Just outside Benton Harbor, Michigan, in the dimly lit Pier 33 restaurant, a middle-aged waitress with a tightly curled helmet of hair is gazing down at my table with a mixture of curiosity and disapproval. What's caught her attention is the pile of books beside my juice glass concerning southwest Michigan's legendary House of David and City of David communities. She's been chatting about Dan Rostenkowski with a table full of fishermen, all of whom think he's getting a raw deal. Somehow, my books seem infinitely more intriguing.
"You're not going up there, are you?" she asks, pointing a finger down at the book pile. In her voice, there is a sense of foreboding. "You shouldn't go there. They have some real sickos."
"Sure. They've got secrets," she says. "They give me the hookie pookies."
"I heard they were very peaceful people."
"Well, they cover up their secrets. They're very close-lipped," the waitress says. "Ask anyone in town. They'll tell you. A man named Benjamin started it. He was their king. You know about him?"
She points up to her temple and makes a circle with her index finger.
"I could tell you some stories about Benjamin's relatives, but they're not all that nice," she whispers. "You know they've got secret tunnels? That's where Benjamin would molest the little girls. Even after they died, they never buried him. They've got a glass casket up there so they can view their king every day. You ought to stay here."
I shake my head. She breathes deeply.
"Well, you should be all right," she says. "They're all pretty old."
"I'm just hoping they'll talk to me," I say.
"Oh they'll talk to you all right," she tells me. "They're Christians."
Across a bridge over the Saint Joseph River lies downtown Benton Harbor, as blighted an urban landscape as one can imagine. Boarded-up windows face the main streets, with a seedy cocktail lounge here, a used-car dealership there, elsewhere a decrepit hotel. In the middle of the day the place seems completely deserted. "For Sale" and "Going Out of Business" signs loom over once impressive storefronts. This is the city that in the early 80s considered declaring bankruptcy.
Now only the Whirlpool Corporation remains in the way of local industry. Crime is rampant. A local radio announcer discusses a rash of armed robberies in motel parking lots. The past few months have seen at least 13 arson attempts at abandoned buildings. Grocery shelves are sparsely stocked, and some of the jobless display hand-lettered signs outside their houses advertising barbecue and used clothes at bargain prices.
You could say the plight of Benton Harbor is just another manifestation of the destruction of America's cities. Nearby Saint Joseph flourishes; Benton Harbor collapses. It's a sign of the times. But to the dwindling memberships of the House of David and the City of David religious communities on the outskirts of Benton Harbor, it's more than that. It's the fast approach of the end of the world. It's a just punishment visited upon the city that has persecuted and spread scurrilous rumors about their religious orders.
House of David founder Benjamin Purnell prophesied, "Judgment follows crime against light and whatsoever they do unto the son of man, it shall come back to them." To the precious few who still follow the teachings of Purnell and his wife Mary, beleaguered Benton Harbor is the fulfillment of this prophecy.
A couple dozen people remain in the House of David and City of David communities on East Britain Avenue, and this once majestic area now looks nearly as bleak as downtown Benton Harbor. Grass and weeds grow wild over the tracks where a miniature railroad once ran through the House of David's Eden Springs Amusement Park. A trailer park stands near the site of the old ball field where legendary athletes like Satchel Paige and Babe Herman faced the baseball teams of the House of David and the City of David, two of the most storied and successful semiteams in history. Gone are the vegetarian restaurant, the hotel, the beer garden, even the synagogue built to accommodate the area's numerous Jewish tourists in the 30s and 40s.
But however run-down this landscape may appear, recall the words of Benjamin Purnell, which foretell that upon the coming of the millenium the lands that housed the now-demolished Eden Springs will see the new dawning of the Garden of Eden on earth. The old world shall be destroyed once the chosen select of Jesus Christ, 12,000 members from each of the 12 tribes of Israel, have gathered in Benton Harbor, and a thousands years of peace and harmony will commence.
