Florence Houteff

Kenneth G. C. Newport

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FLORENCE HOUTEFF TIMELINE

1919 (May 7):  Florence Marcella Hermanson was born.

1935 (May 19):  The Hermanson family moved with Victor Houteff to Mount Carmel, near Waco, Texas.

1937 (January 1):  Florence and Victor Houteff married.

1955 (February 5):  Victor Houteff died and Florence became Vice-President of the Davidian Seventh-day Adventists.

1955 (November 9):  Florence announced the start of the period leading to the establishment of the Davidian Kingdom.

1959 (April):  Florence announced that a “solemn assembly” would take place later that month and that the faithful were to gather by April 16 to prepare for the great events that were to occur.

1959 (April 22):  A date set for the resurrection of Victor Houteff and war in the Middle East. About a thousand Davidians gathered at New Mount Carmel for Passover to witness the event.

1960 (December):  Florence declared that the message of the Shepherd’s Rod, a publication started by Victor in 1929, was to go to all Protestant Christians and not be restricted to Seventh-day Adventists.

1962 (March 1):  Florence Houteff formally resigned as Vice-President of the General Association of Davidian Seventh-day Adventists.

2008 (September 14):  Florence Marcella Hermanson Eakin died. Her grave is located at Evergreen Cemetery in Vancouver, Washington.

BIOGRAPHY

Relatively little is known regarding the life of Florence Houteff (née Hermanson) other than that which can be gleaned from sources that have her husband, Victor Houteff (1885–1955), founder of the Davidian Seventh-day Adventists, as their principal subject. [Image at right] This presents a problem of perspective. Nevertheless, there are some biographical details that are helpful to report here. Florence was born in 1919, the daughter of Eric and Sopha Hermanson and sister to Thomas Oliver Hermanson. Members of the Hermanson family were among the very earliest converts to the Davidian Seventh-day Adventists, a group from which the later Branch Davidians were to emerge. According to a census return dated 1940, Sopha, Thomas Oliver and Florence Hermanson/Houteff were already residing at the Mount Carmel Center in Waco, Texas in 1935, with their earlier place of residence listed as Los Angeles. These details are in full accord with the wider reconstructed narrative of the beginnings of the Davidian Seventh-day Adventists given in secondary sources. Newport, for example, provides evidence that Florence was among the very first group of Davidians to move from California to Texas, a trip that commenced on May 19, 1935 (Newport 2006a:57). Florence’s actual place of birth is listed as Wisconsin. This same census record lists Florence as being the wife of Victor, which makes the reported date of January 1, 1937 entirely plausible (Newport 2006a:58).

Florence Houteff is mentioned several times in what is undoubtedly one of the most important sources for the study of early Davidians, the memoirs of George Saether located at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, and a good insight into the life, thought, and times of Florence can be gained from a study of that material (Saether 1977). As first a Hermanson and then a Houteff, Florence assumed a central role during a period of around twenty years, that is, from her arrival at Mount Carmel to the death of Victor in 1955.

It was upon her husband’s death, however, that Florence Houteff really came to the fore when she became the leader of movement. Her ascendency in 1955 was not uncontested however; there were at least three other contenders, including the later founder of the Branch Davidians, Ben Roden (1902–1978) (Newport 2006a:96). Florence occupied the leadership position until her resignation in March 1962. That resignation, which was not Florence’s alone but that of the entire executive council, marked the breakup of the Davidian Seventh-day Adventists into several splinter groups, one of which was to become the Branch Davidians (see further Newport 2006b). Little is known of Florence following this key event. However, it is clear that at some point she married Carl Levi Eakin (1910–1998), whose grave, like that of Florence Marcella Hermanson Eakin, is located at Evergreen Memorial Gardens in Vancouver, Washington. [Image at right] The date of Florence’s death is given as September 14, 2008.

