The Shepherd's Rod &
DAVIDIANS OF WACO
by Vance Ferrell
TABLE OF CONTENTS
1 - The Houteff Years - The Rod in Southern California 1929-1942
2 - The Houteff Years - The Rod in Waco, Texas 1935-1955
3 - The Rod In Waco, Texas - The Florence Houteff Years 1955-1962
4 - The Roden Years - The Branch In Riverside And Waco 1962-1983
5 - The Howell/Koresh Years - The Branch Davidians In Waco, Texas 1983-1993
6 - The Day Of The Shoot-Out - U.S. Government VS. Branch Davidians Waco, Texas - February 28, 1993
7 - The Fiery End - Waco, Texas April 19, 1993
9 - AFTER THE SMOKE CLEARS - Questions Remain.
THE HOUTEFF YEARS - 1
For decades, the "Shepherd's Rod" was the commonly used term for the "Davidian Seventh-day Adventist Church," a religious offshoot of the Seventh-day Adventist denomination. Its own members called it "the Rod"-until the splintering of 1959, when they gradually began referring to themselves as "Davidians," a name officially adopted in 1942. Under Benjamin Roden, in the 1960s, the Waco segment began calling itself "the Branch," to differentiate it from other Davidians.
This splinter organization was started in 1929 by Victor Houteff, and its unusual name, "The Shepherd's Rod, " was the title of his first publication, as well as his chosen name for the organization until 1942. (One of his associates, with him from 1935 to 1941, told the present writer that the pronunciation of his name is HOW-tif.)
This entire story divides itself into the Houteff years, when either Victor Houteff or his wife Florence ruled; the Roden years, when Benjamin Roden, and later his wife, Lois, and then their son, George, were in charge; and, finally, the Howell/Koresh years, when Vernon Howell (who later changed his name to David Koresh) controlled this strange sect.
HOUTEFF STARTS THE ROD
Victor T. Houteff was born in Raikovo, Bulgaria, on March 2, 1885. (He would later die at Waco, Texas, on February 5, 1955, at the age of 69.)
He grew up as a member of the Eastern Orthodox Church, but disassociated himself from that denomination after a disagreement with church leaders. Apparently, he was enough of a problem that the Orthodox Church requested the Bulgarian Government to expel him from the country; which they did. Houteff would be a problem wherever he went.
Immigrating to the United States in 1907 at the age of 22, he moved to Illinois in 1919, where he operated a small hotel for a time. In 1918 he attended a tent meeting, and that year, at the age of 38, he was baptized into the Rockford Seventh-day Adventist Church. By 1923, he had moved to southern California, where, two years later, he had his membership transferred to the Olympic Exposition Park Church in Los Angeles.
It is frequently said that Houteff was a "church leader." But the highest position he ever attained in the Adventist Church was the position of Sabbath School superintendant at a local church. But then he began teaching his peculiar theories about how his enemies would soon be destroyed so he could rule the world.
All this was a tragedy, since such teachings are so different from the mild, peaceful teachings of the Seventhday Adventist denomination.
Soon complaints came from Sabbath School class members that Houteff was teaching strange ideas in his Sabbath School class and at private Sabbath afternoon meetings with some of the members. A representative group of church workers, Bible teachers, and leaders met with him to consider his views on November 14, 1929. But nothing came of it.
The next spring, Houteff hectographed copies of a study that he entitled The Shepherd's Rod, and distributed it to a number of the leaders attending the 1930 General Conference Session, which was held in San Francisco from May 29 to June 12. One of those who received it-and had time to carefully examine it-was the well-known F.C. Gilbert. A highly educated, converted Jew, Gilbert was quite solid in the faith and knew Adventist teachings well. On June 26, Elder Gilbert wrote a letter to Houteff, pointed out a number of errors in his publication, and recommended that he give them up. Gilbert also wrote to church leaders in southern California and recommended that careful study should be given to this problem before the situation worsened.
THE MEETINGS BEGIN
On July 23, the Exposition Park Church board met with Houteff to consider the problem, but nothing was accomplished. Houteff had a grumpy personality and was adamant in his views. A second board meeting was held on August 14, at which time the following motion was voted:
"It was moved and supported that Brother Houteff be asked to retract his statement that Elder Spicer is not a Sabbathkeeper and to apologize for the disturbance in the church on Sabbath, November 30, 1929. Since Brother Houteff did not make these apologies, the motion was amended as follows, [that] the church wished to express its disapproval of Brother Houteff's action in this matter."
