In the beginning there was man, destined to be born, live and die.
And there were gods.
Although formed in the shape of man, these gods were not of man
for they had no beginning and no end and truly were immortal.
Yet they laid down with mortal flesh, and so it came to pass
that there was a mongrelization of death and immortal genetics,
and the gods passed from existence.
And there was born, two thousand years ago in the land of Galilee,
a man who was not man who was slain, and resurrected, and the
resurrection was not of spirit but of flesh.
All who reflect on this shall awaken to the promise of life everlasting
that is locked within themselves.
And they shall live forever, not in the next world, but in this. They shall be immortal.
That day is now.
So sayeth Charles Paul Brown, former nightclub entertainer, Assembly
of God spiritual leader of a far-flung following called the Eternal
Flame. Because of a genetic transformation he experienced in
1960, he says he will never die; nor will those of his disciples
who have fully embraced his passion.
There is nothing even vaguely metaphorical about this claim; when
Brown talks about eternal life he means just that, right now,
right here. "I have already experience the cellular reality
of being free from death," he writes in a newsletter. "I
am abolishing death this moment."
And there are those who listen and believe. Although Brown and
his wife, BernaDeane, have been Scottsdale residents for the past
decade, their following has been scattered as far afield as Denver,
Tulsa, Lubbock and Sarasota. Many are now selling off their possessions,
packing up their families and moving to the Valley to be with
the Browns, responding to the call for "Cellular intercourse."
They leave behind them a wake of bitterness and suspicion. Brown's
followers, claim relatives and former friends, have been brainwashed
by a cult leader comparable to Jim Jones. Stories about Eternal
Flame adherents who have donated vast sums of money to the group,
of group sex and forced homosexual relationships, of elderly people
in particular being preyed upon for their wealth.
In one extreme case a Tulsa family recently sought a court ruling
that their 77-year-old mother is incompetent to manage her affairs
and alleged that she has been bilked out of $150,000. Although
the judge denied the petition "with great reluctance,"
the family is going back to court in search of a guardianship
and is lining up a battery of prominent Tulsa businessmen and
politicians to testify about the elderly woman's "personality
Another Tulsa woman says both her parents, two sisters and a brother-in-law
pulled up stakes and moved to Scottsdale last year, lured by Brown's
spell-binding stories of immortal genes. Her father tried to
leave Eternal Flame three times, she adds, before succeeding;
he now lives secretively in Missouri, afraid to disclose his whereabouts
for fear Charles Brown will reappear on his doorstep - as happened
once before, the woman says.
On the other hand an investigation of Eternal Flame by the Scottsdale
Police Department has turned up no evidence of wrongdoing. Acting
on a request by the Maricopa County Attorney's Office, detective
Bob Hill looked for possible fraud and determined "the criminal
act could not be substantiated," said another department
officer. Adds deputy county attorney David Stoller: "Until
we have someone who is disaffected and comes in and says 'They
do this and they do that,' we don't have anything. It's not that
we're reluctant to do anything, it's just that we don't have anything
And there is the testimony of those within Eternal Flame. "I've
never felt so much love in all my life - nobody has loved me the
way these people do," says Glendora Buck, 50. "I've
needed that so bad. I've hungered for that intensity all my life."
Buck is the closest thing to a success story you'll find in the
Eternal Flame, since the movement is still too young to have any
post centenarians it can point to as proof of its teachings.
A year ago she was living in the state of Washington, desperately
alone and seized with the conviction that there is more to life
than eventual death - a conviction, she adds, that she has held
for 25 or 30 years.
"I could see Jesus was preaching eternity in the flesh,"
Buck explains. "Why else would he be reincarnated in the
flesh? Why else would he rise up into the clouds in the flesh?
He took it with him."
Feeling isolated, she decided to seek out others of like mind
and started running a six-word ad in hundreds of publications
around the country: "Want everlasting life in the flesh?"
Responses poured in by the hundreds - ultimately about 2,500
people responded. Buck estimates - but one in particular proved
significant: a copy of Brown's book. "When I read that I
just broke down and cried," she says. "I knew these
were my people."
