By James A. Haught
Most Americans remember the historic 1993 siege of the Branch Davidian cult compound at Waco, Texas, which left eighty cultists and four federal officers dead. But did you know that the story actually began 150 years ago with a famous fiasco?
Since watching weird religion is my hobby, I’ll tell you the tale:
In the 1830s, a New England Baptist preacher, William Miller, computed from obscure prophecies in the Book of Daniel that Jesus would return to Earth between March 21, 1843, and March 21, 1844. Miller began warning of the approaching apocalypse. By the 1840s, he had drawn nearly 100,000 followers.
When the fateful time arrived, the “Millerites” prayed and prayed – but nothing happened. Then Miller re-examined the Bible verses and announced that he had erred; the correct date would be Oct. 22, 1844. As it neared, many of the faithful gave away their possessions and waited on hilltops for the heavens to open. Again, zilch.
Many Millerites lost their faith, but a hard core held firm. Some of them insisted that doomsday actually had occurred on Oct. 22, but it was a preparatory event in heaven that would be followed soon by Jesus bursting forth onto Earth. This group formed the Seventh-day Adventist Church.
As the Seventh-day Adventists grew more than 3 million strong, some members felt that the church wasn’t holy enough. In the 1930s, a Los Angeles Adventist, Victor Houteff, said Jesus wouldn’t return until an ultra-pure church was ready to greet him. So Houteff opened a Waco commune for pure believers, calling them Davidian Seventh-day Adventists.
He died in 1955, and the Davidians prayerfully awaited his resurrection. When it didn’t happen, his widow Florence took over. She proclaimed that the Second Coming would be on Easter Day, 1959. Hundreds of followers around America quit their jobs, sold their belongings, and hurried to Waco for the rapture. Wrong again.
Once more, the disillusioned departed, and a hard core persisted. A member named Ben Roden took command and named the survivors Branch Davidians. He died in 1978, leaving the commune, called Mount Carmel, to his widow Lois and son George.
Soon afterward, a 23-year-old Texas Adventist named Vernon Howell, a ninth-grade dropout, moved into the compound (and reportedly became the lover of the 67-year-old widow). He had hypnotic charisma, electrifying the others with his revelations of the coming apocalypse.
He married the 14-year-old daughter of a commune couple – but soon declared that God had commanded him to establish a House of David, in which he was to have as many wives as King David. He bedded more than a dozen commune females, one merely 11, another 50. He gave each a Star of David to wear as an emblem that she had been chosen by the king.After Lois Roden died in 1986, her son George vied with Howell for command. Roden won, temporarily. Howell took his followers and left Mount Carmel, wandering as nomads. Then in 1987, Howell’s band returned to challenge Roden for leadership.
Roden proposed an epic contest: From a graveyard, he dug up the corpse of an 85-year-old woman, and declared that whoever could resurrect her would be the true prophet of Mount Carmel. Howell evaded, and urged police to arrest Roden for corpse abuse.
Then Howell and seven armed supporters crept into Mount Carmel in after-midnight darkness. Roden grabbed his Uzi machine gun and engaged the intruders in a firefight. He was wounded slightly in the hand and chest. Howell’s band was charged with attempted murder, and released on bond.
Next, Roden was jailed for contempt of court because he filed grossly obscene motions in an unrelated case. While Roden was locked up, Howell moved his followers back into the compound and took over.
Their subsequent trial for attempted murder ended in acquittals. The dethroned Roden later killed a man and was put in a state mental hospital.
Reigning as sole prophet, Howell preached that he was an angel sent by God to implement the Second Coming. He said God ordained him to move to Israel and convert the Jews, which would trigger the Battle of Armageddon and make Earth a paradise for the surviving faithful. Howell visited Israel – but failed to convert the Jews.
Traveling around the globe, the dynamic young prophet attracted converts who sold their possessions, gave all their money to him, and followed him to Waco to live in the compound. In 1989, he proclaimed that all women in the compound were his brides, and the rest of the men must remain celibate. Some married couples rebelled and left. Others, utterly dominated by him, obeyed.
In 1990, Howell changed his name to David Koresh and began preaching that the great doomsday battle would occur in Texas. He and his lieutenants bought hundreds of guns and machine guns, plus ammunition, plus gas masks and other war supplies.
Federal agents heard that the commune contained illegal machine guns, and took steps to disarm the cult. The siege and its outcome are a well-known American tragedy. Surrounded zealots allowed themselves and their children to burn to death, rather than walk out to safety.
The Waco saga has entered history, like Jonestown, the witch-hunts and other bizarre episodes. As we go about our daily lives, it’s unsettling to realize that some people among us are capable of believing far-out fantasies, enough even to die for them.
(Haught is editor of West Virginia’s largest newspaper, The Charleston Gazette, and a senior editor of Free Inquiry. This article previously appeared in Free Inquiry, summer 1994.)