Remembering Waco 30 Years Later: Why the Tragedy of David Koresh Could Have Been Avoided

The Branch Davidians for days had been repeatedly asking for word processing supplies. When the supplies finally arrived the night of April 18, 1993, David Koresh got back to work writing his manuscript, in an agreement to end the crisis. Less than 24 hours later, a horrific tragedy was played out on national television….

Back when I was doing youth ministry in early March, 1993, I was setting up one night to lead a discussion with some parents. In the home we were meeting, a story had flashed up on the evening news, and all of us had stopped to learn about what was going on in Waco, Texas. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF) had a few days earlier led a raid against the Mount Carmel Center, the home of David Koresh and the Branch Davidians. All of the television networks described the group as an extremist religious cult.

One parent leaned over to me, perhaps in incredulous jest, and asked something to the effect of, “So, what keeps this youth group [that I was leading] from becoming something like these crazy people in Texas?”

Well, I was just as bewildered about this news report as this parent was. For a total of 51 days, the drama between Branch Davidians and the federal government (the ATF and the FBI) kept many Americans glued to their TV sets each night, wondering how this bizarre story might unfold. At the end of the siege, on April 19, 1993, federal forces tried to flush out the Branch Davidians using tear gas, but the plan went out of control.  A fire erupted, killing 76 Branch Davidians, including 28 children.

Was this simply a story of looney anti-government activists bent on attacking the United States? Or was there more to the story?


Flames erupt from the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas after a raid led by federal officials, on April 19, 1993.


Why the Tragedy at Waco, Texas Could Have Been Avoided

The popular story had been that this Branch Davidians group, led by a charismatic leader, David Koresh, a 33-year old guitar player turned wild-eyed preacher, had been stockpiling weapons to be used against the United States. The initial raid in February, 1993, had resulted in the deaths of not only a few Branch Davidians, but several federal agents as well. David Koresh had raped several married women, and also a few teenagers, fathering a number of children, and holding them as hostages. Government agencies felt compelled to step in to seize Koresh’s weapons and release the vulnerable from under his manipulative control.

What had always bothered me about this narrative was that of those who survived the final, fiery destruction of the Waco compound, very few renounced their allegiance to David Koresh and his teachings. In fact, the raids by the government only confirmed the prophetic insights that Koresh had shared with his followers.

Even thirty years later, some now hope for and pray for David Koresh’ resurrection. Other Branch Davidian survivors find other ways to remember David Koresh in positive ways.

How could that be? Could they not see that David Koresh was a nut case?

It just did not add up. A more careful look at the evidence has been needed. As it turns out, the story is far more interesting and complex than the traditional, government-sanctioned narrative. It had to do with how David Koresh read his Bible, and in particular, how he interpreted the Book of Revelation, and how other Branch Davidians became convinced by his teachings.


William Miller (1782-1849). Leader of the first Adventist movement, that eventually led to the Great Disappointment of 1844. Miller was the intellectual ancestor to David Koresh.


The Roots of David Koresh and the Branch Davidians

David Koresh and his group of followers came from the 19th-century adventist movement begun by a Baptist preacher, William Miller. Unlike many evangelical Christians today, William Miller was an advocate for the historicist interpretation of the Book of Revelation. Miller had predicted from the Bible that Jesus would return at his Second Coming in 1844. When Jesus did not show up as expected, a “Great Disappointment” followed. But the diehard adventists reasoned that they had simply misread their Bibles. As a result, the Seventh Day Adventist movement sprang up from remnants of Miller’s followers (I wrote a three part history of the Seventh Day Adventist movement: #1, #2, and #3).

Since then, various splinter groups grew out of the followers of William Miller, such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the World Mission Society Church of God (read about my encounter with them). The Branch Davidians were a spin-off from the main Seventh Day Adventist movement, resulting from a church-split back in 1935. So while the main body of the Seventh Day Adventist movement was starting to get back on the right course, the Branch Davidians and others like them kept going off in the opposite direction.

In 1959, the Branch Davidians expected Jesus to return that year. Many sold their homes and possessions, and headed off to the group’s headquarters near Waco, Texas, to await the return of the Messiah. Alas, no Jesus showed up as expected. Being no strangers to “disappointment,” the Branch Davidians had to retool their thinking once again, turning back to the Bible to try to figure out why this predicted date was so wrong.

