Here are two remarkable sermons written by Father Taliaferro and read by Chuck Robison in preparation for the Easter Holy Days.
The first concerns the meaning of Maundy Thursday
The second explains the Symbolism of The Cross
(Copied from the December 1991 issue of D Magazine in Dallas.)
He teaches reincarnation and out-of-body travel. His followers range from Park Cities matrons to Willie Nelson. His message: Everything- including Cadillacs and summers in Carmel-is part of a glorious cosmic plan.
IT’S WEDNESDAY MORNING ON TURTLE Creek, time for these wives, widows and divorcees of Dallas gentry to gather in a lushly decorated Tudor and discuss the Big Questions. Bigger, of course, than who is cheating on whom, or planning the upcoming charity ball. Much bigger, you see, than any of their lives. The day and the hour dictate a deeper agenda: Cosmic consciousness. Life. Death. Reincarnation. Out-of-body travel. Karma.
Their teacher, an octogenarian with a comb of white hair, a benign smirk and priestly hands, takes his place in front of them in an antique cane chair. “Everything is great and wonderful.” he once proclaimed in this room. “It always was great and wonderful. It always will be great and wonderful. So if we say something is not great and wonderful, it’s not because it’s not great and wonderful. It’s because that’s the way we think.”
From this vantage, everything this morning is looking great and wonderful indeed: the Chinese antiques and Italian mosaics, the Chagall in the sun room, the smile on the face of the young stewardess getting her “fix” of mysticism. For the next 90 minutes, these two dozen or so women will ask him questions and he will tell them things their old ministers would not: that their bodies are only temporary dwellings that can be left at will, that reincarnation is a fact and that they can change the world by visualizing goodness three times a day. Perhaps best of all, he will tell them that everything-the husband’s indiscretions, the child’s addictions, the terror on the evening news, even their Highland Park addresses-is all part of a divine lesson plan. Many of the listeners, as they bask in the stream of words, wear the expressions of a cat being stroked between the ears. Some close their eyes, placing their hands flat on the legs of well-tailored pant suits.
Albert Achilles Taliaferro (pronounced “Tolliver”), has been their guide for decades. Yes, before the Beatles knew a swami from a synthesizer. Tolly, as his disciples call him, had some of these ladies, chanting “Ohhmmmmmmm” in their Donna Reed dresses. Over the years, he’s been called a wise man and a great teacher, a heretic and a crackpot. To the women in this room he is a great source of light. Tolly is Guru. Indeed, the Guru of Highland Park.
He also is a deposed Episcopal (1) priest, the man who built one of Dallas’ wealthiest churches, only to be toppled and then resurrected with the help and good karma of the late Ann Cox and the power of her family oil fortune. That was 26 years ago. Since then, his connections have allowed him to overcome the protests of other clergymen and go on preaching to hundreds every Sunday at Southern Methodist University. Business execs, real estate yups, computer whizzes, entertainers and generations of the spiritually promiscuous all have been drawn into his orbit. 8.0 restaurant owner Shannon Wynne consults him for advice. Political activist Roy Williams, whose lawsuit forced Dallas to change the way it elected its city council, defers to him as a mentor. And when country superstar Willie Nelson, a longtime disciple, tied the knot for the fourth time this past September. Tolly conducted the private service in his office.
Tolly calls himself a Christian, but his teachings are nothing like what you heard in Sunday school. His main philosophical influence is Rosicrucianism, a four-century old mystical order that Tolly joined more than 50 years ago. The order, whose scholarship is widely considered dubious, claims roots to ancient wisdom stretching back to Egypt in the reign of the Pharaoh Akhnaton. Based in San Jose, California, the group claims 250,000 members worldwide who subscribe to a secret 17-year mailorder course that promises to uncover the truths of life and the universe from “development of personal magnetism” to “thought transmission.”
According to Rosicrucianism, a group of advanced beings from Earth and beyond are dwelling in our midst, invisibly guiding human events-the writing of Shakespeare’s plays (by Francis Bacon, Tolly believes), the design of the dollar bill, the uniting of Europe. But Tolly’s spiritual influences have few bounds. In his cosmic blender, Tolly combines selective scoops of mysticism, Hinduism, Buddhism, astrology, Jungian psychology, alchemy, physics and free-enterprise economics. He throws out the contradictions and flips the switch. Christ equals Krishna equals Buddha. All religions are one, and science is in no way incompatible with belief in the spirit world. “The scientist is the great high priest of the religion of the future.” he likes to say, and, “The Holy Spirit is akin to the speed of light squared.”