Shortly after this, on October 16, the union president, conference president, and local paster met with Houteff, at which time the action taken was that:
" 'The Shepherd's Rod' is neither true to simple facts, nor true to the word of God, and it is condemned by the very 'Testimonies' it quotes from. We warn our dear brethren against the false conclusions this poor man has come to."
In November of the same year, Houteff contracted to have the full 255-page book, The Shepherd's Rod, printed. It came off the press a month later. In the meantime, on November 20, 1930, a special church board meeting was held, at which time Houteff was finally dropped from church membership.
At each of those six meetings, Houteff was patiently worked with; his errors were listened to and then pointed out; he was asked to retract them. On and on it went for a full year, from November 14, 1929, to November 20, 1930. Later, in 1932, Houteff wrote:
"From the very time I tried to get either a private hearing, or else some of the leading men to come and see what it was all about, pleading with them that it was their duty to correct us if we were in error, or if we had any truth that they should know about it. While they refused to give us any kind of hearing, they did everything possible to close our place of meeting, and some of those who attended these studies were frightened for fear of losing their church membership."-Letter dated April 22, 1932, published in Symbolic Code, Vol. 10, no. 7 (May 1955), pp. 4-5.
Houteff kept churning out more written materials. Volume Two of Houteff's book, The Shepherd's Rod, was printed in September 1932. Additional tracts were issued the next year, which Houteff said represented Volume Three of his book.
Because Houteff insisted that church leaders refused to give him a hearing, two more were given him, the first on November 11, 1932, and the second in 1934.
This second one in 1934 was an unusually large gathering, and was planned for a full week. An abundance of time was to be given for Victor Houteff to present his views, with opportunity for discussion of each point he presented. In addition to Houteff and several of his workers, a stellar group of church workers were to attend that gathering. Here they are:
A.G. Daniells, General Conference field secretary (formerly the G.C. president); Glen A. Calkins, Pacific Union Conference president; G.A. Roberts, Southern California Conference president; Chester S. Prout, Southeastern California Conference President; W.G. Wirth, College of Medical Evangelists (LLU now) Bible teacher; H.M.S. Richards, southern California evangelist; C.M. Sorenson, Southern California Junior College (now La Sierra College, the undergraduate division of LLU) Bible teacher; J.A. Burden, Paradise Valley Sanitarium manager (who helped found the College of Medical Evangelists, now Loma Linda University); J.C. Stevens, Glendale Church pastor; W.M. Adams, Pacific Union Conference religious liberty secretary: J.E. Fulton, Northern California Conference field secretary (a converted Jew who had written many books for the church).
When the meeting was convened on the morning of February 19, 1933, two stenographers were present to take notes. Since Fulton was not able to be present, O.J. Graf, former president of Emmanuel Missionary College attended in his place. The group agreed to hear Mr. Houteff, without interruption by anyone, until he was finished. It was also agreed to give him a full week for his presentation, if necessary, and that the stenographic report be transcribed so that all would have copies of it for careful study in reviewing the points that he had presented. It was also agreed that a copy would be submitted to him on which he could indicate correction and then return to them for retyping.
Victor Houteff immediately launched into a study on his teaching of "the harvest." H.M.S. Richards, who later became founder and director of the Voice of Prophecy, took careful notes which tell us that, at 12:30 p.m., Houteff refused to go further until the committee had decided on his view of "the harvest." They repeatedly asked him to continue, but he refused to do so. Here are Richard's notes on this impasse:
"When he [Houteff] got through at one o'clock, Elder Daniells suggested we go and get something to eat and come back and take up where he [Houteff] left off. He said, No, he would not go any further, it was useless for him to go further, that our decision upon this one subject, The Harvest, would be our decision upon the whole of his doctrinal program, as that was the key to it. Elder Daniels urged him to go forward. He said, 'We have brought these men here from far away. They are ready to stay two days, three days, a week or two weeks, however long it is necessary for us to get the full picture in our minds. To us it is a serious thing. If you are right, we want to know it. If you are wrong, you ought to know it. We have spent a good deal of money to come here in a serious, honest attempt by the denomination to give you a hearing. Therefore let us go ahead.' "
But Houteff repeatedly refused to continue, so the meeting ended at that point. A copy of the written stenographic report was given him to correct. When he finally sent it back, it was carefully considered by a special session of the full committee. W.H. Branson, North American Division president (he would later become General Conference president) and J.L. Shaw, General Conference treasurer, were assigned the task of specially preparing the committee report, which was read to Houteff and a dozen of his followers on Sunday, March 18, 1934, at the Olympic Auditorium in Los Angeles. The conclusion of their report was simple enough:
"Since error is found in the Shepherd's Rod, and it is in open disagreement with the Bible and the Spirit of Prophecy, the only safe course is to reject its teachings and to discontinue its study."