House of David founders Benjamin and Mary Purnell claimed to be the Seventh Messenger foretold by Saint John in the Book of Revelations, who would come to earth to herald the arrival of the millenium. The First Messenger, self-proclaimed, was a Joanna Southcoot of Devonshire, England, who received "communications of the spirit" in 1792 and for the next 12 years filled 65 volumes with her revelations. These foretold Christ's return to earth, the restoration of Eden, and eternal life for the chosen 144,000 who would be saved by Jesus. At the height of her popularity she claimed more than 150,000 followers in England. In 1814 Southcott, a 64-year-old virgin, claimed to be pregnant; though doctors reported physical evidence of this miracle, Southcott died without producing a child. In her last days she revealed that her child would be of the spirit, not the flesh. The English press were quick to deride this announcement as a cop-out, but it failed to shake the faith of her most ardent followers.
Other messengers followed. One of those most germane to the history of the House of David was John Wroe, who lived in the early 1800s and taught his male followers to grow their hair and beards long in accordance with the directive in Leviticus that men should mar neither head nor beard (the same directove that informs Hasidic Jews). He also instructed the men to wear stovepipe hats similar to those Quakers wore, and the women to sport ruffled, plum-colored, heart-shaped bonnets. Wroeites kept kosher and refused alcohol, snuff, and tobacco.
The final messenger before Benjamin Purnell was James Jezreel, author of the 700-page tome Extracts of the Flying Roll, which declared, among other things, that when Eden was restored the 144,000 children of Israel would gather in America. Jezreel once asserted, "O blessed Michigan, for our of thee shall come a star."
That star turned out to be Benjamin Purnell, the 7th of 12 children born to a Kentucky farming family in 1861. Although not well educated, Purnell was a gifted preacher and traveled the country in that capacity as a teenager. At 16 Purnell married Angeline Brown and settled in Richmond, Indiana, where he worked for a short time as a broom maker. The marriage did not endure. By the time he was 19 Purnell was back on the road preaching; he wound up in Aberdeen, Ohio, and there married Mary Stollard. They had two childrem, both of whom would die young.
The Purnell family traveled to the communal "God House" of prince Michael Mills's "Flying Roller" colony in Detroit, which followed the teachings of James Jezreel. This is where, in 1895, Benjamin Purnell learned in a vision that he was the Seventh Messenger Saint John and Joanna Southcott had projected. Purnell's announcement did not sit well with Mills's followers; Benjamin and Mary were cast out. They took to the road again and spent several years wandering the country preaching the promise of eternal life.
In 1902 the Purnells settled in Fostoria, Ohio. Again, they did not stay long. When their daughter Hetty was killed in an explosion in a fireworks factory, Benjamin and Mary refused to attend the funeral; they believed the living do not associate with the dead. Soon after, they departed Fostoria. Some contemporary press accounts, perhaps biased, report the townspeople ran them out of town.
Legend has it that the words "Benton Harbor, Michigan" then appeared as if in a dream to Mary Purnell. Since neither she nor her husband had ever heard of the town, they took this vision to be divine. Benjamin and Mary arrived in Benton Harbor with five of their followers and took up residence on Superior Street. The Purnells could easily believe that this bountiful land on which Benton Harbor sat was the intended site of the so-called ingathering, the assembly of the faithful to await the restoration of Eden on earth.
On land donated by a rich Benton Harbor family that took up with the Purnells, Benjamin and Mary founded "the Israelite House of David, the New Eve, the Body of Christ," officially incorporated on May 3, 1903. "House of David" reflected the Purnells' belief that Jesus Christ was in the lineage of David.
Benjamin and Mary preached that fornication was a sin, even to procreate. Celibacy was central to their belief system; to have sex was to violate the word of Jesus Christ. "Lust, when conceived, brings forth sin, and sin when finished, brings forth death," wrote Benjamin and Mary Purnell in The Preachers' Book. Vegetarianism was another key component of the House of David's "Israelite" way of life. Killing for any purpose was held to be a sin. (In times of war, the Israelites were always conscientious objectors.) The consumption of alcohol or tobacco violated the body and was therefore sinful and forbidden. Profanity was outlawed.
The general belief was that any sort of sexual or otherwise hedonistic activity would defile the body, the temple of the Holy Spirit, and cause mortality. Evil, in the Israelites' teachings, was the only cause of death.
Peachers enlisted by the Purnells traveled the country, bringing back converts. Others came from Australia, which Benjamin Purnell visited in 1904 and '05. Upon entering the growing Benton Harbor community, all of them pledged in writing to give up everything they possessed--sex, tobacco, alcohol, money, haircuts, and for a time even their surnames. The men wore their hair and beards long and originally the women wore their hair loosely and uncut.
