Obituary: David Koresh

Vernon Wayne Howell (David Koresh), cult leader: born Houston, Texas 1959; married 1983 Rachel Jones (one son, one daughter); died Waco, Texas 19 April 1993.

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.'

(Photograph omitted)

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Project Manager (HR)- Bristol - Upto £400 p/day

£350 - £400 per annum + competitive: Orgtel: Project Manager (specializing in ...

HR Business Partner (Maternity Cover 12 Months)

£30000 - £34000 Per Annum 25 days holiday, Private healthcare: Clearwater Peop...

Project Manager (Procurement & Human Resources)

Unpaid: Cancer Research UK: If you’re a professional in project management, lo...

Geography Teacher

£85 - £140 per day: Randstad Education Cheshire: We require a teacher of Geogr...

Day In a Page

Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star
How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

Broadcasting plays and exhibitions to cinemas is a sure-fire box office smash
Shipping container hotels: Pop-up hotels filling a niche

Pop-up hotels filling a niche

Spending the night in a shipping container doesn't sound appealing, but these mobile crash pads are popping up at the summer's biggest events
Native American headdresses are not fashion accessories

Feather dust-up

A Canadian festival has banned Native American headwear. Haven't we been here before?
Boris Johnson's war on diesel

Boris Johnson's war on diesel

11m cars here run on diesel. It's seen as a greener alternative to unleaded petrol. So why is London's mayor on a crusade against the black pump?
5 best waterproof cameras

Splash and flash: 5 best waterproof cameras

Don't let water stop you taking snaps with one of these machines that will take you from the sand to meters deep
Louis van Gaal interview: Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era

Louis van Gaal interview

Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era
Will Gore: The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series

Will Gore: Outside Edge

The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series
The children were playing in the street with toy guns. The air strikes were tragically real

The air strikes were tragically real

The children were playing in the street with toy guns
Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite – The British, as others see us

Britain as others see us

Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite
How did our legends really begin?

How did our legends really begin?

Applying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
Watch out: Lambrusco is back on the menu

Lambrusco is back on the menu

Naff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz