This spring will mark the twenty-fifth anniversary of the siege and destruction of the Mount Carmel Center (sometimes called Ranch Apocalypse) in Waco, Texas, headquarters of the so-called Branch Davidians and their leader, one David Koresh (1). For those who aren’t aware or may not remember, the Branch Davidians were a splinter sect of the Shepherd’s Rod (or Davidian Seventh-day Adventist) movement, an offshoot of the Seventh-day Adventist Church since 1930 (2).
On April 19, 1993, after a siege of fifty-one days, the Mount Carmel Center was destroyed by fire, leaving Koresh and a total of eighty of his followers dead (3). A quarter of a century later, controversy continues to rage regarding many features, antecedents, and implications of this tragic episode.
It was the fall quarter of the 1986-87 school year, during which I served as Student Association President on the campus of Loma Linda University. The Religious Vice-President of the student body and I were pursuing a year-long agenda of religious programming which we prayed would bring revival and reformation to the campus. I was nearly finished with my Master’s degree in systematic theology in the Graduate School of Religion, and hoped that a principal legacy of my years at the University would be the spiritual tone and classic Adventist doctrinal awareness I was seeking to encourage.
Then one day a strange man appeared on campus.
He spent much of his time hanging out in the laundry room of the men’s dormitory, accosting the guys with his peculiar views on a variety of religious topics. It was on one such occasion that I myself met him, though—uncharacteristically perhaps—I refused to engage him in discussion. Among other things, he insisted that the Holy Spirit was a female, and that those wishing to be saved had to be found in the literal city of Jerusalem at the time of Jesus’ coming. On one occasion, in the dormitory parking lot, he was heard arguing this latter point at length with Jimmy McDougald, the aforementioned Religious Vice-President of the student body, and Jimmy’s girlfriend.
Jimmy was a serious Bible student himself, and quickly responded to the man’s argument about having to go to Jerusalem to be saved. Jimmy asked the man about Jesus’ statement that when He returns, the angels “shall gather His elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other” (Matt. 24:31). How, Jimmy asked, did this verse comport with the idea of the saved all coming to Jerusalem to get picked up when Jesus comes?
The man had no answer. Soon afterward, Jimmy wrote an article in the student newspaper, warning the campus about this man’s influence.
The man’s name? Vernon Howell, who in seven years would become known to the world by another name, this one of his own choosing: David Koresh.
A Letter from Australia
Howell didn’t stay long on the Loma Linda campus, but he stayed long enough to win at least one convert to his cause—a young man whose eventual departure from the Koresh cult would make him the frequent focus of media attention both during and following the 1993 Waco incident. Four years after Howell’s appearance in Loma Linda and the altercation with Jimmy McDougald, I received a letter from Australia, written by this young man who had joined the Howell movement while in Loma Linda.
As the young man didn’t have my mailing address, he sent his letter to the Loma Linda University Church, where one of the secretaries received it and sent it on to me. The letter included a brief note to the University Church staff, warning them of the destructive impact of Howell’s movement in Australia and that Howell (who would soon call himself David Koresh) was planning to return to the United States and recruit additional followers. The young man urged the University Church to forward the letter to me as soon as possible, expressing the hope that my influence in the Loma Linda community might help prevent vulnerable souls from joining this cult.
The letter identified a number of notable teachings and practices of the Koresh group, among which were the following:
1. Koresh claimed that he was the Lamb described in Revelation chapter 5, and that therefore, he alone was able to open the seven seals described in this chapter.
2. Because of this claim, Koresh insisted that all women belonged to him, and that therefore only he had the right to marry.
3. On account of the latter teaching, husbands and fathers in the group were surrendering their wives and daughters to Koresh.
4. The group was known for its fascination with firearms, especially assault weapons.
5. Those choosing to break with the cult and its maniacal control over members’ lives were frequently threatened with physical violence.
It is for the above reasons, among others, that when the Waco incident burst on the world’s consciousness three years later, and in the years that followed, I paid little heed to the conspiracy theories circulated by those who claimed the destruction of the Branch Davidian compound was a government plot to curtail the rights of gun owners, kill homeschoolers, and martyr those with an interest in Bible prophecy. Equally significant for my rejecting the notion of the Koresh group as innocent victims was Jimmy’s notable discomfort with the more-than-casual attentions Howell (Koresh) paid to Jimmy’s girlfriend during the conversation described earlier, especially in light of later revelations regarding Koresh’s sexual appetites (4).
Of even greater significance were the hearings conducted by the U.S. Congress during 1995, which included interviews with underage women who had been exploited by Koresh in the Waco compound and elsewhere. Far from exposing government overreach in the raid on Koresh and his followers, as some believed the hearings would do, the more the beliefs and practices of the Branch Davidians were publicly investigated, the clearer it became that whatever mistakes and missteps might have occurred in the actions of the authorities against the Koresh group, their leader and his cultish regime were most assuredly a menace to society.
