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A Brief History of the End of Time

The American roots of the Branch Davidians.

The heavens shall pass away with a great noise, and the elements shall melt with fervent heat, the earth also and the works that are therein shall be burned up.—II Peter 3:10

In the end, of course, it wasn't the heavens and the earth that passed away, but only a pitiful group of human beings and a few stark wooden structures, but David Koresh on April 19 achieved the Armageddon his reading of Bible prophecy had convinced him lay ahead. Mount Carmel smolders in ruin; the Branch Davidian flag no longer flies. The FBI dutifully acted its assigned role in Koresh's script, becoming the catalyst for the divinely ordained Götterdämmerung that Koresh had long foretold.

As I watched the event unfold, my first thought was of something that happened more than 450 years ago. Early in 1534 radical German Protestants gripped by apocalyptic zeal gained control of the Westphalian city of Münster and proclaimed the New Jerusalem. Soon the Münster visionaries fell under the leadership of Jan Bockelson ("John of Leyden"), a charismatic, theologically obsessed and monomaniacal young tailor who, like David Koresh, anointed himself Messiah, imposed his absolute rule with the aid of a cadre of loyal lieutenants and demanded free sexual access to his female followers. (Women who resisted were executed.)

As in Waco, the denouement proved catastrophic. An alliance of alarmed regional princes and the local Catholic bishop raised an army that clamped a tight siege on Münster, bringing on mass starvation and driving Bockelson to ever more brutal excesses. In September 1535, under a promise of safe conduct, the emaciated survivors stumbled from the city, only to face mass slaughter by the besieging forces. Now celebrities, Bockelson and two lop aides were paraded around in chains in nearby cities. After torture with red-hot irons, which they endured in stoic silence, the three eventually died. Their corpses, lofted in cages to the top of Münster's church tower, soon fell victim to the ravages of the weather and scavenging birds, but the cages remain to this day, a notable Westphalian tourist attraction.

The apocalyptic expectations of the Münster cultists arose at a moment when the purifying zeal of German Anabaptists was pushing the Reformation in radical antiestablishment and anti-hierarchical directions that Luther and many others found intensely threatening. Bockelson and his followers heaped scorn on the secular and religious establishments of their day, and saw Münster as the birthplace of Christ's new world order foretold in the final chapter of the Book of Revelation. 

In a similar way, Koresh was also a creature of his time and place, an archetypal anti-establishment figure of the American present and past. As the 1992 election campaign made clear, disgust with established structures runs deep, along with a large amount of free-floating apprehension. Public intellectuals' rejection of (even disdain for) spiritual analysis has opened the door for free-lance expositors who find meaning in the symbolic language of the apocalyptic Scriptures. All this, coupled with the high level of religious belief in America and the imminence of the year 2000, places Koresh in a radically different context: as much an archetype of contemporary America as a weird exception. Elements of his belief system appear in large parts of American Christianity today and can be traced far back in American history. In his cultic methods, he is the latest in a long line of American spiritual pioneers. Many of his practices, of course, and his violent tendencies mark him out for opprobrium. But his alienation and core doctrines are shared by millions of Americans, perhaps even a majority.

One of Koresh's key texts was from the Second Psalm, with its opening phrases familiar from Handel's Messiah:

Why do the nations rage, and the people plot a vain thing? The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together against the Lord and against His Anointed…. 

Koresh, of course, identified himself as the Lord's anointed and saw the standoff at Waco as the literal fulfillment of an intensifying campaign by demonic earthly rulers to destroy the righteous remnant. While few prophecy expounders proclaim themselves to be God, or stockpile AK-47s, the general contours of Koresh's beliefs were neither unique nor particularly unusual. His rambling hour-long sermon broadcast early in the siege (as part of a deal he struck with the negotiators) was in important respects indistinguishable in tone and content from the presentations of other apocalyptic preachers who now crowd the airwaves. From Michigan comes the durable Jack Van Impe, known as the "Walking Bible"; from Tulsa, Oral Roberts. Charles Taylor's "Today in Bible Prophecy" radio show based in Huntington Beach, California, airs on more than twenty stations nationwide and globally via the Spacenet, SATCOM and Galaxy communications satellites. David Webber's "Southwest Radio Church" of Oklahoma City is heard five days a week on 130 stations. Pat Robertson's Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN), which fully believes in the apocalyptic Scriptures, serves some 3,000 cable T.V. systems. Another fundamentalist outlet, Trinity Broadcasting Network (TBN), brings prophecy-oriented shows to homes across the nation. In Houston Hilton Sutton maintains a twenty four-hour prophecy hotline for late-breaking developments.

