BRANCH DAVIDIANS . On February 28, 1993, the United States Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF) staged a raid on the home and church of a millennialist, sectarian group outside of Waco, Texas. The thoroughly bungled attempt to serve a search warrant took the lives of four ATF agents and six members of the millennialist group and led to a fifty-one day siege that climaxed with a devastating fire that claimed seventy-four more lives. Although many of the people within the Mount Carmel Center simply saw themselves as students of the Bible, particularly the apocalyptic message of the book of Revelation, they became known to the public as Branch Davidians and followers of the self-proclaimed messiah, David Koresh.
The group that gathered around Koresh had a long history in the Waco area, and an even longer history before that. With only a few exceptions, Koresh's disciples had religious roots in the Seventh-day Adventist tradition, which itself grew out of the Millerite movement of the mid-nineteenth century. After painstaking study of the scriptures, William Miller (1782–1849) had come to the conclusion that the second coming of Jesus Christ would occur sometime between March 21, 1843, and March 21, 1844. When the second date passed without incident, the Millerites recalculated the date to October 22, 1844. The failure of Jesus to reappear on that second date provoked what came to be known as the "Great Disappointment," but it only diffused rather than decreased the general Adventist fervor. By the end of 1845, a small group of New Hampshire Millerites had begun to observe the Sabbath on the seventh day, Saturday, and to fashion a new understanding of Miller's prophecy. Led by Joseph Bates, James White, and Ellen G. Harmon, who would marry White in 1846, the group argued that October 22, 1844, had in fact been a crucial date for human salvation, because Jesus Christ had entered the heavenly temple on that day in preparation for the final judgment. His return would happen at an unspecified time in the future.
To their observance of the seventh-day Sabbath, Bates and the Whites added another distinctive theological tenet. They believed that God's will is revealed progressively and that each new generation could expect to receive its "present truth" or "new light." That doctrine introduced a dynamism into the Seventh-day Adventist tradition that would contribute to the schisms that eventually produced Koresh's group of Branch Davidians.
From Davidians to Branch Davidians
The Davidian Adventists, precursors to the Branch Davidians, originated in 1929 in the teaching of Victor Houteff. A Bulgarian immigrant to the United States, Houteff became a Seventh-day Adventist in 1918. His intensive study of biblical prophecy led him to two conclusions that conflicted with orthodox Adventist doctrine. First, he indicted the church for having become complacent and far too "worldly." Houteff believed that his divinely appointed task was to purify the church from within and to gather the 144,000 "servants of God" mentioned in Revelation 7 to wait for the imminent arrival of Jesus Christ. In addition, Houteff concluded that the coming Kingdom of God would be a literal, physical, millennial rule on earth, centered in the holy land of Palestine. Houteff's teaching attracted some of his fellow Adventists, but church elders quickly barred him from teaching and in 1934 officially removed him from membership.
Forced out of the mother church, Houteff named his movement the Davidian Seventh-day Adventists to emphasize their belief in the imminent restoration of a Davidic messianic kingdom in Palestine whose practices would closely follow those of traditional Judaism. Houteff came to see himself as the seventh and final link in a line of reformers including Martin Luther, Miller, and Ellen White. As relations between his group and the main body of Adventists worsened, Houteff excoriated the denomination as a heathen, apostate group; in 1935 he moved the Davidians to an isolated 189-acre parcel of land outside Waco and named their settlement Mount Carmel. Although the anticipated move to the holy land never materialized, Houteff led Bible studies every night and eventually conducted a vigorous proselytization program that sent out tracts to thousands of Seventh-day Adventists and sent missionaries to Adventist groups throughout the world.
When Houteff died in 1955, he was succeeded by his wife, Florence. Convinced that the end would come in 1959, she urged Davidians and Adventists all over the world to assemble at the new Mount Carmel Center near Elk, Texas, which the group had recently purchased. In April 1959 some nine hundred Davidians were gathered there. But, in an outcome reminiscent of the "Great Disappointment" of Miller's time, their expectations were frustrated. The numbers of faithful then quickly dwindled, and Florence Houteff herself moved away and became inactive.