In just a few years hundreds of individuals took vows of commitment to this Spartan existence. They lived communally, working the land and following the strict directives of the Purnells. On Britain Avenue, three elaborate and foreboding structures--Bethlehem, Jerusalem, and Shiloh (the Israelites' administration building, now listed on the Register of National Historic Places)--were built to house the membership. Shiloh, a grim, gray mansion, was the centerpiece of the commune.
Though the Israelites adhered to a simple way of life marked by unshakable faith, they proved to be incredibly shrewd businesspeople. In 1908 the House of David purchased adjacent property and built the Eden Springs Amusement Park to help sustain the community financially. The park featuerd a miniature railroad, a fish pond, mineral springs, a giant dollhouse, an auditorium in which Benjamin Purnell produced biblical plays, and a small zoo (after the zoo closed in the 40s, the animals were moved to Chicago's Lincoln Park Zoo). The Israelites purchased massive farm plots and Michigan's 3,400-acre High Island for growing and selling fruits and vegetables. They also ventured into the lumber industry, acquiring several lots for that purpose. By the 1920s, the House of David was a multimillion-dollar operation.
The dizzying list of business that the House of David operated has been chronicled by a local high school history teacher, Clare Adkin, in his painstakingly detailed book Brother Benjamin, published in 1990 by Andrews University Press.
"When I was writing the book, I wanted to see just how far the influence of the House of David extended," says Adkin. "Indeed, it was much further than I had ever expected. Not only did they own hundreds and hundreds of acres of land, they were pioneers in vegetarian soups and health foods. They built state-of-the-art cold storage here. Benton Harbor had the largest open-air fruit and vegetable market in the world, and the House of David cold storage stablized prices in this area of Michigan. By 1920 their amusement park, Eden Springs, was easily a forerunner of places like Disneyland and Great America."
According to Adkin, the House of David was the first organization to market a vegetarian hamburger and sell bottled mineral water for drinking purposes. The House's musical bands traveled across the country. But by far the most famous export of the Israelites was the House of David baseball team (which became the City of David baseball team when the community split into two factions). Famed for their pinstripe uniforms, long hair, and flowing beards, these barnstormers crossed the United States, Canada, Mexico, and Cuba, playing other semipro teams, Negro leagues squads, and even the occasional major league club.
Among the first baseball teams to play night games, they toted with them the portable lights that they purchased from the Negro leagues' Kansas City Monarchs. Although the players were novelties they were also surprisingly gifted, and the House went so far as to hire off-season professionals to play alongside them. Dizzy Dean's brother Daffy and Grover Cleveland Alexander were among the noted athletes who played with the team that longtime opponent Satchel Paige referred to as "Jesus' Boys."
"We used to play for thousands of people. We played every little town. Every little place they wanted to see the Davids," recalls Lloyd Dalager, a retired electrician who played third base in 1936 and still resides on the House of David grounds on East Britain Avenue. He hit .316 during his only season.
"We traveled in a Dodge bus and we did pretty good," says Dalager. "We used to play against a team called Joe Green and his Colored Giants. They were from Chicago. Down there in the parks, we used to play the barnstormers, players from the Cubs like Gabby Hartnett. Of course he wasn't from the Cubs, but we played against Babe Herman too. We made about two bucks a day eating money. But that was enough to get by back then."
George Anderson played ball for 27 years. No longer a member of the House of David, he spoke to me from his home in Florida and recalled his best season.
"The seasons were 212 games long and one year I played every one of them. Didn't miss a game. I guess I was pretty durable. Not like today's athletes. They're little pieces of tissue paper now.
"I started in 1927," Anderson said. "I played over a hundred games against Satchel Paige. He could sure throw that ball. I played against the Kansas City Monarchs when what's his name was there. What's his name, that 'let's play two' fella? Ernie Banks. Yeah, we played against him before he went to the big leagues. We played against the Saint Louis Cardinals in '31 or '32 and we beat 'em 8 to 4 right there in Saint Louis. Beat the old Gashouse Gang, 8-4.
