america's doomsday cults
apocalypticism explained
the book of revelation
the antichrist
pictorial chronology
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Boyer is the Merle Curti Professor of History at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.

(more about Boyer)

I think what we've seen in recent years is the emergence of a number of subgroups in different cultures--even in Japan, but certainly in American society--that apply in a kind of literal way the idea that contemporary society is evil, contemporary society is corrupt, the American government in fact is part of the vast conspiracy, and take that simply one step further and conclude that therefore we must literally, physically withdraw from society. ...

What are we to make of those things that taken together could be called doomsday cults?

I think doomsday cults are very significant. I see them in some ways like the canaries that used to be taken down into coal mines. If the canary died, you knew that there was a buildup of dangerous gases and you'd better be careful. It seems to me that doomsday cults tell us something about a contemporary cultural climate of anxiety, of apprehension, of uneasiness about trends in our contemporary world. And some groups, usually under the influence of a very charismatic and potent sort of leader, withdraw from the larger society and act on their belief system in a quite literal and sometimes catastrophic fashion.

I think it's also important, though, not to reduce apocalyptic belief to the doomsday cults. These beliefs are very pervasive in our culture. Many of people we deal with every day, in fact, if you talk with them, you realize, hold beliefs that are drawn from particularly interpretations of Bible prophecy. So doomsday cults are one subset of a far vaster company of contemporary Americans who take apocalyptic beliefs very seriously. ...

What about this idea of separating themselves out from society?

The idea of separation from the world is a very deep one in the Christian tradition. Biblical passages: Come ye out from among them and be ye separate. It's been an appeal within the Christian tradition from the beginning. And the monastic tradition is in a way an expression of that. It's been resisted traditionally by those who say, "No, we must be a part of the world. It's not our duty to simply withdraw." But some groups in our contemporary society have acted upon that tradition of withdrawal, of separation, and increasingly have viewed the outer world not as an arena to be won over, to be reformed, but as an evil arena to be rejected, to be shunned. And out of that insight comes the impulse to form the small community of true believers that we see occasionally in these doomsday cults.


James Tabor

Tabor is a professor in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.

(more about Tabor)

The person we know as David Koresh was born in 1959. His original birth name was Vernon Howell. He was born in Texas, and he was part of a Seventh Day Adventist family. He grew up attending church. His mother has reported that he was a devout young man, fervent, memorized the scriptures. And the Adventists are part of the Millerite movement, which is from the 1830s and forties, an apocalyptic, end-of-the-world movement, that 150 years later had settled down considerably in terms of predicting the end. But David, from the start, grew up with that kind of context of interpreting the Bible. The Book of Revelation and the Book of Daniel are absolutely the key texts within that tradition, in terms of giving that movement their identity. ...

David Koresh was part of this Branch Davidian group, an offshoot of the Adventists. And one of their hallmarks was the very literal interpretation of the Book of Revelation. And when you open the Book of Revelation, it describes places, namely Jerusalem. Most of the scenes take place in Jerusalem. And here's this American Seventh Day Adventist Branch Davidian in his twenties, who decides in 1985: I'm going to go and see Jerusalem. What does it really look like?

david koresh

david koresh
... What David did was read the Book of Revelation very literally, but he also combined it with all the other texts of scripture, such as the prophecy in Zechariah. Both of these texts speak about measuring the city in the last days. And so he went there with the intention of actually looking at it and walking the city, particularly up by what's called the Temple area, where the mosques are today, to see whether 144,000 people could actually fit up there. And this number comes from the Book of Revelation, chapter 7, where the prophet who wrote John says that he saw 144,000 standing on Mt. Zion. ...

