Armageddon in Waco: Critical Perspectives on the Branch Davidian Conflict / Edition 2

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On February 28, 1993, the United States Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (BATF) launched the largest assault in its history against a small religious community in central Texas. One hundred agents armed with automatic and semi automatic weapons invaded the compound, purportedly to execute a single search and arrest warrant. The raid went badly; four agents were killed, and by the end of the day the settlement was surrounded by armored tanks and combat helicopters. After a fifty-one day standoff, the United States Justice Department approved a plan to use CS gas against those barricaded inside. Whether by accident or plan, tanks carrying the CS gas caused the compound to explode in fire, killing all seventy-four men, women, and children inside.

Could the tragedy have been prevented? Was it necesary for the BATF agents to do what they did? What could have been done differently? Armageddon in Waco offers the most detailed, wide-ranging analysis of events surrounding Waco. Leading scholars in sociology, history, law, and religion explore all facets of the confrontation in an attempt to understand one of the most confusing government actions in American history.

The book begins with the history of the Branch Davidians and the story of its leader, David Koresh. Chapters show how the Davidians came to trouble authorities, why the group was labeled a "cult," and how authorities used unsubstantiated allegations of child abuse to strengthen their case against the sect.

The media's role is examined next in essays that considering the effect on coverage of lack of time and resources, the orchestration of public relations by government officials, the restricted access to the site or to countervailing evidence, and the ideologies of the journalists themselves. Several contributors then explore the relation of violence to religion, comparing Waco to Jonestown.

Finally, the role played by "experts" and "consultants" in defining such conflicts is explored by two contributors who had active roles as scholarly experts during and after the siege The legal and consitutional implications of the government's actions are also analyzed in balanced, clearly written detail.

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Editorial Reviews

Comprises 15 essays which, in the words of the editor in his introduction, aim at "deconstructing the pop-psychology, ahistorical renderings of marginal religions typically conveyed by the media." Contributions range from the social and historical context and sources of the conflict to media coverage and public opinion; apocalypticism and violence; experts and law enforcement; and legal and policy issues. Contributors are primarily sociologists but also include scholars of law, church history, and religion. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (
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Armageddon in Waco

Critical Perspectives on the Branch Davidian Conflict

By Stuart A. Wright

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 1995 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-90845-8


An Age of Wisdom, An Age of Foolishness

The Davidians, Some Forerunners, and Our Age


The extent to which cultic or marginal religious groups have entered the heart of the American consciousness can be grasped only by avid viewers of Hard Copy and listeners to the daily hot-line talk shows. Such shows feed on tales of exploitation, seduction, and fraud and often feature discussions about the latest "odd" religion. The media frenzy surrounding the Waco case reached epic proportions during the standoff, and the fallout still continues. For example, a respected and award-winning television drama, Law and Order, recently devoted a full episode to a tale about a sect leader, the bombing of a federal building by an ardent devotee, and a subsequent pact suicide by members after their leader was jailed, prosecuted, found guilty, and sentenced for brainwashing his young follower into planting an explosive device that killed her (Fogarty 1993). Such is the stuff of contemporary understanding.

Writing in Religious Outsiders and the Making of Americans (1986, 126), R. Laurence Moore has noted: "In one form or another, the present charges against religious 'cults,' including that of brainwashing, were hurled against every new religious group organized in this country, and usually with some measure of justification. Religious enthusiasm has always been a dangerous thing. It sometimes inspires people to do noble things. With equal frequency, it does not. The religious prophet trying to lead people in a new direction is not likely to be without blemish."

Popular interest and concern about religious sects are nothing new. When Dickens published his Tale of Two Cities in 1859 he opened it with his now famous line: "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was an age of wisdom, it was an age of foolishness," and went on to note that "spiritual revelations were conceded to England at that favored period ... Mrs. Southcott [a prophetess] had recently attained her five and twentieth blessed birthday, ... a prophetic guard in the Life Guards had heralded the sublime appearance by announcing arrangements were made for the swallowing up of London and Westminster" (Dickens 1859, 1). Dickens thought the Southcottians "foolish" but worthy of a place in his grand chronicle of English social life since such groups were part of the culture, not something separate from it. Later, in his In Search of White Crows (1977), Moore argued that nineteenth-century American spiritualism should be placed at the center of the American experience from 1860 to 1900 rather than on the "table-rapping" margins where historians had formerly placed it (Braude 1989). Such "extreme" or alternative groups must be seen as reflecting aspects of the universe and society they live in rather than viewed merely as a thing apart, something alien. They may be in opposition to certain trends, or they may reiterate them, but they are rarely irrelevant to mainstream concerns about values and ethics.

