Israelite House of David

Shannon McRae

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ISRAELITE HOUSE OF DAVID TIMELINE

1674:  Jane Leade became the leader of what began as a group of British Anglicans studying the works of Jakob Boehme. Incorporated in 1694 as the Philadelphian Society for the Advancement of Piety and Divine Philosophy, her community formed the earliest influence for the Israelite House of David.

1792:  Joanna Southcott, of Devon, England, received the first of many spiritual communications and began her career as religious writer and prophet.

1794:  Richard Brothers established the British Israelist Movement with his publication of “A Revealed Knowledge of the Prophecies and Times.”

1814:  At age sixty-four, unmarried virgin Joanna Southcott announced her pregnancy with a messiah. Dying shortly thereafter without giving birth, she amassed thousands of followers, including previous followers of Brothers.

1815 (January):  Southcott follower George Turner declared himself a successor to Southcott’s “Visitation,” and the next messenger of the faith.

1821:  William Shaw, a follower of the Southcottian tradition, was recognized as a prophet and became the fourth messenger.

1822:  Shaw died; John Wroe became the fifth successor. Under Wroe’s leadership and now registered as The Society of Christian Israelites, the tradition expanded to an international movement.

1875:  James Roland White joined the Society of Christian Israelites at Chatham, England, changed his name to James Jershom Jezreel, convinced a majority of them that he was Wroe’s successor, and collected a large group of his own followers.

1893:  Mary and Benjamin Purnell joined the Jezreelite colony of Michael Mills in Detroit, Michigan.

1895:  The Purnells received the graft of the spiritual branch of the messenger tradition. They departed from the Detroit colony to begin their mission.

1902:  Mary and Benjamin Purnell published The Star of Bethlehem  in Fostoria, Ohio and distributed it widely to followers of Wroe and Jezreel. In so doing, they established the Israelite House of David in the United States and Australia, and themselves as the Seventh (and final) Messengers.

1903:  The Purnells, along with a few followers, relocated to Benton Harbor, Michigan. On June 4, they filed articles with the State of Michigan incorporating the House of David as a voluntary religious organization.

1905 (March):  A contingent of eighty-five Australian followers of John Wroe arrived in Benton Harbor to join Mary and Benjamin’s colony.

1906:  Sixty Jezreelites arrived at the House of David from London.

1908 (January 1):  The House of David officially reorganized as a voluntary religious association, with Benjamin and Mary Purnell holding all property and money in trust. Later that year, the Eden Springs Amusement Park opened for business, attracting thousands of tourists.

1910 (December 16-17):  Twenty Israelite couples married in a group ceremony.

1921 (October):  John and Margaret Hansel, former colony members, returned to file a bill of complaint in District Court accusing Mary and Benjamin of religious fraud.

1923 (January 12-13):  Ruth Bamford Reed and Gladys Bamford Rubel filed raped charges against Benjamin Purnell.

1926 (November 17):  Michigan State Troopers raided Benjamin Purnell’s home and arrested him, along with several others.

1927 (May 16):  The trial of Benjamin Purnell (People vs. Purnell) began.

1927 (November 10):  Circuit Judge Louis H. Fead found the House of David guilty of religious fraud and placed the colony in receivership.

1927 (December 8):  The State Supreme Court stayed People vs. Purnell pending appeal and review of receivership litigation.

1927 (December 16):  Benjamin Purnell died.

1929 (June 3):  Judge Fead’s decision was overturned by the State Supreme Court.

1930 (April 1):  Mary Purnell departed the House of David colony with 215 followers and established a separate colony known as The City of David. Judge H.T. Dewhirst officially assumed leadership of the House of David.

1947:  Judge Dewhirst died. Edmund Bulley became colony secretary.

1953 (August 19):  Mary Purnell died.

1962:  Edmund Bulley died. Robert Dewhirst, the judge’s son, became colony secretary.

1966:  Robert Dewhirst died; his brother Tom Dewhirst became colony secretary.

1975:  Eden Springs Park closed.

1992:  Restorations began at the City of David.

1996 (August 19):  Tom Dewhirst died.

