StMU Research Scholars

The Waco Tragedy: David Koresh and The Branch Davidians

Located just outside of Waco, Texas sits a compound on seventy-five acres of land called the New Mount Carmel Center. New Mount Carmel Center received its name after the Biblical mountain in Northern Israel called Mount Carmel. It was the home of David Koresh and his followers known as the Branch Davidians, a sect of the Seventh Day Adventists.1 In June of 1992, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF) opened an investigation into the members of the Branch Davidians and their leader David Koresh. This religious group was thought to be in possession of illegal firearms and explosive devices in preparation for the end of the world.2 Following these accusations that were made about the Branch Davidians in January 1993, the ATF agents set up an undercover operation across from the property at New Mount Carmel Center. This investigation was the beginning of what eventually led to the Waco Siege.

There have been previous events in which the government has become involved with oversight into religious cults. The separation of church and state do not appear to be part of the first amendment, but it is established to keep the government involvement neutral for religion. This “wall of separation” was first used by Roger Williams in 1635. He believed that any form of government would corrupt the church. “There needed to be “a wall or hedge of separation” between the “wilderness of the world” and “the garden of the church,” said Roger Williams.3 In 1802, Thomas Jefferson would become cited as a direct link to the “wall of separation” between Church and State.4

The State’s attitude toward religion also differs from one part of the country to another. Tony Alamo was the leader of a religious cult called Tony Alamo Christian Ministries (TAMC), located in Arkansas in 1969. Alamo was working in the music industry when he claimed he received a direct message from God that he was to begin his own ministry. Alamo expanded into an anti-Catholic ministry, then into a multi-million-dollar business of manufacturing jackets for celebrities. These jackets would go on to be worn by Dolly Parton, Michael Jackson, and Burt Reynolds. Spencer Ondriesk and Seth Calagna were both born and raised in the TAMC community.5 They both were forced to work for the industry and began to be beaten for disobeying Alamo. Members of TAMC were to follow strict rules. Adults were restricted from talking to government authorities and children were not allowed to attend public school or have any connection to the outside world. Alamo would threaten his followers by telling them if these rules were not followed, they would go to hell.6 Once Susan, Tony’s wife, died, Alamo said that she would rise from the dead on the third day, and after the third day many of the followers believed that Alamo was really just a false prophet. Alamo then began taking girls as young as the age of eight across state lines to marry them off to other members, after himself having sexual relations with them. He was convicted in 2009 on 10 counts of federal indictment. Tony Alamo died at the age of 82 in a federal prison hospital, having served seven years of the 175 years of his sentence.7 The Eighth Circuit court expressed that there are limitations to the First Amendment, as it does not entitle one to exercise religious beliefs that cause injury to others. In the Ondriesk v. Hoffman case, Alamo attempted to assert his free exercise belief, but the Eighth Circuit denied it and found him liable for battery.8

The International Order of Chivalry Solar Tradition was founded by Luc Jouret in 1984. The religious group started out in Europe, moving from Switzerland, Canada, Australia, and then to France.9 The group would also become absorbed by Jo Di Mambro’s centre called the Golden Way Foundation. Together, Jouret and Mambro led their followers to regard death as an illusion and that life would continue on a planet that revolves around their star Sirius.10 Jouret ran into legal troubles in Canada for being in possession of gun silencers. This led Jouret and Mambro to feel the pressure of being prosecuted by different governments in different countries. They anticipated that the end of the world was near. Fire was an important part of their belief system since, in order for them to transit to another world, death through fire would facilitate the transit. In October 1994, Jouret and Mambro, with fifty-one of their followers, committed suicide or were murdered in Switzerland and Canada. Then, in December, the violence had not stopped. Sixteen members in France also committed suicide or were murdered. An additional five committed suicide in March of 1997 in Quebec. The law enforcement became concerned with the number of deaths occurring, so they decided to get involved. Legal authorities in Quebec were notified about an attempt to purchase firearms that were equipped with gun silencers and began tapping telephone conversations. These five left a note claiming that they would continue their lives on a new planet.11 When reviewing the Order of the Solar Temple, it was evident that there were violations to the right of life and religious freedom the group members experienced. The right of life that was taken away by the members that had been murdered and their freedom of escaping the religious beliefs the cult had. Although, the police and courts had intervened, it was difficult because no information about the intentions of the cult were exposed and no complaints from members had been voiced.12

