Waco, The Unfortunate Legacy, Part 1
“If anyone tells you, ‘There he is, out in the desert,’ do not go out; or ‘Here he is, in the inner rooms,’ do not believe it.” Matthew 24:25. NIV
At the beginning of the 51-day long siege, orchestrated by the American Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and Texas state law enforcement, the Branch Davidian compound, otherwise known as Mount Carmel in Waco Texas, was the home to about 120 followers of a self-declared prophet and messiah David Koresh, whose real name was Vernon Howell.
At the violent end of the longest siege of the kind in the US, on April 19, 1993, 76 Koresh’s followers were burned to death in the fiery inferno, including David Koresh and more than 20 children. Debate still goes on if the deadly fire was caused by the Branch Davidians or the FBI action, was it a tragic accident or deliberately set?
According to Wikipedia, in addition to 76 Davidians burned to death, “five others were killed in the initial ATF raid. One was killed by the ATF after the raid, and 35 left the compound during the FBI siege.” Nine Branch Davidians survived the fire. Eight Branch Davidians were charged for the possession and use of firearms during the siege and sentenced to up to 40 years each. By July 2007 all of them were released from prison.
Most of the survivors continue to be loyal followers of David Koresh. They believe that one day they will see him victoriously coming back in the clouds of Heaven to reign in Jerusalem over the entire world as the new King David.
I write this article with malice towards no one. However, the more I read about David Koresh, believed by his followers to be a prophet and the Son of God, the more I am disgusted by his manipulative, controlling, deceiving and toxic personality. One wonders how was it possible for him to build a following of fanatically loyal people, willing to go as far as to surrendering their own wives and daughters to him, eventually their lives too? Considering the perverse character of his teachings and lifestyle, one wonders indeed how was it possible for him to bring into his brainwashing machinery a number of people with sophisticated levels of education? Some of them were teachers, nurses, business people, retired military men, theology students, professors, musicians, artists.
On the other hand, however abhorrent David Koresh and his tactics of deception were, I find almost equally unacceptable the methods the US government used against David Koresh and his followers during the days of a long siege, and especially on the final hell-like day of the siege. Their use of psychological warfare, and the excessive deadly force against a community of people, looked more as if the siege was taking place in some far-removed jungles of Vietnam, rather than on the American soil. I believe that something needed to be done. However, even now, 25 years later am not really convinced that it was really necessary for ATF to attack the compound, and FBI to exercise brutal militarized force which ultimately led to perishing of 82 people, many of whom were children?
I write this article not because I consider myself an expert in the circumstances surrounding the Waco tragedy, but because I knew some people personally who lost their lives in the raging inferno of Waco on Monday, April 19, 1993. Five years earlier we studied together at Newbold College, England, a leading Seventh-day Adventist educational institution in Europe.
A Deadly Conversion
The first time I heard about David Koresh was in the summer of 1988. At that time David was still called by his real name, Vernon Howell. Steve Schneider, the Koresh’s right-hand man and his liaison officer, visited Binfield, a tranquil English village close to Bracknell, Berkshire. He was on the recruiting mission to England, and his plan for the summer was to bring the “new truth” about “the prophetic and messianic call” of Vernon Howell (David Koresh) to the students of Newbold College. Since those were the summer months, free from any academic activities, only a small group of unsuspected students, professors and staff members remained at the college facilities. I was there too, working several summer jobs in the anticipation of securing some income that would help me move on with my education.
Steve Schneider used to study at Newbold College too, fifteen years earlier, but was expelled from the college due to some behavioral issues. When the college administration realized that Steve did not come back to Newbold for a brief nostalgic visit, a common practice among many former students, but that he was on the weird recruiting mission, they denied him the privilege of staying and “evangelizing” within the college boundaries. Steve was then welcome into the home of a sympathizing staff member. The home of a college cook became his teaching sanctuary for a few weeks, and the base for all his outreach activities on behalf of David Koresh.
For several weeks a group of curious students, some staff members and a few locals gathered together every day, in the late after-the-work afternoon hours, to listen to Steve Schneider. His teaching sessions went on for many long hours, reaching into the early morning hours of the following day. While initially most were attending the meetings out of sheer curiosity, some were undergoing a steady and visible process of conversion.
The rumor about the weird visitor from Waco spread quickly. The fact that the overnight meetings lasted for many long hours every night, and that almost all attending had to go every night without adequate sleep, although each one of them had to work early the following morning, was a good enough warning for me that a cultic brainwashing was in progress every night in our neighborhood. One day we heard that the prophet Vernon himself had arrived, with his guitar, to harvest the fruit of Steve’s labor.