In the 1980s, a young Vernon Howell in his twenties, emerged as the new leader of the group. Earlier as a kid, around age 10, Vernon Howell had memorized the entire King James Version of the Bible. It was said that you could quote from any passage from the Bible, and in a matter of seconds, Howell could tell you exactly where that quote could be found in the Bible, no matter how offbeat it was.

In 1983, he became convinced that there would be a “son of God” who would emerge having the same Spirit as Jesus did, the “Spirit of prophecy.” Eventually, Vernon Howell began to wonder if he might be this “son of God“:

… For it is the Spirit of prophecy who bears testimony to Jesus (Revelation 19:10 NIV)

Unfortunately, the standard narrative has assumed that this was Vernon Howell’s way of saying that he was Jesus Christ. Some contemporary media outlets still push this narrative. But if you look carefully at this verse from Revelation, this is not so. The “Spirit of prophecy” bears testimony of Jesus, but is not Jesus himself.

According to Vernon Howell’s theology, there was not just one messianic figure (as in Jesus of Nazareth), but rather that the Bible taught that there would be multiple messianic figures, in which Jesus of Nazareth was the central focus and the full fulfillment of all biblical prophecy. In other words, Vernon Howell was NOT Jesus, but rather he thought he might be appointed by God to deliver a message, pointing the way for others to find Jesus. Many biblical scholars today actually agree with Vernon Howell, that there are multiple messianic figures in the Bible, though they question Howell’s particular method of interpretation.

Vernon Howell took upon himself a new name, “David Koresh.” The “David” part is pretty easy to figure out, for David Koresh was to be a kind of “David,” the great king of Israel from the Old Testament. The “Koresh” part requires a bit more unpacking.

According to James Tabor, a former professor of religion at the College of William and Mary, David Koresh had become absorbed in studying the Book of Revelation, but he needed to make sure that his theology was properly rooted in the Bible. So, he took his wife and young child on a trip to Israel to figure this all out.

It was Revelation 14:1 that troubled him:

Then I looked, and there before me was the Lamb, standing on Mount Zion, and with him 144,000 who had his name and his Father’s name written on their foreheads.

Was it really possible that 144,000 believers would all be able to stand on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem? Was that area big enough?

Sure enough, David Koresh walked around on Jerusalem’s Temple Mount and reasoned that, yes, 144,000 believers would all fit on top of that Temple Mount. David Koresh had not figured everything out, but this convinced him that he still had an important message to preach.

After predictions made by the author of 88 Reasons Why the Rapture Will Be in 1988 failed to come to pass, David Koresh began to attract some worldwide attention in various circles, with people traveling as far away as Australia to live in the Branch Davidian community in Waco, Texas. I remember reading an article about David Koresh in the late 1980s, and pretty much concluded back then that this guy was nuts. However, I have had to admit that I really did not know that much about the Branch Davidians.

So, what was David Koresh’s message that he believed would point others to Jesus?

According to James Tabor again, Revelation 10:7 was crucial in Branch Davidian theology:

But in the days when the seventh angel is about to sound his trumpet, the mystery of God will be accomplished, just as he announced to his servants the prophets.

David Koresh believed that he would be that final seventh messenger, as an “angel” simply means “messenger.” And what would that message be? To proclaim the mystery of the meaning of the “seven seals.

Just as King Cyrus of Persia was considered to be a messianic figure, so was David Koresh:

This is what the Lord says to his anointed,
    to Cyrus, whose right hand I take hold of
to subdue nations before him
    and to strip kings of their armor,
to open doors before him
    so that gates will not be shut (Psalm 45:1 NIV)

This word “anointed” comes from the Hebrew word “mashiach,” which gives us the English word, “messiah.” The Hebrew word for “Cyrus” is “koresh,” which explains why David called himself “David Koresh.”

Psalm 69 is regarded by some biblical scholars as a messianic psalm, specifically about Jesus. But verse 5 has always been a problem (at least for me) with such an interpretation:1

You, God, know my folly;
    my guilt is not hidden from you.

