30 Years Later: How We Lost Our Friends to David Koresh

At the time of the 51-day-long siege orchestrated by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF) and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the Branch Davidian compound, otherwise known as the Mount Carmel Center, in Waco, Texas, was home to around 120 followers of the self-declared prophet and messiah David Koresh, whose real name was Vernon Howell.

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at https://spectrummagazine.org/views/2023/30-years-later-how-we-lost-our-friends-david-koresh

Thank you, Tihomir, for your sensitive and moving account of Newbold College’s experience of Steve Schneider’s and Vernon Howell’s recruiting visit. I recall, when we in administration became aware of their presence, appointing a staff member to attend meetings and report their content and focus. It didn’t take long to realise the goal of their visit. Yes, we excluded them from College property, but I have wished many times in the intervening years that we had also banished them from the assistant cook’s home, although I’m not sure how we could have accomplished that. The Newbold students lost to that cruel and demonic movement continue to haunt me. Again, thank you for sharing your experience. Blessings, Steven Thompson


One must assume that every adult inside the compound at Waco knew this memory verse.

They just believed their prophet had made it invalid.

So the lesson is not that Branch Davidians were anti-SDA’s.

They saw themselves as super-Adventists.

Just as SDA’s see themselves as Ultra-Christians waiting for the inevitable persecution which will supposedly vindicate them and their prophet.

This despite the fact that the gospel according to David Koresh, EGW, Joseph Smith and countless others cannot be validated anymore reliably than the gospel according to Peter, Paul or John, et als.

Was Jesus the epitome of Jewishness and fulfillment of Torah prophesies the NT legends claim he was, or a narcissist anti-Jewish pariah who brought about his own demise?

As is true of so many men who become myths, the truth about him and his “good news” is impossible to falsify.


All of this finds its roots in some people making claims of having received privileged information from “on high” through magical means (inspiration), or others making those claims on their behalf, as is the case for most of the writings which have been selected to be in the canon. Since their words are assumed to carry the weight of divine authority, the musings of these people, who may not have known each other and who may have had differing views, can be linked by the readers in connect-the-dot fashion to develop new understandings.

Yes, the NT writers did this to create their stories and teachings, often creatively taking their source texts completely out of context to find out what Jesus would have done or what the higher truth is. Paul arrogantly and single-handedly proclaimed that he had found a new way to interpret the Jewish scriptures. The Jews had gotten it all wrong, and only he had found the key, via revelation. He was opposed by other “apostles” whose views haven’t survived but who he said were even proclaiming a different Jesus and a different gospel. But since his writings survived and were collected into an anthology with a bovine epidermis cover, they are deemed true by those with faith in him.

Yes, the reformers, selectively connecting dots while “interpreting” away verses which didn’t confirm their views, created a new theology. Hundreds, if not thousands, of their theological descendants did likewise, creating yet more movements. Some with self-styled prophets even had the claim of divine assistance in connecting dots.

The Branch Davidians are easy to point to as fanatics or cultists, but the differences between them and other theological movements is only found in details, not in methodology or kind. Will others now examining the movement in hindsight ever look in the mirror, or will the certainty that their method of connecting magically produced statements is the true way, prevent an examination of the foundational premises?

Faith is the destroyer of reason and critical thinking. Faith in the claims of others that special information has been transmitted through magical means is the vehicle of the destruction of one’s ability to discern errors in the hierarchy of knowledge.



Not likely - I remember in '93 the Waco tragedy was used in the church as “proof” that one should never stray from the organized structured Seventh-day Adventist church. A few years earlier (mid-1980s) in Quebec we had our own “David Koresh” in the person of Roch “Moïse” Thériault.


I was actually speaking to the wider community of all those who believe in “revealed” truth, which of course includes SDA’s. Placing faith in the claims of any mystic is essentially a cultic behavior, sacrificing one’s own rational capacity to the pronouncements of other claiming a special gift, whether the prophet is named Muhammad, Moses, Isaiah, Jesus, Paul, John, Koresh, White, Joseph Smith, Joan of Arc, etc, etc.


