Twenty-one years ago, on April 19, 1993, 76 religious extremists from a Seventh-day Adventist offshoot group known as the Branch Davidians died in the conflagration that ensued when U.S. Government law enforcement sought to seize control of the Davidian’s Mount Carmel compound near Waco, Texas.
Among those who perished on that ill-fated day was Steve Schneider, a friend of mine. How could Steve — or anyone, for that matter — have fallen for the nonsense propagated by Branch Davidian leader David Koresh? The frightening reality is that it may happen more readily than some might think.
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In late August 1972, I flew to London, en route to what turned out to be three years of study at Newbold College. With directions to the college in hand, I exited Heathrow Airport.
“Where might I find the bus to Reading?” I asked a uniformed man standing near a rank of buses. As the man pointed toward the correct bus, an immaculately and stylishly dressed American with long blond hair approached me.
“Would you by any chance be going to Newbold College?” he asked. I said I was. He said he was too. We got on the bus together. And on the trip to Newbold, I got the CliffsNotes version of the life of Steve Schneider, as it had been lived to date.
Steve, raised in an Adventist home, had slipped from the Adventist track but was trying to get back on course. He was searching. Adventism hadn’t scratched where it itched. But neither had the more libertine life to which he’d turned. So he was trying to find a spiritual formula that worked. And it wasn’t easy. I came to know Steve quite well over the next few months.
Recidivism is high when it comes to bad practices once engaged in. Steve relapsed, which ended his sojourn at Newbold. But his relapse didn’t stop his struggle or his search. There had to be something better. And he was determined to find it.
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Another friend and contemporary at Newbold, Aage Rendalen, has described (see his comment under this article) Steve’s enthusiastic promotion around Andrews University of John Todd’s fanciful claims about the Illuminati, the Masons, the occult and just about every other shadowy entity known to humanity.
Steve was by no means the sole Adventist aficionado of John Todd. Tapes of Todd’s presentations swept through Adventism on several continents — because conspiracy is a major spiritual food group for Seventh-day Adventists. And it has been since our denomination’s inception.
I was youth pastor at Avondale Memorial Church in Australia in the latter 1970s when John Todd made his big splash. An Adventist businessman brought me a Todd tape and asked me to come to his home to discuss its contents with a group of 20 or 30 young adults who regularly met there. I listened to the tape, quickly pegging Todd’s story as a fanciful yarn.
When I met with the group, I pointed out several discrepancies and warning flags within the presentation itself. I didn’t even need to do further research to be convinced it was a hoax. That wasn’t what they’d wanted to hear, though. They’d wanted to have the flames of conspiracy, danger and alarm fanned to even greater heat.
When I took time to write my observations for the weekly church magazine of the South Pacific Division, I discovered that Adventists desperately want to believe conspiracies and don’t appreciate having them debunked. So debunkers actually become part of the conspiracy. Even when John Todd confessed that he’d made it up, there were still some who believed his mea culpa was forcibly extracted from him by death threats from the Illuminati as it tried to cover its tracks and undo the damage he had done. Thus the conspiracy grew even more compelling for some.
When in the latter 1980s I was editor of the South Pacific Division’s weekly magazine, I tried to make it a publication that was more open to the entire spectrum of Adventist thought, including hard-line traditionalism as well as progressivism. Because I was clearly seeking to effect change, I was suspect in the eyes of some. I remember receiving a letter that said: “Will you please answer with a simple Yes or No: Are you on the payroll of the Vatican?” It was but one of several letters of that genre. The Jesuit-infiltration-of-Adventism mythology is still as alive and well today as it was then — and as it had been for decades before that.
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The idea of men giving their wives to David Koresh as consorts is mind-boggling to most onlookers. But, really, only two things were necessary.
First was absolute belief in Koresh’s prophetic and divinely commissioned role. Once a person believes strongly that someone is a prophet, almost any evidence to the contrary will be rationalized away or perceived as a devil-inspired attack. History is replete with examples.
Second, Koresh needed an explanation that would make rationalization relatively easy. He had to have a plausible reason why sexual dalliance was necessary, appropriate and, indeed, the highest of all spiritual honors.
I’ve read from Branch Davidians themselves that Koresh’s stated rationale for having sex with many of the women on the compound wasn’t about sex for pleasure. Or sex per se. Rather, it was specifically to produce children with the right DNA to fulfill “Bible prophecy” and play a divinely ordained role.
Writer-philosopher Eric Hoffer has observed: “Both absolute power and absolute faith are instruments of dehumanization. Hence absolute faith corrupts as absolutely as absolute power.”
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When I graduated from Newbold College with a degree in theology, my parents crossed the Atlantic to attend my graduation and take a trip around Europe and Britain with my fiancee (now my wife) and me. My father, who was highly interested in our Coffin family history, was excited about seeing the places at which our English ancestors originated. The trip was a high point of his life. He’d approached it with eager anticipation, and he didn’t want to miss anything.
In South Devon is a little wide spot in the road called Coffinswell. My father was looking forward to going there to discover what role some ancestor might have played that led to the unusual name for the village. We found accommodation nearby, and I inquired from some of the locals about the origin of the name. They told me the vicar was highly knowledgeable about local history. So I phoned to see if he’d be willing to meet with us.
The vicar, a gracious and hospitable man, said he’d be delighted to share his knowledge. “Meet me at 10:00 am tomorrow, and I’ll tell you all I know while we have a cup or two of tea,” he said. I relayed his message to my father. The news was extremely disconcerting to him: The vicar had said he would give us tea!
You see, Ellen G. White, whose every word my father accepted as having come straight from God, didn’t encourage mere moderation in the consumption of tea and coffee, she called for absolute abstinence, stating clearly and unambiguously that “tea acts as a stimulant and, to a certain extent, produces intoxication” (Counsels for the Church, p. 104).
