House of David

A charismatic community known for its unique blend of religion, sportsmanship, and entertainment.

Religion: Christianity
Denomination: Southcottian
Founder: Benjamin and Mary Purnell
Founded: 1903
Ended: 1978
Location: Benton Harbor, Michigan, United States
Size: Several hundred members at its peak
Offshoots: Israelite House of David, House of David (Splinter group)
Other Names: Israelite House of David, The Community, The House of David

The House of David, formally known as The Israelite House of David, was a religious group that carved a niche for itself in the early 20th century, founded in Benton Harbor, Michigan, in 1903 by Benjamin and Mary Purnell. The couple positioned themselves as the successors to Joanna Southcott, a British woman who claimed to be a religious prophetess. This community quickly became noted for its distinctive practices, such as celibacy and communal living, underpinned by a belief that they were preparing for Jesus Christ’s second coming.

The Purnells, particularly Benjamin, had a deep affinity for sports, which led to the formation of the House of David baseball teams. Starting in 1913, these teams played competitive baseball and toured rural America from the 1920s through the 1950s, becoming famous as a barnstorming team. Their unique appearance, with players donning long hair and beards, along with their skilful gameplay, made them a spectacle wherever they went. Notably, the teams employed professional players at times, including legends like Grover Cleveland Alexander and Satchel Paige, some of whom either grew their beards or wore false ones in respect of the community’s beliefs.

Beyond sports, the House of David was also renowned for its musical bands, which toured the country almost incessantly between 1906 and 1927 across the top vaudeville circuits. Additionally, they operated a world-famous zoo and amusement park in Benton Harbor, which became a beloved vacation spot in the 1930s known as The Springs of Eden Park. This park featured a variety of attractions, including coal-powered miniature locomotives that had been inspired by those seen at the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis.

In the 1920s, Benjamin Purnell faced legal challenges, including accusations of immorality and financial mismanagement. These allegations led to a trial in 1927, which tarnished the group’s reputation and resulted in a decline in membership. After Purnell’s death in 1927, the House of David underwent a schism, leading to the formation of a separate group, the City of David, led by Mary Purnell.

Following the schism and the death of its founders, the House of David’s influence and membership gradually declined. However, the community’s legacy persisted, particularly in Benton Harbor, where remnants of their enterprises, like Eden Springs Park, remained tourist attractions for many years.

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