"We used to put on a little pepper game, an exhibition of ball handling during the fourth inning. When we were first starting out we used to talk about religion before the games, but later we didn't. People didn't care to hear about it; they wanted to see us play. They wanted to see the boys in the beards play baseball. I suppose we'd be out of fashion today. Everybody's got a beard now."
In the late 20s the House of David was rocked by a scandal that haunts it to this day. Benjamin Purnell was accused of being a charlatan, rapist, and child molester--charges the Israelite faithful still matain were fabricated by commune members who could not adhere to the House of David's way of life. Purnell allegedly operated "a fraudulent enterprise in the guise of religion," while engaging in coerced sexual intercourse with the women and young girls of the colony. Clare Adkin's Brother Benjamin reports that Purnell was accused of inducing girls to have sex with him "upon the representations that sexual intercourse with him is a religious rite."
From this court case sprang the countless rumors about the conduct of Benjamin Purnell--such as that High Island was a secret meeting place where Purnell abused young girls, and that Shiloh contained secret tunnels where Purnell conducted illicit trysts. On November 10, 1927, Purnell was found guilty of fraud, and the assets of the colony were put into receivership while the members chose a new leader. Whatever the validity of the sexual misconduct charges, they were never proven. Sixty-five years old and in poor health, Benjamin died in December of 1927 before they could be addressed in court.
Following Purnell's death, a serious conflict developed over who would take his place. Some sided with Judge Harry Thomas Dewhirst, a former California politician and businessman, while Mary Purnell wanted to dissolve the House of David and distribute its assets among the members. A compromise was reached in 1930. Dewhirst and his followers remained at the House of David. Mary Purnell received a $60,000 settlement and began a new colony, the City of David, across the street.
The rift has never healed, but instead of damaging the Israelites it created two separate but powerful entitues. The Eden Springs Amusement Park remained in the hands of Judge Dewhirst's House of David, as did High Island and much of the farmland and a hotel the House owned in Texas. The House of David would start a canning company that produced jellies and jams, operate a vineyard, two auto dealerships, and even the Grande Vista Motor Court, a motel and nightclub complex featuring two gas stations and an Indian museum.
"It's so far aheaed of its time, it's amazing," says Clare Adkin of the Grande Vista. "It had service stations on both sides of the highway, a nightclub that attracted national entertainers. It was an amazing accomplishment."
Starting out in tar paper shacks and tents, the City of David also developed a number of successful businesses. In addition to its farms, the City ran a hotel that featured a vegetarian restaurant and bakery; operated a greenhouse, and established the King David Hospital, said to be the only kosher hospital in the United States. The City also built Paradise Park, a vacation complex of cottages and log cabins that attracted so many Jews that Mary Purnell built a synagogue on the premises. (The Israelites, despite their Christian beliefs, view Jews as cousins.) In addition to the baseball team, there was a basketball team that traveled Europe and America up until the mid-50s. It toured with the Harlem Globetrotters and actually beat the Globetrotters upon occasion.
"It was more of a serious game back then; it wasn't just an exhibition," noted George Anderson, who played with and managed the City of David's basketball team.
Despite these successes, the realities of celibacy led to an ever-dwindling population in both the House of David and the City of David. Some left and others died. Mary Purnell died in 1953. The House of David's baseball team had stopped touring in the 30s when most of the good players went over to the City. The City of David's team folded in the 50s. The Eden Springs Amusement Park closed up shop in the early 70s.
Just last month two more members of the House of David died, leaving 12. Fourteen remain at the City of David. Of these handfuls, many are in feeble health. The House of David's art and frame shop closed last year when the woman who ran it became too ill to go on doing so. A trailer park remains on the grounds of the old baseball stadium, and real estate holdings are maintained, but most of the money here is spent on round-the-clock nursing care. The City of David still sells blueberries and grows its own fruits and vegetables; the City also rents apartments on its grounds.
The few who remains hold steadfastly to their beliefs. They continue their sin-free, vegetarian, celibate existence, studying the words of the Bible and Benjamin Purnell, eagerly awaiting the approaching ingathering when they will be rewarded for their faith. Those who can still live communally, working odd jobs, farming, and taking their meals together. They know the time of salvation is near, for Mary Purnell prophesied that the ingathering would occur when the number of the faithful was so small that they could fit into her closet.
