By: James Dunn and Dean M. Kelley
Date: March 11, 1993
Source: Dunn, James, and Dean M. Kelley. Letter from James Dunn and Dean M. Kelley to President Clinton. Reprinted in Lewis, James R., ed. From the Ashes: Making Sense of Waco. Lanham, Md: Rowman and Littlefield, 1994, 237–239.
The Book of Revelation, the last book of the New Testament, apocalyptically describes the transformation of Heaven and Earth into a new Heavenly Jerusalem. It contains many vivid images, including the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, the unleashing of various calamities upon the earth, and the vindication of the faithful. For centuries, many Christians have taken these images literally and have looked for signs of the coming end of the world when, after the unleashing of the plagues, disease, famine, and other disasters, the glorious Second Coming of Christ will occur. This view is known in Christian theology as millennialism.
One person anticipating these events was William Miller (1782–1849), a self-educated farmer from New York State. After rigorous study of the Bible, Miller came to the conclusion that the second coming of Christ and the end of the world would occur sometime around 1843. Miller became associated with Joseph Himes (1805–1895), who popularized Miller's views. Tens of thousands came to believe in the imminent Second Coming of Christ, and many sold their property and quit their jobs in anticipation of this event. There was great disappointment when Christ did not arrive on the original date of March 21, 1843. The fervor of those desiring this event to take place was so great that most were willing to maintain their hope when another date was proposed, October 22, 1844. While most became disillusioned after this second disappointment, some continued to believe that the Second Coming had taken place but in a spiritual rather than physical manner. This became the basis of the Adventist Church. While there are many different Adventist groups, the largest being the Seventh-Day Adventists, all share strong millennial beliefs.
One of the smaller of these Adventist groups was a sect called the Branch Davidians. The origins of this group can be traced to Victor Houteff, who became acquainted with the Seventh-Day Adventist Church in 1918 at a revival meeting and soon became an active member. In 1929, claiming to be God's divine messenger, he claimed that the church's teachings were inaccurate and called for reform. Houteff's relations with the Seventh-Day Adventists became strained, and in 1935 he and eleven followers founded the Mount Carmel Center near Waco. In 1942, his group broke completely from the larger denomination and called itself the Davidian Seventh-Day Adventist Association.
The group went through further splinterings and numerous leadership changes. One of these splinter groups, the Branch Davidians, took control of the Mount Carmel property in 1965. Through it all, however, it maintained its strong views on the imminent Second Coming of Christ and the end of the world. Such views attracted a young man named Vernon Howell, who joined the Branch Davidians in 1981. Seven years later, when the group's leader, George Roden, was sent to jail for contempt of court, Howell took control of Mount Carmel and the Branch Davidians. He then renamed himself David Koresh and claimed to be the seventh angel who breaks the seven seals of the scroll referred to in the Book of Revelation, bringing about the end of the world.
On February 28, reports from former Branch Davidian members detailing child abuse led the federal government to raid Mount Carmel. The raid turned into a fiasco, which resulted in loss of life on both sides and the beginning of a siege of the compound. The situation became tense, featuring a dramatic military buildup by the federal government, which did not understand that such a show of force would feed into the end-of-the-world views of this millennialist group and make a peaceful resolution impossible.
Primary Source: James Dunn and Dean M. Kelley to President Clinton, March 11, 1993
SYNOPSIS: The Second Coming of Christ is an important belief in Christianity. In fact, the delayed Parousia, or Second Coming, was the first major theological issue in the early Church. Millennialism, a movement in Christianity that puts a great emphasis on the Second Coming and the end of the world, has been prominent in American religious history. A tragic example of this in the 1990s was the destruction of the Branch Davidian compound in 1993. The letter below, dated March 11, 1993, shows attempts by religious leaders to alert the government to the dangers of a heavily armed confrontation with the Branch Davidians. The warnings were unheeded, and when government forces moved on the compound on April 19, the resulting conflagration killed most of those inside.
