The Founder of My Hometown

John Alexander Dowie was a Congregational minister who became an evangelist, emigrating from Scotland in 1893 during the time of the World Columbian Exposition (a world’s fair) in Chicago.  A portly man with a long white beard that made him look like a biblical prophet, Dowie set up a tabernacle outside the fairgrounds, where he declared his power of healing and became known as Dr. Dowie.

After the fair, Dr. Dowie continued as a hell-fire warrior against the evil power of Satan.  He often raged against denominational churches, calling them “apostasies” and saying he hoped that his Zion movement–a community of saints–would destroy them.  That movement was meant to establish an “ideal state” for an “ideal people,” beginning with a communal Zion Home.  This seven-story building at 12th Street and Michigan Avenue in Chicago was the church headquarters and a Christian temperance hotel housing numerous families. [As an aside, my husband and I were married in that building, still standing in 1948.]

In his sermons, Dowie often denounced doctors, drugs, and devils, condemning hospitals, pharmacies, liquor and tobacco industries, and the secular press.  Because he attacked so much of the establishment and medical “quacks,” who indeed were common at the time, authorities found ways to retaliate.  He was frequently accused of libel or practicing medicine without a license and was jailed hundreds of times.  Controversies surrounding him created the kind of stories that newspaper reporters loved, and Dowie was one of the most widely publicized evangelists of the time.

In late 1899, Dowie waged a three-month “Holy War Against the Hosts of Hell in Chicago,” which became the title for a compilation of his sermons published in 1900 in book form. He also made plans for a theocracy–a place ruled by God rather than governed by elected officials. His Zion City for Christians was to be built on the shores of Lake Michigan.

Dowie and some of his followers formed an investment association, selling shares for $100 apiece.  The association, under the full control of Dowie, bought up 6,600 acres of prime land forty-two miles north of Chicago.  By 1901, Dowie had formed the basis for a theocratic city to be ruled by God with orders delivered through an Overseer–Dowie–and his elders.  Dowie urged his followers to sell all their possessions and invest in the “holy city” of Zion, where “the education of all classes should be with reference to making them Christian, as essential to promote not only their own welfare, but also the peace, dignity and best interests of the body politic; That business of all kinds–transportation, manufacturing, mercantile–should be conducted on the cooperative plan in such a way that each employee could feel and know that he was sharing in and benefiting by the fruits of his industry.” [i]

Thousands heeded the call.  There was no need for residents of the town to own their land, businesses, or factories, so said the leader.  Rather they should lease their land for 1,100 years and work for the businesses and factories owned by the Christian Catholic Apostolic Church.  In short order, the investment association built several industries, including an entire lace factory imported from England, a lumber company, candy, handkerchief, and canning factories, a commercial baking industry, plus a radio station and publishing company that produced two weeklies: The Theocrat and Leaves of Healing.

Private ownership of business was considered unnecessary because at the end of the lease period Jehovah was supposed to appear to claim the faithful.  But while they were waiting for the Second Coming, those who flocked to the new theocratic Zion City were expected to live by numerous thou-shalt-not rules.  Certain foods, such as shell fish and meat of swine, as described in biblical injunctions, were forbidden.


There were dozens of restrictions on land use.  No one could build a

distillery, tannery, soap factory, glue factory, gun-powder factory, or bone-boiling factory, saloon or beer garden, cigarette, cigar, or tobacco store; opium joint; or theater or opera house or gambling establishment; or dance hall; or circus; or house of ill-fame; or pharmacy or office of drug or practicing physician; or place for the sale of pork or anything forbidden by God to be eaten as stated in the seventh to the nineteenth verses of the fourteenth chapter of Deuteronomy; or a place for holding meetings or assemblies of any oath-bound secret societies; or any immoral, noxious or dangerous purpose whatsoever…

On and on the rules and regulations went.  But no matter what the restrictions, new church members–many of them seeking “divine healing”–appeared regularly in Zion City, traveling from Australia, Scotland, and many parts of Europe and from across the United States and Canada.  Families had to live in tents or rooms in a blocklong three-story Elijah Hospice (later known as the Zion Home) until they could build homes or find rental housing.

Within a year, Zion was well established as “A Clean City for A Clean People,” according to one advertisement. By 1903 it boasted a population of more than ten thousand, and Dowie had realized part of his dream for a theocracy.  However, he also created great controversy throughout the state of Illinois and across the United States with his demands that church members reject any medical treatment and drugs for whatever ailment or illness they might suffer.  Elders “laid on the hands” and prayed to bring about healings.

Yet, in spite of hundreds of testimonies attesting to divine intervention, Dowie’s own daughter, Esther, did not survive terrible burns she suffered when her nightgown accidentally caught fire from a burning alcohol lamp.  She was burned over three fourths of her body and was in a semi-coma for days.  Because of his belief in faith healing, Dowie refused to allow any treatment for Esther’s burns except Vaseline applications and salt-water washes.  His critically burned daughter suffered for weeks before succumbing at the age of twenty-one to infection caused by the burns.

The death of Dowie’s daughter in 1902 tested the faith of some of his followers.  His ideas of communal property and grandiose plans to establish other church communities across the United States and particularly a Paradise Plantation in Mexico also caused conflicts.  He staged expensive revivals, once ordering nine trainloads of church people to follow him to New York City where in 1903 he held a series of meetings in Madison Square Garden, laying hands on thousands who came to be healed of ailments ranging from broken bones to cancer.  But New York City was not impressed with Dowie and his cause, and the church lost hundreds of thousands of dollars in the venture.

Dowie’s exploits eventually led the church and its many business holdings toward bankruptcy.  However, Dowie suffered a stroke in 1905, leaving him paralyzed and requiring others to restore solvency and save the church.

The newly elected General Overseer–Wilbur Glen Voliva–quickly created more conflict when he took charge in 1906.  The church leadership split between those who were faithful to Dowie and those who were ready to follow a new overseer.  Then there was the major question of who owned Zion City and its industries, which a Chicago court placed in receivership–that is, the court appointed a company to take custody of the property until the issue could be decided.  Voliva began raising funds to buy back some of the Zion properties from the receivers and soon regained control over most of the industries.

Meanwhile Dowie remained in his home, a mansion called Shiloh House that he and his wife shared with a grown son, Gladstone.  It was a twenty-five-room brick building with a colorful tiled roof, porticos, etched glass windows, ornate woodwork, and was filled with expensive furniture.  Compared to the average Zion residence, Shiloh House was a veritable palace.  Only a few faithful actually visited Dowie at his home and remained loyal to the “prophet” during his last days, although he was widely honored after his death on March 9, 1907.

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