The Aum Shinrikyo cult, meaning “supreme truth,” is a spiritual group that mixes Hindu and Buddhist beliefs together, including apocalyptic Christian prophesies as well. The Tokyo Metropolitan Government granted the Aum Shinrikyo official religious status in August 1989. This allowed for the cult to receive tax breaks, as stipulated under the Japanese Religious Corporation Law: “after a group is recognized, authorities are not permitted to investigate its religious activities or doctrine.”13 The United States was held partially accountable for this law as well. This law was enacted in 1947, with America having great influence in post war Japan.14 Shoko Asahara became the official leader of the religion group in 1989 in Japan that would gradually grow globally. The group developed into a doomsday cult that believed that the world was going to end in a global war and they would be the only ones to survive. On subways in the Japanese capital of Tokyo on March 20, 1995 Sarin gas was released by the cult members. It was contained in bags filled with liquid nerve agent on the train lines that had been punctured and released to the public. The toxin was very harmful, killing thirteen people and injuring thousands.15 The Aum cult believed that anybody that was not a cult member would be sent to hell when the end of the world came. Asahara and six other disciplines of the cult were hung by the neck for their crime of the gas attacks on the subways. The United States enforcement did not ever perceive the Aum cult to be dangerous. Now there are more government agencies coordinating together to relay information about foreign groups or activities to each other. The global cooperation has helped to increase fewer terrorist attacks. There have been plenty of other incidents regarding the United States government and other countries governments to become involved in the religious cults that take place around the world.

Vernon Howell, also known as David Koresh, was the leader of the Branch Davidians and ran the compound at New Mount Carmel Center. Koresh’s new name came from the bible suggesting he was someone that was a spiritual heir.16 He was a self proclaimed messiah that claimed God picked him to be the chosen one. Being a messiah, he engaged in marrying multiple women within the community.17 Koresh’s wives were teenage girls, and soon afterwards, Koresh was accused of child abuse. His only legal marriage though was to Rachel Jones, who was fourteen years old at the time of her marriage. Claims were aired in a trial during 1992 that attracted the court to Koresh’s guns that were held on the compound. This started the investigation by legal authorities looking into the Branch Davidians. The Branch Davidians is a broken off group from the Seventh Day Adventists formed by Victor Houteff in 1934.18 Ben Roden organized the Branch Davidians in 1959, and in the 1990’s Koresh took it over. The church had a doomsday mentality that the end of the world was going to happen and they were going to die. They were taught “soul sleep,” to believe the dead remain in the grave without any afterlife until the resurrection. This religious group was established for the second coming of Christ.19

Jim Jones, the leader of Jonestown. | Courtesy of Wikimedia

There are many different interpretations of cult and the definitions used to describe them. Dr. Megan Goodwin of Northeastern University specializes in American minority religions. She refers to the term ‘cult’ as being very controversial in scholarly circles. “It is used to delegitimize and diminish religious practices that do not nearly fit into the American mainstream and justify violence that would not be used against more established religious groups,” said Goodwin.20 Catherine Wessinger, a religion scholar, writes in the conversation, “when law enforcement uses the term ‘cult’ it is problematic. Studies have shown that once the label is applied, the group is more likely to be deemed illegitimate and dangerous. It’s then easier for law enforcement agents to target the group with excessive, militarized actions, and it is easier for the public to place all blame on the supposed cult leader for any deaths.”21 “Cults are started up through a leader, belief system, and system of control.”22 People that join cults are often idealists. They think they will make a difference to humanity, or that they will best serve their God and their ideals within the group,” said Robert Pardon, director of the New England Institute of Religious Research.23 Idealism leads the individual to search for solutions to their problems. The cult provides structure, authority, and close social contacts. The individual that joins a cult and conforms to the leader’s way of life is described by psychologists that describe the process as snapping or as a shift in the new members personality, allowing it to become easier for them to be closed off to the rest of the world.

The Asch conformity experiment demonstrates how easy it is for the individuals to become a follower under the groups influence.24 Philip Zimbardo, a psychologist and former Stanford professor, explains the study. In the experiment, the subjects are given a standard line and three comparison lines. They are then asked to choose which of the comparisons is the same length as the standard line. There is no trick question to this. It should be easy to identify the same length line. Chosen individuals that are instructed to choose the wrong line go first in the experiment. Zimbardo says, “As long as there are three or more people who agree that reality is not the way you see it, in many cases, you give in to see the world in their way.”25 During the experiment, pressure from the group influences the individuals to answer incorrectly from witnessing the previous answers. In this case of conformity and in a cult, the individual goes along with the rest of the group because they are convinced that the group is right. However, it was also studied that when the subject is not alone in stating the correct answer and given a ‘partner,’ the group’s power becomes reduced.

