Nov 21, 2016

House of David The remains of a religious colony, its amusement park, zoo, and baseball empire. 

Atlas Obscura
November 21, 2016

The church pews, miniature train, and bandstands of the House of David used to be overflowing with believers. Now, the cultish religious colony has just two members, but the history remains.

Benjamin Purnell, a traveling preacher and former broom maker, declared himself to be the incarnation of God’s seventh and final prophet, Shiloh, in 1903. Following Purnell, thousands relocated to Benton Harbor to join the “House of David” and live in the commune that promised Heaven on Earth. Members abstained from all vices: sex, meat, alcohol, tobacco, were forbidden, and so were personal possessions. Everything was shared amongst the commune.

However, the members of the House of David were no sticks in the mud. They were known for being wholesome and fun. All profits went back to the colony, and with their money they opened a zoo, a farmer’s market, and an amusement park called Eden Springs. The money also went towards building homes for its members, including a particularly grand Queen Anne-style mansion for Benjamin and his wife, Mary. They were totally self sufficient, harvesting and canning their own food from orchards and even providing their own electricity.

The residents of Benton Harbor and neighboring St. Joseph’s were drawn by the twinkling lights of Eden Springs to see concerts, eat ice cream, and ride the train. The House of David Museum director, who grew up nearby but is unaffiliated with the colony, said, “Yeah it probably was a cult, but, you know, a good cult… They wanted to invite America into their lives.”

The colony was perhaps best known for its baseball team. The traveling team was founded in 1914 and became popular not just because of the oddity of their appearance (the men had long, uncut hair and beards to be in the likeness of Christ), but also because they were quite good. The House of David baseball team became known for their “pepper game,” or trick shots. They got popular enough that they began hiring outside professional players, some of whom grew out their facial hair in deference to the God of Israel. Others just wore fake beards.

The House of David met its end when Benjamin Purnell was convicted of the rape of hundreds of the girls and women in the community. The scandal was widely covered in the press in particular because of the irony of it occurring in a celibate colony. The House of David split into two factions, the Israelite House of David and the Old House of David, but both of these eventually dwindled.

The colony is now mostly empty, but not totally. A few members remain in the buildings, waiting for Christ to come again and reestablish his kingdom on Lake Michigan.

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