Saturday, February 09, 2008

The Fruits of False Prophets

Joseph Smith and David Koresh: Two very similar men seperated by 150 years.

A comparison that has interested me for some time is the eerie relationship between mormon founder Joseph Smith and Branch Davidian David Koresh. America has long been a breeding ground for cults and megalomaniac religious leaders. One of the hallmarks of American society is the open and free expression of religion, and that freedom has led to both wonderful fruit and at the same time cults and heretical movements. All cult leaders have common features, but Smith and Koresh really interest me, in part because of my former life in mormonism and a clear recollection of Waco, and also because they seem so much more similar than other cult group leaders. I am certainly not the first person to note this comparison, The Watchman Expositor addressed this very topic years ago, and while it is pretty brief, it does describe a good overview of the similarities between these two self-proclaimed "prophets"

Claims to a prophetic mantle

Both Smith and Koresh claimed to have unique status as a prophet, with a status that is normally reserved for Biblical prophets. They used their forceful personalities and personal charisma to attract followers into their cults by appealing to their general disaffection with existing churches. Both men cultivated an "us versus them", true believer versus apostate dichotomy that further cemented their followers dependence on them. Like all cults, anyone who questioned the cult or it's leader was a threat and was to be shunned. Both cult leaders sought to place themselves between their followers and the rest of the world, and that division led to many of their deaths.

Sexual preoccupation and polygamy

Another common thread is the use of their prophetic authority to engage in polygamy. Smith and several of his successors were notorious for the polygamous practices, in Smith's case with as many as a dozen (or more) other women, including teens as young as 14. Koresh is described as: "never thought above his belt buckle", and was "married" to as many as 19 women. Like Smith, it is reported that Koresh had relations with young girls, at least one of which was only 12 years old. I am not sure if they both used the idea of being a prophet as a way to obtain women or if it developed afterwards.

Obsession with martyrdom
It is no coincidence that both men saw their lives end in bloodshed. They both had an apparent obsession with being martyrs, Smith showing up at a jail where he knew he was likely to be at least roughed up by mobs and Koresh engaging in a gun battle with the Feds that was going to end up with his people dead. Koresh could have ended the standoff at any time by surrendering but instead chose death in a fiery conflagration.

Paranoia toward the government and outsiders leading to isolation

The Branch Davidians, living when they did, could not form a whole community like Nauvoo but their isolated compound in Waco was as close as you could get. With limited contact and complete reliance on Koresh, it became easier to cultivate a paranoia toward the government. Smith went even further, creating in Nauvoo, IL his own city with it's own militia force and Smith declaring himself to be a "general". For both men, isolation from the general society allowed them to control their followers and practice polygamy relatively unopposed.

Had Joseph Smith lived in modern times, he very well could have turned out like Koresh and had Koresh been born 150 years earlier, I could very easily see him starting a movement similar to mormonism. Both men put themselves before their followers, used them and led many to an early death. False teachers and prophets will always be with us, which is why staying grounded in the Word is so important.


Anonymous said...

That is definitely interesting to see the parallels and how similar cults are.

Do you think it is harder today to begin such a religion? It seems that modern skepticism and such widespread knowledge that is available would prevent another blatantly false religion from taking such a foothold.

Arthur Sido said...

False religion still finds fertile ground, in the religion of secular humanism and in cults that take advantage of people (like Harold Camping and Fred Phelps in Topeka, Kansas). In some ways people in churches are more susceptible than ever because they are so Biblically illiterate. Waco was only a few years ago. Warren Jeffs and the fundamentalist mormon sects in Southern Utah still flourish. Mormonism and Jehovah's Witnesses are seeing great success overseas in Africa and South America. Plenty of false teachers exists and thanks to technology they may actually have an easier time reaching susceptible people.