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Branch Davidians

History, beliefs, and practices

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Topics covered in this essay

bulletThe Branch Davidians

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History of the group

The group that became popularly known as the Branch Davidians are traceable back to a  splinter sect that broke away from the Seventh-Day Adventist Church (SDA) in 1942. The SDA church is well known for their belief in the imminent return of Jesus Christ to earth, for their special vegetarian dietary restrictions and for their retention of Saturday as their Sabbath.

The breakaway sect was founded by Victor Houteff, who had joined the SDA church in 1919. His beliefs deviated from main-line church doctrine. This became obvious when he wrote his book The Shepherd's Rod in 1930. In it, he outlined errors that he had found within the denomination. The book caused a minor crisis with the SDA denomination; some of its congregations disfellowshipped members who followed the book. Houteff believed that Christ's return would only occur when at least a small number of Christians had been sufficiently purified. He believed that he was a messenger sent by God to conduct this cleansing. He saw his task as a brief one, consisting of:

bulletrevealing the secret information contained in the scroll described in the Biblical book of Revelation, Chapter 5. This scroll has written on both sides a description of the events to occur when Christ returns and the world as we know it ends. The scroll had been protected by seven seals.
bulletpurifying a small group of Christians, and thereby trigger the second coming of Jesus Christ to Jerusalem, when the Downfall of Babylon (i.e. the end of the world) would occur and the Kingdom of David would be established.

He founded the Mt. Carmel Center near Waco TX with 11 followers in 1935. He called the group "The Shepherd's Rod" after his book title. They attempted to recruit membership from within the SDA church with only modest success. In 1942, he broke completely away from the SDA because the latter refused to grant conscientious objector status to its members during World War II. He selected the name Davidian Seventh-Day Adventists for his organization. After the war, he started to recruit members internationally.

After Houteff's death in 1955, control of the Davidians passed to his wife Florence. She moved the community to a new location farther from Waco. She prophesied that the 1260 days mentioned in Revelation 11:3 would end and the Kingdom of David would be established on 1959-APR-22. Many hundreds of followers sold their possessions and moved to Mt. Carmel in anticipation of the "end time". They were bitterly disappointed when April 23 dawned and it was business as usual around the world. The group almost did not survive the failure of the prophecy; only a few dozen members remained. Many had left to form the Davidian Seventh-Day Adventist Association which remains active to this day. Florence Houteff left in 1962.

Benjamin Roden assumed control of the group, and renamed it the General Association of Davidian Seventh-Day Adventists. He proclaimed himself to be King David's successor. After his death in 1978, his wife, Lois Roden took control. She had been receiving visions that God is both male and female, that the third person of the trinity (the Holy Spirit) was female, and that Christ would take the form of a woman at his/her second coming! A power struggle developed between Lois and her son George.

Vernon Howell (1959-1993) joined the group as a handyman in 1981. In 1984, he married the daughter of a prominent member of the community, Rachel Jones, then aged 14. A series of power struggles resulted. George Roden had Howell thrown off the property. Roden later dug up a 25 year old corpse, placed it in the chapel and declared that the person who returned the corpse to life would be the next leader. Howell and followers sneaked into the compound to photograph the casket. They were detected and a gun battle between Vernon and George Roden resulted; George was wounded, and later imprisoned for violating a restraining order and for contempt of court. The latter charge was caused by a series of legal actions that he filed which were filled with profanity and threats against the judges. When Roden was imprisoned in 1987, Howell and his followers took over control. They found an illegal drug laboratory on the premises which made met amphetamine; they also found a large quantity of pornography. Both were removed. Howell was later tried for attempted murder, but the jury could not reach a verdict.

In 1989, Roden split his roommate's head open with an axe; he was found not-guilty of murder by reason of insanity. He lived in the Big Spring State Hospital in west Texas state mental facility. (On 1998-DEC-5, at the age of 60, he escaped and was found dead of a heart attack on the hospital grounds.)

A major international recruitment drive was established in 1985; it was aimed at SDA members (in particular those who had been disfellowshipped from the church due to their beliefs). This effort brought in members from Australia, Canada, Great Britain, etc. A number of businesses were created within the compound; guns were purchased wholesale and legally resold at gun shows. There were 130 members living at Waco in the Spring of 1993; they were a multi-racial, multi-ethnic group of whom 45 were black.