Dallas, in Tolly’s cosmic scheme, is a fertile crescent for new thought that will help transform the planet. “Where new approaches to religion are concerned, Dallas is on its way, in the next 25 to 50 years, to becoming a center,” he says. “I think the type of person who is attracted is the person questioning things,” says Jimmy Lawrence, the woman who has hosted Tolly’s twice-a-week classes in her home for a decade. Long ago, she says, her ex-husband, former Braniff International Chairman Harding Lawrence, warned her against Tolly. “This is a dangerous man,” he said. She didn’t believe it then, and she doesn’t now. “I think,” she says, “the people in this class are irritated if someone says ‘You’re not supposed to know that.'”
Tolly has two audiences-an inner circle and an outer. For the wider audiences in his church services at SMU, he discusses his belief system in vague, general terms. He’ll talk about rebirth or deliver an inspirational message on the power of the soul. But it is for the inner circle, those who faithfully attend classes in Lawrence’s home, that Tolly saves prophecies that would make the neck hairs of the uninitiated stand up. He tells them, for example, that one day Christ will pass off administration of the earth to an assistant-in-training, and that for a great period of time, the planet’s less-advanced souls will not be permitted to reincarnate, and that “the day will come when we will all transfer to a higher planet.” Yet, no matter how far out Tolly’s ideas do get, he can’t be dismissed as just another celestial snake oil salesman. He’s not a rank outsider or a mere appendage to Dallas society. He’s part of its very fabric.
He considers himself first a teacher, and as such he helped found some of North Texas’ first schools for retarded children and children with Down’s syndrome. He also founded one of the city’s toniest private schools-Dallas’ first Montessori- where parents (who generally know nothing of his theology) pay college-level tuition for their young to imbibe knowledge with the power lineage of Hunts, Crows and Dedmans.
Last spring. 28 years after he broke with organized religion. Tolly ended another acrimonious struggle when an expanded board of directors of the St. Alcuin Montessori ousted him in a fight over control. Tolly had refused to yield authority to a committee system and be phased out. “There is no in-between with him,” says retired North Dallas accountant C. Lee Connell, the former treasurer of Tolly’s church. Their friendship of more than 50 years was wrecked in the fight at St. Alcuin. “You either love him or you hate him.”
SMU’S SELECMAN HALL. MOTHER’S Day. Everything is as it should be. Light filters though the tall plantation shutters, falling on the women in their puffy-shouldered print dresses and the men in sensible suits. Tolly, in his priest’s collar and vestments, plays the baby grand, leading the congregation in “Amazing Grace.” Tolly reads from the Gospel. The parishioners of St. Alcuin’s Community Church, about 150 of them genuflect (2) on cue.
Then comes the sermon: “Oh wonderful, beautiful kingdom of light, Shed down upon these humble souls thy beam of cosmic consciousness . ..” No one here is surprised by the words, and Tolly, after rambling a bit about organized religion, man’s psyche and the sun, launches into a vivid explanation of his ideas on rebirth. “The soul creates the body. It chooses the parents,” he explains, sounding like a professor trodding familiar ground, “It chooses the place the parents are. It chooses the environment, the people involved in the family as well as in the community-the possibilities of coming in contact with persons and groups of persons in which the various aspects of the development of the incarnation can take place. “On Mothers Day it is very important for us to see this,” he goes on. “The reason for Mother’s Day, from a spiritual standpoint, is that we are reminded of the fact that there is a divine plan behind every birth of a soul in a physical body.”
On the karmic balance sheet, this impresario of the occult has come out ahead in this life. Reared in East Dallas, the eldest son of a postal worker, he now lives in a spacious Highland Park home, drives a Sedan de Ville Cadillac with vanity plates (“Tolly”), carries a country club membership and cools off by summering a month every year in Carmel. Albert was a brooding and sensitive boy who felt trapped in an ultrareligious family that worshiped in the Church of Christ. He spent much of his youth alone, contemplating his parents’ jealous, punitive God -“One of the most cruel concepts I heard of.”
Lucky for him, he was spared a mundane life by his uncanny ability to play the piano and by Dallas society’s willingness to embrace and nourish him. As a youth in the 1920s, Albert played organ at downtown churches and piano for WFAA radio’s The Early Birds orchestra. Music gave him his first glimpse inside Dallas’ worlds of business and art and those contacts would ultimately propel him to Ivy League schools and to music studies that would take him to New York, San Francisco and Paris.
