On a smoggy day late in December 1920, Joshua Sykes told his followers they were due for a pretty amazing Christmas gift.
“Do you notice this haze that has been hanging over the city for the last week?” the 61-year-old preacher asked. So began another chapter in a strange and forgotten Denver story.
“This haze,” Sykes said,most likely standing before hundreds of people in a theater-turned-temple on Lawrence Street, “is the coming of the judgment of the Lord. Prepare ye for the day of wrath! for then will death come to the unbelievers.”
And when the unbelievers died — which would of course be soon — then the cult of the House of David would rule Denver.
“Within the course of seven weeks every fine building and residence will be in our hands,” he continued, as quoted in The Herald Democrat. “We will convert these buildings into garages for our automobiles. Our chosen children will live in the Brown Palace hotel and we will have the rich gentiles of this city for our servants.”
They all had good reason to hope for a change.
Many in Sykes’ flock had given up all their worldly possessions and quit their jobs some seven months earlier, according to newspaper accounts. There were allegations that their children were running around hungry and scraggly. They were the talk of the town, and really not in a good way.
Sykes himself had been driven out of Berkeley, California, some time earlier by an angry mob. Apparently they’d burned down his gathering tent after he tore apart an American flag. He was known as an early proponent of “free love,” and he may have led one of the first integrated churches in the United States, according to amateur Pentecostal historians.
He also knew that he would probably be going to federal prison if the apocalypse didn’t come; he had been convicted recently on allegations that he had urged his California flock not to support the U.S. war effort in World War I.
Within his own temple, though, this man was a god. His believers called him “Jehovah.” The New York Times described him as the “self-styled Potentate of Heaven and head of the Tabernacle of David.”
Other titles bestowed by newspapers included:
- “Self-styled ‘Jehovah, king of the universe, author of the Bible and prophet of the Tabernacle of David.’ “
- “Self-styled king of heaven and earth”
- “Self-styled ‘Great Jehovah’ and ‘King Supreme of the World,’ of the Tabernacle of David”
But even “Jehovah” had to answer to the man.
Christmas Eve brought one of the strangest headlines I’ve ever read: “Chief of police in Denver claims ‘Jehova’ is a moral menace.”
Yep. Chief Hamilton Armstrong told city authorities that Sykes had declared himself “the new Christ,” and that there would “never be another president of the United States inaugurated.” Armstrong also brought up the whole “doctrine of free love” thing in his charges, as the Sacramento Union reported. The main charge, later dismissed, was cruelty to children.
Things really started escalating a few days later, when Denver police actually arrested the supposed king of the universe. They ultimately brought him in on accusations that he was operating a scam, with a guy named Ernest Lampert saying he’d given all of his worldly goods — about $150 — to Sykes back in September.
There also was talk that Sykes was a philanderer, as he had appointed a woman who was not his wife as “queen of heaven.” His actual wife of 27 years’ only reported comment: “Even at the time I married King Joshua, he was said to be possessed of a wandering eye and an uncontrolled foot.”
It took several attempts to get Sykes to prison.
The self-styled lord of all that is, was and ever will be got out of the Denver jail pretty quickly on bond. The local charges would be dismissed just a few weeks later on lack of evidence — and possibly because Sykes was about to go to prison anyway.
Sykes, remember, had been convicted of telling his California flock not to build ships or participate in the war effort. The U.S. Supreme Court announced in January 1921 that it would not hear his appeal, which meant he was due at McNeil’s Island prison early in 1921.
Originally, the government trusted Sykes and the other defendants to take themselves to prison — and he really did try. First he got aboard a train to San Francisco, but of course he got a vision in Cheyenne saying the world really was going to end in March, and so he came back to Denver. Then he did the same thing again.
Sykes reportedly had one last apocalyptic party — “We are preparing for the finish, we cannot be disturbed,” a guard told reporters late in February — and then at last headed toward the West Coast in the company of a U.S. Marshal.
He’d be back in Denver just 15 months later. His followers, it was reported, planned a huge party for his return.
“No one outside of the cult,” the newspapers noted, “will be admitted to this celebration.”