It was no mystery to David Koresh, in his mind. For David Koresh, this meant that this kind of messiah in a psalm like this was concerning a “sinful messiah.”  Unlike Jesus, who had no sin, David Koresh believed in the concept of a “sinful messiah,” a person who lacked the type of sanctified life that only Jesus fully had. David Koresh, conscious of his own moral failings, therefore believed that he himself was a “sinful messiah.”

Sadly, the ATF and FBI agents who had David Koresh cornered in the Waco compound during the siege thought this was all “Bible-bable.” After all, what was this whole nonsense about regarding “seals,” the sea animals?

But obviously, the ATF and FBI agents did not know what David Koresh was talking about. He was not talking about sea animals.  Rather, he was talking about the “seven seals,” associated with God’s judgments, written about in Revelation 6. Christians throughout the history of the church have puzzled over the meaning of these “seven seals,” but David Koresh believed that he had pieced the Bible puzzle together, and that he was “the lamb of God” mentioned in Revelation 6:1 who would reveal the meaning of these “seven seals.”

Ultimately, David Koresh viewed himself as an evangelist and a prophet.  He wanted to share with the world some good news, while also warning the world about the terrible calamity to come.

The question was: How would David Koresh get the word out?


David Koresh, also known as Vernon Howell: The “sinful messiah” to announce the message of the Branch Davidians.


Failed Negotiations

Though not an evangelical Christian, who has been known for some rather quirky views about the Bible,  this former William and Mary professor, James Tabor, had since moved onto teach at another university in North Carolina, when he learned about what was going on in Waco, Texas. Tabor and a few other scholars sought to try to help government officials in negotiating with the Branch Davidians, as they were experts in Christian apocalyptic movements. However, the government officials were reluctant to allow Tabor and his colleagues to directly intervene.

Yet time was running out. A more indirect intervention was needed.

What these bible scholars did do was to participate in a radio broadcast on a local radio station that the Branch Davidians were known to listen to, and talk about bible prophecy. Some of the sequestered and barricaded Branch Davidians heard the radio broadcast, and they were able to convince their embattled leader, David Koresh, to consider a way out of the situation.

The plan that the bible scholars came up with was to urge David Koresh to draft a document explaining his views about the seven seals of the Book of Revelation. For those old enough to remember, night after night during the siege, the media had been broadcasting concerns about the children, pregnant women who were vulnerable, the cache of weapons that Koresh had stockpiled, and yet no one knew much of anything about what the Branch Davidians actually believed.

Through this somewhat convoluted back channel, the bible scholars were able to persuade David Koresh that it was in his best interest to write down his teachings concerning the seven seals. For he could write down these teachings and then turn himself into government authorities, as the easiest way to avoid potential bloodshed. As the Apostle Paul spent much time in jail, so could David Koresh be jailed as well, for the sake of this message. Plus, a hungry national media corp would take David Koresh’ manuscript and publicize it to a public that was wondering what in the world was going on in Waco!

An instant and wide audience for his message….. David Koresh was in.

According to tapes of the FBI of the negotiations, David Koresh and the FBI were able to reach an agreement that Koresh would work on the manuscript, release it to the FBI and the press, and then David Koresh would present himself to the authorities to be jailed, and the siege would be over. Further bloodshed would be averted. Initially, both sides in the negotiations were relieved, and prospect for a peaceful resolution was within reach.

Sadly, within five days, FBI agents grew impatient, reversed course, and began to move in. At first they delayed giving Koresh the writing materials he requested in order to complete his manifesto. Then government assault vehicles destroyed several Davidian cars just outside of the building, as preparation for deploying the tear gas, and cut the phone line to the Davidians. Eventually the compound would catch on fire, leading to the deaths of dozens of Branch Davidians, including children.

Who set the fire? Some say over-enthusiastic federal agents. Some say the Davidians themselves, fearing that in their minds suicide was better than outright murder or life imprisonment. Why were flammable delivery systems used to insert the tear gas into the building? Why was the local fire brigade not allowed to move in and try to put the fire out and save lives? We may never know for sure what really happened that day.

