The Davidians, a small adventist reform movement, was established by Victor T. Houteff in 1929. In 1955, under Ben Roden, it gave rise to the Branch Davidians. Both groups were created to prepare for the second advent of Christ, and both movements survive in small but active communities chiefly in the United States. The Branch Davidians achieved international notoriety in 1993 when their leader, David Koresh, and 80 followers perished by fire while surrounded by U.S. government personnel.
Houteff, a Bulgarian immigrant, settled in Rockford, Illinois, where in 1918 he adopted Seventh-day Adventist teaching. He moved to California and taught in the weekly Sabbath school. During his study, Houteff began to publish his teachings in a series of small tracts that he called The Shepherd's Rod. In these writings, he advanced the idea that the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists had gone astray. He believed that it was his task to call the mother church back to the true teaching of the faith. Houteff's relationship with the parent denomination was ambivalent. He taught that although Adventism needed reforming, it was the only denomination that had the doctrinal framework to understand his teachings regarding Christ's second coming. Houteff shared central Adventist teachings: the imminent return of Christ, observance of the Sabbath rather than Sunday, dietary regulations encouraging vegetarianism, and pacifism in time of war.
Houteff's Vision. Houteff's core idea was the second advent of Christ. William Miller had set the date of Christ's return twice: first for 1843, then for 1844. Both Miller and Houteff keenly anticipated the second advent. Houteff was also indebted to Ellen White, whose prolific writings elaborated Adventist thought. Houteff cited her opinions constantly.
Houteff produced hundreds of pages of biblical interpretations. His view of scripture was governed by the notion of prophecy and fulfillment. He looked for predictions in the Bible in order to correlate them with contemporary events, thereby fulfilling biblical prediction. Millennialists, seeking to determine the date of Christ's return, have long looked for their clue in Daniel's 2,300 days. Adventists have traditionally taught that in scripture one "day" is to be equated with one year. Miller and later Adventists worked out a scheme whereby 2,300 years is added to a late biblical event so that Christ's return is predicted for the near future. Houteff worked diligently to provide his readers with new knowledge about Christ's return; he called his new interpretations "present truth." Followers looked on him as a prophet because only he had these new insights. The precedent persists, and Davidian leaders carry much authority in their communities.
In Houteff's view, Christ would delay his return until he had a pure church to receive him. Therefore, Houteff's message to the parent Adventist Church was urgent: it must be reformed, and he cited particulars. It had become captive to worldly pursuits, including worldly dress and idle waste of time in entertainment when the end of the world was near. Furthermore, the clergy relied on seminary training, but did not know true prophecy. He believed that the true people of God would form the pure church of 144,000.
The parent Seventh-day Adventist Church rejected Houteff's teaching, and in 1935 he and 37 followers moved to Mount Carmel, Texas, convinced that Isaiah 11 had directed him to a site "in the midst of the land." Houteff not only set forth a reform proposal in his teaching; he also provided a model community for Adventists to follow. His Mount Carmel community, which soon grew to about 70 members, separated themselves from the rest of society, built housing, dining, and meeting facilities, lived simply, and devoted themselves to worship and study. They created a viable economy, established a printing press, and produced and distributed thousands of copies of Houteff's tracts, which served as the principle means of communicating their message. Recently, these tracts have been collected and published as the Shepherd's Rod and Symbolic Code. In 1942 Houteff changed the name of his movement from "Shepherd's Rod" to "Davidian Seventh-day Adventists" in a successful effort to achieve conscientious objector status for young Davidians.
Houteff's unexpected death in 1955 shocked the community; they thought that he was the new Elijah appointed to announce the new age. His wife Florence succeeded him. In 1957 she sold the old property and moved ten miles east of Waco. Houteff never set the date of Christ's return; Florence announced it for April 22, 1959. About 900 followers gathered from Adventist churches all over the United States and Canada, having sold businesses and homes. When no sign of the new age occurred, many suffered devastating disappointment.
Branch Davidians. The death of Houteff and the debacle of 1959 provided the occasion for the organization of several Davidian splinter groups, including the Branch Davidians, organized by Ben Roden in 1955 near Waco, Texas. Like other Davidians, Roden shared Seventh-day Adventist teachings regarding the imminent return of Christ, Sabbath observance, and attention to dietary regulations. Roden also embraced Houteff's central notion of a purified church. Roden's own teaching emphasized the significance of the state of Israel. He believed that the 1967 Israeli-Arab War made possible the proclamation of the word of God from Jerusalem, thereby fulfilling biblical prophecy of the end of the present age. After Roden's death in 1978, his wife Lois led the group. Her distinctive contribution was the notion of a female Holy Spirit. She also advocated the ordination of women.
The Rodens' son, George, who assumed leadership in 1985, claimed to be the Messiah. A rival faction soon emerged led by Vernon Howell, a persuasive Bible teacher. Roden expelled his opponents at gun point in 1985. Howell and his followers moved to Palestine, Texas, but returned to exchange gunfire with Roden in 1987. The two Davidian groups were brought to trial. Roden was jailed; the Howell faction occupied Mt. Carmel.
Howell inherited the Davidian tradition of the authoritarian leader, built a large centralized living complex, and recruited followers from Adventist centers around the world. He accepted most Davidian doctrine and also introduced new teachings during the period of his leadership from 1987 to 1993. The millennial expectation remained central in his thought, but he heightened its intensity. First, he changed his name to David, suggesting his messianic role, and Koresh, suggesting that he would destroy God's enemies as Cyrus had freed the Jews from the Babylonians. Second, whereas the Adventist-Houteff tradition had been pacifist, Koresh stockpiled weapons and ammunition. Third, Koresh fathered many of the children of the coming age. DNA evidence established that he was the father of 13 of the Davidian children by seven separate mothers. He taught that members of the new kingdom should be the children of the new messiah.
The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms raided the Davidians at Mt. Carmel in February of 1993 for illegal arms possession and subsequently surrounded their residence for 51 days. When the government moved to destroy their building, fire engulfed it and killed 81 Davidians, including Koresh. The event received extensive media coverage and raised heated debate over several issues, including church-state relations, the tenacity of religious belief, the nature of religious authority, arms accumulation, responsibility for the fire, and the structure and interpretation of apocalyptic biblical images.
Davidians flourish in small communities located in South Carolina, Missouri, New York, and the Caribbean. Branch Davidians have followers scattered throughout the United States. In the fall of 1991, a group of Jamaican Davidians purchased the old Mt. Carmel. It thrives today as a Davidian center that actively publishes many of the tracts of Houteff. It claims complete separation from the Branch Davidian movement. On November 22, 1994 a Branch Davidian remnant returned to new Mount Carmel, determined to reestablish a center for Bible study and to recreate their life together.
Bibliography: The primary sources for the writings of Victor Houteff are The Shepherd's Rod Series (reprint, Salem, SC 1990); The Symbolic Code Series (reprint, Tamassee, SC 1992). For background and current developments, see: j. lewis, ed., From the Ashes: Making Sense of Waco (Lanham 1994). w. pitts, "The Davidian Tradition," Council of Societies for the Study of Religion Bulletin 22 (1993) 99–101; "Letter from Waco: Millennial Spirituality and the Branch Davidians," Christian Spirituality Bulletin 1 (1993) 19–20; "The Mount Carmel Davidians: Adventist Reformers, 1935–1959," Syzygy 2 (1993) 39–54; "Davidians and Branch Davidians: 1929–1987," in Armageddon in Waco, ed. s. wright (Chicago 1995).