This provocative new book provides the truth and perspective needed to remind us of how high the stakes can be when we get the Bible wrong. Throughout history and around the world, people have made bizarre or dangerous claims in the name of God. They continue to do so today, citing biblical passages out of context or inappropriately. Doing so has led to a wide range of disasters, from executing other Christians for theological differences, to wild activities in the name of evangelism, and more. Is the Bible at Fault? examines these historical errors, problematic biblical interpretations, and tragedies to reveal how and why the Bible has been misused to justify and rationalize profound acts of persecution, destruction, violence, human rights abuse, and downright strange behavior.Is the Bible at Fault? explores twelve different cases of abhorrent behavior in the name of Scripture. These terrible, destructive movements have led people astray, brought irreparable spiritual and emotional harm, and even cost countless people their lives. The members of the Ku Klux Klan had no doubt that their actions were justified in the eyes of God. The murderous armies of the Fourth Crusade rationalized slaying other Christians in the name of the church. Detroit’s Prophet Jones locked his followers in all-night revival meetings and often wouldn’t let them out until they made financial contributions to the cause—the cause being his lavish lifestyle. Some Christian missionaries not only condoned the wholesale slaughter of Australia’s native Aborigines people, they participated in it—with a clean conscience. These are real, historical people and events, and we’ll explore every one of them and more in these pages.
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About the Author
Indiana Wesleyan University named Jerry Pattengale, Ph.D., its first UniversityProfessor in 2014. Jerry also serves as the executive director of education for the Museum of the Bible, where he was one of the museum’s two founding scholars (2010) and established its international Scholars Initiative. In addition to authoring and editing more than 30 books, his articles have appeared in the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, Christianity Today, InsideHigherEd, among others, and he has garnered various writing and education awards. His most recent books include, general editor for Global Impact Bible, author of The World’s Greatest Book, The Book: The History, Narrative and Impact of the Bible (4 Vols.), Faith Made Real, The State of the Evangelical Mind, and The Impact of the Bible on Western Culture (2 Vols.). His forthcoming book is The New Book of Martyrs.
Read an Excerpt
Sex Scandal of the House of David in Benton Harbor, Michigan:
Why Veering from Biblical Canon Can Be Explosive
Truly, truly, I say to you, if anyone keeps my word, he will never see death.
When the Lamb opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven for about half an hour. Then I saw the seven angels who stand before God, and seven trumpets were given to them. And another angel came and stood at the altar with a golden censer, and he was given much incense to offer with the prayers of all the saints on the golden altar before the throne, and the smoke of the incense, with the prayers of the saints, rose before God from the hand of the angel. Then the angel took the censer and filled it with fire from the altar and threw it on the earth, and there were peals of thunder, rumblings, flashes of lightning, and an earthquake.
Imagine parks crowded with people gazing at eleven Jesus look-alikes playing baseball. For millions of fans, that was their introduction to the Israelite House of David — a cult from Benton Harbor, Michigan, that thrived during the early 1900s. These boys of summer heard the crowds roar as their long flowing hair went airborne while they ran the bases during exhibition games with professional teams. Their pregame "pepper" routines — rapid-fire and lighthearted throwing and fielding exchanges — became their hallmark.
Before we get too caught up on how they entertained the masses, which has been well-documented in many books and newspapers, I should point out that this was indeed a religious cult — and it was destined for a sordid ending.
However, for the crowds, these gifted players in pinstripes looked like Jesus in jammies. The players thought everyone should look like the first-century Nazarene if, that is, they followed the Levitical code of the Old Testament. They also abstained from meat, alcohol, money, profanity, and sex. For such an ascetic group, these men sure exuded a love of life, and they seemed to enjoy all people. Until their leader's scandal rocked their world, they were beloved by all who enjoyed their antics. Besides assisting with numerous community events and functions, they would play a couple hundred games a year!
For them, sports had a unique purpose. Baseball was a communal activity back in their Benton Harbor compound that helped them release some of their pent-up energy as teenagers. It seemed to work, too; by the time they grew to maturity and played big league teams in exhibition settings, they were good enough to win two-thirds of their games!
They became a welcome attraction, especially at Negro League games. Their House of David team hosted years of games against other teams that were likewise marginalized. The Negro League included legendary players such as Satchel Paige and Ernie Banks (before they were allowed in the big national leagues). Some members played more than a hundred games against Satchel, who referred to them affectionately as "the Jesus boys." The Israelite House of David even created basketball teams and toured with the Harlem Globetrotters.
