Sequoia Seminar: The Sources of Religious Sectarianism

Document Type


Publication Date

Spring 1990


University of California Press in association with the California Historical Society


New religions, especially those that grow from the mystical insight of a single individual, often seem to spring into existence fully formed.* The prophet has a revelation and then directs followers in the appropriate way to carry out the new order. But in fact, life is seldom so tidy. Charismatic leaders do not exist in a vacuum, and it is the social context that determines whether a religious visionary is perceived as a worthy messenger or as merely misguided.

The history of Sequoia Seminar, a gospel study group that evolved into a new religion called Creative Initiative, illustrates how it can take decades before the ground is prepared to receive the prophetic vision, indeed how that vision actually serves to ratify changes that have taken place incrementally. Although Stanford University professor Harry Rathbun and his wife Emilia, leaders of Sequoia Seminar, envisioned a sect-like community as early as 1945, it took almost twenty years before psychological, institutional, and economic forces converged to give them the opportunity to convert their study group into a separate religion. In fact, the movement actually experienced two dramatic structural changes in its forty-year history. The first came in 1962, when, on the strength of a religious revelation, it became a new religion, ultimately called Creative Initiative. The second came twenty years later, when Creative Initiative effectively dissolved in favor of a secular peace movement named Beyond War. Thus, the current Beyond War movement, with branches in two dozen states, has historical and philosophical roots that go back more than fifty years. This article explores the origins of the first of these two profound changes.