20 Years After the Waco Tragedy: What Have Adventists Learned?
by Adventist Today News Team
In 1993 incidents involving guns and multiple deaths were less familiar to Americans than they are today. Adventists were shocked when a shoot-out with Federal police occurred on February 28 at a rural outpost run by an ultra-fundamentalist Adventist splinter group. Four Federal agents were dead, 16 wounded and television helicopters began to circle over an army of police around the modest compound near Waco, Texas.
A stand-off lasted six weeks with constant bulletins on television and radio identifying the group as Branch Davidian Seventh Day Adventists. There were interviews with a young man who was introduced as the group’s leader—he was born Vernon Howell and had assumed the name David Koresh—that sounded eerily familiar in tone and style to anyone who sat in Sabbath discussions of end-time events in the 1960s and 1970s. The news also reported that he had been charged with threatening people with guns and accused of child molestation; that he practiced polygamy, even with girls below the age of consent, while insisting on celibacy for the other men.
After the combined police forces overran the Mount Carmel Center on April 19 in an ill-conceived plan to end the stalemate, a total of 86 people lost their lives in this tragic incident. Four of these were the Federal agents shot on the first day, and 82 were residents from the Mount Carmel group, including 20 children, some as young as one year. After thousands of pages of testimony and forensic evidence, it is still debated how the fire got started as police punched holes in the walls and lobbed tear gas on that April morning two decades ago. Nine people went to prison. The May 3, 1993, issue of Time put the story on the cover.
“How could this have happened with Adventists? Were these people really Adventists?” These questions were never printed in the Sabbath School Quarterly nor even in any of the supplements, but they consumed considerable time and energy among Adventists across North America and in Europe, Australia and New Zealand. They were forced to confront the ugly reality that very pious and conservative, sincere Bible-believing people could let extreme views run away with their minds and lead them to do unthinkable things.
Vernon Howell had been an active member of the Seventh-day Adventist Church until he was disfellowshipped in 1979. A significant number of the people in the Branch Davidian group were still on the books somewhere as regular members of the Church. The Branch Davidian Seventh Day Adventists began in 1929 when Victor Houteff, a lay Sabbath School teacher in the Fullerton Church in southern California, felt that he had a message from God for the denomination and privately published The Shepherd’s Rod: The 144,000 and A Call for Reformation. He was soon kicked out and in 1935 moved to the Waco area and invited followers to join him in building an outpost on a ranch. When he died in 1955, Ben Roden took over leadership because—the group believed—the “spirit of prophecy” had selected him. By 1977 his widow, Lois Roden, was the leader and began to publish the concept that the Holy Spirit represents the feminine aspect of Divinity, which received wider attention than anything the small splinter group had done up to that time. Throughout all these developments, the group continued to believe in the prophetic gift manifested in Ellen G. White and honor most of the core doctrines of the Adventist faith.
Crisis Management and Apocalyptic Faith
At the time Pastor Gary Patterson was assistant to the president of the denomination’s North American Division (NAD) and just a few months prior to the incident he was part of a team that presented a seminar on crisis management at a convention for conference staff professionals. “Unfortunately, we did not follow our own advice,” he told Adventist Today recently. “When the event broke upon us, we were unprepared to deal with it. … It took two or three weeks to put the plan together before we had trained personnel and a central spokesperson to address the media.”
“There were those within the denomination who saw this event as an opportunity to receive national attention for their views on apocalyptic Scripture and theology,” Patterson recalled. “The news media was focused on a sensational story rather than … biblical interpretation and … the more [they] attempted to gain media attention for their views, the more the church became attached to the cult group in the media stories and in the minds of the public.” A crisis team was eventually able to disconnect the denomination from “the extreme views and actions of the Branch Davidians and remove the name of the Church from the news stories.”
By the following year a national telephone survey of the general public conducted by the Center for Creative Ministry for the NAD found only a very small percentage of Americans still associated the denomination with the events in Waco. Some have labeled the successful effort at crisis management as hypocritical because there are still evangelists who seem to the average American to be using bizarre images and themes.