Buck came to Scottsdale last year to visit the group, fell ill
with what she thought was the flu, and after time, finally visited
a doctor. That's when she discovered she had leukemia.
The next seven weeks were spent at Scottsdale Memorial Hospital
in chemotherapy. "My doctor told me I'd be dead in three
months if I couldn't get through this thing," she recalls.
He said that most people in chemotherapy die because of depression,
and I'll tell you something, if it wasn't for these people [from
Eternal Flame] coming in and giving me their love and energy every
day - every day!- my will would be broken."
Buck's cancer is now in remission and she's convinced she's been
cured and also decided "there's no reason to go back to Washington,
even though her children are there - they can always come and
visit me." She lives with other Eternal Flame members and
hoped her daughter will move to join her and feels she turned
her back on the life she gave her - a move exemplified by her
"The rest of my family won't have anything to do with me
because I left Christianity," she says. "I've just
totally discarded the past and don't even like to think about
"My reason for being here, on planet earth, is to find people
just like me. I'm here to awaken mankind, that he may truly live
and not die - and in order not to die you have to have other people
around you who want to live so much!"
BernaDeane Brown struts the length of the conference room at the
Scottsdale Sheraton, microphone in hand. Perhaps 70 people surround
her, listening attentively, occasionally interrupting with cries
of "That's right!" and "That's the truth!"
They are of all ages, from a handful of children through a number
in their teens and 20's and on up, but at least 30 or more are
clearly in their twilight years. All but one are Anglos.
BernaDeane is on a roll. Her eyes, framed by heavy make-up, glare
with intensity; her body moves with controlled tension, first
with a hand on one exasperated, outthrust hip, then with her head
tossed back in disdain, a moment later in rigid extension. Her
voice stabs more often than it caresses, careening along the upper
reaches of both pitch and volume. She has a passion, she declares,
and every twist and turn and swoop of her delivery will convince
you that this hunger is barely restrained, that it could devour
you in a moment if she but slipped the leash.
"We are not a people that is of this world!" she announces,
before shifting suddenly into a lower register to say, "I
want you to know tonight that I have a caring for mankind, whether
they hear me or not, whether or not they think I'm crazy."
In recent weeks the Eternal Flame has received a lot of bad publicity,
she says, smelling out the reporters in the room. "I don't
want the publicity we've received, it's so opposite to what we
are" - an observation echoed by shouts of "It's shallow!"
As a result, she adds, there are people who "are going to
want to prove we can die."
She turns, eyes narrow. "We have had the threats. I want you to know we have had the threats, but I also feel like there is a protective shield about our bodies - and the protective shield is you."
Sustained applause and cheering.
"There's not a person in the world who can intimidate you
- you intimidate yourself!" BernaDeane declares, whirling
about. "We are going to cover the face of the earth - and
if it takes eternity, what does it matter?"
There is a lot more of the same, an eclectic jumble of self-help
pop psychology, appeals to the special nature of those present,
condemnation of critics and a heavy dose of Brown's own curious
mixture of science and religion. "The intelligence of my
body will penetrate every cell of yours!" she says. Christ
died because he didn't have enough followers to sustain and nourish
hem: "The belief is not enough - I have to have you!
And the more people I have like you, the less deaths there will
BernaDeane Brown's preaching is the energy high point of the evening,
a Wednesday much- one assumes - like most Wednesdays for the group.
Both she and Charles are accomplished performers, and the weekly
meetings typically start with Charles Brown singing upbeat melodies
about people needing each other, about immortality and about cellular
interaction. At some point the Eternal Flame founder turns to
straight oratory, delivered in a forthright manner that builds
to a crescendo before lapsing into the familiar cadence of a southern
If Brown believes there was a "mongrelization of death and
immortal genetics," his own message is a mongrelization of
science and religion. He talks of sex in the genes, of male and
female hormones, of mice and frogs regenerating amputated limbs.
He believes in an "ancestral covenant with death" that
is "recorded within the cellular structure" which, in
turn, "activates a susceptibility to accidents, sickness,
disease, aging and ultimately death." Immortal man might
get sick, but he doesn't die. He is not "an accident waiting
to happen." He is capable of reversing the aging process.