This episode does expose the brutal consequences of allowing “fear” to define one’s existence, and to be fair, a fear Adventists have stoked to “preach” evangelistically and acquire baptisms. The gospel message is not about fear but about trust. We live by trust (or faith, if you prefer) that other people are not going to hurt us, abuse us, etc. It is essential to society. To encourage people to live in “fear” (of Catholicism, of Judaism, of Reason, of Philosophy, of Culture, of “Others,” of the future) is to manipulate people to see enemies everywhere. So, close ranks, see Jesuits in Loma Linda, and all that nonsense. Afraid enough, and not even truth, facts, and reason can break through. Once in a while, a little light may dawn and people realize they were “suckers” manipulated by lies and their own insecurities, Scapegoating the Bible in all of this may not reflect the truth about the Bible, even if there is a truth about how so many completely misunderstand and abuse texts for their own purposes. In the case of Jesus–“be not afraid,” perfect love casts out fear, and on and on. Too long a discussion with balance and openness elusive.


Saul of Tarsus, John the revelator, Moses, Isaiah, EGW and others, all were self-proclaimed prophets as well - and in the case of Saul, a self-proclaimed apostle.


Thank you for your remarks, Steve. You saw it firsthand. I regret that 51 years have passed since we were at AU Seminary. Still remember visiting the hospital to celebrate with you the birth of your first child.
Jim Robertson

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I still remember where I was that day 30 years ago when the fires of Waco burned. I was in the wilds of the central North Island of New Zealand on my ministerial rounds. I comforted myself, believing that my good friend Cliff Sellors, whom I had known at Newbold College from 1986-88, had left the compound before the terrors and seige of those weeks.

I had left Newbold at the beginning of July 1988 to return to the Antipodes. This was just a few days before the arrival of Steve Schneider in England and his seducive and demonic meetings.

As Steve Thompson has said, the loss of my friend Cliff and the apparent continuing involvement of my classmate Livingstone Fagan in promoting the theology of the Branch Davidians continue to haunt me.

On many Friday evenings and Saturday nights my wife and I would gather in the home of Adventist community members together with Cliff. He truly was looking for a spirituality he hadn’t yet found. I have often asked myself, “Could I have said something that may have tuned his spiritual expectations, and what could I have said?”

I am glad to note that Newbold have taken care to mark this 30th anniversary in an appropriate manner!


[quote=“StevenThompson, post:2, topic:23791”]

Yes, we excluded them from College property, but I have wished many times in the intervening years that we had also banished them from the assistant cook’s home, although I’m not sure how we could have accomplished that.

This SOP for dissent, deviance, non-compliance --surveillance, espionage, censorship, banishment, purge of academic and pastoral staff, all forms of suppression–in our church institutions has not ended well. RD Brinsmead, Ronald Numbers, Desmond Ford, Merikay Silver, Walter Rea, among others…

BTW, millenarian movements are a global phenomenon.

Credulity, not faith, is the destroyer of reason. A rational faith exists, even if not “provable” (which is impossible) through a scientific understanding of rational or empirical method.

I was one of those who met with them at that time, my mother took me a teen to those meetings. I was a bored teenager who would have agreed to anything to end those meetings. I was in that assistant cooks home too.

Those meetings were determined to big you down, I’m thankful we didn’t end up in Waco but it was a close call.

Watching those scenes in 1993 filled me with horror and even now listening to stories and films I am struck by how people were so gullible. I also angry that these same people basically sacrificed their children for this man.

For me putting any form of religion in front of the welfare of your family is abusive. Those children those poor children didn’t stand a chance. 25 children died that day I’m sorry if this sounds callous but those childrens blood is on their hands.

I now stay away from any strange behaviours, anything that goes against the norm is a big red flag.

I was so close to being one of those victims it’s quite frankly scary.


Thank you for courage to share. I am glad you did not end up in Waco. Your message is powerful.


Jim, I think that we are defining “faith” differently. It is one of those slippery words with multiple definitions. I am using it very precisely, as an epistemological method of gaining knowledge. In this sense, it is the acceptance of information as factual in the absence of evidence or in spite of evidence to the contrary.

In simple terms, which definition are you using? Perhaps we could find another term to avoid misunderstanding. In the sense I am using it, and in a particular religious context, it is taking someone’s claim, at face value, of having received information from a deity via mystical means; information which would otherwise be unknowable and which has no evidence to support it outside that claim. This is credulity or gullibility, no matter how many people accept it. The willingness to believe this kind of claim actively militates against contra evidence. It is a short-circuit to “knowledge”, bypassing our rational faculties and immunizes one against critical thinking.

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What is ironic is that mainstream Adventist eschatology is essentially a conspiracy theory. It’s not just the Christian militants and the dominionists, etc., that have a problem with this. Adventism helped produce Victor Houteff, the Davidians, and later on David Koresh and the Branch Davidians.



