David Koresh, like all but seven of those who died at Waco, was a Seventh-Day
Adventist before being a Davidian, and his central beliefs go back to the birth
of the Adventist church, and before that to the Millerite movement. A farmer
and a captain in the War of 1812, William Miller became convinced that the
coming Apocalypse, alluded to in the books of Daniel and Revelation, could be
mapped out by interpreting prophetic clues. Using this logic, he predicted the
date of the physical Second Coming of Christ as October 22, 1844.|
Miller preached throughout New England and upstate New York with the vigor of
one waging battle, speaking to hundreds of thousands of people, mostly farmers.
As the Millerite movement grew and thousands became "adventists," their faith
became fodder for editorials and cartoons in Boston papers, which erroneously
depicted them as wearing mythic "ascension robes" and waiting on rooftops for
This is where the story becomes folklore for me, the seed of my childhood
world, the germ of faith that sustained the people around me. On October 22,
1844, as many as 50,000 Millerite adventists gathered in prayer on farms,
having given up jobs and let fields go fallow. When the sun set that day, they
kept singing, for the night was only a dark curtain that God himself would tear
aside with light. When he did not and the world survived into the awful burden
of October 23, a term was born: the Great Disappointment.
Deep faith, faith that runs through your veins, that pulses in your forehead
and under your skin, is stronger than anyone without it can understand.
Although there were rumored to be Millerites who killed themselves, became
atheists, or retreated into the relative safety of less apocalyptic faiths, the
movement did not die. Rather, it became one of America's earliest indigenous
religious systems. The largest body of faith to arise from that day--to
canonize that day in its history--is the Seventh-Day Adventist church.
This new denomination had a Saturday Sabbath and a vision of an imminent Second
Coming, and a prophet to deliver messages from God. Ellen Gould Harmon White, a
teenager when she began her ministry, became the voice of authority for
Seventh-Day Adventism. She was an inspirational speaker who traveled all over
the world, wrote dozens of books, and was reported to work miracles.
As an Adventist child, one learns the places and details of her spectacular
feats and most dramatic visions. (I was fixated on the time she reportedly held
a 16-pound Bible over her head for half an hour, with the open book balanced
flat on her palm at the end of a stiffly out- v stretched arm--not bad for a
sickly girl who spent her teen years bedridden.) Just as I once did, Koresh
idolized her and pledged (in his 1987 audiotape "Confusion") "to honor the
spirit of Ellen White." His last piece of writing refers to White's words as
"that beautiful prophecy" --but he had no such warmth for her church.
When Koresh looked at Adventism, he saw a church that did not adhere strictly
enough to White's teachings and, moreover, adhered too strictly to the dogma
that she was the only prophet. Koresh co-opted White's theory of "Present
Truth," which holds that not all of God's truths were made clear in the Bible,
so the revelation of additional meanings must be made manifest in a living
prophet. Koresh saw himself and White as being on a continuum; he saw White as
the "Third Angel" (a prophetic character described in Revelation) and himself
as the "Seventh Angel"--the one who holds the key to the Seven
Seals he was so fixed on.
According to Koresh, the other "angels" (numbered four, five, and six in
Revelation) were previous leaders of the believers originally called Davidian
Adventists. That church was founded in 1929 by a disgruntled Seventh-Day
Adventist, Bulgarian immigrant Victor Houteff. To publicize his new sect and
convert Seventh-Day Adventists, Houteff printed a newspaper titled
The Shepherd's Rod, which many--like my grandmother-- mistook as the
name of the new religion itself. Confusion over the name notwithstanding,
thousands followed Houteff and his wife; twice in the next 40 years, the couple
announced dates of the Lord's return, with more disappointment as the natural
In the '60s and '70s, another husband and wife team with serious God complexes
took over the sect. Ben Roden viewed himself on a par with Christ, and his
wife, Lois, later announced prophetic visions of a female God figure. Lois's
writings attracted a young David Koresh (then named Vernon Howell) to the
religion, and she was taken with him, going so far as to ordain him her natural
successor. It was during his progression from believer to leader that
Koresh legally changed his name from Howell. He invoked the Old Testament kings
David and Cyrus (of which Koresh is a transliteration), and proclaimed himself
the new Lamb of God.
THE LAMB of God, a term from the book of Revelation, is generally accepted by
Christians as a metaphor for Christ. But as any Adventist could explain,
Revelation offers chilling clues as to the possible outcome of the Lamb's
earthly incarnation. In the King James Version (preferred by Koresh), John
refers to the Lamb as one "that was slain and hast redeemed us to God by thy
blood." In chapter six, the opening of the Fifth Seal (which Koresh interpreted
as the raid on February 28) honors the "souls of them that were slain for the
word of God" and says the remaining faithful must wait a little while before
themselves being killed, which would set off the Sixth Seal, a time of
cataclysm, earthquakes, and celestial disorder.