All this is possible because of the resurrection of Jesus Christ
- a Jesus Christ who now lives on within the genes of each of
us. As explained in one of his newsletters: "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. That man of sin, that
invisible bastard that dwells in the consciousness and intellect
of the body, is being brightened by the brightness of MY COMING."
The use of the first person pronoun is conscious, deliberate and
a cause for anxiety among his critics. Brown claims both to be
and not to be Jesus Christ, his references so arcane as to be
open to a variety of interpretations. Again, as explained in
his writings: "Nay, I will not speak of him for man to idealize
as some abstract of God. I will speak for myself, for I have
fulfilled all that he spoke of in the ending of the genetics of
death and I AM NOW. I'm not ashamed to be called by his name."
Brown has been carrying that conviction ever since 1960, ever
since his sudden "genetic restructuring" abruptly ended
a two-year ministry in the Assembly of God. But despite more
than two decades of proselytizing across the United States the
world has yet to clamor for immortality: the Eternal Flame newsletter,
started in late 1965, has a circulation of only 4,000 and even
that is an inflated number ballooned out with the addition of
the 2,500 people who responded to Glendora Buck's advertisements.
Brown and the Eternal Flame, in other words, would remain just
another obscure sect if not for the relatively recent emphasis
on Scottsdale. The Browns have been Scottsdale residents since
1971 but much of their time has been spent on the preachers' circuit,
primarily, in the Bible Belt. Within the last couple of years,
however, more and more of their followers have moved here in response
to an emphasis on "cellular intercourse."
Today, Brown estimates, there area bout 100 Eternal Flame adherents
in the area, by far the largest concentration in the country.
"Cellular intercourse" is yet another aspect of the
Browns' teachings that has brought them the kind of attention
BernaDeane so vehemently deplores, and is just as abstrute a theory
as the one describing immortality.
In the ultimate interpretation of John Donne, Brown reasons that
those who want to live forever cannot be islands unto themselves:
"We who are the immortal species must flow together to nourish
one another in a cellular living. YOU CANNOT LIVE IMMORTALLY
ALONE," he writes.
Elsewhere he explains: "There is strength in numbers; not
in members who only adhere to a truth or philosophy, but in numbers
of body cells who are flowing together in a deathlessness of immortal
living to keep one another eternally. That's why we are together
here in Scottsdale. You cannot keep yourself alive out there
as a lone identity holding to a belief in physical immortality
flesh bodies to nourish and keep you."
And so they have come, from all points of the compass, to be nourished.
Forever. They bring with them their hopes and dreams, their
fortunes and their futures, and they turn their backs on a past
- on friends and family and memories and achievement - that they
claim would taint them with the genetics of death. The immortal
race must protect itself from corruption.
Some don't make it.
SUE, SAYS Sally Cunningham of her mother, "has been with
them ever since I can remember. They went down to Scottsdale
for vacation and when they came back they sold everything they
had and moved back"
"They" are virtually all of Cunningham's family: her
mother and father Goerge; her sister and sister's husband, Susan
and Paul; and a second sister, Twila, christened in honor of Twila
Davis, an Eternal Flame leader in Tulsa before she too, moved
to Scottsdale a few years ago. Only Cunningham's brother and
she stayed behind, a reluctance prompted by "our seeing right
That was a little less than three years ago, according to Cunningham,
and in that time she has learned she no longer has a family.
"They call us death - they say that we're living in darkness,"
she says. "I don't have a mother. She told me I don't have
a mother. What can I say? They are a weird, weird gorup - very
Having sold their Tulsa home and barbershop, Cunningham claims,
her parents moved into a Scottsdale home with another woman -
where they all shared both bed and board. That was only in keeping
with the Eternal Flames emphasis on "sexual love with anybody
and everybody," she adds, as well as a generalized emphasis
on physicality. Charles Brown, she claims, works on people's
insecurities: in one case where an elder woman was ashamed of
herself: "they worked on her and worked on her until she
finally got up in front of everybody and said, 'I've finally released
it, I've let it go,' and then she took all her clothes off."
