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"A.J. Christ Dowie and the Harmonial Philosophy"

A Biography of John Alexander Dowie (1847-1907)

By Kevin McDermott

JOHN ALEXANDER DOWIE was born in Edinboro' Scotland on May 25, 1847 and received his religious conviction — while singing a hymn from a street pulpit in that city — at age seven. His family emigrated to Australia when he was thirteen; there he attended seminary and held a number of pastoral positions in the Congregational Church before resigning the last to become a full-time non-denominational evangelist in 1878.

As a young man he experienced a healing from chronic indigestion which he attributed to divine intervention; this led to his growing activity as a faith healer and ultimately to the foundation of his International Divine Healing Association. He left for the United States in 1888, and after two years on the Pacific coast moved to Evanston, Illinois. During the Chicago World's Fair of 1893 he led healing services in a large tabernacle across the way from Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show.

From the pages of his weekly paper, Leaves of Healing, he decried doctors, pharmacists, Freemasonry, and the consumption of pork, while championing flat-earth theory and "Anglo-Israelism" — the belief that Anglo-Saxons were the lost tribes of Israel. This assertion Dowie supported by linguistic acrobatics worthy of Joyce himself: "Who are we, if we are not Israel? Whence came we, this imperial Anglo-Saxon race? The Saxons are Isaac's sons. I-sax-sons" (Leaves of Healing, July 10, 1897). How this squared with his belief that the Celts were also "I-sax-sons" is hard to make out: " have got the descendents of Israel in a very pure condition in the highlands of Scotland and in some parts of Wales and Ireland.... The Celtic languages are full of Hebrew, and with customs that are Hebraistic" (Leaves of Healing, August 7, 1896). Whatever its logical foundation, plenty of folks heard his message: the newspaper had some 40,000 subscribers worldwide and was published in Dutch and German as well as English.

In 1896 he established the Christian Catholic Church, which — as the author of a volume entitled Rome's Polluted Springs — he was at pains to point out had no connection with that other Catholic church. Following a decade of legal wrangling with the Chicago authorities, between 1899 and 1901 Dowie secretly bought ten square miles of lakefront land 40 miles to the north and founded a true American theocracy: Zion, Illinois. Here people could — and would — live sinless lives in conditions approximating (as nearly as possible) those obtaining after the Millennium. Whether the New Jerusalem's citizens will, in fact, be summoned to worship by steam whistle remains to be seen; but they were in Zion.

Announced to his followers at midnight on New Year's Eve 1899/1900, laid out in the form of a Union Jack, and planned for 200,000 souls, Dowie's City had almost everything: brickworks and lumber mills; an electrical generating plant; factories shipping lace, cookies, and candy around the world; a college; mammoth auditoriums and hotels; and even its own postage stamps.

Dowie owned everything personally, although settlers were offered 1,100-year leases (i.e., 100 years to usher in the Kingdom and 1,000 for Christ's millennial reign — after that, seemingly, you were on your own). The leases specifically forbade gambling, dancing, swearing, spitting, theaters, circuses, the manufacture and sale of alcohol or tobacco, pork, oysters, doctors, politicians — and tan-colored shoes. The city police carried a billy club on one hip and a Bible on the other; their helmets were adorned with a dove and the word "PATIENCE." At the height of his power and influence, Dowie was worth several million dollars and claimed 50,000 followers, 6,000 of whom lived in Zion City.

John Alexander Dowie
"The Rev. John Alexander Dowie,
General Overseer of the Christian Catholic Church in Zion,"
c. 1903


No yapping, if you please, in this booth. Jake Crane, Creole Sue, Dave Campbell, Abe Kirschner, do your coughing with your mouths shut. Say, I am operating all this trunk line. Boys, do it now. God's time is 12.25. Tell mother you'll be there. Rush your order and you play a slick ace. Join on right here! Book through to eternity junction, the nonstop run. Just one word more. Are you a god or a doggone clod? If the second advent came to Coney Island are we ready? Florry Christ, Stephen Christ, Zoe Christ, Bloom Christ, Kitty Christ, Lynch Christ, it's up to you to sense that cosmic force. Have we cold feet about the cosmos? No. Be on the side of the angels. Be a prism....