Interestingly, the woman who was transcribing David Koresh’s teachings on the seven seals the night before the fire was able to escape the flames, grabbing the disk with the incomplete manuscript on it before the whole place burned to the ground. James Tabor was able to get access to this incomplete manuscript and publish all 6,075 words of it. David Koresh only had time to finish his writing about the first seal before meeting a violent death on April 19, 1993. Tabor and another bible scholar, Phillip Arnold, testified to Congress regarding their role in what became the tragedy at Waco.

While I do not agree with a number of Dr. Tabor’s view of the Bible, I am glad that he sought to intervene in this very public crisis, putting his own scholarly reputation on the line, in the interest of trying to save lives. Kudos go to Dr. Tabor and other scholars who worked hard thirty years ago to try to find a peaceful solution to the Waco standoff.2


Misunderstandings about David Koresh

OKAY. All of this does sound rather crazy. David Koresh was driven by a particular ideological approach to the Bible that resisted self-reflection and critical thinking.  However, the story of his group does not really fit the stereotype of a brainwashing cult. The Branch Davidians who remained were all true believers in David Koresh’ teachings, despite the reality that Koresh adopted a particular model of biblical interpretation that stood within his own theological tradition, and he never really tried to test his model against other interpretative models. In fact, an evidence-based approach shows that David Koresh was just as wrong about the Book of Revelation as wrong could be, which would be a topic for another blog post.3

But the point is that David Koresh really believed this stuff was found in the Bible, and the ATF and FBI agents, who were blasting annoying music and sounds on loud speakers around the surrounded Waco compound, in hopes of flushing David Koresh out of his home, simply did not understand him….. and thirty years ago, the drama was being played out, day-after-day, with the whole world watching as TV news crews camped out behind government lines, reinforcing the ATF/FBI narrative with little to no access to what the Branch Davidians themselves were thinking.

Questions still remain: Who fired the first shots in the original ATF raid? Why did the ATF/FBI keep swapping out negotiators? Did David Koresh really believe that God told him to “wait” instead of turning himself in earlier during the siege? Why did the FBI go ahead with the final advance on the compound when just a few days earlier David Koresh signed a contract with his lawyer for his defense, indicating that Koresh was planning to surrender to authorities?

The ATF and FBI agents probably had very good reasons to think that David Koresh was not being entirely up front with them. On the other side, inconsistent and contradictory statements and actions made by the ATF and FBI caused the Branch Davidians to lose trust in the government agents. David Koresh was trying to convert these federal agents, but the message was not getting through. Ultimately, lacking the frame of reference for understanding David Koresh’s worldview made communication with these government agents almost impossible.

Much of American society has become increasingly biblically illiterate, and the trend has been getting worse and worse for decades. Sadly, the failure to grasp the fully Scripturally saturated thought world of David Koresh among government officials was a major contributing factor that led to the deaths of so many on April 19, 1993. Only nine people in the community survived.

The point is not that ATF/FBI officials should have agreed with David Koresh. Even the Seventh Day Adventist movement, which gave birth to the Branch Davidians sect,  has judged that David Koresh was completely wrong in his Bible interpretation. The point is that the failure of those government agents three decades ago to have an ideological frame of reference in their negotiations resulted in needless deaths.

Getting in the Mind of David Koresh

For example, David Koresh had been rightly criticized for his taking of multiple wives, and siring children from them, which reminds many of similar behavior adopted by 19th-century Mormons. The founder of Mormonism, Joseph Smith, had several dozen wives, including young teenage girls, and fathered multiple children.

David Koresh based his behavior on his reading, faulty as it was, on the Bible. Koresh believed Psalm 45 to be a messianic psalm, not so much with respect to Jesus, but rather about himself. For example:

Daughters of kings are among your honored women;
    at your right hand is the royal bride in gold of Ophir. (Psalm 45:9 NIV)


Your sons will take the place of your fathers;
    you will make them princes throughout the land. (Psalm 45:16 NIV)

David Koresh was on a quest to produce 24 children from these women, in fulfillment of Revelation 4:4. Koresh believed that these would be the 24 elders sitting in thrones, representatives of God’s people.

