The Branch Davidians are a cultic religious group whose leaders have claimed messianic status and who focus primarily on end-times prophecy and the need to prepare for the Lord’s return. They are best known for the FBI siege and subsequent conflagration of their compound in early 1993.
The Branch Davidians is one of several groups that followed the teachings of Victor Houteff (1885—1955), a Seventh-day Adventist layman who attempted to reform the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Houteff’s reforms were rejected by SDA leaders, but he took a group of followers and settled near Waco, Texas, in 1935. There, they developed a self-sustaining community, called themselves the Shepherd’s Rod Seventh-day Adventists, and taught that the average Adventist had lost the urgency of the Lord’s imminent return and was too involved in worldly pursuits.
When Houteff died, his wife, Florence, continued his work and set a date of April 22, 1959, as the dawn of the Messianic age. When the date passed and nothing happened, Florence admitted her mistake and withdrew from the splintering group. A Davidian named Ben Roden led one of the splinter groups and redoubled efforts to develop a community that would hasten the return of the Lord by living a pure lifestyle. Roden established the General Association of Davidian Seventh-day Adventists at a compound called Mt. Carmel outside of Waco. It was Roden’s group that began calling themselves “Branch Davidians” (Davidian is a reference to King David in the Bible, whom Houteff had seen as a foreshadowing of his own ministry; and Branch is a reference to the fruit-bearing branch of Isaiah 11:1.) After Roden died in 1978, a young, charismatic member of the group, Vernon Howell, came to prominence and eventually consolidated his leadership over the Branch Davidians.
Howell changed his name to David Koresh: David after King David, and Koresh, which is Hebrew for “Cyrus,” the Persian king called “anointed one” in Isaiah 45:1. Koresh also identified himself as the Lamb of Revelation 5 and claimed that he was the one to open and reveal the meaning of the seven seals. Koresh also took a number of “spiritual wives,” including some teens and pre-teens, to raise up a new line of children. This led to accusations of child abuse levied against Koresh by former members of the cult. Additionally, Koresh was suspected by the government of stockpiling weapons.
On February 28, 1993, ATF agents attempted to serve an arrest warrant for David Koresh and a search warrant for the Branch Davidian compound. They were met with armed resistance. The Branch Davidians claimed that the ATF agents fired first, and the ATF claimed the opposite. Four ATF agents were killed in the firefight, and over a dozen more were injured. Several of the Branch Davidians were also killed. The ATF withdrew, and the compound was sealed off. The FBI got involved. For about 2 months, negotiations were conducted. During that time, some of the children were released from the compound.
The federal government feared that the remaining children were still being abused, and the FBI decided to raid the compound. On April 19, tear gas was used in an attempt to force the remaining cult members to evacuate. At the same time, fires broke out in several places. Some claimed that the fires were caused by exploding tear gas canisters, and others claimed they were deliberately set by Davidians in the compound. In the end, the entire compound burned down, killing 76 people, including 20 children and David Koresh. About 25 people survived. The survivors confirmed cases of child sexual abuse by Koresh. Some of the survivors received prison sentences for their actions during the siege.
After the tragedy in Waco, a political firestorm erupted, with both House and Senate hearings. In the final analysis, the hearings concluded that the government did nothing wrong. To this day, many wonder if the situation could not have been handled differently with less bloodshed, even though Koresh seemed intent on a violent end.
Some of the survivors of the raid on the Branch Davidian compound have attempted to reorganize the Davidian Seventh-day Adventist movement in Waco, but they have garnered few adherents.