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Book reviews >

The Branch Davidians: The history and beliefs of an apocalyptic sect

OUP 30 (0-19-924574-6); Church Times Bookshop 27Preparing for the furnace: Martyn Percy on how scripture-decoders moveon to disasterACCORDING to one wag, "Waco" was always a mnemonic for "We ain't comin' out For many who remember the fiery holocaust of 1993 - the pictures of the BrancDavidian compound (known as Mount Carmel) going up in smoke were screenearound the world - the name of David Koresh has become synonymous with thworst kind of new religious movement. His followers form a chapter in a litanof tragedy and farce - Jonestown, Aum Shinrikyo, and Heaven's Gate.To his great credit, Kenneth Newport has produced a readable, careful, anmeticulous survey of the Branch Davidians and their apoca-lyptic beliefs. Thelived and breathed the book of Revelation.  Koresh emerged as the leadeof a community that had spent decades trying to decode scripture, applyintheir findings to their community life, and discerning the "signs of the timesin these "last days". Their methods of exegesis were, simultaneously, crude and complex; radicaand fundamentalistic; refreshing and repressive.Newport traces the ancestry of the movement to a disenchanted Seventh DaAdventist, Victor Houteff, a mediocre salesman who became fascinated bprophecy, the restoration of the Kingdom of God through a pure (and separatedChurch, and the return of Christ. The movement evolved, somewhat haphazardlythrough successive leaders, until Vernon Howell took on the mantle of ProphetIt was he who was to change his name to David Koresh and perish with 74 otherin the flames of Waco, after the ATF and other US government agencies had laisiege to the compound for 53 days. A further ten people had died on the firsday of the assault.Fathoming the theological structure of reality in a new reli-gious movemencan be a delicate task, especially when the evidence is scarce, contested, anoccasionally contrary. Scholars have to proceed with care, combining thpatient wisdom of archaeology with anthropology and ethnography. Newport'achievement is to piece together an empathetic and yet critical portrait of aapocalyptic sect that believed the Messiah had come. Its members thought thathey would probably perish in a consuming fire (but would be resurrected tmarch on and destroy all apostate and evil forces), and would therefore need stash of weapons for the struggle.Koresh believed that he was the new David (literally his "branch"), and thnew Messiah, who must sire 24 elders (those seated round the throne: Revelatio4.4). He therefore required several women, and even "borrowed" the wives ocommunity members (the "New Light" doctrine), a development that his followerseem to have generally approved. Newport's account closes with a sober and suspicious assessment of thBranch Davidians.  Some still believe that Koresh will return; othersthat a new prophet will arise. The faith of those who remain seems unshakeableOne of the few who escaped Waco says: "the agents told us to get up and run [tsafety]. . . medics bandaged my badly burnt arm, and I was then taken to thATF headquarters. . . A Texas Ranger asked me if I thought Koresh was the Lamof God. I simply replied 'read Revelation chapters four and five.' "Therein lies the warning.  In a community that imagines that it simplsubmits itself to scripture, it is the interpreters who reign.Canon Professor Martyn Percy is Principal of Ripon College, Cuddesdon.To order this book, email the details to

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