Ron James Taylor, a pensive man with a full beard and a long, thin ponytail, sits as the front desk of the City of David stone administration building, also called Shiloh. The drab green walls around him bear photographs he has taken of children and flowers. Behind his desk are rows of mailboxes for the tenants of the City of David's apartments, which he manages.
A young couple stand in front of his desk while he gives them the once-over. The man, about 25, wears a light-blue gas station shirt and blue jeans; the woman, younger, has feathered blond hair, tight jeans, and a cowboy shirt. They have come here to see about renting an apartment from Taylor.
"I just basically wanted to meet you. I don't like to rent people I haven't seen," Taylor says in his slow, contemplative drawl. "You don't mind if I ask you a few questions?"
"No," the man says.
"Where you working?" Taylor asks.
"Over at Plumb's," the man says.
"How long you been at Plumb's?"
"Bout two weeks."
"And where do you work?" he asks the woman.
"I'm presently unemployed," she says.
"Where're you living now?" Taylor asks them.
"At my folks' place," the man says and shakes his head sheepishly. "We're looking to get our own place."
Taylor nods and asks them a few more questions. Moments later he tells them, "Well, like I said, I just basically wanted to meet you. All I can tell you is I have a waiting list. I have a folder full of names and you're in it."
They thank him and leave.
"Unmarried," Taylor observes when I ask him if this young couple will ever make their way off the waiting list. "One's working. One's not working. So it's marginal.
"We at one time could have a moral code and tell unmarried people that we weren't going to rent to them. But as we approach the mid-90s, that's not only a lawsuit but that's a major problem because who do you rent to? There's so much of that going on that you have to rent to some of them in order to maintain a business. People come in, unmarried. Or maybe they are married. They'll tell you one thing. They'll tell you another thing. Sometimes one person moves in and then their boyfriend or girlfriend moves in with them. That instability isn't ours. It's the world's. We're the same people we started as. We still stand by the things we've started with. We're not moving an inch. It's the world that's moved."
Taylor, who is 47, is by far the youngest member of either of the colonies. He is also their most recent convert, the Israelites having given up proselytizing after the death of Benjamin Purnell. He arrived here to work in the geenhouse in 1974. He was officially admitted in 1977. When I ask him what brought him here, he answers, "Faith."
"It fits my life-style," Taylor observes. "I knew as a child that I was a bit different from everyone else. I thought different. I was a different child. I was not brought up in this faith."
Taylor's grandparents moved from Australia with their son, his father, to join the Israelites. His father could not follow the teachings, left and married and had children. But Taylor, who recalled visiting his grandparents at the City of David commune when he was a child, became intrigued by the faith his father had abandoned.
"My mother passed away when I was a child and so I stayed here for about a year and a half, but I basically wasn't really aware of what this was all about. It was when I grew up and went away to school that I became interested in religious ideas."
In the late 60s and early 70s Taylor spent time at art schools in Detroit and Rhode Island, before getting a degree in painting and printmaking from the San Francisco Art Institute. He marched against the Vietnam war, all the while trying to find a religion that suited him. After studying everything from Zen to Mormonism, Taylor wound up embracing the same religion that had brought his grandparents to America.
"The teaching is very different from your mainstream Christian teaching," says Taylor. "It has some very definite departures from the normal ideas of religion and its practice and I was very impressed with it. By the time I graduated from college I was really more interested in this than I was in art."
These days, as the youngest and healthiest member of the City of David colony, Taylor is called upon to perform a variety of tasks raging from garbage collection and building maintenance to supervising the colony's investments and caring for elderly members in the City's nursing home.
"It's a daily struggle," Taylor says. "Benjamin said that the time would come when one would have to do the work of then. That time is now. I'm doing 15 jobs. I wear 15 different hats. But this is my life. This is what I want. This is what I chose. This is what I believe in. Sure, there are struggles, daily struggles. But I don't see anything else out there. I don't believe in anything else."
In Taylor's eyes, Benjamin and Mary Purnell and their followers have been maligned for generations. The legal charges brought against Benjamin Purnell were a sham, but they've led the media to misrepresent the House and City of David ever since, taking for granted stories of sexual molestation that were never proven.