Millions of Americans, white hardly embracing or even understanding Koresh's specific interpretations, share his intense interest in the apocalyptic texts. In a 1983 Gallup poll, 62 percent of the respondents expressed "no doubt" that Jesus Christ will return to earth again. Other polls show that about 40 percent of the citizenry believe the Bible is "the actual word of God… to be taken literally word for word," including, of course, the prophetic parts. The creeds of nearly all Christian churches, of course, proclaim the eventual return of Jesus Christ to judge the living and the dead. But those stressing these themes are the ones experiencing the greatest growth. The Assemblies of God Church, with some 2.2 million members, grew by 121 percent from 1965 to 1989. The thriving Seventh-Day Adventist Church, a bastion of prophecy teaching, expanded by 92 percent in the 1965-1989 period, and now has more than 700,000 members in America alone, and many more worldwide. The Jehovah's Witnesses, who peddle their distinctive brand of prophecy teaching door-to-door, boast some 860,000 adherents in the United States.

Illustration by Vint Lawrence
David Koresh

Prophecy paperbacks are among the highest-selling books in the country. Salem Kirban's 1968 prophecy work Guide to Survival went through sixteen editions by 1988, selling half a million copies. When I interviewed the dean of American prophecy writers, John Walvoord of Dallas Theological Seminary, in 1989, he told me that his timely 1974 paperback Armageddon, Oil, and the Middle East Crisis had sold 750,000 copies. An update published during the Persian Gulf crisis racked up similarly spectacular sales. While Chick Publications of Chico, California, produces comic books that purvey the end-time message, other eschatological entrepreneurs such as the Bible Believers' Evangelistic Association of Sherman, Texas, offer complex prophecy charts, end-time wristwatches with "One Hour Nearer the Lord's Return" inscribed around the face and place mats with paintings of the Rapture. Nor is this phenomenon confined to some mythic southern "Bible Belt." My own city, Madison, Wisconsin, has more than fifty churches that espouse some form of prophecy belief. The charismatic Lake City Church, for example, which embraces premillennialism, is growing by leaps and bounds, currently reporting 1,000 members.

The Branch Davidians' specific roots lie in the Seventh-Day Adventist Church, and it was among Adventists that they enjoyed their greatest recruitment success. Since the Adventists' emergence from the Millerite movement of the 1840s and their revitalization by the religious visionary Ellen G. White and others, they have been intensely preoccupied with eschatology. Their popular literature abounds with graphic illustrations of King Nebuchadnezzar's Dream, the Whore of Babylon, the Beast from the Sea and other memorable images that have made apocalyptic Scripture so protean an influence in Western religious and cultural history. As a proselytizing device, Adventist ministers conduct heavily promoted "prophecy seminars" in motel conference rooms, complete with study guides, examinations and certificates of achievement at the end.

More broadly, Koresh and many other contemporary prophecy expositors have been influenced by the so-called dispensational-premillennial interpretive system that emerged in mid-nineteenth-century Anglo-American evangelicalism. Marshaling a small army of biblical proof texts from the books of Daniel, Ezekiel, Revelation and elsewhere, premillennialists teach that wickedness will increase as the end approaches, culminating in the Great Tribulation (Matthew 24:21-22), a seven-year period of cataclysmic struggle between the forces of evil and the forces of righteousness. The former will be controlled by the Antichrist (also called "the Beast" in the Book of Revelation), who will persecute God's true believers as he enforces his global military and economic dictatorship. To further complicate an already complex system, many premillennialists, citing I Thessalonians 4:16-17, also hold that before the Antichrist's rise, all true Christians will be taken from the earth in the Rapture, so that the victims of the Antichrist's persecution will be "Tribulation saints" who missed the Rapture but who will convert to Christ as the Tribulation unfolds. The "signs of the times" proving the imminence of these events, the popularizers claim, include such diverse phenomena as the formation of the nation of Israel in 1948, Israel's recapture of the Old City of Jerusalem in 1967, the creation of the European Common Market, the emergence of a computerized world economic order and the deterioration of the global environment. As the Antichrist's persecutions reach a crescendo of ferocity (including the slaughter of two-thirds of all Jews, said to be foretold in Zechariah 13:8). Jesus Christ will return with his saints to the ancient battlefield of Megiddo near Haifa. Here, at the Battle of Armageddon (literally "the hill of Megiddo"), the heavenly hosts will vanquish the Antichrist's armies, clearing the way for the Millennium, Christ's thousand-year earthly reign.

