To truly understand Davidian Seventh-day Adventists and their struggles, one must burro into a mine laden with exceptional fortitude and a people of resilience. It is a narrative of the human spirit and that enigma of enigmas—faith. Fasten your seat belts; you are in for a ride.
Our journey begins in a hamlet called Raicovo, nestled in the Rhodope Mountains of southwestern Bulgaria. There, March 2, 1885, Victor Tasho Houteff was born. As Father and Mother Houteff cuddled that bundle of warmth, that newest family addition, they had no inkling of what the future held for their son. That someday he would shake a denomination from center to circumference. (1)
Growing up in a modest household, Victor certainly didn’t suspect his destiny, nor did his three brothers—Nick, Leo, and Theodore, and three sisters—Anna, Marie, and Fimea. That his future held immigration to the United States where that unsuspecting denomination headquartered, was unknown to Victor as he explored the streets of Raicovo. That his brother, Nick would be the only sibling to follow him to the United States was unknown to Victor as the two had played and shared secrets. (Nick would settle in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and maintain a lifelong close relationship with Victor.) However, these events waited many years and a continent away.
Victor had desired many things as a young man, but the two he had rhapsodized most were to know God and to be wealthy. That his life forever. That need to know God would become his consuming passion, changing his life forever. While living in Bulgaria, he had joined the Greek Orthodox church. There, he and others would be accused of conspiracy against the government.
The problem started when Victor and a cousin acquired their uncle’s business selling roses. Sounds simple enough, right? Business had boomed, and they opened a shop in a nearby border town in Turkey. Business soared. When Houteff’s enterprise had begun exporting roses, blasting competition like a searing sandstorm, local dealers screamed, "Foul!" Knowing they piloted a fair and honest business, the Houteffs ignored all threats and covert attempts to ruin them.
Victor had learned, from the cradle up, to love God, be honest, work hard, persevere, and success would follow. Houteff’s successful enterprise was a glimpse of his entrepreneurial skills—skills destined to become spiritual gifts as he grew in knowledge. A knowledge that would lead him to build Mt. Carmel Center, Waco, Texas, a training center for Biblical study, Biblical exposition, and publication of Biblical themes. Houteff would accomplish this on a shoestring during the 1930s as the US, and in some respects the world, reeled under the great depression. Built by volunteer labor, it would be sustained by members’ free-will gifts. Its stately buildings would house up to 125 and grace a lush campus. Waco businessmen would be impressed favorably, unlike the businessmen in that Turkish bordertown. Houteff believed his success was owed to God.
In 1948 he stated, "when we moved our offices from California to Texas, where we had neither friend nor believer in the message, the church elders were glad, and thought our work would them die out for sure. It never the less grew more than before, although this took place in the midst of the depression, in 1935, while hundreds and thousands of businesses were going bankrupt, and while well-to-do men were becoming poor. Yet we who started out with nothing, grew and prospered. We, moreover, never took collections in any of our meetings anywhere and never made any calls for money. This holds good still. Then, too, our free literature that goes out week by week, and amounts to hundreds and thousands of dollars week after week, and year after year, besides the cost of building the institution." (3)
During earlier years in Bulgaria, Victor’s future had glowed with promise. Partner in a thriving business at age twenty, his dream of wealth had hung like ripe fruits read for picking. Soon thundering threats from the opposition had destroyed all possibility of that fruit harvest. The atmosphere toward him at church had grown cold. His fellow deacons and church brethren were also his bitterest competition. When they exhausted legal means of destroying the Houteffs’ enterprises, violence erupted.
The prick of thorns on tender flesh while handling rose stems, Victor had known. The pain piercing his heart as he read the hate laced words scrawled across the front of his store, Victor had never known. The leathery weight of his Bible, during prayer and study, Victor had known. The weight of sorrow he felt when he held the brick that someone had flung through his store window, Victor had never known.
Chunks of glass crackled under their feet as Victor and his cousin surveyed the ravaged shop. They traced bullet holes in a wall opposite a window. The heavy perfume of roses filled their nostrils, rendering the scene as ludicrous as finding crystal goblets balanced on a trash heap. Who had done such a thing?