People enjoyed the "Israelites," as they preferred to be called. They were a hoot. They weren't anti-authoritarian or carefree hippies but nice, fun, long- haired members of society. Sure, they had unique religious beliefs, but they were active community members. Members of the Israelite House of David seemed to have the gift of entertainment and were welcomed by their Michigan community and a half-million tourists annually. They thought those who followed true beliefs (theirs) would live forever, so why not have some fun while awaiting Christ's return? Chris Siriano, owner of the House of David Museum in nearby St. Joseph, Michigan, said, "They wanted to have fun; they wanted to invite America into their lives; they loved to entertain and laugh and have a blast. They always told me it was a means to an end, to get them to tomorrow, 'cause tomorrow was when paradise was coming.'"
While the Jehovah's Witnesses believed that Christ would return to their group first at their New York City Watchtower, the Benton Harbor cult waited expectantly for Christ to return first to them in Michigan. They believed the world would receive its just destruction in time, and twelve thousand members from the twelve tribes of Israel — the select of Jesus Christ — would gather in Michigan to usher in a millennium of peace.
While they were awaiting their prophesied millennium, their amusement park, zoo, world's smallest passenger steam engine (nick-named "Hiawatha"), bowling alley, theater, music stage, traveling bands, and one of the nation's largest farmer's markets drew multitudes of fans. Their impressive Victorian mansions set a pleasant backdrop to all of this grandeur.
This was the curious but fun Israelite House of David. Well, at least to those outsiders intrigued by their actions and aptly named buildings on East Britain Avenue: "Bethlehem," "Jerusalem," and "Shiloh," with their "Diamond House" as the centerpiece made of sparkling concrete. But their headquarters quickly lost its luster after the world awoke to media releases about a late-night raid. The compound's shuttered homes were hiding a monster — the messianic pretender and founder, Benjamin Purnell, who could have doubled for Colonel Custer.
Benjamin "Brother Ben" Purnell was somewhat of a wanderer from a family of twelve in Kentucky and, for a short time, a broom maker in Richmond, Indiana. More importantly, he was a silver-tongued preacher. He and his second wife, Mary, attracted around a thousand followers to the colony they built around his messianic message and stringent taboos. Their followers saw them, especially Brother Ben, as the Seventh Messenger foretold by the apostle John in Revelation 10:1-7. Detractors called him "King Ben," a title members rejected as a sensationalized effort to discredit him. The Seventh Messenger was the final one ushering in the millennium, and he and Mary taught the Benton Harbor Israelites that John 8:51 promised physical immortality to anyone who "keeps [his] word." In other words, he said his group of Israelites would never die. Those who did die, therefore, were not true believers, as death became the evidence of a lack of faith. Consequently, members were buried without a ceremony or grave markers somewhere on the colony's properties. Physical death was viewed not as a tragic inevitability, but as a spiritual failure.
This harsh view of the dead was nothing new to the Purnells. Before colonizing Benton Harbor, Benjamin and Mary were run out of town by residents of a small community in Ohio after these nascent prophets refused to identify or bury their daughter when she died in an explosion at the factory where she worked. They were alleged to have responded to the tragedy by quoting Jesus's command to "Let the dead bury their dead" (Luke 9:60 KJV).
What happened in Benton Harbor stayed in Benton Harbor — well, at least until "the axe-wielding State Troopers, accompanied by camera-toting reporters, broke into [Benjamin's] home shortly after midnight on November 17, 1926, and placed him under arrest." The whole ordeal became a national story with all the trappings of intrigue, as David and his wife faced a litany of charges.
Anticipating the raid, the mysterious and magnetic cult founder had whisked away a group of adolescent girls to High Island, the House of David's own remote island in northern Lake Michigan. Thirteen girls would eventually come forward with claims of sexual exploitation. One witness, Isabella Pritchard, claimed the actual number of sexually exploited women among the Israelites was around five hundred. The trial would involve more than a hundred witnesses and more than three hundred pages of court documents, but supporting testimony to Pritchard's claims was lacking, and many testified to Purnell's character. As the world learned about the unique beliefs of the colony, the luster left more than the Diamond House.