Koresh quoted these passages in their entirety in his final handiwork, a
written exegesis of the Seven Seals that was to have been book length. Only one
chapter - was smuggled out by a Davidian, who left the compound before the
fire--and Koresh died before finishing the rest. But this material had been
part of his preaching for months, and anyone attempting to understand the
Davidians should have turned to these passages at the outset. (Instead,
according to James Tabor, the FBI initially understood Koresh's verbal
references to the seals literally to mean sea animals.)
There were more overt signals that the Davidians expected a terrible ending.
According to the New York Times, Dr. Bruce Perry, chief of
psychiatry at Texas Children's Hospital, where the released children were being
evaluated, had written that the children were drawing pictures of fires and
explosions, telling the hospital staff that "everyone's going to die" and
"we're going to blow you up."
In her books Early Writings and The Great Controversy, Ellen
White painted a picture of the end that provided Koresh with his models: "In
the time of trouble, we all fled the cities and villages, but were pursued by
the wicked, who entered the houses of the saints with a sword." As a
melodramatic child, I was both terrified and fascinated by this scenario;
though I had nightmares of being chased by policemen with German shepherds, my
best friend and I would play "Time of Trouble," hiding in the closets we called
caves, hearts pounding as we waited in the dark for the terror our families had
prepared us for. Such a game is less strange than one might think; members of
several original American religions--Mormons and Jehovah's Witnesses among
them-- believe in apocalyptic scenarios that feature their own persecution and
White describes a period of persecution, similar to the events that Koresh
called the Fifth and Sixth Seals, during which people of all races will be
jailed or hiding "associated together in companies . . . dwelling in the most
desolate and solitary places." There, she predicts, the faithful will wait for
salvation or martyrdom, noting that "to human sight it will appear that the
people of God must soon seal their testimony with their own blood . . . "
I discussed these parallel scenarios with archivist Mark Swett, who explained
that Koresh saw the 51-day siege as leading directly to the Sixth Seal, which
could then mean the end of the Davidians' lives. Swett, an earnest student of
comparative theology, is clear about what this meant. "They truly expected to
be killed, that there was no way to come out. They were just waiting." He
points out that, on the bugging tapes, "over and over you hear David and Steve
Schneider [Koresh's assistant ] asking 'who wants to leave?' and no one,
no one wanted to."
Why would they? For them, the siege seemed to verify some of
White's-predictions: the faithful (more than half of them people of color)
hiding in a barren place where they were cornered by the government. As Jaime
Castillo, who survived the fire, writes on his Web site, "David's teaching and actions reflected all
that, we believe, the scriptures foretold.... " He goes on to describe the
events at Waco as "a fulfillment of prophecy."
Koresh discussed this prophetic period with negotiators, using another term
from Revelation: "the Marriage Supper of the Lamb." Koresh refers to the bride
being ready to "come out of her closet," which Tabor and others have construed
as indicating the Davidians' readiness to surrender. This is a puzzling
interpretation, as Koresh taught that those with indifferent attitudes and
those who would not come to the supper (i.e., accept his teachings) were
to be slain; furthermore, the Marriage signals the end of this world and the
beginning of the next. If Koresh truly saw the wedding as imminent, so then was
the end of his mortal life--no time to acquiesce to earthly authorities.
The people best equipped to explain this to the federal agents were, not at all
paradoxically, the scorned enemy of Koresh's truth: Seventh-Day Adventists. But
to them, doing so would in effect have acknowledged a commonality between their
church and the Davidians. Like a parent who has severed all ties with a grossly
rebellious child, the Seventh Day Adventist church understandably does not want
any connection to the abhorrent practices of its prodigal offspring. Swett
says, "Once things came out, [the Seventh-Day Adventist church] really went to
extremes to disassociate themselves from Waco." But spiritual genealogy is as
hard to negate as blood, and Adventism factored into Davidian culture until the
Koresh felt an obligation to reach out to Adventists (and, to a lesser extent,
others) who believed the church wasn't offering them enough. Each summer, there
are several dozen SDA camp meetings in the United States (and many more
worldwide), where Adventists gather to recharge their spiritual batteries. As
far as the Davidians were concerned, these events were ripe for canvassing; it
was often from these gatherings that new students were drawn. At such events in
England and Australia, many discontented Adventists who had never heard of the
Shepherd's Rod or Branch Davidians met the Davidians for the first time, and
found what they had to say so powerful that they would leave their old lives
behind for new--and tragically short-- ones with the Lamb in Waco.
While the Koresh era was blossoming, I was enrolled at an Adventist college.
Situated along the maple-lined main street of Lancaster, Massachusetts,
Atlantic Union College had little in common with Waco, Texas. But among its
30-odd degrees, it offered a BA in theology, and there were always recent SDA
converts enrolled. One among them used to pester me to listen to his David
Koresh tapes. A fairly new convert to Adventism, he was worried about the
church but found the Davidian message appealing--and he hoped that I would as
well. But I was already on the brink of leaving the parent denomination, and I
had no interest in anything even more rigid, so I declined. My mind
flashed to one of the rumors Grammy had reported to me, that the Davidians
lived in a colony of buses. I didn't say this, of course, but I hoped this guy
would go live in a bus and leave me alone. I would later learn that the
buses, a temporary housing solution during the Roden era, were no longer in use
by the time of our conversation, but the image appealingly evoked the
fringe, and that's the place these people occupied in my mind: harmless, a
little crazy, and nothing of consequence.