The Lesser Light
Although I did not have any desire to join the group, I remember having several conversations with a few who could not hide that the conversion of their hearts and minds was very much in progress at that time. I was the most directly aware of a serious belief shift in the life of my friend Cliff Sellors, recent convert to Adventism and a good friend of mine. A video production project that both of us shared as the Communication Class requirement brought us closer a few months earlier.
Even before Cliff met Steve Schneider and David Koresh, I knew that he had the exaggerated passion for the writings of the 19th century Adventist prophetess Ellen G. White. In the formative years of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in the mid 19thcentury in America, her dreams and visions had a crucial role in shaping the identity of the emerging church. Since then in the Adventist circles she has been called by several attributive titles, including – “the Inspired Pen”, “the faithful servant of the Lord”, “the Lord’s Messenger”, “the lesser light leading to the greater light”, and the most often “The Spirit of Prophecy”.
On several occasion Cliff and I discussed various topics related to the inspiration of the message and writings of Ellen G. White. We were good friends who did not share the same conviction about the importance of the Adventist prophetess. Cliff was a very good, modest and humble young man, who in the writings of Ellen G. White constantly sought to find “more truth” and “more light.” He read her writings more than he read the Bible.
Cliff Sellors was a genuinely gifted artist. In those days he was painting a beautiful mural named “Genesis”, depicting the seven creation days on the front wall of the college Science Room. Any time he worked on the painting he would listen to the audio recordings of her prophetic messages. He was deeply dissatisfied with his spiritual condition and imperfections. In the writings of Ellen G. White he was seeking to find the truths that would elevate his obedience to the Law of God, ever closer to the perfection that had been eluding him all the time. In his eyes the truth of God was progressive, and there was always a room for the new light, only granted to “His faithful Remnant” – those who “keep God’s commandments, hold to the testimony of Jesus,” and believe in “the Spirit of Prophecy” (Ellen G. White). (Revelation 14:12; 19:10.)
On the other hand, I was satisfied that all truth and light that mattered for my salvation was contained to the fullest in the person of Jesus, and that no relevant truth existed outside Him. I wanted Cliff to see too that the beauty and simplicity of the Gospel of Christ did not require any kind of doctrinal or prophetic gymnastics in order to be appreciated and understood. I did not believe that the role of the New Testament prophets was to be the revealers or upgraders of any God given truth, let alone the saving truth since all of it had already been reveled once and for all, and to the fullest, in the person of Jesus Christ. I shared with Cliff that I believed that the life, death and resurrection of Jesus gave the complete meaning to the whole prophetic ministry of the Old Testament, and there existed no other truth that would ever go beyond or outside Jesus.
When Steve Schneider begun his UK indoctrinating mission in the summer of 1988 Cliff became hooked by his message almost instantly. He would share with me the fragments of what was happening at the meetings. I thought for a moment that his commitment to Ellen G. White would keep him away from the prophetic claims of anyone else. But this was not to be. He, and a few other Newbold students, were impressed with the apparent ease by which Steve was “interpreting” the Old and New Testament Bible prophecies, including the writings of Ellen G. White. For Steve’s Newbold audience, mostly made of traditional Adventists who revered their prophetess, Steve prepared a familiar platform. He quoted Amos 3:7. “The Sovereign Lord does nothing without revealing his plan to his servants the prophets.”
“They believe in Ellen G. White!” – these were some of the very first remarks Cliff shared with me after one of the first Steve’s classes that he attended. To Cliff it mattered that this “new message”, or “the new truth” he was hearing from Steve affirmed the prophetic authority of Ellen G. White. And Steve worked hard to impress the emerging disciples that Ellen G. White was very much revered by both, Vernon Howell (David Koresh) and himself.
For Steve however, setting a common ground was only a means of moving forward from a familiar ground into a new territory. He argued that if “God hand-picked” Ellen G. White to fulfill a special prophetic mission in the 19thcentury, he certainly did not stop there. Steve reasoned that just as much as God appointed Ellen G. White as his “special messenger”, God had now chosen another inspired vehicle to upgrade his “last message”. And, sure enough, the name of the prophet was Vernon Howell, soon to be revered by his followers as David Koresh. It did not take too long for Cliff, and a group of other converts, to feel reassured that believing in the prophetic mission of a new prophet would not contradict their faith in the prophetic gift of Ellen G. White.
The Mind Blowing New Truth
But their arrival at the new light only meant the beginning of a journey that would thereafter become filled with one surprise after another.
