In order to connect more deeply with the circle of the year and the cycle of seasons, I’ve taken a solemn vow that I will not watch baseball movies, read baseball books, buy baseball cards, or obsess over Chicago Cubs statistics except during the Major League Baseball season. As with many spiritual practices, this personal injunction has negotiable boundaries that can stretch to include both spring training and the postseason. The winter leagues season is strictly off-limits.
A serious blow to my sacred strivings occurred on March 12, when our Cubbies were right at the halfway mark between the start of spring training and the season’s home opener at that most holy of spaces, the friendly confines of Wrigley Field. Major League Baseball announced the immediate cancellation of spring training and stated that opening day would be pushed back at least two weeks. Was für eine Katastrophe!
Here we are at the end of May, when the Cubs should be well over fifty games in, and there still hasn’t been a single inning played. This is as it should be. With the ongoing non-management and outright aggravation of the coronavirus pandemic by the Trump administration, the realness of a 2020 baseball season with adequate health safety protections for players and support staff – let alone fans in the stands – seems increasingly impossible.
In the absence of live baseball, I turned to the prophet of the long ago time named Ken Burns. His sprawling nine-part baseball documentary first aired on PBS in 1994 and covered the history of the sport from its nineteenth-century beginnings through 1992. In 2010, a further two episodes brought the story up to 2009.
As with other Burns documentaries, this one is alternatingly inspiring, frustrating, heartbreaking, and infuriating. There are so many strange editorial choices by the Burns team, and boy howdy! There’s so much more about the Red Sox and Yankees than I ever wanted to know, with nary a mention of the Billy Goat Curse that plagued the North Side of the Second City for so many long decades.
One short segment, however, stood out as qualitatively different from the sea of black-and-white photographs and clips of columnists waxing nostalgic about their boyhoods spent at Fenway Park. For two-and-a-half minutes, the focus turned to the big and bushy beards of the House of David baseball team.
Ken Burns and the beards of baseball
Burns’ presentation of the team in that tiny bit of tape begins with a quote from Leviticus instructing the Biblical believer not to “mar the corners of [his] beard.” It continues with a recitation of the 1903 mystical dream-vision of Ohio farmer Benjamin Purnell, in which a white dove on his shoulder declared him to be “the sixth son of the House of David, empowered to unite the lost tribes of Israel in advance of Judgment Day.”
The documentary goes on to sketch the roughest outlines of Purnell’s ingathering of devotees to the House of David colony in Benton Harbor, Michigan, where strict rules were established against sex, smoking, drinking, and shaving. In what was news to this white-bearded Midwesterner, the film offers a brief glimpse into the tourist destination Purnell unexpectedly created – the very popular House of David amusement park and presentation of baseball games that drew visitors from around the region.
The narrator mentions the decades-long national sensation of the House of David’s touring baseball team that put on impressive and comical displays of pre-game pepper and played all sorts of non-major-league teams, sometimes with the added firepower of big-league players wearing fake beards.
It was the clip that runs during this narration that piqued my interest. It features long-haired and bigly-bearded ballers playing pepper – whipping a ball at each other at close range under their legs and behind their backs, bouncing the ball off their feet and making fake-out throws like hippie hackey-sackers of the 1990s – but bizarrely, they were doing their thing way back in the 1920s.
The players seem out of time in the old-timey surroundings, looking for all the world like post-Aquarian hippies somehow stuck in the odd timing of early film. Like 1908-1915 heavyweight boxing champion Jack Johnson with his shaved head and gold teeth, they look like they’ve been digitally inserted into older footage in the manner of Leonard Zelig or Forrest Gump.
After watching the documentary, I had my own vision. It featured bearded Heathen baseball teams sent out from their hofs to challenge white-robed Druidic players on rural baseball diamonds at the edges of sacred groves, the West County Wiccans taking on the East End Eclectics, and Heimdall’s Hairy Hurlers fiercely challenging the British Traditional Baseball Club. I imagined interleague play with the Rabbinical Council League, Baháʼí Baseball Organization, Unitarian Universalist Baseball Association, and even Dawkins’ Atheist Artists of the Diamond. The mind boggles at the infinite diversity in infinite combinations that a revival and reinvigoration of denominational baseball could bring to this depressed nation.
