Baseball instead of Sex?
We picked up two antique postcards referencing the “House of David.” I had never heard of them before, so off I went to do a little research. I wondered in particular about the postcard of the “Junior Baseball Team” showing young men with long hair wearing baseball uniforms, as it seemed particularly unusual for the time.
The Israelite House of David was a religious organization that was formed in 1903 in Benton Harbor, Michigan by Benjamin Purnell.
Benjamin Purnell was a twice-married former broom maker and traveling preacher from Kentucky who one day declared himself the seventh and final messenger of God, as foretold in the Book of Revelation.
Detroit Free Press, Nov. 13, 1916. Eventually, thousands of people joined Purnell in the group.
The group taught that all sex was a sin, even for procreation. Married couples who joined had to then regard themselves as brother and sister. Since killing is a sin, their diet was strictly vegetarian, and members refused to serve in war. Men were forbidden to shave or cut their hair based on a verse in the Bible, which meant members were instantly identifiable by their long hair and beards. And everything that was theirs and everything they would earn went back to the group, which fueled an economic empire.
They had a hotel, a resort, a restaurant, a zoo and an entire Island in Lake Michigan called High Island, which they logged for timber. They owned 100,000 acres of farmland and created what was billed at the time as the world’s biggest farmers market, and built the world’s biggest cold storage building for the food they produced.
Half a million tourists came every year to Eden Springs Park, the massive amusement park they operated featuring a bowling alley, a billiards parlor, a movie theater, a jewelry shop, a dance hall, a greenhouse, pony rides, souvenir stands, vaudeville shows and the world’s largest miniature railroad.
Id. The group became well-known for its baseball team. According to the Detroit Free Press, legend has it that the young men were encouraged to play baseball as a distraction from the group’s enforced celibacy requirement.
For years, they reportedly had an average winning percentage of .750, and often made it through a season without losing once. They were most famous for their “Pepper Game,” similar to what would later become the Harlem Globetrotters’ flashy antics on the basketball court, in which the baseball players would whip the ball back and forth to each other or make it seem to vanish in their beards. It fascinated their crowds.
But despite their athletic skills, the team wasn’t allowed to play in the major leagues because of their beards and long hair, so most of their time was spent playing in the Negro League, where they felt they had an affinity with others banned from playing the majors based on their appearance.
The group largely faded in the 1950s after a sex scandal involving Purnell. He was accused of having sex with underage girls in the colony. Those girls reported that the sex was required – according to Purnell – to achieve salvation. He died of tuberculosis without having been tried for sexual misconduct.
The whole sordid affair left the colony reeling, and it split in two. One faction, the original Israelite House of David, was led by a former judge who took over after Benjamin Purnell’s death. The other was led by Mary Purnell, wife of the founder, who left the original group, took about half its membership with her, bought land just down the street from the House of David’s properties and began a new colony called Mary’s City of David.
Today, there are very few members left of the two communities, though the area has been revitalized by individuals interested in rejuvenated and preserving its history.
We remain among America’s oldest practicing Christian communities. Working closely with local artisans, craftsmen, and dozens of dedicated workers, we are restoring our most beautiful buildings to their former grandeur and preserving our heritage.
Israelite House of David “internet presence.”
Resources: Detroit Free Press, “Benton Harbor remembers cult destroyed by sex scandal, It was called the House of David and it was supposed to get its members to paradise” Nov. 13, 1916.
The Israelite House of David has some wonderful photos and additional information.
Chicago Tribune, “A Cult in Benton Harbor, The good and (alleged) evil of the House of David” July 16, 2017,