It was 19 April 1993 and the first week of our college summer term. At the end of one class, a little before 11.00 a.m., I walked down the corridor towards my room only to be greeted with the news that there was an urgent telephone call waiting for me in the main office. Rather hurriedly I went to the telephone to learn that the producer of the BBC TV Welsh News was anxious to talk to me. Almost his first words were, ‘Have you heard the latest news from the USA?’ I had not heard the radio news at all that morning, so the producer had to provide me with an update. ‘The Waco problem,’ he informed me, ‘has ended as a major tragedy’.
He was, of course, referring to the Branch Davidian cult headquarters in Waco, Texas. For months the signs had been ominous, and things were beginning to get out of control. Government authorities were anxious to intervene, but there was uncertainty as to the most effective response. Earlier, on 28 February 1993, four United States FBI agents were killed when authorities raided the cult headquarters.
‘What has happened now?’ I asked the BBC producer. ‘Well,’ he replied, ‘United States agents launched an assault on the headquarters using tanks, tear-gas, rifles and machine guns’. To me it seemed as if government authorities had overreacted, although the cult members themselves were well equipped with guns and ammunition. They were more than prepared to defend themselves and, if necessary, kill the ‘aggressors’. I was then told the distressing news: ‘The Waco compound has been burned to the ground and at least eighty-five cult members died, including the leader. Others have also been injured’. It really was a tragedy and the event received worldwide media coverage. For several minutes I discussed the significance of the incident with the producer and agreed to be interviewed on the BBC evening news programme concerning it.
Cults of death
Waco has not been an isolated incident. On 18 November 1978 in the Guyana forests, 913 members of the Rev Jim Jones’s ‘People’s Temple’ cult committed suicide at the command of their leader. The members dutifully lined up to drink orange squash mixed with cyanide. In two separate locations in Switzerland on 5 October 1994 forty-eight cult members of the Canadian-based ‘Order of the Solar Temple’ were found dead. Many of them had been shot, but all had been injected with a powerful drug beforehand and plastic bags were tied around their necks.
The cult tragedy, however, extends beyond the Western hemisphere to all continents. For example, in March 1995 the Japanese religious cult, Aum Shinrikyo (Supreme Truth) was involved in the sarin poison nerve gas attack on five Tokyo subway trains. Ten people were killed, but nearly 6,000 commuters inhaled the gas, and some were critically ill for days. On 6 October 1998, The Times newspaper reported that, in a self-sacrifice ritual, seven members of a South Korean cult burned themselves to death in a van, in a remote area east of Seoul. Among the suicides was Woo Jong Min, fifty-three-year old pastor of the Yongsaeng (Everlasting Life) Church. These tragedies are the tip of an iceberg and, as the new millennium dawns, it is feared that a sequence of similar, if not worse, tragedies will occur in different parts of the world.
The ‘Branch Davidians’
While focusing on the Waco incident and background, I want to discuss some questions and principles arising from Waco which have a wider significance for cults in general, and also for the Christian church. However, in this article it is necessary to outline briefly the history of the Branch Davidian cult in order to provide the necessary background for our discussion.
The story begins with a man named Victor Houteff, who was born in Bulgaria in 1885 but his family later emigrated to the United States. As a young man, Houteff joined the Seventh Day Adventist Church (SDA) but gradually began to disagree with some of the official Adventist teaching. Houteff endeavoured to reform the Adventist Church theologically, but his views and efforts were not welcomed by its leaders. One area of disagreement was the crucial doctrine of justification by faith, which Houteff rightly wanted to emphasise. He claimed support for his position by referring to two Adventists who, in their 1888 General Conference, had insisted that justification was by faith in Christ alone. 1888 was in many ways a watershed in the history of Seventh Day Adventism, as the doctrine of justification was given more prominence in the movement. However, the controversy continued and the nature of justification, and its relationship to sanctification, were debated for decades. But even Houteff’s view on justification by faith was far from clear.
The biblical teaching is clear and uncompromising. As sinners, we are all guilty and condemned by the holy God. Nevertheless, ‘It is God,’ and God alone, ‘who justifies’ (Romans 8:33). The word ‘justify’ in the Bible means to declare sinners righteous in relation to God’s law. And God does this justly, but freely and mercifully, on the basis of Christ’s unique sacrifice for sinners on the cross. Not only did the Lord Jesus suffer the punishment due to his people because of their sin, but his obedience and righteousness are actually credited or imputed to believers. This means that the person who trusts in the Lord Jesus is acquitted, freed from the sentence of condemnation and accepted by God. ‘To him who does not work but believes on him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness’ (Romans 4:5). Over the centuries this clear biblical teaching has often been modified and compromised with disastrous consequences.
Despite his concern to uphold this teaching, Houteff seems to have implied that Christians can contribute to justification in some way, by keeping the law perfectly. There were other disagreements with his church, and he was formally excommunicated by SDA in 1935. Along with a small group of followers, Houteff moved to property near Waco. Initially they were known as The Shepherd’s Rod but in 1942 adopted the name Davidian Seventh Day Adventist. Houteff died in 1955 and his wife assumed leadership of the group, but her prediction that Christ would return in April 1959 led to some unexpected results.
For example, one of her late husband’s followers, a Texas businessman named Benjamin Roden, announced that he was not only a prophet but also the ‘sign’ predicted by Mrs Houteff. He then started a new group, which he called the Branch Davidians. Houteff’s original group disbanded in 1961, only to be reconstituted as the Davidian Seventh Day Adventist Association. This latter group is located in Exeter, Missouri, and still maintains Houteff’s protest against the traditional legalism of the SDA movement.
It is the breakaway group, Branch Davidians, we are concerned about in this article. The group’s emphases were on the imminence of Christ’s return, the observance of Old Testament Jewish feasts and, of course, the exclusive possession and interpretation of revelation. David Koresh, whose real name was Vernon Howell, arrived on the scene in 1981. His background was SDA, and he had been taught to memorise Scripture as a child. In fact, his knowledge of the Bible was impressive.
But he was a loner and never knew his father until adult years. Koresh left the SDA church as a teenager when his romance with a pastor’s daughter ended. The originally nice, quiet person slowly changed into a proud and ruthless individual. He engaged in a leadership power struggle within the cult, which ended in the mid-eighties in a shooting incident. Koresh became the Branch Davidian group leader, and in 1988 visited Britain under his proper name and successfully recruited about twenty members from among Adventists.
He travelled extensively, and cult members believed he was the only one able to open the ‘seven seals’ in the book of Revelation. This, he claimed, would trigger off cataclysmic events, resulting in the end of the world and the promotion of cult members to heaven. Koresh went so far as to make the blasphemous claim that he himself was the Son of God, and misappropriated for himself titles which belong uniquely to Christ.
The Waco tragedies of February and April 1993 were due in large measure to the bizarre claims and behaviour of Koresh. Why refer to Waco here, if Koresh was so obviously wrong and odd? Well, we can learn important lessons and principles from the Waco tragedies. And that will be the theme of the next article.