"After 60 years it becomes fact. Regardless of whether it is true or not," Taylor snorts. "The stories that have circulated over the years have gotten to mythic proportions. Back in the old days of the original colony there were stories about tunnels and penal colony camps, starving people to death--all kinds of ridiculous things. The stories concerning Benjamin Purnell and his being brought to trial have been blown way out of proportion. We as a people are still here and the colonies still exist because of his innocence. If those things had been going on in this community, you wouldn't have needed the state police or the courthouse; we would have taken care of it ourselves. This place would have disappeared overnight. Nobody in their right mind would allow this kind of thing to go on when the whole idea is to live a celibate life, the virtue that Jesus Christ taught us in the Gospel.
"When it comes to truth, there's nothing higher than God. There's nothing stronger than faith. When you know in your heart the right from the wrong and the people you knew and grew up with lived through these things and endured these things, survived them and went on, that tells you a little about the character of those people. If they were just a bunch of floozies following around some quack we wouldn't still be here. But, very seldom does anyone listen to what you have to say. The stories sell papers. It's a great story. Wow, they had a king over here and he was taking advantage of all these young girls. People love it. No matter what I have said, no matter what anybody has said, the record has remained the same for 60 years."
Clare Adkin says he wrote Brother Benjamin to set the record straight. Over the years the House of David had been the butt of pulp novels like the infamous King of the Harem Heaven, which played up the accusations of sexual misconduct fo maximum melodramatic effect. Newspaper articles frequently referred to Purnell as "King Benjamin," a title he neither sought nor answered to.
Adkin researched the colonies for more than 20 years. He first heard of the House of David in junior high, when a buddy of his proposed a visit to the colony because the beer garden there served minors. Much later, while beginning a career as a high school teacher in Benton Harbor, he took a trip out to the Eden Springs Amusement Park. The placid, harmonious world he discovered there did not correspond to the myths he'd heard spread about it.
"There's a lack of understanding of the House of David by the people outside the community," says Adkin. "It became quite popular in the 1920s to look down upon anything that was foreign or anything that was different. There was a Red Scare, xenophobia gripping the country. Sacco and Vanzetti were executed in 1927. In fact, right here in this area we had a big raid on a Communist meeting. Not to mention this whole Prohibition movement that had come to pass. All these things were going on and the House of David members looked foreign. And not that they were followers of the Communist Party as established by the Soviet Union, but the way they lived is truly communistic. So I think they fell the way of many other groups in the United States that were unfairly evaluated by the outside world."
If anything, rumors about the House and City have become more exaggerated over the yeas. Adkin says he still has to tell people who have lived in the area all their lives that the members of the House of David are not Orthodox Jews. During the Waco, Texas, debacle, says Taylor, local media suggested that the House of David was comparable to the Branch Davidians.
"Why do things persist?" asks Adkins. "It has to do with ignorance. There are no secret tunnels. There are no secret rituals. Absolutely not. It's simply not true.
"That rumor about them keeping Benjamin in some secret coffin? That can't be true. The point is that they don't believe in death. They believe that the millenium is fast approaching, and that they would go in and see Benjamin is just absurd. They don't have funerals. They feel bad that somebody has passed away, but they let the dead bury the dead. And for your information, you and I are the dead."
Ron Taylor says he is nor troubled by the lies and half-truths that have dogged the Israelites throughout this century. As the millenium approaches, he is certain that the judgment of the wicked and salvation of the just is close at hand. Referring to Scripture, the writings of the seven messengers through Benjamin and Mary Purnell, and current newspaper headlines, he identifies the signs pointing to the end of the world as we know it, the arrival of the ingathering, and the restoration of Eden on Earth.
"I was at a big megastore the other night that has everything in it from flowers to groceries to birds," says Taylor. "I was waiting for some film to be developed and the video department was next door, so I browsed through some of the videos and everything was some sex thing, some naked woman or something leading to that. I got to thinking, 'No wonder there's AIDS. No wonder there's adultery and divorce and kids are all screwed up.' When you take morals away as a backbone to society you've taken away the very root essence of self-esteem, truth and honesty and those as the very principles which society survives on and has survived on for centuries.
