Richard Mouw, president of Fuller Theological Seminary, reviewing a recent book on the Branch Davidians, calls on the Seventh-day Adventist Church to “acknowledge some responsibility on the part of their tradition for the developments” that led to the Waco conflagration.
One matter that impressed me particularly as an evangelical reading Newport is his insistence that the tragic errors in David Koresh’s understanding of the Bible do in fact have a history, a history that can in turn be traced to a perspective that was birthed by Ellen White, whose denomination has by now rightly earned considerable respect in evangelical circles and beyond. …
…Now is a good time for Adventist theologians to acknowledge at least some responsibility on the part of their tradition for the developments chronicled by Newport, since those developments do in fact draw on important elements in early Adventism. …
It is a fact, for example, as Newport points out, that the Davidians share with the early Adventists an expectation that some sort of violent cleansing in the end-time is a necessary preface to the coming Kingdom. And this scenario was often connected, in early Adventism, to the notion that in the last days America would function as the second beast of Revelation 13, a deceptively “lamb-like” collective entity that would foster false worship and persecute the faithful remnant of Sabbath-keepers.
The crux of Mouw’s plea for a mea culpa is twofold: 1) “an expectation that some sort of violent cleansing in the end-time,” and 2) prophetic “anti-Americanism.”
Mouw’s call is certainly in keeping with the mea culpas of liberal Protestants of the last few decades, who have apologized for sins real and imagined, committed by their ancestors and the ancestors of other white Americans and Europeans. But it is neither fair nor just in the case of Adventism and the Branch Davidians.
He faults Adventists for, in essence, daring to judge earthly governments in the light of God’s Word–for suggesting that earthly governments will not create God’s kingdom on earth, but in fact are doomed to judgment.
He faults Adventists for expecting evil to disguise itself in a gentler form, for expecting evil powers to attempt to eradicate the good, and for expecting God to vindicate them.
Were Adventists wrong to find these positions in Scripture? Or are we to find in America some “manifest destiny” to place it on the vanguard of God’s plan for an earthly kingdom, which shall come, not through catastrophe but “through deeds of love and kindness”?
Seventh-day Adventists did not get their fundamental perspective from Ellen White. She was but a teenager when the Second Advent Movement of the 1830s and early 1840s reached its climax in 1844. This was a movement associated with William Miller in the northeastern United States, but which was paralleled by the preaching and teaching of others around the world, including the missionary Joseph Wolff. These Adventists tried to establish the date of the Second Coming of Christ through study of Biblical prophecy. As the time approached, they gathered in prayer and study of Scripture. They did not gather weapons; they did not wait in fear of government forces; they did not provoke conflict. They prayed and sang songs of joy and hope and expectation.
Yes, they were disappointed, and in that grief some continued to study. A small group were inspired by visions received by Ellen G. Harmon of Portland, Maine. Under the influence of Joseph Bates they became Sabbatarians. Under the leadership of James White (who married Ellen Harmon) they came to see the Sabbath as having a key role in the final conflict. But as this teaching developed, and as it was reinforced by experience of persecution, especially in the American South, particularly in the 1880s and 1890s, they maintained the same outlook as the early Adventists: they did not gather weapons; they did not wait in fear of government forces; they did not provoke conflict. They prayed and sang songs of joy and hope and expectation. And they advocated in the courts and in the legislature for religious liberty for themselves and all others.
Some fanatics were not content with this. Various teachers and small groups split off here or there; one of the most long lasting of these offshoots was the “Shepherd’s Rod” movement, or the Davidian Seventh-day Adventists, which broke off in the 1920s. Like Adventists before him, Victor Houteff, the founder of this movement, was a pacifist. But he called for a withdrawal, a purification. After his death the group splintered, and Ben Roden took over leadership of one of these sub-groups, the Branch Davidians, as well as control of the Mt. Carmel Center in Waco, Texas. In the early ’80s his wife, Lois, was the head of the group and was getting some press for saying strange things about the feminine nature of the Holy Spirit. Their son, George, began to make fantastic messianic claims, and engaged in a shoot-out with a rival, Victor Howell, who eventually emerged victorious as the sect leader, and took the name David Koresh (and took Lois Roden as a wife). He departed from the Adventist (and even Branch Davidian) teachings on pacifism, and began stockpiling weapons. He departed from Christian teaching (shared by Adventists and Davidians) on the uniqueness of Jesus, and made divine claims. He departed from Christian teaching (shared by Adventists and Davidians) on personal holiness, and engaged in various sexual sins and crimes. [Source for much of this summary].
The Adventist roots of this sect were in no way to blame for the end that came to Koresh and his followers, for the unique teachings of Koresh that led to his violent end were in fact deviations from both Adventism and the teachings of Houteff offshoot. There is no one to blame but those who were in Mt. Carmel at the time, and no one who should apologize except the survivors who are still teaching Koreshism.