THE REEK OF THE 39 DECOMPOSING Heaven’s Gate members had scarcely begun to waft over the hills of San Diego County before TV crews were stampeding into the West Texas environs of Abilene, where it was believed that the House of Yahweh might be the next cult to engage in a show of fatal one-upmanship. Circumstantial evidence of this was in abundance, beginning with the media’s certainty that they had come to the right state—to death wish—happy, compound-crazy Texas, the home of not only David Koresh’s Branch Davidians and Richard McLaren’s Republic of Texas but also Heaven’s Gate guru Marshall Herff Applewhite, whose birthplace of Spur was 110 miles up the road from Abilene. And, ah, yes, Abilene: a town like Waco only more so, the true buckle of the Bible Belt, so starched and earnest that there simply had to be something abominable oozing out from its strait laces.
But the House of Yahweh brought peculiarities of its own to the table. Its basic tenet—that the heavenly rewards promised by the Savior in the Bible could be won only through rigid adherence to the laws laid forth in the first five books of the Old Testament—was unapologetically dour. A wife (or wives, since the Scriptures sanctioned polygamy) must obey her husband; a man must grow his whiskers; a righteous person must not eat seafood that lacks fins and scales; and, of course, the proper name for the Creator was not “God” or “Lord,” but the holiest of all appellations, “Yahweh.” The House of Yahweh took such verities at face value. Yet it also retranslated—some would say rejiggered—the ancient texts, with sometimes alarming results. Satan, for example, was a woman. The pope was her beastly puppet, and by orchestrating the 1993 Israeli peace accords, he would usher in seven years of tribulation, until October 2000, when a nuclear holocaust would lay waste the planet and usher in the coming of the Messiah. Until that glorious reckoning, the House of Yahweh would abhor all paganisms, including the religious holidays of Easter and Christmas, keep to the 613 Laws of Yahweh, and maintain a secretiveness that required the posting of guards outside its 44-acre area of worship.
Then there was the church’s leader, a folksy 62-year-old ex-cop and ex-rockabilly singer known as Buffalo Bill Hawkins until 1982, when he legally changed his first name to Yisrayl (pronounced like “Israel”). Hawkins had convinced thousands of Yahweh worshipers that he and one of his brothers were the two “witnesses” prophesied in the Book of Isaiah to preach the laws of Yahweh. Though Hawkins didn’t actually claim to be the Messiah, his faithful believed him incapable of misjudgment or sin. They also believed that to defy him was to defy the Creator. Since 1994 some three hundred of them had legally adopted his last name and joined his “priestly family.”
And so, in the spring months of 1997, writers from Newsweek, Hard Copy, and other media turned their attention to the House of Yahweh, and it didn’t disappoint: surly guards, Yisrayl Hawkins ranting on about imminent hellfire, ex-members spinning tales of promiscuity, and a compound so creepy it made Koresh’s Mount Carmel look like Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. No bodies, no bullets, no infernos? No problem. It took only a little bit of shrill window dressing to package the House of Yahweh as a hostile doomsday cult.
Had they stuck around, the members of the press might have grown disenchanted with Hawkins’ raggedy legions. True, fringe groups like the House of Yahweh tend to be, in the words of Abilene police chief Melvin Martin, “a smorgasbord, including anti-government outcasts and militia types,” and as such have drawn the watchful eyes of local, state, and federal authorities. But violence does not fester at the core of this group. Its laws forbid suicide, and its believers, with a scant three years left to prepare for the Messiah’s coming, have little use for fifteen minutes of notoriety. Though rumors persist that munitions have been buried somewhere on the property, not even its most vindictive former members can claim to have seen a single firearm on the premises. Lacking weapons, the House of Yahweh will not go the reckless way of the Branch Davidians.
In almost every other way, however, Yisrayl Hawkins is Abilene’s encore to Waco’s Koresh. A sometime musician, inveterate philanderer, and lifelong Bible student with a doomsdayer’s fetish for the Book of Revelation, his unorthodox brand of charisma is detectable only within the perimeters of his cloistered universe. Of course, Hawkins has other antecedents as well. They are seen in Mark Twain novels and Flannery O’Connor short stories, behind mail-order miracle cures and flimsy pyramid schemes, and wherever else a good con flourishes. Hawkins’ snake oil, bootlegged as it is from the Garden of Eden, is particularly potent. It has summoned everyday seekers of higher meaning, and it has convinced them—through a transparently brazen manipulation of the Scriptures—that their religion is somehow more authentic, and thus holier, than other spiritual callings. It seems even to have cast a spell over its purveyor, such that Yisrayl Hawkins himself cannot seem to see, beneath his gaudy new aura, the Buffalo Bill Hawkins who connives within.
The dubious history of the House of Yahweh is nothing more than a culmination of one man’s life of con artistry, a white-trash quest for a scruffy empire that would be thoroughly comical were it not for its many dupes. Though Hawkins’ colorful saga is not complete, it suggests a comforting outcome: Abilene will not burn as Waco burned. For this compound is but a very peculiar house, and one made of cards at that.
PART WIZARD OF OZ, PART RUSH LIMBAUGH, PASTOR YISRAYL HAWKINS HUNCHED over the pulpit—framed by curtains pulled across the altar so as to reveal him and only him—and let the venom flow like the Euphrates. “The suicides that were created among the Christian people,” he sneered in his country twang, referring to the Heaven’s Gate cult, “of course they say, ‘That’s the House of