For the record, there has been a long history of millennial expectations, prophetic utterances, and outlandish activities that have resulted in both confrontations and destructive behavior. You pick your century and you can pick your "crazed" prophet. Let's start with James Naylor, that seventeenth-century Quaker enthusiast, who thought he was Jesus Christ and rode through Bristol to the hosannas of many women. Parliament (and George Fox) took a dim view of all this and the authorities branded him with the letter "B" (for blasphemer) as a punishment and bored a hole through his tongue. Naylor's career can serve as a touchstone for an ongoing debate about the nature of the English Revolution and the relation of Quaker enthusiasm to the "world turned upside down" by Cromwellian politics. Naylor became, to quote Christopher Hill, "a black shadow across memory" because of his meteoric rise and fall and because of the role he played within the history of Quaker enthusiasm (Hill 1972, 206). This prophet, who had fallen under the ideas of either Boehme or the Familists, suffered from what Fox called "imaginations," and he became a Quaker leader who had "run out," or exhausted himself.

Naylor's emergence in the 1650s as a prophetic leader, his scandalous behavior, his cruel punishment, and his subsequent recanting of errors have been the subject of a long and intense historical debate. George Fox tried to put distance between Naylor's actions and "true" Quaker belief, and Naylor plays in Fox's journal (again according to Hill) "a part only slightly greater than that of Trotsky in official Soviet histories of the Russian Revolution" (1970, 186). Born at Ardsley near Wakefield in 1617, he was married in 1638 and served as a soldier for the Independents under Fairfax in 1643. Between 1646 and 1651 he was a quartermaster, emerging in 1651 as a prominent Quaker preacher second only to Fox in bringing in converts to the new sect. During 1656 he preached in the west of England and while in Bristol became the center of the controversy that marked him for life. For it was in Bristol that he declared his messianic character by riding into the city on an ass in imitation of Jesus' entry into Jerusalem. As he entered the city his supporters threw garments in his path and shouted "Holy, holy, holy Lord God of Israel." Because of his actions—his "imaginations" to use Fox's words—he was charged with blasphemy and became a cause celebre in the heat of the revolution. Naylor defended his actions by saying that all he had done was to allow his followers to "worship the appearance of God in him, as a sign of Christ's second coming and being revealed in his Saints" (Fox 1890, 243).

Worshiping signs and symbols and having millenarian expectations (Naylor would sadly learn) was not, in Cromwell's day, a passive activity. Narrowly he escaped the death penalty. His punishment was a strong signal given by the authorities that they would no longer tolerate Quaker enthusiasm. Both the event and the sentence shocked Fox and he began, from that point forward, to exert greater control over the believers. For over three centuries a pictorial hagiography surrounded James Naylor as he was portrayed by admirers as the "Quaker Jesus," a benign and humble man (his earliest portrait is, in fact, a direct copy of Rembrandt's "A Bearded Man"), and by his detractors as a false prophet akin to Sabbati Sevi. In a 1661 edition of Ephraim Paggit's Heresiography, an account of how "Hereticks and Sectaries Sprang Upp in these latter times ...," he appears along with other eminent "sectaries" like the Jesuits and Seekers. Naylor was both an early Quaker martyr and an apostate from the true Quaker spirit (Paggitt 1661).

Or consider another British martyr, the Shaker mystic Ann Lee, who came to the United States on the eve of the American Revolution. The Shakers were reported to be acting as spies for the British crown when they first came to America; Mother Ann Lee was presumed to be deranged because of her visions, her assertions of spiritual line and authority. On the Ohio frontier the Shakers were mobbed because some believed they kidnaped children. When one looks at charges brought against them by former members, one finds a catalog of willful acts of deception, fraud, coercion, and wrongdoing. Furthermore, Stephen Stein, a modern historian of Shakerism, believes that testimony against them by dissidents may actually have contained some truths rather than a mere list of calumnies. One apostate, Valentine Rathbun, noted in 1780 that the Shakers were "Europeans," dangers to the state, duplicitous in their recruiting practices, going so far as to gather around any potential convert and "touch him here and there, and give him a sly cross, and in a very loving way, put their hands on his head and then begin to preach the doctrine to him" (Stein 1993, 16). Not quite "flirty fishing," as practiced by a contemporary group, the Children of God (now called The Family), but clearly directed at creating an aura of intimacy.