I think you raise a valid point in trying to define the terms of the discussion, Bart.

However, and as an aside, I’m always amused when people of faith try to defend that faith on the grounds that it is “reasonable”.

To which a reasonable person says “So what?”

History is replete with examples of things once considered reasonable which are now known to be untrue; the geocentric model of our solar system, the pie-plate shape of our planet, men will never walk on the moon, etc.

Conversely, we know of many things which seemingly make no sense whatsoever and yet seem undeniably to be the case. For example, the fact that the there is something rather than nothing, that life is a constant cycle which involves death, that the appearance of solid matter is only made possible by the activity (perhaps perpetual) of atoms, and so on.

IOW, and as Jim points out, human reasoning is limited and cannot be used to prove anything to an absolute certainty.

Furthermore, a reasonable person has no issues with this concept and can even be fascinated by these ongoing perplexities.

People of faith as you’ve defined it, however, who believe in a god who communicates in mysterious ways and who, without evidence, claims to know absolutely everything, find this essential ambiguity utterly anathema.

Can a person of faith have faith in a god who has apparently lied about the fact that his powers are unlimited or who admits that he doesn’t know everything?

I’ve seen no reason to think so!



Agreed. Now we’ll have to define “reasonable” as well. Any premise can be logically extrapolated. Endless syllogisms can derive from such a premise. The question is whether the premise itself is true. Endless pronouncements and arguments based upon arbitrary claims cannot be termed “reasonable” without diluting the meaning of the word, beyond reason :wink:


HI Steve Thompson
Our paths cross again!

“The Newbold students lost to that cruel and demonic movement continue to haunt me” Your words struck a chord with me. Even after all these years. Permit me to share.

Steve Schneider and I became fast friends in !972. I was a 16-year-old naive freshman student at Newbold, fresh off the boat from the jungles of Borneo.

Steve’s, long curly blonde hair, flashing smile ,stylish 70’s bellbottoms and platform shoes seemed very cool to me. His tall stunning girlfriend who was always by his side seemed like something right out of Woodstock.
Being raised as a missionary kid in a very strict conservative up bringing, the sight of an Adventist theology major in “worldly attire” alongside a beautiful girl was beguiling to me.

Steve and I became instant friends because of our love for music. He invited me to be his organist for Friday evening vespers at Newbold. He would refer to it as super charged evangelistic meeting on Revelation.
His instruction to me for the postlude was to improvise on the organ, rock songs played in a classical style.
The professors and administrators had no earthly idea that they walked out of the chapel to the tunes of Whiter Shade of Pale, Stairway to Heaven and other rock and roll hits ala J.S.Bach style!.
(Perhaps the precursor to the David Koresh legendary rock concerts before a heavy hitting lecture on the apocalypse?)

After our Friday evening religious service, Steve and his girlfriend would invite me to Reading near Newbold were we would crash in whatever Rock and Roll concert was in town. Drugs, sex and rock and roll was a sharp contrast to sermons on the Time of The End just a few hours earlier.
(Again, perhaps the forerunner to the bizarre cultish behavior of the Branch Davidians views on sex, rock and roll and Revelation?)

After Newbold, I went to Southern and the Theological Seminary at Andrews University. Steve got his PhD in comparative religion from the University of Hawaii. We periodically stayed in touch and would talk fondly of our days at Newbold and Adventism.

During the siege at Waco, I tried to call Steve a few times, but obviously could not get through.

While the fires consumed Steve, his wife and his children on TV, I recall having flashbacks of my handsome young college close friend who wanted to change the world. His face still haunts me on what might have been.

(Picture of Steve Schneider from my Newbold College Yearbook)


So you’re saying what EGW and my teachers at SDA boarding school were right?

Unshaven hair actually is an abomination and rock music really is of the devil?

Guess I better fix my turntable so it stops playing The White Album backwards 24/7 so I can go back to listening to my dad’s old Tennessee Ernie Ford and George Beverly Shaw records!


(It’s been 30 years.

Still too soon!?!?)

(BTW, I get that Waco was a sad and cautionary saga about what can go wrong when an immovable object (religious zealotry) stands in the way of an unstoppable force (bureaucratic insouciance). But hopefully one day all parties will be able to meet at a potluck supper in the afterlife, have a plate of ambrosia washed down with a mug of divine nectar and ask each other “What were we thinking!?!?” Or “Perhaps we were thinking too much!?!?”)