Despite the shared eschatology, the Adventist church had always
maintained a stance somewhat akin to mine, viewing Davidians as slightly crazy
and definitely other. And throughout the siege, although so many recent members
of its congregations were trapped inside the compound, the church remained
largely silent. Foolishly, the FBI turned to non-Adventist theologians for
advice, and the church offered no help of its own.
When I mentioned this oversight to Moore, the author of The Davidian
Massacre, she said she wasn't sure that religious understanding would have
been enough to change the outcome: "Even if you had negotiators who understood,
you're still dealing with the militarization of the government." She thinks the
agents were looking for an easy target and, when the siege dragged on, "they
just so overreacted."
The FBI's frustration eventually reached lethal heights, culminating in a
raging assault that seemed out of proportion to the "crimes" being fought.
Children contorted into death curls from the effects of nerve gas, adults were
burned black, and at least one body appears to have been run over by a tank.
What happened at Waco bears the imprint of what police detectives call
"overkill"; if the agents merely wanted to force the Davidians out, their
actions seem incomprehensible.
As a result, the Davidians are seen a martyrs, an oversimplification that make
a great anti-government cautionary tale. And yet, the opposing sides had
something crucial in common: each went into this battle with a core ideology
that diminished the importance of human life. For the Davidians, this mortal
life was something that could be sacrificed for heaven; for federal agents,
"shoot to kill" is simply part of their vocabulary. The results were
catastrophic, and both side were denied what they wanted: God did not visibly
come to save the Davidians, and the world shunned the agents instead of
praising them. Never having understood the significance of the Seven Seals
theology or how their own actions could validate it, the agents fulfilled the
prophecy in the bloodiest possible way, inadvertently vindicating the
Davidians' faith by destroying the faithful.
Janet Reno's investigation may clear up the matter of whether the FBI started
the fire, but it won't change the fact that the Davidians expected to die
there. Livingstone Fagan, who survived the fire, went so far as to say
in his sentencing hearing, "l fully support the actions [of Koresh] that were
taken at Mt. Carmel. It's unfortunate regarding the consequences."
Even now, some of the remaining Davidians doggedly wait for the next
apocalypse, just like their Millerite forefathers, their Davidian predecessors,
and their lost Student loved ones. Renos Avraam, writing from prison, calls
himself the Chosen Vessel and predicts the Sixth Seal and its cataclysms will
be opened with further bloodshed this December. New believers are attracted to
his teachings by Seven Seals Web sites (http://www.sevenseals.com and
Others, loyal to Koresh and skeptical of Avraam's "new light," continue to
worship together in Texas, under the leadership of siege survivor Clive
Doyle. They and their supporters try to have it both ways: still adhering to
the apocalyptic vision of the Seven Seals but denying that this was a factor at
Waco (Koresh's own opinion notwithstanding).
I have often wondered about that last day, imagining the combination of terror,
anger, and vindication that must have filled the Davidians at Waco. I had grown
up hoping I wouldn't break under torture in the Time of Trouble, knowing that
any suffering in the end times was the final test before Jesus saved us all,
while the wicked begged for the rocks to fall on them and save them from his
wrath. I thought about how long I had expected these exact events, and it
occurred to me that, as scary as the concept had seemed, it had always been
rhetorical, almost a fairy tale--not a grisly reality.
The same may be true for the millions of Seventh-Day Adventists who live
traditional, mainstream American lives. They are clearly not fringe types. They
live and work side by side with those of other faiths. They are seen as
valuable parts of their communities in the many places where they run hospitals
and schools. And yet, it is unsettling to consider that when they say their
prayers at they believe in without question. They tuck their children into bed
with the same tales of the end that Davidians told their children.
In the last year of her life, two years after the fire and before Koresh did
not rise, Grammy took me out on the sitting porch of the house I grew up in and
sat me down for a private conversation. It was a November evening in Maine,
night coming on early, and we sat in rocking chairs as the twilight deepened.
She told me she didn't think she'd live much longer, but maybe that was best,
as she was getting so tired and weak that she didn't know if she was strong
enough to face the Time of Trouble anyway. Softly, she said she hoped I was
ready for the events to come. We looked through the picture window into the
black, and I knew she was seeing the same fearful vision that the Students
lived, the nightmare flip side to the American dream. Imagining cannons and
guard dogs, bullets and tanks, and then--at long last--the end, Grammy held my
hand in the darkness, waiting.
David Valdes Greenwood is a freelance writer living in Somerville,
Massachusetts. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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