18 February 1954: the Church of Scientology is incorporated

“You don’t get rich writing science fiction. If you want to get rich, you start a religion” – words reportedly uttered by L Ron Hubbard, the sci-fi writer who founded his own pseudo-religion, the Church of Scientology.

As Janet Reitman notes in Inside Scientology, there was really only one way in 1950s America to get your organisation taken seriously: “cloak it in religious garb”. That would give you the moral authority, but also as a religious institution, you could claim tax exemption and “side-step the rules regarding certification for psychological counselling”.

This last perk was especially important to Hubbard’s fledgling movement. The post-war years witnessed a rise in popularity in ‘self-help’. In 1952, The Power of Positive Thinking was a runaway success, netting a fortune for its author, Norman Vincent Peale. Hubbard saw similarities with his own belief in “Dianetics”, which remains a core tenet of Scientology.

Dianetics, as slightly mysteriously defined by scientologists, is a “technology” to overcome the “reactive mind”, thus quelling “nightmares, unreasonable fears, upsets, insecurities and psychosomatic illness” to achieve a purified state of mind, known as “Clear”.

On 18 February 1954, the Church of Scientology of California was incorporated in Los Angeles. To better spread his mantra, Hubbard set up ‘churches’ around the world (likened to franchises by some), with Saint Hill Manor in Sussex among the most important.

Legions of critics have accused the organisation of preying on the finances of the vulnerable. In order to achieve a ‘purity of mind’, adherents must undergo a series of “auditing” sessions, which are usually paid for with donations. The organisation has also become notorious for attracting celebrity endorsements, with actors Tom Cruise and John Travolta among the most famous paid-up members.

And while Scientology generates millions in revenue – around $200m, according to Fortune – America’s taxman, the IRS, had to give up its pursuit of what it claimed was unpaid tax following the organisation’s legal identification as a religion in 1993. Here in Britain, Scientology gained some similar recognition in late 2013, when the Supreme Court ruled followers could get legally married in its chapel in London.

Since Hubbard’s death from a stroke in 1986, the Church of Scientology – now led by the “enigmatic high priest” David Miscavige – has never succeeded in shrugging off controversy.

Also on this day

18 February 1911: First official airmail flight

On this day in 1911, the first official airmail flight took off from Allahabad in India, with Frenchman Henri Pequet flying a Humber Sommer biplane. Read more here.