“In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son.” Hebrew 1:1-2. (NIV)
Waco, Part 2
David Thibodeau, one of the few survivors of the Waco inferno 25 years ago and the author of “Waco – A Survivor’s Story”, stated in his book that as soon as the siege started “the Adventist rushed a public-relationships damage-control team to Waco to deny that the Branch Davidians had grown from their tree.” He also wrote that “apart from a few people, most of the Mount Carmelites had a Seventh-day Adventist background.” Could this have been only a coincidence?
Advancing in the Light
There was much more to the conversion story of David Koresh’s followers than their fragile social and emotional makeup. Koresh and his key evangelist and manager Steve Schneider, who in the summer of 1988 converted a group of students from Newbold College in England – and through them almost 30 other Adventists, their friends, family and church members – knew how to use familiar, “prophetic” language and imageries, which they held in common with traditional Adventists.
Albert A.C. White, a Newbold College Physics lecturer, wrote in his detailed report “From Seventh-day Adventism to David Koresh – The British Connection”: “Fanatical adherence to anything, even the Bible, is unhealthy. They were examples of Britons who were fanatical about the writings of Ellen G. White.”
Most of Koresh’s new followers did not see their ideological transition as if it were a radical change in their spiritual makeup or loyalties. They thought that they were only advancing forward, spiritually maturing, and upgrading their faith journey. They believed that they were receiving “more light” and digging deeper into the already well known “Present Truth.” Joining David Koresh, in their view, meant arriving at the final destination in their restless but honest search for the “Truth”.
This was certainly true about my good friend and fellow student at Newbold College in 1988, Cliff Sellors, who would spend many hours each day reading the writings and listening to the recordings of Ellen G. White, and assessing the inadequacies of his life in the light of her “inspired” statements. In his mind she was not “a lesser light that led to the greater light”, the way Adventists like to neutralize her input into the formation of the Adventist belief system. For every practical purpose she was all the light that mattered.
Once Cliff and a number of other traditional Adventists, who were fanatical about their devotion to Ellen G. White, discovered David Koresh, they applied themselves to the same kind of loyalty, zeal and devotion, now directed to him. And once they were in Koresh’s embrace, they believed he was the only true light that mattered. By identifying with Koresh’s teachings they came to believe that they finally belonged to the truest “Remnant”. Ultimately “once a person thought he (Koresh) was a prophet, he had them. Once a person thought he was God, there was no turning back”, wrote Marc Breault, once Koresh’s right-hand man who defected in 1989, in his book “Preacher of Death.”
So, why the traditional, Ellen G. White-loving Adventists, including my friend Cliff Sellors and almost all 30 British followers who moved to Waco, Texas, in the years before 1993, were willing to give their unconditional loyalty to a new prophet-messiah, the same kind of loyalty they had until recently given to Ellen G. White?
When they heard familiar language, concepts and imagery, which they loved very much, and which – in their view – mainstream Adventism had betrayed, their conversion was easy and quick. Regardless of the fact that the “new light” brought into their lives plenty of misery, and contents that were foreign and appalling to them previously, in their hearts they believed that they had finally become part of a movement that was restoring them back to their lost Adventist roots.
Marc Breault described the reasoning behind his joining of the Branch Davidians: “Well, the Seventh-day Adventist Church was founded by a prophet. Who says God can’t raise up another one!” (Preacher of Death; Martin King and Marc Breault). In short, the fanatical and restless followers of Ellen G. White shifted their allegiances, because they believed that the absolute prophetic word of Ellen G. White was now upgraded and vindicated by the absolute prophetic word of a more radical prophet, David Koresh.
A Skeleton in the Closet
What was the skeleton in the closet shared by both groups?
In the days when the Adventist movement was still in its infancy, it desperately sought to make sense out of the Great Disappointment. Thousands in the United States were expecting in vain for the Second Coming of Jesus to take place on October 22, 1844. A prophetic hand was needed to provide divine guidance out of the confusion and give the disappointed group a sense of new identity and purpose. It was found in the dreams and visions of Ellen G. White, a young woman of Methodist upbringing, who would soon be recognized by the Adventists as the “Spirit of Prophecy” (Revelation 19:10), or their legitimate prophetic voice.
Although, most of the early pioneering Adventists were either former Baptists or Methodists, in order to maintain the credibility of the new movement, they had to shape its theology around a very flexible concept of revelation and inspiration, which by default had to provide a space for some new truths not easily constructed with the use of straightforward Biblical methods of truth-setting, or historically approved Christology. This construct of Biblical interpretation had to be big enough to embrace the prophetic statements of Ellen G. White with which it was hard to argue, such as “I was shown” or “the Lord told me”.
