I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.
Would-be religious cult leaders need to go a bit wobbly on dogma; without some bizarre rituals there would be nothing to set them apart from mainstream faiths. So, when Benjamin and Mary Purnell were inspired to start up the House of David in 1903 they picked out a few odd novelties their followers had to adhere to. Perhaps, the most notable curiosity was the formation of a baseball team whose players wore long hair and were heavily bearded.
The Seventh Angel
Benjamin Purnell got the idea into his head that he was the seventh messenger from the Book of Revelation. (History does not record whether or not intoxicants were involved, although he said he woke up with a dove on his shoulder).
The verse that seems applicable comes from the King James Version of the Bible as “And the seventh angel sounded; and there were great voices in heaven, saying, the kingdoms of this world are become the kingdoms of our Lord, and of his Christ; and he shall reign for ever and ever.”
Purnell took this as a message that he was appointed to reunite the 12 tribes of Israel. Big job for one person, so he and his wife, Mary, recruited some helpers.
Any sect worthy of the name needs a commune and the Purnells settled on some land near Benton Harbour on the south-eastern shore of Lake Michigan.
The Rules of the Cult
The Purnells welcomed their devotees with a long list of things they couldn’t do; no meat, no shaving, no sex, no tobacco, no personal property, and no alcohol. And, new members had to hand over all their money to the leaders; not for the personal enrichment of the Purnells, you understand, but to further their outreach work.
Of course, in exchange for giving up life’s little pleasures the followers had to be offered something big. Those who signed on to the House of David were promised that Benton Harbour, Michigan was the place chosen by the deity for the restoration of the Garden of Eden. Even better, they would enjoy eternal life. It was a good enough deal to persuade about one thousand people to join the commune.
And, while waiting for Paradise to descend on Benton Harbour, Michigan the House of David got busy. They sold bottled spring water and fruit and vegetables from their farm. They also ran a motor lodge, a gas station, and, improbably, an amusement park, appropriately named Eden Springs.
They had their own electricity plant, hospital, and schools. At its peak, the House of David owned 100,000 acres of farmland and High Island in Lake Michigan that it logged.
And, then there was the baseball team.
The Hirsute Players
According to the Purnells, God does not like men to shave or cut their hair, taking their cue from Leviticus: “Ye shall not round the corners of your heads, neither shalt thou mar the corners of thy beard.”
So, when Benjamin Purnell decided to form a baseball team, no doubt to channel the energy built up by celibacy, a very hairy team took to the field. The novelty of these long-haired lads in pinstripes drew big crowds to games with local semi-professional teams.
Apparently, it turns out that when the Lord is on your side a fly ball can turn itself into a home run; that, or you have some really good players in your team. By 1915, they entered a minor league and won the championship the next year.
Word spread about these odd-looking players and, by 1920, the House of David baseball team was touring America.
At a time when baseball was segregated, the House of David team often played against all-black teams, giving many fans their first opportunity to see inter-racial baseball.
They also mastered many skills to entertain the crowd; juggling bats, or pulling “magic” tricks such as hiding baseballs in their beards. In one game (show?) they had two fielders mounted on donkeys.
Team’s Winning Record
Aside from the gimmicks, the House of David baseball team was very talented. Sometimes, top major league players suited up with them and stuck on fake beards to blend in. Even greats such as Babe Ruth and Satchel Paige joined in the fun.
They became so popular that three teams were needed to keep up with the demand for appearances. An “all-female” team was created that went undefeated in one season; its success partly due to the presence of male players in disguise.
The House of David team played two or three games a day, tallying up to 200 a season. By some estimates, their winning percentage was .750, a little better than the very best major league teams.
All the money collected went back to the commune in Benton Harbour along with any recruits the team members could haul in as they proselytized in the stands.
Downfall of the Commune
Of course, in a story that has become sickeningly familiar, the holy man Benjamin Purnell turned out to be a scoundrel.
In 1927, the majesty of the law descended on God’s messenger. Commune funds had been stolen and some of the young girls in the community were sexually assaulted. Purnell died of tuberculosis shortly after his conviction but his shenanigans caused splits in the House of David sect.
A couple of factions still put baseball teams on the field, but the whole project was on a downward slope. And, shady promoters tarnished the brand by marketing imitator teams. In 1953, Mary Purnell died, and soon, it was all over for the House of David baseball team. The commune lingered on and still has a few members.
Mary Purnell left a prophecy behind that the sect’s membership would dwindle to next to nothing; so small its members would all fit in her closet. Of course, that is likely to happen within a group that practices celibacy. But, not to worry, she told the tiny number of followers that would be left, the remnant would be the signal for the return of Jesus.
The Eden Springs Park drew half a million visitors during its summer seasons. It boasted vaudeville shows, a movie theatre, and a bowling alley. Although members of the sect were abstemious, they were not above running a beer parlour. The park also had what sounds like a contradiction “the world’s largest miniature railroad.” It closed in the 1970s but local enthusiasts have restored parts of the facility.
Nigel Barber is a sport psychologist at Murray State University, Kentucky and author of Why Atheism Will Replace Religion (2012). He writes that “The similarities between sport fandom and organized religion are striking. Consider the vocabulary associated with both: faith, devotion, worship, ritual, dedication, sacrifice, commitment, spirit, prayer, suffering, festival, and celebration.”
- “The Resurrection of a Bygone Amusement Park.” Gwynedd Stuart, Chicago Reader, May 14, 2014.
- “The Religious Sect That Became Baseball’s Answer to the Harlem Globetrotters.” Ryan Ferguson, The Guardian, September 21, 2016.
- “Benton Harbor Remembers Cult Destroyed by Sex Scandal.” John Carlisle, Detroit Free Press, November 14, 2016.
© 2019 Rupert Taylor
Rupert Taylor (author) from Waterloo, Ontario, Canada on April 17, 2019:
Robert. The House of David was about to offer Ruth a contract when he was near the end of his career, when someone pointed out his fondness for the sauce. They decided having a boozehound on the team would not reflect well on them.
As for the women's team, they would bring in ringers from outside as they did from time to time for the men's team.
Robert Levine from Brookline, Massachusetts on April 17, 2019:
This is a fascinating article about a group I new nothing about. I doubt Babe Ruth would have liked the celibacy rule--or the vegetarian and no-alcohol rules, for that matter.
If members couldn't shave, how could male players disguise themselves as women for the all-female team?
Miebakagh Fiberesima from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA. on April 16, 2019:
Hello, Dr.Mark, ah ah ah! Eh, eh, eh! That is fantastic!
Dr Mark from The Atlantic Rain Forest, Brazil on April 16, 2019:
The guy on the far right looks like my hippy brother. Imagine how cool these guys would have been 70 years later. Baseball AND Deep Purple!
Miebakagh Fiberesima from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA. on April 16, 2019:
Hello, Rupert, to me, cult members are idiots without a sense of the touch of God. The rules of the cult look astonishing enough. One is that no member has to have sex. But my curious question is how come to these men or women into the world without the game of sex?