Book Review: The Branch Davidians of Waco

branchdavidianswacoTitle: The Branch Davidians of Waco: The History and Beliefs of an Apocalyptic Sect

Author: Kenneth G.C. Newport

Bibliographic info: 400 pp.

Publisher: Oxford University Press, 2006.

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With thanks to OUP for the review copy.

Within a year of the infamous confrontation at Mount Carmel in 1993, there was a proliferation of popular-level publications on the tragedy that approached it predominantly from a sensationalist angle, focusing on issues such as David Koresh’s polygamy and the stockpiling of weapons by the Branch Davidians. This populist literature invariably exhibits little-to-no elucidation on the theology of Koresh and the thought-world in which his followers lived. There were, however, some important volumes published during this time that made attempts to understand the theology of the Branch Davidians and the causes behind their fiery end.[1] In the years since, there have been various books and journal articles published on every facet of the Mount Carmel, though there has always been lacking a comprehensive look at the theology of David Koresh and the Branch Davidian movement. This is where Kenneth Newport’s The Branch Davidians of Waco comes in. Here Newport provides the reader with a full account of the relevant religious history preceding the Branch Davidians, particularly in regards to the theology of Koresh’s predecessors.[2]

The main strength of this volume is that Newport provides the best attempt to date at filling the gap in the literature concerning the theology and belief-system of Koresh and the Branch Davidians,. This is specifically seen in how Newport doesn’t just simply lay the blame for the group’s violent end at their own feet, but takes it a step further by providing a plausible and compelling argument as to how and why their theology led to the group’s self-immolation (see pp. 278–306 for an account of what caused the fire, and pp. 307–24 for a case that the theology of the movement was responsible for the fire). While it is a not-so-uncommon opinion of religious scholars that Mount Carmel may have been accidentally set ablaze by the FBI, Newport convincingly argues that it was indeed started by Branch Davidian members and that they had a theological rationale for it—an apocalyptic theology of martyrdom.

The section on the theology of Koresh himself is not as substantial as one might hope (pp. 213–33), and  instead of trying to portray Koresh as a theologian in his own right, Newport chooses to stress the continuity in thought between Koresh and his predecessors, namely, Victor Houteff, Florence Houteff, Ben Roden and Lois Roden. While this theological pedigree is an important factor to take into account, perhaps this study could have benefited by also placing more of a focus on the discontinuity between Koresh and his predecessors. Though, admittedly, there is not exactly a vast amount of writings and sermons left behind by Koresh that one can draw from, so maybe this severely limits what one can say about Koresh’s theology.

The only real drawback I found in this volume is that the study could have been more judicious in reflecting on the importance of the interactions between the federal agents and the Branch Davidians (specifically in regards to the influence this had on the dramatic denouement that occurred on April 19, 1993). I’ve spent a fair amount of time studying Koresh and the Branch Davidians and from listening to the audiotapes of Koresh’s teachings and the negotiations between him and the FBI, it seems clear that there was sufficient information available to the government of the likely response that the Branch Davidians would take to a second raid on Mount Carmel, yet the author did not appear to be terribly eager to take this into account when exploring the cause behind the fire at Mount Carmel.

Nevertheless, in the plethora of literature that has been published on the “wacko from Waco” and the fiery demise of the Branch Davidians, this is the most definitive study I have come across that provides not only an in-depth look at the historical antecedents of the movement, but also the theology of the movement and how this can help explain why some members of Mount Carmel decided to set the compound ablaze.

[1] For example, James R. Lewis (ed), From the Ashes: Making Sense of Waco (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 1994); Dick J. Reavis, The Ashes of Waco: An Investigation (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995); Stuart A. Wright (ed), Armageddon in Waco: Critical Perspectives on the Branch Davidian Conflict (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995); and James D. Tabor and Eugene V. Gallagher, Why Waco? Cults and the Battle for Religious Freedom in America (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995). In this last volume, Tabor and Gallagher approach the Mount Carmel incident as a study of the symbiotic relationship between the Branch Davidians, the federal government, the media, the anti-cult movement, and religious scholars. They critically discuss how the government handled the crisis, questioning whether the strategies and tactics used to deal with the Branch Davidians were appropriate, while providing a prescription for avoiding such a violent finale in any future episodes. While it provides a solid attempt to interact with some of the theological thinking of Koresh, as the subtitle indicates it is focused more on explaining the Mount Carmel tragedy in terms of the public perception of cults in American society and how the government challenged the Branch Davidians’ right to religious freedom.

[2] Newport had briefly dealt with Koresh and the Branch Davidians in an earlier work that surveyed how Revelation had been interpreted by various figures over the last 400 years, see Newport, Apocalypse and Millennium: Studies in Biblical Eisegesis (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), esp. pp. 197–236.

2 responses

  1. I have friends in Waco who moan loudly every time Waco is mentioned with the Branch Davidians. The compound was far away from the city limits, but Waco is the connection to the interstate and the airport.

    Most Wacoans had never heard of this cult until the FBI confrontation.

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