On March 12 of that same year, Houteff met with a number of his followers and officially began their new church organization under the name, The Shepherd's Rod. The General Conference soon began issuing small booklets refuting errors in the teachings of the Rod.
That was not a difficult matter to do, since Rod teachings have always been a confusing mass of contradictions, centered around the teaching that Houteff and his followers could not die before the end of time. But his theories were entirely foreign to Seventh-day Adventism or any other mainline church in Christendom!
THE HOUTEFF YEARS 2
THE ROD IN WACO, TEXAS 1935 - 1955
Early in 1935 Houteff journeyed with friends to Texas, with the idea of establishing a permanent headquarters for their separate organization. They located 189 acres of land near Waco and purchased it. In May, he and eleven followers moved there. The new headquarters was named "Mount Carmel Center," and was announced amid the kind of cryptic prophecy that kept Houteff before the eye of the people:
"True, we are establishing our headquarters on this mount that is found in prophecy, but our stay here shall be very, very short."-V.T. Houteff, The Symbolic Code, vol. 1, no. 14 (August 1935), p. 5.
The place where they settled, which was supposed to have been "found in prophecy," could just as well have been called "Emmigration Gap." Actually, the center was intended only as a temporary stopover on their way to old Jerusalem. As Houteff explained it, God had revealed to him that the 144,000 were to be gathered into the Rod, move to the Waco, Texas, headquarters as an assembling point-and then, from there, all would go together to Palestine where the Kingdom of David was to be re-established under the leadership of Victor Houteff. Divine Providence was to open the way so that governmental authorities controlling Palestine (from 1918 to 1948, Palestine was under British mandate) would permit them to start their theocratic kingdom which, they expected, would soon be the amazement of the whole world.
From its world headquarters in old Jerusalem, the Davidians were, according to Houteff's prophetic interpretations, to see the Adventist rejecters of their message slain, then evangelize the rest of the world, and then Jesus would return invisibly so Houteff could be the visible monarch, the King David to rule the entire earth.
Houteff's original 189-acre Waco headquarters was located near what is now the Mount Carmel Water Treatment Plant, on the outskirts of the present city of Waco, Texas. In Waco, more followers joined Houteff's organization, and his holdings grew. By 1940, the group had 64 residents and the acreage had gone from 189 to 377 acres.
But progress was still slow. Yes, Mount Carmel was the center of a proud dream; but also a miserable reality. The eleven followers (including children) that initially migrated with Houteff from California had a difficult time providing for their needs. And to make matters worse, the 144,000, that were to go with them to Jerusalem, were slow in arriving. Twenty years later, the Waco, Texas, Tribune-Herald summarized the situation at the Mount Carmel Center:
"The church has about 90 people, a third of them children, living at the center, [and] has had as many as 125 there. Most are workers, about 12 are indigents in the rest home."-The Waco Tribune-Herald, February 27, 1955.
Keep in mind that, when Houteff originally started the Waco center, he predicted that the Second Coming of Christ would occur within one year. Yet, amazingly, people continued to accept Houteff's theories and sending him money so he could keep mailing out his theories.
Another problem was the church school at the Waco center. The believers were sure they must not send their children to the public school in Waco, yet they had a special problem on their hands: Houteff kept seducing the children of the believers! Apparently hypnotized by this man that was ruining the moral of their young, they chose not to leave, but instead decided to close down the church school and send their children to the public school in Waco.
Marriage was another problem. Marriage to a non-believer was strictly forbidden by Houteff, so he required many of his followers to immediately divorce their mates. So they refused to come live at Houteff's Waco center.