“The drunkard sells his reason for a cup of poison,” she said. “Satan takes control of his reason, affections, conscience. Such a man is destroying the temple of God. Tea drinking helps to do this same work” (Temperance, p. 142).
“Opium, tea, coffee, tobacco, and liquor are rapidly extinguishing the spark of vitality still left in the race” (Christian Temperance and Bible Hygiene, p. 36).
“Satan is taking the world captive through the use of liquor and tobacco, tea and coffee. The God-given mind, which should be kept clear, is perverted by the use of narcotics. The brain is no longer able to distinguish correctly. The enemy has control. Man has sold his reason for that which makes him mad. He has no sense of what is right (Counsels for the Church, p. 101).
She said we should “never take tea, coffee, beer, wine, or any spirituous liquor” (Counsels on Diet and Foods, p. 420), placing all the foregoing substances on the same plane of prohibition and declaring that we “should touch not, taste not, handle not, tea, coffee, wines, tobacco, opium, and alcoholic drinks” (Christian Temperance and Bible Hygiene, p. 35).
“By the use of tea and coffee, an appetite is formed for tobacco,” she said, “and this encourages the appetite for liquors” (Counsels on Diet and Foods, p. 233).
“When these tea and coffee users meet together for social entertainment, the effects of their pernicious habit are manifest” (Counsels on Diet and Foods, p. 423). In other words, you can tell who indulges just by looking at them. “Tea and coffee drinkers carry the marks upon their faces. The skin becomes sallow and assumes a lifeless appearance” (Counsels on Diet and Foods, p. 421).
“The sins of the parents, through perverted appetite, are with fearful power visited upon the children to the third and fourth generations. The bad eating of many generations, the gluttonous and self-indulgent habits of the people, are filling our poorhouses, our prisons, and our insane asylums. Intemperance, in drinking tea and coffee, wine, beer, rum, and brandy, and the use of tobacco, opium, and other narcotics, has resulted in great mental and physical degeneracy, and this degeneracy is constantly increasing” (Counsels on Health, p. 49).
More important than all the foregoing, though, Ellen White declared: “Tea and coffee drinking is a sin, an injurious indulgence, which, like other evils, injures the soul” (Counsels on Diet and Foods, p. 425). A search of Ellen G. White’s complete writings for “tea and coffee” will bring up all the statements shared here and many, many more.
Since it was my father’s intense desire to be among that last generation before the coming of Jesus who would no longer be sinning and who would be taken to heaven without seeing death, and since he knew Ellen White’s pronouncements about tea and coffee, the vicar’s words were indeed disconcerting.
Unable to envision any way that he might meet with the vicar and graciously refuse to drink the tea — the cup of iniquity — that would inevitably be placed before him, he had me phone to let the vicar know that we were most grateful for his willingness to visit with us, but our plans had changed unexpectedly, and we weren’t going to be able to keep the appointment. It was a bitter blow for my father to miss out on such a potentially rich trove of family history. But it was a spiritually essential sacrifice. Granted his presuppositions and allegiances, he really had no choice.
Absolute belief in a prophet gives the prophet nearly absolute control over the believer. Whether the prophet is true or false isn’t the issue. What counts is the perception the believer has of the prophet and the prophet’s pronouncements. Belief begets obedience. Intense belief begets slavish obedience. Unshakable belief begets a willingness to die rather than ignore the prophet’s declarations.
As for my father’s being taken to heaven without seeing death because he’d finally begun living without sin, that didn’t happen. And the recognition that he hadn’t achieved perfection, after 80-some years of desperately trying, haunted him. Tormented him, I should say. By the time he died, his mind was more or less gone because of Alzheimer’s. But during his final periods of intermittent lucidity, his health failing and his quality of life non-existent, he told me that if he just knew he’d be saved, he’d be happy to simply go to sleep in death.
Tragically, he didn’t have any certainty that God had forgiven him. And he was panicked by the possibility that he might have even one unconfessed sin still staining his record. The prophet — who he believed with all his heart, body, mind and soul — said, “We cannot meet Christ in peace with one sin unrepented of, unconfessed, and unforsaken” (Review and Herald, March 17, 1891).
The bar was high. So high that my father felt salvation was a long shot, at best. After all, the prophet had said that “that not one in twenty whose names are registered upon the church books are prepared to close their earthly history, and would be as verily without God and without hope in the world as the common sinner” (Christian Service, p. 41). My father’s lack of hope was despite his life-long heroic efforts to live as God, through the prophet, had prescribed.
For the true believer, the prophet is never wrong. No problem or inconsistency or absurdity or overstatement is ever to be blamed on the prophet. The problem always lies in what the believer assumes is his or her own flawed understanding, imperfect faith or lack of spiritual fortitude.
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My guess is that, rather than having seriously entertained the possibility of gross error, or delusion, or charlatanism, or opportunism, or selfishness, or plain old sexual exploitation — or all of the above — on the part of “prophet” David Koresh, Steve Schneider would have viewed as spiritual weakness on his own part any qualms he might have had about handing over his wife to David Koresh for such a spiritually significant — albeit sexual — purpose (as allegedly happened).
There’s a sobering amount of truth in Voltaire’s statement that “those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.” Certainly, a lot of believers in absurdities never reach the point of committing atrocities — at least not of the nature or magnitude of those perpetrated by David Koresh. But it’s equally true that few atrocities have been committed by people who weren’t first believers in a considerable amount of absurdity.
Before his retirement from Seventh-day Adventist Church employment in 2011, James Coffin served for nearly 36 years as a youth pastor, pastor and editor.
Image: Steve Schneider pictured in the Newbold yearbook Crossroads in 1973, courtesy of the author.