2001:  Ron Taylor, City of David secretary, revived the House of David Echoes as a vintage baseball team, registered with the Vintage Base Ball Association in America.

2009:  A group of miniature train enthusiasts purchased forty-two acres of the former park property from the House of David and began to restore it as a miniature train park. Mary’s City of David was placed on the National Register of Historic Places.

2011:  Restoration, historic and archival preservation began on Shiloh House.

FOUNDER/GROUP HISTORY

Mary and Benjamin Purnell [Image at right], the co-founders of the Israelite House of David, were regarded by their followers as the seventh and last of a line of Messengers, or prophets. The line of messengers originated in Britain, with the late eighteenth century British Israelist movement led by Richard Brothers and the early nineteenth century millennial prophecies of Joanna Southcott.

Originally from rural Kentucky, the Purnells married in 1880 in Aberdeen, Ohio. Like many rural poor in the late nineteenth century, they sought various employment, first as itinerant day laborers, later as traveling preachers. Sometime in 1887, temporarily settled in Richmond, Indiana after the birth of their daughter Hettie, the couple became acquainted with missionaries who followed the teachings of the British mystic and preacher James Jershom Jezreel. In 1892, Mary and Benjamin moved to Detroit to join the Jezreelite colony led by Michael Mills. There they remained for two or three years, until Mills was convicted of statutory rape in 1894 and the Detroit colony became the center of a highly-publicized scandal.

The Purnells established the Israelite House of David when they published the first edition of their four-volume visionary work The Star of Bethlehem in Fostoria Ohio in 1902. In this work, they announced that Mary and Benjamin had received the “Visitation” or “graft” (onto the branch of the messenger lineage) while in residence at the Detroit colony, and were thus the Seventh and Final Messenger.  By writing the Star of Bethlehem and disseminating it widely to the churches Wroe and Jezreel had already established in Europe, Australia, New Zealand, and the United States, and establishing themselves as successors to both previous messengers, the Purnells managed to consolidate and revitalize a movement that had largely become fractured.

The Purnells arrived in Benton Harbor, Michigan on March 17, 1903, and purchased land with the assistance of the local well-to-do Jezreelite Baushke family. After legally establishing the Israelite House of David colony on June 4, 1903, their strategic combination of targeted missionary trips to Wroeite and Jezreelite colonies in Europe, Australia and elsewhere in the US, and wide dissemination of the Star, eventually brought hundreds of others. The exuberant arrival in March 1905 of eighty-five Australian Wroeites from several prominent families parading through Benton Harbor with a brass band legitimized the Purnell’s status and mission as well as bringing a substantial core of skilled and talented people to the community.

The community was seeking support and occupation for their growing colony, and endeavoring to establish good public relations within the conservative Midwestern region. In 1908, the colony opened the Eden Springs Park. The Park drew thousands of tourists from Chicago and around the region with miniature train rides, musical acts, theatrical performances, and an exotic animal zoo. Every year, elaborate floats built by colony members out of thousands of real flowers and featuring neo-classical sculptures and various other fantasy or biblical scenes, were featured in the local Blossom Parade.

The Purnells launched several other entertainment ventures as well. Most famous among these was their baseball team. [Image at right] First organized around 1913, by 1920 the team began traveling on the barnstorming circuit. The fact that their faith required that they leave their hair long and their beards unshaven and distributed religious literature contributed to their fame. However, they also earned and deserved their reputation as highly-skilled players. Besides the traveling teams, the colony also had a home team, a junior team, and a girls’ team. Music was also extremely important to colony life. Men’s and women’s bands and choruses regularly performed in the park, [Image at right] and in the late 1920s, one of the men’s bands travelled throughout the country as a jazz act.

The colony’s economic mainstay, however, was agriculture. They purchased considerable acreage around the county, generating wealth for its membership and eventually the larger region through large-scale agricultural endeavors. They expanded to logging operations in northern Michigan. For a short time, they engaged in shipbuilding, and ran several other operations in Benton Harbor, including a bus service, a trolley line, a hotel, and later an auto dealership and one of the country’s earliest cold storage facilities.