Many others depended upon the Houteffs’ enterprises for their livelihoods, what would they do? How would they survive? Victor must have drawn himself up to every inch of his wiry, 5’3" frame. The roots of his thick, black hair might have bristled with Bulgarian indignation. Bearing his own suffering was one thing. Seeing the suffering of others was too much. This had to stop. Wasn’t the rose market big enough for them all. Couldn’t they compete peacefully; each dealer working hard to please his own customers?
Something must be done. Victor’s faith in God, and his towering sense of right and wrong sent him into deep thought. He grappled with the need for justice, and decided to appeal to his fellow parishioners, the brethren he had grown to love and respect. They would surely reach a fair solution.
Imagine what degree of anguish must have assaulted Victor, as he listened to church prelates, and learned they had sided with his opposition on both sides of the border. How could they think that I had conspired to overthrow the government? He must have thought. How could they believe that I am an enemy of the state? Victor must have felt like a walking target for all their business was. His membership in good standing, his dedication to God and to the work of the church meant nothing to them.
The bishop of the province, who had sponsored a campaign to discredit and ostracize Victor, turned to him with icy eyes and in a voice encrusted with cruelty axed all hope of justice. We don’t know his exact words. Perhaps they were something like this:
"You’re not welcome here. Your business isn’t welcome here. Get out while you still can. Staying could be suicide." Whatever the words, the danger was real. The church had a dead bolt on civil and religious power. Whether Victor realized the degree of personal danger is uncertain. Testimony shows he was incensed. (4) He felt compelled to denounce the church’s hypocrisy regardless of who it was.
Few have the courage to stand by their convictions against the high tide of fear, abuse, or ostracism. Victor did. One respected, religious writer has said, "Of all persecution, the hardest to bear is variance in the home, the estrangement of dearest earthly friends." (5)
In most ways 1907 was like any other year, in other ways it wasn’t. Couples married, babies were born, flowers bloomed, and one morning Victor may have realized he had sold his last rose. Fingers of fear must have clawed at his spine. Thoughts of his family and all the things he’d never do or see again no doubt crashed through his mind. He fled to his father’s home where he sought security. The angry mod knew he would go there seeking safety. At gun point, they warned, threatened, and antagonized his family. Where could he escape their murderous mood? Sooner or later a bullet would end all of hopes and his existence. More innocent people also faced harm because of him.
It was decided that Victor must leave the country. He must escape to America at once. His Brother Nick helped him secure passage, promising to follow as soon as possible (a promise he kept). He could stay with a cousin in a place called New York City. What a farewell it must have been. Perhaps Father Houteff gave Victor a solid squeeze, attempting to mask the fear that the family would ever see him again.
Ellis Island and Lady Liberty with flaming torch greeted Victor and that boatload of immigrants. New sights, sounds, tastes, textures bombarded his senses. He navigated the entry process at a dizzying pace so different from the drone of life in Raicovo. How he missed his family and village. How he longed for a familiar face, voice, language, food. How would he survive? As he entered the streets of that bustling city, following the back of a cousin he barely knew, old hopes of someday being rich seemed far away and impossible.
Having survived the experience, he would later say, "Yes, hundreds and thousands of things may happen, but he that trusts in God and does his work well shall find all these so-called hindrances or mishaps wonderful deliverances, and avenues to success, all carrying out God’s marvelous plans, and God’s way toward your promotion from one great thing to another. When you are in God’s care and in His control never say the Devil did this or that regardless what it be, for he can do nothing except he is allowed to do it. Always give God the credit.
"I came to America, not because I wanted to, but because God wanted me to. And since I knew not my future work, and as God could then no more make me understand than H could at first make Joseph understand his trip to Egypt, I was therefore driven out of the country at the point of a gun as was Moses driven out of Egypt, although I had done nothing to bring trouble upon myself. And who do you suppose led the rebels to storm me out of the country? Non other but the Greek Orthodox bishop of the province! And where do you suppose he sponsored his pursuing campaign? In the church on Sunday morning while in his full regalia and about twenty feet from where I stood!"
"At that time I knew not what my going away from home to such a distant land was about, but now I know as well as Joseph knew that his brethren’s hope to defeat God’s plan for him was but God’s plan to get him down to Egypt. And so rather than to thwart the plan, they really caused the plan to be carried out!" (4, 7, 8)
"Some years ago while in Europe, "Victor wrote on another occasion, "I heard that one of my cousins had left for America.