Out of the infighting among those remaining in the 1960s, Ben Roden and his wife, Lois, eventually took control of the Mount Carmel property and became the leaders of the handful of stalwarts who still lived there. Like Miller, Ellen White, and Houteff before him, Ben Roden believed that he had a prophetic calling. He portrayed himself as the anointed "Branch" mentioned by Zechariah (Zech. 3:8; 6:12) who was to organize the theocratic kingdom in preparation for Christ's return. Roden revivified the group, adding the biblical festivals of Passover, Pentecost, and Tabernacles to their ritual calendar and renewing Houteff's publishing and missionary programs. On his death in 1978, Roden was succeeded by his wife as leader of the Branch Davidians, now a distinct offshoot from Houteff's movement.
Like her predecessors, Lois Roden also claimed special revelations. She taught that the Holy Spirit was a feminine figure and that the coming messiah would fully embody the female aspects of the divinity. Roden actively spread her new version of the Branch Davidian message through extensive missionary travels and the publication of a magazine named SHEkinah, after the feminine Hebrew word for the spirit or presence of God. Lois Roden was the leader of the Branch Davidians when David Koresh, then known as Vernon Howell, joined in 1981. Koresh's embrace of Lois Roden's teachings, the possibility that they formed an intimate personal relationship, and her implicit recognition of Koresh as her successor, sparked the enmity of Lois's son George, who had tried to establish himself in a leadership position during his mother's travels. Even before Lois's death in 1986, relations between George Roden and Koresh were hostile; by 1987 they flared into violence over George's bizarre challenge to Koresh that he could resurrect a long-dead member of the community. When Koresh and his armed followers tried to secure evidence of George Roden's grotesque practices, a gun battle erupted between the two groups. In the ensuing trial, Koresh's accomplices were found not guilty and the jury split on the question of Koresh's guilt, with the judge declaring a mistrial. After an unrelated incident, George Roden was found guilty of murder, declared insane, and sentenced to a state mental hospital. Koresh paid the back taxes on the property and his group took over the Mount Carmel Center.
The Branch Davidians under David Koresh
Koresh's leadership of the Branch Davidians was founded on his ability to interpret the Bible. Many of those who lived with him at the Mount Carmel Center explicitly cited his unparalleled exegetical ability as the reason why they had taken up residence. Koresh's characteristic mode of teaching was the oral Bible study, often lasting several hours or more, in which he recited many portions of the text from memory, wove them together into a single apocalyptic scenario, and exhorted his students to prepare themselves for the coming end. Although much of his teaching resembled that of many other Christian millennialists, Koresh saw things in the Bible that no one before him had. Most notably, he saw himself. As a consequence of a 1985 experience of ascent into the heavens that happened while he was in Jerusalem, Koresh became convinced that he was the Lamb of God described in Revelation 4 and 5 as the only one who could open the scroll sealed with seven seals. Koresh also referred to himself as a "Christ," a person anointed by God to undertake a specific mission. He understood his calling to include not only preaching the message of the seven seals but also enacting the apocalyptic events foretold in that message.
In his Bible studies, Koresh impressed upon his students the imminence of the end and urged them to be ready to fight on behalf of God at the battle of Armageddon. Koresh expected the events prophesied in Revelation to unfold in the land of Israel very soon. But in the meantime, in the daily life of the Mount Carmel community, Koresh's authority depended less on his claim to the extraordinary experience of ascent into the heavens than it did on his repeated ability to make sense of the message of Revelation in his Bible studies. He frequently challenged his students to provide alternative readings of the text that they all shared; every time they accepted his interpretation, his authority was reinforced. The daily Bible studies were Koresh's most important tool for maintaining and enhancing his power, authority, and status within the group. It is an indication of his confidence in his mission, persuasiveness, and interpretive facility that Koresh maintained his position, but it is also an indication of his followers' deep yearning for a thorough renovation of the world that they continued to accept Koresh's teaching about the seven seals and to find in it the promise of their own salvation.