Wherever Koresh went in America seeking followers between 1990 and 1993, he didn’t appear to have returned to Loma Linda. In time I lost track of the above letter from Australia. That is, until the spring of 1993.
No one who lived through those weeks will soon forget the saga of siege and negotiation, the fear-choked interviews with cult refugees and family members of compound residents, the frequent media comparisons with the Jonestown/Peoples Temple tragedy of 1978, the tangential yet negative publicity afforded the Seventh-day Adventist Church on account of the Koresh group’s peripheral ties to the denomination—and then the final assault by the authorities, the flames, the ashes, the tears.
Demagoguery in Several Shades
In three notable ways, among perhaps others, this incident truly ranks among the most demagogued events in the history of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. First, there are those theological liberals who cite this episode as a warning against the presumably excessive focus by classic Adventists on the apocalyptic portions of Scripture. Those nurturing this theory come across as implying that spending too much time in the books of Daniel and Revelation is likely to drive people crazy, even violent. Coming from this perspective, the editor of a prominent liberal Adventist magazine wrote an editorial following the Waco tragedy titled, “We Didn’t Start the Fire But the Tinder Was Ours” (5). Another, writing in the same issue of the same magazine, wrote an article titled, “Fundamentalism is a Disease, a Demonic Perversion” (6).
The breathtaking illogic here would be funny if it weren’t so serious. For one thing, Seventh-day Adventists have spent a collective total of millions of hours studying apocalyptic Bible prophecy since the founding of our movement. On what rational basis can the machinations of one sex-crazed, gun-obsessed crackpot call into question the century-and-a-half-plus focus of sober, Biblically faithful, history-affirmed study by Seventh-day Adventists of these critical portions of Holy Scripture?
This makes as much sense as blaming the American Civil Rights and anti-Vietnam War movements of the 1960s and ‘70s for the mass suicide and murder committed by Jim Jones and his Peoples Temple in Jonestown, Guyana, in 1978. Those familiar with the history of the Jones cult will remember that the aforementioned movements were key drawing cards for those who comprised the great majority of Jones’ congregation.
The second notable way in which the Waco incident has suffered demagoguery in certain circles of Adventism came from among those seeking to discredit some of the more militant self-supporting ministries and their theological agendas during the 1990s. Many will recall how, during that decade, public criticism of these ministries—whether legitimate or otherwise—became a major flash point of controversy (7). The drawing of comparisons between the Branch Davidians and these ministries (and others) who voiced concern about the decline in theological, liturgical, and moral faithfulness in the church, became disturbingly common. (The very fact that many self-supporting Adventist ministries reside in compounds was reason enough for certain of these folks to draw broad-brush analogies.) During those years at least one book by a prominent church theologian compared those believing in the post-Fall humanity of Christ and the perfectibility of Christian character through God’s power here on earth, to Jim Jones and David Koresh (8). (How trusting Jesus to keep us from falling comports with rampant sexual license and the stockpiling of lethal weaponry, we are permitted to guess!) Another contemporary Adventist author, with theology similar to the book cited above, rebuked those Adventists who uphold the doctrinal consistency and authority of Ellen White’s writings as possibly facilitating “another Waco” (9).
The third way in which the Branch Davidian tragedy has been demagogued in the church has occurred among a few extremists in the conservative wing of Adventism. These are the conspiracists who have alleged that the federal raid on the Koresh compound was, to one degree or another, a plot by the U.S. government to suppress gun rights, murder those who homeschool their children, and persecute those with an interest in end-time Bible prophecy. Some of these people spun fantastic tales of black helicopters chasing homeschoolers and hovering over private residences in remote areas. The assumption on the part of many of these folks was that the “heartless” federal government saw no difference between the Koresh group and any Seventh-day Adventist congregation, particularly self-supporting ministries and home Bible fellowships, and that what happened to the Branch Davidians could easily—even now—happen to any faithful group of Adventists at the whims of malevolent state authorities.
The point here is not to dispute in any way what the inspired predictions describe regarding the last-day persecution of God’s people. But in light of the dark misdeeds and cultish practices within the Koresh movement, it is an exercise in the worst sort of paranoia to assume that the Waco incident proves American government entities at any level are waiting eagerly for any excuse to pounce on innocent church members, whatever their denominational identity.
So what can we learn, twenty-five years later, from the Waco tragedy?
Many lessons, I’m sure, can be thought of. But five in particular stand out for me:
1. No person or ministry, however gifted, can be exempted from the Berean test. Charisma and the addressing of felt needs play far too big a role in the assessment by believers of religious people and their witness. The supremacy of God’s written counsel as the final measure of all things spiritual (Isa. 8:20; Acts 17:11) cannot ever, under any circumstances, be compromised.
