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 a few members, but the history of the commune can be seen in its remaining buildings—the opulent century-old mansions and smaller brick houses that sit mostly deserted.
The House of David began in 1903 by Benjamin Purnell, who claimed to be prophet of God. Thousands relocated to Benton Harbor, Michigan to follow Purnell’s “House of David” and live in the commune that promised Heaven on Earth. Members abstained from all vices, and all worldly goods were shared among the community. However despite the austere lifestyle, members of the House of David were no sticks in the mud, as the Detroit Free Press reported in a recent profile on the group.
They were known for being wholesome and fun, even operating a zoo, a farmer’s market, and an amusement park called Eden Springs which drew neighbors in. The House of David Museum director, who grew up nearby but is unaffiliated with the colony, told the Detroit Free Press, “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 appear in the likeness of Christ), but also because they were quite good. They became popular enough that they hired 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 controversial end when Benjamin Purnell was accused of the rape of dozens of the girls and women in the community during a fraud trial. The community was riven in two and numbers dwindled. Today the few remaining members keep up the grounds of the once self-sustaining community, operate their own museum, and remain ever-friendly to visitors.
The zoo has been deserted, and the amusement park too. If you drive down East Britain Avenue in Benton Harbor though, you can still see the gorgeous mansions Purnell built for himself and his wife, along with the followers’ modest brick houses nearby. Driving through the dirt lanes of the commune one can still see the restaurant building, the auditorium, the baseball field and churches, all of which serve as a reminder of what the House of David used to be.