Koresh's hold on his followers could be breached, however. When Koresh proclaimed a "new light" revelation in 1989 that enjoined celibacy on all of his male followers and reserved all females for mating with him in order to produce children who would inherit an exalted status in the coming Kingdom of God, several members left the group. One of them, Marc Breault, would later be instrumental in spreading damaging information about Koresh both to media outlets and the United States government.
The February 28, 1993, assault unsettled the Branch Davidians' expectations. In some ways it seemed that the forces of "Babylon" had indeed begun the apocalyptic battle, but not where it was anticipated. During the fifty-one day siege, in addition to striving unfruitfully to explain his theological system to a series of negotiators sent in by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), Koresh attempted to fit the unfolding events into his scenario of the end. In an April 14 letter to his attorney, Koresh claimed that he had finally received "word from God" that he could write down his message of the seven seals and share it with the world. In that letter Koresh promised to finish his commentary as quickly as he could and then to come out of Mount Carmel to answer any questions about his actions. The FBI agents in command, however, did not take the offer seriously; the final assault was quickly authorized, and early on the morning of April 19, 1993, the sequence of events that initiated the catastrophic fire commenced. One of the nine people who escaped the flames carried with her a computer diskette of Koresh's unfinished work.
Reviewing the Siege
The siege that dramatically forced the Mount Carmel community out of its decades of obscurity was not inspired by theological issues. Acting on allegations that the residents of Mount Carmel were illegally turning semiautomatic weapons into automatic machine guns, the ATF had conducted surveillance of Mount Carmel and had begun planning to serve its search warrant. The affidavit in support of the warrant also included allegations that children were being abused by members of the group and that methamphetamines were being manufactured in Mount Carmel. In the later stages of their preparations, agents of the ATF were worried that the group would react negatively to a forthcoming investigative report by the Waco Tribune-Herald that cast Koresh as the "Sinful Messiah" who brainwashed his followers, sexually exploited women and young girls, and maintained a large, threatening arsenal.
The ATF's planning, the FBI's conduct of the siege, and the media's coverage of the ongoing drama were all influenced by powerful stereotypes developed by the American anticult movement over the previous two decades. Building primarily on the example of the 1978 murder/suicide of 914 people at the Peoples Temple Agricultural Mission in Jonestown, Guyana, a loose confederation of aggrieved parents, moral entrepreneurs, concerned mental health professionals, and other sympathizers had aggressively marketed the notion that all new religious movements or "cults" were led by dangerously unstable con men who destroyed the mental freedom of their members and could easily lead them to their death. The anticult caricatures so thoroughly shaped public and governmental understandings of the Branch Davidians that it still remains difficult to come to a balanced understanding of the siege and its aftermath, even after multiple government, academic, and other investigations, as well as several court cases.
In that context, the question of whether the Branch Davidians were illegally converting firearms largely fades into the background. Even if they were, the violation is typically punishable by a simple fine. Also, survivors of Mount Carmel vigorously dispute the claim that they were training for an apocalyptic war. They assert that the weapons were the lucrative hobby of a few members who sold them at gun shows for a profit. The affidavit's assertions about drug manufacturing have been totally discredited. But the accusations of child abuse have gained increasing support as the extent of Koresh's sexual involvement with young girls has come to light. Proper investigation and prosecution of those charges, however, would involve agencies other than the ATF.
The ATF has been severely criticized for both its planning and execution of the initial raid and for its failure to attempt to take Koresh into custody during his frequent trips off the property. Similarly, the FBI has been criticized for failing to take Koresh's religious concerns seriously and for quickly deciding that they were merely "Bible babble," but reorganizations within the bureau and the conduct of subsequent encounters, such as the 1996 Montana Freemen standoff, suggest a growing FBI sensitivity to religious factors. On the other hand, the anticult movement has seized upon "Waco" and subsequent events, such as the 1997 Heaven's Gate suicides and the 1995 Aum Shinrikyō attack in Tokyo, as further proof that all "cults" are prone to violence and must thus be constantly monitored and militantly opposed. In the minds of many, and despite more nuanced analyses, the Branch Davidians have been indelibly identified as a "cult" and Koresh stands as the paradigm of the manipulative "cult" leader who exploited his followers for his own gain.
