The Branch Davidians were a sect that decided to split away from the Seventh-day Adventist church 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
The Branch Davidians, founded by a man named Victor Houteff, joined the SDA in 1919, but his beliefs deviated from main line doctrine as exemplified
in his book The Shepherd's Rod in 1930. In this book he states that he 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:
- 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. Seven seals had protected the scroll.
- Purifying a small group of Christians, and thereby triggering 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.
Victor Houteff left with 11 members of the SDA and founded the Mt. Carmel Center near Waco TX. He called the group "The Shepherd's Rod" after his
book title. They were unsuccessful in recruiting a large number of members from within the SDA. In 1942, Houteff 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.
Houteff died in 1955, and control of the Davidians passed on to his wife Florence. Florence decided to move the community to a new location further
away from Waco. She is said to have 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 of the followers sold everything they owned and moved to Mt. Carmel in anticipation of the "end time." The group almost did not
survive when April 23 passed uneventfully. Many followers were not happy and left to eventually form the Davidian Seventh-Day Adventist Association,
which remains active to this day. Florence Houteff left the group in 1962.
Benjamin Roden, who called himself King David's successor, took control of the group and decided to rename it General Association of Davidian
Seventh-Day Adventists. He died in 1978, and his wife Lois Roden took control of the group. 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 inevitably began to develop between Lois and her son George.
A man named Vernon Howell (1959-1993) had joined the group as a handyman in 1981. He later fell in love and married the daughter of one of the
prominent members of the group in 1984. This started the series of power struggles over the leadership of the group and Howell was thrown of the
property. A gun battle between Vernon and George Roden happened when Howell and his followers were caught on the property; George was wounded, and
later imprisoned for violating a restraining order and for contempt of court. Howell was to be charged because of a series of legal actions that he
filed which were filled with profanity and threats against the judges. Roden was imprisoned in 1987, and this left Howell and his followers free to
take control of the group.
A huge recruitment drive was started in 1985 concentrating on former SDA members. This was very effective and brought members from Australia, Canada,
Great Britain, etc. There was said to around 130 members living at Waco in the spring of 1993.
The group began calling 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." The group did not
generally use this term, but it became the name used by the media and the public. Howell decided to change his name to David (after King David of the
Israelites) Koresh (after the Babylonian King Cyrus). Koresh later renamed the ranch "Ranch Apocalypse" as he believed that the battle of Armageddon
that was mentioned in the bible would start at the compound.
Their basic beliefs were those of the Seventh Day Adventist church, but they concentrated on the coming of Christ. They differed only slightly from
many Evangelical churches. However, they added a number of additional, novel concepts that were centered on themselves and their leader:
- God has provided a prophet whose pronouncements are to be regarded on a par with the Bible.
- 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 prophet.
- 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 that 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 with God.
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
The BDs at Waco led a communal, highly regulated and disciplined life: rising early, eating together, growing their own food, committing long
intervals of time to Bible study, etc. Some members had jobs outside the community that contributed financially to the organization.
They published a periodical "Shekineth Magazine."
They held conventions, which were synchronized with the Jewish feast days defined in Leviticus 23:4-43.
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 there 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.
This was later supported by ex-cult members and by a father involved in a custody battle. Punishments were often used in the compound for discipline
of children. There have been allegations those children as young as 8 months were beaten with a paddle. The allegations of sexual abuse of the
children are of unknown validity, Child Protective Services had investigated several claims but found no sufficient quantity or quality evidence that
would justify a charge.
They assembled large supplies of arms; one source estimated 11 tons of arms including antitank rifles.
During the 1990's, all but one of the elements that are commonly found in doomsday cults was present at Ranch Apocalypse. Only one element that has
been generally found in other destructive cults was missing.
Tragedy at Waco
Many members of this sect died during a standoff involving federal authorities in a town called Waco, TX. Only small parts of the group survived by
the end of it. Although the full facts may never be known, here is what is known to have happened:
- The ATF had issued an arrest warrant for David Koresh on firearms violations. They were told to arrest him at the compound near the firearms store
instead of away from the compound whilst he was out and about. It was apparently done this way so that when they went to court the case would have
- A group of 76 armed ATF agents entered the compound on 1993-FEB-28 and attempted to serve a search warrant.
- A shot was heard from outside; it is unclear wither this shot was intentional or accidental discharge from within the compound.
- In the resultant firefight, 6 Davidians and 4 ATF agents died; at least one Davidian and 24 agents were wounded.
- The ATF then withdrew from the compound, and the FBI took charge of the operation, the siege lasting for 51 days.
- The FBI decided to consult various experts on religious movements who they thought had some knowledge of destructive cults; they warned the FBI
that there was a high risk of mass murder or suicide if aggressive action was taken. The FBI also consulted a number of psychiatrists who had no
specialized experience with doomsday cults, who assured the FBI that the chance of major loss of life was slim. They also received advice from members
of the Anti-cult movement. The Bureau decided that it was safe to attack the compound with tear gas. The FBI seems to have ignored the religious
experts and accepted the beliefs of the psychiatrists.
- About 6 a.m., two incendiary tear-gas grenades were fired at a concrete bunker some distance from the frame buildings of the compound. They bounced
off the roof and fizzled out harmlessly in a nearby puddle.
- About 12 o'clock noon, specially adapted tanks approached the building to penetrate the walls and inject a form of tear gas inside. A group of
fires started almost simultaneously in different locations within the compound; they combined to form a great conflagration.
- 8 followers were able to escape this attack, but many more had been severely burned.
- Koresh and about 75 of his followers [numbers differ in various sources] died from stab wounds, gun shots, and the effects of smoke and flames. The
fatalities included 21 children.
In high profile cases such as this, a lot of the truth tends to get lost and mixed with fantasy and conjecture. There were many groups that came
forward with information regarding the events of that day, but they have been labeled as unreliable by some.
Books on Waco
- K.G.C. Newport, The Branch Davidians at Waco: The history and beliefs of an apocalyptic sect,
- J.D. Tabor & E.V. Gallagher, Why Waco: Cults and the battle for religious freedom in America,
- S.A. Wright, Ed., Armageddon in Waco: Critical Perspective on the Branch Davidian Conflict,
- Carol Moore, Davidian Massacre: Disturbing questions about Waco which must be answered,
- D.J. Reavis, The Ashes of Waco: an investigation,
- David Thibodeau, Leon Whiteson, A placed called Waco: A survivor's story
The Waco Massacre
What Happened at Waco
Waco: The inside story
Introduction to the Branch Davidians
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