At its peak around 1916, the colony had some 1,000 members. A combination of internal conflict, ongoing scandals culminating in a series of high-profile legal trials, and sensationalistic newspaper coverage of these events all contributed to its eventual decline. Ultimately, however, none of those external pressures affected the membership as much as various internal clashes. After Benjamin Purnell’s death in 1927, tensions increased, particularly between Mary Purnell and H.T. Dewhirst, the Israelite attorney who had defended Benjamin during the trial, and their respective followers. In 1930, the colony split. Mary Purnell’s followers established a separate community two blocks east of the original grounds, while the original colony and remaining members came under the leadership of Judge. H.T. Dewhirst.

Although membership waned in both colonies as a result of the trials and various interpersonal tensions, both colonies continued their various enterprises between the 1930s and 1950s. The House of David expanded its entertainment operations. Eden Springs Park remained a popular attraction through the 1950s, featuring regular musical and theatrical performance by both colony bands and traveling acts, a bowling alley, train rides, [Image at right] a hotel, restaurant, and beer garden. They also opened a motel and nightclub that featured national acts, a lucrative agricultural cold storage facility, and an auto dealership. Although the City of David maintained a more religious focus under Mary Purnell’s leadership, they also continued to cater to tourists, with a four-story hotel in downtown Benton Harbor, vegetarian restaurants, and guest cottages on colony grounds that were especially popular with a Jewish clientele. Both also continued agricultural production and sponsorship of their traveling sports teams.

Particularly noteworthy is their association with African-American sports history. Beginning in the 1920s, the House of David traveled with some Negro League teams. In the 1930s, the City of David team traveled with the Kansas City Monarchs, and in 1934, the House of David won the Denver Post Tournament with the assistance of Satchel Paige and his catcher Cy Perkins, on loan from the Pittsburgh Crawfords. A traveling basketball team sponsored by the City of David faced off against the Harlem Globetrotters in the 1940s and 1950s.

Though both colonies persist to the present day, an aging population, dwindling membership, and the death of longstanding leaders led to sharp decline in the middle of the last century. Visits to Eden Springs Park declined drastically in 1960 after the building of Interstate 94 diverted traffic away from Benton Harbor. The type of entertainment if offered grew increasingly out of style with the changing times. The final shuttering of the park in 1975, and the cold storage facility in 1977, marked an end to what had been a high-profile and largely congenial public presence.

The City of David members began preservation efforts in the late 1990s. In 2001, Secretary and Trustee Ron Taylor brought back baseball in the form of the House of David Echoes, a vintage baseball team that plays other local and regional teams up to the present. He also runs a museum, offers tours, and regularly gives historical talks to local historical societies. In 2009, a group of miniature train enthusiasts purchased much of the former park property. Their restored train park continues to draw a new generation of tourists. In 2011, preservationists under the direction of colony Trustee and Historian Brian Ziebart began restoration of the major historic buildings on House of David grounds, as well as a program of archival preservation for the many publications and artefacts. While these efforts continue, the community itself remains closed to the public.

DOCTRINES/BELIEFS

Both the Israelite House of David and the City of David hold the same central set of beliefs. The central texts are the King James Bible including the Apocrypha, along with the Book of Enoch, the Book of Jasher, and numerous writings of Mary and Benjamin, particularly the Star of Bethlehem. A millennialist faith, they await the events described in Revelation, and believe that they are among the 144,000 elect who will live on earth in peace and prosperity after the second coming of Christ. After this thousand-year period, salvation is secured for all. Mary and Benjamin referred to the colony they created as the “Ingathering,” the calling home of the previously scattered eleven tribes of Israel. Central to their belief is the “life of the body.” This refers to the process of physical purification that prepares the human body for eternal life. This is accomplished through celibacy, a vegetarian diet, abstinence of carnal desires, and an ethic of forbearance toward all humanity. The men do not cut their hair or shave their beards.

Chronologically, the earliest origins of the core theology originated in the late eighteenth century, with Richard Brothers, whose central claim was that ten of the Lost Tribes of Israel had ended up in Britain, and that he was a direct descendant of the lineage of the biblical House of David.

