and their son were to be the new messengers of the Ascended Masters.

The Ballards would set up an organization called "The Saint Germain Foundation" in 1932. While Blavatsky had set up her faith as a modern alternative to Christianity, Guy and Edna Ballard considered their movement to be a form of Christianity. The I AM movement was named for a line in the Bible, in which God tells Moses, "I am who I am."

Saint Germain

Before Saint Germain was one of Helena Blavatsky's ascended masters or the supernatural being meeting Guy Ballard at a volcano, he was a famous historical occultist who died in the late 1700s. He would become one of the most important figures for the I AM movement.

As stated in the "Encyclopedic Handbook of Cults in America" Ballard told the movement's followers that Saint Germain had ascended and become part of the "Divine Spiritual Hierarchy." They believed that Saint Germain was charged with bringing on the "I AM" or a time of "eternal perfection" in the mortal world. They believed that Saint Germain had waited centuries for the right messenger before meeting Ballard.

As stated in "Alien Intervention: The Spiritual Mission of UFOs," the other most important of those ancient masters that Ballard communicated with was supposedly Christ himself. While Saint Germain was referred to as a member of "the Solar Tribunal," which encompassed the idea of space-traveling, godlike adepts, the new teachings of "Master Jesus" made up a substantial portion of the I AM movement, which reinforced the idea that they were Christian.

Masters' Messages

Guy Ballard would go on to publish a book called "Unveiled Mysteries," which contains elements that are taken directly from Theosophy. The book detailed the messages that Saint Germain apparently told him, including information on ancient civilizations, past lives, the secret kingdom of Atlantis, life on the planet Venus, and the ability to bend reality. Guy and his wife Edna would start the I AM movement based on the teachings that they claimed to receive from the supernatural beings.

These messages from the supernatural entities were known as "The Masters' Discourses." Many discussed the "I AM" or "God Presence" inside everyone, which would ultimately allow them to become pure enough to transcend the mortal realm. As noted in Britannica, at I AM meetings, members would recite calls to the divine, urging them to help transform the world. Listening to these recordings became a way for followers to worship.

As described in the Cult of Saint Germain Collection at the University of Mississippi, followers were expected to give up alcohol, smoking, drugs, sex, gambling, and some foods, including all meat. The central teaching promoted by the messages from the ascended masters was that humanity had become warped by living in their world, and that adults were no longer pure like they were at birth. Followers believed that people lived, died, reincarnated, and lived again until they were ready to ascend and become a master themselves.

American and Commercial

Like many other religions, I AM was supposed to be able to heal – but it also was supposed to have the power to make you rich. Followers might have been hoping for wealth from the movement, but they had to give a significant amount of money to the Ballards first.

Being a messenger of ancient wisdom was highly profitable for the Ballards. As reported by the Los Angeles Times, Guy Ballard's book "Unveiled Mysteries" sold very well. The couple also capitalized on the movement's success through recordings and lectures, as well as jewelry and photos of the Ballards. At one time they even sold a device with colorful lights that were called "Flame in Action."

I AM was also distinctly American. As stated by Britannica, Guy Ballard was supposed to have been President George Washington in a past life. As described in the Cult of Saint Germain Collection at the University of Mississippi, members of the I AM movement believed that Saint Germain had a special role for the United States to play: it would become "the nation of ascended masters." This led followers to be extremely patriotic, as well as conservative. They were encouraged to oppose labor movements and strikes.

Death (or not)

Guy Ballard died in 1939. As reported by the Los Angeles Times, this was problematic for the I AM movement because Guy was supposed to be immortal.

Rather than fall apart when one of their beliefs was apparently proven untrue, the movement decided that Guy had transcended the mortal realm and left his body behind. His wife, Edna Ballard, outlived him. As noted by Britannica, Edna became her husband's successor and took control of the movement. Guy had previously stated that Edna and their son Donald were also messengers, and after his death, she began to claim that she was in communication with the ascended masters as well. Soon she was also getting messages from Saint Germain. Between the two of them, they claimed to have spoken with the mystical beings the Ascended Masters more than 3,000 times.

The I AM movement continued to grow under Edna Ballard – until a court case almost caused the movement to fall apart completely.

Mail fraud trial

Only a year after Guy Ballard's death, Edna and nine other members of the I AM movement were put on trial for fraud. As stated by the Los Angeles Times, the movement's leadership had solicited approximately $3 million from their followers. The defense argued that the U.S. would be in extreme danger without their help. As an example, they described an incident before Guy Ballard's death where an entire secret fleet of Japanese submarines had come to attack the country, but Guy caused an invisible force called "K-17" to come and destroy the Japanese submarines.

Devoted followers poured out to support Edna Ballard – but there were former members who testified against her, as well. One woman told the story of how she had been promised safety and protection in this life and the next, but instead, the movement scammed her out of thousands of dollars. Edna is quoted as responding angrily to this charge, stating, "We're no more obliged to return the money or pay her bills than any ministers would be ... If she'd brought as much love and blessing into the world as I have, she wouldn't be in this fix."

As stated in "Controversial New Religions," the I AM members were initially convicted, because it was believed that no one could genuinely believe in the things the I AM movement claimed – so it must've been deliberate deceit. Later, this ruling was overturned by the Supreme Court, but the damage to the movement was done.

Church Universal and Triumphant

The I AM movement was incredibly influential and inspired many offshoots. The most notable of these is probably the Church Universal and Triumphant, led by Elizabeth Clare Prophet. Like Madame Helena Blavatsky and Guy and Edna Ballard before her, she claimed to be able to deliver messages from the ascended masters. Also like Edna, she inherited part of her movement from her husband. In 1958, her husband Mark Prophet founded an organization called the Summit Lighthouse which blended Theosophy with Christian, Buddhist, and Hindu beliefs. In 1975, Elizabeth Clare Prophet founded her own formalized faith: Church Universal and Triumphant. As reported by the New York Times, at one time she had between 30,000 and 50,000 followers who believed in her teachings, sent her funds, and called her "mother." Church Universal and Triumphant is often referred to as a doomsday cult.

In the '80s, Prophet told her followers that nuclear war between the U.S. and the Soviet Union was coming, and if they wanted to be safe they should relocate to the church's compound. They built bomb shelters and bunkers, and stashed supplies and weapons they thought they would need in the coming apocalypse.

The end didn't come. After Prophet's doomsday prophecy was proven untrue, her followers went home.

Aetherius Society's UFOs

The Aetherius Society's founder George King also claimed to be in communication with the ascended masters of the Great White Brotherhood. Unlike the I AM movement, however, he believed they would arrive on a spaceship.

As noted by "Gods from Space" (via the New York Times) King had been a taxi driver before he believed that he was contacted by the Great White Brotherhood, as the Ballards had been before him. "I had quite an amazing experience one Saturday morning while I was washing up some dishes," King stated. "I had a voice ... a voice out of this world say to me: 'Prepare yourself. You are to become the voice of Interplanetary Parliament.'" As described in "The A to Z of New Religious Movements" King claimed that the "Interplanetary Parliament" lived on Saturn, though the highest powers were the Lords of the Sun.

The Society, which spread around the world, worships in front of what they refer to as a battery. They believe that this stores the power of their prayer and can be used to help protect the world from threats like natural disasters. The Society had two goals: to carry out "metaphysical missions" to improve the lives of human beings, and to prepare for the flying saucer that will bring an ascended master to lead them.