“When the soul works,” he explained to his congregation as he approached his 80th birthday last February, “it works by making contacts psychically. . contacts will be brought into your zone of influence and awareness.”
Albert and his soul began making esoteric contacts early in life. He first left his body, he says, at the age of 9. Bedridden with pneumonia, he heard the doctor tell his mother that he would not live through the night. Suddenly, Taliaferro says, he felt himself rise up, hovering above the doctor, above his weeping mother and father and finally, above the earth, wafting in space. “It was not a dream,” he said recently in his office overlooking Turtle Creek and downtown.
By the time the Rev. C.V. Westapher arrived as an assistant at St. Michael in 1960, word of Taliaferro’s Rosicrucian connections had leaked out, and the church was at war with itself. A group of parishioners appealed to the bishop for Taliaferro to be removed. But before the year was over, Taliaferro resigned to work as a professional psychologist. “If he taught Rosicrucianism, he was teaching something below the sub-Christian level, and that offended many members of the congregation,” says Westapher. “He is a superb man for God-he just didn’t quite fulfill Episcopalian expectations.”
Betty Cone, one of those who followed Tolly into the Rosicrucians, describes the reaction that Taliaferro’s beliefs provoked in blunter terms. “The fit hit the shan,” she says. “They started a witch hunt.” Taliaferro spent the next few years counseling federal prisoners in Seagoville and looking in vain for an Episcopal church that would have him. He divorced his first wife and married Ethel Williamson, a divorcee in his St. Michael’s choir and the daughter of a wealthy Shreveport family.
In 1965, Tolly seemed born again. Ann Cox helped him launch the Montessori school, and she arranged through her husband, oilman Edwin L. Cox, for Tolly to have a place to preach at SMU. Unrepentant, Taliaferro wrote to the bishop explaining his ambitious plans for a new church at which he would once again preach his unorthodox views. An unimpressed committee of his peers advised the bishop to defrock him. Obviously, the Age of Aquarius had yet to dawn on the Episcopal hierarchy.
ST. ALCUIN COMMUNITY CHURCH, named after Charlemagne’s court teacher (Alcuin was never canonized by anyone except Taliaferro)(3) will continue at least until Taliaferro dies. Or, as he would put it, until he moves into his next “transition.” But the arrangement with SMU, which has lasted almost eight years since Ann Cox’s death, has left some of the SMU clergy wincing. SMU chaplain William M. Finnin suggested that the Perkins School of Theology discontinue Taliaferro’s $650-a-month lease on Selecman Hall, but to no avail. This fall, Tolly’s group was permitted to move across campus to the Hughes-Trigg Student Center. The lease amount was unchanged.
“I think they have worn out their welcome,” Finnin argues. “First of all, he’s getting a very cheap ride. They pay an obscenely minimal amount, and as far as I can tell he is very well funded.” Tolly’s lifestyle indeed surpasses that of the average priest. St. Alcuin’s budget is simple. The draw from the weekly offering (usually around $500) goes toward rent of the hall and other church expenses, such as Tolly’s Cadillac and the church rectory, his house on Belclaire Avenue. What’s left over is for Tolly’s discretionary use, along with the money he makes from the classes and psychological counseling.
“It’s sort of a play church,” Finnan says in a tone resembling a pastoral sneer. Finnin insists his opposition is mainly for business reasons and principle, but he has little regard for Taliaferro’s theology. “What the group has put together is an eclectic New Age philosophy that has very little resemblance to biblical Christianity and that allows them to be very complacent with the wealth they’ve accumulated, earned or inherited.”
Taliaferro’s intensely protective disciples scoff at any such criticism and shun publicity. “You can not sum up in one did-dly-wa article what impact this man has had on the city,” says Paula Dennard, the widow of a Dallas investment banker. “People are different after they are around him,” she says. “They are saying, ’What is the meaning of life? What is its purpose? How can we link up hearts and souls for building peace?’ But if you put some of this in a magazine, people will think we’re crazy.”
Wanda Shannon, self-made stockbroker, real estate agent and former president of the Children’s Arts and Ideas Foundation, is one of the few working women among Tolly’s longtime female followers in the Wednesday class. She acknowledges that many of Tolly’s followers rely on him as a “crutch.” But she adds, “What he has said many times is that the very rich have the same problems as the very poor and having money doesn’t make you any better than anyone else. He has taught them to be unselfish,” she says. “He has taught them even if they have servants, to help the servants.”