Thus, into existence came doctrines never heard before. The most notable, for the purpose of illustration, was “The Shut Door Doctrine.” It declared that only the Adventists who were expecting Jesus to return in 1844 were worthy of salvation. They believed that the door of mercy had been closed to everyone else, including the “backsliding” Adventists who were not willing to accept the new truth known as “The Shut Door Doctrine”. “The light behind them went out leaving their feet in perfect darkness… It was just as impossible for them to get on the path again and go to the City, as all the wicked world which God had rejected” – wrote Ellen G. White “under the inspiration” in the Word to the Little Flock in 1847.
Then, thanks to the graphic dreams and visions of Ellen G. White that followed shortly, this doctrine evolved into the “Doctrine of Investigative Judgment”, more recently rebranded into “The Sanctuary Doctrine”. This doctrine continues to claim even today, but in the ever-softer way, that October 22, 1844 was indeed a Biblical date of distinctive importance, but misunderstood by the pre-Adventist movement of William Miller. According to the rebranded doctrine, instead of coming to the Earth Jesus entered the Most Holy Place in Heaven to begin the investigative judgment of all “professed Christians” who have ever lived on this planet. However, the part that claimed that the door of grace was closed was left out.
At the same time, dictated by the momentum of survival, many other concepts were developed in those early days of Adventist formation, before Adventists became an organized denomination in 1864. Adventists came to believe that they were the only ones who mattered to God in his plan of salvation, and that all culminating events at the end of human history would revolve around them, because only Adventists who emerged victorious out of the Great Disappointment represented the true Remnant acceptable to Christ.
They also believed that at the very end, just before Jesus Christ comes again, they would remain to be the only true believers, persecuted under the “Beastly Sunday Law”. They believed that their distinctive doctrines were the mark of the true Church of God, and that the only true interpreter of the word of God was their prophet Ellen G. White. They also believed that they were “the Third Angel” of the book of Revelation, destined to give the final call to all other true Christians in other denominations “to come out of the Babylon.” (Revelation 18:4). For many decades the Adventist Church acted as if needed no one but itself. If today many modern Adventists do not appear so rigid any more, this is only because the Church has over the years softened its shield of exclusivity and self-righteousness significantly.
None of those beliefs would have ever survived if it were not for the solidifying visions of Ellen G. White, and the application of a plastic interpretation of the gift of prophecy. Even today, many Adventist pastors never preach a sermon without stating multiple times “Sister White said… this or that.” Even today, in the eyes of traditional Adventists, any truth of the Bible is only as true and as clear as it is validated through the interpretations of her many Testimonies. In other words, even today many Adventists reason: “If sister White said it, who am I to dispute it”.
Here a Little and There a Little
The Branch Davidians – from their birth as an Adventist breakout group in the thirties of the last century – picked up on the kind of Adventism described above. They claimed Ellen G. White as their prophet. Along with her they inherited the same flexible view of inspiration and revelation, and a questionable eschatology, Christology and ecclesiology. The difference was that Davidians, David Koresh especially, radicalized the entire Adventist spiritual inheritance beyond the wildest Adventist imagination.
It is important to notice also that both groups believed that God, even in the age of the New Covenant, continued to reveal himself and his plans progressively through the ministry of his prophets. According to the words of Ellen G. White, God continued to reveal his plans to his “Church” through the administration of her prophetic gift “here a little and there a little”, as the church was “ready” to receive. “I do not write one article in the paper, expressing merely my own ideas. They are what God has opened before me in vision – the precious rays of light shining from the throne” – wrote Ellen G. White, Testimonies, Volume 5. David Koresh radicalized the inherited concept of the progressive revelation of truth. David Thibodeau, one of the survivors of the Waco siege, wrote in his book: “We understood that David’s truth was progressive, always evolving, revealing more and more of itself.” Both saw the revelation of God operating dialectically.
When visiting the current New Mount Carmel Center in Waco, on the walls of the church hall – built on the same ground where the fire swallowed almost an entire generation of Branch Davidians 25 years ago – one will find photographs, maps and descriptions depicting a dialectic progression of how, in their view, God was progressively leading “his Church” through many centuries, always reveling “more truth” and “more light”. The progressive line leads from the days of the apostles, across the Reformation and Martin Luther and John Wesley, until the days of the Baptist preacher William Miller and the Seventh-day Adventist Movement – when, according to the monument displayed at the entrance of the camp, the baton of truth was passed on to the Branch Davidians and the “seven shepherds of the Advent Movement”, of which the first one was Ellen G. White and last one was David Koresh.