After David Koresh
Although the April 19, 1993, fire virtually obliterated the Branch Davidian community, several people have tried to keep it alive. What remains of Mount Carmel has become both a memorial and a contested site. Though she no longer lives on the property, Amo Paul Bishop Roden, the former wife of George Roden, has abandoned neither her claims to Mount Carmel nor her claims of leadership of the Branch Davidians. Clive Doyle, who survived the fire in which his daughter died, lives in a trailer on the Mount Carmel site and leads a small group of survivors, but the claim of those faithful to Koresh to legal ownership of the property remains unsettled. Despite his own difficult economic circumstances, Doyle has helped erect a small chapel at Mount Carmel and to conduct the annual memorial services. From prison, Livingstone Fagan—who left Mount Carmel during the siege and, after a controversial 1994 trial, began serving a forty-year prison sentence (later reduced to fifteen) for his actions on February 28—continues to represent Koreshian orthodoxy in his self-published writings, including Mt. Carmel: The Unseen Reality (1994). Fagan remains convinced of Koresh's messianic mission and limits his own contribution to re-presentation and clarification of Koresh's message. Another imprisoned Branch Davidian, Renos Avraam (writing as the "Chosen Vessel"), has claimed divine approval to further develop Koresh's message of the seven seals. Appealing to the familiar Adventist concept of "present truth" or "new light," the Chosen Vessel emphasizes the limitations and inaccuracies of Koresh's message and claims that his book reveals the necessary new understanding of the imminent end. Both Fagan and the Chosen Vessel retain the apocalyptic expectations that have been so central to the Adventist and Branch Davidian traditions, but the Chosen Vessel claims an insight that eclipses even Koresh's. The development of Branch Davidian thought and practice after Koresh is fluid and multifaceted; some wait for Koresh's imminent resurrection, while others put forward innovative interpretations of his teaching about the seven seals. By all accounts, however, there has not been a substantial influx of converts into the movement since 1993.
Beyond the small circles of surviving and newly converted Branch Davidians and their sympathizers, the destruction of the Mount Carmel Center and the near extinction of the community have had other reverberations. Orthodox Seventh-day Adventist have reviewed events to see if they could identify why faithful Adventists would accept Koresh as a self-proclaimed messiah. Members of several other new religious movements have tried to distance themselves and their groups from association with Koresh's abusive leadership in order to insulate themselves from public criticism and potential governmental intervention. Some more extreme advocates of the right to bear arms have made the Branch Davidians into symbols of the damaging effects of the United States government's efforts to curtail individual freedoms. Most noteworthy among the latter group is Timothy McVeigh, who was executed in 2001 for his role in the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah federal building in Oklahoma City. McVeigh explicitly characterized his actions as revenge for what the government had done at Waco.
The Branch Davidians did not cease to exist after the trauma of the destruction of the Mount Carmel Center. Some of the survivors have struggled to rebuild their lives and to stay together as a worshiping community, despite their radically diminished membership. Writing from prison, their theologians have endeavored to keep the message of the seven seals alive, even as they have contended over its adequacy for the present time. For some Seventh-day Adventists, the events at Waco provide a cautionary tale about the consequences of accepting false messiahs. For other new religious movements the destruction of the Mount Carmel Center raises the specter of the awesome power of the state to crush religious innovation. And for the shadowy and overlapping subcultures of self-styled patriots, constitutionalists, militia members, and other denizens of the radical right, the Branch Davidians' fate remains the embodiment of their worst fears about a rogue government turning its military might against its own citizens. The remaining Branch Davidians continue to voice their own millennial hopes, and they also serve as a point of reference for the millennial expectations of others.
Aum Shinrikyō; Heaven's Gate; Koresh, David; New Religious Movements, overview article, articles on New Religious Movements and Violence, New Religious Movements and Millennialism; Seventh-day Adventism; White, Ellen Gould.
Docherty, Jayne Seminare. Learning Lessons from Waco: When the Parties Bring Their Gods to the Negotiating Table. Syracuse, N.Y., 2001. A thorough treatment of the negotiations between the FBI and the Branch Davidians.
