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Book Review - Prophets of the Apocalypse

This article is an electronic version of an article originally published in Cultic Studies Journal, 1996, Volume 13, Number 1, pages 108-112. Please keep in mind that the pagination of this electronic reprint differs from that of the bound volume. This fact could affect how you enter bibliographic information in papers that you may write.

Book Review - Prophets of the Apocalypse: David Koresh and Other American Messiahs. 

Kenneth R. Samples, Erwin M. de Castro, Richard Abanes, & Robert J. Lyle. Baker Books, Grand Rapids, MI, 1994, 222 pages.

The authors' stated goal is to present information about David Koresh and the Branch Davidians and to show readers the dangers of religious cults that "overemphasize subjective religious experience, spiritualize issues to justify their actions, make confusing and inflated promises of fellowship, manipulate through emotion rather than substance, and encourage others to 'just believe' rather than think critically." This they have done and a lot more.

The book begins with a very successful attempt to describe and offer explanations for the seemingly incomprehensible behavior and beliefs of David Koresh and his followers. It concludes by anticipating readers' questions about the historical origins of this group and how it and other American-based cults can be placed in the larger social context of American culture. The 70-page appendix is also worthy of attention. This book has a lot going for it. It covers an enormous amount of territory in a language that is free of academic jargon and thus easy to read. It is also impressive in its ability to discuss immoral, unethical, and violent acts in a manner that does not sensationalize. This in itself is praiseworthy.

By examining the life and personality of David Koresh, this book admirably succeeds in helping us understand both Koresh's desire, and his subsequent ability, to take over the leadership of a Branch Davidian group. We watch him create a renewed sense of purpose in the members and gradually go on to create what appears to be the textbook cultic conditions which could and ultimately did lead to the devastating suicidemurders of cult followers and their leaders, this time outside of Waco, Texas, in 1993.

The book's power lies in the authors' choice to describe Koresh's group at the micro rather than macro level. We are given concrete events and individual anecdotes gathered by the authors through indepth interviews with survivors and through quotes from Koresh's speeches. This encourages the reader to get inside the minds and hearts of particular individuals within the group and we slowly begin to understand on a visceral level how one could be seduced and manipulated into such an extreme cultic relationship with a leader. We feel the pressure and the control; we experience the abuse and the fear; but like Koresh's victims we also experience the attraction and the appeal of Koresh, of his charisma, and of the community spirit of the group. This book is a testament to the idea that to understand the most bizarre cultic behavior one must not begin by examining the end result but rather begin at the beginning and understand the gradual, progressive changes in members' relationship to each other and to their leader. Reading this book, you can feel their developing dependence, the slow undermining of critical facilities, the progressive erosion of self-preservation instincts, the evolving transformation of individuals from seekers of a more healthy and charitable Christian life to those capable of child abuse, sexual exploitation, and violence to please a leader and adhere to his doctrine.

To the credit of the authors, the reader is also introduced to the development of the personality of a cult leader. We watch a young man named Vernon Wayne Howell who in searching for answers becomes David Koresh and develops into a dogmatic, power-hungry, egotistical demagogue, incapable of accepting any negative feedback about his decisions and thus able to act unchecked on his perversions.

For those familiar with the socialpsychological dynamics that produced Jim Jones and Jonestown, the resemblance is uncannily eerie. Although the origins of the Peoples Temple and the Branch Davidians were different, the perverted dynamics of cultic power were identical and produced similar results. Jones's group originated with him, while Koresh took over a previously formed rather complacent group from the leadership of an older woman whom he seduced. Through the use of mind-control techniques, he then revitalized the group's energy by creating the now-familiar dynamics of elitism and end-time fantasies. Koresh claimed an adolescent girl as a wife, moving on to bigamy, then to polygamy, and, again reminiscent of Jones, ultimately declaring the marriages of his followers a sin and all women as his. One cannot but be struck by the almost cookie-cutter mold from which the most destructive cult leaders tend to come and the similar power-hungry, unethical, immoral choices they make, unleashing their perversions on their followers and creating doctrines to justify such abusive behavior.

