If the book of Exodus is pure Cecil B. DeMille, Revelation is Stephen Spielberg or George Lucas — full of spectacular special effects.
To read it is to hear angels’ trumpets, to feel stomach-churning revulsion at rivers flowing with blood, to shake with the trembling earth, and to smell the acrid sulfur smoke coming from the mouths of horses sent to destroy a third of mankind.
These visions of apocalypse and the rise of the New Jerusalem are believed to have been set down by a Christian prophet names John, who was in exile on the Aegean island of Patmos during the persecution of Christians by the Roman Empire.
On this book, Vernon Howell based his claim to divinity.
Howell’s interest in end-times was not unusual. The fascination among Christians with such prophecies is so widespread that its study has its own name: Eschatology.
For most Christian groups, eschatology is a part of a larger theology that also emphasized salvation and social ministry, these other more dominant matters of faith and practice are largely rooted in the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, which describe Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, and from the apostle Paul’s instructions to the early church contained in the epistles.
What made Howell different — so different that his thinking was hardly recognizable as “Christian” — was his obsession with the last book of the New Testament. According to former followers, his studies came almost exclusively from Revelation and the Old Testament, making references only to isolated verses of prophecy in the gospels and Paul’s letters.
“The whole movement was focused on the end of the world,” said Mark Breault, who was part of the community from 1986 until 1989. “Nothing else was really that important.”
Except for prophetic passages, the New Testament had become obsolete, in Howell’s view, “because no one was living up to it,” Breault said. “God knew that and put into place the solution — which was him.”
To signify his role as God’s anointed, Vernon Howell changed his name to David Koresh — David for the Hebrew King and Koresh for King Cyrus.
“He claimed he had died and been resurrected,” said Breault. “The old Vernon had died, The New David was pure God.”
In a house he owned in California, sometimes sitting on the floor or in a chair and playing with his feet or with his hair, Howell taught his followers. He would teach for several minutes or several hours, just reading the bible and telling stories, recalls Robert Scott, a former follower now living in Colorado, in a statement prepared for the Watchman Fellowship, a Birmingham-based evangelical cult-watch group.
Howell’s teachings have many inconsistencies, according to Craig Branch, head of Watchman Fellowship.
“He flipflopped between two prophecies,” said Branch, who has counseled with former members of Howell’s group.
On the one hand, former followers say, he told them they must be martyred to bring about the kingdom. But he also told them of the Rapture, as described in I Thessalonians 4:16-17 and 2 Peter 3:5-13.
Thessalonians describes it this way: “For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the arch-angle’s call and with the sound of God’s trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord forever.”
In the moments beginning the conflagration at the compound, Howell’s followers may have relied on being raptured, Branch Davidians.
Despite their faith in Howell, few of his followers understood his teachings, said Rick Ross, a Phoenix-based cult deprogrammer who has counseled former members and who acted as adviser to the FBI during the standoff.
“When I would talk to members and say, ‘What is the message?’ they would remember bits and pieces of Scripture,” he said, but eventually all would tell him, “You have to talk to David. Only he can explain.”
Ross resents any attempt to dignify Howell’s teaching.
“To call it a theology is disrespectful to theologians and clergy everywhere, and quite frankly disrespectful to the Bible,” he said.