CESNUR - Centro Studi sulle Nuove Religioni diretto da Massimo Introvigne

CESNUR 2005 International Conference
June 2-5, 2005 – Palermo, Sicily
Religious Movements, Globalization and Conflict: Transnational Perspectives

The Davidians, The Branch Davidians and Globalization

Bill Pitts

A paper presented at the 2005 CESNUR Conference in Palermo, Sicily. Preliminary version – do not reproduce or quote without the consent of the author


Global connection is a striking feature of both Davidians and Branch Davidians. Both groups have their home base and much of their history centered in central Texas, near Waco.  Both have remained tiny throughout their history.  For such a small group they have achieved a remarkable geographical and ethnic diversity of followers.  When the Davidian home burned in 1993, roughly forty percent of the group had been recruited from beyond the borders of the United States.  How did this develop?
Recent well-known globalization studies have focused on economics and politics. Globalization is based on the transfer of information and ideas between groups.  Among religious groups, this, of course, was the task of missions long before the term “globalization” became fashionable.  Personal travel options, especially air travel, is a key mark of the twentieth century and a major facilitator of modern globalization.  Ideas travel principally through multiple varieties of communication options.  This paper focuses on tools of communication in shaping an international following, creating global consciousness of the Davidian tradition, and defending the movement.  I will discuss three overlapping chronological stages of this development:
(1) early expansion through printing and missions, (2) international recognition under David Koresh via television and (3) current perceptions shaped through the internet. My focus in this paper is not theology, but rather global awareness of the Davidians.  But first a short word on identity.  Who were they, and what was their goal?
The Davidians began as a reform group within the Seventh-day Adventist church, and their connection to the mother church is the key to their first stage of globalization.
The Seventh-day Adventists relied on the interpretation of scripture developed by William Miller. His key idea was that Christ’s return is imminent.  Moreover, he believed that the code for deciphering the time of his return is locked in the scriptures. Miller determined to break this code.  Using Daniel’s 2300 days, which he said were to be interpreted as years, Miller looked back in time to a significant event that occurred about 2300 years ago.  He found it to be associated with refounding the Second Temple which he believed was dated 456 B.C.E.  By his simple calculation, 1843-44 would be the year of fulfillment--the year of Christ’s return.  The return failed to materialize, but Ellen White reinterpreted Miller’s insight and she and others reorganized the movement following the Great Disappointment.  Millennialists added additional teachings regarding Sabbath worship, dietary regulations and pacifism.  They constituted a new denomination--the Seventh-day Adventists in 1863.
The Davidians believed that a series of inspired interpreters such as Martin Luther and John Wesley had provided new understanding of the Christian faith.  They were confident that God would continue to speak through other prophets.  Similarly, they believed that William Miller and Ellen White were the recent “spirits of prophecy.”  They remained open to new teachings, and this attitude opened the way for adopting new ideas under the leadership of the twentieth century prophets Victor Houteff, Ben and Lois Roden, and David Koresh.
Victor Houteff immigrated from Bulgaria to the United States in 1907 and attended a Seventh-day Adventist meeting in Rockford, Illinois.  There he embraced the Adventist message and abandoned his Bulgarian Orthodox roots.  Adventists flourished in California, and he gravitated to their center in Los Angeles.  A serious student, he was soon asked to lead Sabbath day teaching classes.  Houteff’s independent studies led him to believe that the 144,000 of the book of Revelation represented the only true church.  However, the Adventists had reached about 300,000 members by this time.  Clearly not all were God’s elect.  He believed that the Seventh-day Adventist church had grown lukewarm in its faith.[1][1]  It had fallen away from Christ.  The Seventh-day Adventists did not welcome his critique, and the General Conference of the Seventh-day Adventist church banned him from teaching.  Houteff therefore left for central Texas in 1935 and established a community of about sixty followers, later called Davidians.  The central mission of this group was to convert 144,000 believers to the truth (which Davidians refer to as “the message”).  These believers would welcome Christ at his coming and would be Christ’s favored ones. How would they accomplish this task?

