Sad to say, maybe it would have been better in the long run if God had called the Branch Davidians home that lovely April afternoon of 1959.
There were thousands of us out there at Mount Carmel that Wednesday, April 22. We were under a big colorful circus tent (appropriately), listening to an earnest young man explain why that was the End of the World Day. Seems that the countdown to Armageddon had started on Nov. 9, 1955, and lasted 1,260 days to that particular afternoon.
I was there in the line of duty, a nosy reporter, and a bit shaky to tell the truth. For one thing, almost everybody else there had on a neat white robe. I sort of stood out in my cheap suit.
Also, having been a student of history’s end-of-the-world movements, I was semiconfident that this one, too, would pass. But I never scoff at anybody else’s peaceable beliefs, and I am not positively certain that my fellow Methodists and I have a monopoly on religious sanity.
When the appointed (or anointed) hour came that afternoon in 1959, somewhere between 3 p.m. and dark, it was a bit pitiful to view the massive, collective disappointment. Of the thousands there, more or less, only one of them was relieved. Me.
Among those in attendance was Benjamin Roden, who had hurried back from Jerusalem with about 20 followers. Roden said that the Davidians at Mount Carmel had miscalculated by a year — that it would be 1960 when the Kingdom of Christ would come.
I soon learned it was a waste of time trying to convince these folks there was something wrong with their arithmetic, if not their theology. They had an implacable faith. They would argue that the end of the world did come (or start) and only the true believers were aware of it. Or that the calendar had been juggled by infidels. Or that God had changed his mind. (Sound familiar?)
It’s sad, and scary, how much the Branch Davidians now in the news have changed from the gentle ones I first met at the original Mount Carmel on a rocky hill overlooking Lake Waco in 1948.
A mysterious little Bulgarian (he said) and a few followers had started the colony in 1935 after breaking away from the Seventh-day Adventists. Victor Houteff quietly pointed out that most of the “major” religions were started by men who broke away from the “established” church — John Wesley, Martin Luther, John Knox, etc.
They had tried to withdraw from the sinful world much as possible, with fences and locked gates. I finally persuaded Houteff to let me visit, with a dose of my inimitable charm and biblical knowledge, and by telling him that people were spreading stories about nudism, sex, counterfeiting and underground tunnels at his place.
It was amazing how they had converted the barren hill into a lush oasis of orchards and gardens. They had many nice buildings — a school, dormitories, cannery, dairy and a printing press that sent tons of brochures around the world. Houteff said they cellars for food storage and a storm cellar. Of course, there wasn’t a weapon in sight.
The men and women wore rustic clothing, were barefooted, and very polite — all addressed me as thee or thou.
The Bro. Houteff went the way of all flesh in February, 1955, and it has been downhill for the Davidians since. He was the prophet Elijah, he explained quietly. After his death his wife tried to be Elijah, but the elders had the chauvinistic idea that Elijah ought to be a man. The ensuing power struggle brought on the Rodens, Howell and bloodshed.
Too bad, perhaps, that their arithmetic hadn’t been better, and that April 22, 1959, was indeed The Day. In all honesty, at the time I was glad they missed it. My cynical editor on the Dallas Morning News had refused to provide me a white robe.