It’s easy to cringe and recoil at the ultimate grisly fate of movements like the Peoples Temple and the Branch Davidians. But the first step for so many on the downward path, regardless of circumstance, is the failure to note the ever-so-subtle departure from strict faithfulness to the written Word on the part of an apparently gifted spiritual leader. Most of those who veer from such faithfulness are nowhere near as blunt as Jim Jones, who early in his ministry was known to throw the Bible on the floor in the presence of his followers and exclaim, “Too many people are looking at this instead of looking at me” (10). (Think of the hundreds of precious souls who would have been spared a grotesque fate had they, at that moment, risen from their seats, found the door, turned the knob, and vacated those premises as fast as they could!)
But any disputing, however seemingly benign, of the ability of inspired writings to explain themselves, any conveying—subtle or otherwise—of the notion that “experts” are needed to explain those writings to us, is the first step toward directing believers away from God’s objective measure of truth and error, and diverting the trust of the vulnerable toward the shifting markers of human opinion, human scholarship, human culture, and human experience.
2. When church members suffer hurt of any kind, their brothers and sisters need to be there for them. It is true that ultimately, in matters spiritual, men and women are responsible for their own choices. But this doesn’t mean people in trouble can’t be saved from negative and injurious courses of action by the loving intervention of those who care.
The early life of David Koresh was filled with his own destructive choices, the missteps of close family members, and violent mistreatment by others (11). I am led to wonder where his brothers and sisters in the faith might have been during those moments of pain and crisis. How many offered help, even through an occasional kind word? It’s so easy, in our desire to give others space, to “[pass] by on the other side” (Luke 10:31,32) when needy souls languish about us, even within the church.
3. Our analysis of events, in particular moments of crisis and tragedy, should be calm, deliberate, and thorough. In our age of twenty-four hour news cycles, with everyone rushing to “get a story first” instead of taking the time to get it right, false information can easily snowball into an accepted version of what happened. When ideological agendas begin to drive a story (e.g. hatred of classic Adventist teachings, hatred of civil government), sorting fact from fiction can become especially difficult. Often it isn’t till the storm surrounding a controversial event dies down that careful analysis and investigation of divergent claims can occur successfully.
Within the church, it is especially important for those calling for high standards of Biblical integrity to take their time investigating and reporting the news, especially when this news concerns events inside the denomination. The networked world in which we live has given new meaning to the old adage that “a lie can travel around the world before truth can get its boots on.” The demagoguery that has followed the Waco disaster ever since the embers of the Koresh compounded died away, offers fair warning of the need for caution and wisdom in the transmission of information, especially as it concerns the church that remains the object of God’s supreme regard (12).
4. The Adventist end-time focus must maintain the balance which only exclusive reliance on the written counsel of God makes possible. The eschatological (end-time) message of Scripture and the writings of the Spirit of Prophecy lies at the heart of the witness and mission of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. The inspired pen declares that “as we near the close of this world’s history, the prophecies relating to the last days especially demand our study” (13). Elsewhere she states that “more, much more, should be said about these tremendously important subjects” (14). In another statement she writes that “great pains should be taken to keep this subject before the people” (15). Many similar passages could be cited.
Far from being a source of terror and trepidation, Jesus spoke of the signs of His return as cause for rejoicing among His disciples: “And when these things begin to come to pass, then look up, and lift up your heads; for your redemption draweth nigh” (Luke 21:28).
But there have always been some throughout Adventist history—thankfully, comparatively speaking, only a few—who have tainted their anticipation of the final events with self-focused survivalism and an unhealthy withdrawal from the world around them. The Branch Davidian debacle is, of course, a very extreme manifestation of this mindset. But others, while not going anywhere near as far as the Koresh group, have still placed their emphasis on successive (mostly unfulfilled) predictions of a coming economic collapse, the supposed need to “get off the grid” and hide from the authorities, taking one’s money out of the bank for the purpose of leaving no record of transactions and thus avoiding taxes, and similar extreme practices.
This approach to the coming crisis places an inordinate focus on personal survival for “me and mine,” with much less focus on what by far is the most important issue as we look toward the last days—the preparation of our hearts and lives to meet the Lord in peace. Both Scripture and the writings of Ellen White are clear that what ultimately determines the timing of Jesus’ second coming is not the horrible things happening in the world, but rather, the divinely-empowered perfecting of Christian character on the part of God’s people (Zeph. 3:13; I Thess. 5:23; II Peter 3:10-14; I John 3:2-3; Rev. 10:7; 14:5). It is on the basis of these verses that Ellen White makes the following well-known statement, among countless others which convey the same message:
Christ is waiting with longing desire for the manifestation of Himself in His church. When the character of Christ shall be perfectly reproduced in His people, then He will come to claim them as His own (16).