March 11, 1993
The White House
Dear Mr. President:
Please demilitarize the confrontation in Waco, Texas. It does not call for hundreds of heavily armed federal employees and Abrams tanks waiting for a showdown.
We are concerned that more people will be killed before the protracted encounter in Waco is over. Is there not some way to stand down from this standoff without throwing more lives after those already lost? We are reluctant to judge from a distance the tactics of law-enforcement personnel who have been asked to risk their lives in the line of duty, since we are informed only by sensationalized media coverage,but we wish to urge a different way of thinking about this problem.
The law enforcement agencies are not being helped to understand this situation by the many anticultists on the scene uttering their shrill cries about "destructive cults" and "hostages" being held in "captivity" by a "cult leader" using "mind control." Neither they nor the officers seem to have any real understanding of what is involved in a high-energy religious movement, where the members are drawn into a tight circle of devotion and commitment to a charismatic leader whose spiritual insight and guidance they value more than life itself. The leader may seem eccentric or egotistical to outsiders, but there is no law against that.
Threats of vengeance and the mustering of troops and tanks are but proof to the "faithful" that the powers of the world are arrayed against them, evidence of their importance in the cosmic struggle—confirmation of their worst fears and validation of their fondest prophecies. Their level of commitment to their faith is higher than most other people give to anything and is therefore very threatening to others. To invade a center of energy of that kind is like sticking a finger in a dynamo. Whether it explodes or implodes, the result will be tragic for all. The ordinary strategic calculus of physical combat is as useless here as it was in understanding how the followers of the Ayatolla Khomeini could overthrow the Shah of Iran.
According to the press, some anti-cultists are claiming that they have been working for months on the Davidian "problem" with the federal agency that mounted the attack, which suggests that they helped to shape the conceptualization that led to the scenario of disaster. Central to their definition of the situation is the notion of "mind control"—that there is a technique for controlling the human will at a distance without use of force or threat of force, and that "cult" leaders have this power (though no one else seems to) and can use it to gain and keep and manipulate followers. This hypothesis is not generally accepted in the relevant disciplines of psychology and sociology [see the rejection of "expert" testimony to this effect for this reason by the federal district court of the Northern District of California when it was offered by the defense as justification for criminalconduct, U.S. v. Fishman, 745 F. Supp. 713, 719 (1990)], and it ill prepares those whose lives are at stake to understand what they are up against.
We are deeply distressed to suspect that an approach that should—at most—have been a last resort was used as the first resort. What opportunity were the members of the religious group given to surrender peaceably or to accede to arrest—if that was required—without violence? (A former prosecutor is quoted as saying that they did not resist an earlier investigation and arrest—New York Times, March 9, 1993.) This situation is not a problem that can be handled either with force or with arguments over biblical interpretation. It is better let alone as much as possible until it either runs down or stabilizes as a more conventional religion (as did the Mormon movement and the Christian faith itself, both of which began with a small group of faithful followers whose leader was killed by the authorities—in Joseph Smith's case by a band of militia after his arrest and jailing in Carthage, Illinois).
It would be even more tragic if the government has invested so much money and credibility in this no-win situation that it cannot be satisfied with less than a total eradication of the offending sect (without ever explaining what offense justified the assault in the first place). And if there must be a "victory" to save face for the government, can it not be brought about in a humane way? Surely there are technological means of immobilizing resisters without slaughtering them—and others—in the process. In any event, the public that is paying for all of this deserves a fair and objective post mortem on how this debacle ever developed.
Dean M. Kelley
Counselor on Religious Liberty
National Council of Churches
Baptist Joint Committee
Long, Robert. Religious Cults in America. New York: H.W. Wilson, 1994.
Samples, Kenneth. Prophets of the Apocalypse: David Koresh and Other American Messiahs. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books, 1994.
Wright, Stuart. Armageddon in Waco: Critical Perspectives on the Branch Davidian Conflict. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995.