Although, as mentioned earlier, their church organization actually began on March 12, 1934, yet no church offices or names of leaders were mentioned at that time. Later, in 1937, just after his marriage to a 17-year-old girl (Florence; Houteff was 51 at the time), this lack was supplied-with the leading positions going to Houteff and his close blood relatives. At the top was Victor Houteff, president; Mrs. Florence Houteff (his wife), secretary; and Mrs. S. Hermanson (his mother-in-law), treasurer.
(Houteff was to hold the position of president until the day of his death in 1955, at which time the Executive Council of the Davidians elected his wife to the office of vice president, her brother T.O. Hermanson to the Executive Board. (T.O. Hermanson was also son of the Treasure, Mrs. S. Hermanson.) But, oddly enough, no one was selected to fill the vacancy of president,-simply because Houteff had originally written into the constitution and bylaws that the executive council did not have the authority to elect a president!)
On February 15, 1935, Houteff wrote in The Symbolic Code, his monthly publication for his followers, that they should stay in their local churches and not separate, for "if we separate ourselves from the organization, then in the fulfillment of Ezekiel 9, when those who have not the mark are taken away, we shall have no right to claim possession of the denomination." His point was that when, in fulfillment of his predictions, the wicked Adventists were suddenly slain for not having accepted the Shepherd's Rod teaching, then the only ones still alive in the church would be the Rodites! They could then take over the entire denominational treasury and its properties,-at least that was Victor's hopeful wish.
CHANGING THE NAME TO DAVIDIAN
It was not until 1942 that Houteff finally relented and gave his organization an official church name. The problem was that unless they formally organized themselves as a church, their members would not be able to avoid the draft during the Second World War. They immediately made arrangements for this, setting aside their former name, "The Shepherd's Rod, " and now calling themselves "The Davidian Seventh-day Adventist Church." At last, they were publicly an offshoot, something that Houteff had not previously wanted to admit.
In spite of the name change, throughout the 1940s and 1950s, members of the group continued to refer to themselves as members of "the Rod." It would not be until the multiple splinterings that occurred between 1955 and 1962 that the various segments fully switched over to variations of the term "Davidians."
In 1950, Houteff referred to the fact that the Rod was but an offshoot. He spoke of "an ever-increasing family of offshoots, the most prominent of them and most tormenting of which is the Shepherd's Rod." (V.T. Houteff, in his "1950 General Conference Special, " p. 3.) And, from the very beginning, this offshoot began offshooting on its own. The following statement was made as early as 1934:
"The disintegrating and dividing effect of erroneous teachings has already appeared in the ranks of the Shepherd's Rod. A substantial number of them, some of them former leaders, have because of errors they found in 'The Shepherd's Rod' [publication], left the former leadership of V.T. Houteff and are meeting by themselves as a separate company. This runs true to form, and is in line with the history of preceding offshoots who have left us."-Pacific Union Conference statement, 1934.
Throughout its entire history, Houteff was his organization's biggest weakness. The doctrinal views that he invented at its inception contained the seeds of its later destruction. The concepts he later built on those original conjectures only added to the confusion. The underlying problem was that the poor man was obsessed with the idea that he was infallible in thought and word. His imaginings about Scripture were thought by him as the mind of God. His followers shared this delusion, thinking that he had the gift of prophecy.
As Houteff himself said:
"We must conclude that the 'Rod' contains all truth, or there is no truth in it save the quotations of truth. Therefore, if we admit one truth revealed by the 'Rod,' then we must accept it all as truth . . Therefore we take the position that the message in the 'Rod' is free from error in so far as the idea put forth is concerned."-V. T. Houteff, circular letter dated August 31, 1931 [Italics his].
Here was a man who claimed infallibility without limit! He asserted that, if even one of his ideas was correct, they all had to be correct! Four years later he repeated this astounding claim (in The Symbolic code, vol. 1, no. 8, August 15, 1935), and again in the late 1940s (Timely Greetings, vol. 1, no. 18, p. 10, quoting an address of his given on December 7, 1947).
That one statement, alone, by Victor Houteff-repeated in print at least three times-should have been enough to warn any seeker after truth from following such an eccentric individual. Only God and His Inspired Scriptures are safe. The words of no one else can be as reliable.