The photo above is an early scene of a parade of faithful followers of the evangelistic founder of Zion, Illinois, where I grew up.
But my story begins in the mid-1930s. The faithful were gathering and greeting each other: “Peace to thee. Peace to thee.” Several dozen men in dark blue uniforms with gold braid and military-type caps–part of the Zion Guard–spread out along the drive that circled the site where a tabernacle—Shiloh Tabernacle—had once stood.
The guards were charged with the responsibility of getting everyone in order for this annual summer event commemorating the biblical Feast of Tabernacles and the opening of the City of Zion (the kingdom of God on earth) in Illinois, and consecration of a ten-acre plot known as the Temple Site. On this site, the Christian Catholic Apostolic Church of Zion (no relation to the Roman Catholic Church) had been built, but decades later it had burned to the ground.
Nevertheless, the church itself had continued, and, in the all-inclusive sense of the term catholic, supposedly welcomed everyone.
The General Overseer, as the church leader was known, and his twelve elders led the procession, each garbed in a long ministerial robe. After them came the deacons and deaconesses. All had draped across the right shoulder white satin banners with the symbol of the church–a shield with a gold cross, a dove of peace, a crown and a sword–which seemed a gross inconsistency: onward for peace with a sword in hand!
The junior choir members followed, hymn books held high, marching out of step, skipping here and there to catch the beat, marching with scrubbed faces beaming. The junior guard in uniform—I was one of them -–filled in behind. Hundreds of parishioners completed the parade. While marching, everyone sang at the tops of their voices. There was a surge of power and glory as the leaders stepped up the pace, swishing their black ankle-length robes, ash-grey with dust at the hems. Around and around the drive they marched, circling the high ground and hub of Zion City where the church had been. As the brass band–in uniform of course–set the pace, the white-robed choir began to sing while marching in solemn, metronome fashion:
“Onward Christian Soldiers; Marching As To War; With The Cross Of Jesus; Going On Before!”
Now I thought, how can you march to war and still say “peace to thee”?
The tabernacle had been planned as a temporary structure to be replaced by a great temple patterned after the Mosque of Omar in Jerusalem. At least that was the vision of the founder of Zion City, John Alexander Dowie, who called himself “Elijah the Restorer”–the First Apostle. (More about Dowie in the next blog.) The three-story wooden building had seated nearly 7,000 people and contained a gallery for a 300-member choir, later remodeled and expanded to hold 500 people plus one of the largest pipe organs in the world. Its walls were covered with hundreds of “trophies”–crutches, braces, high-heeled boots, casts, pill bottles, guns, and numerous other items said to have been surrendered by those “saved, healed, cleansed, and blessed in Zion.” But the building was completely destroyed by fire in 1937–apparently the work of an arson.