The group called themselves "Students of the Seven Seals" (meaning in reality: students of the scroll protected by the seven seals). The term "Branch Davidians" (BD) was derived from Roden's expression "Get off the dead [Shepherd's] Rod and move onto a living Branch". It was not generally used by the membership, but became the name most commonly used by the public and media. In 1990 Howell changed his name to David (after King David of the Israelites) Koresh (after the Babylonian King Cyrus). In 1992, Koresh renamed Mt. Carmel "Ranch Apocalypse", because of his belief that the final -encompassing battle of Armageddon mentioned in the Bible would start at the BD compound.

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Church Beliefs

Their basic beliefs follow those of the Seventh Day Adventist church, with its emphasis on the imminent arrival of Jesus Christ, dietary rules, the inerrancy of the Bible, etc. They differ only slightly from many Evangelical churches. However, they have added a number of additional, novel concepts which were centered on themselves and their leader:

bulletGod has provided a prophet whose pronouncements are to be regarded on a par with the Bible.
bulletChrist's death on the cross provided salvation only for those who died before 32 CE. People who have died since will only be saved through the activities of the current BD prophet.
bulletThey believe that the "lamb" mentioned in Revelation 5:2 is not Jesus Christ (as essentially all Christians believe) but is David Koresh himself. The lamb is to open up the seven seals and trigger the sequence which ends the world as we know it. This belief caused a great deal of misunderstanding; many Christians believe that Koresh viewed himself as Jesus Christ, and was thus psychotic.
bulletAfter the breaking of the seals, Christ would return to earth. A battle would occur in which the BDs would play a major role. The BD members alone would ascend to heaven to be with God.
bulletMassive confusion developed within the BD during the standoff. Koresh apparently believed that the BATF raid was in some way related to the Book of Revelation's Apocalypse and the war of Armageddon. However details did not fit. Koresh taught that it would occur in Jerusalem in 1995, not in Texas during 1993. 

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Church Practices

bulletThe BDs at Waco led a communal, highly regulated and disciplined life: raising early, eating together, growing their own food, committing long intervals of time to Bible study, etc. Some members had jobs outside the community which contributed financially to the organization.
bulletThey published a periodical "Shekineth Magazine"
bulletThey held conventions which were synchronized with the Jewish feast days defined in Leviticus 23:4-43.
bulletFollowing Koresh's "New Light" doctrine, he began to persuade married women within the group to join him as "spiritual wives." This involved sexual access. Couples were separated and their marriages dissolved. All but Koresh and his spiritual wives were required to remain celibate.
bulletThere were rumors that Koresh was sexually and/or physically assaulting children in the community. Other rumors suggested that he had several "wives" who were in their mid teens. 1 This was supported by statements from disgruntled ex-cult members and by a father involved in a custody suite. Strong physical punishment was used in the compound for discipline of children. There are allegations that infants as young as eight months were beaten with a paddle . However assertions of actual sexual  abuse of young children are of unknown validity. Several investigations were conducted by local Child Protective Services; they turned up no evidence of sufficient quantity or quality to justify a charge. None of the children who left the compound during the siege exhibited any signs of abuse. However  Koresh did state in a videotape that he is the father of more than a dozen children with several "wives" who he allegedly impregnated at the age of 12 or 13. If he was telling the truth, then he certainly was guilty of statutory rape. During the standoff, the physical and sanitary conditions in the compound had seriously degenerated. The U.S. Justice Department reported that "It was unhealthy at best, and potentially life-threatening at worst, for children to continue, to be forced to live in such an environment." 1
bulletThey assembled large supplies of arms; one source estimated 11 tons of arms including antitank rifles.
bulletDuring the 1990's, all but one of the elements which are commonly found in doomsday cults were present at Ranch Apocalypse. Only one element that has been generally found in other destructive cults was missing. There does not appear to have been strict control of information in to the compound.

Ranch Apocalypse was a powder keg, awaiting only a spark. Some BDs observed the approach of 76 heavily armed employees of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) and interpreted it as related to the Apocalypse and the Battle of Armageddon which they so devoutly had been studying and anticipating for years. Given their religious beliefs, no other interpretation was possible.

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  1. "Report to the Deputy Attorney General on the Events at Waco, Texas; February 28 to April 19, 1993," U.S. Department of Justice, at: http://www.usdoj.gov/

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Copyright © 1995, 1996, 1998, 2000, 2000 & 2003 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally published: 1995-SEP-28
Last update: 2003-APR-19
Author: B.A. Robinson

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