The famous mobbing of the Shakers at Union Village, Ohio, in 1810 had been preceded by a campaign against them depicting them as murderers, wolves in sheep's clothes who "castrated all their males, ... stripped and danced naked in the night meetings, blew out the candles and went into promiscuous debauch" (Stein 1993, 77) (possibly true at least on one occasion, but not a widespread practice). When the mobs appeared at Union Village they usually came to take away a female relative or a child brought into the Shaker "family" (their term) by a parent. In 1800 fifty citizens of New Lebanon submitted a petition to the New York State legislature on behalf of the young people in the Shaker community because the Shakers "threatened them, kept them in ignorance," and treated them like chattel slaves, while Pleasant Hill, Kentucky, was visited by a mob in 1825 to free a teenage girl from "bondage." For Americans in the first two decades of the nineteenth century, the abolishment of white servitude was a major issue. In the late 1830s and early 1840s, the Shakers experienced a "spiritual revival" coinciding with the first great wave of spiritualism that swept through America and, in fact, they invited the famous and wildly popular Fox sisters to visit them in the 1850s. On the eve of the Civil War, there were Shaker communities charged with harboring sympathetic attitudes toward blacks by their Southern neighbors and, in effect, asked to choose sides. Although opposed to slavery in principle, the communities in Kentucky walked a fine line and compromised their beliefs on some occasions—such as at Pleasant Hill, where they established a separate black family. The Shakers were, in a sense, at the heart of the first phase of the American industrial revolution, utilizing labor-saving devices at every turn. Shaker furniture was sold to average Americans who needed chairs for their parlors, not to museum directors in pursuit of beautiful objects. Mother Ann Lee's theology found a place on the American frontier and a distinguished place in religious history.

For a community closer to David Koresh and the Branch Davidians both in spirit and theology one has only to turn to the history of Benjamin Purnell, an illiterate itinerant preacher, who founded the "House of David" at Benton Harbor, Michigan, in 1903 to establish an "in-gathering" of the elect 144,000 who were preparing for the end. Purnell was a lecher extraordinaire who seduced and attacked young women, amassing a fortune for himself and bringing in converts from England and Australia. For most Americans the "House of David" is an obscure reference, and even those who remember it think of the group as some odd semiprofessional baseball and basketball team with a vaguely Jewish background (actually quite Protestant, English, and Southcottian) who wore beards. Yet it is the most obvious parallel to the Davidic group, since Purnell was a "corrupter," did establish a separate kingdom, and viewed the outside world with considerable hostility. When the state of Michigan (in the form of the state police) moved in on him—after over twenty years of surveillance—his community of about 700 people not only hid him in an attic room over a number of years, but flocked to his defense in court, claiming he was the Shiloh, or Jesus Christ in spiritual form.

The origins of the House of David can be found in the obscure mists of late eighteenth-century England, when figures like Richard Brothers appeared on the scene to promote the cause of a Polish count, Tadeusz Grabianka, who would, according to his promoters "conquer Palestine at the head of the Polish armies, transfer his capital to Jerusalem, and extend his sway, till every king surrender his crown to him. But first, since the old Israel was apostate, he had to gather a new tribe whom he grouped into twelve tribes with old Biblical names" (Roth 1933, 20). Among the new messiah's supporters was Jacob Duche, former chaplain to the Continental Congress, a major salon figure and a religious enthusiast. Although the Polish count failed to gain an audience, his admirer Richard Brothers did so, particularly after the publication of his 1794 tract "A Revealed Knowledge of the Prophecies and Times, Wrote under the Direction of God by the Man Who Will Be Revealed to the Hebrews As Their Prince." Popularly known as "Mad" Brothers (a former lieutenant in the British Navy), he issued another pamphlet to the powerful—and mad—king of England: "The Lord commands me to say to you, George III King of England, that immediately upon my being revealed to the Hebrews as their Prince, and to all nations as their Governor, your crown must be delivered up to me, that your power and authority may cease" (Roth 1933, 31).