Frontline PBS shared an interesting article online written by a playwriter and former Adventist David Valdes Greenwood in 1993, under the title “Waco – The Fire Next Time”. He writes, “When Koresh looked at Adventism, he saw a church that did not adhere strictly enough to White’s teachings and, moreover, adhered too strictly to the dogma that she was the only prophet. Koresh co-opted White’s theory of “Present Truth,” which holds that not all of God’s truths were made clear in the Bible, so the revelation of additional meanings must be made manifest in a living prophet. Koresh saw himself and White as being on a continuum.”
It needs to be said, however, that it was not the size of the shared platform of beliefs that attracted Koresh’s converts from within Adventist circles. The Seventh-day Adventist Church, like most other Christian churches, finds most of his teachings discussing, nonsensical, pathological and blasphemous. Whatever one might think of the Adventist Church and some of its distinctive beliefs, theologically speaking the Church today is largely in tune with mainstream Protestant theology. The perversions of Koresh’s prophetic interpretations, his messianic claims, his twisted teachings and polygamist practices that included sexual relationships with underage girls, and his belief in the literal Armageddon in which he and his followers would fight a real physical war with real guns against the wicked earthly and spiritual powers – none of those had anything in common with the teachings of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. The Adventist Church of today would undersign without any difficulty all the creeds of the historical Christian faith. When compared with the Branch Davidian Seventh-day Adventists, numbering only a few today and still remaining a cult (certainly those who still follow David Koresh), the Seventh-day Adventist Church is a well-organized denomination of 25 million members worldwide.
Not a Coincidence
However, it was not a coincidence that most of Koresh’s followers, however few in numbers, were of Seventh-day Adventist background. The late Roy Branson, a former editor of Spectrum, reflected in his May 1993 editorial: “We began to learn more about the people who died at Ranch Apocalypse: sisters in their 20s from an Adventist family in California; a former student at Andrews University; young adults from Australia; several former ministerial students from Newbold College and their lifelong Adventist relatives. These were not third-generation children of the Shepherd’s Rods (Branch Davidians). We didn’t start the fire but the tinder was ours.”
The tinder was Adventist not only in that at least 90 percent of the deceased victims of the Waco tragedy came directly from Seventh-day Adventist churches, but that much of the Branch Davidian software was made of the metastasized mutations of traditional Adventist material. The early eschatological and theological wonderings of the Adventist pioneers, as they were seeking to format their new identity and purpose out of a disappointing non-arrival of Jesus Christ on October 22, 1844, introduced a culture of modern day American prophets as the most authoritative voice in Biblical interpretations, and developed a very plastic or progressive concepts of revelation. Soon some new beliefs and concepts, official and not-so-official, were born about the spiritual superiority of the “Truth” given to Adventists, and their central place in the final days of the world’s history.
In short, the early Adventists, by the dictate of their survival, created a special brand of eschatology that affected their understanding of Christology, ecclesiology and missiology. Thanks to their elitist and self-centered approach to Christian faith, many other Christians for many years could not make up their minds what to make of the Seventh-day Adventist Church.
Today the Adventist Church is facing a serious crisis of identity, still balancing its walk along the line of cognitive dissonance, trying to rebrand itself as an historic Christian denomination, rooted in the Reformation, while pursuing an impossible task of trying not to offend its conservative and traditional constituency that fights with all its might to conform the church to what it believes to be the only true Adventism – the one of its confusing infancy years.
Meanwhile a challenge remains worthy of our pondering: as long as a church denomination or movement is not firmly rooted in the truth that God has spoken conclusively, with finality and without strings attached through His Son Jesus Christ, once and for all, but instead intently seeks to deliver “new truths” and “new light”, or seeks new demonstrations of truth guided by some tense and subjective experiences, it will eventually witness someone opening a Pandora’s box of the most extreme Biblical interpretations and beliefs, and its followers will become an easy target for any deception and delusion under the hijacked but powerful claim: “Thus saith the Lord!”
Read part 1: The Truth That Will Blow Your Mind
Some insightful comments in response to this article:
Amelia Han Riegert:
I concur with you about Koresh’s Messianic claims. That was how I decided I would leave the group study, it was after he arrived in Binfield and met with our study group, when I heard him apply these Messianic titles and prophecies to himself that I knew I could not accept his message. It was blasphemy to say the least. He was also arrogant, and I noted that he never prayed before or after a study session.