Jim Jones was a self-ordained Christian minister who relocated his community of followers to Jonestown in South America of Guyana.26 Jones had messages of social equality and racial justice that attracted a large number of followers. He often faked illness and then claimed he healed himself, showing his followers that he was a prophet. In November of 1978, United States Representative Leo Ryan from California went to Guyana with a group to investigate the group. When the group was prepared to leave, Jones had ordered for the investigators to be assassinated. Jones told his followers that soldiers and the government was out to get them. He then commanded his followers to drink a punch that contained cyanide in it that was called “drinking the Kool-Aid.” When officials arrived at Jonestown, the ground was covered with around 900 dead bodies. Jones was found dead in a chair due to a bullet hole to the head that was most likely self inflicted.27 The Jonestown Massacre was the greatest loss of civilian life from deliberate acts in American history up until the Twin Tower attacks.28

In 1968, the Manson Family cult was formed by Charles Manson. He had an unusual charm that attracted his followers, and many of them were young women. These women hung on to every word that Manson said, and followed all orders he gave to them. His followers received sermons about a war between whites and blacks that he perceived was to happen. Their ‘family’ would go into hiding while the war occurred, but later he claimed they would emerge as saviors to the black race that would win the war.29 On August 8, 1969 Manson ordered four of his people to break into the home of Sharon Tate where Tate and all other guests of the house were killed. The next night members of the Manson family struck the home of Leno and Rosemary LaBianca killing them as well. The Tate-LaBianca murders are known as the Manson Family murders.30 These murders were a long obsessive relationship with Hollywood that Charles Manson had and his addiction ultimately led the Mason Family to murder these people. Manson had a strong desire to be in charge.

Children of God was a religious cult founded by David Berg in Huntington Beach,California. This cult started in 1968.31 Berg preached what he thought was an “old world” idea of Christianity that included a lot of sex involvement. He had sexual relations with children and embraced the free love movement of the 1960’s. He encouraged adults to take part in this movement by having sex with children as well. Sex was not the only main focus of the group. They believed that an apocalypse was coming and they, the martyrs, had the power to save the world from the Antichrist. The cult took up several different names before sticking with The Family in the 1980’s. In 1984, however, David Berg died, but his wife, Karen Zerby, took over as the new leader.32 Her son, Ricky Rodriguez, went on a murder-suicide rampage. In 2001 he escaped the cult but in January of 2005 he tracked down his nanny, Angela Smith, with whom he had been forced to have intercourse, and murdered her. He then attempted to find his mother, with whom he also had been forced to have intercourse, but failed to do so. Rodriguez died at the age of twenty-nine with a single shot to the head. “I would say first and foremost, probably every cult leader is a narcissist, and the extent to which his or her narcissism negative — as one scholar called it, ‘traumatic narcissism’ — that’s going to have an effect on how the group is shaped,” said Janja Lalich, a cult researcher and professor emerita of sociology at California State University, Chico.33 These cult leaders are very charismatic, setting the difference between them and their followers, holding a power imbalance. Their own personal proclivities shape the group’s fundamentals and their tantalizing promises.

The FBI raiding the Branch Davidians compound. | Courtesy of Wikimedia

On February 28, 1993, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms raided Mount Carmel Center on the site of the Branch Davidians to serve arrest and search warrants.34 Prior to this incident occurring, the Branch Davidians learned about the ATF’s plan and became prepared. As the ATF agents arrived at the Davidian’s residency, a gun battle was engaged in for approximately ninety minutes. No one was clear who fired first, but as a result, four ATF agents were killed and two of the Branch Davidians. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) dispatched their Hostage Rescue Team (HRT) to be in control of the situation that was taking place. A fifty-one-day standoff then developed from this first gun battle.35 They were using different tactics to break the standoff such as negotiating daily with Koresh. During this time, between February 18 and March 23, thirty-five people were able to leave the residence and surrender. Of those thirty-five people, twenty-one of them were children. Koresh denied the FBI’s offer to deliver milk to the compound, but the FBI would do so anyway. In the milk cartons, the FBI planted bugs. It was a very tricky tactic since it was not guaranteed that these bugs would be helpful. Somehow, a bug found its way to being in the same room as Koresh, but not much useful information was obtained.36 In addition, the FBI followed with other tactics of tightening the perimeter around the residence, shining bright lights, playing loud music over speakers to irritate them, and cutting off their electricity. On April 19, 1993 the FBI raided the compound. The FBI formed what was one of the largest military forces ever gathered against civilian suspect in American history. The FBI would place tear gas in the buildings by ramming holes into the sides of the structures with their military vehicles and then spray the gas into the holes in the wall. Fires developed, engulfing the entire structure destroying the compound completely. Nine people were able to escape from the fire, but more than seventy members of the Branch Davidians remained inside and died. Koresh, one of the victims, was found with a gunshot wound to the head.37

