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The Scottish American History Club Newsletter
October 2009

John Alexander Dowie
Zion, Illinois

The Reverend John Alexander Dowie: 6 ft. tall, 145 lbs, with a full beard and high forehead. “He had a voice the volume of which would almost rival a locomotive. He didn’t like dudes, yet he was dudishly attired himself .” (Description by a 19th century Chicago Tribune reporter.)

The story of John Alexander Dowie is another example of the dedication and perseverance to an individual belief that has driven so many Scottish men and women throughout the centuries. Born in Edinburgh, Scotland, on May 24, 1847, the Reverend Dowie started life within a family of some religious devotion; his father worked as a tailor and also labored part-time as a preacher.

Though the family moved to Australia in 1860, John Alexander Dowie returned to Scotland in 1868 to study at the University of Edinburgh. He later traveled back to Australia where he sought and achieved ordination in the Congregational Church. Established as a pastor to a congregation in Melbourne, where he also married and had two children, it may have appeared that the Reverend Dowie had set down roots. However, the Reverend eventually became dissatisfied with his denomination and once again took to the sea to travel to the United States, arriving in San Francisco in 1890.

A belief evolved within Reverend Dowie that God had called him to a ministry of Divine healing. The message he felt compelled to spread was three fold: salvation, holy living and divine healing. Through speaking engagements, he arrived on the scene in Chicago by the summer of 1890 to the willing ears of a convention of Christian workers in Western Springs. Dowie was reported to have said, and we can only imagine with booming enthusiasm, “I would rather go to Heaven than Chicago, but I must do my work.”

In Chicago, with a rabble of followers, he built a small church just outside the gates of the popular Columbian Exposition (circa 1893). The sign on the church read “Zion Tabernacle”, a lofty name that might have given a clue to his vision to some day grow beyond this meager structure often referred to as “The Little Wooden Hut.”

Around the same time, a popular traveling act visited across the street: Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. Together, Reverend Dowie and Buffalo Bill made for interesting fodder for the reporters of the time. When a chronically ill cousin of Buffalo Bill, Sadie Cody, sought the aid of Reverend Dowie, the Tribune reported, “She was prayed for and received immediate healing.” However, the Tribune soon became Reverend Dowie’s enemy. One reporter described him as 6 ft. tall, 145 lbs with a full beard and high forehead. “He had a voice the volume of which would almost rival a locomotive. He didn’t like dudes, yet he was dudishly attired himself.” Newspaper articles became more and more vicious from this time forward.

As attendance grew, the Reverend rented larger and larger buildings to accommodate his followers. A church at 16th and Michigan that seated 3,500 was insufficient to contain the crowds. The Chicago Auditorium available for $300 a service always filled, and in one year alone Dowie baptized 10,000 converts. At 12th and Michigan, Zion Tabernacle rented a large office building (still in existence) for $25,000 a year that became the church headquarters. In this building, Dowie started a school and printed literature that included a magazine called “Leaves of Healing.” Alternatively, the Tribune kept up a constant stream of attacks against Dowie and his message. A reporter wrote, “His voice is a consumptive treble which grows more and more tiresome with every sentence. His gestures are those of a man fighting a windmill.”

Zion Temple

Eventually, a building called Zion Temple, located at 62nd and Stoney Island, became the home of Dowie and his followers. The special services held in a large auditorium always started at three o’clock on Sunday afternoon. Regular services and prayers for the sick were conducted every day. In the vicinity of Zion Temple, the church bought several buildings that they called “divine healing homes.” People in need of prayer could purchase a room and board for $8 to $12 per week. People literally came from around the world seeking help. The Tribune said, “They are sick or lame or maimed, and they pay these prices to be near the fountain of healing which they believe to be welling out of the fingers of the ‘little divine’ with the smooth tongue and insinuating manner.” Sadly, many of the desperate were critically ill and ended their life in the Healing Homes.

Not surprising, in June of 1895, Chicago Police arrested Dowie for violating hospital ordinances. The Healing Homes, the City of Chicago purported, fell under the ordinance of operating a hospital. A report said, “His healing Homes in Woodlawn are run in violation of law, and though notified to apply for permits he scornfully refuses - warrant is issued and the Faker is locked up - finally released on bail to appear this morning.” Dowie suffered arrest more than 100 times, often taken out of his Sunday services in handcuffs.