I. Globalizing the Davidian Tradition: Printing and Missions

Houteff called his teaching The Shepherd’s Rod, and assistants with better English turned these messages into printed tracts.  Davidians were confident of the power of the written word to win followers.  Therefore their major strategy was to set up presses, print the message and distribute thousands of copies of Houteff’s tracts.  In addition they published The Symbolic Code, a journal that provided additional interpretation and also reports of conversions to Houteff’s teaching.  The Davidians expected to offer personal teaching of the message of the tracts whenever possible, but they also had great confidence in the printed word to carry “the message.”
The Davidians were motivated by a missionary incentive: they felt that they must work to help 144,000 of the Seventh-day Adventists see the truth of their views.  Missionary efforts from most denominations are open to other believers or to non- believers.  The potential convert might come from any context.  For the early Davidians, however, the target was limited to Seventh-day Adventists. Almost no other group of Christians held the combination of views that included Christ’s imminent return and Sabbath observance.  Therefore the Davidians focused their missionary efforts on members within this denomination.  Globalization suggests contact, openness with the world.  This group began its life as isolated from the world as possible.  Yet as it pursued its mission, Davidians followed Adventists wherever they were in the world.  Since the Adventist denomination had identified The Rod heresy and had publicly rejected it, Davidians had to be subtle in their evangelization.  They could not just walk up to a prospective convert, announce themselves and expect welcome hearing.  Instead they secured mailing lists of Adventists in community after community, sometimes posing as Bible sales persons, or they showed up at Adventist summer camps with literature.  Adventists have told me of their counselors who collected Davidian tracts from campers as soon as they were distributed and deposited them in trash cans.  The parent church clearly rejected the mission and teaching of their reforming brothers and sisters.  Davidians often worshipped with Seventh-day Adventists, befriended them, and sought opportunities to teach their message to Adventists in their homes.
In the early 1950s Houteff was convinced that the time of the fulfillment of his teaching was near.  He purchased a fleet of a half dozen new cars to put on the road and spread the Davidian message.  His followers at that time were accustomed to a very simple life style and were astonished at the appearance of these new vehicles.[2][2]  They were sent out armed with truth-filled tracts containing “the message” and reliable transportation to take them to potential converts.
The Davidians evangelized in areas where Seventh-day Adventist had preceded them, including the English speaking areas abroad such as the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, and the Caribbean.  They made many of their converts beyond the boundaries of the United States.  Whatever success the Davidians enjoyed
came by convincing their spiritual cousins in the Seventh-day Adventist church that this new teaching was true.  And this church had spread throughout the world.[3][3]  But few were convinced.  So far as I can tell, the Davidians never reached over two or three percent of their goal.  Houteff died in 1955, and when his wife called the followers to Mount Carmel in 1959, some 600 faithful believers came, about half of one percent of 144,000 in twenty-four years of work.
The missionary imperative explains the earliest expressions of Davidian globalization, and printing the message was a key channel of extending Davidian teaching.  This missionary pattern persists today.  Unknown to the outside world, a group of Jamaican Davidians converted by Davidian missionaries has purchased the spiritual center of the Davidians at Old Mount Carmel.  They have set up superb printing equipment, and continue to print Houteff’s tracts in the format he created in the 1930s.  Moreover, the Davidians located in Salem, South Carolina have undertaken to republish all of the original Davidian writings.  They have produced two handsome volumes of Houteff’s writings, The Shepherd’s Rod and another volume called The Symbolic Code.  These volumes open the door to Davidian understanding of the faith.
Ben Roden, founder of the off-shoot Branch Daidians (1955), followed a similar evangelization strategy.  He inherited the mailing addresses used by Houteff and evangelized by printed word and personal visits.  Ben wrote ecstatically about the fulfillment of prophecy with the establishment of the state of Israel and through the printed word he addressed the whole Seventh-day Adventist denomination, calling on its members at their national convention in Dallas to listen to his teaching.  Few responded.  His best results came from recruiting from the older Davidian population.  Clive Doyle’s experience of conversion illustrates very well the effect of missions by the printed word. Doyle, current Branch Davidian leader, reports, “I became a Branch Davidian in 1964 after reading their literature and hearing Ben Roden teach.”

