Photo by Bronwen Larson
The Branch Davidians themselves intentionally lit the fires that burned Mount Carmel to the ground near Waco, Texas, taking with them the lives of David Koresh, their leader, plus more than seventy others, contended Kenneth G. C. Newport in Loma Linda, California on Wednesday evening, November 14. What’s more, he contended, they did this because they believed that this is what Scripture wanted them to do.
“Did the biblical text inspire this act of apocalyptic self-destruction?” he asked. “I think it did, or at least I think that there was a direct relationship between the texts, what the Branch Davidians thought those texts meant, and what happened on April 19, 1993.”
Newport described himself as an academic administrator at Hope Liverpool University College in England and a priest in the Church of England who used to be a Seventh-day Adventist teacher in the religion departments of Newbold College, not far from London, and the denomination’s college in Hong Kong. Before assuming his present position he earned a doctorate in New Testament at Oxford University and taught at several other universities in the United Kingdom.
This event at the Loma Linda University Campus Hill Church was the first in what will be an annual series of lectures on “Adventism and the World.” Initiated and organized by Julius Nam, a church historian at LLU, these lectures are sponsored by the University’s School of Religion.
Newport supported his claim that the Branch Davidians ignited the fires by reviewing some of the forensic evidence. This includes video tapes, audio recordings by “bugs” that had been implanted in the compound, much physical evidence, such as 39 fuel containers that had been purposefully punctured near the spots where it is believed that each of three fires began, the reports of those who investigated Mount Carmel after the flames had burned themselves out, and the testimony of the survivors and officers who were actually there. His conclusion, stated in the typical understatement of an English scholar: “One might find it difficult not to conclude that the fire was started by the Davidians themselves.”
He advanced his assertion that the Branch Davidians did this for theological reasons by reviewing their developing views about the religious significance of fire. Victor Houteff, the founder of the offshoot from Seventh-day Adventism that after several decades and many twists and turns eventuated in the Branch Davidians, held that in an end-time battle over Jerusalem God’s true people “would be protected by God as ‘a wall of fire.’” Lois Roden, fourth in succession after Houteff’s wife Florence and her husband Ben, taught that before the establishment of God’s kingdom “the remnant would be baptized by fire.” This baptism, she explained, “will be literal and ‘by immersion.’”
Vernon Howell, known to the world as David Koresh, was a sexual partner of Lois Roden when she was three times his age. He succeeded her following her death and an intense struggle with her son George, who would later die in an insane asylum. He also made his contribution to the developing “theology of fire.” In his “sermons,” some of which were recorded, he spoke of a short term of severe testing before the arrival of “the 200 million strong avenging army to drive the wicked from the world.” The followers should expect death but “in that second or two before death there will be a moment of absolute, pure faith and it is this that will guarantee a glorious resurrection.”
Steven Schneider, Koresh’s lieutenant, who in the flames would shoot him in the head from the side and back before stuffing a gun into his own mouth and pulling the trigger, went even further. Those who would be resurrected will be “as eschatological warriors riding upon horseback—in fact they would come back as the avenging army of God spoken of in Revelation 9: 15-18.” “You always wanted to be a charcoal briquette” Schneider comments to a colleague in one of the recordings.
In my response to Newport’s presentation, I indicated that his evidence convinces me that the Branch Davidians ignited the flames and that they did so for theological reasons. I expressed doubt as to whether their beliefs are enough to account for what went wrong, however. I reported my view that Waco’s horrors were caused by a convergence of very serious theological, psychological and ethical pathologies on both sides of the conflict, the Branch Davidians, on the one hand, and the representatives of the government, on the other. I indicated my doubt “that by itself their reading of these [Biblical] texts would have caused the Branch Davidians to lite the fires.”
If only theological considerations mattered, and if Adventist and Branch Davidian beliefs differed primarily in degree, if in effect we can picture David Koresh and Ellen White holding hands, why is it that so few SDAs (less than .00001%) were attracted to the Branch Davidians? I wondered.
I think this issue deserves emphasis. If we have 10 million brown dogs with normal temperaments and 100 brown dogs with dangerously vicious ones, I doubt that we will try to figure out why their dispositions differ by pointing out that they are all brown. In effect this is what Newport tries to accomplish. But it is notoriously difficult to explain why things are different by pointing out how much they are the same. Furthermore, in the case under consideration the two groups of dogs aren’t even the same color!
In the question and answer time, the audience asked if any Branch Davidians still exist (Yes); whether pathologies actually contributed to what went wrong (Me: Yes; Newport: It’s difficult to know.); whether the beliefs of Adventists and Branch Davidians and Adventists differed in degree or kind (Newport degree; Me: Kind, as evidenced by their diametrically opposed stances on the use of guns and other military weapons in civilian life); and whether the conclusions of Newport and me differed that much (Newport: Silence; Me: That depends upon whether Newport thinks that the beliefs of the Branch Davidians are sufficient to account for what went wrong.).
Questions also surfaced about why Newport left Adventism for the Church of England (“I could no longer teach what I didn’t believe.”); whether Ellen White functions for SDAs like Koresh did for the Branch Davidians (Newport: Yes; Me: No); and whether Adventism as a whole suffers from the pathologies that beset both the Branch Davidians and the government’s representatives (Newport: Silence; Me: In every denomination, even the Church of England, there are scary and sick people but this is not true of any community of faith as a whole.).
In addition to being the world’s foremost scholar on Waco, Newport is an accomplished specialist in the life and teachings of Charles Wesley who was born 300 years ago. Therefore, just before the end of the evening’s event, in gratitude to Kenneth Newport, memory of Charles Wesley and praise to God, the congregation stood and sang one of Wesley’s most cherished hymns:Love divine, all loves excelling,Joy of heaven to earth come down;Fix in us thy humble dwelling;All thy faithful mercies crown!Jesus, Thou art all compassion,Pure unbounded love Thou art;Visit us with Thy salvation;Enter every trembling heart!Julius Nam prayed the Benediction and wished us all the very best.
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/4033