These or related beliefs, though strange to secular elites, go far back in American religious history. They show that Koresh is not just archetypal of much American belief today, but is also rooted in some of the oldest strains in American religious life. The New England Puritans, sharing the eschatological fervor of their co-religionists across the Atlantic, produced a rich body of last-days speculation. Much of this writing, analogous in some respects to the Branch Davidians' Americanization of prophecy, focused on the New World as an arena of end-time fulfillment. Massachusetts political leader Samuel Sewell in 1697 echoed Increase Mather's conviction that America might be "the seal of the Divine Metropolis" in the Millennium. Increase Mather's son Cotton, a one-man prophecy industry, often expounded eschatological themes in his sermons at Boston's First Church, devoted many pages to the last days in his unpublished Bible commentary and regularly took up the subject in his diary.

The Great Awakening of the 1740s produced more speculation that the Millennium would begin in America. The revivalist and theologian Jonathan Edwards started keeping "Notes on the Apocalypse" at the age of 20, and in a 1739 sermon published posthumously as A History of the Work of Redemption offered reflections on the prophecies. The year 2000, Edwards privately speculated, might well bring the Millennium. The antebellum era saw another boom in prophetic interest, including not only the Millerite movement but also an 1859 sermon by the Reverend Fountain Pitts of Tennessee, delivered in the U.S. Capitol at the invitation of "several members of Congress." Before a large crowd of legislators and others, the patriotic Pitts offered an elaborate interpretation that found July 4, 1776, foretold in the Book of Daniel.

Another of Koresh's spirited ancestors in the field of prophecy interpretation was John Nelson Darby, the systematizer of the dispensational-premillennial system. The leader of a British dissenting sect, the Plymouth Brethren, Darby made many trips to the United States from 1859 onward. Chief among the American expositors of Darby's system was the vastly influential Cyrus Scofield. Scofield's turbulent early life included Civil War service in the Confederate army, involvement in postwar Kansas Republican politics, allegations of stealing campaign contributions made to a Kansas senator and a jail term in St. Louis on forgery charges. He was converted in prison under the influence of the Reverend James Brookes, a prominent St. Louis Darbyite. In 1909, with no formal theological training, Scofield wrote his Reference Bible, through which is woven the premillennialist scheme. Published by Oxford University Press and revised in 1907, the Scofield Reference Bible remains in print today, having sold as many as 12 million copies, according to estimates by Oxford's Bible editor. 

Unlike other commentators, Scofield published his notes on the same page as the Bible text, so that readers often had trouble recalling whether they had encountered a particular thought in the sacred writ itself or in Scofield's exposition. In discussing the thirty-eighth chapter of Ezekiel, for example, Scofield lent his authority to a long-standing interpretive tradition that found the destruction of Russia foretold in the dire fate pronounced on various obscure northern kingdoms. Unsurprisingly, this reading enjoyed great popularity during the cold war, as scores of interpreters confidently described the Soviet Union's prophesied invasion of Israel and the bloodbath that would result. The Coming Peace in the Middle East written by Tim LaHaye in 1984, for example, described a peace built on mountains of Soviet corpses.

Scofield's most direct contemporary heir is Hal Lindsey, whose premillennial popularization The Late Great Planet Earth (1970) ranks as the nonfiction best seller of the 1970s; the book has sold upwards of 20 million copies in various editions and main translations. Lindsey was a Mississippi River tugboat operator when he found God and became an open-air campus preacher at UCLA and other colleges around southern California. His theological training consisted of brief attendance at Dallas Theological Seminary, the premillennialists' Harvard, where envious fellow students would later grumble that he simply jazzed up his course notes and published the resulting apocalyptic scenario as his own.

Offering a pastiche of prophecy themes, Lindsey in The Late Great Planet Earth and later books such as Countdown to Armageddon (1980) quoted Bible passages that he claimed foretold every major trend of recent world history. In There's a New World Coming (1973), for example, Lindsey cited prophecies in the Book of Revelation of scorching heat, a darkened sun and moon, bloody seas and horrible sores covering people's bodies its fore-tellings of global warming, environmental pollution and skin cancer caused by depletion of the ozone layer. 

Though avoiding specific date-setting, Lindsey hinted in The Late Great Planet Earth that the Rapture might come in 1981. He derived this date from Jesus's chronicle of end-time events in Mark 13 that concludes: "[T]his generation shall not pass, till all these things be done." Lindsey, dating a biblical generation as forty years, beginning "this generation" with the foundation of modern Israel in 1948 and subtracting seven years for the Great Tribulation thus arrived at 1981. He quietly dropped this rash speculation from his post-1981 writings, just as all the books identifying Hitler, Mussolini or Stalin as the Antichrist now gather dust on the shelves. (Henry Kissinger, Mikhail Gorbachev, Saddam Hussein and Juan Carlos of Spain are the current favorites.) 

