Over the last hundred-odd years, dozens of men and also a few women have claimed to be Jesus Christ, back on Earth for an encore performance. Not all of them have the same kind of Jesus in mind, though. The classic Christian flavour shares the menu with flavours drawn from other cosmologies: theosophical, Urantian, New Age, extraterrestrial, and idiosyncratic mixtures of elements drawn from various of the above, all with a seasoning of fevered imagination.
Krishna Venta—otherwise known as Francis Pencovic (1911-1958)—was a Jesus who straddled the biblical and alternate cosmologies. He borrowed his fashion sense from the traditional iconography of Christ: beard, flowing hair, long robe. He had himself crucified on a regular basis, though painlessly, courtesy of a bicycle seat cunningly affixed to the cross. His followers took biblical names and churchy titles, and the women wore a version of a nun’s habit.
On the other hand, Krishna claimed to have been born on another planet, long ago and but not so far away—240,000 years ago, on the planet Neophrates, which occupied the same orbit as Earth does presently, and was humanity’s first home. But as Neophrates moved inexorably closer to the sun and became uninhabitable, a fleet of great rocketships, each more than a mile long and capable of carrying 35,000 people, set off to colonize the Dark Planet that would become Earth. Naturally, their leader was that soul who would one day manifest as Krishna Venta, though along the way he would also be or bestow revelations upon such notables as Melchizedek of Salem, Kukulcan and Quelzalcoatl, the Hopi trickster Masaw, Abraham and Moses, Mohammed and the Buddha, the angels Moroni and Gabriel, and (of course) Jesus Christ. All this was elaborated in Krishna Venta’s own history of humanity, a rambling series of periodic near-extinction-level events with distinctly theosophical and Mormon overtones.
With this distinguished pedigree, it is a little surprising that such an eminent soul chose to reincarnate in the humble person of Francis Pencovic, born in San Francisco and raised in Utah. It seems the great soul lived for many centuries with others of his kind in the Valley of the Masters in Nepal, within sight of Everest, and simply teleported to San Francisco to take over the body of a recently deceased child when the time was right. (Everest, incidentally, was the landing site for one of the rocketships, which is still there and in perfect condition, but hidden by a perpetual fog that covers one flank of the mountain.) His early history as Mr. Pencovic, however, is hardly stellar: petty criminality and general fecklessness, leading to jail time, a stretch in a mental hospital, and a failed marriage, after which he also became a deadbeat dad. But he outed himself as Jesus 2.0 in 1948 and began to gather a cult following, based in an ex-brothel in Santa Barbara. Within a couple of years, by virtue of appropriating all the assets of his growing band of followers, he was able to buy 25 acres in Box Canyon, south of LA, where he built a monastery for his devotees.
Pencovic/Krishna Venta named his retreat the “Fountain of the World”, aka the WKFL Fountain (Wisdom, Knowledge, Faith, Love). The plan was to make the FotW a force for good, including offering help in fighting wildfires. This was not an unmixed blessing for the local authorities, since Krishna ruled that all his followers should go barefoot and wear long robes, which was not exactly conducive to fire-fighting, and FotW was eventually banned from that sphere of helpfulness. But the big draw for his followers was a version of the standard apocalyptic shtick: an imminent cataclysm, with the Master’s projected flock of 144,000 guaranteed to be saved, and to build a new world once the dust and blood had settled.
Venta’s version was well adapted to the Cold-War climate of the times. The coming cataclysm would be a racially motivated civil war in the West, particularly America, where the blacks would rise up and bloodily vanquish the whites, with aid from Russia; and then the traitorous Russians would turn around and conquer the blacks, and try to take over the world. But then Krishna’s followers, after spending the war tucked snugly away in a place of safety, would re-emerge, conquer the Russians, and build a shining new world of equality, justice, and peace, with Krishna Venta in his rightful place as world messiah.
But that was for the future, and Krishna Venta was also concerned with more temporal things—like money. The Fountain’s organizational setup was pretty standard for such cults, built around the charisma and absolute authority of the messiah. A good source on how the cult operated to Krishna Venta’s benefit is the 1955 court ruling made when the Master’s first wife, Lucyle Pencovic, successfully sued to have child support raised for the two children of that marriage, who were by then teenagers. For sheer deadpan hilarity, it is worth quoting two lengthy chunks of the ruling. The first, if credible, implies a breath-taking cynicism in Pencovic/Venta’s motives in proclaiming himself to be Jesus, while the second attests to how the cult’s finances were handled:
When plaintiff obtained the interlocutory decree [presumably at the time of the divorce in 1944], defendant told her that he would “plan his life accordingly so he would be protected.” He said that he would “form this organization where people would give all their possessions into the organization and he would be the head of the organization, nothing would be in his name, everything would be in the name of the organization, yet he would have them arrange for all the money he wanted to use any time he wanted it.”
