March is turning out to be a cruel month for some of America’s newer religions.

Ever since Vernon Howell and his Branch Davidians erupted in a bloody clash with federal agents in Waco, Texas, otherwise peaceful groups outside the Judeo-Christian mainstream have felt the sting of public suspicion. In some cases, the dread label “cult” (read: mind-control, authoritarianism and assorted antisocial activities) has been tossed at them.

What we’re seeing, in the opinion of Elizabeth Clare Prophet, is a repeat of the Diocletian persecution, which claimed the lives of thousands of 4th century Christians. History is a subject she is comfortable with, having lived, by her account, “any number” of past lives.

Prophet, 54 is the spiritual leader of the Church Universal and Triumphant. Based in the aptly named Paradise Valley, Mont., the church is a New Age sect with an international following. In several recent national television and news magazines stories, it has been featured right alongside the Howell group.

“I don’t deserve that,” Prophet said in an interview in Washington this week. She said she has “preached against violence for 32 years.” Yet despite this record, she said, the church is being bad-mouthed by professional anti-cultists and many reporters.

Indeed, the media often have focused heavily on two sensational aspects of the church’s recent history: the construction of elaborate bomb shelters on the church’s vast holdings next to Yellowstone National Park and the arrest four years ago of Prophet’s fourth husband, Ed Francis, on charges of violating federal weapons laws in trying to buy guns.

Negative impressions

Filtered through such reports, the church’s public image is often spooky. “It was only after spending time with them that I was able to let go of those (negative) impressions,” said James R. Lewis, a senior research associate at the Institute for the Study of American Religious in Santa Barbara, Calif.

Prophet said that if she could speak to Howell, “I would say, ‘Put up your arms and trust the justice system.’” She said she believes his resistance to federal agents is “absolutely wrong. But Dave Koresh is an enigma to me. I don’t know how anyone can say they are Jesus Christ because Jesus Christ lived and died 2,000 years ago.”

But what about her church’s bomb shelters? Church officials say they believe in preparing for the worst, just in case. “We’re in a period of the return of karma,” Prophet said, meaning that the spiritual fruit of long-ago human deeds is coming back to haunt the planet. She finds the war in Bosnia a prime example.

Salvation by works

The essence of her teaching, she said, is simple: “Our true doctrine is divine love. Nothing else matters when it comes to the salvation of the soul. If you live a life of loving people and helping good causes, you have a far better chance of being saved than if you just accept a salvation on faith without works.”

Such a statement can set some Christians’ teeth on edge, which helps explain why Prophet feels that established churches are often hostile to her.

“Jesus was constantly teaching that salvation comes from believing in Him,” said Ron Rhodes, associate editor of the Christian Research Journal in San Juan Capistrano, Calif.

“Anything that comes close to a works-oriented salvation crosses the line from orthodox Christianity.” He called Prophet’s teachings a “counterfeit gospel.”

But Prophet contends that her past-life experiences allow her to see the similarity in all the world’s religions: The ultimate goal is personal union with God. “In my lifetimes, I’ve basically been involved in the religions of time,” she said. “This is my reason for being over and over again.”

Read the Tribune-Herald's 7-part investigative series on the inner workings of the Branch Davidians. Hours after Part 2 appeared in print, the ATF raided the group's compound.

Read the Tribune-Herald’s account of the ATF raid on the Branch Davidian compound on Feb. 28, 1993. Four ATF agents and six in the compound were killed in the gunfight.

Read the daily news accounts of the 51-day siege at the Branch Davidian compound near Elk, which began Feb. 28 and lasted until April.

April 19 and beyond: FBI agents began inserting canisters of tear gas into the Branch Davidian compound in the early morning hours. By noon, it was on fire.

Federal officials left the compound site in late May 1993. As identifications of bodies continued, questions about the survivors, the compound and the cult itself began to emerge.

As the world began to take a critical look back at the events and legal proceedings continue, the ATF's bombshell report forces a shakeup at the top after the raid gone "tragically wrong."

In 1994, the surviving Davidians went on trial in San Antonio. Over six weeks, more than 140 witnesses testified, with the verdict coming just two days prior to the anniversary of the ATF raid.

The Rodenville shootout and the 1988 trial, the end of the world in 1959 and more stories from deep in the Trib archives.