Eventually George, married to the same woman for 29 years, decided
he wanted out. The first time he returned to Tulsa, Cunningham
says, "everybody down there [in Scottsdale] kept calling
him and calling him, to please come back." He did. The
second time he pulled away she adds, Charles Brown flew into Tulsa
and showed up on George's doorstep "and scared him half to
death. He did it just by looking at him with those scary eyes
The final break came four to six months ago; George is now living
in Missouri , divorced and remarried. Last week, Twila, his youngest
daughter, also left the group and is now with him. "They
treated her real bad because she never fully accepted [the teachings],"
she says with more than a trace of bitterness in her voice.
Cunningham's mother, Sue, knows she is bitter but attributes that
to the divorce - and emphasizes that George's departure "wasn't
from the group so much as it was from me. He left me several
times," she acknowledges that she and her ex-husband took
up housekeeping with a second woman, but says that was George's
idea and something she agreed to only "in order to keep the
marriage together." In fact, she adds, the move to Scottsdale
was made in an effort to keep the marriage together.
The portrait she paints of George is not a flattering one and includes a girl friend in Tulsa as well as ads in Tulsa publications searching for partners. She knows he is living in Missouri, is not surprised he has remarried, denies that Charles Brown ever followed George in an effort to convince him to return. Nor is she surprised that Twila also departed, claiming her daughter "was never involved with the group in a total way" and "never really gave of herself."
Twila, she adds, got married after the move to Scottsdale - not
an Eternal Flame member. Cunningham attended only a single Eternal
Flame meeting in Tulsa and so "didn't really know what was
going on." And George, Sue adds, left her with a mountain
of bills she is now slowly paying off.
Yet another perspective on this particular situation is offered
by Tulsa resident Marie Woods, with whom George lived for awhile
before moving on to Missouri. He was, she says, a "tortured
man" torn between his desire to get away from Eternal Flame
and wanting to be with his wife. "I think he was struggling
to get her away from that," she says. "He was never
in it that much - it was because he really cared for his wife."
The money Cunningham's parents got from their Tulsa properties,
according to Woods, was used to buy a Scottsdale barbershop that
was then given to the Eternal Flame; George has allegedly declared
bankruptcy since leaving the group.
As for the group's sexual practices, Woods said only that George
had described them but "I really don't want to get into that."
"They can take everything that's in the Bible and turn it
around," she said of the Eternal Flame, which she estimates
has been in Tulsa about 20 years. "Many people have gone
there with their Bibles in hand and he [Charles Brown] just turns
them around and brainwashes them."
Charges of brainwashing have been leveled far more forcefully
by Royce Newby, whose legal efforts a few weeks ago to have her
mother declared incompetent garnered large Tulsa headlines. Now
Newby is seeking a guardianship, utterly convinced that Charles
Brown has twisted her mother's mind for his own gain. "Anyone
who's had any dealings with my mother over the past 25 or 30-years
cannot believe she'd have anything to do with this,"
she exclaims. "it blows my mind - it's all completely contrary
to everything we were taught."
As Newby sees it, the troubles started in early 1981 when her
father died. Millie Gertrude Bailey had previously attended "a
few" Eternal Flame meetings and had met the Browns and Jim
Strole the organization's vice president, but the relationship
was a distant one. "If they [Eternal Flame leaders] had
ever set foot on this property when dad was alive, he'd have blown
their heads off," Newby claims. "He hated them with
After the death, however, the arms-length relationship became
a lot closer. Bailey, who will be 77 in August, left her large
family (in addition to several children she had nine brothers
and sisters) and moved to Scottsdale with Dorothy Goard, another
Tulsa resident and Eternal Flame adherent whose husband died in
1980. Once here, Newby says, her mother started donating large
financial "love offerings" to Brown, became increasingly
distant and let her health slip away.
Newby says she didn't fully realize what was happening until she
flew out for a nine-day visit last thanksgiving. "That's
when I realized she was mixed up in something," she says.
"I could see her health deteriorating because of the pressure
she was under, and she had never spent her money like this."
And, she adds, in words that echo Cunningham's, she attended a
meeting in which Twila Davis stood up and announced that "she'd
[Bailey] broken all genetics between us and that I was no longer
her daughter and she was no longer my mother."
There were other visits, each progressively more distant; most
recently, Newby says, her registered mail letters have been refused.
