History, beliefs, and practices
Topics covered in this essay
||The Branch Davidians
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,
||revealing 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.
||purifying 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
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.
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:
||God has provided a prophet whose pronouncements are to be regarded on a par with the
||Christ'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
||They 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.
||After 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
||Massive 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
||The 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
||They published a periodical "Shekineth Magazine"
||They held conventions which were synchronized with the Jewish feast days defined in
||Following 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.
||There 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
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
||They assembled large supplies of arms; one source estimated 11 tons of arms including
||During 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.
"Report to the Deputy Attorney General on the Events at Waco,
Texas; February 28 to April 19, 1993," U.S. Department of Justice,
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