When David arrived in Jerusalem and went up to the Temple area, the Temple Mount and looked at what he understood to be Mt. Zion, he faced a kind of a crisis, because by his estimation, looking at the size of it, the length, the breadth (as the text says), he concluded that 144,000 people could not stand on Mt. Zion. And he wondered then: Well, can the interpretations of the Bible be taken literally after all? And he went to the text, Zechariah chapter 2 ... and he found, as he continued to read the chapter, his answer: that at this time when Jerusalem is measured in the final days, that it will be "a city without walls; that it will be exalted and lifted up." It was like a light going on for him. He thought: Ah! It is literal. It is exact. And yet it will be transformed. And it's that flexibility between the text and the actual situation on the ground, I think, that helped create the dynamics of interpretation for him. He could always find in the text something that would fit. And in turn, things that he was seeing could be altered if needed. ...

David lived in Jerusalem for about six months. And one of the things that he did was to visit the yeshivas, the Jewish Orthodox schools of rabbinic learning in the Old City of Jerusalem, in the Jewish quarter. And I've interviewed some of the rabbis there that remember him. And they talk about him coming. I think he pictured himself as somewhat like the young Jesus, who would go up to the doctors of the law in the Temple (although there's no temple, it's the same area, anciently) and impress them with his knowledge and wisdom of the scriptures. And they do indeed report that he had a phenomenal memory of the texts. ...

Do we know what he planned to do?

We don't know how long he planned to stay. He ended up staying about six months. But while there, he had this extraordinary experience. We don't even know exactly when it happened. But some time during his time in Jerusalem, he had the experience that changed his whole life. He was known then as Vernon Howell. But he reports the experience of ecstatically being caught up into heaven, like the author of the Book of Revelation, seeing heaven open. And he says that he was given a scroll or a book, and he was told to eat the book. This is in Book of Revelation chapter 10. So he identified himself with this figure in Revelation 10, who's called the seventh messenger, who eats this scroll. And eating the scroll symbolizes that you completely take in the entire message of scripture. And David reported the rest of his life, even to the FBI at the siege at Waco, "From that moment on," he says, "I instantaneously and suddenly in a moment understood completely all the mysteries of the Bible." ...

We have a few examples of David talking about revelatory experience that he had in Jerusalem in 1985. One of the more interesting ones is when he's actually talking to FBI agents late on the telephone during this 51-day standoff at Waco. And I remember he says to one of the negotiators, "Don't you remember back in 1985 hearing about the cosmonauts, the Russian cosmonauts and the Sputnik reporting that they had seen seven angels or stars appearing in the sky?" And the negotiator kind of shakes his head and says, "No, I don't remember that." And David says, "Well, it was in Life magazine. Check it out." This is actually what happened. He said, "Those were the seven angels that brought to me my revelation." And so he had this strange way of mixing certain phenomena that he'd read about in the news, cosmic phenomena, a constellation or these Russian astronauts reporting that they had seen something out the window of the satellite that they were in, or the Sputnik, and his own experiences in 1985.

How was he changed afterward?

When David returned to the United States after his experiences in 1985 in Israel and in Jerusalem, he went back to Texas, and he rejoined his Branch Davidian community outside of Waco. And all the Davidians report, even to this day, that he was absolutely a different man; that before, he had been very plodding and very sincere and earnest, but even somewhat boring in his ability to teach the scriptures, nothing particularly impressive; and that now he had this completely transformed knowledge of scriptures, that he simply was able to put together everything from Isaiah and Jeremiah and Zechariah and Haggai and the Book of Revelation and Daniel into this grand synthesis. And it was this ability to weave a complicated interpretation that impressed them. ...

Who did Koresh think he was?

During the 51-day siege at Waco, the only public word that the government continually gave out was that David Koresh claimed to be Christ. And this was understood, I think, generally by the public to mean that he thought he was Jesus, that somehow he was an incarnation of Jesus. And actually, we know now that this is incorrect, from all the materials that have survived--the tapes, the letters, the sermons. What David believed was that in 1985 he became the seventh and final messenger. He was a Christ, in the sense that "Christ" really and literally means an anointed one, a chosen one. But he didn't believe that he was Jesus Christ .. . He believed that Jesus Christ was, in fact, the Messiah, but he did believe that he, himself, was the final Messiah. And this final messiah is also called in the Book of Revelation one of the two witnesses. This is chapter 11 of the Book of Revelation. And these figures that are to appear at the end, and witness it, are in fact Messiahs as well. And he believed he was one of those, and that he was going to bring the final revelation.

