A Florida Gulf Coast University professor’s research about a little-known religious sect in Southwest Florida is now in the spotlight because of a bombshell discovery. David Koresh, the messianic leader of the Branch Davidians near Waco, Texas, plagiarized his theology from the leader of that Florida sect. Thirty years ago, Koresh and his followers died after a 51-day standoff with the FBI that garnered worldwide coverage. A fire killed 76 followers, including 20 children. Four federal agents were killed in the raid.
Had Koresh’s followers known about the plagiarism, it’s very likely that lives would have been saved, according to Lyn Millner, founder of FGCU’s journalism program.
The discovery of this connection is the topic of a presentation by Millner and Jeff Guinn, author of the newly published “Waco: David Koresh, the Branch Davidians, and a Legacy of Rage.” Millner’s book is “The Allure of Immortality: An American Cult, a Florida Swamp, and a Renegade Prophet.” It tells the story of Cyrus Teed, a self-proclaimed prophet who founded a utopian commune in the Lee County village of Estero in the 1890s.
The event, which coincides with the 30th anniversary of the Waco standoff, begins at 6 p.m. Thursday, March 16, in Room 112 of Edwards Hall. It is free and open to the public, although attendees are asked to RSVP at https://bit.ly/3HD1vik. A book signing will follow.
Millner and Guinn will share their research connecting Teed and David Koresh.
“I had always known the men were theologically related,” said Millner, who added that it had been frustrating to find no firm evidence that David Koresh had known about Teed. There were notable similarities.
“They both believed themselves to be the Lamb who had come to save humanity,” Millner said. “They both believed they were the modern-day incarnation of the Persian king named Cyrus, which is ‘Koresh’ in Hebrew,” she said. “But now we have the proof.”
While conducting research for his book about Waco and David Koresh, whose birthname was Vernon Wayne Howell, Guinn was made aware of a rare book titled “Koreshanity” in the library in Waco. Written in the 1930s by Teed’s followers after his death, “Koreshanity” was republished in the 1970s and was available in only five libraries in the U.S., including Waco’s. “How weird is that?” Millner said.
She and Guinn believe Lois Roden, David Koresh’s predecessor, requested that the Waco library order the book. Roden was grooming Koresh to become the group’s next leader. It’s widely believed that the two had an intimate relationship.
“That book was the smoking gun that told us that David Koresh had copied his theology from Cyrus Teed,” Millner said. “He might not have realized that he had done so. David Koresh was not a big reader. He read the Bible, and that was about it. It may have been through pillow talk that Roden imparted Teed’s philosophy to him.”
After Guinn pored over the book in the Waco library, he traveled to Fort Myers to meet with Millner and examine artifacts and information in FGCU’s University Archives and Special Collections about Teed and his followers.
“There’s no doubt Koresh took Teed’s prophecies as his own,” he said. “Besides the rare book, listing many of Teed’s prophecies that was in the Waco public library during Vernon Wayne Howell’s transformation into David Koresh, many of David Koresh’s revelations (and a critical one from his mentor, Lois Roden) are virtual word-for-word repetition of some of Teed’s editorials in his Flaming Sword newsletters.”
Guinn learned about Teed from Millner’s book, the first definitive history of Teed and his followers.
“I was researching a book about Jim Jones and Peoples Temple and was trying to familiarize myself with facts about other unique religious groups in American history. ‘The Allure of Immortality’ looked – and was – interesting, so I bought and read it,” said Guinn, who included Millner’s tome in his 2018 Wall Street Journal list of the top five books about cults. “It was eminently readable – fine storytelling as well as factual.”
Millner and Guinn also said the FBI was aware of the book “Koreshanity” in the Waco library and erred in not disclosing the information to Branch Davidian members in the compound. Millner said that the seeds of anti-government sentiment planted by Teed and Koresh can be seen today.
What can you expect from the March 16 “meet the authors” event? A sharp focus on the impact of Cyrus Teed. “The story of Teed and his Koreshans, which has been considered local history, has a considerable impact for the country and even the world,” Millner said.
Guinn, who has written books about other cult leaders, agreed. “This will be a unique opportunity to hear about and, hopefully, ask questions about Cyrus Teed’s Koreshean teachings and how many of these were co-opted, to a fatal and famous extent, by David Koresh,” he said. “FGCU is the repository of invaluable Teed documents and other materials, and the school’s collection is a valuable part of American history.”
- Learn more about FGCU’s Koreshan Unity Collection