Faubion, James D. The Shadows and Lights of Waco: Millennialism Today. Princeton, 2001. An anthropologist's self-reflective study of Amo Paul Bishop Roden's relationship to the Mount Carmel site and the Branch Davidian movement.
Gallagher, Eugene V. "'Theology Is Life and Death': David Koresh on Violence, Persecution, and the Millennium." In Millennialism, Persecution, and Violence: Historical Cases, edited by Catherine Wessinger, pp. 82–100. Syracuse, N.Y., 2000. Includes an analysis of Koresh's Bible studies and his unfinished manuscript.
Gallagher, Eugene V. "The Persistence of the Millennium: Branch Davidian Expectations of the End after 'Waco.'" Nova Religio 3 (2000): 303–319. Examines the writings of Livingstone Fagan and the Chosen Vessel.
Hamm, Mark S. Apocalypse in Oklahoma: Waco and Ruby Ridge Revenged. Boston, 1997. Traces the impact of Waco on the radical right.
Haus, Cari Hoyt, and Madlyn Lewis Hamblin. In the Wake of Waco: Why Were Adventists among the Victims? Hagerstown, Md., 1993.
Lewis, James R., ed. From the Ashes: Making Sense of Waco. Lanham, Md., 1994. An early collection of essays including some primary documents.
Moore, Carol. The Davidian Massacre: Disturbing Questions about Waco Which Must Be Answered. Franklin, Tenn., 1995. A thorough critique of the government's actions by a libertarian activist.
Reavis, Dick J. The Ashes of Waco: An Investigation. New York, 1995. A journalist's vivid account.
Swett, Mark, ed. Waco Never Again! An exhaustive electronic archive of writings from Branch Davidians. Includes transcripts of Koresh's Bible studies, Fagan's works, and other materials. Available at http://home.maine.rr.com/waco.
Tabor, James D., and Eugene V. Gallagher. Why Waco? Cults and the Battle for Religious Freedom in America. Berkeley, Calif., 1995. Contains Koresh's unfinished commentary on the seven seals, and a thorough presentation of Branch Davidian theology.
Thibodeau, David, and Leon Whiteson. A Place Called Waco: A Survivor's Story. New York, 1999. An insider's story that disputes many accepted interpretations of what happened inside Mount Carmel.
Wessinger, Catherine. How the Millennium Comes Violently: From Jonestown to Heaven's Gate. New York, 2000. Provides the best short description of the events of the siege and attempts to isolate factors that promote violent interactions.
Wright, Stuart A., ed. Armageddon in Waco: Critical Perspectives on the Branch Davidian Conflict. Chicago, 1995. An important collection of essays on the history, context, and interactions of the Branch Davidians with law enforcement, the media, and the courts.
Eugene V. Gallagher (2005)
The Branch Davidians (Students of the Seven Seals) trace their history to the Seventh-Day Adventist Church, one of several successors to the nineteenth-century Millerite movement. The group was founded by Victor Houteff, a Bulgarian immigrant who converted to Adventism in 1919. Ten years later Houteff produced a manifesto, The Shepherd's Rod, accusing the church of blocking Christ's return by scriptural unfaithfulness and materialism. He announced himself a divinely appointed messenger to lead human purification and reveal end-time chronology by unlocking the secrets of the Seven Seals contained in the Book of Revelation. Houteff established the Mount Carmel Center near Waco, Texas, in 1935, and millennial expectations gradually receded. The group dissolved ties with the Adventists in 1942, but virtually all of the few dozen adult members were former Adventists. Houteff served as community leader until his death in 1955; he was succeeded by his wife, Florence, who built group membership to more than a thousand. Florence Houteff predicted apocalyptic events for 1959; following the failure of her prophecy and her admission of error, membership plummeted to a few dozen. Houteff then attempted to dissolve the group and sell the property. However, Davidian Benjamin Roden successfully reconstituted the group and assumed spiritual leadership. Upon his death in 1978, his wife, Lois, assumed leadership, but she became locked in a power struggle with her son George for group control. It was this polarized situation that Vernon Howell (David Koresh), who himself had been an Adventist, entered in 1981 at age twenty-two. He was initially employed as a handyman at Mount Carmel, quickly gained spiritual influence, and in 1983 was named Lois Roden's successor. This triggered another protracted power struggle, including one violent confrontation between George Roden and Koresh; ultimately Koresh prevailed in the late 1980s.