In spite of law enforcement’s attempts and the continued vicious reports by the Tribune, Dowie’s followers grew into the thousands and gained him worldwide recognition. In hopes of fulfilling his dream to create his own Utopia, Dowie and Zion Temple pursued the purchase of 550 acres of land in Blue Island at a cost of $500,000 and went so far as placing it under contract. When Dowie discovered he would not be able to exercise complete control over the land use, he canceled the contract. Instead, not more than a year later in 1896, Dowie made a bold move and formally organized the Christian Catholic Church. “Ministers were ordained and churches started in practically every major city and country, with missionaries going to China, South Africa, Switzerland, Germany, England, France, Scandinavia, Australia, Jamaica, Mexico, and other places.”

In 1899, Dowie presented a lecture to medical and dental students entitled “Doctors, Drugs and Devils.” Dowie did not believe in medical science and preached that items, such as tobacco, liquor, pork, and shellfish, were wrong. Coffee and chewing gum were frowned upon as well. Afterwards, two thousand students rioted, broke windows and stormed the lecture hall. The police stood by and only arrested a few students.

Zion City

Dowie remained devoted to his vision to create and live within his own community of believers. When he heard that land might be available 45 miles north of Chicago, Dowie and some of his leaders, dressed as itinerants, traveled to Waukegan, hired rigs, and surveyed the land. From 40 farmers they took options on 6,400 acres paying what the Tribune said were “fancy prices.” Burton J. Ashley, a city planner and also a believer, laid out the land into subdivisions. The city was to be ten miles square and complete with water, sewer, lighting, and a rapid transit system for a population of 200,000. Washington, D.C. and Zion, Illinois are the only cities that were designed before they were built.

On New Year’s Day, 1900, Dowie announced his plans to build Zion City, “named after the mountain upon which Jerusalem is built and where Christ is said to one day return.” It was estimated that 15,000 followers lived in Chicago and included many prominent people. Six thousand followers leased land for 1,100 years and pledged to follow all the rules. In Zion City there would be no theaters, dance halls, doctors, or drug stores. “There shall be no butcher shops, no gun-powder factories, no saloons, no intoxicating liquors, no circus, no theater, no cigarettes, no tobacco, no opium, no drugs, and no physicians. His people must not eat eels, rabbits, or swine. The oyster is declared to be unholy.”

Employment in Zion

To provide a means of employment to the people of Zion City, Dowie brought lace workers from England and started a lace factory. There was also a large department store and between it and the lace factory, some 3,000 followers found work.

Lace Factory in Zion

Perhaps the most successful venture was the Baking and Candy Division. The Baking Division produced a line of crackers, cookies, pies and cakes. However, leaders looking for a distinctive product that related to the city’s dedication to the teachings of the Bible, selected the fig fruit as their choice product. The Zion Fig Pie was born, a product “that was to make Zion a household word throughout much of the United States through the 1950's.”

Shiloh Tabernacle

Completed in 1900, Shiloh Tabernacle, a massive wooden building, sat 8,ooo worshipers and a choir of 500. Though there was no heat or air-conditioning, the building always filled to the rafters. In 1902, the building ,where many of the male residents lived while their own homes were being built and before their families arrived, converted to the Zion Home for visitors. It contained 326 sleeping rooms, parlors, and a terrace on the roof for hot summer days. Above the terrace lofted a sixty-foot tower where a bell rang each day to call people to pray. Also in 1902, Dowie built for himself, at a cost of $90,000, a house of 25 rooms filled with expensive furniture. It was called Shiloh House.

In 1904, Dowie began a world campaign, but by 1905, things were falling apart for Dowie and for Zion City. Dowie became ill and suffered the first of several strokes in Union Station in Chicago as he prepared to leave for Mexico. Zion City could not support an oppressive debt of almost 6 million dollars. Zion City bank was constantly under siege by the State of Illinois and Dowie refused to let state auditors access to review the books. The Public Health Department never ceased investigations, and, of course, the Tribune remained a constant source of harassment. Zion City fell into receivership. Marshall Field bought the candy factory, the lace factory, and 26 acres of Zion City land. The dream was almost over by 1905.

The Reverend John Alexander Dowie always lived as he had preached - never saw a doctor, never took a drug. On March 9, 1907, he died, as did his dream. To mourn his passing, followers filled the massive Shiloh Tabernacle for the last time and a choir of 500 sang the great songs of the Church. The Reverend’s coffin was carried a few hundred feet to the Lake Mound cemetery and buried; his wife Jane lays aside him.

The current day Church follows the Wesleyan tradition, serves approximately 1,100 members, as well as numerous mission partners worldwide. To this day, they maintain Dowie’s Christian Catholic Church incorporation “to enhance both the local church and the worldwide missions.”

More pictures and information can be found here

Pictured:  Zion Tabernacle

Wayne Rethford, President Emeritus
Illinois Saint Andrew Society
Scottish-American History Club
2800 Des Plaines Avenue
North Riverside, IL 60546