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The Branch Davidians (or the General Association of Branch Davidian Seventh-day Adventists) were a religious cult which was founded in 1955 by Benjamin Roden. They regard themselves as a continuation of the General Association of Davidian Seventh-Day Adventists, established by Victor Houteff in 1935.
Houteff, a Bulgarian immigrant and a Seventh-day Adventist, wrote a series of tracts entitled the "Shepherd's Rod", which called for the reform of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. After his ideas were rejected by Adventist leaders, Houteff and his followers founded the Davidians and settled on a tract of land on the western outskirts of Waco, Texas, United States, where they built a compound called the Mount Carmel Center and began preparing for the Second Coming. After Houteff's death in 1955, his wife Florence became the leader of the Davidians. That same year, Roden, a former follower of Houteff who called himself "the Branch", after the branch referred to in Isaiah 11:1, called for Davidians to come to Mount Carmel Center to hear his message. This was the beginning of the group that would be popularly known as the Branch Davidians.
In 1957, Florence sold the old Mount Carmel Center and purchased 941 acres near Elk, Texas, thirteen miles northeast of Waco, naming the property New Mount Carmel Center. After the failure of Florence's prophecy of apocalyptic events on or near April 22, 1959, she dissolved the Branch Davidians in 1962 and sold all but 77.86 acres of the New Mount Carmel property. Roden took possession of New Mount Carmel in 1962 and began his efforts to purchase the remaining 77.86 acres. On February 27, 1973, New Mount Carmel was sold to "Benjamin Roden, Lois Roden, and [their son] George Roden, Trustees for the General Association of Branch Davidian Seventh-day Adventists." From this point on, the property was simply known as Mount Carmel. Upon the death of Roden in 1978, his wife Lois became the next Davidian prophet at the compound.
In 1981, a young man named Vernon Howell, later known as David Koresh, came to Mount Carmel and studied biblical prophecy under Lois Roden. By 1984 the core group of Davidians had shifted their allegiance from Lois' son George to Koresh. Koresh's leadership of the Davidians ended at the climax of the Waco siege of 1993, a 51-day standoff between members of the sect and federal agents, when Mount Carmel was destroyed in a fire. Four ATF agents and two residents of Mt. Carmel were killed by members of the Branch Davidians during the initial raid, while four members of the Branch Davidians were killed by ATF agents on February 28, 1993. Seventy-six Branch Davidians of all ages died in a fire that erupted during the siege on April 19, 1993.
In 1929, Victor Houteff, a Bulgarian immigrant and a Seventh-day Adventist Sabbath School teacher from southern California, claimed that he had a new message for the entire Adventist 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 church's basic teachings, and local church congregations disfellowshipped Houteff and his followers.
In 1934, Houteff established his headquarters to the west of Waco, Texas, and his group became known as the Davidians. In 1942, he renamed the group the General Association of Davidian Seventh-day Adventists – 'Davidian' which indicated its belief in the restoration of the Davidic Kingdom of Israel. Following Houteff's death in 1955, the segment of the group which was loyal to Houteff continued to exist as the Davidian Seventh-day Adventists and it was led by his wife Florence. Convinced that an apocalypse would occur in 1959, a date which is not found in her husband's original writings, Florence and her council gathered hundreds of their faithful followers at the Mount Carmel Center, the group's compound which was located near Waco, for the fulfillment of the prophecy which is written in Ezekiel 9.
The anticipated events did not occur, and following this disappointment, Benjamin Roden formed another group which he called the Branch Davidians and succeeded in taking control of Mount Carmel. The name of this group 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 between allegiance to Ben's wife or to his son, George. After Lois died, George assumed the right to the Presidency. However, less than a year later, Vernon Howell rose to power and became the leader over those in the group who sympathized with him.
Rise of David Koresh
Howell's arrival at Mount Carmel in 1981 was well-received by nearly everyone at the Davidian commune. He had engaged in an affair with Lois Roden while he was in his late 20s and she was in her late 60s. Howell wanted to father a child with her, who, according to his understanding, would be the Chosen One. When she died, George Roden inherited the positions of prophet and leader of the sect. A power struggle ensued between Roden and Howell, who soon gained the loyalty of the majority of the Davidians. In 1984, Howell and his followers left Mount Carmel (Roden accused Howell of starting a fire that consumed a $500,000 administration building and press), which Roden subsequently renamed "Rodenville". Another splinter group, led by Charlie Pace, also left, and settled in Alabama.
As an attempt to regain support, Roden challenged Howell to raise the dead, going so far as to exhume the corpse of a two-decades deceased Davidian in order to demonstrate his spiritual supremacy (Roden denied this, saying he had only been moving the community cemetery). This illegal act gave Howell an opportunity to attempt to file charges against Roden, but he was told that he needed evidence in order to substantiate the charges. On November 3, 1987, Howell and seven of his followers raided Mount Carmel, equipped with five .223 caliber semi-automatic rifles, two .22 caliber rifles, two 12-gauge shotguns and nearly 400 rounds of ammunition, in an apparent attempt to retake the compound. Although Howell's group claimed that it was trying to obtain evidence of Roden's illegal activities, its members did not take a camera with them.