So I dug into the history of the House of David baseball teams.
Satchel, Three Finger, and two Babes
The first formal team forwarded by the Benton Harbor colony was formed for the 1915 season. Within two years, the team was part of the Inter-City Baseball Association of Chicago and leaving their home field to play games in Michigan, Indiana, and Illinois. The House of David soon fielded a girls’ team that somewhat surprisingly included six male members wearing dresses. In the 1919 team photo, the beardless and skirted boys look like they’re trying to fade into the bushes behind the girls.
In the 1920s, the House of David had both a home team that played for tourists and a traveling team that spent months at a time on the road. By the early 1930s, the commune was sending out three separate road teams, each taking a third of the country as its territory.
There were bizarre intersections with the main stem of baseball history. Hall of Fame pitcher Grover Cleveland Alexander followed his two-decade career in the majors by traveling with the House of David traveling team for four years in the early ’30s. He was given a special dispensation that exempted him from growing a beard. In 1936, a similar exception and a $35,000 yearly contract was offered to Babe Ruth, who gracefully declined the honor. Legendary American Negro league pitcher Satchel Paige and the Chicago Cubs’ own Three Finger Mordecai Brown both spent innings on the mound for the hairy team, as did several other professionals who sometimes wore fake beards to live up to the sensationalist advertising the teams put out.
Aside from their hippie hair, the House of David teams were ahead of their times in several ways. Five years before the first artificially lit game in the big leagues, they toured with an enormous electric lighting system with its own 100,000-watt generator and played night games around the country. The House of David famously hired two brilliant female pitchers to play for its male traveling teams – 1932 Olympic champion Babe Didrikson and the Chattanooga Lookouts’ Jackie Mitchell. The latter is still rightfully famous for striking out Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig back-to-back in 1931 when she was only seventeen, a feat that immediately resulted in baseball commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis voiding her contract with the Lookouts and banning women from playing in the major leagues.
The House of David traveling teams were so popular that imitators began springing up around the country, advertising themselves with the commune’s name and featuring shaggy-chinned players on the field. There were even multiple all-black teams billing themselves as coming from the non-existent Colored House of David. The actual House of David team toured with and repeatedly played against the Kansas City Monarchs and Satchel Paige’s All-Stars.
By the early 1950s, the House of David baseball teams were mostly outside professionals. In 1955, the colony decided to cut its baseball program due to lack of participation from actual House of David members.
All of this is a fun diversion for the avid student of baseball history, but what’s it got to do with the price of beans? It’s what led to the formation of the House of David commune and what happened within its confines that deepens the story.
Visions and prophets
Benjamin Purnell was the self-willed inheritor of a prophetic tradition with deep roots in England. He and his followers saw him as the seventh messenger in a line that dated back to the late eighteenth century, when Richard Brothers declared himself “the prophet that will be revealed to the Jews to order their departure” and reclamation of the Holy Land.
Claiming the authority of his own visions, Brothers announced that ten of the twelve tribes of Israel were actually “merged in the population of Great Britain” as Christian families who had somehow forgotten their ancient Jewish origins. His focus on an in-gathering of “invisible Jews” as devotees, on millenarian rhetoric, and on the magical powers of the prophet himself brought together a dogmatic skein that would thread through the proclamations of the self-declared prophets who followed his lead.
Even after getting arrested for treason, being declared criminally insane, and spending eleven years in a mental hospital, Brothers built a following that was subsequently appropriated by Joanna Southcott, who declared herself a prophetess and wrote texts based on her visions. After further enlarging her following, she declared in 1814 that she had become pregnant for the first time (at age sixty-five) and was going to give a virgin birth (because she hadn’t been with a man in five months) to the Shiloh (a promised messiah, a second Christ). Her physician-confirmed pregnancy turned out to be hysterical, and she died shortly after declaring that it was all a delusion.
An Irish shoemaker named John Ward not only named himself the next prophet but also Adam, Christ, and Satan. As per usual, this was revealed to him in visions. He was followed by the shadowy prophet William Shaw and then by John Wroe, a hunchbacked missionary with a long beard who insisted his followers likewise give up the razor – and also cast aside alcohol, tobacco, and non-kosher meat. Now known as Christian Israelites, members of the sect were subject to a serious system of investigation and punishment for breaking any of Wroe’s rules.