As for the large cache of weapons, they were not originally obtained in order to attack the government. Rather, David Koresh traded in guns, as a means of making money for the community, going to various gun shows. Koresh also believed that his Branch Davidian movement, as the End Times were being fulfilled, would travel to Jerusalem, perhaps taking some guns with them, to fight in the last battle, the battle of Armageddon. In fact, there is evidence to indicate that the firearms were actually legally obtained. The use of the firearms against the government was an afterthought, as they would be used purely as defense against a government attack.

Once the government did initially attack on February 28, 1993, this only confirmed the Branch Davidians confidence in their leader’s interpretation of the Bible, which predicted that an unprovoked attack by the government was imminent. The subsequent siege, with all of its psychological warfare tactics employed against the Branch Davidians, worked to amplify their belief even more that Koresh was right all along.

In contrast to the ATF/FBI narrative, that the people at the Mount Carmel Compound were being brain-washed under duress by David Koresh, the evidence now indicates that the families who stayed with David Koresh during the siege did so because they willingly believed that Koresh was teaching the truth.

Lessons Learned

Thankfully, from what James Tabor and other religious scholars tell us, federal law enforcement agencies are now more willing thirty years later to learn needed lessons to keep events like the Waco tragedy from repeating. But those lessons learned have come at a great price, impacting both the church and the culture in a variety of ways.

There are people still today who think that David Koresh was essentially right, despite being off on the timing of the events described in the Book of Revelation. Weirder still, the events at Waco have triggered a series of more radical resistance individuals and movements to distrust the government, at an even greater cost of human lives. David Koresh and his followers were not terrorists, and they were not white supremacists, but those who have come after Koresh have not been so Scripturally thoughtful, using the Waco tragedy as a pretext for further distrust of the government….

I will be honest here. When I first became a Christian as a teenager, I read through the entire New Testament…. except for the Book of Revelation. Frankly, that book just seemed really, really weird to me. It was not until I enrolled in a New Testament class in seminary that I took a serious look at Revelation. What I learned there in my study of Revelation, grounded in serious biblical scholarship, was unlike anything I kept hearing from people who were endlessly fascinated with the Book of Revelation.

In my experience, most of these people who have such an endless fascination with the Book of Revelation do not hold an historic, orthodox perspective of Christianity. A hyper-literalized interpretation of  Revelation has led to fanaticism on the one side, and cynicism about the Bible and ridicule of Christianity on the other. In our day, we need a revival of interest in responsible study of the Scriptures, who want to cut through the maze of opinions and learn the truth about this last book of the New Testament.



1.  The New Testament’s use of Old Testament prophecy can be difficult understand, but for much of Old Testament prophecy, the earliest Christians employed a typological approach to Scriptural interpretation. It is most probable that Psalm 69 should be read typologically, where the ancient Israelite King David himself was the type of the prophecy, fallen as he was, while Jesus of Nazareth is the true fulfillment of the messianic prophecy. See this Veracity blog post for an example of typology at work….. A side note: part of Branch Davidian theology, which predated David Koresh, is this idea that the Holy Spirit is feminine, such that there is a divine family in heaven, namely God the Father (male), God the Spirit (female/mother), and God the Son (child). A variation of this theology is found in the World Mission Society Church of God.  

2. Professor Tabor is a favorite YouTuber among progressive Christians.  

3. Christians have been known to disagree with one another regarding specific details about the End Times, so the Branch Davidians represent just one particular strand of thought in this ongoing discussion, albeit a rather bizarre fringe view. This blogger favors a school of thought known as partial preterism, based on the available evidence, as opposed to David Koresh’ claims that he was directly hearing from God how to interpret the Bible. Examples of Christian authors/teachers who have taught extensively on this topic from a more evidence-based perspective include the late R.C. Sproul and Christian film-maker Brian Godawa. My own defense of partial preterism can be found in this blog post about 2 Peter’s place in the New Testament canon.  

About Clarke Morledge

Clarke Morledge -- Computer Network Engineer, College of William and Mary... I hiked the Mount of the Holy Cross, one of the famous Colorado Fourteeners, with some friends in July, 2012. My buddy, Mike Scott, snapped this photo of me on the summit. View all posts by Clarke Morledge

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