Once an obscure offshoot of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, the Branch Davidians' Waco compound was raided by the FBI in 1993, leading to the deaths of 76 members.
Until 1993, most Americans had never heard of the Branch Davidians. The group of former Seventh-day Adventists lived in seclusion in Waco, Texas, where they spent much of their time studying the Bible. But for 51 days between February and April 1993, the Branch Davidians captivated the whole country’s attention during a tense standoff with the FBI.
The siege, which ended in tragedy on April 19th when the FBI stormed the compound, made the Branch Davidians infamous across the entire nation. But how did the Branch Davidians end up as the subject of an ATF investigation? Who was their notorious leader, David Koresh? And were the Branch Davidians really, as the media proclaimed at the time, a cult?
This is the true story of the Branch Davidians, from their strange origins to the violent Waco siege to where the organization stands today.
The Birth Of The Branch Davidians
Before the Branch Davidians became one of the biggest news stories of 1993, they were a religious offshoot of Seventh-day Adventists called Davidians (or “Shepherd’s Rod”). The Davidians were established around 1929 or 1930 by Victor Houteff, who believed that the Messiah was yet to come and that he and his followers would establish a new “kingdom” during the apocalypse.
As Vox reports, Houteff established a society of Davidians at Mount Carmel in Waco, Texas and taught his followers that this compound would be the center of the kingdom to come. But Houteff also told his followers that he would not die. Thus, his death in 1955 threw the group in disarray.
The ensuing power vacuum set up a standoff between Houteff’s widow, Florence, and another Davidian, Benjamin Roden, who claimed to be in contact with God. Waco History reports that Roden gained the upper hand when Florence Houteff wrongly predicted that the world would end in 1959. Davidians drifted to Roden’s side and called themselves Branch Davidians.
Roden had a strong hold on the group. Upon his death in 1978, his wife, Lois Roden, took over, and power seemed poised to pass to their son, George. But in 1981, a charming Bible teacher arrived at Mount Carmel. His name was Vernon Howell, but the world would soon know him as David Koresh.
How David Koresh Took Control Of The Branch Davidians Movement
Long before David Koresh became known as the leader of the Branch Davidians, he was just a boy called “Vernie.” Born in 1959 in Houston, Texas, to a single, teenage mother, Koresh struggled in school. He later claimed that he was a frequent target of bullies. According to CNN, he grew up liking just two things: music, and going to church with his grandmother.
Koresh started giving Biblical lectures from a young age and seemed to have an encyclopedic knowledge of Biblical figures. He worshipped at a local Seventh-day Adventist Church, but he was expelled after he got the preacher’s daughter pregnant. In the wake of that scandal, Koresh jumped in his yellow Buick and drove to join the Branch Davidians.
CNN notes that many Branch Davidians were unsure of Koresh at first. He stuttered, looked like a “bum,” and struck some members as “crazy.” But one Branch Davidian liked Koresh from the beginning — Lois Roden.
The two may have also had a sexual relationship. And as Lois Roden supported Koresh, Branch Davidians started to see him in a different light.
“I remember in the beginning, everybody was just, ‘Oh, he’s crazy, you know, he’s this and that,’ that’s all I heard,” former Branch Davidian Kathy Jones explained in an interview with CNN. “And then all of a sudden people were saying, ‘We’re listening to him. He has a message.'”
As the New Yorker notes, Koresh awed many Branch Davidians with his extensive Biblical knowledge. One, Clive Doyle, admitted that he had previously “wrestled” with accepting Lois Roden as God’s messenger. But after listening to Koresh, Doyle was impressed and felt “this was of God.”
Following Lois Roden’s death, Koresh engaged in a power struggle with her son, George. But after George was sentenced to prison for killing another rival, Koresh established himself as the leader of the Branch Davidians by 1990. It was then that he changed his name from Vernon Howell to David Koresh, and preached that he was the “Lamb” prophesized in the Bible to “unlock” the Seven Seals and understand God’s plan for the end times.
As the “Lamb,” Koresh reportedly took a number of wives, some as young as 12. But allegations of sexual abuse weren’t what brought the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) to Mount Carmel in 1993. It was the suspicion that the Branch Davidians were stockpiling guns.
The 51-Day Siege Of Mount Carmel In Waco
On February 28, 1993, the ATF drove up to the Branch Davidians’ Mount Carmel compound and tried to raid the premises. But David Koresh and his followers resisted. Though accounts differ on who fired first, five ATF agents and five Branch Davidians lay dead by the time the dust settled.
Then, the Waco siege began. The FBI took over for the ATF and besieged Mount Carmel for 51 days. As a dozen tanks and more than 600 agents waited nearby, the FBI blasted music to induce sleep deprivation and tried to convince Koresh to “release” his followers from the compound.
The problem was that the Branch Davidians didn’t want to be “released.”
“David, these kids need their parents, and we want everybody to be safe. How about the women? Can — will you let them come out of there?” one FBI agent asked Koresh during the negotiations. Koresh responded: “Yeah, but the thing of it is that if they wanted to, they, they could.”
Indeed, the two sides largely talked past each other. The Branch Davidians believed the siege was part of the “fifth seal,” in which they were expected to suffer two rounds of bloodshed separated by a long pause. The FBI thought the followers were being held against their will by a cult leader.
And on April 19, 1993, the impasse between the two ended in utter tragedy. The FBI raided the compound — lit mainly with candles and lanterns — with tear gas and other weaponry. A fire broke out, and 76 of the 85 Branch Davidians were killed, including Koresh and 25 young children.
After the siege, the Branch Davidians were largely portrayed as mindless cultists with a propensity for violence. A Texas Ranger later testified that some 300 assault rifles and pistols were discovered at the compound, according to the Los Angeles Times. And as Vox notes, then-President Bill Clinton said, “I do not think the United States government is responsible for the fact that a bunch of religious fanatics decided to kill themselves.”
But not everyone agrees with that statement today. And what happened to the Branch Davidians at Waco would have long-reaching implications.
The Branch Davidians After Waco
In the aftermath of the Waco siege, some have highlighted what had happened at Mount Carmel as the worst example of government overreach. Even today, it’s cited as an example of the evils of government.
Chillingly, some sought bloody revenge after the siege. Domestic terrorist and right-wing extremist Timothy McVeigh carried out the Oklahoma City Bombing in 1995 as a direct response to what happened at Waco.
“Waco can happen at any given time,” one anti-government leader warned years later in 2015, according to The New York Times. But the next time that it happened, he promised, “the outcome will be different.”
The modern-day Branch Davidians, too, acknowledge the Waco siege as a significant part of their history. A small group of them — now called Branch, The Lord Our Righteousness — rebuilt their community in the same area where the original Mount Carmel stood. They’re currently led by Charles Pace, a Branch Davidian who wasn’t present during the Waco siege.
“I came back here after the slaughter, and I feel that the Lord has anointed me and appointed me to be the leader,” Pace told NPR. “I don’t claim to be a prophet. I’m a teacher of righteousness, that’s the only thing I claim.”
For the Branch Davidians who did survive, Waco remains a potent memory.
“We survivors of 1993 are looking for David and all those that died either in the shootout or in the fire,” Clive Doyle, the Branch Davidians’ unofficial historian, told NPR. “We believe that God will resurrect this special group.”
After reading about the Branch Davidians, look through these photos of life inside Warren Jeffs’ fundamentalist Mormon cult. Or, discover the story of the Children of God cult that encouraged child sexual abuse.