Jonathan Salem Baskin

Combustible Beliefs

Today, a combustible belief was ignited.

Vernon Wayne Howell was an unlikely prophet. The son of a 14-year old single mom, he grew up mostly illiterate (he was diagnosed with dyslexia), and dropped out barely halfway through high school. But by then he’d memorized the entire New Testament, and been born again as a Southern Baptist. He joined the Branch Davidians (an apocalyptic offshoot of the Seventh-day Adventists), and then, after suffering a failed affair with the 75 year-old Davidian leader and discovering his own ability prophesying God’s will, started his own offshoot sect at 20. He moved with 25 followers to a new compound in Waco, Texas, where he claimed he would open the Seven Seals, inaugurate the Davidic Kingdom, and be martyred as the Son of God. He changed his name to David Koresh in 1990.

The FBI became interested in the Waco community because of frequent allegations of sexual abuse and evidence of weapons stockpiles. It set up surveillance in mid-1992 that prompted plans to serve a search warrant in early March of 1993. Then the Waco Tribune-Herald ran a story entitled “Sinful Messiah” that detailed Koresh’s nutty and likely illegal practices. ATF agents moved up their plans and, on this day in 1993, paid the compound a call. Nobody knows the exact order of what happened next, but 4 agents and 6 Davidians would be dead a day later. Another two months would pass in a tense siege during which Koresh and his followers would rant about Babylon, prophecy, and seem to think that what was happening was exactly what was supposed to happen. When the FBI attacked again, a giant fire broke out and 80 Davidians died, many of them from gunshot wounds that survivors blame on the FBI, but autopsies reveal were “execution style” by their associates. Timothy McVeigh would later cite Waco as an inspiration for his Oklahoma City bombing, which was timed to happen on the anniversary of the burning.

It says a lot about the power of belonging, doesn’t it?

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