Stephanie Wolfe
Washington University-St. Louis


 In 1893, John Alexander Dowie (1847-1907) erected a makeshift “tabernacle” just outside the physical boundaries of the World’s Columbian Exhibition. Within the official borders of the fairgrounds, exhibits lauded the scientific achievements of modern western civilization. Dowie’s display, however, challenged many of the fair’s suppositions, particularly those relating to medical science. His attacks on doctors and druggists soon attracted crowds, as did his practice of faith healing. Dowie taught that poor health was the result of personal sinfulness; but he also asserted that Christ’s atoning work on the cross made it possible for all to be healed of physical infirmities. There was Biblical basis for this doctrine. The New Testament records that Jesus and his apostles frequently healed the sick. Dowie made the – to many – outrageous claim that God had restored such powers to nineteenth-century believers. This theology of healing was perhaps most aptly illustrated in the interior of Dowie’s later Zion Tabernacle, whose walls were decorated with cast off crutches, leg braces, and other now-unnecessary medical devices. 

As a revivalist and social reformer, Dowie sought not only to revive the practice of faith healing, but also to recreate what he saw as the perfect society of the first-century Christian church. His ambitions took their earliest form along a stretch of Michigan Avenue between 12th and 16th streets, and later, in the founding of Zion City, Illinois. Dowie’s teachings proved controversial, however, among medical doctors, journalists, and members of more “respectable” Protestant denominations. The object of lawsuits, arrest, and riots, Dowie and his followers relocated to Zion City, just south of the Wisconsin border, in 1901. Zion City served not only as a utopian ideal, but also as an escape from religious persecution.

Dowie’s propensity for migration--as well as his suspicion of authority--was evident early in his life. Born in Edinburgh, Scotland in 1847, his family emigrated to Australia in 1860. He returned to Scotland to study theology, though withdrew without a degree, and settled in Adelaide, Australia in 1872, where he married and was ordained in the Congregational Church. Dowie became dissatisfied with the “worldliness” of the denomination, however, and soon turned to urban revivalism, where he first promoted faith healing. In 1886, he founded the International Divine Healing Association (IDHA). In 1888, after experiencing a vision, he moved his family to San Francisco to expand his ministry. After several years promoting the IDHA in California, Dowie migrated yet again to Evanston, IL, where worked to establish chapters throughout the Midwestern and eastern United States. 

By early 1894, Dowie had attracted a significant following and permanently moved his operations to downtown Chicago. Zion Tabernacle provided meeting space, though the growth in his following led him to hold services in Chicago’s Central Music Hall. Divine Healing Homes proliferated, providing quiet space for religious study and healing. The Zion Publishing House produced three periodicals edited by Dowie: The Coming City, a biweekly current events publication, A Voice from Zion, a monthly theological journal, and Leaves of Healing, a religious weekly that contained healing testimonies submitted by Dowie’s followers. Such “latter day miracles” were narrated according to a common structure: the infirm consulted doctors without success, followed by the arrival of Dowie, who prayed “over” the sick, and often laid his hands upon the afflicted body part. Subsequent healings often led to new conversions.

In 1895, Dowie withdrew from the same IDHA he had founded in order to establish a new religious denomination, the Christian Catholic Church. The church’s headquarters, which Dowie named Zion, occupied a former hotel building close to the Chicago central railway terminal. By the late 1890s, the area along Michigan Avenue between 12th and 16th streets housed not only the church headquarters, but also a bank, investment associations, a printing press, an orphanage, a day school, a college, a home for working girls, a home for “erring” women, and a four-story healing home. Dowie’s followers were now numerous enough to warrant the leasing of the Chicago Auditorium for healing services. In 1897, Dowie procured a new permanent meeting place, the New Zion Tabernacle at Michigan Avenue and 16th Street.

That same year, the State of Illinois sued Dowie for practicing medicine without a license. While the trial took place, the Chicago Board of Health passed a measure--aimed at Dowie’s divine healing homes--requiring dwellings used for the care of the sick to be attended by a licensed physician. The charges were eventually dropped, and the measure repealed. Still, the trial provoked attacks from the press claiming Dowie was a fraud and a swindler. In an address to his followers, Dowie insisted he made no claims to be a doctor, nor should his healing homes be considered hospitals. Further, he denied claims that he had accepted money in exchange for healing. On October 18, 1899, such resentments reached their peak when medical students interrupted Dowie in the midst of a sermon entitled, “Doctors, Drugs and Devils.” The mob set off stink bombs in the tabernacle sanctuary, which led to subsequent rioting in the streets.

Such violent reactions no doubt contributed to Dowie’s decision to move his operations elsewhere; however, the move to Zion City was part of a much larger understanding of cosmic history. Speaking from the Chicago tabernacle pulpit, Dowie presented a detailed map of the new colony to his followers at the stroke of midnight on New Years Day, 1900. 

The physical move to Zion City prompted a number of shifts in both theology and practice. Zion had become a physical, religious, and social community that facilitated devotion through the institution of church discipline and the elimination of outside persecution.  Drawing on elements of dispensational premillennialism promoted by many Protestants of the period including Dwight Moody, Dowie claimed that Zion City would become the Zion foretold in the book of Revelation. In 1902, Dowie declared himself the third manifestation of Elijah, who would restore the church to its first-century state. Zion City was to be the literal manifestation of that restoration. To reflect this revelation, the church’s name was changed to The Christian Catholic Apostolic Church in Zion.  Just as the seat of the Roman Catholic Church was located in Rome, the restoration of the Apostolic Church would be situated in Zion City.

Like the first-century church, Zion City was to be a perfect society, one based on a selective mixture of Biblical social norms and progressive era social reforms. Tobacco, alcohol and gambling were forbidden, as were pork, shellfish, swearing, dancing and hospitals. The city was to be economically self-sufficient and included it’s own lace-making factory which provided employment for citizens, as well as other business and public ventures, including stores, courts of law, schools and public utilities. Even after the removal to Zion City, the Chicago press remained fixated on Dowie. Articles appeared updating the public on topics such as Dowie’s strict prescription for men’s facial hair grooming, and his banning of Santa Claus within the polis.

Dowie suffered a stroke in 1905, just as the city was experiencing economic collapse. A federal judge placed the city under the control of a receiver and ordered the election of a new mayor. Dowie’s own followers promptly replaced him with Glen Voliva, one of Dowie’s most trusted advisors. Never fully recovered from his stroke, and removed from power over the very institutions he had founded, Dowie died in Zion City in 1907.

The story of John Alexander Dowie and Zion City is significant not only to historians of Chicago, but also to those of American religious history. While many date the origins of Pentecostalism to the 1906 Azusa Street revival in Los Angeles, Dowie was healing the sick of infirmities – a hallmark of Pentecostal practice – over a decade earlier in Chicago. The story of Dowie illustrates several other themes as well: the growth of faith healing alongside secular medicine; the melding of social progressivism and millennialism; and the interweaving of migration and evangelism. Perhaps most significantly for our purposes, Dowie and Zion City illustrate the tragic consequences of a common byproduct of religious diversity: religious intolerance. 

Further Reading

  • Grant Wacker, “Marching to Zion: Religion in a Modern Utopian Community,” Church History 54.4 (1985): 496-511.
  • Wallace Best, Zion, IL. Encyclopedia of Chicago.
  • Timothy Gloege, “Faith Healing, Medical Regulation and Public Religion in Progressive Era Chicago” Religion & American Culture 23.2 (2013): 185-231.