Twenty years ago, on Feb. 28, 1993, a firefight near Waco, Texas, began a weeks-long confrontation between members of the Branch Davidian sect and agents of the federal government. The conflict culminated at the sect’s compound known as Mount Carmel on April 19, with the deaths, as a fire spread through the buildings, of 80 sect members, including 20 children.
Looking over the span of American history, we must be struck by what a radical departure the conflict marked in religious terms. Rather than ask what could have led believers to follow such a bizarre movement, we should see the Davidians as part of a well-established tradition of religious movements in America. It is the ferocity of the official response that still demands explanation.
From the earliest days of British settlement, religious secession has been a fundamental theme of America’s history. Throughout that history, evangelical and apocalyptic ideas have been commonplace, boosted by repeated revivals and spiritual awakenings. Sometimes, religious fervor has spawned new denominations, and often it has driven believers to seek out new territories.
For the most part, these sects were tolerated. In upstate New York, the Oneida community survived for 30 years in the mid-19th century, despite the commune’s unconventional sexual arrangements and the sexual exploitation of teenage girls. In the 20th century, Michigan’s House of David kept going for 50 years despite repeated underage-sex and other scandals. The Theosophical settlement at Point Loma, near San Diego, also lasted for nearly 50 years, as it educated generations of children in esoteric and occult traditions (happily, the group avoided sexual imbroglios). Florida had a colony of flat-earther Koreshans—no relation to David—which persisted from the 1890s through the 1960s.
Read more at The Wall Street Journal. By Philip Jenkins.
Photo credit: cmiked (Creative Commons)