The Bearded, Baseball-Playing Cultists

“Baseball, it is said, is only a game. True. And the Grand Canyon is only a hole in Arizona.” —George Will

In A Nutshell

Back in the 19th century, Benton Harbor, Michigan, found itself home to the House of David, one of the weirdest cults in US history. Led by Benjamin and Mary Purnell, these oddball believers grew their hair long and sported some pretty crazy facial hair. However, they were best known for their traveling bands, their amusement park, and their all-star baseball team.

The Whole Bushel

The story of Benjamin and Mary Purnell is basically the story of America. It’s a tale of sports, sex, religion, and scandal—not to mention a heaping helping of capitalism and can-do attitudes. And much like the US itself, the story begins across the Atlantic, over in Great Britain.

During the 18th century, a self-proclaimed prophet named Joanna Southcott claimed she was the first of seven messengers mentioned in the book of Revelation. According to Southcott, the apocalypse was nigh, and soon God would save 144,000 “Israelites” from judgment and create a new Garden of Eden.

After Southcott, there was a series of divine messengers, each claiming to be the next prophet in line. Prophet No. 6 was a man by the name of James Jezreel. Like Joanna Southcott, he predicted that Jesus would return for the 144,000 faithful. But Jezreel was a little more specific than his predecessor. He claimed that God would establish his new Eden in the state of Michigan, and Jezreel’s followers were soon preaching his unique American gospel.

And that’s where Benjamin and Mary Purnell come into the story.

Born in Kentucky, Benjamin spent most of his life as a traveling preacher. After a failed first marriage, he met and married Mary Stollard, and then one day, the two attended a church service where they learned about James Jezreel, the 144,000, and the Michigan Garden of Eden. Inspired, Benjamin announced he was the prophesied Seventh Messenger. After a dream, Mary said they should build a utopia in the town of Benton Harbor, Michigan.

With the help of some wealthy followers, the Purnells established the House of David in 1903, officially launching one of the weirdest cults in US history. Their disciples (who called themselves Israelites) had to follow strict rules.

The Purnells took Puritanism to some pretty insane levels, claiming that sex was sinful even if you were married. Alcohol, tobacco, and profanity were all forbidden, and all their followers should do away with meat and become vegetarians.

Of course, the Purnells and their followers were most famous for all their hair. Pointing to Leviticus 19:27 as proof (a Scripture which says, “You shall not round off the hair on your temples or mar the edges of your beard”), Benjamin declared that men should grow out their hair and beards. Some of these guys had manes reaching all the way down to their waists. Women also were encouraged to wear their hair long.

The Purnells were big believers in evangelism. The House of David sent missionaries to England and Australia, bringing back followers from both countries.

But Benjamin and Mary were also pretty bright business people. Wanting to spread their gospel and support their commune, the House of David opened all sorts of wild businesses that brought in millions of dollars. The group got into the logging industry and sold everything from vegetarian soups to bottled mineral water.

They eventually opened a hotel in Texas and even started their amusement park (pictured above), complete with a railroad, a playhouse, and even a zoo. The House of David was also a rather musical church, and the Purnells started several long-haired ragtime bands that traveled the US.

However, when most people think about the House of David, they think about baseball. The cult barnstormed across multiple countries, showing up in Canada, Mexico, and Cuba. The team even toured across Europe, and they played against anyone who dared step onto the baseball diamond, from major leaguers to all-black teams, which was a big deal in the early 1900s.

On one memorable occasion, they actually faced Babe Ruth in an exhibition game. In honor of his hairy opponents, the Great Bambino sported a fake beard during the game.

The House of David team often played over 200 games per season, which meant they were constantly on the move. But if they ever felt exhausted, they certainly didn’t show it. The House of David drew in scores of spectators thanks to their flashy moves and crazy theatrics. Oftentimes, they would hide the ball in their massive beards or throw the ball between their legs. Evidently, they were so popular that the Purnells built a baseball stadium on their property that could hold 3,500 people.

Unfortunately for the Purnells, the End of Days didn’t show up soon enough. Well, not in a spiritual sense anyway.

Even though their baseball team and amusement park were very popular, people thought Benjamin was a pretty weird dude. There were rumors that the Purnells imprisoned disobedient members. Even worse, some claimed that he was raping underage girls. Some people speculated Benjamin had built secret tunnels where he abused his victims. Purnell was also accused of committing fraud, and soon the prophet was a wanted man.

In 1923, Benjamin went into hiding, but he was finally arrested in 1926. The cult leader was convicted of fraud, but before he could face charges of statutory rape, the elderly prophet passed away in 1927. After his death, there was a schism in the church, with half the members siding behind Mary Purnell and half joining a new leader.

Mary’s group renamed themselves the City of David, and they went on to establish a hospital and a vacation complex full of quaint little cottages. The House of David kept the amusement park. As for sports, the City of David had the better baseball team, but it eventually faded away in the 1950s.

Mary Purnell finally died in 1953, but shockingly, both the City and House of David are in operation today. Of course, there aren’t a whole lot of members left. After Benjamin died, both groups gave up on missionary work. And since sex was a big no-no, there weren’t any children to follow in their parents’ footsteps. Occasionally, a new member might show up, but today, the two groups are slowly but surely fading away, leaving behind an incredibly odd legacy of beards, bands, Bibles, and baseball.

Show Me The Proof

Featured image via Wikipedia
Mary’s City of David
Chicago Reader: The Last Days of the House of David
Weird Michigan, by Linda S. Godfrey, Mark Moran, Mark Sceurman
Boston Globe: How an apocalyptic cult invented baseball beard power
Armageddon in Waco, by Stuart A. Wright