In 1978, I took a cults class from James Leo Garrett at Baylor University in Waco, Texas. After several weeks of lecture, Garrett announced that the best way to explain a cult was to visit one.
His field trip of choice was a unique religious offshoot of the Seventh Day Adventist Church called “The Branch.”
On the morning of the visit, he offered some “preflight” instructions. Garret told us that Ben and Lois Roden managed the group, but Ben’s recent death had left the group a bit volatile. Garrett noted that we could question the faction, but we should avoid any debates.
“Why?” we asked.
Well, it turns out that the group was known to carry firearms, BUT if we were careful not to agitate them, he didn’t think they’d pose any danger. (It’s been my experience that it’s best to disregard what precedes that conjunction.)
We found the “cult” occupying a farmhouse on the outskirts of Waco, in the Czechoslovakian community of West, Texas. The rustic house reminded me much of my grandmother’s house, located only a few miles away.
Lois Roden met us on the front porch and seemed every bit as hospitable as my grandmother. Garrett introduced each of us by name, and Lois directed 22 reluctant students into her living room where her son, George, a 40-ish bearded man in a Stetson, had readied a standing-room-only presentation.
A few minutes later, someone dimmed the lights, and for the next hour, we stood watching overhead-projector images of charts, timelines and documents that predicted the immediate return of Jesus.
When the lighting returned, most of us were rubbing our eyes, only half awake. The lecture felt long enough for Jesus to have come and left. Nevertheless, a few of us pitched some politely soft questions, keeping in mind Garrett’s instructions to remain demure.
However, Garrett seemed disappointed with our soft interrogatives and began modeling aggressive questioning. The Rodens responded with lengthy and loud retorts, but they were decidedly outgunned by our Princeton and Harvard-educated professor.
When several of us looked at our watches and started sliding our backs against the wall and toward the door, Garrett took our hint and expressed our good-byes.
Back in the safety of our campus, Garrett reviewed lessons learned, some of which I still remember.
First, we have to be careful with labels. “Cult” is a loaded term we often use to brand someone with whom we disagree. You may recall that a few presidential candidates got in trouble when they used that label for Mormonism.
The term is best reserved for dangerous and mind-controlling groups. I have an Episcopalian friend who often jokes that Baylor is a Baptist cult. Either way, the term reveals the slanted opinion of the beholder.
Second, the verse most of us failed to quote that day was Proverbs 15:1: “A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.” The hard questions expressed by the professor on our behalf were likely seen as an effort of theological pruning. Furthermore, our yawning student faces showed little regard for our disenfranchised hosts who were struggling to understand their faith. We saw them only as check marks in our homework folder.
Finally, lest you think these lessons irrelevant because you’ve never heard of the The Branch, the Rodens, or Vernon Howell, the leader who would assume control of the cult, you should know that they all changed their names.
The names you’ll likely remember were those on their 1993 ATF arrest warrant: Branch Davidians, and David Koresh, AKA Vernon Howell.
Norris Burkes works as a chaplain for both the Sacramento VA Hospital and the Air National Guard.