DAVID KORESH, who died in the fire that engulfed the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, on Monday - survivors' accounts indicate that he was caught in the fire, although it now appears his body may never be identified - presents the almost classic case of a doomsday prophet in a culture that produces them with catastrophic regularity.
His most obvious predecessor is the Rev Jim Jones, leader of the People's Temple, who persuaded his 900 followers to commit suicide along with him by drinking Cool-Aid laced with cyanide in Guyana in 1978. But Koresh's pedigree includes more respected figures, such as Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism, who headed the polygamous 'cult' based at Nauvoo, Illinois, until his murder while in the custody of the state militia in 1844, and William Miller, the Baptist preacher who initiated the Adventist tradition to which Koresh's group, the Branch Davidians, distantly belonged.
The Adventist or Premillennialist beliefs in a literal Second Coming preceded by the apocalyptic events described in the Book of Revelation was condemned by church fathers including St Augustine and Origen and never became part of mainstream Christianity in Europe. Banished to America, they found fertile soil in a culture where religious freedom is absolute and extreme individualism flourishes alongside chronic economic and social insecurity. According to recent polls 62 per cent of Americans have 'no doubts' that Jesus will come to earth again; 40 per cent accept the Bible as the literal word of God and around 8 million Americans are firmly committed to the 'premillennialist' scenario outlined in the Book of Revelation. With Dallas, Los Angeles and Oklahoma city having the heaviest concentration of prophecy devotees, it is no surprise to find that Koresh was active in two of these areas.
Vernon Howell, to give him his original name, was born in 1959 in Houston. His 15-year-old mother, Bonnie Clark, worked in a nursing home, his father, Bobbie Howell, aged 20, was a carpenter. The couple - who were never married - split up when Vernon was two. His mother eventually married and moved to Garland, a suburb of Dallas. According to his maternal grandmother, Vernon did not get on well with his stepfather, Roy Haldeman. He evidently found solace in the Bible, and it became part of the mythology surrounding him that he had memorised the New Testament by the time he was 12. According to his mother he would 'go out in the barn and pray for hours'.
'I've seen him sitting by his bed, on his knees for hours, crying and praying,' she is quoted as saying. 'Vernon was always a good boy.' Similar stories of religious precocity and adolescent fervour are told of Joseph Smith.
Howell never completed high school, dropping out in 1977 when he was 17. The only impression he made was as a member of the high school band. A musician of some talent, he would eventually woo his followers with the help of a guitar. In 1979, at the age of 20, he was formally baptised as a Seventh Day Adventist. Two years later he was expelled, according to elders, for his style of Biblical interpretation and for being 'a bad influence on the young'. He drifted to Hollywood, where he married the 14-year-old Rachel Jones, with whom he would have two children, Cyrus, now 7 and Star, 5 - both of whom are presumed to have perished.
In 1981 he joined the Branch Davidians, an offshoot of the Seventh Day Adventists based at Mount Carmel, a group of clapboard houses on farmland outside Waco. His first job was to work as a handyman for the group's leader, Lois Roden, who was in her sixties. According to some accounts, Howell became Lois Roden's lover and was soon involved in a macabre power-struggle with her son George, who dug up a body from the local cemetery and challenged Howell to prove his Messianic claims by bringing it back to life. Howell promptly reported George to the police. When the sheriff demanded proof, Howell and seven men tried to steal the body in a pre-dawn military-style raid. After the shoot-out that followed Howell and his associates were arrested and charged with attempted murder, but were never convicted, in part because George Roden was by then serving a six-month sentence for harassing the courts.
Once in charge of the Branch Davidians, Howell, who renamed himself David Koresh, began showing increasing signs of megalomania, identifying himself with Christ - though not the 'gentle Jesus' of the New Testament, rather the vengeful Messiah symbolised by the Lamb of God in the Book of Revelation. Like other charismatic leaders - including Joseph Smith and the Rev Jim Jones - he evidently considered it his right to sleep with any or all of the women in the group, including, apparently, under-age girls. The regime became increasingly repressive with 'boot-camp' style military training at 5.30am, lengthy sessions of Bible study and corporal punishment meted out to children who acted disobediently.
Instead of disarming Koresh and his followers with a 'charm offensive' the FBI, abetted by the Attorney General, seem to have deliberately fed the cult members' religious paranoia by surrounding the compound with military vehicles and eventually attacking it, bringing about the very denouement prophesied in texts such ast II Peter 3,10: 'The heavens shall pass away with a great noise, and the elements shall melt with fervent heat, the earth also and the works that are therein shall be burnt up.'