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John Alexander Dowie: The Quirky Founder of Zion, Illinois

Updated on July 12, 2016
John Alexander Dowie in his robes as Elijah the Restorer
John Alexander Dowie in his robes as Elijah the Restorer

John Alexander Dowie was a controversial and charismatic evangelical faith healer who founded the city of Zion, IL. Born in Scotland, his family emigrated to Australia when Dowie was 13. He returned to Scotland as a young adult to study theology at the University of Edinburgh, and returned to Australia where he was ordained to the Congregational ministry in 1872.

After a moderately successful career as a suburban pastor outside Adelaide, Dowie moved to Melbourne in 1882, where he became interested in faith healing. In 1886, he formed the International Divine Healing Association with branches and like-minded followers throughout Australia, New Zealand, Great Britain and the United States.

Dowie claimed to have a revelatory vision in 1888 in which the Lord instructed him to spread his faith healing gospel throughout the world. After settling briefly in San Francisco, he relocated to the Chicago area in 1890. Chicago became his base of operations for his traveling revival meetings in the small cities and hinterlands of the Midwest and East Coast.

Capitalizing on Chicago’s 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, Dowie hastily set up a tabernacle on one of the busiest spots on the Midway, directly across from Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. His sermons consisted of attacks on the medical profession, journalists, politicians, pharmacists, masons, and religions but his own.

In the two years after the Fair, Dowie’s congregation grew, and as the center of activity in Chicago returned to the downtown business district, he began to acquire property along both sides of South Michigan Avenue from 12th Street (Roosevelt Road) past 16th Street. By the late 1890s, Dowie’s South Loop enclave included a tabernacle, a bank, a four-story “Divine Healing Home,” an orphanage, schools, homes for working girls and wayward women, and a busy printing plant to spread the message of his words and works. As his audience outgrew his Michigan Avenue tabernacle, he began to lease the 3000-seat Auditorium Theater on Sundays, and soon began filling that venue as well.

The Zion Central Tabernacle at 1621-33 S. Michigan Avenue was opened in February 1897, and was used for services until his downfall midway through the first decade of the 20th Century.
The Zion Central Tabernacle at 1621-33 S. Michigan Avenue was opened in February 1897, and was used for services until his downfall midway through the first decade of the 20th Century.

Dowie’s growing empire on South Michigan Avenue was made all the more remarkable because as his renown grew, the people and professions he attacked in his sermons began to fight back. His rhetorical victims organized to fight him with legislation, media scrutiny, and allegations designed to prevent or discredit his prescription of physical and moral healing through prayer. Dowie himself played up his martyrdom, claiming that during 1895 he spent all or part of 126 days of the year in jail for violation of the hospital ordinance, and paid over $20,000 for his legal defense.

Ever the dramatic self-promoter, Dowie announced at 10:00 p.m. on the last day of the 1800s that he had purchased or contracted for a 10 square mile area of prime farmland between Chicago and Milwaukee on the shore of Lake Michigan. The planned town to be built there, named Zion City, would combine Biblical and utopian notions of morality and economics, every facet of which would be personally directed by Dowie himself. The residents would purchase their homes at a fair market value, but instead of outright title, they would receive a 1100-year lease designed to coincide with Christ’s Millennial reign. The property leases would explicitly forbid a laundry list of sins, including gambling, alcohol, tobacco, pork, oysters, cosmetics, whistling, dancing, theaters, circuses, and doctors. The Zion City police force would be literally equipped with both billy clubs and Bibles.

The first settlers arrived in Zion City in 1901, just as Dowie proclaimed himself “Elijah the Restorer” and began to wear elaborate priestly robes, vestments and hat. As the town grew steadily following Dowie’s plan through the early years after the turn of the century, his erratic behavior and rhetoric began to repel some followers. On a worldwide evangelical tour in 1900, Dowie began espousing elements of a theology of Anglo-Isrealism and American exceptionalism that caught the attention of James Joyce, who included Dowie as a tragic character in his novel Ulysses. In mid-1903, Dowie began a feud with another self-proclaimed reincarnated prophet and founder of an Islamic sect, Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, in which the two agreed to a prayer duel to the death.

As Zion City began to suffer financial setbacks, rumors circulated that Dowie was engaged in polygamy and alcohol use, and concerns grew about his increasingly extravagant lifestyle. By 1905, even as Zion City had grown to approximately 7500 inhabitants, Dowie was deposed by citizens and forced into a powerless role amid the charges of fiscal and sexual malfeasance. He soon suffered a debilitating stroke, and died after another stroke in 1907.

Zion City officially changed its name to Zion in 1919, but retained many of the anti-sin statutes through the first several decades of the 20th Century. Today, Zion has an ethnically diverse population of approximately 24,000.

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