II. Transformation and International Recognition under David Koresh: A Global View of the Davidians

David Koresh carried on the recruiting traditions of the prophet-evangelist.   Abroad he found his greatest success in three regions: Australia, Hawaii and England.[4][4]  There he visited Adventist homes and seminaries. (New recruits from these venues were often, in turn, from other places, e.g., Hawaiians from Japan and China, English from Jamaica, Nigeria, and Greece.)  Koresh updated Houteff’s approach.  Instead of printed tracts, he produced tapes to convey his ideas.  Just as Houteff taught followers in the evenings at Mount. Carmel, Koresh regularly “gave a teaching,” as Davidians and Branch Davidians like to say.  The printed word can convey the message, but if the messenger is presenting, the urgency of the appeal can be greatly enhanced.  So Koresh traveled to engage in personal evangelization.  Instead of a new fleet of Chevrolets, Koresh could use transoceanic flights to reach his audiences thousands of miles from home.  He built his following, and by 1993 one hundred thirty followers had moved to Mount Carmel.  By this time the diversity of origin of Branch Davidians suggests a fairly advanced level of internationalization for such a tiny religious movement.  They were not recruited from nearby Texas soil; they came from around the world, drawn by an idea.
The moment that sticks in the minds of most people who can identify Koresh, Branch Davidians, and Waco is the burning of the home of the Davidians at New Mount Carmel on April 19, 1993.  Some seventy-six people died in that inferno. It came fifty-one days after a disastrous confrontation between the Federal government and the Branch Davidians.  It was a disaster for the United States government and for the Branch Davidians.  The key to making this event common knowledge in the world was, of course, the television camera.  The image of the burning building was played over and over, appeared on magazine covers, and continues to be used.  Communication is again seen as the key to globalization.  Here the focus has shifted from sympathetic strategy of mission to a television image suggesting the Branch Davidians were connected with violence.
In the period following the burning, the media displayed two divergent voices. On the one hand it too often accepted the demonizing of the Branch Davidians typical of anti-cult groups. This is precisely the point of Why Waco, the excellent study by James Tabor and Eugene Gallagher.[5][5]  The media often stereotyped the Branch Davidians as a cult, responsible for the violence that destroyed it.  On the other hand, this same press showed its influence in the other direction by keeping the topic in the news and pressing the government to answer for its actions.  The news reporters explored every conceivable question following April 19: who was responsible for the first shot fired, the presence of helicopters, the treatment of the children, the approach of the negotiators, the cause of the fire, the trials that followed, and so on.  To this day the local NPR station daily airs the opinion of a local commentator that this was the most tragic failure of law enforcement in United States history.[6][6]
The actions of the media--print and television--demonstrate how crucial they are as agents of globalization today. They are the outsiders in this story, to be sure. Their contribution was to render the unknown known and make it global.  Here two tracks of this story become apparent.  Globalization formed by the group’s approach to its mission is the internal impulse and created globalized characters of the Davidian membership.  Globalization as outsider awareness of a tiny New Religious Movement came through television and non-religious media.  This, of course, was reaction to tragedy that involved the government and a religious group, and it is what the media chose to cover on an international scale for days.  This story has aftermath.  This year, 2005, was the twelfth anniversary of the tragedy.  A small group of about fifty people showed up to commemorate the lives lost. The names were read and the bell tolled as usual.  Leader Clive Doyle struggled unsuccessfully to keep back his tears.  He is getting older and copes with diabetes.  He said he is tired and expressed the hope that God would soon intervene and end all of this.  It is hard to kill belief, but this movement has been severely decimated and struggles to maintain itself against overwhelming odds.  The local newspaper showed one picture and reported in a brief column the highlights of the event.
Meanwhile on the same day in Oklahoma City, that city held its ten-year anniversary memorializing its terrible loss of 168 people.  Timothy McVey had directed his wrath at the Federal Government because of the treatment of the Branch Davidians on the second anniversary of the burning.  Former President Clinton spoke; national news covered the event.  Once again the media, by its choices, helps create and perpetuate images for the global community.
Television involved more than making the Branch Davidians well known.  It also had the power to change them.  The new situation created in 1993 influenced and modified the Branch Davidians directly.  (1) They had expected a major crisis in 1995.  Now they had to think in terms of reinterpretation of their theology.  Perhaps the great crisis, the war with Babylon, was already engaged.  (2) Moreover, they wondered if they might take advantage of their new-found notoriety to communicate their message.  This seemed to be an urgent goal of Koresh who negotiated for an hour of teaching his message on radio.  A Dallas radio station granted his request.  The opportunity to influence the wider society utterly failed.  The public had no idea what Koresh was talking about.  A veteran Dallas/Fort Worth reporter recalled his colleagues with pens poised ready to transmit Koresh’s message in print.  But he said that after three or four minutes you could see the reporters putting down their pens.  (3) As things grew worse for the Branch Davidians during the standoff, they sought to use the television to win support if not converts.  They placed banners on their building saying, “Rodney King, we understand.”  This of course referred to a brutal beating by police officers in Los Angeles.  They were hoping for a peaceful resolution of the standoff, and hoping the media would be the instrument of their salvation.  These were temporary transformations, developed under intense pressure to survive; they did not create permanent changes among the Branch Davidians.  Koresh was pushed to write his interpretation of the Seven Seals.  But it was the presence of surrounding hostile forces that occasioned this writing, not the mere presence of television crews.  The long term influence seems to be that the world identifies this group and stigmatizes it.  The group barely holds on, a remnant of three in worship, without prospect of new converts.  The CESNUR conferences often refer to the power of Cult Awareness Network and its successors.  They seem to be winning the “cult wars” in this case.

