Strange and Curious Sects: David Koresh

In a 2008 post on the apocalyptic Millerite sect, I mentioned how several modern Christian denominations were formed from the Millerites’ ruin, and how the infamous Branch Davidians originated as a splinter group from one of these. That story, I think, is already well-known: the way a charismatic preacher born as Vernon Wayne Howell changed his name to David Koresh and took control of the group; how he began to proclaim himself a prophet and the reincarnated Son of God; how he decreed that all female members of the group, including preteen girls, were to be his wives, and began stockpiling guns; how a gunfight broke out when the FBI heard these rumors and tried to execute a search warrant, leading to a botched 51-day siege which ended in the fiery destruction of the cult compound and the deaths of many Davidians, including Koresh.

All these tragic and ugly facts are part of the record of history. But the strangest thing about this very strange cult is that today, 18 years after David Koresh’s death in the fiery end of the Waco compound, there are surviving Branch Davidians who continue to revere him as God incarnate!

Sheila Martin’s children burned alive. God, she says, wanted it that way…

On Tuesday, Martin and a handful of other surviving Branch Davidians will gather at a hotel off a freeway in this dusty Central Texas town to remember the federal siege on their religious compound, an event that has become synonymous with the word Waco.

In my posts on strange and curious sects, we’ve seen over and over again that even massive disconfirmation usually fails to shake the beliefs of the faithful. When the failed messiah Sabbatai Zevi converted to Islam, his followers explained it away as a sacrificial act of apostasy that redeemed humanity from punishment. The Millerites’ Great Disappointment gave rise to a profusion of sects, each with their own explanation for why Jesus had failed to return on schedule. Chabad Lubavitchers believe that their messianic rabbi isn’t dead, merely biding his time. But the fact that there are still surviving Branch Davidians must be the most stunning example.

What’s even stranger is that none of them even seem to regard David Koresh as a particularly virtuous man. The CNN article recounts stories from former Davidians like Kiri Jewel, who testified that Koresh was having sex with her before she started menstruating. And the other survivors are fully aware of this – some of them experienced it in their own families:

[Clive] Doyle says his daughter started having sex with Koresh when she was 14. Koresh fathered at least 13 children with sect followers and engaged in sexual acts with underage Davidian girls, according to the Justice Department, numerous affidavits of Davidians and interviews CNN conducted…

Doyle knows that trying to justify Koresh having sex with underage girls incites nothing but outrage from nonbelievers. And, initially, when David began preaching a message that his holy seed must be spread to any girl he preferred, married or in pigtails, Doyle admits he was bothered by it.

“I wondered, I asked, ‘Is this God or is this horny old David?'”

But even this doubt was blocked by the ultimate conversation-stopper:

But Doyle’s concern didn’t last long.

“I couldn’t argue because he’d show you where it was in the Bible.”

Whatever the Bible says – and it’s true that it says nothing about a minimum age of consent for marriage or sex – it’s obvious that the real reason for the Davidians’ continued devotion to their dead leader is the enormous personal cost they’d incur if they were to walk away this late in the game.

Having devoted their entire lives to Koresh’s teaching, having been drawn in step by step to the point where they were even willing to give up their daughters’ lives to his lust, if they were to admit now that he was a fraud, they’d have to confront the fact that all they lost was for nothing. And that would clearly be a blow too enormous for their ego, their very sense of identity, to countenance. It’s no surprise that clinging to their beliefs, retreating behind a wall of denial, is the psychologically easier course.

In coldly economic terms, it’s the religious version of the fallacy of the sunk cost, the stubborn and illogical urge to persevere rather than give up and accept a loss. For these poor, benighted souls trapped in it, there’s no easy way out. But this ultimate example of the costs of irrationality can, at least, be an example to the rest of us of the perils of becoming entangled in cultish delusion.

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