Twenty-five years ago, the U.S. Government had surrounded the compound of David Koresh and the Branch Davidians, embroiled in a stand-off that would last 51 days and tragically ended in gunfire with 75 of the 84 people inside dead, including children.
I was recently interviewed by Brody Harness for a research project he was doing on the siege and I thought these questions were very poignant and valuable to better understand the cult leader and others like him. Here's a copy of that interview.
When Jesus didn't return as expected, the “Millerites” (who preferred the name Adventists) started coming up with alternate explanations, such as Jesus had returned invisibly (Jehovah's Witnesses) or Jesus came into the heavenly Holy of Holies and ended the age of grace, and is now beginning his period of Investigative Judgment (Seventh-Day Adventists).
The Branch Davidians splintered off the SDA back in the 1930s when a leading Adventist in the Los Angeles area, Victor Houteff, began teaching the church wasn't being holy enough. David Koresh's mother was a member of a Texas SDA church and Koresh himself was also a member for a while, before being attracted to the Davidian sect. According to Apologetics Index, Koresh claimed to be God's agent, (and ultimately taught his followers that he was divine) and instructed those that followed him to preparing themselves for Jesus's return.
Since David had multiple wives in the Old Testament, Koresh felt that justified him to also have multiple wives. Of course, as his power and following grew, he became more and more self-absorbed, something that is typical of cult leaders. His doctrines “departed radically from the essential doctrines of the Christian faith”1 and he demanded total control over his followers, cutting off outside ties and subjecting them to various physical and mental abuses.2
The loss of those 908 people, along with the prior shooting of U.S congressman Leo Ryan who sought to investigate Jones' alleged human rights abuses gave the public grave concern that a similar event would take place in Waco.
I don't think we are any more or less likely today to come to a different conclusion. Religiously motivated actions have taken on a deeper suspicion in our culture. The powers that be may not jump immediately to a suicide cult assumption; I believe the suspicion would still exist. It is the aftermath and criticism of the Waco siege itself that tempers actions now.
We all agree that keeping thirteen children half-starved in a shack with some chained to their beds is no longer simply exercising one's freedom of religion, but is homeschooling abuse? Is corporal punishment abuse? The questions get complicated pretty quickly.
For the most port, the government has given the benefit of the doubt to the religious organizations. Scientology is a good example of a modern day American cult who engages in psychological techniques and even imprisonment of its disobedient members that the government has not interfered with.
Sociological cult leaders will use religion simply because it is easier to talk of mysteries where they can give their “inside knowledge” that gullible people will accept. Even Hitler used religion as a motivator.
For more on the making of a religious cult, see my articles: