David Koresh Wiki: Mount Carmel’s Sacred and Profane Messiah

David Koresh was the leader of the Branch Davidians, a Christian sect that led a secluded existence on the Mount Carmel compound outside Waco, Texas. When authorities attempted to raid Mount Carmel in 1993, this led to an infamous 51-day standoff and the deaths of at least 84 people. This David Koresh Wiki bridges the gap between what we really know about the cult leader and what we think we know.

David Koresh was the much-loved—and some say feared—leader and prophet of the Branch Davidians who lived in the Mount Carmel compound near Waco, Texas. The compound would eventually be the scene of a deadly ATF raid on February 28, 1993, resulting in a tragic 51-day standoff between federal forces and Koresh’s cult. To find out more about where the Branch Davidian’s “Lamb of God” came from and how all of this ended so disastrously, take a look at our David Koresh Wiki.

Who Was David Koresh?

David Koresh was born Vernon Howell on August 17, 1959 in Houston, Texas to Bonnie Sue Clark, 14, a single mother. His father Bobby Wayne Howell left before he was born, running away with another teenage girl.

Soon after her baby was born, Clark began dating a man who was a violent alcoholic. In 1963, she left her boyfriend, leaving Koresh, who was then four, with his maternal grandmother.

Koresh spent much of his early years with his grandparents, attending the local Seventh-day Adventist Church. In addition to believing all the main tenants of mainstream Christianity (original sin, virgin birth, existence of Satan, etc.), Seventh-day Adventists believe the second coming of Christ is near and that they should be ready for it at all times.

Young Koresh, who had dyslexia, did not excel at school. He dropped out in Grade 11.

Two things he did excel at were going to the Adventist church and playing guitar.

By the age of 12, Koresh memorized large portions of the Bible and took to lecturing other kids and prophesying about the second coming.

Throughout his teens and early 20s, Koresh worked as a carpenter, became more proficient at playing the guitar (he loved Peter Frampton and Ted Nugent), got a preacher’s teenage daughter pregnant, and was expelled from a congregation.

Koresh spent some time in Los Angeles and tried to make it as a musician. When that failed, he returned to Texas and immersed himself in the Adventist church, but was kicked out for arguing with church leaders.

David Koresh

David Koresh; Photo: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4GJhsnxcsrY&t=358s

Koresh Discovers Mount Carmel

By 1982, Koresh had moved to Waco to live at Mount Carmel, the Branch Davidians compound. At the time, the Davidians group was controlled by Lois Roden, one of its self-declared prophets.

Related article: A Timeline of the Waco Siege: A Look Back at the Deadly 51-Day Standoff

Roden was a feminist theologian who said she’d found Biblical references to suggest that God was a woman. This, of course, did not sit well with the more traditional members of the church.

Clive Doyle, one of the members who survived the 1993 standoff, said, “I looked and looked and just could not find those feminine parts in the Bible. Lois liked to stretch it a bit. But when David came, it took us some time, but we started to believe he had something.”

At Mount Carmel, Koresh and Roden connected on an emotional, psychological, and physical level. The two soon began an affair; Koresh was 22 at the time, Roden was in her 60s. At around that time, Roden began promoting Koresh as her protege.

Rachel Jones, Koresh’s Wife & Devotee

This didn’t prevent Koresh from seeking out younger companionship. On January 18, 1984, he married Rachel Jones (who later added Koresh as her surname). She was only 14 years old at the time and needed the permission of her parents, which she received.

They were married for a total of nine years, during which Jones Koresh bore one son, Cyrus Howell Koresh, and two daughters, Star Howell Koresh and Bobbie Lane Howell Koresh.

One of David Koresh’s most devoted followers, Jones Koresh was described as intelligent, pretty, and bubbly.

Koresh Becomes a Leader to the Branch Davidians

When Roden died in 1986, Koresh and George Roden, Lois’ son, fought for control of Mount Carmel. Koresh ultimately triumphed and became the leader of the Branch Davidians in 1988.

In 1990, he legally changed his name to David Koresh. David symbolized that he was the spiritual heir to King David; Koresh is Hebrew for Cyrus, the ancient Persian king. Koresh maintained that like King David, he too was a messianic figure, but not the Messiah, Jesus.

As leader, one of Koresh’s teachings included the idea of “spiritual wives.” This permitted Koresh to engage in sexual activity with female followers of any age (some were reportedly as young as 12) who were selected for him by God. God allegedly told Koresh he should take the singer Madonna as a spiritual wife.

At the same time, God told Koresh that the men in the congregation should be celibate. Most saw celibacy as a test of their faith; others saw it as manipulation and refused to participate, leaving with their wives.

It was hoped that the children in the compound would become the future leaders of the world. Aside from the three children he had with his wife, Koresh is thought to have fathered at least a dozen children with other members of his congregation.

As leader, Koresh also touted the belief that he was the “Lamb of God” from the Book of Revelation. As such, only he could interpret the Seven Seals containing the secrets to the end of the world.

Koresh preached that not only would his followers play a big role in the end times, but that he would lead them through the tribulations at hand. Said Koresh, “It’s a hard fate, but inevitable, and somehow magnificent.”

David Koresh Preaching to Some Branch Davidians

Koresh Preaching to Some Branch Davidians; Photo: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gLKPNvyrM30&t=2276s

To drive the point home, he led the group through marathon Bible studies and sermons that lasted from early afternoon right through until the following morning.

One of his predictions included an imminent attack by the U.S. government. The only way to help repel the attack was by building an arsenal of guns and ammunition. Those on the compound, believing Koresh was the son of God, were fully prepared for war and the end times.

The Branch Davidians

The Branch Davidians is an offshoot of the Shepherd’s Rod/Davidians, which is itself an offshoot of the worldwide Seventh-day Adventist Church founded in 1929 by Victor Houteff. He joined the Seventh-day Adventist Church in 1919 but left in 1930 for promoting ideas the church considered to be heretical.

In 1935, Houteff, who believed he was a messenger of God, led 12 of his followers to Mount Carmel, Texas, to set up a gathering place for what would eventually be his 144,000 followers. Their ultimate promised land was Palestine.

In 1942, the Shepherd’s Rod Seventh-day Adventist group became the Davidian Seventh-day Adventist Association. The term “Davidian” came from Houteff’s belief that he was the antitypical David.

Their stay at Mount Carmel ended up lasting 20 years. During that time, the sect’s membership reached around 10,000 worldwide with about 125 living at the Mount Carmel headquarters.

When Houteff died in 1955, his wife Florence took over the prophetic mantle. She continued to interpret the end times in the Book of Revelation and set April 22, 1959 as the date of the new messianic age.

In April 1959, hundreds of believers gathered at Mount Carmel. This was supposed to mark the end of the 1,260 days mentioned in Revelation chapter 11. It was also the day that God was supposed to expel all the Jews and Arabs from Palestine.

The believers were left disappointed and they splintered into different groups. In 1962, Florence admitted that she made a mistake about the date of the end times, disbanded her group, and sold Mount Carmel.

One of the groups to branch off from the Davidians was led by Ben Roden, who eventually gained control of Mount Carmel and established the Branch Davidians.

Roden held his own apocalyptic views of the end times and said his followers should lead a pure life, promising Christ would return when members reached a state of moral maturity.

When Roden died in 1978, his wife Lois took control. But this wasn’t without some controversy. More conservative members were put off by her assertions that both God and the Holy Spirit were women and that the Bible was full of feminist references. Many followers of Roden had hoped his son George would take control.

This did not happen. As mentioned, Lois soon became enamored with Koresh and passed the torch onto him.

Branch Davidian Beliefs

The beliefs of Branch Davidians departed drastically from what the Seventh-day Adventists believe. Mainstream Seventh-day Adventists follow the same doctrine as most Protestant faiths, including creation in six days, original sin, the virgin birth of Jesus Christ, and the existence of Satan.

They also hold other beliefs that set themselves apart. Ellen White, one of the founders of the Seventh-day Adventists, is said to have received the gift of prophecy as outlined in Ephesians 4 and I Corinthians 12 and her works are seen as an authoritative source of truth.

The church also believes that when a person dies, they remain unconscious until they are resurrected; in salvation by works alone; in the second coming, which is when true followers of Christ will be resurrected.

Because the human body is a temple, Adventists refrain from alcohol, tobacco, and non-medicinal drugs, and they eat a vegetarian diet.

While the Branch Davidians followed these early teaching of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, they also adhered to new teachings brought by the Rodens and Koresh.

Doctrines introduced by the Rodens include:

  • Maintaining feast days from the Hebrew Bible (Passover, Pentecost, the Day of Atonement, and the Feast of Tabernacles)
  • The Holy Spirit is female
  • Lois Roden is the incarnation of the Holy Spirit

David Koresh introduced his own doctrines as well:

  • The King James Version is the only uncorrupted translation of the Bible
  • Koresh is the only one who can interpret the Bible
  • Everything Koresh does is led by God
  • Koresh is the Lamb of Revelation
  • All women at Mount Carmel belong to Koresh
  • Koresh is Jesus Christ

Siege at Waco, Texas

On February 28, 1993, at approximately 9:30 a.m., members of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) attempted to raid Mount Carmel. Their objective was to serve a search warrant for illegal firearms and explosives and arrest David Koresh.

He and his followers were given a heads-up about the raid and were waiting for authorities. When members of the ATF descended, gunfire ensued, although no one knows who shot first.

The siege lasted for 45 minutes when the ATF started to run out of ammunition. After a ceasefire was called, the Branch Davidians allowed the ATF to collect its dead and wounded.

When the gunfight was over, four federal agents were dead and another 16 were wounded. Five Branch Davidian members died.

Following the shootout, a 51-day standoff took place. During the standoff, the FBI employed many different tactics: they cut off electricity and water, floodlighted the compound all night long, and played sounds of rabbits being slaughtered and loud music.