Steve proceeded to teach that David Koresh was actually much more than a prophet. He was soon to be received by the new converts, one step at the time, as the “antitypical David”, “the antitypical Cyrus”, “the Lamb of God”, and “the Son of God” – the only one to whom it was given to open the mysteries of “the seven seals” of the Book of Revelation. Moreover, he was to be received as “the new Messiah of the House of David”, “God’s anointed”, “God in sinful human flesh” sent into the world to complete the saving work of Jesus by becoming the “Sinful Messiah”. Since the first Jesus was the spotless and sinless Lamb of God – the reasoning followed – Jesus could not have completely identified with the human race. To complete his saving work, God had to send another Messiah, the second Jesus, David Koresh, to complete the work of redemption by radically indulging into the sins of the world. Salvation now required that one would not believe only in Jesus Christ, but even more in David Koresh.
Each time Steve was stepping onto a new, more preposterous ground, he would enthusiastically declare: “This truth will blow your mind!” Whenever anyone in the attending group would dare ask a critical or disagreeing question, Steve would respond: “You are not ready to receive this new light yet!”
Consequently, one of the “mind blowing truths” Steve delivered to the new converts was that David Koresh would have to marry many virgins, in order to bring into the world a new race of perfect God’s children, who will together with him reign in Jerusalem over the new world. Actually, he would need 144 virgins, the number that went beyond any reasonable expectancy even in the circles of the most unrestrained polygamists.
Another “mind blowing truth” was that David Koresh, as the new messiah, was going to be killed in 1993 by the wicked people, and like the first Jesus 2000 years earlier he would be raised from the dead.
As the 1988 summer weeks were advancing I remember that several of us, who were concerned for the wellbeing of our friends caught up with David Koresh, were warning them that their newly discovered prophet and messiah was a charlatan, and one of those false Christs whom the real Christ warned us against when He said: “Watch out that no one deceives you. Many will come in my name, claiming, ‘I am the Christ, and will deceive many’” Matthew 24:4. Although all of us knew next to nothing about Branch Davidians at the time, what we heard about the character of Steve’s “Bible studies” was enough to make us see the gravity of deception that was claiming the hearts and minds of our friends.
We wanted to help them see that this “new truth” was so preposterous by challenging them with questions like: “What if David Koresh, unable to find for himself so many virgins decides “under the inspiration” to make advances on your own wives?” (Although David Koresh already had several unofficial wives by that time, the “revelation” by which God “authorized” him to claim the wives and daughters of his followers came one year later, in 1989).
We also asked: “What if on the day the wicked decide to take David’s life, your “messiah” decides that all of you, his followers, would have to share in his sacrifice, by giving up your lives too?” We were completely oblivious at the time that our cynical questions, designed to wake-up the new converts out of their intoxicating dreams, were actually unintentional prophetic statements.
But no question, criticism or a joke could make sense to our friends anymore, who were sinking ever deeper in justifying the new teachings they were receiving from Steve Schneider, the ambassador of David Koresh. Their responses were: “Who said that we’ve received all the light, and that no more is coming? We need to be open to receiving new truths! Why should we believe that Ellen G. White was the only one entrusted with ‘the Present Truth’”? In the summer of 1988 they came to believe that the time had come for the children of God to receive the “new light”, and God had decided to use David Koresh to deliver it to his faithful.
Five years later their new light will turn into the hellish darkness.
On April 19, 1993 my friend Cliff Sellors was consumed by the fiery inferno that totally destroyed the Branch Davidian compound in Waco. John McBean, another person I knew from my student days, was burned to death too. Livingstone Fagan, another Newbold student who joined the Branch Davidians in Waco survived the siege. Of the small surviving group of Branch Davidians, he remains until now the most vocal advocate for the cause of David Koresh. The family that hosted Steven Schneider in their home never reached the Branch Davidian compound in Waco. Their lives were spared because the US authorities were slow in issuing them the visa documents they needed to enter and stay in the US. The casualty toll directly linked to their conversion multiplied several times over since all of them actively recruited others, their family members, cousins, friends. In total 24 Britons died in the Waco fire as the result of their recruitment activities.
All of those people were actually good people, in many ways not unlike many of us. Most certainly they did not have criminal minds. None of them joined the Branch Davidians because they were desperately seeking to kill and die in the pursuit of some apocalyptic armed adventure. Yet they all paid a heavy price for their gullibility and falling for a deadly deception.