Defendant’s principal contention is that he has neither money nor property nor earnings and that he is therefore without ability to pay the increased amounts. At no time has he contended that he is unable to earn sufficient money to support the children. In 1941 and 1942 he was employed at the shipyards in Oakland as a timekeeper, and at the time of the divorce he was working as a machinist’s helper for about $75 a week. Shortly after the divorce he changed his name to Krishna Venta and founded a religious society, the “W.K.F.L. Fountain.” (The letters stand for wisdom, knowledge, faith, and love.) The society was incorporated in 1951 and is governed by a board of directors and officers. Defendant is the treasurer of the society and its spiritual leader or “Master.” Neither he nor anyone connected with the society receives a salary as such. About 100 members reside at a home maintained by the society at Canoga Park in Ventura County. They have a communal system of living and none of them works on the outside. All food, clothing, and medical care are provided by the society. Funds are obtained from new members, who transfer all their property to the society on being admitted to membership, and from gifts, plays presented by the members, and donations received for fighting fires. Defendant and his present wife and their young daughter occupy a small room and five other children of defendant’s sleep in a garage made into a bedroom with three other children living at the society’s home. Defendant makes periodic automobile trips to Denver to carry on the work of the society. Occasionally he stops at Las Vegas and Reno to gamble, and on some occasions the society and various persons have advanced him money for that purpose, but he has never won. In Las Vegas he once lost $2,900 and in payment drew checks on a bank in which he had no funds. The society paid part of the amount due on the checks and no civil action or criminal charges were brought against defendant for issuing them. The society paid the cost of a trip by defendant to Europe in 1949, a trip to South America in 1951, and trips in 1952 to 54 cities in the United States to study fire equipment and fire departments and to advance the cause of the society. A member of the board of directors usually accompanies him on trips and handles temporal matters. For all contributions that he receives and for all his expenditures defendant accounts to the board of directors, and there is no evidence of unauthorized use of society funds. The society pays all of defendant’s expenses, including the $60 per month for the support of his children ordered at the criminal proceeding, and at the time of that proceeding it also supplied him with funds with which to buy gifts for his children, ice skates costing $65 for his daughter and a wrist watch, tennis shoes, and other gifts for his son. It also paid the fees for his attorney in both the 1951 and present proceedings.
In sexual matters, the Fountain of the World was also cult-typical—that is, sexuality was strictly controlled except where it involved Krishna Venta, who was entitled to a kind of droit du messiah when it came to the women. It was this, in fact, that got this Jesus killed. Two disaffected members were enraged at Krishna’s sexual and financial looseness, not to mention the fact that he had slept with their wives; they also told stories of Krishna performing amateur (fatal) surgery, in a nasty foreshadowing of Roch Thériault. In December 1958, they came to the commune with dire intentions, and twenty sticks of high explosive concealed about their bodies. The ensuing blast killed Krishna, the two suicide bombers, and seven followers, including an infant; it also destroyed the main house Krishna had built, and other property. Bereft of its leader, the cult limped on into the 1980s, initially under the guidance of Krishna’s widow, but it is now defunct. Krishna Venta’s confidently predicted resurrection in Alaska has not yet taken place.
Venta is largely forgotten now, but his cult had some intriguing intersections with others operating at the time, and later. For example, several members left his cult only to join another—Jim Jones’s People’s Temple—where, about twenty years later, some of them drank the Kool-Aid and died in Jonestown. Coincidentally, both Krishna Venta and Jim Jones, each claiming to be Jesus, were mentored by Father Divine, who claimed to be God.
Another of Venta’s disciples had been, in her small way, a messiah in her own right: Dorothy Martin, the prophetess of the Seekers, the tiny UFO cult spotlighted in Leon Festinger’s seminal study of cognitive dissonance. Though details are sketchy about her movements after the Seekers disbanded, it seems she fled first to South America, and then returned to the States to join the Fountain of the World, where she took the name of Sister Thedra. After the explosive end of Krishna Venta, she eventually settled in Sedona, Arizona, where she continued to channel her own version of Jesus until her death in 1992.
But the most notable inter-cult connection was with another Jesus-claimant, long after Krishna Venta was assassinated. In 1968, Charles Manson and his coterie resided for several months at the Fountain of the World; Manson even made an unsuccessful takeover bid. When that failed and he was booted from the commune, he moved his group to nearby Spahn Movie Ranch, and the rest is history. There is debate over how far the Krishna Venta’s teachings influenced Manson’s worldview, but there are strong parallels between Venta’s predicted apocalypse and Manson’s Helter Skelter: a bloody race war which the whites will lose, after which the faithful will emerge from hiding and inherit the Earth.
Perhaps the most pathetic legacy of the Fountain of the World, apart from its ruins in Box Canyon, is the Earth’s Order of Melchizedek (EOOM), a sad and thoroughly batty offshoot set up by some of the Box Canyon veterans. EOOM still reveres Krishna Venta, under the name of Machiventa Melchizedek; its website offers a dazzling smorgasbord of elements from Urantia, the LDS, theosophy, and the late Master himself. The website appears to have been active until at least 2013, but EOOM may be down to a single member – if so, he could be the last remaining disciple of the Jesus of Box Canyon.
[An excellent resource of further information, including links to photographs, memoirs, and articles, is a blog operated by writer Shawn Sutherland, as part of his research towards a biography of Krishna Venta: Barefoot Messiah of the Atomic Age. Now, there’s a book I’ll want for Christmas someday.]