TEACHINGS/DOCTRINES

As a core member of the Davidian Seventh-day Adventists, and indeed the wife of the movement’s founder and president, Florence’s conceptual and theological framework would have encompassed the broader, and complex, understanding of the world that marked out the Davidian movement as a whole. This ground has already been covered elsewhere in some considerable detail (Newport 2006a; Adair 1997 ). By far the most distinctive aspect of Florence’s thought came in response to the crisis within the movement that came about as a result of Victor Houteff’s death in 1955. The innovation was the now widely known prediction of Florence that Victor was to be raised from the dead, not at some indefinite point in the future but, rather, on April 22, 1959. As always there was concern to show that this expectation and date were rooted in the scriptures, and while the precise details of the interpretative process that was put in place to demonstrate the veracity of the claim are obscure, it seems fairly certain that the period of forty-two months or 1,260 days mentioned in the book of Revelation (11:3; 12:6; 13:5) was the bedrock (Newport 2006a:97–100).

Florence claimed that this period was very much on Victor Houteff’s mind during his last few days and that he had confirmed that the fulfilment of the prophecy was yet to occur, at least in what he called antitype. This use of type/antitype relates to a rather complex approach to prophetic interpretation of biblical texts, which was key to the Davidian movement, and, indeed, to the Seventh-day Adventist tradition as a whole. When this period was thought to have started is unclear, but it cannot have been on the day of Victor’s death, which would have yielded the date of July 19, 1958 for the fulfilment of the passing of 1,260 days. April 22, 1959 is itself important as it was Passover in that year, and the Jewish festivals had long been an important part of Davidian belief and practice. If the culmination of the period was to fall on that date, the prophetic stopwatch should have been started on November 9, 1955 (Victor had died in March of that year). In fact, it was on November 9 that Florence announced in the Davidian publication The Symbolic Code : “We’ve now entered these [1,260] days.” There is evidence to suggest that Florence had delayed the announcement until then so as to have the completion of the period fall during the Passover season (Newport 2006a:99). The end of this period would see the fulfilment of the prophecy in Joel 2:15, which speaks of a “solemn assembly” that is to take place. Florence set this out in The Symbolic Code of April 1959. Davidians were to gather by April 16 for preliminary meetings and then to attend the solemn assembly in order to prepare themselves for the major events that were then to take place (Adair 1997:206–07).

The expectation of the resurrection of Victor Houteff was part of a much wider set of beliefs concerning the events that would occur at the appointed time. Helpfully these were set out in a press release some time shortly before April 22. Specific mention of Houteff’s resurrection is noticeable by its absence, though other sources make it reasonably certain that the Davidians were expecting such a resurrection to take place. What is outlined is fairly standard Davidian belief: there would be war in the Middle East that would render the land of Israel largely empty of inhabitants. Concurrent with this, the Seventh-day Adventist Church would be cleansed (this involved a literal slaughter of those who had not been true to their professed faith it seems), and any that remain, including the Davidian Seventh-day Adventists, would be called by God to inhabit the land of Israel and set up the new Davidian Kingdom, that is, the new literal latter-day Kingdom of David. In fact, nothing much happened.

Failed prophecies punctuate the history of many such groups, of course. However, it is worthy of note that following the non-event of April 22, 1959, Florence eventually took a step that few others in her position have ever taken: she admitted that she had been wrong. The re-evalution of the prophecy was not instantaneous, but it eventually did come. The key date here is March 1, 1962 when Florence submitted her resignation as Vice-President of the General Association of Davidian Seventh-day Adventists. And it was not just Florence who resigned but rather the whole of the executive council. The details of the letter of resignation are particularly illuminating: there is a candid expression of fundamental doubt in the teachings of the movement and even of the much earlier prophetess of Seventh-day Adventism, Ellen Gould Harmon White (Newport 2006a:108-10). Florence’s days as a member of the Davidian Seventh-day Adventists were over. She then largely disappeared from view and little is known about her activities over the next four decades leading up to her death in 2008.

RITUALS/PRACTICES

The wider Seventh-day Adventist movement from which the Davidians arose retained two aspects of Judaism that are largely absent from the rest of the Christian tradition. These are the observance of the seventh-day Sabbath, which is kept as a day of rest and not just the day upon which church is attended; and the abstaining from unclean meats. From the outset Victor Houteff established even stronger continuity between the beliefs and practices found in the Hebrew scriptures and those of the New Testament. The type/antitype framework was key to this continuity. Such a framework suggests something of a chiastic structure to the progress of God’s people whereby what was true at the beginning (the type) will be true at the end (the antitype). This framework was core to the Davidian tradition. Indeed, Houteff went so far as to say, “where there is no type there is no truth” (Newport 2006a:77). The most obvious example here is that just as there was a literal King David in “type” and that king ruled over a literal kingdom in Israel, so in antitype there will be a literal King David who again will rule over a kingdom in Israel. This belief supplies the name of this movement: the Davidian Seventh-day Adventists. Consequently, practices such as the paying of the second tithe, restrictions regarding diet, observance of the seventh-day Sabbath, and other examples of the Davidians’ constant attempt to live out what many others in the Christian tradition take to be part of the “Old” Testament that was done away with in the New Testament form a regular part of the narrative that describes day-to-day life at the Davidians’ Mount Carmel Center under Florence Houteff.

