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The Israelite House of David is a religious society co-founded by Benjamin and Mary Purnell in Benton Harbor, Michigan, in March 1903.
In 1888 the Purnells discovered a group of preachers extolling a man named James Jershom Jezreel as the Sixth Messenger. Jezreel had published three books known as "Extracts From The Flying Roll". While the preachers were in Richmond, Benjamin and Mary joined their group, known as "the Visitation Movement", which was started by a woman named Joanna Southcott, the First Messenger (Angel), in 1792. While studying the writings of Jezreel they noticed that the Seventh and last Messenger was soon to be on the scene, which is mentioned in Revelation 10:7. On March 12, 1895, the Purnells announced that the spirit of Shiloh had bonded with them to become the seventh and last messenger.
The House of David colony soon had several hundred members. In 1906, the House owned about 1,000 acres, on which the colony harvested fruit from a dozen orchards and cultivated grain. The commune had its own cannery, carpenter shop, coach factory, tailor shop, and steam laundry. They also owned and operated their own electricity plant, providing lighting to the community. It had three brass bands and two orchestras, and a zoological garden.
Divisions arose in the 1920s after 13 young women confessed, under oath to the court, that they had sexual relations with the patriarch while still minors. As soon as this became public knowledge, the Detroit Free Press and other newspapers ran critical articles about Purnell, but he died before the trials had concluded.
One group, headed by Mary Purnell, remained together and in 1930 purchased a small plot of land. There they rebuilt and reorganized the New Israelite House of David, better known as Mary's City of David; it remained in existence until her death at the age of 90.
A second faction, the Old House of David led by Judge T. H. Dewhirst, had 350 members in 1935, 24 of whom were clergy, and in 1955 had 150 members with 10 clergy. (As of 2010, the group was reported to have three surviving members.) Dewhirst's faction believed that Mary Purnell had no right to usurp authority over the community, as it was led by his own self-appointed council of elders.
Purnell was a sports enthusiast and encouraged the members of the Israelite Community to play sports, especially baseball, to build physical and spiritual discipline.
In 1913, the Israelite House of David began to play competitive baseball and by 1915, they were following a grueling schedule. The House became famous as a barnstorming baseball team which toured rural America from the 1920s through the 1950s, playing amateur and semi-pro teams in exhibition games. They were motivated by the need to make money for their families and colony back home and by the opportunity to share their beliefs. The team members wore long hair and beards as they played.
By the late 1920s, needing more skilled players, the House began hiring professionals, the most notable being Grover Cleveland Alexander, Satchel Paige, and Mordecai Brown. Some professional players grew their beards out to show respect towards the god of Israel, while others wore false beards. They were known for their skill and played against some of the greatest teams in the country. The House of David played against Major League, Minor League, independent and Negro League teams, with all the same spirit of competition and fair play. At one point, the community had three separate barnstorming teams touring the country, playing and evangelizing wherever they went. The House of David teams were famous for inventing "pepper" baseball tricks, along the lines of the fancy basketball moves of the Harlem Globetrotters.
The House of David continued to sponsor barnstorming teams well into the 1930s and then sponsored weekend semi-professional teams until the 1940s. Mary's City of David sent out barnstorming teams from 1930 until 1940 and then again from 1946 until 1955. Throughout this period, there were numerous teams which bore the House of David name and wore beards. The most famous was probably the Black House of David, an all African-American "Barn-storming" team that played solely within the Negro Leagues.
The House of David was the inspiration behind the James Sturm graphic novel, The Golem's Mighty Swing (in which the team was called the "Stars of David"). The House of David was also featured in a segment of Ken Burn's Baseball (TV series) and in the movie "The Winning Team" (1952) about the life of pitcher Grover Cleveland Alexander.
A vintage baseball club (the House of David Echoes BBC) has been honoring the legacy of the House of David teams since 2001, playing vintage baseball under the 1858 rules while growing their beards and playing at historic Eastman Field near Benton Harbor, Michigan.
The organization also fielded nationally known musical bands between 1906 and 1927. These bands toured the country almost non-stop on the three top vaudeville circuits: the Pantages, the Keith and the Orpheum.
The House of David operated a world-famous amusement park and zoo. It also established "The Springs of Eden Park" which became a popular Michigan vacation spot in the 1930s. A revamped version opened in late 2011, making it one of the few American amusement parks to have been successfully reinstated.