Waco 30 – Lessons from the Waco Tragedy, part 2
Author: Tihomir Kukolja
“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.” Hebrews 1:1.2. NIV “But whenever anyone turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away.” 2. Corinthians 3:16. NIV
Read here part one, The Truth that will Blow Your Mind
Rev. Ed Trevors, an Anglican priest from Canada, recently shared a sobering message: “A fake teacher is nothing without a congregation, without a group of people who want to hear their message. A fake teacher is nothing without the itching ears (reference to 2. Timothy 4:3). It’s not about sharing the truth anymore. It is about sharing what is soothing to those who are watching, to those who are listening, to those who are reading.” 1. Who was the fertile audience with “itching ears” eager to embrace David Koresh and his message?
David Thibodeau, one of the few survivors of the Waco inferno 30 years ago and the author of “Waco – A Survivor’s Story”, stated in his book that “apart from a few people, most of the Mount Carmelites had a Seventh-day Adventist background.” 2. More recently Dr. Stephen Currow, the Principal at Newbold College in England, seemed to agree: “There can be no denying that there are points of connection between Koresh’s Branch Davidians and the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Koresh himself had been a Seventh-day Adventist for a couple of years before joining the Branch Davidians. The Branch Davidians trace their roots to the teachings of Victor Houteff, whose teachings were rejected by both his local Seventh-day Adventist church in Los Angeles (1930) and the corporate church (1934).” 3.
Was it a coincidence that all except one or two who died in the Waco fires on April 19, 1993 had very strong ties with the Seventh-day Adventist Church? How come the teachings of David Koresh attracted predominantly a certain brand of Adventists?
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 their influence recruited 30 other British Adventists – knew how to use a familiar, “prophetic” language and imagery, 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 (British followers of Koresh) were examples of Britons who were fanatical about the writings of Ellen G. White.” 4.
Most of Koresh’s new followers did not see their ideological transition as a radical change in their spiritual makeup. They thought that they were only advancing further, maturing spiritually, and upgrading their journey of faith. They believed that they were receiving “more light” and digging deeper into the already received “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 friend and fellow student at Newbold College in 1988, Cliff Sellors (read part 1, The Truth that will Blow Your Mind) who would spend many hours each day reading the writings of Ellen G. White and listening to the recordings of her messages 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”, in the way Adventists like to neutralize her input into the formation of the Adventist belief system or deny that her statements are their final spiritual authority. For every practical purpose she was all the light that mattered.
Once Cliff and other traditional Adventists, who were fanatical about their devotion to Ellen G. White, discovered David Koresh, they applied themselves to following him with the same kind of loyalty and devotion. 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 Koresh was a prophet, he had them. Once a person thought he was God, there was no turning back”, wrote MarcBreault, once Koresh’s right-hand man who defected in 1989, in his book “Preacher of Death.” 5.
So, why were the traditional Ellen G. White-loving Adventists – including my friend Cliff Sellors and a few Newbold friends, and almost all of the 30 British followers who moved to Waco, Texas in the years before 1993 – willing to give their unconditional loyalty to a new prophet-messiah, the same kind of loyalty they had until recently given only to Ellen G. White?
When they heard familiar language, concepts, and imagery – which they loved very much and which, in their view, the mainstream Adventism had betrayed – their conversion was easy and quick. Although “the new light” brought into their lives plenty of misery and beliefs that were previously foreign and appalling to them, in their hearts they believed that they had finally become part of a superior movement that was restoring them back to their lost Adventist roots.
Marc Breault described the reasoning behind his decision to join the Branch Davidians: “Well, the Seventh-day Adventist Church was founded by a prophet. Who says God can’t raise up another one!” 6. David Bunds, another former Branch Davidian who left the cult three years ahead of the deadly siege in April 1993, described recently in one of his YouTube releases, the link connecting the Branch Davidians and the Seventh-day Adventists: “We believed everything the Adventists believed, but we had additional doctrines (too). We felt superior.” 7. Moreover, the overly committed and restless followers of Ellen G. White within the circles of the Adventist community, who were craving “more light” and “more truth”, 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, that made such a transition possible?