Most of us, Taliaferro preaches, are running around like so many disconnected transistors, squandering our energies. The purpose of life is to learn, he teaches, and most of us are flunking the test. Those who don’t learn do it over in life after life. Meanwhile, he instructs those with money to use it for good purposes or risk losing it all like the Hunt brothers. Karma, he says, is a sort of Robin Hood.
“It always comes back to an individual having a purpose, whether you’re a capitalist or whatever you’re doing,” explains Jim Reid, president of Dallas’ Southern Dallas Development Corporation, who frequently attends Tolly’s church in blue jeans, leather sandals and a necklace made from antique Chinese stones.
The recurring villains in Tolly’s sermons are all organized religions, particularly fundamentalists, right-wingers and whatever Republican administration happens to be in power. “The primary cause of mental illness is religion,” he proclaimed in a feistier moment. Another time, Tolly declared modern abortion “a very great contribution to the human race… It doesn’t make any difference to the soul because the soul that needs an incarnation is going to find another body anyway.”
But there is one point on which Tolly agrees with some of the strictest fundamentalists: His God is a capitalist-an enlightened capitalist, of course. At the top of Taliaferro’s spiritual hierarchy are philanthropists and businessmen, not Mother Teresa. Asked if he’s known anyone who has come close to karmic perfection, Taliaferro shakes his head “no”. But then he goes on to praise the Rockefellers as some of the most advanced beings.
“The capitalistic system is just a system of psychic consciousness brought down to the material plane,” Taliaferro once said. “And it was revealed to the Rothschilds by the masters… The capitalist system is a system of creativeness. It’s not the profit system.”
As for those of his flock who don’t have millions, Taliaferro insists that they can influence the course of history by sending out thoughts of love and peace. It’s a fairly effortless salvation, some of Tolly’s critics point out. “In Christianity,” says Finnin of SMU, “we call that cheap grace-the idea that you don’t have to get your hands dirty.”
ROY WILLIAMS is discussing the divine order of all things and his agenda for “social action” over pasta salad and coffee at Massimo da Milano. Here, in the heart of North Dallas’ boutique belt on Lovers Lane, about 20 Tolly-ites assemble as they do every Tuesday after Taliaferro’s evening class. Williams, holding court at one table, describes his spiritual journey. A follower of Taliaferro for more than a decade and an initiated Rosicrucian, Williams filed the lawsuit that eliminated at-large representation at Dallas City Hall and essentially forced the 14-1 council plan. “The belief system we operate out of in dealing with Father Taliaferro is that you’re drawn to places and to people that you’re supposed to be with and I think through my search for self-realization I came across the most powerful vehicle in my environment, which was Father Taliaferro,” Williams explains. That’s the long way of saying that he was introduced to Taliaferro’s church through a woman he was having a conversation with at La Madeleine, his unofficial office near SMU. In this lifetime, Williams has forsaken steady employment so that he could fulfill his mission-whether that meant berating the City Council, calling news conferences or taking the city to federal court. “It is my belief this is something I set out to do in another lifetime and I’m just finishing up what I left off,” he explains.
Taliaferro is quick to distance himself from Williams. For that matter, he doesn’t endorse all the extracurricular ideas of most of his followers, many of whom have run the mystical gamut from fortune telling to fire walking to peyote rituals. He calls them novices, or simply, “the little children.”
As the night wears on, these aspiring mystics get weary of mysticism, and the talk drifts to other subjects: to Mexican vacations and Chinese food, to movies and automobiles.
Gary Blackburn, a thirtyish real estate broker from Irving, explains to a visitor the power of the mind over not only matter, but over the Mercedes-Benz. Five years ago, before he began his mystical quest, Blackburn, who was driving a Camaro, promised a friend he would soon be driving a Mercedes. The next day, he walked into a dealership, climbed into a sedan and breathed in the scent of factory leather. A year later, he was driving a midnight blue 190E. “Visualization is the way you make things happen,” he said, quick to add that his first concern is with making the world a better place-not acquiring luxury sedans. “I visualize peace on earth before I visualize anything of a personal nature,” says Blackburn. “I don’t think my purpose with Father Taliaferro is to go out and make a million dollars-even though I know I will.”
FOR A MAN WHO PROCLAIMS THE WON-der in everything, Taliaferro is remarkably discontent about the state of the world. While most of the country was celebrating a decisive victory in the Persian Gulf war, Taliaferro lamented, “We haven’t progressed one iota since Roman times.” Such statements have helped Taliaferro gather up many of those estranged from traditional churches.
