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Branch Davidian flag
|Regions with significant populations|
|Texas ( United States)|
|Split from the Shepherd's Rod/Davidians|
The Branch Davidians (also known as The Branch) are a religious group that originated in 1955 from a schism among the Shepherd's Rod/Davidians. The Branch group was initially led by Benjamin Roden. Branch Davidians are most associated with the Waco siege of 1993, which involved David Koresh.
However, there is documented evidence (FBI negotiation transcripts between Kathryn Shroeder and Steve Schneider with interjections from Koresh himself) that David Koresh and his followers did not call themselves Branch Davidians. In addition, David Koresh, through forgery, stole the identity of the Branch Davidian Seventh-day Adventists for the purpose of obtaining the Mount Carmel Center property.
The doctrinal beliefs of the Branch Davidians differ on teachings such as the Holy Spirit and his nature, and the feast days and their requirements. Both groups have disputed the relevance of the other's spiritual authority based on the proceedings following Victor Houteff's death. From its inception in 1930, the Davidians/Shepherd's Rod group believed themselves to be living in a time when Biblical prophecies of a final divine judgment were coming to pass as a prelude to Christ's Second Coming.
In the late 1980s, Koresh and his followers abandoned many Branch Davidian teachings. Koresh became the group's self-proclaimed final prophet. "Koreshians" were the majority resulting from the schism among the Branch Davidians, but some of the Branch Davidians did not join Koresh's group and instead gathered around George Roden or became independent. Following a series of violent shootouts between Roden's and Koresh's group, the Mount Carmel compound was eventually taken over by the "Koreshians". In 1993, the ATF and Texas Army National Guard raided one of the properties belonging to a new religious movement centered around David Koresh that evolved from the Branch Davidians for suspected weapons violations. It is unknown who shot first, but the ATF surrounded and tried to invade the home of the Branch Davidians. This raid resulted in a two-hour firefight in which four ATF agents were killed; this was followed by a standoff with government agents that lasted for 51 days. The siege ended in a fire that engulfed the Mount Carmel compound which led to the deaths of 76 Branch Davidians inside.
In 1929, Victor Houteff, a Bulgarian immigrant and a Seventh-day Adventist Sabbath School teacher in a local church in Southern California, claimed that he had a new message for the entire church. He presented his views in a book, The Shepherd's Rod: The 144,000—A Call for Reformation. The Adventist leadership rejected Houteff's views as contrary to the Adventists' basic teachings and local church congregations disfellowshipped Houteff and his followers.
In 1935, Houteff established his headquarters to the west of Waco, Texas and his group became known as The Shepherd's Rod. In 1942, he renamed the group the General Association of Davidian Seventh-day Adventists, 'Davidian' indicating the belief in the restoration of the Davidic Kingdom of Israel. Following Houteff's death in 1955, the segment of the group loyal to Houteff continued as the Davidian Seventh-day Adventists, led by his wife Florence. Convinced of an imminent apocalypse, in a time frame announced by Florence Houteff which was not found in the original writings of her husband Victor, Florence and her council gathered hundreds of faithful followers together at their Mount Carmel Center near Waco in 1959 for the fulfillment of Ezekiel 9.
The anticipated events did not occur, and following this disappointment, Benjamin Roden formed another group called the Branch Davidians and succeeded in taking control of Mount Carmel. This name is an allusion to the anointed 'Branch' (mentioned in Zechariah 3:8; 6:12). When Benjamin Roden died in 1978, he was succeeded by his wife Lois Roden. Members of the Branch Davidians were torn for allegiance to Ben's wife, Lois Roden, and his son, George. After Lois Roden died, the authority was passed to George Roden. But less than a year later, Vernon Howell rose to power and became the leader over the group.
Rise of Koresh
Vernon Howell's arrival on the Waco compound in 1981 was well received by nearly everyone at the Davidian commune. Howell had an affair with the then-prophetess of the Branch Davidians, Lois Roden, while he was in his late 20s and she was in her late 60s. Howell wanted a child with her, who, according to his understanding, would be the Chosen One. When she died, her son George Roden inherited the position of prophet and leader of the commune. However, George Roden and Howell began to clash. Howell soon enjoyed the loyalty of the majority of the Branch Davidian community.
