Today we look at the figure of John Alexander Dowie suffered from a stroke in Chicago on Oct 3rd. Dowie was a Scottish / Australian Christian leader with an unusual entrepreneurial talent and a dubious personal morality. With a following of some approximately 6,000, he had founded the city of Zion, Illinois, where he personally owned all the land and established many businesses. Zionism is now the largest religious group in southern Africa with 15 million followers, compared to the few hundred left in Illinois.
The city of Zion was founded 40 miles from Chicago and he had established a theocratic political and economic structure and prohibited smoking, drinking, eating pork, and the practice of any form of modern medicine. He also established a range of businesses, healing homes, and a large Tabernacle. Followers from across the world descended on Zion and Dowie soon urged missionaries to go around the world. One such missionary, Daniel Bryant established churches at Wakkerstroom and on the Witwatersrand between 1904 and 1908. This proved to be a fruitful place for Dowies message to root and spread to Johannesburg South Africa and it is the largest religious group in southern Africa with 15 million followers, compared to the few hundred left in Illinois.
Dowie's Zionism has been successful in Southern African because of its appeal to the poor, its disavowal of racial and ethnic differences and the centrality of faith healing. Its cosmopolitan egalitarianism has meant that it has endured, helped by a lack of hierarchy and absence of doctrine. This has allowed it to blend Christian teaching with indigenous practices such as ancestor worship. However, now it is coming under pressure from pentecostalists who preach the prosperity Gospel. This has some sort of irony as Dowie himself became very prosperous in his evangelical career. He had forced his followers to deposit their funds in Zion Bank which deceptively appeared to be a registered entity but was, in fact, an unincorporated entity under his control. The entire structure of Zion was continually in debt, and eventually crashed as Dowie became increasingly senile and unable to handle his affairs.
T.P. O'Connor, an Irish M.P. and journalist, wrote of Dowie: "the one incomprehensible element in the man's gigantic success is the personal luxury in which he lives, and his superb refusal at the same time to account for any of the sums of money entrusted to him. His horses are worth a fortune in themselves; his carriages are emblazoned with armorial bearings; his wife is said to dress with the gorgeous extravagance of an empress. When he travels, hemmed round with a little army of servants, the prophet of humility and self-denial has a special train chartered, and whenever the spiritual burdens become too great a tax there is a delightful country residence belonging to him in which to retreat from the clamour and importunate appeals of the faithful
Dowie was a restorationist and sought to recover the "primitive condition" of the Church. He believed in an end-times restoration of spiritual gifts and apostolic offices to the Church. He claimed to be "God's Messenger" and, in 1901, he claimed to be the spiritual return of the Biblical prophet Elijah, and styled himself as "Elijah the Restorer", "The Prophet Elijah", or "The Third Elijah". He was also an advocate of divine healing and was highly critical of other teachers on healing and traditional medicine; Dowie was for total reliance on divine healing and against the use of all forms of medicine, which has been very popular in southern Africa. He opened a number of healing homes where people could come for instruction in healing and for specific prayer.
In a fascinating development he would play a role in of the emergence of the Ahmadiyya movement in Islam due to a well-publicized contest that took place in the early 1900s between himself and the movement's founder Mirza Ghulam Ahmad. Dowie claimed to be the forerunner of Christ's second coming and was particularly hostile towards Islam, which he believed Christ would destroy upon his return. In northern India, Ahmad had claimed to be the coming of Christ in the spirit as well as the promised Mahdi of Islam, who would usher in the final victory of Islam on earth. In 1902, Ahmad invited Dowie to a contest, proposing a "prayer duel" between the two in which both would pray to God that whichever of them was false in his prophetic claim die within the lifetime of the truthful. The challenge attracted some media attention in the United States and was advertised by a number of American newspapers at the time which portrayed the contest as one between two eccentric religious figures. Dowie, however, dismissed the challenge.