Prefiguring the darkness to come in Michigan, Wroe was accused of sexual acts with a pre-teen apprentice and three young women. Although acquitted, he lost followers and traveled repeatedly to Australia and the United States to recruit new devotees. By the 1850s, he had established groups in England, Ireland, Wales, Australia, and several American states. In 1851, a former follower in Australia published a book detailing the mystical rite of sexual initiation required to achieve full membership in Wroe’s religious organization. Similar revelations by former House of David members would surface many decades later.
The sixth prophet in the tradition, and the last before Purnell, was the American James White, who later called himself James Jershom Jezreel. Following in the theological footsteps of his predecessors, he announced that he was gathering in 144,000 true believers who would gain immortality by following his teachings. After his death, newspaper accounts appeared that detailed his whipping of young women, collecting of member confessions to use as leverage against rebellion, and the keeping of a private prison for members who disobeyed his commands. Purnell cited the teachings of Jezreel as the driver of his conversion.
Dark doings in the House of David
Benjamin Purnell, a son of poor Kentucky farmers, bigamously married one Mary Stollard three years before filing for divorce from his first wife in 1883. The happy couple traveled as preachers before joining Detroit’s New House of Israel[ites] in 1892.
The leader of this particular religious colony was the Canadian Michael Keyfor Mills, who became embroiled in public controversy when their fellow Detroit residents turned on the sect as an immoral menace to society after revelations of Mills engaging in lewd behavior with his female followers. In court, women of the colony revealed his teaching that personally accepting his “good seed” would purify them into immortality. After being tried for charges including adultery and intercourse with a girl under sixteen, Mills was given the maximum five-year prison sentence in 1894. After his release, he moved to Canada, then England.
Purnell made his move while Mills was in prison, announcing a revelation that he himself was the new prophet and the Shiloh. The Mills group didn’t accept his vision, and it wasn’t until 1903 that he was able to establish his new House of David in Benton Harbor and gather in devotees with promises of immortality. One of his conditions for this gift was a vow of total abstinence, even in marriage.
Membership in the House of David grew in the first two decades of the twentieth century, including a large number of arrivals from Australia and over 300 incomers between 1903 and 1907 alone. Members were required to sign over all personal property to Purnell and prove they knew his published teachings. Written confessions of sin were required at the time of joining and then monthly as a member. The confessions were read by Purnell, his wife, and the group of seven “sweepers” – women tasked with enforcing discipline and obedience, punishing or expelling those “scorpions” they saw as enemies within.
Public interest in the internal affairs of the House of David began when a female member sued for return of property she had handed over upon joining. She revealed in court that children’s schooling consisted almost wholly of indoctrination in Purnell’s writings and that the prophet sexually propositioned women in the group, moving the willing into rooms accessible from his bedroom and sending the resisting away from the sect’s central property.
Michigan’s attorney general began to keep records of member accounts and eventually started an investigation. Ever more women came forward with testimony about Purnell having sex with many young women and girls, in addition to committing sexual assault outright. By 1910, Purnell was evading court summons by disappearing into secret hideaways, young women who could serve as witnesses were being packed off to other properties like High Island in northern Lake Michigan, and mass marriages were arranged between members to hide how many women were engaged in sexual affairs with Purnell.
Between 1907 and 1920, both state and federal officials conducted investigations of the House of David. Young women reported that, when not simply engaging in rape, the prophet made theological arguments to justify his right to have intercourse with them “like Jesus” (!). Purnell defended himself to state officials by accusing the women as disgruntled gold-diggers. In 1921, ex-member John Hansel brought a case against the House of David in federal court to sue for back wages, return of personal property, and damages.
444 members signed an affadivit swearing that Purnell was moral and fair while Hansel was a complete liar. When two sisters who had grown up in the House of David brought a second suit, Purnell disappeared and wasn’t seen for four years. The court cases continued, now with national media attention and a nationwide search for the hidden prophet. In 1923, the attorney general brought multiple charges against the colony, a grand jury investigation began, raids were made of colony property, and Hansel won his case despite coached testimony from Purnell’s faithful followers.