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 beginning, identity, and purpose. Ultimately, it was found in the dreams and visions of Ellen G. White, a young woman of Methodist pietistic upbringing, who would soon be recognized by the Adventists as their legitimate prophetic voice announced by the Book of Revelation as “the Spirit of Prophecy” (reference Revelation 19:10).
Although most of the early Adventists were either former Baptists or pietist Methodists, in order to maintain the credibility of the new movement, they had to shape their theology around a very flexible concept of revelation and inspiration, which by default had to provide a space for some new truths required to transform a defeat of the 1844 Great Disappointment into a new prophetically purposed beginning. This construct of Biblical interpretation had to be big enough to embrace the prophetic statements of Ellen G. White with which it would be hard to argue, such as “I was shown” or “the Lord told me”, or “thus saith the Lord”.
In 1882 Ellen G. White warned: “You are rebelling against God as certainly as were Korah, Dathan and Abiram. You know how stubborn they were in their own opinions. They decided that their judgment was better than that of Moses. I am presenting to you that which the Lord has presented to me.” 8. On another occasion she used the opening statement of the Letter to the Hebrews and applied it to herself: “In ancient times God spoke to men by the mouth of prophets and apostles. In these days He speaks to them by the Testimonies of His Spirit.” 9.
Consequently, into existence came the teachings never heard before. The most notable one 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”. “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 in the Word to the Little Flock in 1846. 10.
Then, thanks to the graphic dreams and visions of Ellen G. White that followed shortly thereafter, 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 an 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. The 24th statement of the current version of Adventist Fundamental Beliefs (Christ’s Ministry in the Heavenly Sanctuary)states: “In 1844, at the end of the prophetic period of 2300 days, He entered the second and last phase of His atoning ministry.” 11.
According to the gradually rebranded doctrine, instead of coming to the Earth on October 22, 1844 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 previously claimed “under the inspiration” that the door of grace gradually disappeared as if it had never existed.
At the same time many other concepts were developed in those early days of Adventist formation, before they 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 and remnant Church of God, and that the only trustworthy 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 (chapter 14), destined to give the final call to all true Christians in other denominations “to come out of the Babylon” Revelation 18:4). For many decades the Adventist Church acted as if it needed no one else but itself. If today many modern Adventists do not appear so rigid, this is only because the Church has over the years softened considerably its shield of exclusivity and self-righteousness.
None of those peculiar beliefs would have ever survived if it were not for the solidifying visions of Ellen G. White, and the application of an elastic view of inspiration and revelation. 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. 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 – an Adventist breakout group dating back to the 1930s (The Shepherd’s Rod) – picked up on the kind of Adventism described above, which they believed to be a true, historic kind of Adventism. They too claimed Ellen G. White was their first prophet. Along with her they inherited the same flexible view of inspiration and revelation. The difference between the two was that the Davidians – and David Koresh especially– radicalized the entire Adventist spiritual inheritance beyond the wildest imagination of Adventist pioneers.
It is important to notice that both groups believed that God, despite the fact that they were living under the age of the New Covenant, continued to reveal himself and his plans progressively through the ministry of his modern-day 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. 12.
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.” 13. Branch Davidians gladly inherited and embraced the Adventist view of progressive revelation, and then made out of it their own, wild thing.
When visiting the Mount Carmel Center in Waco today, on the walls of the church hall – built on the same ground where fire consumed almost an entire generation of Branch Davidians 30 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 revealing “more truth” and “more light”. The progressive prophetic 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 Davidians and “the seven shepherds of the Advent Movement”, of which – according to the Davidians – the first one was Ellen G. White and the last one was David Koresh.
Frontline on PBS shared online an interesting article written by playwright 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.” 14.
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 disgusting, 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 the 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.
In fact, the militant apocalyptic teachings of Koresh, his obsession with guns and desperate desire to physically fight against the ungodly powers, and his own identification with the Old Testament figure of the liberating Persian king Cyrus, alias Koresh, resonate today much closer with the conspiratorial and militant beliefs and teachings of various hybrid evangelical, dispensationalist, dominionist, Christian supremacist and so called NAR – New Apostolic Reformation teachers, apostles and prophets whose influence has skyrocketed during the years of the presidency of the former US president Donald Trump. It ought not to be surprising then that the current Branch Pastor Charles Pace, who is currently serving as The Branch – The Lord Our Righteousness Church leader, was thrilled when he saw that Donald Trump was bringing his first presidential campaign to Waco right at the time of the Waco Siege 30th anniversary. Apparently, he called Donald Trump “the anointed of God”, and “the battering ram that God is using to bring down the Deep State of Babylon.” 15.