During the standoff, Koresh said he’d surrender to the FBI if one of his sermons was broadcast over local radio stations including the Christian Broadcasting Network. The U.S. government allegedly mishandled the negotiations and Koresh didn’t surrender.

Then, on April 19, 1993, FBI tanks approached the Mount Carmel compound and punched holes in the walls, pumping 400 canisters of flammable military-grade tear gas into enclosed spaces that were lit by candles and lanterns.

Mount Carmel caught fire, allegedly at the hands of the Branch Davidians. Once the fire was put out, 80 Davidians were found dead, including Rachel Jones Koresh and her three children.

David Koresh died of a gunshot wound to the head. He was 33. No one knows if it was murder or suicide.

The Branch Davidian leader is buried in Tyler Memorial Park and Cemetery in Smith County, Texas.

Controversy Surrounding the Waco Massacre

There is a large amount of controversy surrounding what happened in Waco. Most of it centers on how the ATF conducted the raid and how the FBI responded. The government saw the Davidians as a fragile, paranoid cult that would surrender once they saw how great of a threat they faced.

This wasn’t the case. The Branch Davidians were a different kind of cult; they were not like Jonestown or Heaven’s Gate. They adhered to their religious beliefs and were more than happy to spend hours on end debating a Biblical passage.

Government agents found it difficult to comprehend that their Biblical beliefs were a matter of principle. FBI agents dismissed Koresh’s theology as “Bible-babble” and called him a “coward,” “phony messiah,” “child molester,” and “con man.” They assumed his followers were brainwashed.

As far as the FBI was concerned, they just needed to expose his lies and take specific steps toward a resolution. This is a standard negotiation tactic that suggests a deranged person can be reasoned with and taken from an emotional space to a rational one.

Negotiations that might work with a man holding his child hostage, such as bringing them water in exchange for a weapon, failed with the Branch Davidians. As far as the government was concerned, the standoff at Mount Carmel was non-negotiable.

The Branch Davidians believed in shared values, not goals. Because the FBI did not take the faith of the Branch Davidians seriously, it couldn’t communicate with them in any meaningful way.

The Raid

The need for the initial raid on Mount Carmel, dubbed “Operation Showtime,” has been called into question. Koresh had previously invited ATF agents out to Mount Carmel to inspect the Davidians’ guns. Koresh also had a good relationship with the local sheriff, who had, in fact, visited Mount Carmel on a number of occasions.

On top of that, Koresh and his inner team used to jog right up to the surveillance house set up by ATF agents investigating the Davidians. This suggests Koresh could have easily been arrested, meaning an armed assault was not necessary.

Illegal Weapons

It’s been disputed that the Branch Davidians were hoarding weapons. Per person, all told, they owned fewer guns than the average Texan.

Their supposedly illegal guns, those converted from semi-autmostic to fully automatic, were not illegal. The Davidians had simply failed to fill out the proper paperwork and pay the required fees for the weapons.

An Exit Plan

Koresh and his lawyer had worked out an exit plan and sent a signed legal agreement before the final assault on April 19. By this point, Koresh did not trust the FBI and wanted the Texas Rangers to be involved.

The FBI, meanwhile, maintained that Koresh was never going to surrender and suggestions he might were just examples of his deceptive ways.

Janet Reno Kept Out of the Loop

Attorney General Janet Reno was never told that an exit plan had been worked out. She asked the FBI if there was any hope for a peaceful surrender, but she was told all avenues had been exhausted.

She was allegedly pressured to believe the only option left was a tank assault.

The Fire

There is some debate as to whether David Koresh thought the end times would take place at Mount Carmel.

The Davidians believed they would face persecution and death, as predicted in the book of Revelation, but they were firmly convinced it would be in Israel, not the United States. And they thought this would take place sometime after 1995.

There is little to suggest the Davidians thought they would die in a fiery blaze in Waco in 1993. In fact, according to his understanding of Revelation, Koresh and his (eventual) 144,000 followers would move to Israel and live on Mt. Zion in Jerusalem.

Before the siege, he had around 200 followers worldwide. Koresh believed that the assault and standoff would bring attention to the Branch Davidians and allow his prophecy to be fulfilled.

It is still possible that the Branch Davidians set Mount Carmel on fire, but it is also possible that the flammable tear gas was ignited by open flames and bales of hay that were in the compound.

What more could the FBI have done? Twenty years after the Waco Massacre, Bob Ricks, one of the lead FBI agents in the raid, said, “I guess we could have fenced it off and called it a federal prison.”

Dick J. Reavis, who reported on the Waco siege for the Dallas Observer and later wrote the book The Ashes of Waco, believes the U.S. government wasn’t properly educated about Koresh and his followers.

“The Davidians were exactly what you’d expect them to be if you knew their theology [and had done any research beforehand]. But if the FBI had known what they were all about before they started, they would have never done the raid,” he said.

“It was a botched deal. The FBI has since reformed the way it deals with standoffs.”