Modern Messiahs: Profiles of Two Charismatic Leaders  by Stephen J. Stein Department of Religious Studies Indiana University, Bloomington
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Mix one part "charismatic leader" with one part "apocalyptic visionary," and you have the formula for a potentially volatile religious explosion. Charismatic individuals exert a controlling influence over followers who are attracted to them because they possess special gifts. ("Charismatic" literally means "gifted.") Recipients of apocalyptic visions express a high level of confidence in their views of the future. (Apocalypses purport to "reveal" that which is hidden.) Visionaries of this sort claim uncommon insight into the present order and into impending future developments.

Although separated by more than four hundred years,Thomas Muentzer (c.1489-1525) and David Koresh (born Vernon Howell, 1959-1993) were both charismatic leaders with apocalyptic visions, claiming uncommon insight into the present order and impending future developments.

Muentzer's career as a radical reformer unfolded in the early years of the Protestant Reformation in Germany. Howell was the leader of a small, sectarian, Adventist community in Texas for a few years in the 1980s and 1990s. Both men found themselves openly opposed by government forces. Both remained convinced of their special callings and unique insights into God's purposes. Both died violent deaths. From their experiences can be derived several observations regarding the difficulties faced by apocalyptically-minded, charismatic religious leaders.


He was a native of Saxony who became a Catholic priest and served in a variety of minor clerical posts. In 1518 he encountered the spreading reform movement in Wittenberg where he may have attended lectures by Martin Luther. Religious controversy was boiling. Questions about spiritual authority and the renewal of the church were deep concerns of Muentzer . In 1520 Muentzer became the preacher in Zwickau, a trading city, where he began a program to aid unemployed weavers. There he also came under the influence of the Zwickau Prophets who believed the end of the world was at hand. In 1521, after losing his post, he traveled to Prague where he continued his interest in radical social reform and apocalyptic ideas. Again he experienced difficulties when he announced that the final reformation was at hand. Following banishment, he spent two years journeying throughout Saxony, more convinced than ever of an approaching end time tribulation.

In 1523 he married a former nun and accepted a pastorate in the town of Allstedt where he published several tracts focusing on an impending apocalyptic struggle. He saw himself as a "new Daniel," chosen to lead the battle against the enemies of the Holy Ghost. On one occasion he led a group of followers who destroyed a Catholic chapel. In 1524 he joined cause with peasants who were moving toward open rebellion against civil authorities. In that same year he preached an incendiary sermon based on the second chapter of the book of Daniel directed to the princes of Saxony. In it, Muentzer attacked the leadership and worship practices of the Catholic church as "counterfeit," depicted Christ as a destructive stone cast down against the "pomp and affluence" of the world, and declared himself a champion of the lower classes. He urged Christian princes to use the sword against godless rulers and false clergy. His call for violence against evil produced the sharpest condemnation from Luther, who in the face of impending civil war urged those same princes to "cut, stab, strangle" the rebellious peasantry. In 1525 Muentzer became the chaplain for a group of rebellious peasants whom he described as possessing the "sword of Gideon" on behalf of a righteous cause. More than six thousand peasants with Muentzer as their leader were massacred in battle at Frankenhausen in May of that year. Muentzer himself was captured, tortured, and executed, Luther giving his approval.


Vernon Howell was born in Houston, Texas, the son of an unwed 15-year-old mother. He dropped out of school after the 9th grade and turned to carpentry. His religious roots were in the Seventh-day Adventist Church which predisposed him toward the study of the Bible and prophecy. In 1981 he joined the Branch Davidian community outside Waco, at the time under the leadership of Lois Roden. In 1983 the Seventh-day Adventists formally disfellowshipped him. In the meantime, he had ingratiated himself with Roden. Rumors suggested he may even have been her lover.

In 1984 Howell married Rachel Jones, the 14-year-old daughter of a prominent member of the community. In 1985 he traveled to Israel, where the Branch Davidians had anticipated the coming kingdom might someday be centered. In 1986 Lois Roden died and the conflict over succession between her son George and Howell became open.

In 1987 after a series of events, including a gun-battle, Howell gained control of Mount Carmel. In the following years he consolidated his authority on the strength of his personality, his distinctive teachings about Bible prophecy, and his reorganization of the social life of the community. He eliminated conventional family units and marriage patterns, changed his name to David Koresh as evidence of his messianic role, established the "House of David" comprised of women who were to bear his children, identified select male followers as "Mighty Men" in the coming kingdom, called the community compound "Ranch Apocalypse," and became obsessed with his responsibility to unlock the secrets of the book of Revelation. Koresh and the community of Branch Davidians became victims of an abortive raid by Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agents, followed by a 51-day standoff with federal agents and a fiery inferno of unclear origins that destroyed the compound on April 19, 1993 and killed dozens of the Branch Davidians including many children.

Muentzer and Koresh stand in a long line of charismatics who have used the apocalyptic portions of the Bible for their own religious and social purposes. Apocalyptic discourse has a wonderful plasticity that allows interpreters to read the symbols and images as they wish. Leaders who turn to apocalyptic often find divine direction and purpose in their activities which, in turn, buttress their confidence. Charismatic leaders are not given to self-reflection or self-criticism. They view themselves as on the winning side of history, and sometimes even directly responsible for that outcome. Muentzer saw the cause of the peasants as righteous and his role as critical in their efforts. He thought the renewal of Western Christianity required radical social leveling. That proved a volatile mix in the sixteenth century, producing a sharp response from both civil and religious authorities.

Koresh believed he was responsible for unlocking the secrets of the seven seals of the book of Revelation, which would in turn open the eyes of the world to the truth of biblical prophecy. He was engaged in that interpretive activity in the days before the fiery end at Waco. Federal authorities described his apocalyptic conversation as "Bible babble." Their actions on April 19, 1993, displayed little tolerance for such matters.

Prophetic figures often generate skepticism, ridicule, hostility, discomfort, and a measure of foreboding. Apocalyptic has an inherently explosive potential in the hands of a charismatic leader.

Suggestions for Further Reading:

Abraham Friesen, Thomas Muentzer: A Destroyer of the Godless: The Making of a Sixteenth-Century Religious Revolutionary (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990).

Hans-Jurgen Goertz, Thomas Muntzer: Apocalyptic, Mystic, and Revolutionary (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1993).

Eric W. Gritsch, Thomas Muntzer: A Tragedy of Errors (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1989.

James R. Lewis, ed., From the Ashes: Making Sense of Waco (Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 1994.

James D. Tabor and Eugene V. Gallagher, eds., Why Waco?: Cults and the Battle for Religious Freedom in America (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995).

Stuart Wright, ed., Armageddon in Waco: Critical Perspectives on the Branch Davidian Conflict (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995).

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