It was aspects of this type/antitype framework that provided the group, including Florence, with a number of rituals and practices, the most obvious of which was the attempt to gather together the inhabitants of the new Endtime Davidian kingdom, an activity which dominated much of Davidian collective life. Again, Saether’s memoirs are well worth a careful read in this context. An additional very good insight is provided by Mary Power in a Master’s thesis submitted to Baylor University in 1940. The date of Power’s thesis and the work that it contains is obviously important in the context of seeking to understand the form, content, and nature of the beliefs and practices among the early Davidians, including Florence Houteff. What is particularly helpful is that Power’s work is based upon a number of visits she made to the community together with discussions that took place between Power and some members of the early Davidian community and a doctor, not a Davidian, who had a good first-hand knowledge of the Davidian group. Among the practices upon which Power reports are the precise nature of Sabbath observance, which included some preparatory fasting in order to clear the mind for focused Bible study. She also reports how group members were strict vegetarians, but not vegans, and always prepared food in the simplest possible manner. There was a dress code in place and women all had long hair as this was God’s will. The community developed its own system of currency. Dancing, “common literature,” attending the theater, using tobacco, wearing gold, or dressing in expensive clothing were all banned. Even married women wore no ring. Power also had a useful chapter on marriage and the family. One cannot say to what extent Florence was responsible for the development of such practices as those outlined by Power, but that she was one of the original members of the community and was compliant with them seems relatively certain.

LEADERSHIP

Florence Houteff seems to have played an important role within the Davidian Seventh-day Adventist tradition almost from its outset. As such her name appears on a range of primary documents coming from this period of the group’s history, copies of most of which are held at Baylor University, Waco, Texas. She is, for example, named as an appointed trustee of the General Association of Davidian Seventh-day Adventists in a document dated August 15, 1949.

As noted above, Florence took on the key leadership position within the group following the death of her husband. It was her
claim that on his deathbed Victor had specifically named her as the chosen successor, a claim that was reinforced by Florence’s brother Thomas Oliver Hermanson. There appear to have been no further witnesses to Victor’s words on this matter, and unsurprisingly it was challenged by some others within the movement, particularly by those who harbored ambition for the highest office themselves. In the end, however, since no one else was able to produce evidence either that Florence had not been so designated or that another claimant had a better case, Florence was appointed to the Vice-Presidency of the group. Victor Houteff’s actual post of President was not again filled as it was one to which only God could appoint.

Florence Houteff set about seeking to stabilize the group and there can be no doubt that the focus of the 1,260-day prophecy achieved this to some measure. By November 1955 the group had a very clear sense of destiny, and the clear and precise expectation regarding the importance of the date April 22, 1959. Even if the precise events of that day were not at first outlined in detail, they nevertheless provided a rallying call and sense of urgency. The task of calling the faithful to gather in preparation for the move to Israel had been central to Davidianism from its inception, but in the year or two before Victor’s death it had taken on very specific focus. Indeed, it was in order to support the work of unprecedented evangelism that the process of selling the original Mount Carmel property in Waco and moving to a much less favorable, and therefore less expensive, site close to Elk, Texas, some twelve miles out of Waco began. The sale was underway prior to Florence taking up the leadership (Adair 1997:175–77), and it was this “New Mount Carmel,” as it became known, that was the site of the Branch Davidians’ conflict with federal agents and resulting fire in 1993; though by then it had itself been reduced through sales to less than 10 percent of its original size.