As an attempt to regain support, George Roden challenged Howell to raise the dead, going so far as to exhume a corpse to demonstrate his spiritual supremacy. This illegal activity gave Howell an opportunity to attempt to file charges against Roden, however he was told he needed evidence. This led to the raid on November 3, 1987, of the Mount Carmel Center by Howell and 7 of his followers equipped with five .223 caliber semiautomatic rifles, two .22 caliber rifles, two 12-gauge shotguns and nearly 400 rounds of ammunition. Their objective seemed to be to retake the land that Howell had left three years earlier although they claim to have been trying to obtain evidence of Roden's illegal activity, yet they did not come equipped with a camera.
The trial ended with the jury finding the followers of Howell not guilty, but were unable to agree on Howell. After the followers were found not guilty, Howell invited the prosecutors to Mount Carmel for ice cream.
It is claimed that Howell was never authorized to use the name "Branch Davidians" for his breakaway sect, and that the church of that name continues to represent that part of the Branch church which did not follow him.
As spiritual leader
Howell, having gained the role of spiritual leader from Roden, asserted his spiritual role by changing his name to David Koresh, suggesting ties to the biblical King David and to Cyrus the Great (Koresh being Hebrew for Cyrus). In 1989 Koresh used this power as spiritual leader to take several "spiritual" wives as young as 12; he was to create a new lineage of world rulers. This raised allegations of child abuse, which contributed to the siege by the ATF.
Interpreting Revelation 5:2, Koresh identified himself with the Lamb mentioned in the verse. This is traditionally interpreted as a symbol of Jesus Christ, however Koresh suggested that the Lamb was to come before and lay a path ahead of the second coming of Jesus Christ.
By the time of the 1993 Waco siege, Koresh had encouraged his followers to think of themselves as "students of the Seven Seals" rather than as "Branch Davidians." During the standoff, one of his followers publicly announced that he wanted them to thereafter be identified by the name "Koreshians".
On February 28, 1993, at 9:45 AM, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms attempted to execute a search warrant relating to alleged sexual abuse charges and illegal weapons violations. The ATF attempted to breach the compound for approximately two hours until their ammunition ran low. Four ATF agents (Steve Willis, Robert Williams, Todd McKeehan, and Conway Charles LeBleu) were killed and another 16 agents were wounded during the raid. The five Branch Davidians killed in the 9:45 AM raid were Winston Blake (British), Peter Gent (Australian), Peter Hipsman, Perry Jones, and Jaydean Wendell; two at the hands of the Branch Davidians themselves. Almost six hours after the ceasefire, Michael Schroeder was shot dead by ATF agents who alleged he fired a pistol at agents as he attempted to re-enter the compound with Woodrow Kendrick and Norman Allison. His wife claimed that he was merely returning from work and had not participated in the day's earlier altercation. Schroeder had been shot once in the eye, once in the heart, and five times in the back.
After the raid, ATF agents established contact with Koresh and others inside of the compound. The FBI took command after the deaths of federal agents, and managed to facilitate the release of 19 children (without their parents) relatively early into the negotiations. The children were then interviewed by the FBI and the Texas Rangers. Allegedly, the children had been physically and sexually abused long before the raid.
On April 19, 1993, the FBI moved for a final siege of the compound using large weaponry such as .50 caliber (12.7 mm) rifles and armored Combat Engineering Vehicles (CEV) to combat the heavily armed Branch Davidians. The FBI attempted to use tear gas to flush out the Branch Davidians without bloodshed. Officially, FBI agents were only permitted to return any incoming fire, not to actively assault the Branch Davidians. When several Branch Davidians opened fire, the FBI's response was to increase the amount of gas being used. Around noon, three fires broke out simultaneously in different parts of the building, The government maintains the fires were deliberately started by Branch Davidians. Some Branch Davidian survivors maintain that the fires were started either accidentally or deliberately by the assault. Of the 85 Branch Davidians in the compound when the final siege began, 76 died on April 19 in various ways, from falling rubble to suffocating effects of the fire, or by gunshot wound from fellow Branch Davidians. The siege lasted 51 days.