The faith traces its origins to Joanna Southcott. Born in Devon in 1750, Southcott worked most of her life in domestic service. Raised in the Church of England and later nominally a Wesleyan Methodist, Southcott began to receive visions in 1792, and by the turn of the nineteenth century had drawn a massive popular following through her widely-disseminated millennialist writings. At age sixty-four and apparently after a lifetime without any sexual encounter, she drew enormous publicity by announcing that she was about to give birth to a child she called Shiloh, alluding to Genesis 49:10. Although the birth never happened and Southcott died shortly after it was to have occurred, the following she amassed persisted through a series of successors, regarded within the faith as messengers. Joanna Southcott, Richard Brothers, George Turner, William Shaw, John Wroe, and James Jezreel were the first six messengers.

Whether Benjamin alone or Benjamin and Mary together were the seventh messenger remains a point of contention. Many of the earliest colony writings name them as co-equal messengers. They often referred to themselves as “Shiloh Twain,” alluding to Joanna Southcott’s original prophecy that she would give birth to the Shiloh child, and that together, male and female, they were the ultimate fulfillment of that prophecy. Passages from The Star of Bethlehem reinforce the dual-gender nature of the Shiloh. Newspaper articles from the early years of the colony made it clear that the couple shared colony leadership, and until around 1910, they typically signed their written work “Mary and Benjamin.”  As tensions developed within the colony, her role and status became a key source of contention. After the colony split in 1930, those that remained with Judge Dewhirst and the House of David and those who went with Mary developed a separate theology centered upon Mary’s role as messenger. That Benjamin was only ever the sole messenger became a defining point of doctrine for those who remained with the House of David, while Mary’s reorganized colony maintained that Mary and Benjamin shared the role co-equally.

Philosophically, the seventeenth century writings of Christian mystic Jane Leade and the Philadelphian Society, the group of British Dissenters she founded, also inform Israelite theology, particularly as interpreted by Mary Purnell and her followers. These elements include the experience of personal revelation, divine wisdom available only to an elect few able to perceive it, and that individual prayer, contemplation, and reflection outside of established churches offer a path to this hidden knowledge. As such, Israelite theology contains a significant mystical and esoteric component, and shares a theological heritage with such other religious communities as the Ephrata Cloister, the Harmony Society, the Amana colony, and the Hutterites.

Israelite theology is also significantly gendered. Originating with Leade, strongly emphasized in Southcott’s teachings, and persistent throughout the messenger line is the idea that Woman, or more specifically the purified female body, is key to salvation. Just as Eve brought sin into the world, the New Eve, “the woman clothed with the sun,” or the virgin bride, would redeem it. This is why Southcott’s never-born Shiloh child became such a key component of the faith, the spirit child of a virgin mother. As the seventh messengers, Mary and Benjamin together were “Shiloh Twain,” the male and female incarnation of the Child. Like Joanna, Mary was the woman clothed with the sun. In Benjamin’s interpretation, the 144,000 to be saved in Revelation was 288,000, men and women. Women in the Purnells’ colony were in general highly respected, and always held key positions.

RITUALS/PRACTICES

In general, the rituals and practices the House of David observes are in keeping within the larger family of Christian communitarian societies. Their observations are most closely in line with those of the Shakers, while their regular engagement in commerce and larger public life resembles communities such as the Amana colony.

Public preaching, prayer, scriptural study, religious contemplation, and theological discussion are key components of Israelite life. They do not, however, hold formal services or build churches. Nor do they specifically observe the Sabbath, preferring to regard every day as holy. With early Christianity and various scriptural passages as their model, in service to their central belief regarding the “life of the body,” they live communally and maintain a vegetarian diet. Although marriage is allowed, they also observe celibacy. The men neither cut their hair nor shave their beards. There is no standard dress code. Men and women dress modestly. Women typically keep their hair long and do not wear makeup.

ORGANIZATION/LEADERSHIP

In their role as Messengers, Mary and Benjamin Purnell in the earliest days of the colony were both regarded as leaders. Each also had trusted advisers. Certain people were designated to carry out key administrative roles, such as working in the cash office, supervising park operations, or overseeing farming and logging operations at different colony sites. This level of personnel changed depending on a variety of factors, such as perceived needs and developing priorities, and tensions developed at various times within the colony around the leadership structure.

