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OpEdNews Op Eds    H4'ed 1/25/20

The Story Behind Waco's Tragedy

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Most Americans remember the historic 1993 siege of the Branch Davidian cult compound at Waco, Texas, which left eighty cultists and four federal officers dead. But did you know that the story actually began 150 years ago with a famous fiasco?

Since watching weird religion is my hobby, I'll tell you the tale:

In the 1830s, a New England Baptist preacher, William Miller, computed from obscure prophecies in the Book of Daniel that Jesus would return to Earth between March 21, 1843, and March 21, 1844. Miller began warning of the approaching apocalypse. By the 1840s, he had drawn nearly 100,000 followers.

When the fateful time arrived, the "Millerites" prayed and prayed but nothing happened. Then Miller re-examined the Bible verses and announced that he had erred; the correct date would be October 22, 1844. As it neared, many of the faithful gave away their possessions and waited on hilltops for the heavens to open. Again, zilch.

Many Millerites lost their faith, but a hard core held firm. Some of them insisted that doomsday actually had occurred on October 22, but it was a preparatory event in heaven that would be followed soon by Jesus bursting forth onto Earth. This group formed the Seventh-day Adventist Church.

As the Seventh-day Adventists grew more than 3 million strong, some members felt that the church wasn't holy enough. In the 1930s, a Los Angeles Adventist, Victor Houteff, said Jesus wouldn't return until an ultra-pure church was ready to greet him. So Houteff opened a Waco commune for pure believers, calling them Davidian Seventh-day Adventists.

He died in 1955, and the Davidians prayerfully awaited his resurrection. When it didn't happen, his widow Florence took over. She proclaimed that the Second Coming would be on Easter Day, 1959. Hundreds of followers around America quit their jobs, sold their belongings, and hurried to Waco for the rapture. Wrong again.

Once more, the disillusioned departed, and a hard core persisted. A member named Ben Roden took command and named the survivors Branch Davidians. He died in 1978, leaving the commune, called Mount Carmel, to his widow Lois and son George.

Soon afterward, a 23-year-old Texas Adventist named Vernon Howell, a ninth-grade dropout, moved into the compound (and reportedly became the lover of the 67-year-old widow). He had hypnotic charisma, electrifying the others with his revelations of the coming apocalypse.

He married the 14-year-old daughter of a commune couple but soon declared that God had commanded him to establish a House of David, in which he was to have as many wives as King David. He bedded more than a dozen commune females, one merely 11, another 50. He gave each a Star of David to wear as an emblem that she had been chosen by the king.

After Lois Roden died in 1986, her son George vied with Howell for command. Roden won, temporarily. Howell took his followers and left Mount Carmel, wandering as nomads. Then in 1987, Howell's band returned to challenge Roden for leadership.

Roden proposed an epic contest: From a graveyard, he dug up the corpse of an 85-year-old woman, and declared that whomever could resurrect her would be the true prophet of Mount Carmel. Howell evaded, and urged police to arrest Roden for corpse abuse.

Then Howell and seven armed supporters crept into Mount Carmel in after-midnight darkness. Roden grabbed his Uzi machine gun and engaged the intruders in a firefight. He was wounded slightly in the hand and chest. Howell's band was charged with attempted murder, and released on bond.

Next, Roden was jailed for contempt of court because he filed grossly obscene motions in an unrelated case. While Roden was locked up, Howell moved his followers back into the compound and took over.

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James A. Haught is editor emeritus of West Virginia's largest newspaper, The Charleston Gazette-Mail.  Mr. Haught has won two dozen national news writing awards. He has written 12 books and hundreds of magazine essays and blog posts. Around 450 of his essays are online. He is a senior editor of Free Inquiry magazine, a weekly blogger at Daylight (more...)

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