This imperative leaves no room for isolating oneself from the world in some communal hideout, the way Jones and Koresh and their respective followers did. Jesus followed no such plan, and neither can those who bear His final message to the world. Full immersion by God’s people in the written instruction of both Scripture and the Spirit of Prophecy writings will spare them from the imbalance and pursuit of tangents that characterize extreme groups and offshoot movements.
5. Anti-government propaganda is not part of the Seventh-day Adventist message or mission. Few consequences of the Waco fiasco have been more pronounced than attacks on the United States government for its handling of this tragic affair. It is not the purpose of this article to explore in depth the various charges and countercharges that have attended the various Waco postmortems. But what is sad is that certain ones among the striving faithful within Adventism, since the Waco debacle, have joined through their writings and recordings in the vilification of the national government pursued by various elements in American society.
I wouldn’t say this is—or has been—a large group, even among militantly conservative Adventists, though in some circles this group has definitely been vocal. But the following Ellen White statement offers an especially stern warning against Seventh-day Adventists nurturing an anti-government mentality:
By some of our brethren many things have been spoken and written that are interpreted as expressing antagonism to government and law. It is a mistake thus to lay ourselves open to misunderstanding. It is not wise to find fault continually with what is done by the rulers of government. It is not our work to attack individuals or institutions. We should exercise great care lest we be understood as putting ourselves in opposition to the civil authorities. . . .
The time will come when unguarded expressions of a denunciatory character, that have been carelessly spoken or written by our brethren, will be used by our enemies to condemn us. These will not be used merely to condemn those who made the statements, but will be charged upon the whole body of Adventists. Our accusers will say that upon such and such a day one of our responsible men said thus and so against the administration of the laws of this government. Many will be astonished to see how many things have been cherished and remembered that will give point to the arguments of our adversaries. Many will be surprised to hear their own words strained into a meaning that they did not intend them to have. Then let our workers be careful to speak guardedly at all times and under all circumstances. Let all beware lest by reckless expressions they bring on a time of trouble before the great crisis which is to try men’s souls (17).
Any death is an irreplaceable tragedy. But the deaths in Waco twenty-five years ago were those of estranged children of the Advent movement, which for us brings the pain of their loss closer to home than would otherwise be the case. As we ponder this disturbing chapter in our history, it behooves us to consider and learn its lessons, whatever these may be. Most important and imperative of all, this experience reminds us of the unqualified necessity of measuring every theory, every discourse, every choice, and every practice by the transcendent standard of God’s written Word. Without that standard, our spiritual journey is no safer than the last presenter we listened to, our moral integrity no more reliable than whatever subjective comfort level we allow to function as the barometer of our peace and happiness.
1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Waco_siege. See also “Ranch Apocalypse,” Spectrum, May 1993 (cover).
5. Roy Branson, “We Didn’t Start the Fire But the Tinder Was Ours,” Spectrum, May 1993, p. 2. https://spectrummagazine.org/article/2018/01/31/we-didnt-start-fire-tinder-was-ours
6. Charles Scriven, “Fundamentalism is a Disease, a Demonic Perversion,” Spectrum, May 1993, pp. 45-46.
7. See Issues: The Seventh-day Adventist Church and Certain Private Ministries (North American Division, 1993).
8. Roy Adams, The Nature of Christ: Help for a church divided over perfection (Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald Publishing Assn, 1994), pp. 110,135.
9. Martin Weber, “Could There Be Another Waco?”, Who’s Got the Truth? Making sense out of five different Adventist Gospels (Silver Spring, MD: Home Study International Press, 1994), pp. 187-211.
10. Jim Jones, quoted in Time, Dec. 4, 1978, p. 27.
12. Ellen G. White, Testimonies to Ministers, p. 49.
13. ----Christ’s Object Lessons, p. 133.
14. ----Fundamentals of Christian Education, p. 335.
15. Ibid, p. 336.
16. ----Christ’s Object Lessons, p. 69.
17. ----Testimonies, vol. 6, pp. 394-395.
Pastor Kevin Paulson holds a Bachelor’s degree in theology from Pacific Union College, a Master of Arts in systematic theology from Loma Linda University, and a Master of Divinity from the SDA Theological Seminary at Andrews University. He served the Greater New York Conference of Seventh-day Adventists for ten years as a Bible instructor, evangelist, and local pastor. He writes regularly for Liberty magazine and does script writing for various evangelistic ministries within the denomination. He continues to hold evangelistic and revival meetings throughout the North American Division and beyond, and is a sought-after seminar speaker relative to current issues in the Seventh-day Adventist Church. He presently resides in Berrien Springs, Michigan.