Davidians and Branch Davidians

By: William L. Pitts

Type: Overview Entry

Published: September 1, 1995

Victor T. Houteff established the Davidians, a small Adventist reform movement, in 1929, and in 1955 Ben Roden organized the Branch Davidians. Both groups were formed to prepare for the second advent of Christ, and both movements survive in small but active communities in the 1990s. Houteff, a Bulgarian immigrant, left the Bulgarian Orthodox Church and accepted Seventh-day Adventist teaching in 1918. He led Sabbath classes in his Los Angeles church and began publishing a series of tracts called collectively The Shepherd's Rod. He embraced the Adventist teachings of Christ's imminent return, Saturday worship, dietary regulations and pacifism. But he criticized the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists for compromise with worldly standards of behavior. The Shepherd's Rod movement called for reform of life. Houteff, like all Adventists, focused above all on the near return of Christ; this is the central idea of the movement. He taught that an elect group of 144,000 followers would form a truly reformed church and that the forming of his pure church was a prerequisite for Christ's return to earth.

When the Seventh-day Adventist Conference rejected his message, Houteff decided to settle in Texas. In 1935 he and thirty-seven followers moved to a site two miles from Waco, which they called Mount Carmel. The Davidians established a semicommunal organization. Because they wanted to avoid the corruptions of the world they settled beyond the city limits. Everyone worked and received pay. Together they farmed and built buildings on their property. But since one farm could not support an entire community, some Davidians worked in Waco and were encouraged by leaders to pay a double tithe. Despite the Great Depression the community flourished, and by 1940 it had grown to sixty-four residents, ten buildings, and 375 acres. The members constructed water and sewage systems and added electricity and telephone services. Houteff had full authority in the community. He was viewed as a unique prophet: followers believed that only he could unravel Biblical secrets about the end of time.

Davidians worshipped on Saturday. They practiced vegetarianism and observed strict rules of conduct (no tobacco, dancing, or movies). Women used no cosmetics and wore distinctive long dresses. The group established its own press to print and distribute large numbers of Houteff's tracts. His writings were widely distributed, and Davidians converted scattered pockets of Adventists throughout the United States. Houteff changed the movement's name to Davidian Seventh-day Adventists in a successful effort to achieve conscientious-objector status for his followers. His death in 1955 shook but did not destroy the group, which survived under the leadership of his wife, Florence. By then Waco had grown too close to old Mount Carmel, and the Davidians sold their property for residential development. In 1957 the group bought a 941-acre farm, which they called New Mount Carmel, nine miles east of Waco, near Elk. The Davidians predicted the imminent establishment of God's kingdom. They called on members to gather at New Mount Carmel before April 22, 1959 (Passover). People from California, Wyoming, Canada, and elsewhere sold businesses, farms, and houses to move to Mount Carmel and await a sign from God. About 900 people gathered for this meeting, which began on April 18 and peaked on April 22. Hope soon faded when the sign did not appear, and the Davidians began to disperse rapidly. They sold all but seventy-seven acres of New Mount Carmel, and various Davidian splinters disputed ownership in court.

The most significant of the splinter groups to emerge after Houteff's death was the Branch Davidians, organized by Ben Roden. When the great gathering occurred in 1959, Roden appeared and announced that he was the sign the Davidians sought. The 1959 debacle discredited Florence Houteff, and a small following looked to Roden as their new prophet. The Roden faction laid claim to the property at New Mount Carmel. Roden embraced the central teachings of the Seventh-day Adventist church and also Houteff's message regarding the purified church. Roden's own thought centered on the significance of the restored state of Israel. This political fact was for him a key sign of preparation for Christ to return to earth. Roden not only visited Israel; he also established a small community of followers there. When he died in 1978, his wife, Lois, assumed leadership. Her distinctive teaching centered on the female character of the Holy Spirit and ordination for women. She devoted her short-lived journal, Shekinah, to women's issues. George Roden, son of Ben and Lois, assumed leadership of the Branch Davidians in 1985 and made messianic claims. Vernon Howell, a persuasive Bible teacher, led a rival faction that George Roden expelled at gunpoint. Howell and his followers moved to Palestine, Texas, but returned to New Mount Carmel in 1987 and exchanged gunfire with Roden. The rivals were taken to court. Roden was jailed, and the Howell faction secured control of New Mount Carmel by paying the back taxes.

Howell perpetuated the distinctive emphases of Davidian tradition-the authoritarian leader, communal life organized apart from society, and expectation of the imminent end of the world. He changed his name to David, suggesting his messianic task, and to Koresh, suggesting that his role was to destroy the enemies of God as King Cyrus had destroyed the Babylonians, enemies of Israel. However, whereas Adventists and Houteff had been pacifists, Koresh stockpiled weapons and ammunition. Finally, he believed that members of the New Kingdom should be children of the Messiah: DNA evidence gathered after his death indicated that he sired thirteen of the Davidian children by seven mothers.

The United States Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms raided the Davidians on February 28, 1993, for possession of illegal arms. In a shootout both Davidians and ATF forces were killed. A fifty-one-day siege followed. On April 19, 1993, government forces used tanks to precipitate an end to the stand-off. Fire broke out, engulfing the building and killing eighty-one Branch Davidians. The event triggered heated debate over several issues relating to the nature of alternative religious groups, including their understanding of religious authority, arms accumulation, and the interpretation of apocalyptic Biblical images. Debate, including congressional hearings in 1995, also raged over government use of deadly force.

Davidians and Branch Davidians flourish in scattered communities in the United States and beyond. In 1991 Davidians purchased part of Old Mount Carmel, where they reestablished a press for reproducing Houteff's message. The Branch Davidians own New Mount Carmel. Though it has not been rebuilt, a small group meets there regularly for Sabbath study. The best known Davidian artifact is a clock, set in the floor of the central building of Old Mount Carmel, with the hands set near the eleventh hour, indicating that the end of time is near. This physical reminder of the end of time captures perfectly the essence of the Davidians and Branch Davidians. See also ADVENTIST CHURCHES.

James R. Lewis, ed., From the Ashes: Making Sense of Waco (Lanham, Maryland: Rowman and Littlefield, 1994). Bill Pitts, "The Davidian Tradition ," Council of Societies for the Study of Religion Bulletin 22 (November 1993). Bill Pitts, "The Mount Carmel Davidians: Adventist Reformers, 1935–1959," Syzygy 2 (1993). Stuart Wright, ed., Armageddon in Waco (University of Chicago Press, 1995).
  • Religion
  • Adventist
Time Periods:
  • Texas Post World War II

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

William L. Pitts, “Davidians and Branch Davidians,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed July 07, 2022, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/davidians-and-branch-davidians.

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

September 1, 1995