In 1926, state police led by a female ex-member and followed by photographers found Purnell, who had spent the preceding four years hidden right there in the House of David compound, secretly being served by a bevy of women. His trial began in 1927 and consisted of 16 charges, including fraud, coaching perjury, conspiracy to obstruct justice, preventing the education of children, holding members in peonage, forcing girls to marry in order to hide crimes, using High Island as a penal center, and gross sexual immoralities against girls and women.
Purnell declared himself innocent of all charges, but the judge ejected Purnell and his wife from the colony and put the House of David into state-appointed receivership. One month later, Purnell died of tuberculosis, and the House of David divided into two organizations – one led by Purnell’s widow and the other by his lawyer. Both groups fielded baseball teams.
And here we are. Behind the happy-go-luck film footage of the bearded baseball team playing pepper in the good old days, there stands a cult of personality built around a charismatic charlatan who willfully manipulated and took advantage of hundreds of people as he sexually abused a great number of young women for a quarter of a century. But again, what’s it got to do with the price of beans?
The price of beans
For those of us who practice what academics call new religious movements, the dark interior of the House of David can seem all too familiar. Throughout the modern Pagan world, we’ve seen wrong behaviors and damaging actions perpetrated under the obscuring cloak of religiosity, often – as in the House of David – with the full support of the devoted faithful.
The lineage of prophets culminating in Purnell each claimed their sacred authority came from private visions they had received. How often have we seen individuals within the various forms of Paganism claim spiritual authority by testifying to their own unverifiable personal gnoses? Whether declaring that a deity showed them their favorite color, a spirit called them to teach a magickal path to others, a god confided secret truths that directly contradict preserved ancient mythology, or a goddess gave them the mystic responsibility to lead their religious community, there is no fundamental difference in form from the declaration of vision-granted authority by Purnell and his predecessors. The same goes for Pagan claims of authority based on lineage, which also lines up with methods of asserting power by Purnell and his prophetic predecessors.
The “sweepers” of the House of David enforced Purnell’s will and command over any member deemed a “scorpion” for some infraction or resistance to the prophet’s total authority, and anyone speaking out publicly about abuses within the House of David was denounced as a disgruntled and lying ex-member. Far too often, Pagan groups close ranks in the face of public revelations of inner problems. Whether the issue is inappropriate initiations, abusive rituals, protection of abusers, defense of racists, sexist practices, or unequivocally criminal behavior, online whisper campaigns spring up to discredit those who speak out. The defensive move of assaulting the accuser’s credibility through aspersion and innuendo is, sadly, as old as the hills. So is the willingness of some to move up their religious organization’s ladder by voluntarily attacking any who question the authority of the leader or inner circle.
Again, I find myself starting out with a lighthearted subject and ending in a dark place. These dark corners of old history and contemporary experience aren’t limited to Paganism, as this foray into the world of the Christian Israelites shows. They’re not even limited to religious groups. There must be something in human nature that drives some to grasp authority and abuse others, just as something else drives others to be attracted to authoritarianism as willing followers and, unfortunately, victims of abuse.
By putting forth the public image of fun-loving baseball teams, the House of David was able to minimize serious media scrutiny and government investigation of their activities, even as they grew to a membership of 700 and holdings of over a million dollars by 1927. Today, there are Pagan groups that forward themselves in public statements and social media posts as friendly, welcoming, and inclusive even as former members tell stories that contradict the rosily created image. In an age when individuals with extreme-right ideologies have infiltrated so many sacred and secular organizations to further their hateful cause, we have to be wary of taking self-serving public statements at face value.
Now that I’ve finished the Ken Burns documentary series, maybe it’s time to turn to another summer tradition and read some classic fantasy literature. There couldn’t be any hidden darkness to stumble upon when digging into those old and beloved authors, could there?
Sources for this article include The House of David (2007) by Christopher Siriano, The House of David Baseball Team (2000) by Joel Hawkins and Terry Bertolino, The Righteous Remnant: The House of David (2014) by Robert S. Fogarty, Baseball: A Film by Ken Burns (2010), and “The Rise and Fall of Prince Michael Mills and the Detroit Jezreelites” by Julieanna Frost (American Communal Societies Quarterly, Vol. 8, N. 3, July 2014).