Who Were The Branch Davidians, And Where Is The Group Today?

It's hard to say exactly when to start the tale of the Branch Davidians, but October 22nd of 1844 seems like a solid jumping off point. That was when William Miller, a lay preacher operating out of the United States, predicted that Jesus would return to cleanse the Earth of sin. As Cabinet Magazine explains, he did his homework and drafted convincing arguments to bring folks to his cause, but when Jesus didn't make an appearance, several new groups formed from the remains of Miller's church. The Seventh-Day Adventists found the most followers, holding that the October 22nd prediction had been a miscommunication. Jesus, they stated, had actually entered into the Most Holy Place of heaven on that day, and he could be expected back on Earth at some point in the future.

In 1929, a Seventh-Day Adventist named Victor Houteff split from the church to create his own version of Adventism, taking their name, The Shepherd's Rod, from the title of a book he had published explaining his disagreements with the church. They would also be known as Davidian Seventh-Day Adventists, or more officially the General Association of Davidian Seventh-Day Adventists (per Britannica). It was an offshoot of an offshoot of an offshoot that, at present, has yet another offshoot.

A long story

In 1955, Victor Houteff died, and the church he founded was left in the hands of his wife, Florence, though the transition wasn't a smooth one. When her prediction of a biblical cleansing failed to take place on its prophesied April 22nd, 1959 due date, the group fractured again, per Britannica.

Taking control of the church's holding in the days after the failed prophecy was a new group, the Branch Davidians, led by Oklahoma native Ben Roden. After Ben died in 1978, power passed briefly between his wife, Lois, and son, George, before landing with a guy named Vernon Howell.

George and Vernon didn't exactly get along, and a power struggle commenced. The highlights included George Roden challenging Vernon Howell to a resurrection contest and Howell sending armed assailants to Roden's compound. Roden's mental health deteriorated until he murdered his roommate with an axe in 1989 and was institutionalized until his death in 1998.

Howell, meanwhile, retook the Branch Davidians' Mount Carmel Center compound, changed his name to David Koresh, married a whole lot of his followers — asserting that as a "messianic figure," he was "the perfect mate" for all females, and that their children would eventually rule the world.

Waco down

Life persisted relatively unperturbed at the Branch Davidian compound until federal agencies got involved. Several of Koresh's wives were young teenagers, per PBS, leading to allegations of child abuse from an ex-member seeking custody of his daughter during a 1992 trial. Authorities also caught wind of Koresh's new business venture as a gun retailer, and began to get worried that the Branch Davidians might be preparing to attack — someone, anyone, somewhere, any which way — in an imaginary end times scenario. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) went from zero to 100, and rather than serving a warrant, raided the compound in 1993. The ensuing gunfight killed four agents and six Davidians. Koresh was shot during the raid, but survived.

Thus began a 51-day siege of the compound by the FBI, culminating in a tragic end. Details are murky, but one way or another, the compound caught fire, killing 79 Davidians barricaded within, including Koresh. Of the 79 victims, 21 were under the age of 16.

The survivors

Not all of David Koresh's followers died during the FBI's siege on the Branch Davidian Waco compound and subsequent shootout and conflagration. Nine were brought up on various federal charges and have all since been released from prison, as NPR says. 

Most prominently amongst the survivors is David Thibodeau, who decided to option his experiences to Paramount in the form of a TV miniseries, 2018's "Waco." Refinery29 says that Thibodeau was serious about explaining all party's points of views, including Koresh's. Thibodeau told the Dallas Observer, "There were times where years and years would go by, not talking about it. It'll be on the TV, and I'd see Mount Carmel burning, and I'm like, 'Oh, my God, that really happened. I was there. Wow.'" 

Other survivors include Joann Vaega, who was a child at the time and was whisked away from the Branch Davidian compound before it burned down. On Today she describes being told by childhood peers, adults at the time, and even therapists growing up that she was "crazy" and all but fated to become a psychopath. Yet other survivors, like Clive Doyle, remain ardent believers not only in their faith but in David Koresh himself, insisting that Koresh will eventually return to life. "We believe that God will resurrect this special group," he said on NPR.

The persistence of belief

Lest you think that's where the story of the Branch Davidians ended, have a look at the website for The BRANCH, The LORD (YHVH) Our Righteousness church, which chronicles the history of its ongoing church in vast and complex detail. The Branch (for short) sprouted from the charred stump of Koresh's Branch Davidians, from those "who did not follow David Koresh into apostasy," as the site puts it. The church is currently headed up by Charles Joseph Pace, who's been a member of the Branch Davidians since 1973. NPR quotes Pace as saying, "I came back here after the slaughter and I feel that the Lord has anointed me and appointed me to be the leader. I don't claim to be a prophet. I'm a teacher of righteousness, that's the only thing I claim."

NPR says that the new Branch church is located in Waco like the one before it, on a hill just east of the spot where Koresh's compound burned down in 1993. And despite all denunciations of Koresh and claims at striking a different theological figure, the new Branch also preaches similar "waiting for the end times" beliefs. "The United States has to fall in order for the One World Order to be set up," Pace says, continuing, "Especially if there's war in the Middle East, that's when they're going to see Branch Davidians start scrambling to find out what the truth is, and where they need to be."