Shannon Wynne, who runs a temple of Dallas’ art-money-fashion set in the Quadrangle’s 8.0 restaurant, turned to Tolly’s teachings in the mid-1980s after indulging his curiosities in UFOs and “spirit forms.” “I did channeling and everything else-a lot of it was bullshit.” says Wynne. “Father Taliaferro is very hip when it comes to reality. You don’t feel like you’re sitting with your old-time type priest-he’s cynical, and political. Some of what he says I accept, some of it I’m not intellectual enough to accept or I don’t want to accept.”
Even for the open-minded, some of Taliaferro’s ideas can be difficult to fathom. He professes with certainty that the souls of those on earth will travel to another planet, for example, and that one day another “great master” by the name of Koot Hoomi will assume divine stewardship of the earth’s affairs. “He [Koot Hoomi] is slated to be the person who will function in the office of the Christ,” Tolly told one of his evening classes. “Just as when the Queen of England dies her son will take her place, so when the Christ goes to another position, there will be one who will take his place as a human being.”
Later, asked where he gets these ideas, Taliaferro says that it would not be appropriate for the general public to judge him out of context. But when pressed, he explains that such principles are based on “esoteric Buddhism.” Yes, but does he really believe it? “I don’t believe anything,” he answers obliquely. Then he chuckles. “I don’t close my mind to anything either.”
Even at their most absurd, Taliaferro’s ideas seem pretty harmless-with one exception . The most troubling part of his creed has nothing to do with interplanetary travel. It is his notion that karmic law can account for the most brutal of human acts. “The Holocaust was done to the Jews because they, when they were not Jews, did it to others,” Tolly explained last spring, not for the first time, to a group in Jimmie Lawrence’s living room.
Strangely, even the Jews who follow Tolly don’t take offense. Rabbi Jack Bemporad, who led Dallas’ Temple Emanu-El for more than a decade ending in 1983, is a longtime friend and pupil who calls Taliaferro a ‘great teacher’ and says such statements are not anti-Semitic. “He’s a very complicated person,” says Bemporad. “You can’t take it in a literal sense. You have to take it in a psychological sense. In the way that the things you condemn in others are what you have to work on yourself.”
Taliaferro makes no apologies, no matter how cruel his laws of the universe seem- -no matter how close to the heart of his life those laws strike. One morning last May, Taliaferro’s 10-day-old granddaughter, born months prematurely, died of an unexplained tumor. A few hours later, he sat in his office. He was distracted, but there were no tears. He was on and off the phone to his wife trying to make arrangements for a family funeral. Surely, if anyone were an innocent victim, this premature child would be one, a visitor offers. And what of other victims? Rape? Child abuse? Incest? “People are not victims,” Taliaferro says, his voice almost a whisper. “And people are not innocent.”
Tolly, of course, is expected to have an answer for almost everything. The wise man went on musing about the small life and the death, trying to fit the tragedy into the cosmic order he has preached for decades. Perhaps its meaning was to instruct the family. Maybe it would help to educate the medical community. It was even possible, he said, that something great and wonderful could come from it.
Correction Notes to this article in post publication:
1. Tolly was NEVER deposed/defrocked by the bishop. However he did resign his position as an active priest in the Episcopal Church and wrote an article to D Magazine that published the article. It was subsequently printed in their next issue. Once an ordained priest, always a priest.
2.There was never a custom at St Alcuin’s Community Church of genuflection. Those who wished to do so from choice or habit to honor the holiness of communion felt free to do so.
3. If you google Alcuin of York, IT SAYS ” Alcuin was later canonized as a Saint and remains recognized by the Roman Catholic, Anglican and Eastern Orthodox traditions. “
BIO for Father Taliaferro
A.A. TALIAFERRO was founder and pastor of St. Alcuin’s Community Church in Dallas, Texas. For more than 40 years, he lectured and taught classes on comparative religion and applied modern mysticism. He was an active member of the Rosicrucian Order (AMORC) for more than 50 years, and was also a member of the Masonic Order. Fr. Taliaferro attended Berkley Divinity School at Yale University and Seabury Western Theological Seminary at Northwestern University, and holds an honorary doctorate of divinity from Seabury. In 1945 he founded St. Michael and All Angels Episcopal Church in Dallas. He remained as rector of that church until 1962, when he resigned to devote himself to writing, lecturing and counseling. An accomplished musician, Fr. Taliaferro studied orchestral conducting with the great French conductor Pierre Monteux from 1935 to 1938. He studied music at Brown University and the University of Michigan from 1930 to 1935, receiving his master’s degree from Michigan in 1938.