In all, 4 ATF agents were killed, 16 were wounded, and six Branch Davidians died in the initial raid on February 28. 76 more died in the final assault on April 19. The events at Waco spurred criminal prosecution and civil litigation. A federal grand jury indicted 12 of the surviving Branch Davidians charging them with aiding and abetting in murder of federal officers, and unlawful possession and use of various firearms. Eight Branch Davidians were convicted on firearms charges, 5 convicted of voluntary manslaughter, and four were acquitted of all charges. As of July 2007, all Branch Davidians had been released from prison.
Several civil suits were brought against the United States government, federal officials, former governor of Texas Ann Richards, and members of the Texas Army National Guard. The bulk of these claims were dismissed because they were insufficient as a matter of law or because the plaintiffs could advance no material evidence in support of them. One case, Andrade v. Chojnacki made it to the Fifth Circuit, which upheld a previous ruling of "take-nothing, denied".
Branch Davidians after Waco
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One modern incarnation of the Branch Davidians exists under the leadership of Charles Pace, a follower of Ben and Lois Roden, who was a member of the Branch Davidians since the mid-1970s. The Branch, The Lord Our Righteousness is a legally recognized denomination with 12 members. Pace claims that Koresh twisted the Bible's teachings by fathering more than a dozen children with members’ wives. Pace feels the Lord "has anointed me and appointed me to be the leader" but he claims he is "not a prophet" but "a teacher of righteousness". Like the Branch Davidians under Koresh, this incarnation is waiting for the end of times.
Seventh-day Adventist attitude
The Seventh-day Adventist Church, the main church in the Adventist tradition, rejected Victor Houteff's teachings and revoked his membership in 1930. Houteff went on to found the Davidians (a splinter group, otherwise known as the Shepherd's Rod). Branch Davidians are considered a splinter group from that dissenting group (the Davidians/Shephard's Rod) and came out from a schism among the Davidians/Shepherd's Rod initiated by Benjamin Roden.
Branch Davidian leaders, while still formally members in the Seventh-day Adventist Church, pushed for a reform of the church and when this was met with opposition (from both the common Seventh-day Adventists and also the already excluded Davidians/Shepherd's Rod), they decided to leave that denomination while at the same time widely distancing themselves from the Davidians/Shepherd's Rod (their "parent group" that arose earlier and was also excluded for their own attempts to reform the Seventh-day Adventist Church). The Seventh-day Adventist Church deprived both the Branch Davidians and the Davidians of their membership in the denomination, but in spite of this fact the Branch Davidians actively continued to "hunt" members of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, encouraging them to leave it and join their group instead. The Seventh-day Adventists were reportedly "apprehensive" about the group's views as Branch Davidians claimed to be the "only rightful continuation of the Adventist message", based on the idea that Victor Houteff was the divinely selected prophet and successor to Ellen G. White. Both the Davidians/Shepherd's Rod and the Branch Davidians claimed Houteff as their spiritual inspiration, although he was the founder of the Davidians/Shepherd's Rod. The Seventh-day Adventist Church issued warnings about the Branch Davidian views to its members on a regular basis.
- List of new religious movements
- List of Christian denominations
- Religious violence
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- Affidavit of Davy Aguilera, Special Agent with the U.S Treasury Department, BATF, Austin, Texas, sworn before Dennis G. Green, United States Magistrate Judge Western District of Texas – Waco on the 25 February 1993. Aguilera affirmed: "On January 13, 1993, I interviewed Larry Gilbreath in Waco, Texas, and confirmed the information which had previously been related to me by Lt. Barber. Mr. Gilbreath told me that although he had been making deliveries at the "Mag-Bag" and the Mt. Carmel Center for quite some time, his suspicion about the packages being delivered to those places was never aroused until about February 1992. At that time the invoices accompanying a number of packages reflected that they contained firearm parts and accessories as well as various chemicals. He stated that in May 1992, a package which was addressed to the "Mag-Bag" accidentally broke open while it was being loaded on his delivery truck. He saw that it contained three other boxes, the contents of which were "pineapple" type hand grenades which he believed to be inert. He stated that there were about 50 of the grenades and that he later delivered them to the Mt. Carmel Center."
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- Andrade v. Chojnacki, 338 F.3d 448 (5th Cir. 2003), cert. denied (2004).
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