Gallery C

House of David
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He Promised Resurrection But Was Accidentally Cremated

By James Donahue

Early 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.

They were 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.

The 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.
During its 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.

The 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. 
While 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.