Interesting, and I think valid points you are making. I have been thinking that in some aspects of SDA eschatology the emphasis has been on the Remnant being the only true followers of Christ, interpreted to be SDAs only, and the rest of the world would turn against them in a last days’ persecution, even unto death. This could have prepared the Branch Davidians to stand with their «Messiah» even in death. I think the FBI was not well enough informed of the theological framework that the group subscribed to. It seems to me it would have been much more succcesful to detain mr Howell once he was outside the compound – rather than attacking them in military style, as you pointed out, for them the Harmageddon was interpreted to be a literal battle. It is so strange to think Cliff Sellors would arm himself for such a war.
I think it is very important to focus on the person of Jesus rather than on people. I am happy the Adventist church in Albania is 100% focused on Jesus. Contributions from people who know the importance of Jesus as the center of faith are very important.
I think the problem with Adventist understanding of EGW which leads to the problems with David Koresh and Davidians, Shepard’s Rod, etc etc… is caught up in the misrepresentation of what Spiritual Gifts are, and are not. Spiritual gifts are ordinary gifts given to believers for service. They are not extraordinary gifts as Adventism seems to present EGW’s gift. The Bible clearly says the gift of prophecy will be within the church in the later days as given to multiple persons not a single person. The Spirit of Prophecy are those who testify of Jesus, or give testimony to Jesus. Ellen G White seem to have done this when she wrote her books. Jesus was the center upon which each book was written. Unlike the many compilations made afterward. So she demonstrated what the spiritual gift was in her writings but she never claimed the gift was exclusively hers. I think I remember her desire was to see this gift multiply. She counseled Pastors and Teachers to make Jesus the center of their preaching and teaching. This would enable them to participate in the Spirit of Prophecy because the Spirit attends our testimony of Jesus. Note also that giving testimony should never be about ourselves as it is popularly done.
You are stating twice that it was no coincidence that Koresh’s followers were from an Adventist background. I think this is true only partly since Vernon Howell came from the same background and thus chose to perform his deception in a for him familiar setting (as many deceivers before and after him did as well, just not with such extremely perverted and finally also violent ideas).
The concept of Present Truth and Progressive Truth and Revelation may be rather specific for Adventism, but the fact that there are dozens of mainstream Christian denominations can have a similar effect on members of other churches in the sense that they might start believing there is something left to be yet revealed and discovered.
Ultimately, I don’t think it was the Adventist theological mindset that facilitated and encouraged their ever deeper falling for Howell’s ideas – but their own individual gullibility. I think this was a far more important factor than their being Adventist believers. The observed (and thus assumed) fine character traits of those individuals you knew back then do not change that, they actually emphasize the plausibility of such an assumption.
It is possible to take any type of Christianity, any creed, any denominational theology and to use its specific peculiarities to twist them into something diabolic – but only if you have willing listeners – those who have been preconditioned by some sort of disgruntlement – the possibilities are endless.
In my opinion Adventist theology with all its peculiarities has its own important purpose and role which it fulfilled (unfortunately) only partly so far. One of its claims that truth is progressive is in itself biblical as well as logical, the same is the case with the claim that there will always be the possibility of the manifestation of spiritual gifts, the gift of prophecy included. Of course, such a theological claim about the progressiveness of revelation as well as of discernment is an especially fertile ground to smuggle in one’s own agenda – but for a sound mind there is a limit, this limit is partly well described in the comment by Amelia Han Riegert: “when I heard him apply these Messianic titles and prophecies to himself … I knew I could not accept his message. It was blasphemy to say the least”.
If we are Bible believing Christians then we also acknowledge the fact of the existence of a personal adversary of God and Christian believers, namely Satan. I mention this in connection with the clear manifestation of satanic ideas, influence and course of action taken by Howell and his followers (certainly in varying degrees on an individual level but destructive enough as a sum). Because Satan is able to take any idea, good or bad, and twist its original meaning and utilize it for an evil purpose.
There is Adventism, and there is Adventism – as there is in a general sense Christianity as well as Christianity. Oh yes, there are spawns and freaks of Christianity, so we have as well freaks and spawns of Adventism – both phenomenons do put us under a lot of strain and can also create a reflex to throw away the child together with the bathing water.
Christianity’s reputation is far from clean, neither is Adventism’s. But both reputations (which in my opinion are in some sense the same) are also being constantly vindicated – yet only to that amount to which we understand and truthfully present God’s character to the world as well as to the Universe. Thank God though it isn’t our reputation that will make the final difference – but God’s reputation, His true reputation – so I believe.
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