Florence Houteff’s renewed emphasis on calling out of the Seventh-day Adventist Church all who would listen and encouraging them to gather at New Mount Carmel for April 22, 1959 evidently met with some considerable success. Various first-hand reports of the events surrounding the expected date give a sense of the excitement and scale of the gathering, with estimates reaching a thousand or more persons turning up to witness the resurrection of Victor Houteff and the coming about of the latter-day Davidian Kingdom. In the aftermath of the non-events of that date, Florence rather unwisely sought to widen the call to belief to any who would listen rather than limiting the call to existing members of the Seventh-day Adventist Church alone. The message was communicated to the community in a publication of The Symbolic Code during December 1960 (Adair 1997:222). This widening of the potential pool of recruits was probably a mistake in that it had the effect of introducing into the theological equation a previously unknown factor and, in reality, flew in the face of what Victor himself had always proclaimed, namely that the Davidian message was for Seventh-day Adventists only. Such a significant departure from the teachings of the founder whose life and message was still very much a live memory in the minds of many of the Davidians was a significant gamble (Adair 1997:222–23).

ISSUES/CHALLENGES

Ultimately Florence Houteff’s leadership of the Davidian Seventh-day Adventists ended in failure. It was, however, perhaps an inevitable one. The unexpected death of Victor Houteff was the event that opened up the path to leadership, but with that opportunity there came the need to address both theological and practical challenges, and on neither count was Florence really able to deliver. The setting of the April 22, 1959 date bought her some time, but it was not a permanent solution. The story of what eventually came about during the troubled years of 1959–1962 has been told before (Adair 1997), and need not be repeated here in any detail. In essence, following the resignation of Florence and the whole Davidian executive council, the movement was wound up and its assets put into the hands of a receiver. Following a decade of legal wrangling, the New Mount Carmel property near Elk, Texas passed into the hands of Ben Roden, founder of the Branch Davidians, but this is only one part of the fragmentation. Even before the resignations of 1962, one sizeable group (about 100) had moved back to Riverside, California, where the substantial Seventh-day Adventist presence provided an opportunity for evangelism. The Riverside Davidian group was soon to split further and then, in 1978, to split again. Similarly, by 1961 Ben Roden had already had some success in establishing the “Branch” trajectory, based in Waco though not on the New Mount Carmel site to begin with. It is of course tempting to see the Branch Davidian group as the successors of the Houteffs, but geographical continuity masks major theological divergence. Another Davidian group existing still to this day in Waco, though returning there only after periods in Jamaica and New York, has a better claim to continuity with the Davidian Seventh-day Adventists of Victor and Florence Houteff. Remarkably, it has managed to gain ownership of some property located on the site of the original Mount Carmel, which Houteff’s early community had occupied in 1935. From 1962, however, Florence Houteff was to play no further part in the Davidian story.

IMAGES
Image #1: Photograph of Florence Houteff with Victor (date unknown).
Image #2: Photograph of Florence Marcella Hermanson Eakin’s grave.
Image #3: Photograph of Florence Houteff.

REFERENCES

Adair, Don. 1997. A Davidian Testimony. Privately published.

Hibbert, A. Anthony. 2000. Before the Flames: Story of David Koresh and the Davidian Seventh-day Adventists. New York: Seaburn Publishing.

Newport, Kenneth G. C. 2006a. The Branch Davidians of Waco: The History and Beliefs of an Apocalyptic Sect. Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press.

Newport, Kenneth G. C. 2006b. “The Davidian Seventh-day Adventists and Millennial Expectation, 1959–2004.” Pp. 131-46 in Expecting the End: Millennialism in Social and Historical Context, edited by Kenneth G. C. Newport and Crawford Gribben. Waco, TX: Baylor University Press.

Pitts, William. 1995. “Davidians and Branch Davidians: 1929-1987.” Pp. 20-42 in Armageddon in Waco: Critical Perspectives on the Branch Davidian Conflict, edited by Stuart A. Wright. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Saether, George William. 1977. “Oral Memoirs of George William Saether, July 12, 1973–June 30, 1975.” Religion and Culture Project. Baylor University Program for Oral History. Accessed from http://contentdm.baylor.edu/cdm/ref/collection/buioh/id/1214 on 10 April 2017.

Power, Mary Elizabeth. 1940. “A Study of the Seventh-day Adventist Community, Mount Carmel Center, Waco, Texas.” M.A. Thesis, Baylor University.

Post Date:
15 April 2017

 

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