Encyclopedia of Religion
and Society

William H. Swatos, Jr. Editor

Table of Contents | Cover Page  |  Editors  |  Contributors  |  Introduction  |  Web Version


(1959-1993) Vernon Howell (later "David Koresh") joined the Seventh-day Adventist Church and was inspired by the apocalyptic message of church-sponsored "Revelation Seminars" that featured dramatic images in a multimedia depiction of Armageddon. Howell became fascinated by the premillennial prophetic focus on imminent end times, which in the New Testament Book of Revelation is mystically represented by the "Seven Seals"; Howell came to believe that these could be opened only by a new messiah. In 1981, Howell joined the "Branch Davidians," an offshoot of the schismatic "Davidian Seventh Day Adventists" founded by Victor Houtoff in 1935.

Koresh was "intelligent, mechanically adept, a capable guitarist, and possessor of an immense store of memorized passages of scripture" (Kelley 1995:23). Howell was mentored by Lois Roden, wife of deceased Branch Davidian leader Benjamin Roden, whose son George Roden ousted Howell. In 1987, there was a shootout between Howell's followers and Roden, after which Howell and several Davidians were tried for attempted murder, which resulted in a hung jury for Howell and acquittals for the others. Howell paid the back taxes on the Mt. Carmel estate in Waco, Texas (founded by Houtoff), and took over the Branch Davidian leadership. Mt. Carmel was renamed "Ranch Apocalypse," and Howell became "David Koresh," which denoted the messianic House of David and King Cyrus, conqueror of the Babylonians.

In Koresh's dualistic, midtribulationist vision, evil was concentrated in the "Babylonians," who were identified with the U.S. government. An arsenal was established to defend the settlement—an inevitable war with the Babylonians was seen as necessary for the advent of God's Kingdom. The arsenal was expanded in response to the coincidental maneuvers of a local SWAT team in 1992. This expansion brought Koresh and some followers to the attention of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF). Koresh was also being investigated by Texas child protection officials for possible child molestation and statutory rape while "spreading the seed of the Messiah." On February 28, 1993, about 90 ATF agents (some in helicopters) tried to execute a "dynamic entry" into ranch Apocalypse, which produced a shootout (an alleged Davidian "ambush") followed by a 51-day standoff. During this period, two religion scholars, Phillip Arnold and James Tabor, communicated with Koresh and suggested a reinterpretation of the Seven Seals scenario (in the biblical Book of Revelation), which would postpone the final apocalypse. Tabor is certain that Koresh, who appeared to accept the altered scenario, would have given himself up after he completed writing down his new interpretation. FBI agents, who became involved in the case after the failed ATF mission, deny he ever would have come out, and thus justify their apparent assault on April 19 with armored vehicles, rams, and tear gas. Mt. Carmel went up in flames, and most persons therein perished, including Koresh. It is quite possible that Koresh and his followers, interpreting the FBI action as the final murderous assault of the Babylonians, chose to die in a purifying fire ("mass suicide"), but this has not been clearly established.

Thomas Robbins


D. M. Kelley, "Waco," First Things 53(May 1995):22-37

J. Lewis (ed.), From the Ashes (Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 1994)

D. J. Reavis, The Ashes of Waco (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995)

J. D. Tabor and E. Gallagher, Why Waco (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995)

S. Wright (ed.), Armageddon in Waco (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995).

return to Encyclopedia Table of Contents

Hartford Institute for Religion Research   hirr@hartsem.edu
Hartford Seminary, 77 Sherman Street, Hartford, CT 06105  860-509-9500