How did the events at Waco actually surprise David Koresh? What did he expect?

Well, David Koresh had worked out a very elaborate scenario as to how the Book of Revelation and all the prophets of the Bible would unfold. And it certainly did not include anything happening in Texas or United States. But he envisioned his group actually ending up in Jerusalem, and he being the final prophetic figure on the streets of Jerusalem, actually confronting the Antichrist figure and dealing with all the great events and dramas that are in the Book of Revelation. And so Waco in '93, for him, was clearly a surprise. The BATF (Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms) raid on that Sunday morning caught him completely off guard, and he really didn't know what to think of it. It didn't seem to fit any prophecies of the Bible that he had expounded. ...

the raid at waco

the raid at waco
If we could go back and interview David Koresh a month before the ill-fated raid on the Branch Davidian community, he would not have known the future. He would have said, "Some day, my group will end up in Jerusalem, and I will be known around the world, and I indeed have received this revelation. I am the final prophet, the final messianic figure that's to come before the end." But he wouldn't know how it's all going to work out. He would just believe that that's the case. After the raid, when he suddenly is given this worldwide attention with this media circus, being mentioned hourly on CNN, appearing on the covers of all the major news magazines, David began to think, "Well, maybe this is what God has in mind. I know I'm the prophet. I know I am this figure. Through this notoriety, I will be able to reach the 144,000 who are the final group that are supposed to respond to this message, and we'll all end up over in Jerusalem." But he didn't know exactly how it would out. But in that strange way, the events at Waco, as tragic as they were, in the early days he was trying to process, and began to think, "Well, maybe there was a purpose in this."

What did he think events in Jerusalem would have been?

David had a fairly standard, literal way of reading the Book of Revelation, similar to what many interpreters of the more fundamentalist variety would have. And that is that Jerusalem would be surrounded by hostile powers. He speculated that maybe it would be the United Nations, with some sort of decree to give land back to the Palestinians. He would be in Jerusalem with his followers, and in solidarity with the Jewish people, would stand up and oppose these outside powers of Europe and perhaps even the United States (if it happened to be the UN). He would eventually be killed. This is all the scenario of chapter 11 of the Book of Revelation. It's an absolutely key chapter for all of these interpreters. His body would lie in the streets of Jerusalem for three days. And then at the end of that period, he would be taken up to heaven. And according to the Book of Revelation, that's when the end comes. That's when the final judgment comes. ...

How did the government's actions at Waco reinforce the apocalyptic idea?

The way to understand David Koresh is to understand that he is one of a string of Bible interpreters that reads these texts, particularly the Book of Revelation, in the most literal fashion. So he knew very well that Waco, Texas, 1993, with a siege and a standoff, was not mentioned in the Book of Revelation. That's not Jerusalem. It's not the end of time. The government, however, in dealing with the situation as what they called a hostage barricade situation, with the tanks, with the tactical people, the psychological warfare ... with the tanks and the noise and the lights at night, pressing the group, he had to go back to his texts and wonder: "Well, maybe this is the end. Maybe there's something I've missed." You see? And so by handling the situation in the way that it was handled, the government really delivered to David,I guess we could call it an early apocalypse, instead of backing off and making the situation more normal, which would have, I think, been the way to go.

For more about David Koresh and the Branch Davidians, see:

· Stephen Stein's article, Modern Messiahs
· David Valdes Greenwood's article, Waco: the Fire Next Time
· FRONTLINE's Waco: The Inside Story

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