Koresh's beliefs, however, are not the only aspects of his religion that have deep roots in American history. So too does his creation of a cult — and the public reaction to it. The phenomenon that rouses such consternation when it is revealed at Jonestown or Waco takes on greater ambiguity and complexity when placed on the broader canvas of American church history. The First Amendment's prohibition against an establishment of religion, rooted in the variegated and free-wheeling religious life of early America, not only separated religion from politics, but created the conditions for continued spiritual innovation and radicalism in the new nation. If the People's Temple and the Branch Davidians are products of America's uniquely laissez-faire religious culture, so, too, were John Woolman, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Jane Addams, Henry J. Cadbury, A.J. Muste, Dorothy Day and Martin Luther King Jr. 

This history of centrifugal spiritual innovation always attracted ridicule that often masked fears of anarchy and disorder. The early Methodists were criticized as disruptive sectarians of dubious moral character. The Disciples of Christ (Campbellite) church, arising amid the fervor of frontier revivals, was caricatured as a collection of wild ranters and weeping enthusiasts. Not only the Seventh-Day Adventists but also Joseph Smith's Mormon followers, John Humphrey Noyes's Perfectionists, Ann Lee's Shakers and, later, Charles Taze Russell's Jehovah's Witnesses and Mary Baker Eddy's Christian Scientists were all denounced as dangerous radicals and a grave threat to orthodoxy and social order. Much of the same language that we now hear aimed at Koresh was aimed at what now rank as some of the most respected denominations in America. 

Take the Mormons. The fast-growing Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, with nearly 4 million U.S. adherents and millions more in more than a hundred nations worldwide, reveres The Book of Mormon, allegedly discovered by Joseph Smith in 1827 inscribed on golden plates and buried near Palmyra, New York. This work describes the American aboriginals as a Lost Tribe of Israel and offers prophecies of the New Zion that will arise on American soil. Smith's more arcane teachings struck many of his contemporaries as hardly less bizarre than Koresh's ramblings seem today. Handsome and charismatic, he introduced polygamy among his followers and claimed for himself quasi-divine powers. He was murdered in a Carthage. Illinois, jail in 1844 by outraged citizens after his followers had burned down the offices of a critical newspaper. Under Brigham Young, the Mormon cult eventually found its Zion in the Salt Lake Valley of the Great Basin. In 1857 President James Buchanan, proclaiming them in "substantial rebellion," ordered the U.S. Army to besiege Salt Lake City. Yet the Mormon Church today stands as a pillar of establishment respectability, its mellifluous tabernacle choir the very embodiment of American piety and patriotism.

The Assemblies of God Church and other charismatic groups that have enjoyed phenomenal growth in recent years likewise trace their roots to nineteenth-century heterodox preachers such as the controversial Scotsman Alexander Dowie and Charles G. Parham, a renegade Methodist who denounced patriotism as "the embrace of the Molluck God." Intent on recapturing the fervor and purity of the early church, the pioneer pentecostalists emphasized divine healing, glossolalia (speaking in tongues) and prophecy belief. Like the Mormons, they too met scorn from the leaders of "mainstream" denominations.

In The End of Ideology (1960), Daniel Bell saw in the aftermath of twentieth-century horrors "an end to chiliastic hopes, to millenarianism, to apocalyptic thinking." But the visionary rhetoric that unites two such otherwise disparate figures as Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton suggests that even in the realm of civil religion Bell's obituary for millenarianism was premature. (See "The Great Awakening" by John B. Judis, The New Republic, February 1, 1993.) What is more certain is that millions of premillennialists still embrace the utopian faith in its original biblical form. They proclaim a belief system as deep-rooted as any in American religious life, a belief system that has found a particularly fertile moment in the economic and spiritual insecurity of contemporary America. As one prophecy preacher put it, "Yon don't have to be a great theologian to figure this out. Or even a great mathematician. All you have to do is read the Scriptures and accept them for what they are." In the best American tradition, prophecy interpretation is theology of, by and for the people, a big tent open to one and all. Even the Branch Davidians.

Paul Boyer, professor of history at the University of Wisconsin, is the author of When Time Shall Be No More: Prophecy Belief in Modern American Culture (Harvard University Press)