The #MeToo campaign wasn't around to save the female virgins from Purnell's spiritual initiation rites. As the curator of a Benton Harbor museum reflects, the Seventh Messenger was determined "to plant the eternal seed within them." Though Judge Louis H. Fead found him and Mary guilty of religious fraud and ordered their exile from the colony, he writes in his official opinion, "His people reverence him. Their love and loyalty are patent. While a despot, he must have been a kindly monarch."
The trial didn't end the House of David story, only Benjamin's reputation. In 1930, Mary separated from the Israelite House of David over a dispute of succession. With her $60,000 settlement, she bought property across the street and began an offshoot group, the City of David. It prospered for another two decades. Even though Judge Fead had ordered the Purnells not to evangelize, new initiates continued to arrive, including a stream of Jews during times of anti- Semitism — so many, in fact, that Mary built a synagogue.
Both colonies thrived and sparked diverse industries. Traditional businesses like lumber and fishing were a mainstay, and more advanced initiatives like bottled water and advanced cold storage quickly sprung up. Some of their inventions allegedly included the rack that arranges bowling pins, the waffle cone, a cross-propeller system for steamships, canning ability for grape juice, and wooden pallets for forklifts. They also developed a special gold painting style out of fish scales, which is on display in Benton Harbor. Between these business endeavors and communal requirements (all initiates handed over all possessions to the group upon joining), the community is believed to have amassed enormous wealth. It's suggested that the current assets of the Israelite House of David exceeds $217 million. A major renovation has taken place on the original campus, now a gated entry, and the facilities are stunning (though the second campus of Mary's City of David is in ill repair, identified clearly with a new Michigan Historic Site sign).
The irony of the entire story, of course, is that both the Purnells died — ah, but with a twist. We will never know exactly what would have transpired if the trial had continued through the system, as Benjamin died a few months after the initial trial ended, which the Michigan Supreme Court eventually overturned. What he began with such fanfare in 1903 was spiraling downward when he died of tuberculosis in 1927. Benjamin's body is said to be preserved in an upstairs bedroom of the Diamond House so he can rise up and reunite the twelve lost tribes of Israel for the "Ingathering," the gathering of the faithful to await the restoration of Eden on earth (hence the name Eden Springs Park the colony ran for tourists). Likewise, Mary's followers allegedly buried her vertically, anticipating a short stay for her beneath the surface. Her well-appointed tomb, appearing as a vertical mausoleum, is easily visible outside the main occupied residence on the City of David campus. Allegedly, her vertical burial would allow her to exit more quickly at Christ's return.
Today, there are occasional ghost hunts on part of their property, which is now owned by a developer. There is also a room in the Benton Harbor Public Library dedicated to this group, as well as a relatively new House of David Museum in nearby St. Joseph, Michigan. Otherwise, there's little left of Purnell's Israelite House of David community that once wowed so many crowds of cheering baseball fans.
IS THE BIBLE AT FAULT?
The Biblical Outcome
The Israelite House of David wasn't merely another case of a magnetic religious figure having a sex scandal. Along with the City of David, as the two were inextricably linked, the colonies were incredibly resourceful and inventive Christian sects with outsized cultural footprints. In short, their fame and failure revolved around the moral and administrative failures of a leader empowered by a distorted view of biblical prophecy. The heretical theological beliefs and personal actions of its founder hijacked many otherwise admirable kingdom values of this colorful and entrepreneurial community.
The influence of the Bible was evident throughout this group, but that influence was filtered through Brother Ben's unique interpretation. We can get a feel for this in Benjamin's own words, from a publication titled Benjamin's Last Writing, written shortly before his death. In the comment below, he explains why the male members of the Israelite House of David were instructed to wear their hair long:
Why do the Israelites wear long hair and beards? ... We wear long hair because Jesus, who is the pattern and waymark of an Israelite, wears it. No matter what nationality makes pictures of Christ, they always make Him with long hair, and a beard. If God wanted man to have short hair, He would have made him with short hair. He should be left as he was made.
The biblical reason for this convention wasn't actually biblical at all. In this case, the House of David scriptural canon extended to trends in paintings and Sunday school artwork that are not rooted in the biblical text. The person who Benjamin is referencing and imitating is not the Jesus of the Bible but the Jesus of popular culture.