All elements common to extremist cults are revealed to have been present in Koresh's group including resistance by followers to his outrageous demands. But, in predictable cultic fashion, the resultant threats and creation of fears in members discouraged further vocalization of such criticisms and undermined desires to act on such thoughts. Fortunately these stories by survivors bear testament to the fact that mind control is never total. Thus, as a result of inner soul searching and often with the help of outsiders, many Davidians succeeded in breaking away from the control of Koresh. It is their stories that form the content of this part of the book.

The second part of the book is a fascinating overview of the roots of the Branch Davidians. We are led through relevant American religious history, beginning with William Millers's Millerites in the early 1800s. Miller's erroneous prediction of the end of the world on October 22, 1844, caused disillusioned followers to leave and many splinter groups to form. Some of these coalesced into the Seventh Day Adventists in 1860, with Ellen G. White as their unofficial leader. After her death in 1915, her legacy of the "spirit of prophecy" was maintained by Victor Tasho Houteff. He broke from the Seventh Day Adventists and formed the Davidian Seventh Day Adventists, who set themselves up in Mt. Carmel outside of Waco, Texas. Upon Houteff's death in 1955, the mantle of prophetic leadership was donned by his wife who claimed the end of the world would occur on April 22, 1959. Once again, after the failed prophecy, disillusioned members split into splinter groups; and the one that remained at Mt. Carmel, led by Benjamin Roden, became known as the Branch Davidians. When Roden died in 1978, his wife assumed leadership until a visit by Koresh, who claimed the spirit of prophecy lived on in him as their final prophet.

The authors use this history of American religious "end-time and prophetic groups" to link the development of cultism to idiosyncracies within American culture. (In addition to the Seventh Day Adventists, we are also given short introductions to other American cults and movements, including the Mormons, the Jehovah's Witnesses, Children of God, Church Universal & Triumphant, and the Christian Identity Movement.) Cults are seen to be the product of an American emphasis on religious tolerance and religious experimentation. American pragmatism is linked to the cultic desire for perfectionism and belief that an individual can struggle and rise to the top. The availability of vast land for settlement in the new America is also seen as permitting the establishment of utopian communities from which cultic exploitative leadership could flourish. This part of the authors' analysis is less successful in that it depends on ignoring the facts and the reasons behind the development of numerous nonAmerican-based cults in other cultures. Despite the incomplete analysis, the information present here is worthy of consideration. The final chapter does a balanced job of presenting three views of cults from the differing perspectives of the sociologists (represented by James Richardson), the Christian theologians, and the secular anticult movement (represented by Michael Langone). Brief and to the point, the differences are noted from a position of neutrality. The authors urge readers and those who debate cultism to recognize the different definitions in contemporary usage and to improve successful communication by making explicit which definition is being used by a speaker.

A book review does not often cover the appendix, but this book's appendix section constitutes almost a third of the book, and includes a 10-page extensive bibliography and three appendixes. Appendix A is a condensed chronological history of the Branch Davidians from 1782 to the present. Appendix B, which consists of the transcripts from the interviews held with "those who personally knew David Koresh," is fascinating reading. It contains interviews with David Koresh's mother and father, church elders of the Seventh Day Adventist church, relatives of those who died during the Waco siege, and quite gripping discussions with ex-Branch Davidians.

In six pages Appendix C attempts to examine the controversy around deprogramming, exit counseling, brainwashing, and mind control. The debate between the ideas of Bromley and Shupe and those of Langone and Lifton are presented. Although the authors refrain from attempting to resolve the debate, they conclude that the existence of dangerous, manipulative influence processes is not debatable and must be countered by education so that people can avoid being exploited. They argue that this type of education is necessary and crucial. This book goes a long way toward contributing to that goal. For the cult novice and the expert alike, Prophets of the Apocalypse should be read and take its place on your bookshelf.

Linda James, M.A.

Professor of Psychology

Vanier College

Montreal, Quebec, Canada

Cultic Studies Journal, Vol. 13, No. 1, 1996