With that proclamation Brothers became a threat and was duly questioned by the Privy Council and committed to an asylum in Islington. Yet he commanded a certain respect in some circles, with Nathaniel Halhead, M.P. and author of The Grammar of the Bengal Language, his major backer. Thomas Foley of Jesus College, Cambridge, and John Finlayson, a wealthy Scottish lawyer, were both converts to the beliefs of this "Prince of the Hebrews." Others, of course, ridiculed him, as did the famous engraver James Gillray, who depicted him, in 1795, carrying a "bundle of the elect" in a bag over his shoulders and leading a pack of Semites to the "Gates of Jerusalem."

While Brothers was still under care, the cult of Joanna Southcott took hold. Southcott was an illiterate domestic who in 1792 began (when she was forty-two) receiving and transcribing messages about her special prophetic role. In 1802 she came to London from Exeter with her box of prophecies and a belief that she was, according to Clarke Garrett (1975, 221), "the woman promised in Revelation to free the world from the burden of sin and to give the faithful the assurance that they would be preserved after the Second Coming." She began to travel about and "seal" her followers by giving them little slips of paper. On each slip there was a circle with the following words inside: "The sealed of the Lord, the elect and precious, man's redemption to inherit the tree of life, to be made heirs of God and joint heirs with Jesus Christ." By 1807 she had sealed 14,000 out of a possible 144,000. Her supporters grew in numbers and included former followers of Brothers and a new group of admirers (many wealthy) who saw in her the fulfillment of the scriptures. The apogee of her fame came in 1814 when she announced that in her sixty-fifth year she was going to give birth to the Shiloh, or Jesus Christ. Newspapers attacked this "deluded virgin" while her admirers presented her with a crib made of satinwood and gold. In Southcottian chapels, a new hymn (to the tune of "Rule Britannia") was sung: "Rule King Shiloh! King Shiloh, Rule Alone with Glory Crowned on David's Throne." She married a steward of the Earl of Darnley after spurning other suitors and the event came to a tragic end when she announced that her pregnancy had been "all delusion." Some of her faithful refused to accept her statement and instead spread the word that she was indeed the "Woman of the Sun" foretold in the book of Revelation and that the divine child had been taken up into heaven to escape the dragon. She died shortly after that, though a terse notice of her death stated that she was dead "to all appearances." The refusal to accept the death of a prophet is found throughout human history, and David Koresh's death (confirmed through the identification of dental remains) was questioned by some followers.


Excerpted from Armageddon in Waco by Stuart A. Wright. Copyright © 1995 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents


Introduction Another View of the Mt. Carmel Standoff STUART A. WRIGHT,
1. An Age of Wisdom, An Age of Foolishness The Davidians, Some Forerunners, and Our Age ROBERT S. FOGARTY,
2. Davidians and Branch Davidians: 1929–1987 WILLIAM L. PITTS, JR.,
3. The Davidian Tradition From Patronal Clan to Prophetic Movement DAVID G. BROMLEY AND EDWARD D. SILVER,
4. Construction and Escalation of a Cult Threat Dissecting Moral Panic and Official Reaction to the Branch Davidians STUART A. WRIGHT,
5. Self-Fulfilling Stereotypes, the Anticult Movement, and the Waco Confrontation JAMES R. LEWIS,
6. "Babies Were Being Beaten" Exploring Child Abuse Allegations at Ranch Apocalypse CHRISTOPHER G. ELLISON AND JOHN P. BARTKOWSKI,
7. Manufacturing Consent about Koresh A Structural Analysis of the Role of Media in the Waco Tragedy JAMES T. RICHARDSON,
8. Cops, News Copy, and Public Opinion Legitimacy and the Social Construction of Evil in Waco ANSON SHUPE AND JEFFREY K. HADDEN,
9. Public Narratives and the Apocalyptic Sect From Jonestown to Mt. Carmel JOHN R. HALL,
10. Sects and Violence Factors Enhancing the Volatility of Marginal Religious Movements THOMAS ROBBINS AND DICK ANTHONY,
11. Religious Discourse and Failed Negotiations The Dynamics of Biblical Apocalypticism in Waco JAMES D. TABOR,
12. Waco, Federal Law Enforcement, and Scholars of Religion NANCY T. AMMERMAN,
13. Breaching the "Wall of Separation" The Balance between Religious Freedom and Social Order RHYS H. WILLIAMS,
14. The Waco Tragedy Constitutional Concerns and Policy Perspectives EDWARD MCGLYNN GAFFNEY, JR.,
15. The Implosion of Mt. Carmel and Its Aftermath Is It All Over Yet? DEAN M. KELLEY,
Appendix Branch Davidians Who Died at Mt. Carmel,
List of Contributors,

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