The only remains left of the Branch Davidian compound was a swimming pool used as bunker during the Siege. | Courtesy of Flickr

After the news of the Waco Siege, some believed that the government had overreached. It has become an outcry for those who see the federal government as a threat. Journalist Darcey Steinke, who covered the event for SPIN as it was taking place said, “It was so insane to come to the compound of an obviously unstable person who you know has a ton of weapons with heavily armed ATF agents.”38 President Bill Clinton at the time had other views on the event that occurred. He stated, “I do not think the United States government is responsible for the fact that a bunch of fanatics decided to kill themselves.”39 Parnell McNamara, sheriff in McLennan County, Texas stated, “Did the government make mistakes? Sure.” He does defend the government, but he also does admit they were more lessons that were learned. This event in American and Texas history has changed the government’s relationship with its people.

  1. Kyle Baughman, “Mount Carmel Center,” Accessed December 4, 2019, Waco History (website),
  2. House Report 104-749, “Investigation Into The Activities Of Federal Law Enforcement Agencies Toward The Branch Davidians.” August 2, 1996, U.S. Government Publishing Office,
  3. Richard Foltin, “The First Amendment Says Nothing About Separation Of Church And State,” October 31, 2019, Freedom Forum Institute,
  4. Richard Foltin, “The First Amendment Says Nothing About Separation Of Church And State,” October 31, 2019, Freedom Forum Institute,
  5. Erika Ferrando and Michael Buckner, “A look inside Tony Alamo’s religious cult from people who survived it,” January 30, 2019, TVH11,
  6. Dwight Merriam and Evan Seeman, “Cult Leaders Beatings of Cult Members Not Protected by First Amendment as Free Exercise of Religion,” October 29, 2012, Robinson+Cole,
  7. Kelly Kissel, “Tony Alamo, apocalyptic minister convicted of abusing underage girls, dies at 82,” May 4, 2017, The Washington Post,
  8. Dwight Merriam and Evan Seeman, “Cult Leaders Beatings of Cult Members Not Protected by First Amendment as Free Exercise of Religion,” October 29, 2012, Robinson Cole,
  9. Gordon Melton, “Order of the Solar Temple,” October 21, 2019, Encyclopedia Britannica,
  10. Jennifer Sloan, “International Chivalric Order Solar Tradition,” 1999, Religious Tolerance,
  11. Elizabth Nix, “5 Twentieth-Century Cult Leaders,” December 10, 2013,
  12. Manion, The Politics of Accommodation, (Journal of Church and State, 2002), 320.
  13. Staff Statement, “A Case Study on the Aum Shinkrikyo,” October 31, 1995, Federation of American Scientists,
  14. Holy Fletcher, “Aum Shinrikyo: The Japanese cult behind the Tokyo Sarin attack,” July 6, 2018, BBC News,
  15. Jake Adelstein, “Aum Shinrikyo: The Japanese Killer Cult That Wanted to Rule The World,” July 9, 2018, Daily Beast,
  16. Encyclopedia Britannica, 2000, s.v.  “Branch Davidian,” by Gordon Melton,
  17. Muriel Pearson, Spencer Wilking, and Lauren Effron, “Who Was David Koresh,” January 2, 2018, ABC News,
  18. James Trimm, “Branch Davidian Theology,” 1979, Watchman Fellowship,
  19. William Pitts, “Davidians and Branch Davidians,” June 12, 2010, Texas State Historical Association,
  20. Tara Burton, “The Waco Tragedy, Explained,” April 19, 2018, Vox,
  21. Tara Burton, “The Waco Tragedy, Explained,” April 19, 2018, Vox,
  22. “Why do people join cults?” Video file, 6:07, Ted-Ed. Posted by Janja Lalich, June 2017,
  23. Kathleen Toohill, “Why Do People Join Cults?” June 26, 2017, Medium,
  24. “Asch Conformity Experiment,” Video file, 5:46, YouTube. Posted by HeroiclmaginationTV, February 20, 2012,
  25. Kathleen Toohill, “Why Do People Join Cults?” June 26, 2017, Medium,
  26. “Jim Jones,” November 14, 2019, Encyclopedia Britannica,
  27. Andy Kopsa, “The U.S. Military Had To Clean Up After The Jonestown Massacre 40 Years Ago.” November 16, 2018, TIME,
  28. Kellen Perry, “The Tragic Story of the Jonestown Massacre, Modern History’s Largest Mass Suicide,” February 28, 2019, ATI,
  29. All That’s Interesting, “Charles Manson Facts That Reveal The Man Behind The Monster.” March 14, 2016, ATI,
  30. Aja Romano, “The Manson Family murders, and their complicated legacy, explained,” August 7, 2019, Vox,
  31. Kara Goldfarb, “Children Of God,” March 14, 2018, ATI,
  32. Randi Kaye, “Young Man’s Suicide Blamed On Mother’s Cult,” 2004, CNN,
  33. Megan Gannon, “What Do Cult Leaders Have in Common,” April 6, 2019, Live Science,
  34. Amy Tikkanen, “Waco Siege,” November 7, 2016, Encyclopedia Britannica,
  35. Laura Barcella, “The Waco Siege: 6 Little-Known Facts,” April 13, 208, A&E Television Networks,
  36. Sarah Childress, “10 Things You May Not Know About Waco,” February 28, 2019, Frontline,
  37. House Report 104-749, “Investigation Into The Activities Of Federal Law Enforcement Agencies Toward The Branch Davidians.” August 2, 1996, U.S. Government Publishing Office,
  38. Laura Barcella, “The Waco Siege: 6 Little-Known Facts,” April 13, 208, A&E Television Networks,
  39. Jonathan Tilove, “A quarter-century later, dark theories still hover over Waco siege,” April 16, 2018, Statesman,

