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Mary's City of David.

R. James Taylor. Benton Harbor, 1996. 181 pp. $54.00.

For Americans growing up in the 1930s the House of David meant one of two things: a scandal ridden experiment on the shores of Lake Michigan at Benton Harbor, or one of the Midwest's finest barnstorming baseball teams. With the publication of this "pictorial history of the Israelite House of David as reorganized by Mary Purnell" by a current trustee of the sect a third element has been added, namely Mary's City of David that came into existence in the thirties in the aftermath of the sensational court trial and a split within the ranks of Purnell's followers.

As a coffee table book this volume has much to commend it: striking photos of Mary Stollard Purnell, "King Ben's" second and probably bigamous wife; group shots of the Israelites at work and at play; broadsides, clippings from newspapers about the "City of Mary" and the various business ventures that developed around her and her colony (including a fascinating hospital venture, the King David Hospital and Clinic in 1938); views of the summer cottages and visitors.

R. James Taylor has provided a running commentary on these photographs and an episodic history of the group. His text is sheer hagiology and so full of errors that one can only hope it does not fall into a reference section by mistake. There is no index, no bibliography, no effort to achieve any sort of balance. Taylor's view is that of a committed follower who is justly proud of Mary Purnell's accomplishment in taking a badly battered religious group and sustaining it in the face of horrendous negative publicity.

The opening chapter "The Century of Seven" purports to trace the history of this Anglo-Israelite group back to Joanna Southcott and the subsequent prophets who took her mantle. Despite the fact that there are numerous accounts of that history Taylor has compiled a misleading and pious account that reads like a children's tale--in short, a view often taken by true believers in face of a complex and tainted past. This is sanitized history that exonerates Benjamin Purnell of all the crimes he was charged with (rape, fraud, deception) and blames the break-up of the community on a dissident faction and politically motivated state prosecutor. Still there are terrific photographs of Mary as a young woman, the regal pair at home and the true believers who came to Michigan from England, Australia and the United States. When Taylor moves on to the "City of Mary" phase he opens up a set of possibilities that one can hope other researchers will pursue: the history of Mary's colony and the 217 who in 1930 decided to shift their allegiance away from the Dewhirst faction at the House of David to the new community across the street.

There is much that other scholars might explore: the economic base of the enterprise (tourism, farming, printing); the colony as a curious summer resort for Jews from Chicago with its own synagogue and rabbi (established in 1938) alongside this Christian enterprise. In short, there is a wealth of raw material here and references to a diary kept by Frances Thorpe, a leading supporter of Mary Purnell, that one hopes Taylor will, in the pursuit of religious and social truth make available to other researchers. Little is known about the Anglo-Israelite world in America though the rare "Pioneer of Wisdom" published from London in the eighteen eighties and nineties does offer a window on that world.

What this picture book has done is to open a new chapter in the story at the same time perpetuating falsehoods about those Anglo-Israelites (male and female) who, on the field and off, cut handsome figures.
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Author:Fogarty, Robert S.
Publication:Utopian Studies
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jan 1, 1997
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