The second coming of the curse of David Koresh
Paul Vallely is visiting professor in Public Ethics at the University of Chester and a senior research fellow at the Brooks World Poverty Institute at the University of Manchester. He writes on ethical, political and cultural issues. He has a fortnightly column in the Independent on Sunday and also writes for the New York Times and the Church Times. His latest book is Pope Francis – Untying the Knots. He was co-author of the report of the Commission for Africa and has chaired several development charities.
Friday 21 May 1999
It had all begun innocently enough. Dr Newport is a theologian who, for the past two years, has been gathering material for an academic volume on how groups throughout history have interpreted Revelation, the final book of the Bible which is consumed with surreal visions about the end of the world.
Almost without exception, he discovered, those who became obsessed with the Apocalypse became filled with the conviction that it was a timetable of real events and that the end was about to come in their own time. The 17th-century Baptist, Benjamin Keach, thought it would happen in 1689. One of the founders of Methodism, Charles Wesley, thought Doomsday would be 1794. Perhaps most famously, the American preacher William Miller gathered his followers around him on 22 October 1844, all having sold their worldly possessions, quit jobs and moved to upstate New York, which was where Christ was due to return. The members of the Branch Davidian cult at Waco, under their wild and charismatic leader David Koresh, were seized with the same mindset.
But there was something more. From time to time there appeared a group that was not simply content to wait for Armageddon. They saw it as their duty to provoke it.
It was in gathering material on the history of the Branch Davidian cult that he came across evidence that Koresh's successors, who style themselves the Students of the Seven Seals, are engaged upon a process whose logic seems to be taking them remorselessly to the creation of another Waco - sometime between now and Friday 6 August, when they are convinced that the world will end.
Sitting in his neat modern study at Liverpool Hope University College, amid racks of box files and a world away from the madness of Waco, Dr Newport began to correspond - by letter and e-mail - with the new generation of Branch Davidians, who have fled Texas and are now dispersed throughout the US and UK. He contacted them through their websites and by writing to the seven members who are in American jails, serving a total of 238 years between them. Slowly he began to piece together the story which has so unnerved him.
The first piece in the jigsaw went back to 23 October 1844 - the day after the world didn't end as William Miller had predicted. It was then that his followers began the long process of coming to terms with what they dubbed The Great Disappointment. Among the several new groups which sprang from the disillusioned Millerites was the Seventh Day Adventists, whose recruits included one John Kellogg, who developed for his brethren a special vegetarian breakfast food called cornflakes.
Yet it was a movement doomed to schism. A washing machine salesman called Victor Houteff led a breakaway called the Davidian Seventh Day Adventists. And after Victor's wife and successor Florence gathered the movement's 940 members together for another unsuccessful Doomsday on 22 April 1959, it split again, with Ben Roden and his wife Lois forming the Branch Davidians.
In theory, the succession should have passed to their son George. But by then David Koresh was on the scene and things began to turn from the merely eccentric to the downright dangerous. To settle the leadership issue, Ken Newport discovered, George Roden dug up the remains of an 85- year-old Davidian who had died some 20 years earlier, and challenged Koresh to a Resurrection Contest. A gun battle ensued and, though the police arrested everyone, no one was convicted - though George was given six months for contempt of court for threatening the judge with plagues and herpes. (George was later sent to an asylum after drawing a third Davidian into a row over whether George or Koresh had been chosen by God to be the seventh and final angel named in the Bible; when the third man insisted it was neither of them but him, George chopped him up with an axe.)
But it was none of this which prompted the Davidians' letters and e-mails to Ken Newport suddenly to halt. Nor was it his questions about the awful events at Waco, at which the FBI acquitted themselves so poorly. The cult members began to get wary when Dr Newport started to ask about their belief that Koresh is due to return from the dead in the near future. Their massive documents on the Web revealed that a code-breaking of a combination of dates in Revelation and the prophetic book of Daniel suggested that Koresh would return on 6 August, at the head of 200 million horsemen (see Rev 9:16) to cleanse the earth and slaughter the rest of us. Those of Koresh's followers who were not consumed in the flames of Waco were to prepare for the event under the guidance of a Davidian by the code name of The Chosen Vessel.
It was when Ken Newport began to find out who this might be that all communication was ended with a final e-mail: "We perceive now that you are not a seeker after the truth."
But Dr Newport continued to comb through what had already been made available to him. The conclusions he was forced to disturbed him. For the survivors to join Koresh's divine army they, too, would have to be dead before 6 August. But there was no reference to self-sacrifice in any of the documentation. Rather there was the suggestion that the remnant, under the direction of The Chosen Vessel, would have to be killed by the same forces who killed Koresh.
"The logic is clear," says Dr Newport. "It all makes perfect sense if you take on board the hypotheses they start with. It is entirely possible that they are provoking some horrendous confrontation with the US authorities." His estimate is that around 40 to 50 individuals might be involved in such an outrage.
Across the world, security services have decided they have to take this kind of thing seriously. The propensity of cults to turn fantasy into grim reality is evident from a mere recital of names like Jonestown, the Solar Temple, Heaven's Gate, Aum Shinri Kyo. The authorities in Israel recently expelled 14 members of a Denver-based Doomsday sect called Concerned Christians, accusing them of plans to attack the al-Aqsa mosque in an attempt to spark off the apocalyptic war of Armageddon. In the UK, the anti-terrorism squad is alive to fears that a fanatical US group has targeted the Millennium Dome for attack. In Montana, the FBI is monitoring groups it fears are storing explosives for some millennium outrage.
Perhaps they have learned the lessons of Waco. When I contacted them in Washington this week, their cults department was remaining taciturn. The FBI knows that its strategists made fools of themselves over Waco. "Had they taken the trouble to find out anything about what was going on in the heads of those in the Waco compound, they might have defused the whole situation peacefully," says Ken Newport. Instead of which, their actions seemed calculated to produce the worst possible outcome.
"The demonisation of the US government which is found ubiquitously in Seventh Day Adventist sources predisposed members of the Branch-Davidian movement (nearly all of whom, including Koresh himself, were drawn from the Adventist church) to view the siege of their headquarters by the FBI as of apocalyptic significance," he says. The law authorities added to such a perception by shining unceasing lights into the compound, playing demonically loud music alternately punctuated, one Waco survivor claimed, with the sound of rabbits being slaughtered and of Tibetan monks chanting. It all fitted into the weird end-of-the-world scenario of those final chapters of the Bible.
"They were dealing with a group which believed that, just before the end of the world, the great Satanic power would seek to destroy the last faithful remnant of God's people," says Dr Newport. "No wonder that, with all that going on outside their Mount Carmel compound, Koresh's people thought that the eschatological dawn had broken. The chilling thing is that all the ingredients for another major incident are in place. And the logic leads uncompromisingly to 6 August." Only this time the FBI cannot say that they have not been warned.
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