But more than for anyone else who died in Waco 25 years ago I mourn for my friend Cliff Sellors. I believe he was sincerely seeking “more truth and more light”, which tragically he decided to quench from a broken cistern. From the day he left Newbold College and the time he joined the Koresh’s cult in Waco, until the fatal Monday on April 19, 1993 I did not hear anything about my friend. It was only a number of years later that I started picking scarce bits of information here and there.
With the same passion he used to paint the big Genesis mural in the Science Lab of Newbold College, in the years that followed he used his talent in service to his new messiah Koresh. According to the David Thibodeau’s book “Waco – A Survivor’s Story” Cliff was the official artist at the Branch Davidian’s compound. He artistically customized Koresh’s guitars with his explicit apocalyptic themes. Cliff also painted murals, posters and other illustrations depicting Koresh’s vision of the Apocalypse.
I read recently in the book “Preacher of Death,” co-authored by Marc Brault, who in the initial years of the Koresh’s prophetic advancements served as his right-hand man (Marc left Branch Davidians in 1989), that Robyn Bunds, one of the Koresh’s many wives married Cliff Sellors in a phony marriage arranged by David Koresh. This became a common practice within the Branch Davidian cult living in Waco, intended at creating a cover-up for Koresh’s polygamist practices, and for the children born out of the Koresh’s polygamist unions. In 1990 Robin abandoned the cult.
I read somewhere also that Cliff too, either left the cult for a period of time, or intended to leave because the promiscuity of David bothered him. While he studied at Newbold College several years earlier, Cliff was known as a person of “high personal morals”. Albert A.C. Waite, a professor in Physics and Sciences at Newbold College, who was also a good friend of Cliff (who tried hard to discourage him from joining Davidians) wrote about Cliff: “He was more interested in showing a young lady the beauty of nature than in holding her hand”.
How I wish I was more diligent in trying to persuade Cliff not to join the cult. But at that time, five years before the tragic end of the Waco siege, we (his friends) were all oblivious about the true deadly potential of the Koresh’s “messianic” cult. To us who watched from a distance the whole summer episode of 1988 looked ridiculous and insane. We saw our friends turning into some weird, but harmless fanatics. Until, five years later, when we all watched the CNN’s live reporting on the blazing Waco fire on April 19, 1993.
How I wish Cliff Sellors was strong enough to break away from David Koresh completely. Unfortunately, a small plaque that bears his name, next to the plaques of other inferno victims, forming a modest monument at the Mount Carmel property near Waco, reminds us today that this amazingly gifted artist died too soon, in the fires of Waco “with his music still in him” (Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr).
Next: Waco 25 Years Later Part 2 – The Unconfortable Legacy
There was much more to the conversion story of Koresh’s followers than their fragile social and emotional makeup. David Koresh and his key evangelist Steve Schneider knew how to use a familiar, prophetic language and imageries, which they shared with the traditional Adventists. Most of his new followers did not see their ideological transition as if it were a radical change in their spiritual makeup and loyalties. They thought that they were only advancing forward, spiritually maturing and upgrading their faith journey. They believed that they were only receiving “more light,” and “digging deeper into the Present Truth”. Joining David Koresh, in their view, only meant arriving at the final destination in their restless search for the truth…. Read more….
Some Insightful Comments in Response to This Article:
I would like to share several insightful comments shared on several Facebook pages by friends who too knew some people who died in Waco, or had some close encounters with David Koresh or Steve Schneider:
Analisa Torkeisen Kleven:
David Koresh visited the church my Dad was pastoring in Hawaii when I was young. I remember being terrified as a kid of him and sitting through church fearing for and praying for my Dad through each sermon. My Dad spent hours at meetings with Koresh and a group of young adults he eventually lured away. I remember finding my Dad at home on his knees sobbing pleading prayers.
I knew Sellors as well as it happens. He comes out in your article as I remember him. I disagree slightly with your view that the authorities could have acted otherwise. In the end I believe they had no choice but to end the siege the way they did. But that’s a small matter. Good piece though.
Amelia Han Riegert:
I attended the “Bible study group” that Steve Schneider led at assistant cook John’s home that summer of 1988. I even met Vernon Howell in person. I’m so thankful I was impressed to leave the group study after an experience I had one night after a study, and also after Vernon showed up. Long story, but It wasn’t without much fervent prayer. Sad about Cliff and John McBean’s demise.
I remember Cliff as a very kind and friendly person. So sad all this could happen.
I took the assistant dean job John McBean had before he left for Waco. I remember standing in Keough house watching the buildings burn knowing that he and Cliff were inside. Deception has terrible consequences.