Currently in both colonies, the colony Secretary carries highest administrative authority. Colony members have voting rights, while trustees serve in an advisory capacity.

ISSUES/CHALLENGES

Various public controversies and private interpersonal tensions have affected The Israelite House of David nearly throughout its history. The most persistent and high profile controversies concerned finances and Benjamin Purnell’s sexual conduct.

In keeping with the earliest Christian communities as described in Acts of the Apostles and the norms of most communitarian societies, members surrendered all wealth and belongings to the colony, in order to support the faith and practice of the larger membership. Every family signed a contract to this effect upon joining. Every person who joined the colony was free to leave. Their property, however, was contractually non-refundable if they chose to do so. The earliest lawsuits against the colony, beginning in 1907, involved individual and family attempts to recover their finances. Although Mary and Benjamin Purnell routinely issued refunds in such cases, in 1908 in response to ongoing negative press publicity stemming from these suits, the House of David officially reorganized as a voluntary religious association, with Benjamin and Mary holding all property and money in trust for the community.

Rumors also began during this period of sexual misconduct on the part of Benjamin Purnell, typically originating from the same parties that publicized financial grievances. These issues, combined, culminated in a series of spectacular trials that fueled newspaper sales across the country for most of the 1920s.

The full truth behind the spectacle is impossible to ascertain. Living conditions for rank-and-file colony members were spartan. Although all members knew that they were to contribute all property to the colony upon arrival, that most profits from their labor were to be turned over to the colony for the benefit of all, and that the arrangement could be terminated at any time, the rigors of communal life were not easy to maintain, particularly in opulent Jazz Age America. The fact that the entrepreneurial Purnells, their closest associates, and other members more involved with the stylish public face of the colony presented a more elegant lifestyle than the already unusual-looking long-haired Israelites likely also contributed to growing controversy.

Controversy and rumor culminated with two spectacular trials, whose details played out, and were arguably fueled, by highly sensationalized press coverage. The first, in 1923, involved a suit brought by the Hansel family. The Hansels sought large financial damages, claiming that they had been fraudulently induced to become colony members, were later coerced to leave, and suffered financial hardship as a result. In support of their further claim that the religion itself was fraudulent, the Hansels along with several others accused Benjamin of rape, allegations supported by testimony that was both graphic and particularly by today’s standards highly troubling.

Newspaper accounts across the country offered salacious descriptions of the Benton Harbor “sex cult” with hints of white slavery and sinister rituals. The trial itself was highly problematic. Benjamin was accused of rape, a criminal act, but his case was tried, inappropriately in, a civil suit. Although he never appeared in court as a defendant for the correlating fraud charges, the rape charges were never formally brought to trial, and thus were never proven. Furthermore, most of the witnesses who had accused Benjamin of rape in the first place later recanted their charges.

The Hansels won their fraud case, and were granted a settlement, albeit considerably smaller than what they had hoped. But the issue was far from over. Rumors, complaints and charges, made again by a few disaffected colonists persisted, fueled and amplified by the press. At one point in 1926, the Detroit Free Press offered a $5,000 reward for Benjamin’s capture. Many local business and civic leaders, with whom the colony had largely enjoyed a good relationship, raised funds for his bail and petitioned for his defense, however.

In November 1926, the controversy reached critical mass. Benjamin was arrested and jailed on a charge of statutory rape, but once again tried only for religious fraud. This second trial, lasting through most of 1927, was once more luridly sensationalized, vying for “trial of the century” headlines with the Scopes Monkey Trial and the sentencing of Sacco and Vanzetti.

The People vs. Purnell began May 16, 1927. On November 10 of that same year, Circuit Judge Louis H. Fead found the House of David guilty of religious fraud, and placed the colony under state receivership. Because it was not clear that he had the authority to do so, the case was appealed and brought to the State Supreme Court, which on December 8 stayed the case pending appropriate review of receivership litigation. A year and a half later, on June 3, 1929. The State Supreme Court overturned Fead’s decision.