Throughout their history the Davidians retained many of the Adventist traditions (Saturday Sabbath, vegetarianism, millennial expectations). The group was organized as a network of patriarchal families ordered hierarchically. Koresh ascended to leadership at a moment when the group's financial and membership bases had collapsed. He responded by launching recruitment campaigns, initiating business enterprises (including weapons sales), refurbishing the community dwellings, and claiming prophetic status. Membership climbed again to several hundred. In 1990 Vernon Howell changed his name to David Koresh, thereby identifying himself as the spiritual descendent of King David and as a messianic figure carrying out a divinely commissioned errand. According to Koresh's New Light Doctrine, Christ died only for those living prior to his crucifixion. Koresh's mission would allow salvation for subsequent generations by revealing the end-time message in the Seven Seals and creating a new spiritual lineage through sexual unions with disciples. The children created through these unions would erect the House of David and ultimately rule the world.
Implementation of the New Light Doctrine (which led to defections, child abuse allegations, and child custody disputes), along with the gun-related business, resulted in charges of both illegal possession and sale of weapons and child sexual abuse. On February 28, 1993, a firefight erupted between the Davidians and federal ATF agents serving a warrant, during which ten people died and twenty-four others were injured. The FBI then launched a fifty-one-day siege of the compound that ended on April 19, 1993, when an armed assault on the compound resulted in the death of seventy-four Davidians. Several Davidians who survived the conflagration were subsequently convicted on weapons and manslaughter charges. Only a few, small, competing factions of the Davidians now remain. The validity of the legal charges and the jurisdiction of the government agencies involved in the confrontation with the Davidians remain contested, and this episode has been linked to increased militancy among Christian militia groups and specifically to the bombing of the Oklahoma City Federal Building.
Anthony, Dick, and Thomas Robbins. "Religious Totalism, Exemplary Dualism, and the Waco Tragedy." In Millennium, Messiahs, and Mayhem, edited by Thomas Robbins and Susan Palmer. 1997.
Tabor, James, and Eugene Gallagher. Why Waco? Cultsand the Battle for Religious Freedom in America. 1995.
Wright, Stuart. Armageddon in Waco: Critical Perspectiveson the Branch Davidian Conflict. 1995.
David G. Bromley
The Branch Davidians, a religious offshoot of the Seventh-Day Adventists, was founded by Ben Roden in 1955. Upon his death in 1978, his wife, Lois, succeeded him; along with his son, George, the Rodens were challenged by a rival faction, led by Vernon Howell (1959–1993). Howell took control in 1987 and later changed his name to David Koresh.
Koresh claimed to be the Messiah and exercised absolute authority over his hundred or so followers, based at Mount Carmel Ranch near Waco, Texas. He claimed sexual rights over the women in the group; seven had children by him. Koresh also ordered the stockpiling of guns.
In February 1993, agents of the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms raided the compound to seize illegal weapons. Gunfire was exchanged, killing and wounding people on both sides. A fifty-one-day siege followed, with the FBI trying to negotiate Koresh's surrender. On April 19, tanks were sent in to flood the compound with tear gas. Fire broke out, but few Branch Davidians fled the blaze. Eighty-one of them, including Koresh, died inside. Exactly two years later, angry over the FBI's raid on the Branch Davidian compound, Timothy McVeigh (1968–2001) ignited a bomb in front of a federal office building in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, that killed 168 people and destroyed the building.
For More Information
Reavis, Dick J. The Ashes of Waco: An Investigation. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995.
"Waco." Time.com.http://www.time.com/time/daily/newsfiles/waco (accessed April 4, 2002).
Wright, Stuart. Armageddon in Waco. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995.