Often confused with the Davidians, the Branch Davidians are a splinter group organized in 1955 by Ben Roden following the death of Davidian founder Victor T. Houteff. Houteff had founded the Davidians, a small Adventist reform movement, in 1929. Six years later, Houteff and thirty-seven of his followers resettled two miles from Waco, where they established the Mount Carmel Center. The community flourished there, growing to around ninety people by 1955. Houteff had complete authority, viewed by his followers as the only person who could reveal Biblical secrets about the end of time. Among his teachings, Houteff stated that he would not die, but would lead his people to old Jerusalem and therefore to the heavenly Canaan. Because of this, Houteff’s sudden death at Hillcrest Hospital, caused by heart failure, came as a huge shock to the Davidians. The loss of their leader led to instability within church organization leadership, along with the formation of several splinter groups.
Prior to his passing, Houteff had appointed his second wife, Florence Houteff, to lead the Davidians until the Lord chose another prophet to take charge. Under her leadership, the community sold their property near Lake Waco for residential development and resettled in 1957. They resettled on a 941-acre farm located nine miles east of Waco near Elk, which they called New Mount Carmel. Florence Houteff and the other leaders predicted the imminent establishment of God’s Kingdom on April 22, 1959. They called on members to gather at New Mount Carmel before that date, which coincided with Passover. About nine hundred gathered, but when signs did not appear, the Davidians began to disperse quickly.
While this gathering took place, Benjamin Roden, a former Seventh-day Adventist who had accepted the teachings of The Shepherd’s Rod in 1946, announced that he was the sign the Davidians were seeking. The failure of the prophecy discredited Florence Houteff, and a small following looked to Roden as their new prophet. Roden’s Branch Davidians claimed the New Mount Carmel property, which was now seventy-seven acres. Roden centered his teachings on the significance of the restored state of Israel, which would be a sign of preparation for Christ’s return to earth. Roden traveled to Israel and established a small community of followers there prior to his death in 1978.
Lois Roden assumed leadership of the Branch Davidians following her husband’s death. Her teachers centered on the female nature of the Holy Spirit and the co-dominion of women and men in the church. This corresponded with ideas circulating from the Feminist Movement in the 1970s and the growing egalitarian teachings of many Adventist sects. Beginning in 1979, Roden began publishing Shekinah, a short-lived journal on women’s place in religion. She also often spoke to media outlets about the femininity of the Holy Spirit, hoping to spread her teachings to a wider audience.
Throughout Lois Roden’s leadership, her son George Roden claimed to be the next heir apparent of the Branch Davidians. However, he was not widely respected within the community, and his own mother did not support his claim. She had aligned herself with Vernon Howell, a young, charismatic Bible teacher who had first arrived at Mount Carmel in 1981. After briefly leaving, he had returned in the mid-1980s and gained support and a growing following among the Branch Davidians. Despite this, George Roden was able to gain control of Mount Carmel in 1985, expelling Howell’s rival faction at gunpoint. Howell and his followers resettled in Palestine, Texas, but returned to Mount Carmel two years later to gain control of the Mount Carmel property. Eight men, including Howell, exchanged gunfire with Roden on November 3, 1987, before being arrested and charged with attempted murder. Howell’s followers were all acquitted, and Howell’s case was declared a mistrial. Because Roden owed thousands of dollars in unpaid taxes on Mount Carmel, Howell and his followers were able to raise the funds and reclaim the property.
Howell perpetuated many distinct Davidian traditions, including an authoritarian leader, communal life separate from society, and the anticipation of the imminent end of the world. In 1990, he changed his name to David Koresh, signifying his messianic role in carrying out a divinely commissioned task of defeating the enemies of God. While previous leaders of the Davidians, such as Houteff, had been pacifists, Koresh began stockpiling weapons and ammunition to defend the faithful. Authorities suspected the Branch Davidians possessed illegal firearms, and on February 28, 1993, the US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms raided the compound, beginning the fifty-one day Branch Davidian Siege.
Today, both Davidians and Branch Davidians exist in scattered communities in the United States and around the world. A small group of Branch Davidians live and worship at Mount Carmel today, called The Branch, The Lord Our Righteousness. This group claims David Koresh twisted Biblical teachings, but other Branch Davidians—some also living at Mount Carmel—still align themselves with Koresh and his version of the Branch Davidian faith.