The History of the Branch Davidians
Victor Houteff is hardly a household name. Yet he is the father of a notable religious organization. Houteff's Davidian SDA movement prospered for 26 years before it disbanded in 1961.
Houteff was born in Bulgaria in 1885. His family immigrated to the United States and he became a member of the Seventh Day Adventist Church in 1919. By the early 1930's, Houteff had developed Biblical views which were in conflict with his fellow Seventh Day Adventists.
The Seventh Day Adventist Church has adopted a unique doctrine known as the investigative judgement of Christ. The belief was born out of an attempt to explain the failure of William Miller's prophecy for the return of Christ. Miller had set a date of 21 March 1843 to 21 March 1844 as the time of Christ's reappearing. When the latter date had passed a new date was set for 22 October 1844. The date arrived - but Christ did not.
The next day a Millerite named Hiram Edson had a vision. He claims his vision pictured Christ as entering the Heavenly Holy of Holies to cleanse the Heavenly temple and to open a period of investigating those who claimed to be God's people. Christ's cleansing work would cover the past sins of his people but they would have to keep God's laws during a period of probation (The Great Controversy, E.G. White p. 309).
After the probation period was over Christ would lay the sins of the people (Adventists), on the Azazel (Satan) and their sin would then be blotted out. An Adventist may be disfellowshiped for breaking Old Testament food laws or for drinking or smoking. When that is taken together with their belief that they are the invisible and remnant church of God, salvation becomes conditional.
According to Jeriel Bingham, vice president of the Davidian Seventh Day Adventists Association in Exeter, Missouri, Houteff sought to be a voice of reformation within the Adventist Church.
Houteff held to the emphasis on justification by faith. He referred to himself as a reformer after the teachings of E.J. Waggoner and A.T. Jones. These two men had taught justification by faith in Christ alone at the 1888 General Conference of the SDA. This was a message which was not well received.
However, when examining Houteff's writings, he seems to hold to a view of justification which teaches that Christ's righteousness is actually imparted to the believer. Thus, the believer is able to keep the law perfectly even as Christ had done.
Bingham says, another point of contention was the remnant seed discussed in Revelation 12:17. The Adventists held that the Saturday sabbath was the mark of the remnant of God, or the only true church. The woman's seed mentioned in verse 17 is said to be keeping God's commandments. Adventists felt that the seventh day sabbath is the token of all of the moral law which is binding on all believers.
The Adventists believed the great crowd of Revelation 6 were those who would be brought into the Adventist Church during the time of troubles just before Armageddon. Houteff believed the 144,000 believers of Revelation 7 and 14 were Adventists but he taught that the great crowd were believers outside of the Adventist church. Houteff was branded as a disruptive influence and disfellowshiped in 1935.
Houteff and a handful of followers moved to Texas, near Waco. At first they were called The Shepherd's Rod. In 1942 they incorporated and took the name Davidian Seventh Day Adventist. Houteff fully expected Christ to return during his life time. He had always planned to settle his group in Israel but died in 1955, before his dream was accomplished. His wife, Florence, took over as leader of the group. She pronounced to Houteff's followers that on 22 April 1959 there would appear a great sign and the Lord would return.
As the April 1959 date approached, nearly 1400 followers arrived in Texas to await the sign and the Lord's return. The Lord did not return but one of Houteff's former followers arrived claiming he was the sign Florence had predicted.
The man was named Benjamin Roden, a west Texas businessman, who had just returned from purchasing land in Israel. He was able to convince some of the Davidians that he was a prophet and became the leader of a new and separate movement. Roden called his group the Branch Davidians.
Florence Houteff issued an announcement in 1961 that the Davidian Seventh Day Adventists were disbanding. One of Houteff's associates formed an organization called the Davidian Seventh Day Adventist Association. This group is today located in Exeter, Missouri and has continued Houteff's teachings against the legalism of the traditional SDA. Bingham stresses the importance of justification by faith as an imputed righteousness as taught by the reformation.
However, the Branch Davidians, founded by Benjamin Roden, adopted a narrow theology based on an expected imminent return of Christ. Roden kept not only the Saturday sabbath but also instituted the Jewish Old Testament feasts of Passover, Tabernacles and Atonement as eight day observances. When Roden died in 1978, his wife, Lois, became head of the group.
In 1981 a young man named Vernon Howell joined the group and quickly gained influence. He had been raised under Seventh day Adventist theology and had begun memorizing scripture as a child. Howell had become obsessed with the book of Revelations and Old Testament end time prophecy. He soon ran afoul of George Roden, the son and heir apparent of Lois Roden. Howell was a quiet spoken and polite young man while George Roden had a reputation as a bully. The two men came to a near violent confrontation in 1985.
Roden forced Howell's group off the Texas property which the Rodens had taken by squatters rights after the Houteff organization had disbanded. The conflict between Roden and Howell culminated in a shoot-out in 1987. Howell emerged from the conflict as the new leader of the Branch Davidian group.
Things remained relatively quite until 28 February 1993. Fifty-two days later fire swept through the compound and all but nine were killed. David Koresh's Branch Davidians reached a tragic end.