Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


The Branch Davidian sect emerged in 1955 from a Seventh-day Adventist reform movement in Central Texas and became widely known in 1993 when federal agents surrounded the group's property outside Waco, beginning a fifty-one-day siege that ended in the fiery deaths of most members.

The Branch Davidians trace their roots to a Seventh-day Adventist reform movement founded by Bulgarian immigrant Victor Houteff in Los Angeles. After a 1929 visionary experience, Houteff began teaching what he claimed was his divinely inspired true interpretation of scripture, thus implying inaccuracies in Seventh-day Adventist practices. Local church leaders charged Houteff with heresy, prompting him to move with his followers to Central Texas. The Davidians agreed with most Seventh-day Adventist doctrine, but Houteff taught his followers that his scriptural interpretations constituted part of an emerging truth, in which Seventh-day Adventist apostasy prevented Christ's return and the apocalyptic events that would usher in the Kingdom of God on earth.

Houteff's wife, Florence, assumed the group's leadership after Victor's death in 1955. Florence Houteff almost immediately published her revelation that the apocalypse would occur on April 22, 1959. When the apocalypse failed to materialize, the Davidians fell into chaos, and Ben Roden, leader of a splinter group dating to 1955 known as the Branch Davidians (this group referred to Jesus Christ as the Branch), emerged as the new leader. When Roden died, his wife, Lois, a prophetess in her own right, took charge. George Roden, Lois's son, fought successfully to gain control in 1985, temporarily defeating his main rival, Vernon Howell, whom Lois Roden apparently intended as her successor. In 1988 Howell, who two years later legally changed his name to David Koresh, wrested control of the group's Mount Carmel community from Roden, marking the beginning of the group's most tragic era.

Koresh assumed leadership when the Branch Davidian community faced economic and political crises, and he used the situation to consolidate power and turn the group in new theological directions. Koresh averted a financial crisis by successfully soliciting monetary contributions to pay back taxes for the Mount Carmel commune. He developed automobile restoration and weapons businesses to provide the group with continued income. Koresh secured his leadership by converting new members and convincing them that he was descended spiritually from King David and was a "sinful messiah" on a mission from God to initiate Armageddon. Koresh prophesied an apocalyptic battle pitting Branch Davidians against the American army, ushering in the Kingdom of God on earth, in which the Branch Davidians would play an important role. He also convinced many followers that his mission included fathering a new line of God's children. Koresh created the "House of David"–the women who became his spiritual wives–and produced a number of offspring. These innovations created jealousies within the group and objections, from within and without, to the induction of underage girls into the House of Koresh.

Combined with alleged violations of weapons laws, the group's social innovations brought increasing attention from outsiders, including the media, anticult activists, and state and federal agencies. Agents from the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms raided Mount Carmel on February 28, 1993, but withering fire from the main residence killed four agents and injured twenty more, thus creating a standoff. The Federal Bureau of Investigation assumed control of the situation that same day and led a fifty-one-day siege. On April 19, 1993, the FBI used two M-60 tanks and four Bradley vehicles to inject tear gas into the Mount Carmel dwelling intermittently for six hours in hopes of flushing the Branch Davidians out of their stronghold. At about noon, a fire swept through Mount Carmel, killing many of the seventy-four of the Branch Davidians inside; others died of gunshot wounds, apparently inflicted by themselves or others inside Mount Carmel.

The April 1993 tragedy bears similarities to the Wounded Knee Massacre of 1890. Both involved religious groups dominated by prophecy and antagonistic to the United States and its dominant cultural and social values, and both groups suffered massive loss of life in conflicts with federal agencies. The events raised questions about the extent of religious freedom in the Plains and the federal government's role in enforcing cultural values and law and order in the region.

Todd M. Kerstetter Texas Christian University

Tabor, James D., and Eugene V. Gallagher. Why Waco? Cults and the Battle for Religious Freedom in America. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995.

Wright, Stuart A. Armageddon in Waco: Critical Perspectives on the Branch Davidian Conflict. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1995.

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