When she came to Scottsdale in May - a Tulsa television crew
in tow - for four days, her mother's home was padlocked and other
Eternal Flame members wouldn't tell her where Bailey was staying.
Meanwhile, she found out from Dorothy Goard's son that the widow
had sold her Tulsa home and donated her $10,000 in equity to Eternal
The competency hearing in Tulsa drew a lot of attention, in part
because the Baileys are an old and respected family in the city.
At stake, says Newby, is a trust that she claims is held equally
by her mother and the children - a trust that Newby believes her
mother is trying to liquidate so she can donate the proceeds to
Brown and Eternal Flame. (Bailey, on the other hand, says the
trust is entirely in her name and she can dispose of it in any
way she pleases.)
And in a surprise twist, one of the witnesses subpoenaed by Newby
was her mother's attorney, who testified that compared to a year
ago, Bailey appeared to be drugged. (The Attorney, Paul Hutchins,
declined to be interviewed by New Times, claiming lawyer-client
confidentiality; as a result, we were unable to determine who
is telling the truth about the distribution of the trust, worth
at least $130,000).
Special Judge Robert D. Frank, after two days of testimony, found
with "great reluctance" that there was insufficient
evidence to prove Bailey was either incompetent or being held
against her will. "I'm not here as arbiter as to the wisdom
of decisions but whether they are informed decisions," he
said. "The facts don't show that this woman is incompetent
Gertrude Bailey has her own version of what happened, of course.
Part of it came out in her Tulsa testimony - testimony in which
she admitted making several loans to sect members, one of them
a $15,000 second mortgage on her Scottsdale home, as well as putting
up her home as collateral on a $20,000 bond for an Eternal Flame
member charged in California with rape.
But she also described several large - and never repaid - loans
to her children, and told the New Times last week that
money is in fact the basis of Newby's "concern" - that
Newby is "greedy," "trying to take me for a ride"
and "not dependable on what she says." Affairs of this
sort drag out a family's worst secrets, and Bailey duly recounts
an incident 15 years ago in which Newby's husband allegedly left
her for a younger woman, an incident that "really threw her
for a loop" and resulted in psychiatric care.
Gertrude bailey is tired of all the media attention and her family's
legal efforts to gain control of her considerable financial assets.
"Most everything that's been printed is lies, and I am getting
very weary of it," she says in a tone of voice that is, in
fact full of weariness. "I'm tired of this, and if it wasn't
for the people here I don't think I could have made it - it's
enough to give anyone ulcers, honey. And I'll tell you, nowhere
else in the world is there a group of people who would go through
hell and high water for you like they do - nowhere."
For a year after her husband died, she says, she lived alone before
deciding to move "to enjoy life." Now she has found
that enjoyment, and she intends to cling to it for all she's worth:
"I'll tell you that the love here is the most caring I've
ever known. I never have to be lonely any more - I can run down
the street and see this lovely person here and that lovely person
"If they had really loved me they wouldn't have come there,"
she adds, referring to the courtroom appearance of her children
and brothers and sisters. "They wouldn't have come to see
me nailed to a cross, to see my children making a spectacle of
me on the stand."
She starts to cry softly. "If any of them had stayed home,
I would have known that person loved me."
But does she really believe she has now gained eternal life?
"It doesn't really make any difference about that - I just
want to live today," she responds. "To live forever
and to live with what I've been going through the past few months?
Uh-huh, I don't want that. But I do know that to live or die,
we have a choice."
Bailey pauses, recalls that Christ talked of conquering the grave.
"Everything that there is, is for today," she says.
And finally, "I would say today id the day of immortality."
What Bailey doesn't volunteer, however, is the information that
Dorothy Goard, a years-long friend and for the past 15 months
the woman with whom she shared a house they had bought together,
last week abandoned both the home and the Eternal Flame. She
returned to Tulsa penniless, say family friends; no one answers
the phone at the Goard residence, and her son's co-workers says
he is not taking calls.