Although the Second Coming of Christ is central to the Adventist faith, there is the risk that the idea that it could happen at any time “may be used in a manipulative, rather than in a motivational manner, attempting to control behaviors out of fear,” Patterson observed. “As the church deals with the fact that it is now 170 years from the 1844 date [which began the movement], it becomes obvious that although the expectation of the return of Christ always remains as a near-term immediacy, yet the purpose of the church is to establish the kingdom of God in the present world, while at the same time looking for its full coming in the ‘already but not yet’ concept.”
Interest in the apocalyptic has become widespread in both popular culture and secular literature in recent years. It is no longer unique to Adventists. “There are wide varieties of understandings of the future in the broader contemporary Christian world,” Patterson points out. “And in the secular world, notions of potential apocalyptic doom exist in both scientific circles and the media, as well as in the entertainment industry. The idea of apocalypse is not out of mainstream thinking, but views on the nature of the apocalypse vary widely.”
Lessons Learned from the Waco Tragedy?
“The church … must move away from … perpetual spiritual infancy,” wrote Dr. Caleb Rosado in a paper reflecting on the Waco incident that was presented to the 1993 meeting of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion, “to … spiritual and social maturity, where it no longer behaves as children, tossed about by every ill wind of spiritual deceitfulness, but as spiritually mature adults (Ephesians 4:13, 14).” An ordained Adventist minister and sociologist now on the faculty of Warner Pacific College in Portland, Oregon, Rosado predicted that “more apocalyptic cults will … emerge” in the future. “David Koresh was simply the 1993 model.”
Referring to the analysis of a number of scholars who have studied the Waco incident (and have concluded that Federal authorities did not understand how to deal with religious extremists, thus contributing to the tragic outcome) Rosado suggested that the church “might better serve” if it were “to take a proactive posture of serving as intermediary and assist in the negotiations, rather than merely creating distance between itself and the group.”
As the Adventist movement has grown to perhaps 30 million adherents around the world and significant cultural diversity, it has developed five distinct social dynamics or “operational value system” patterns. Each is developing in a different direction, Rosado told Adventist Today recently. There is a “traditional” church, a “militant” church, a “legalistic” church, a “corporation” church, and a “caring community.” The first three categories are “seen as a sect” by other Christians and the general public and that “has not changed all that much” in the last two decades. The Branch Davidian group came out of the “militant” vane. The “corporation” church tends to be seen by other Christians as an Evangelical denomination and is more middle class, “success-driven, technology savvy, and market-oriented.” This is the mainstream of the denomination in North America. The “caring community” segment is “more inclusive of ethnic minorities and immigrants,” said Rosado. It is “more relevant to society and has moved away from the apocalyptic approach and [the] attitude that we are right and the rest of the world is wrong.” Adventists in this category “see as more pressing the needs of the world, issues of justice, gay rights, women’s concerns, and [are] concerned with the poor, global warming, and the big social issues of the day.”
The result of Church growth and successful missionary efforts in so many nations around the world is that the Adventist movement is stretched between its apocalyptic roots, still present in some circles and even out of control on occasion, as in Waco 20 years ago this month, and its educated, professional, institutional communities, who are “making a contribution to the world” through the Adventist Development and Relief Agency (ADRA), “our hospitals and universities.”
“In the long term, seeking to manipulate behavior or recruit new followers through the notion of impending doom produces both fearful and hostile people,” Patterson warned. “The long term motivation of the church is to establish the kingdom of God in the Earth and live in His will, all the while looking to the full coming of the kingdom. … The Church today must focus on living in the present with an expectation of a return at any moment.”
What does that mean? “We care for the environment because it is our home; we care for our bodies because it is the life we have been given; we work for peace in our world and communities,” Patterson told Adventist Today, “but we know that the only solution to the devastation in our world will ultimately be an apocalyptic event that … makes all things new.” He has been serving in recent months as interim pastor for New Hope Adventist Church in the suburbs between Baltimore and Washington DC.
Baylor University, a Baptist institution in Waco and home to one of the most prominent sociology of religion programs in America, will host a symposium next week reflecting on the events 20 years ago. Although no Adventist scholar is scheduled among the presenters, Adventist Today will have a journalist at the event and give readers a detailed report.