III. The Davidians and the Internet

Revolution in communication has provided yet a third dimension to the globalization of the Davidians and Branch Davidians.  The internet became a powerful personal tool for communication in the 1990s.  It has a place in this story of globalization of the Davidian traditon through communication.
Soon after Branch Davidian Livingstone Fagan (trained at Newbold Adventist Seminary in England) was imprisoned in 1993, he set up a web site through which he explained his understanding of the Branch Davidian understanding of Christianity.  That site was shut down, but Fagan continues to reflect on the teachings of the group and manages to get his ideas typed and circulated.  His theological work has caused Fagan to be viewed as the possible next teacher/prophet of the movement, and adds heightened interest among the Branch Davidians to tracking the time of his release from prison.  Fagan’s teachings are available at Davidian websites.  When he is released, Fagan will doubtless reestablish a website and resume his own teaching through cyberspace.  In December 2004 Fagan published “David Koresh: Questions and Answers, Part I.”[7][7] He identifies himself as a student of David Koresh, and proposes here to explain some of Koresh’s teachings.  Fagan’s gift is clarity of presentation.
Fagan writes that “what happened in Waco and the beliefs we held were not separate realities.”  At Waco we were like people “playing a part in a movie.”  He notes, “We became the living fulfillment of the prophetic scriptures written long ago.  We are still in the process of this prophetic drama leading to the setting up of the kingdom of God.”  The Branch Davidians see themselves playing an essential role in the last days.  He describes the “plan of salvation” in fairly traditional Protestant terms: forgiveness, faith, righteousness of life.”[8][8]  But the Waco event has moved the process along. 

Then he turns to distinctive Davidian views: “In David Koresh Christ came again, this time as a sinner who would himself take hold of the grace made available 2000 years ago to restore him to righteousness…It worked.”[9][9]  The evidence for Fagan was Koresh’s ability to reveal the book sealed with the Seven Seals referred to in Revelation 5.  Christ gave up his divinity to become as [“sinful] man.”  This was Koresh’s claim, and once accepted by followers, the source of his authority.
The kingdom will be set up on the Mount of Olives, east of Jerusalem, and will last one thousand years (Revelation 20: 6-11), according to Fagan. Here again he echoes popular Davidian sentiment.
He also tackles the difficult question of Koresh’s children.  Just as the virgin birth of Christ was ridiculed 2000 years ago (and still today), Koresh’s action “has been much reproached.[10][10]  Here Fagan moves to the argument that God is not bound by the ordinary.  He says that it “wasn’t about sexual gratification” but it was God’s way of creating the twenty-four Elders who would judge all of humankind.[11][11]  They would function as a divine jury in the day of judgment.
Fagan says that it is tragic that the righteous suffer, but their suffering is for the purpose of good and has occurred regularly.  Children died in Waco just as they did at the time of the births of Moses and Jesus.
The Branch Davidians have long focused on the Wave Sheaf to explain their unique identity in the scheme of end time.  This group of elite Christians is distinct from the 144,000.  Fagan sees them as the servants sent to perform key tasks related to the plan of salvation.[12][12]  Fagan lists characteristics of the Wave Sheaf.  They are God’s
army. They ride with the Lamb.  They execute God’s wrath upon the wicked.  They

cannot be killed by any weapon.  The wrath of God will be dealt against those who transgress the Law of God and those who reject God’s salvation.  The wave sheaf are God’s forces against the unrighteous (Rev. 9:16).
Fagan affirms the feminine character of the Holy Spirit, restating Branch Davidian appeals to logic (father and son imply a mother) and to scripture (“Let us make man in our own image, male and female created he them.”
Fagan emphasized the role of the Bride of the Lamb. Jeremiah describes a righteous Branch, and the Davidians equate Bride and Branch.  The Davidians appropriate both martial and marital Biblical images to shape their identity as critical players at the judgment of God; they will destroy evil and goodness and life will triumph as the Bride of Christ.
In this short text Fagan brings together essential features of Davidian thought:
the Christ-prophet, the physical kingdom restored, Koresh’s children as the judges of humanity, the role of suffering, wave sheaf, the female Holy Spirit, Bride and Branch, thus reducing a complex scheme to a half dozen essentials and backing them with support from many Biblical passages.  This presentation is relatively brief and much clearer than many Branch Davidian texts.  When Livingstone Fagan is released from prison, expect to see his expositions of Branch Davidian thought on the internet.  It is no longer essential to print or to make tapes.  Branch Davidian thought can be communicated directly by computer in the future.