Roger Flalokken (Jakobsen):
I came to Newbold College in 1987 and Cliff and I quickly became friends in the autumn that year as the academic year started in September. He was such a friendly and good hearted man, always looking out for what good he could do for others, caring for his friends and those around him.
He was eager to know and follow the truth, to live according to what he thought to be right. He was one of the most genuine and selfless friends I had, always thinking about the needs of others before his own, greeting people with a smile and a word of encouragement.
It is now long ago, and it is not totally clear to me when and where it took place. It might have been in a dormitory room at the college. I was invited to listen to Steve Schneider, whom Cliff had met and was enthusiastic about having his friends meet and listen to. It happened in the late evening, going on for hours.
Schneider said he had new light on important biblical truths. He introduced himself as a messenger, a prophetic voice, preparing a group to meet the leader of the movement at a later stage. He would start by quoting from the Old Testament, often from the Minor Prophets or the Book of Isaiah, as I recall, often texts about promises made to Israel. It was impressive to hear how he knew so many Bible verses by heart.
He would talk and talk, intensely, painting his picture of this important new light on the true followers, the Remnant of Christ, always quoting the Scripture to validate his claims. Questions from the listeners were not answered, but he said he would come back to them, telling us we needed the whole picture to understand his message. For me it was frustrating that questions were not answered, and I think it must have been after two or three gatherings I stopped attending. I also questioned the fact that we had to meet so late at night, going on till well after midnight.
I had several talks with Cliff, one-on-one, while he painted the creation-painting. I was worried about him. I also asked one of the lecturers in Theology to talk with him. And so he did. He spent hours with Cliff trying to convince him of the faulty teachings of Schneider.
After Cliff left for the USA to engage more fully in the work of the movement Schneider was a messenger for, we heard nothing or very little from the group. The name David Koresh surfaced at times, a name Vernon Howell had taken as he assumed the messianic role in the movement, Branch Davidian of Seventh-day Adventists. I never met him myself.
As the tragedy of the confrontation between the FBI and the cult happened in April of 1993, I had many questions as to how it was at all possible for my friends (John McBean and Cliff Sellors) to have become part of such an extreme cult. The connection between the cult and the SDA Church was downplayed by the SDA Church. It seemed important for the leadership of the church to distance themselves from the cult, claiming Vernon Howell had been disfellowshipped from the church years before.
The fact that only one of the cult members came from a non-SDA background, virtually all were Adventists, (88 people died in the siege) should be a wake up call and give a reason to reflect and investigate how Adventists theology could make people prone to join a cult like this.
In retrospect it is easy to say more should have been done to convince our friends not to join the cult. But the extreme tendencies developed little by little over time. And it is also easy to claim that the FBI underestimated the commitment of the cult members to their leader David Koresh and did not understand the underlying theology of the Remnant and the eschatology Koresh built his cult on.
Bjorn Eivind Holm:
Thank you Tihomir and Roger for your refelctions. And also for your sensitive and respectful description of Cliff. Cliff and I ran a bible group together for a while both before and after he became involved with the Branch Davidians. I also knew Cliff as a very honest and well-meaning friend. Unfortunately a victim of a twisted theology in the end.
I met with Steve Schneider one-to-one a couple of times during the summer for 1988, but I left to go home to Norway before David Koresh came himself. Steve’s reluctance to answer critical questions was also one of the things that turned me off. Of course in addition to some theology that sounded rather unbiblical to me. However, I must say that the full extent of Koresh’ theology became clear to me first when I returned to Newbold that same autumn, and Cliff tried to explain to me what “new light” he had found in this teaching. Unfortunately my objections did not convince him. Neither the objections from many others, as you have mentioned.
I have very fond memories of Cliff. I wish his kindness and talents had been used for a better cause, and for so many more years.
Veli Albert Kallio:
I did know Steve Schneider too, and advised him to go after other churches as well, rather than hanging around SDA’s if it were real gospel. He did tell me quite a bit about himself and he was the brains of the group. David Koresh was a former drug addict that also explains his weird ideas. Steve had a degree, MA or BA on Group Psychology from the University of Hawaii. He had previously tried to set up his own independent church before “discovering” Vernon’s group and then joining and becoming their brain. He was their Judas who managed their funds, and was one who sold properties of the converts to pay the bills for the cult to go on as they did. I thought him as evil afterwards. He also had a liberal view on women’s ordination to my surprise, or may be he said so because he was just “everything to everyone” to make them interested in his group. Women’s ordination was a big thing in the SDA theology circles and heavily debated at that time at Newbold.