House of David history

Sect marks its 100th anniversary

South Bend Tribune/June 1, 2003
By Lou Mumford

Benton Harbor -- It allowed women to vote and hold office, 17 years before the 19th Amendment that gave all adult women in the United States that right.

It's credited with inventing bowling's automatic pin-setters and sugar-waffle ice cream cones.

Its traveling men's baseball team competed in the first night game ever played on a permanently lit field.

And the Benton Harbor-based House of David, America's third oldest Christian community, is observing its 100th anniversary this year.

The religious sect was once a powerful economic force in Berrien County, says R. James Taylor, spokesman for the City of David that split from the House of David in 1930.

How powerful? Taylor said that when several sect males had their job requests rejected by the company that operated Benton Harbor's street cars, the colony bought a majority share of the firm and immediately put the men to work.

Taylor said the firm apparently had been put off by the appearance of the men, who grew beards and wore their hair long to conform with their religious beliefs.

Another sect belief, celibacy, even for married couples, is largely the reason the House of David and City of David have so few members today. Taylor said the City of David has just seven residents on the Britain Avenue property bordering the House of David site.

The House of David, he said, has just four.

Although Paul Johnson, the corresponding secretary at the House of David, wouldn't disclose the colony's membership, he agreed there's "just a handful.''

One of that handful is Lloyd Dalenger, who's believed to be the last surviving member of the colony's once famous baseball teams. Players for the House of David were the first to stage "pepper games'' and the first to play a night game, on Apr. 17, 1930, in Independence, Kan.

A House of David team also defeated the major league St. Louis Cardinals in 1933, the year before the Cardinals won the World Series. The starting pitcher for the House of David in that game was Jackie Mitchell, professional baseball's first female performer.

Taylor said the baseball teams' purpose wasn't so much to win games as it was to advertise the colony and attract new members.

Taylor said it was because of Mary Purnell, the wife of sect founder Benjamin Purnell, that the colony settled in Benton Harbor in 1903. Taylor said Mary received the name "Benton Harbor'' in a divine inspiration, and Benjamin decided to put down roots in the city after finding the town on a map.

"God was bent on harboring His people'' here, Benjamin reportedly exclaimed.

A traveling preacher and former broom maker, Benjamin claimed to be the last of seven prophets the Lord would use to gather the 144,000 people from the 12 lost tribes of Israel.

Although the sect's membership never approached that number, Benjamin's charisma and remarkable business sense was largely responsible for swelling its population to a respectable 1,000 in just 13 years. Its traveling baseball teams served as a drawing card, as did its talented bands, its Eden Springs Amusement Park and its pure spring water marketed in Chicago .

But allegations of fraud and sexual misconduct surfaced against Benjamin, culminating in a 1927 civil trial that remains the most celebrated in county history. Although the trial ended with a guilty verdict and $24,000 monetary award, the decision was later reversed on appeal.

Taylor said the charges against Benjamin stemmed from a small number of disgruntled colony members.

"They were after money, and they used allegations of sexual impropriety as a tag to get money,'' he said.

When Benjamin died of diabetes and tuberculosis 11 days after the civil suit's conclusion, the colony split. Taylor said roughly half sided with H. T. Dewhirst, who kept the sect's books, and 216 others followed Mary Purnell to an undeveloped property up the road that would become generally known as Mary's City of David.

"Mary wasn't offering anything but hard work and faith,'' Taylor said.

When Mary died in 1953, Taylor said the second generation of leadership "closed the door to things'' and resulted in the City of David becoming an unknown entity in the community. Only in the last few years, after Taylor opened a museum and established seasonal tours, has there been renewed public attention and efforts to distribute religious materials.

Taylor says that while there are a limited number of residents in both the House of David and City of David, there are many outside the area who share the sect's beliefs in such things as vegetarianism and physical salvation for the chosen.

It's a major step to join the colony, Taylor said, because members are required to contribute all their possessions. He said the latest new member is Carl Payne, who joined the City of David six or seven years ago.

Although more like Payne will be necessary for the sect to survive, Taylor's not twisting anyone's arm.

"I tell people when the time comes for it, they'll know it,'' he said.

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