The trial ended with the jury finding Howell's followers not guilty, but the jury members were unable to agree on a verdict for Howell himself. After his followers were acquitted, Howell invited the prosecutors to Mount Carmel for ice cream.
It is claimed that Howell was never authorized to name his breakaway sect the "Branch Davidians", and the church which bears that name continues to represent the members of the Branch church who did not follow him.
As a spiritual leader
Howell, who acquired the position of spiritual leader from Roden, asserted it by changing his name to David Koresh, suggesting that he had ties to the biblical King David and Cyrus the Great (Koresh is the Hebrew version of the name Cyrus). He wanted to create a new lineage of world leaders. This practice later served as the basis for allegations that Koresh was committing child abuse, which contributed to the siege by the ATF.
Interpreting Revelation 5:2, Koresh identified himself with the Lamb mentioned therein. This is traditionally believed to symbolize Jesus Christ; however, Koresh suggested that the Lamb would come before Jesus and pave the way for his Second Coming.
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 4:20 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 were killed by the Branch Davidians. 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 said 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, though no evidence of abuse was ever produced.
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. 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 that 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 from fellow Branch Davidians. The siege lasted 51 days.
In all, four ATF agents were killed, 16 were wounded, and six Branch Davidians died in the initial raid on February 28. Seventy-six 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, five 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 from the mid-1970s. The Branch, The Lord Our Righteousness is a legally recognized denomination with 12 members. Pace says that Koresh twisted the Bible's teachings by fathering more than a dozen children with members' wives. Pace believes that the Lord "has anointed me and appointed me to be the leader", but he says he is "not a prophet" but "a teacher of righteousness". Other Branch Davidians, led by Clive Doyle, continue to believe Koresh was a prophet and await his resurrection, along with the followers who were killed. Both incarnations are still waiting for the end of times.
Relationship with Seventh-Day Adventists
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 group which splintered from that dissenting group (the Davidians/Shepherd's Rod) and the product of a schism which was initiated among the Davidians/Shepherd's Rod by Benjamin Roden.
While they were still formally members of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, the Branch Davidian leaders demanded a reform of the church and when their demand was met with opposition (from both the common Seventh-day Adventists and the already excluded Davidians/Shepherd's Rod), they decided to leave that denomination and at the same time they widely distanced themselves from the Davidians/Shepherd's Rod (their "parent group" which arose earlier and was also excluded when their own attempts to reform the Seventh-day Adventist Church also failed). The Seventh-day Adventist Church deprived both the Branch Davidians and the Davidians of their membership in the denomination, in spite of this fact, the Branch Davidians actively continued to "hunt" members of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, and encourage them to leave it and join their group. The Seventh-day Adventists were reportedly "apprehensive" about the group's views because Branch Davidians claimed that they were the "only rightful continuation of the Adventist message", based on their belief that Victor Houteff was the divinely selected prophet and successor of Ellen G. White. Both the Davidians/Shepherd's Rod and the Branch Davidians claimed that Houteff was 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 sect's views to its members on a regular basis.
Schisms within the Branch Davidian sect
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's 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 which followed Victor Houteff's death. From its inception in 1930, the Davidians/Shepherd's Rod group believed that it was living in a time when Biblical prophecies of the Last 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" became the majority as a result of a schism which occurred among the Branch Davidians, but some of the Branch Davidians did not join Koresh's group, instead, they 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".
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- Eugene V. Gallagher, Davidians and Branch Davidians (1929–1981)
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- "Mr. Ricks [FBI negotiator] said today that Ms. Schroeder had told him that members of the sect, a renegade offshoot of Seventh-day Adventists, henceforth wanted to be known as Koreshians." By Robert Reinhold, Published: March 15, 1993, New York Times [brackets added].
- 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 February 25, 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."
- Fiddleman, Theodore; Kopel, David (June 28, 1993). "ATF's basis for the assault on Waco is shot full of holes - Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms fatal attack on the Branch Davidian complex in Waco, Texas". Insight on the News. Archived from the original on July 10, 2012.CS1 maint: bot: original URL status unknown (link)
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- Leon., Whiteson (1999). A Place Called Waco : A Survivor's Story. PublicAffairs. ISBN 1891620428. OCLC 41368317.
- p. 7403 of the trial transcripts
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- Andrade v. Chojnacki, 338 F.3d 448 (5th Cir. 2003), cert. denied (2004).
- The Associated Press. "Near Waco, a New Fight Over an Old Compound". The New York Times. Retrieved May 12, 2016.
- Burnett, John (April 20, 2013). "Two Decades Later, Some Branch Davidians Still Believe". National Public Radio. Retrieved May 12, 2016.
- Armageddon in Waco: Critical Perspectives on the Branch Davidian Conflict by Stuart A. Wright, p.22
- "United States Department of the Treasury: Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco & Firearms (Tape #126 Transcription)" (PDF). March 13, 1993.
- Mitchell, Douglas (2018). Waco Untold, How David Koresh Stole the Identity of The Branch Davidians. USA: Ten Strings Publishing. ISBN 978-0-9998026-0-1.