The internet is being used another way.  Mark MacWilliams has recently pointed out in Nova Religio that the controversy over the 1993 tragedy still rages on the internet.  He argues that although Davidian survivors, Libertarians, Second Amendment rightist, and the militia movement have different agendas, they all share the conviction that what happened at Mount Carmel in 1993 was wrong.[13][13]  These groups changed the Branch Davidians by co-opting their annual memorial service and turning it into anti-government rhetoric.  Unfortunately, the Branch Davidians accepted support from whatever group offered sympathy. MacWilliams observes that the internet can be a powerful tool because it is thus far “relatively unrestricted by governmental regulations.”[14][14]  The internet is being used to challenge negative stereotypes created by the mass media and the government and to criticize them.
David Thibodeau is a Branch Davidian survivor of the fire.  He uses his website to denounce and defy the government.  He is especially critical of attempts to control him, and he laments the power of television to control the thought of the masses of public viewers.[15][15]
Whereas television consumers tend to be passive viewers, people who initiate websites are activitists, arguing opinions of their own.
MacWilliams observes that founders of these websites resist the popular narrative about the Branch Davidians. They fight back. He finds that these websites of resistance rely especially on four types of images. They (1) depict David Koresh heroic or sanctified, (2) view the ATF and government officials as criminal, (3) memorialize the Branch Davidians as human beings and victims, (4) and depict rebuilt Mount Carmel as risen from the ashes.[16][16]  Each of these images counters commonly held opinion created through the media. Most of MacWilliams’ study is devoted to providing examples of these four views derived from internet sites.  His conclusion is that internet sites provide an important place for new religious movements to create symbolic resistance to negative images created to characterize them. [17]


       This brief paper has addressed the globalization process through changing technologies which have influenced the influenced the Davidian tradition.  The three stages correspond to three major forms of communication employed in the twentieth century: printing, television, and the internet.  All three have influenced the Branch Davidians in both positive and negative ways:
(1) Printing assisted their growth, but it was never very successful.
(2) Television made them known internationally, but virtually destroyed them.
(3) The internet is widely available, but the efforts here thus far are mostly
rear guard defenses rather than constructive efforts that create followers for the movement.
The prospects of Branch Davidian growth are dim.  Knowledge of them is insufficient for evangelization.  Instead, demonizers seem to be winning this battle of the culture war. But none of this story could have happened as it did without the role played by communication in our world.

[1][1] In 1929 he began formulating his ideas, which he published in two volumes under the title The Shepherd’s Rod in 1930 and 1932.  Houteff was prolific.  He was explicating the truth of scripture as he understood it.  His collected works have been bound and published in two volumes.  One book is entitled The Shepherd’s Rod Series (Salem, South Carolina: Mount Carmel Center, 1990), and runs to 860 pages.  The other is a 740-page volume, The Symbolic Code Series (Salem, South Carolina: Mount.  Carmel Center. 1992).  In 1995 a two-volume edition of The Shepherd’s Rod appeared separately bound in its 4th reprinting.

[2][2] Glen Green, “Oral Memoirs” (Waco, Texas: Texas Collection, Baylor University), 1989.

[3][3] The Seventh-day Adventist denomination rapidly achieved international character. In 1985 out of a world-wide membership of 4,598,335, the United States accounted for only 645,952 members. See Gary Land. “Seventh-day Adventists” in Dictionary of Christianity in America, 1076.

[4][4] Interview with Doyle, April 16, 2005.

[5][5] James Tabor and Eugene Gallagher, Why Wzco? Cults and the Battle for Religious
Freedom in America
(Berkeley: University of California Press 1995).

[6][6] NPR advertisement on KWBU, aired daily in 2005.

[7][7] Livingstone Fagan, “David Koresh: Questions and Answers, Part I” (typed manuscript, Dec. 2004), p.1.

[8][8] Fagan, p.2.

[9][9] Fagan, p.2

[10][10] Fagan, p.2

[11][11] Fagan, p.3.

[12][12] Fagan, p.4.

[13][13] Mark MacWilliams, “Symbolic Resistance to the Waco Tragedy on the Internet,” Nova Religio: The Journi1 of A1ternative and Emergent Religions, Vol. 8, issue 3, p.61.

[14][14] MacWilliams, p. 59.

[15][15] MacWilliams, p.62

[16][16] MacWilliams, p.65.