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We Didn’t Start the Fire but the Tinder Was Ours


Editor’s note: This week marks the 30th anniversary of the end of the Waco siege, which saw federal agents attempt to raid the compound of the Branch Davidians, who were led by David Koresh. Eight-two Branch Davidians and four federal agents were killed in total. Seventy-six of the Branch Davidian deaths took place in a fire on April 19, 1993. In the years since, there has been much written about Koresh and the group he led; Seventh-day Adventists have also had to reckon with Branch Davidians’ connections to the Adventist Church. Throughout the rest of this week, we will be looking back on tragedy—and thinking about the lessons learned that still have importance today.

The first issue of the Spectrum journal (Volume 23, Number 1) was dedicated to examining the tragedy and mourning those who were lost, many of whom came Adventist families and communities. Below is the editorial that Roy Branson, longtime editor of Spectrum, wrote to begin the issue.

We Didn’t Start the Fire but the Tinder Was Ours

Until their February shootout with law-enforcement officers, I had never heard of the Branch Davidians. Shepherd's Rods were familiar enough, but who were these people?

Despite the easy familiarity with which denominational spokespersons on network television referred to the church's long-standing problems with "Vernon," the world media has carefully disassociated the Branch Davidian Seventh-day Adventists from Seventh-day Adventists. That is still a relief. We are different. Seventh-day Adventists don't condone stockpiling weapons, drinking in the local bars, or carrying on polygamous marriages.

But then we began to learn more about the people who died at Ranch Apocalypse: sisters in their 20s from an Adventist family in California; a former student at Andrews University; young adults from Australia; several former ministerial students from Newbold College and their lifelong Adventist relatives; a younger brother of an active layman in Sligo church. These were not third-generation children of the Shepherd's Rods. Most estimates now say that 90 percent of those who died at Waco came directly from Seventh-day Adventist churches. This issue explores the extent to which they were us. Koresh set the flame, but we provided many of the materials.

The special section in this issue grapples with questions that will haunt Adventism for some time: How did Adventism contribute to this kind of tragedy, and what do we learn from the experience? Some Seventh-day Adventists no doubt blame immersion in the rock-and-roll culture, while others point to fundamentalist distortion of apocalyptic literature. Both are right.

What should give the greatest pause are the similarities between Koresh and Adventists—what both Koresh and Adventists feel in their bones: salvation arrives quickly, not slowly; God works most clearly in moments of crisis; the remnant's actions are the hinge of history; the majority of society will always remain hostile to the truth; loyalty to God may demand the ultimate sacrifice. Waco was the shadow side of this worldview. Other religious communities have their own darker side. Ours should not frighten us into rejecting everything we shared with Koresh. But it is our responsibility to learn also how not just our weaknesses but our strengths can be powerfully distorted. In this issue some have begun that task.

It will not be easy. During a recent visit to Battle Creek, I listened to a father talk of his son, a successful computer specialist, an active member of the Seventh-day Adventist Church until he joined Koresh in Waco, and a victim of the April 19 inferno. "If that is what religion does," the Adventist father told me, "I'm not sure I want to continue having any part of it."

Some Adventist congregations have already held memorial services; hopefully others will soon do so. Spectrum is not a congregation, but we dedicate this issue to all the families who lost relatives or friends in Waco, and to those whom they continue to remember with deep, unquenchable love.


Further reading on the Waco tragedy:

Apocalyptic—Who Needs It?, May 1993.

Fundamentalism Is a Disease, a Demonic Perversion, May 1993.

Futuristic Highs at Mt. Carmel, May 1993.

One of David’s Mighty Men, May 1993.

The British Connection, May 1993.

Apocalypse at Diamond Head, May 1993.

God, Guns, and Rock ‘n’ Roll, May 1993.

The Making of David Koresh, May 1993.

My Trip to Waco, December 27, 2012

Death of a Branch Davidian Friend and Other Memories, April 19, 2014

Beware of Wolves Disguised as Sheep, June 8, 2017

Paradise Lost in Waco, February 5, 2018

New TV Series Premieres for 25th Anniversary of the Waco Tragedy, January 24, 2018


Roy Branson was the founder of Spectrum and served as its editor for over 20 years. He passed away on July 7, 2015, at the age of 77.

Title image: Two FBI agents rescue Ruth Riddle (29) from the burning Branch Davidian building (public domain). 

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