On the other hand, The Seventh-day 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, still a cult numbering only a handful, the Seventh-day Adventist Church is a well-organized worldwide denomination of 25 million members worldwide. 16.
Not a Coincidence
However, it must be noted, 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.” 17.
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 spiritual 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 very flexible and uniquely progressive concepts of revelation. Soon some new beliefs and concepts, official and not-so-official, were born about the spiritual superiority of the “exclusive truths” 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, for many years many other Christians could not make up their minds what to make of the Seventh-day Adventist Church.
Today, and especially in the days of a prolonged Covid-19 Pandemic, the Seventh-day Adventist Church faces a serious crisis of identity, still balancing its walk along the lines of cognitive dissonance, trying to rebrand itself as an historic Christian denomination rooted in the Reformation. At the same time it is trying to pursue 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.
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!”
David Koresh and his Branch Davidian predecessors harvested the Adventist view of elastic or progressive revelation. Initially, to the Adventists this kind of view of revelation provided a very much needed opportunity for theological maneuvering to blend together the historical Christian doctrines with their new doctrines designed to justify the initial disappointment with the non-appearance of Jesus in the clouds of Heaven on October 22, 1844.
David Koresh applied and radicalized the shared theological fallacy about the supposed continuation of the progressive character of God’s revelation and inspiration, and gradually created a theological monster. His followers never stopped seeing themselves anything else but Adventists of a superior status. In the mind of Koresh and the minds of his followers they were sent to be the reformers of the Seventh-Day Adventist Church, with a mission to bring it back to its original roots and mission. In the eyes of the Seventh-Day Adventist Church, Branch Davidians and their messiah Koresh were an embarrassing nuisance who had nothing in common with the official worldwide Adventist Church.
While the Seventh-day Adventist Church cannot be blamed for the tragic outcome of the Waco siege in 1993 just because David Koresh applied a shared progressive concept of revelation, the tragic outcome of the Branch Davidian’s drama thirty years ago ought to serve as a wakeup call that even the most innocent artificially created theological constructs may be lethal in the hands of charismatic, narcissistic, seductive and manipulating lunatics weaponized by false prophetic or messianic claims.
Watch the part one here – The Truth that Will Blow Your Mind
- David Thibodeau, Waco A Survivor’s Story: Hachette Books, Hachette Book Group, New York, US, Revised edition 2018.
- WACO 30th Anniversary: Continuities and Discontinuities, Dr. Steve Currow, https://adventist.uk/news/article/go/2023-03-24/1501/
- Martin King and Marc Breault, Preached of Death, Pinguin Books Ltd, London, England, 1993.
- Martin King and Marc Breault, Preached of Death, Pinguin Books Ltd, London, England, 1993.
- Escaping David Koresh: How Do You Get a Cult Out of Your Brain? Part 2 https://youtu.be/dYGQ-SNbF7E
- Ellen G. White, Testimonies vol. 5: Ellen G. white to Battle Creek Church, 1882.
- Ellen G. White, Testimonies for the Church, vol. 4. Testimony 27, 1876.
- Adventist Fundamental Beliefs, https://www.adventist.org/beliefs/
- Ellen G. White, Testimonies, Volume 5. https://m.egwwritings.org/en/book/663.997
- David Thibodeau, Waco A Survivor’s Story: Hachette Books, Hachette Book Group, New York, US, Revised edition 2018.
- https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/apocalypse/readings/waco.html PBS, Waco – The Fire Next Time
- Independent: The infamous Texas siege with a ‘straight line’ to QAnon, right-wing militias, and January 6. Josh Marcus. April 21, 2023. https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/us-politics/waco-siege-anniversary-qanon-militia-b2322161.html
- Seventh-day Adventist World Statistics 2021, https://www.adventist.org/statistics/t
- Spectrum Magazine. https://spectrummagazine.org/article/2018/01/31/we-didnt-start-fire-tinder-was-ours