37 Responses

  1. The Waco Siege has always intrigued me. Were the Dravidians probably harmless overall and were just buying into a crazed apocalyptic ideology? Probably. Did the federal government overreach its boundaries? Yes, and no. It’s a complicated debate that’s hard to find common ground on.

    The word cult usually almost always comes with a negative connotation. Cults themselves usually involve barbaric practice, pedophilia and other sexual immoralities including as you mentioned in your article. So in that case, I can definitely sympathize with the federal governments surveillance of such a group. It all just seems like a big mystery.

    It seems like cults always use Christianity as a pull in for people that are vulnerable and genuinely searching for their faith. I like how your article took a dive into other cults of the modern century, which I felt was very interesting.

    Nice article overall.

  2. This is the first time I have ever heard about the Waco Siege. This article was extremely informative and filled with details that support the articles main idea. It is very interesting learning about the cults and how many there are and how many there has been throughout history. I find it so interesting that some religions would turn into cults! I loved your article!

  3. Hey Victoria, your article was pretty interesting to me because I had started watching a show about the Waco Siege on Netflix about a week ago. I also like that in your article, you described many other cults and the incidents that occurred within them. I like learning about this because it is such an important topic since a lot of people have died as a result of following their “leader’s” wishes. I also like that you explain the relationship between the government and religion and how the government cannot always investigate these matters.

  4. Such an interesting informative article! A captivating research article. I have been familiar with the Waco cult story, however not in this much detail. I throughly appreciate the details of other cults of the time to give the audience background information. As well as incorporating the idea of separation of “church and state” ties into to a great bigger concept. Great job, loved reading your article!

  5. This was an extremely informative and interesting article to read. I had heard about the Waco siege before, but I never knew all of the details and specific events that took place. This article did a good job of explaining what happened and the disconnect with the U.S. government in this situation. Based on what happened it is clear that government intervention was needed but I think they were very hasty and impatient with their decisions which resulted in the loss of many lives.

  6. Very interesting article overall! I have been to Waco several times and I think that it is a beautiful small town. I love its building, the river, and just the general vibe I get every time I visit that place. I had never heard about this terrifying story about taking advantage of innocent children and looking at all the abuses done because of a cult. I believe that it is very sad to see that people think they are doing right through a cult because they interpret the context in another way. Hence, that justifies their hateful and violent acts against others. However, any kind of action like that is always wrong.

  7. The Waco Siege was the only cult related event I had ever known. This article however, gave more information about cults in general and some specific ones to date. It’s interesting how little cults are talked about even though there are so many in history. I did not know that some religions eventually became cults and I think it is interesting how that comes about.

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