He Promised Resurrection But Was Accidentally Cremated
By James Donahue
in my career as a news reporter I lived and worked in Benton Harbor, Michigan, where a remnant of the once infamous House
of David still existed. The property is but a museum today, and the official story of what happened there has been largely
distorted. Yet I know that what went on in that cult was one of the strangest stories linked to a religious belief system
that has ever occurred.
The cult was still
active and still wielded some political power in the community when we were there in the 1960s. But the members that remained,
all white-haired older women in long dresses and men with long flowing beards that reminded us of the Amish, were fast dying
off. Yet they still waited faithfully for their god, the founder of the cult named Benjamin Purnell, to rise up from the dead
and carry them all to glory.
so sure that “King Ben” would return, his body was carefully preserved and kept in a glass case in one of the
buildings on the large compound where the members lived. That his body was there was supposed to be a secret, but this fact
and other startling information about that cult was revealed in a book that was secretly passed to me. Only a few copies of
this book had ever been published locally, and the House of David was powerful enough politically to get it banned. I believe
it was written by a former cult member who had been on the inside.
If I remember correctly, Purnell was an itinerate preacher who had a revelation that he was the “seventh
messenger” described in the Book of Revelation and that it was his task to gather the children of Israel to await the
Second Coming of Christ. He established his first religious commune in Augustine, Ohio, but later moved it to Benton Harbor
where he established the House of David in 1903.
cult soon had a growing flock of faithful followers from all over the world. Those who followed King Ben had to commit their
lives to the cult. They turned over all of their worldly possessions, and moved on the property where they raised the food
they ate, and worked collectively to provide for everyone’s needs. It was a communist form of living under the dictatorial
rule of King Ben Purnell.
heyday in the 1930s, the House of David grew to about 1,000 members. Purness was obviously a very good businessman and promoter,
with the collected wealth of the membership, he led the cult in numerous business ventures that included construction of an
elaborate amusement park on the cult grounds that drew tourism. The park boasted a railroad line on House of David grounds
with cars pulled by steam engines manufactured by the cult craftsmen.
The members generated their own electricity, built elaborate buildings, made their own furniture, opened a jam
and jelly factory, operated the world’s largest cold storage building, a large lumber yard and even got involved in
mining coal, diamonds and gold. With the wealth came political power which was still evident in the 1960s.
The House of David also produced a very good baseball team that became
well known throughout the country. The players stood out because of their odd uniforms and long uncut beards. It was said,
however, that they played pretty good baseball.
cult also purchased an island on Northern Lake Michigan and operated two sailing ships that were used to take members to and
from the island. Among the enterprises was the harvesting of lumber on the island and shipping it back to Benton Harbor for
use in building material and stocking the lumber yard.
From the outside looking in,
the House of David appeared to be a very good religious oriented enterprise. The public enjoyed visiting the amusement park
and watching the baseball team. While they were unique, nobody suspected what was going on within the walls.
It seems that King Ben demanded a strange form of celibacy on the
part of his followers. But he also called forth all of the women to be personally “cleansed” by him in his bed.
They said this also included all young girls as soon as they reached a certain age.
he may have started out with good intentions, King Ben was eventually considered a god incarnate among the cult followers.
Before he died in 1927, Purnell promised his followers that he would rise again.
After his death there was a split in the commune and Purnell’s wife, Mary established her own community,
the City of David, a few miles from the original site.
The cult has all but died off since those days. A fire swept the building that housed the remains of King Ben.
Whatever happened to those remains since then has remained a well-kept secret. One thing we do know is that Ben Purnell never
kept his promise to rise from the dead.