Gertrude Bailey claims not to know why Goard left. "She
didn't confide in me a lot," she says. "We know there's
going to be a controversy, that people will take what we say and
do in a wrong way, but we don't want it twisted the way it was
in Tulsa, a little old lady being imprisoned by a cult and that
sort of thing," says Jim Strole. "How do you think
that makes her feel, being told she's senile and incompetent?"
Nobody forced Bailey to move to Scottsdale, he emphasizes - and,
alone in Tulsa, "she was dying."
Strole is one of the acknowledged leaders of the Eternal Flame,
a 340year-old Arizona native who used to be a real estate salesman.
Today he lives with the Browns, an arrangement that people like
Newby says includes a physical intimacy well known within Eternal
Flame circles. He also operates an auto salvage yard near I-10
and Seventh Avenue - a business he leased until he was able to
buy it last fall. The money for the $35,000 down payment he acknowledges,
came from Gertrude Bailey - but the arrangement is a business
proposition. Strole adds, since he bears the responsibility of
making monthly mortgage payments and has to meet a $40,000 balloon
payment in two years.
In February the mortgage holder initiated foreclosure action,
cancelling an announced auction of the business in May. There
were some financial problems, Strole says.
Dressed in a dark blue, pin-striped suit, his tanned body of more
that six feet draped in a chair in the Sheraton lounge, Strole
looks neither like the sort of guy who rips apart rusting automobiles
nor like a Jim Jones imitator - a name he volunteers, if only
in disparage. Sitting across from him are BearnaDeane and Charles
Paul Brown, the former still emanating tension after her impassioned
preaching, the latter showing concern over this latest in a seemingly
never ending procession of media inquiries.
"There is an anger within the body of the people," Charles
Brown acknowledges, because of all the bad press. But all of
it has been lies, he adds; there are no orgies, there have been
no screenings of X-rated movies in motel rooms, there is no pressure
on people to move to Scottsdale or to stay if they change their
minds. He denies ever following George back to Tulsa, and says
any unusual sexual relationships within the household were of
George's own doing.
"The thing that split them up was George wanting to multiple
living arrangement with two females," he says - to which
Strole chimes in, "on his own terms."
Sexuality and sensuality pervade the conversation, just as they
permeate Eternal Flame meetings. Part of that pervasiveness may
be no more than a semantic overtone, since the Eternal Flame vocabulary
is loaded with phrases such as "cellular intercourse,"
as well as such cryptic statements as BerneDeane's repeated assertion
that "I am both male and female, and I am not only both male
and female but androgynous too."
But there is more overt emphasis on physicality - perhaps not
surprisingly for a group that believes the body is everything.
References are made to "encouraging" relationships,
an encouragement that may be interpreted as being as benign as
a matchmaker's or as insidious as the forced coupling some claim
has occurred. Although many unrelated Eternal Flame adults live
together, the Browns say this occurs no more frequently than in
the population at large and happens for economic reasons was well
as out of a desire to be together.
And yes, Strole acknowledges, "We have taken our clothes
off - together. In groups." Many people are uncomfortable
with their bodies, he explains, which leads to self-rejection;
such group encounters help overcome that rejection. But there
is no free love within the group which typically is an exploitation
of the body rather that a celebration.
Finally, says Charles Brown, "We don't dictate any kind of
sexual intimacy between people - nor do we condemn anyone. What
goes on behind closed doors is no one else's business
takes place in the cells of the body, not on paper."
Brown claims to know with absolute certainty that he has found
immortality within himself. Now 48, he looks fit and trim but
is clearly not as youthful as he must have appeared in 1960; no
matter. He is not aging, he says, but "maturing."
When his physical maturation will end, he doesn't know, but he
is equally convinced that the truly immortal can also reverse
the aging process if they so desire.
There is only one person within the group who has died, he says,
a woman in her 80s who believed in the Eternal Flame's message
"but told us this just wasn't for her." And when she
asked the group to let her go, Brown says, it did ;this was, after
all, what she wanted.
Is he now a god himself, Brown is asked. He sips from his glass
of wine, declares, "I am what I am," then talks of his
followers. "I awakened them," he says, "I caused
them to experience an enlightenment, and so they may have a reverence
for me. But for them to make me a lord or a god would be destructive
to me, because that would immediately denote a separateness from
"And I cannot live apart from them," he said.