Cultic Twilight: a review

Robert Benchley once wrote that there are many mysteries which humans have not fathomed, and added: "Some of them may not even be worth fathoming." These words occasionally come to mind during Martin Gardner's lengthy, painstakingly researched investigation of The Urantia Book and its smallish surrounding cult.

The UB was published in 1955 and runs to 2,097 pages of fairly standard holy-book material. An elaborate celestial hierarchy of swarming godlings and angel-analogues ruled by a supreme being ingenuously called the "Great I Am"; prophecies and revelations; a revisionist life of Christ; and so on. Weird neologisms abound, as in Scientology ("Urantia" is merely Earth), and are gleefully quoted. Outsiders find it odd that some regard the UB as validated by its predictions of scientific developments before the 1955 publication date. For UB fundamentalists, you see, it is an article of faith that the text was finalized in 1934.

The roots of UB go deeper, and Gardner relentlessly explores them. In the 19th century we meet Sister Ellen White, prophetess of Seventh Day Adventism (itself a splinter cult formed in the wake of William Miller's dud prophecy that Christ would return in 1844), issuing contradictory decrees direct from God and churning out sacred writings by shameless plagiarism. One disciple, Dr William Sadler, broke loose from the Adventists but ironically – as Gardner persuasively argues – re-enacted White's autocracy and compulsive plagiarism in the UB movement.

The story is that the first inklings of the UB were "channelled" during sleep by Sadler's brother-in-law Wilfred Custer Kellogg – a relative of the Dr John Kellogg of bowel-obsession fame, recently portrayed in the movie The Road to Wellville, who lurks on the fringes of this story and whose moderately irrelevant health fads earn him an entertaining chapter here. This channelling began in 1911 or 1912, with a spurt in 1923 when Sadler's religious discussion group posed 4,000 questions which Wilfred supposedly answered in a 472-page MS dictated by Higher Intelligences and written out by his own hand while asleep one night....

A cult was born. The divinely authored UB continued to grow. Only wicked sceptics would listen to the rumour that mere humans were encouraged to contribute bits, or even lots.

Various text comparisons, discussed here at gruelling length and supported by computer analysis, suggest to the eye of unfaith that Sadler wrote large chunks of UB and personally re-edited the entire book. His own writings are visibly recycled, including ugly racist views and a powerful flavour of Adventism. Other contributors pinched material from further afield. The bombshell came in 1992, when the Urantian disciple Matthew Block documented many flagrant plagiarisms in UB, including a damning list of platitudes lifted straight from the first 33 pages of one particular dictionary of quotations.

Block's faith was only strengthened by his discovery of the Higher Intelligences' cleverness in using mere human words for their awesome purposes. UB fundamentalists are similarly unimpressed by this gospel's scientific deficiencies, also voluminously discussed here. If a prediction is correct, UB is confirmed. If something is missing which Higher Intelligences should logically have told us, this is because UB does not dispense "unearned" knowledge (except sometimes): humanity must find out the hard way. Gross scientific errors, like mixing up Fahrenheit and Kelvin for stellar temperatures, are merely "time bombs" inserted to encourage human self-reliance and stop people treating UB as inerrant truth – which some nevertheless do.

Inevitably the UB movement suffered schisms. The funniest of these involve the US Urantia Foundation's attempts to preserve rigid copyright control of a holy book whose authors are, officially, intangible astral entities. There's even a punchline: in February 1995, a US judge declared the UB to be in the public domain – though why anyone should want it beats me.

Martin Gardner has spent more than forty years boldly and effectively attacking the dragons of irrationality ... but finally, perhaps, he's running short of major new targets. The UB cult is mildly funny and not detectably life-threatening (yes, the Branch Davidians and Waco get dragged in at one point, but the connection is Adventist, not Urantian). Maybe it isn't funny enough: more than once Gardner feels the need to pep things up by invoking his fictitious numerologist Dr Matrix, to little effect. I hope he's joking when he argues – as Gardner, not as the charlatan Matrix – that a UB sequence of 7 small numbers, followed after undisclosed intervals by a 6-digit and then a 7-digit number, is an intentional "signature" of Wilfred Custer Kellogg (7, 6 and 7 letters). This is tenuous to the point of vacuity.

Although Urantia contains fascinating and entertaining segments, the sheer weight of lovingly researched, meticulously reproduced documentation forms a leaden ballast to the humour of it all. Better organization might have helped: tighter editing, a subject index to make it usable as a reference work, a family-tree chart to clarify the relationships of all too many Kelloggs. Ultimately, one can't resist saying, a massive sledgehammer is being brought to bear on a few minor nuts.