Koresh, David (1959-1993), Charismatic Religious Group Leader

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Koresh, David
(1959-1993), charismatic religious group leader.

Born Vernon Wayne Howell, David Koresh was the charismatic leader of a Seventh-Day Adventist sect called the Branch Davidians between 1985 and 1993, and is best known for defying federal authorities in a standoff that ended in a fiery assault by the FBI that killed eighty-four people. Vernon Howell was born out of wedlock to Bonnie Clark in Houston in 1959. He was raised in the Adventist Church and often listened to radio and television evangelists. He reportedly memorized entire sections of the Bible and even lectured classmates. In 1981, at age twenty-two, he joined the Mount Carmel Branch Davidian community outside Waco and endeared himself to the group's prophetess, Lois Roden. The prophetess later announced that the mantle of leadership would pass to Vernon rather than to her own son George, who suffered from Tourette's syndrome and was given to violent outbursts. After Lois's death, a leadership crisis ensued. Most of the Davidians sided with Howell, but George Roden forced them off the property at gunpoint. Howell later retook the property in 1988, when he paid more than sixty thousand dollars in back taxes owed the county. Just prior to this incident Howell had traveled to Israel, where he received a vision. He came back radically changed, taking a new name, David Koresh. "Koresh" was the Hebrew name for Cyrus, a divinely sanctioned conqueror of Babylon, the empire that oppressed God's people.

Koresh envisioned himself in a messianic role, leading believers into an apocalyptic confrontation with the "world" (the biblical archetype of which was Babylon) and, ultimately, salvation. His teachings revolved around the doctrine of the Seven Seals. Koresh believed he was the seventh messenger spoken of in the Bible, who was to open the Seven Seals. According to Revelation 11:15, this messenger appears shortly before the end time to prepare the way for Christ's return. One controversial aspect of this teaching was that this same messianic figure was to be the perfect mate for all female adherents. Herein a new lineage of God's children would be created from his seed. These children would constitute the twenty-four elders who rule during the millennium. Hence Koresh took a number of women as "spiritual wives," some of whom were under legal age. Reports of sexual abuse arose, leading to investigations by authorities and fueling demands for intervention. When a report of firearms violations was filed with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF), the investigation culminated in a raid on the Davidian community. A shoot-out ensued, and four ATF agents and six Branch Davidians were killed. The FBI's Hostage Rescue Team (HRT) took command of the standoff for the next fifty-one days, but negotiations stalled after the first week, prompting the HRT to launch a gas assault on the barricaded group. The remaining cult members, including Koresh himself, then set themselves on fire, a mass suicide. Subsequent congressional investigations found that both the FBI and the ATF acted irresponsibly and with excessive force. For many politically disenfranchised Americans, Waco became a symbol of government abuse and Koresh a defiant hero.

See alsoAnti-Cult Movement; Apocalypse; Branch Davidians; Cult; Seventh-Day Adventism.


Dick, J. Reavis. The Ashes of Waco. 1998.

Tabor, James D., and Eugene V. Gallagher. Why Waco? Cults and the Battle for Religious Freedom in America . 1995.

Wright, Stuart, A., ed. Armageddon in Waco: Critical Perspectives on the Branch Davidian Conflict. 1995.

Stuart A. Wright