An adventist sect that fielded professional baseball teams? A utopian commune advocating celibacy but practicing free love?...



An adventist sect that fielded professional baseball teams? A utopian commune advocating celibacy but practicing free love? Such apparent anomalies are part of the bizarre history of the House of David--which originated in the 1600s, had its heyday from 1903-1927 in eastern Michigan, and still continues on with some 50 members. Antioch historian Fogarty, a specialist in communal history, meticulously describes the peculiar succession of prophets--including one Joanna South-cott, who in 1814, at the age of 65, announced that she was pregnant with the coming savior of ""Shiloh."" He clearly sets forth the complex relationships between leaders and followers (despite the fact that the community's own records remain closed). He is less assured and less convincing, however, in answering his own question: ""What does it all mean?"" There, he falls back on the creaky idea of a social compact, reducing the human drama to a near-contractual relationship. For Fogarty, Benjamin Purnell--the group's leader during its height (along with his wife Mary)--created ""a spiritual empire"" which was able to ""sustain its earthly dimension with a skillful blend of evangelism, entertainment, hard work, prayer, and maybe just some sex now and then."" Or, rather, quite often--as Purnell selected the most attractive young women to live with him in the big house, periodically attacked them in the hallways and private rooms, and justified his demands by insisting he, as the group's Shiloh, could assure the women's entrance to heaven when judgment day arrived. To support themselves, the members worked on farms and in a canning company; for fun, too, they ran an amusement park. The baseball team started up in 1912 (as an adjunct to the amusement park), and became a feature of the American landscape; at one point, the players even invited Babe Ruth to join their bearded ranks. Stories about the group's sexual practices leaked out, however, and disaffected members brought the House of David to court. (In 1921, mass fake marriages were held to fend off the suspicious public.) Outsiders were also intrigued by Benjamin Purnell's apparent ability to disappear--via a system of escape routes and hiding places--whenever the authorities came searching for him. But in 1927, with the legal cases closing in, Purnell played his final card and died. The group soon split in two, with one faction led by Purnell's widow, the other by a leading male member; the teams broke up, finally, for lack of sufficient member players. But the few survivors continue on today, as Fogarty remarks, much ""like the few remaining Shakers, on the verge of history rather than prophecy.""A neat recounting of the facts, but facts which beg for more compelling interpretation.

Pub Date: Nov. 16, 1981


Page Count: -

Publisher: Kent State Univ. Press

Review Posted Online: N/A

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 1, 1981