The stress of the lengthy trials with their unwanted negative publicity, the death of Benjamin Purnell in December 1927, and a leadership struggle between Mary Purnell and Judge H.T. Dewhirst, exhausted and demoralized the community. This conflict culminated in Mary Purnell’s departure from the House of David colony along with 214 followers (nearly exactly half the colony) to establish a separate community. Although both saw declines in numbers, indviduals and families did continue to join. Both successfully maintained various financial enterprises for the next several decades and expanded into new ventures, and both maintained an active and overall friendly public presence in the larger community well into the 1960s. By the early 1970s, however, the remaining members had gotten too old and too few in number to continue to engage in public life, and popular tastes had changed. The amusement park closed in 1975, and the various large, spectacular buildings that once housed both branches and served as administrative headquarters fell into disrepair.

By the early 1990s, decay, disuse and the natural ravages of aging had all taken their toll. The small, remaining now elderly communities maintained their faith, but became increasingly less able to manage their affairs. Both were on the verge of dereliction. Because the City of David maintained some relatively younger members, descendants of original colonists, they were more quickly able to begin necessary preservation efforts in the late 1990s. These have been ongoing, and the now small community has stabilized, thrived, and once again become part of public life in southwest Michigan. The House of David, which had suffered from ongoing fiscal as well as physical mismanagement, began its recovery around 2009, through the combined efforts of colony members, trustees, and local historians. A major property sale from the Australian branch of the colony helped fund restoration and preservation of the historic buildings and support remaining colony members. Although this community has remained closed to the public, it has working to preserve the wealth of historical and archival materials produced by the colony, toward the eventual goal of supporting scholarly research. The amusement park, bought in 2009 by a small group of train enthusiasts, has been partially restored, has recently reopened as a miniature train park, and is run by a dedicated group of volunteers.

Both colonies have continued in their faith, adapted to the twenty-first century.

IMAGES

Image #1: Mary and Benjamin Purnell.
Image # 2: House of David baseball team.
Image #3: House of David brass band.
Image #4: Miniature train ride.

REFERENCES

Adkin, Clare. 1990. Brother Benjamin: A History of the Israelite House of David. Berrien Springs, MI: Andrews University Press.

Israelite House of David Official Website. n.d. Accessed from www.israelitehouseofdavid.com on 1 July 2020.

Frost, Julieanna. 2014. “The Rise and Fall of Prince Michael Mills and the Detroit Jezreelites.” American Communal Societies Quarterly 8:146-62.

Hawkins, Joel and Terry Bertolino. 2000. The House of David Baseball Team.” Charleston, SC: Arcadia Publishing.

Lockley, Philip and Jane Shaw. 2017. The History of a Modern Millennial Movement: The Southcottians. London: I.B. Tauris & Co. Ltd.

McRae, Shannon. 2008. “Eros and its Discontents: The Israelite House of David and their Almost Eden.” American Communal Societies Quarterly 2:70-81.

McRae, Shannon and Brian Ziebart. 2018. “Descriptive Bibliography of Imprints in the House of David Collection.” American Communal Societies Quarterly 12:3-4.

Mary’s City of David Official Website. n.d. Accessed from www.maryscityofdavid.org on 1 July 2020.

Purnell, Benjamin and Mary. 1903. Second Edition. The Star of Bethlehem: The Living Roll of Life: The Word of God. Benton Harbor, MI: Israelite House of David.

Southwest Michigan Business and Tourism Directory. The Israelite House of David: A Brief History. Accessed from http://www.swmidirectory.org/Israelite_House_of_David.html on 1 July 2020.

Taylor, R. James. 1996. Mary’s City of David, a Pictorial History of the Israelite House of David as Reorganized by Mary Purnell. Benton Harbor, MI: City of David.

Yaple, Henry. 2014. A descriptive bibliography of imprints from the Israelite House of David and Mary’s City of David, 1902-2010. Clinton, NY: Richard W. Couper Press.

Publication Date:
5 July 2020.

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Updated: — 6:41 pm

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