"We have a whole system in our country where you don't know who to trust. You don't know what you've got in terms of anything because a lawyer can go into a courtroom and take it from you. If they can do it to us like they did in 1927, there's no telling what cuold happen. Benjamin Purnell prophesied saying, 'Jugment follows crime against light and whatsoever they do unto the son of man it shall come back upon them.' So now we have a whole world of fraud and immorality first leveled against him and now the whole world is suffering. They took away our money in 1927, put it in receivership. Two years later, 1929. Depression. Nobody's money is any good. They put our money in receivership. In 1982 Benton Harbor was the only city in this cuontry debating whether it would go into receivership because they couldn't run the town. Judgment follows crime against light. You don't get away with that.
"Jesus said, 'Tear down this temple and in three days I'll raise it up. And in 40 years there's won't be a stone standing upon another.' Boom. Gone. They put the saints out of business, slaughtered them. After they slaughtered Jesus, dark ages, plagues. You take God out of the picture, you might as well take the whole picture out itself."
In Taylor's Israelite vision, a new era of dark ages and plagues is already upon us. Those who have persecuted the House of David and those who have refused to live under the commandments of Jesus Christ, as taught by the Israelites, have only themselves to thknk for a world of disease, war, famine, and pollution. To Taylor, the crime and poverty in Benton Harbor is symptomatic of the world's faithlessness. So is Rwanda. So is Bosnia. So are AIDS, prison overcrowding, and water pollution.
"I read in the newspaper that there is now a parasite in the water system that chlorine doesn't touch," says Taylor. "We're talking plagues and destruction on a big-time level, because when the words of the prophets were written instant destruction wasn't possible. They didn't have nukes to throw around the planet and just blow people away. Nuclear waste. What are you going to do with that stuff? It doesn't deteriorate for thousands and thousands of years. They buried this stuff out in the Atlantic Ocean when I was in school, stuff that was left over from the Korean War--railroad cars full of nerve gas. If this stuff gets loose, it could kill off the life in the Atlantic Ocean. Plagues are out there."
Taylor's views are also expressed in some rather troubling invective against racial mixing and feminist philosophy; though the Israelites treat men and women as equals, Taylor blames the feminist movements of recent years for violence against women.
"I'm not against women's rights," he says. "Women have always had equal voice here. Women have always had business positions and leadership positions here. That's not the problem. The problem is that feminism has become the tool of exploiting sexuality. Women have let it all go. It is now unsafe for women to be at certain places at certain times wearing certain things. They've done that to themselves. That's in the forecasts. That's in the writings. Women would lead the way in transgressions, would entice men in the time of the end."
He goes on, "We're talking about a remnant being saved out of this mess. The only salvation is faith in Jesus Christ. He's going to pick out his chosen elect, which is described in the 24th chapter of Matthew and the 17th chapter of Luke. It talks about an elect group who will keep the commandments of God and the faith of Jesus and live according to it regardless. We expect misrepresentation. We expect persecution. That's all part of the program."
The year 2000, though Taylor becoes a little imprecise discussing it, seems to be the year the Israelites are eyeing for the realization of all that has been prophesied. According to Taylor, the time between the birth of Adam and the birth of Abraham was 2,000 years. From the birth of Abraham to the birth of Christ another 2,000 years went by. From Christ to the millenium--2,000 more. Taking each thousand years to represent a single day, the Israelites explain that in the year 2,000 six days will have passed. Then will dawn the seventh day, the Sabbath, bringing about a thousand years of peace when the Israelites will be rewarded for their faith. Afterwards the cycle of 7,000 years will begin again.
Mary Purnell prophesied that the ingathering would occur when people drove by the House of David and said, "Look, that's where it used to be." With its rubble-strewn grounds and dilapidated buildings, that time would appear to be now. The hard work in which the Israelites have engaged since the beginning of this century is nearing its final goal.
"This is not a utopian society," Tylor says. "It never was set up to be one. Communalism and self-denial are very demanding. It's a place of trial. It's a place where this whole process of the millenium gets sorted out. It's been mislabeled as a utopian society. Not until the ingathering are we talking about Eden. In the meantime it's just trials and tribulations and just getting through it and the only thing that gets you through it is faith.
"I always laugh when I think of something Benjamin Purnell once said," says Ron Taylor. "He said, 'Who would ever think that heaven is in Benton Harbor?'"
For more information on the Benton Harbor area, see the Visitor's Guide in this issue.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Mike Tappin.