Another telling example is Benjamin's explanation for why Israelite members of the House of David believed they would never die, taken from this same publication:
We Israelites of the House of David believe we will never die, while all unbelievers will perish. The body of Jesus, the First-born of Israel, saw not corruption, and that is why we true Israelites live the lives of celibates, eschewing all carnal intercourse, even between man and wife. Sin is a transgression of the Law, and the sting of death is sin, (1 Corinthians 15:56) who reap the wages of sin, which is death (Romans 6:23). Then how could a man who is righteous reap the wages of sin? In the case of righteousness he could not die. So it is written: In the way of righteousness is life, and in the pathway thereof there is no death (Proverbs 12:28).
In this case, he is sticking with the Bible but only with narrow and selective readings — and gaps in logic doom his interpretation. We'll talk more about this second example in the next section.
Point of Departure from Biblical Orthodoxy
In some ways, the House of David is a prime example of how one's misuse of the Bible can lead to abuse. A huge misstep was their acceptance of nonbiblical writings, such as the prophecies of the nineteenth-century evangelist John Wroe, as authoritative scripture. Then, if that wasn't bad enough, they misread, misinterpreted, and misapplied the actual text of the New Testament itself. These errors resulted in flaws that doomed a community with a lot of admirable qualities.
We'll look at some of these issues of deviation and interpretation in closer detail. But for the moment, we might just acknowledge them and hear from a former House of David member, H. M. Williams. He refers to Purnell's relationship to the Bible in the following critiques written shortly after Williams left the group in 1907. These comments come from a small publication titled Mysteries, Errors and Injustice at Mary and Benjamin's Israelite House of David. On Brother Ben's approach to reading the Bible, Williams writes:
Benjamin continues to fix the scriptures to suit himself, leaving out phrases or words or changing them entirely, substituting words where he wants them, changing the word "and" for "but," taking out the word "not" where it is objectionable to his theory. This is the way that he got on with his interpretations.
In another passage, Williams destroys Purnell's claim that believers will never die. How so? By quoting passage after passage from the Bible that clearly speak to the death that comes to all men, faithful or not. Such passages include Hebrews 9:27, Psalm 82:7, 1 Corinthians 15:36, and many more.
On Purnell's presentation of himself as the second coming of Jesus Christ, Williams asserts he could "profit ... to know there is but one God and one mediator between God and man, the man Christ Jesus, 1 Timothy 2:5." On his behavior with women, Williams dismisses Purnell's claims that such interactions were merely innocent interactions by claiming Purnell had a specific type of woman — which he described as always "young," "plump," and "fair" — who claimed all his attention and "fondling." According to this firsthand account of life within the walls of the Israelite House of David, there can be little question that the founder was guilty of the crimes for which he was accused.
These are just a few of the issues and conflicts we encounter when we lose accountability to the Bible. This also shows the result of separating ourselves from the accountability of church leadership that the biblical text encourages. Furthermore, it's a prime example of what can happen when we try to improve on the Bible or grant our faith leaders more authority than we ascribe to the Bible. Close-knit communities and strong leaders are important, but they can never be set above the Word of God. And, of course, this case study shows us plenty of bad exegesis too.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Is The Bible At Fault?"
Copyright © 2018 Jerry Pattengale.
Excerpted by permission of Worthy Publishing Group.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Chapter 1 Sex Scandal of the House of David in Benton Harbor, Michigan: Why Veering from Biblical Canon Can Be Explosive,
Chapter 2 Vulgarizing the Sacraments: Take This Cup ... of Human Blood,
Chapter 3 Self–Maiming: Why Many Have Lost More than the Pulse of Scripture,
Chapter 4 Mishandling Scripture: How Handling Snakes Comes Back to Bite You,
Chapter 5 Misguided Media Messengers: Trading False Prophecy for Temporary Profits,
Chapter 6 Great Expectations and the Great Disappointments of Apocalyptic Messages: Before You Put Your Pets to Sleep, Make Sure It's Really the End of the World,
Chapter 7 Be Baptized or Be Killed: Heretics' Bones Hanging from the Belfry,
Chapter 8 Early Christian Heresies: The Ophites and Controversial Alternatives for an Inconvenient Creator,
Chapter 9 Corrupted Biblical Teachings: Tanchelm of Antwerp Marries a Statue of Virgin Mary,
Chapter 10 Under the Hood of the Ku Klux Klan: The Problems of Reading through Errant Eyeholes,
Chapter 11 When the Crusades Became the Killing Fields: The Ramifications of Misplaced Doctrinal Beliefs,
Chapter 12 The Degradation of Australia's Aborigines: Why Misreading a Passage Might Displace a People,