In 1901 Dowie proclaimed himself "Elijah the Restorer" and began to wear High-Priestly robes. This caused many disciples to fall away; the subsequent decrease in income combined with the expenses of building Zion marked the beginning of Dowie's slide into bankruptcy. It was at this time that rumors of his polygamous teaching and activities, use of alcohol, and extravagant lifestyle began to gain currency, not only in the world, but also within the Church.

As Dowie was an enemy of all religions but his own, it is not surprising he had no use for Islam — although the extent of his animus remains a point of controversy among various Muslim sects even today.

In the summer of 1903, this brought a well-publicized challenge to an Islamic prayer duel to the death, or Mubahila, from the Indian subcontinent: "Whether the God of Muhammadans or the God of Dowie is the true God, may be settled...he should choose me as his opponent and pray to God that of us two, whoever is the liar may perish first.... I am an old man of 66 years and Dr. Dowie is eleven years younger; therefore on grounds of age he need not have any apprehension.... If the self-made deity of Dr. Dowie has any power, he shall certainly allow him to appear against me and procure my destruction in his lifetime." Dowie's Punjabi challenger, Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, was a remarkably well-matched opponent: he too had founded his own sect, Ahmadiyya, and believed himself a reincarnated prophet — in his case, Hazrat Eisa Ibne Maryam (a.k.a. Jesus Christ).

Whether the Almighty took any interest in their contest, its rules leave no doubt about the winner: in short order Dowie was deposed (amid rumors of sexual and financial malfeasance); suffered a stroke; and, in 1907, died — a year before Ahmad. Put into receivership, Zion City remained a theocracy until 1935 under a new General Overseer, the Rev. Wilbur Glenn Voliva. Property values and income plummeted when the Church collapsed, but municipal finances were kept robust through fines generated at the city line by a vigorous policing of unsuspecting motorists for offenses such as use of makeup, carrying liquor, smoking, and whistling on Sundays.

John Alexander Dowie as Elijah
John Alexander Dowie,
"First Apostle of the Lord Jesus Christ"
in his robes as Elijah the Restorer, c. 1904

Although he is a minor character in Ulysses, there is no doubt that Joyce had a strong desire to include Dowie in his novel: to do so he had to commit one of his rare anachronisms, for Dowie was not in Dublin on June 16, 1904. Following an expensive and failed "invasion" of New York City and already identified legally as an "alleged bankrupt," Dowie had begun a worldwide evangelical tour in January of that year with stops in Hawaii, Australia, New Zealand, France, Italy, Germany, and finally England, arriving in London on June 12. Widespread indignation over his attacks on King Edward the Seventh's morals made it difficult for him to find accommodation; taking rooms at the Hotel Cecil under an assumed name, he was asked to leave when the management discovered his true identity the following day. With the comment "heathen England has refused me," he took ship for France on June 13, sailed to New York from that country, and returned to Zion City on June 30. The last decade of Dowie's career received ample coverage in the world press, and the library-haunting Joyce would have had ready access to this public information. However, internal church material was also available in Joyce's own city during the time he was conceiving and writing much of Ulysses: Dowie had visited Zürich in 1900 and founded the first Swiss christlich-katholische Zionsgemeinde there, at Waisenhausgasse 10.

Why was Joyce interested in Dowie? The principal reason seems to be that, whereas Leopold Bloom only fantasizes about establishing the "New Bloomusalem," Dowie actually built his. Although Joyce, Bloom, and Dowie were all responding to the same biblical sources and it is therefore impossible to gauge how directly Bloom's Elijah-like behavior is based on Dowie's, the fact that Joyce included Dowie in his dramatis personæ strongly suggests the connection is there. Besides the construction of a "heaven on earth" filled with all sorts of Bloom-like gimcrackery and presided over by an autocrat, Joyce (with benefit of hindsight) saw Dowie's crashing, litigious fall from power in a ruminous penumbra of sexual and financial sin; the similarity to Bloom's rise and fall from power — although not unique — is obvious. Other currents may also have attracted Joyce: Dowie's murky Anglo-Israelism ties in nicely with the Greek/Roman, Hebrew/Roman, Celt/Anglo-Saxon and Celt/Hebrew dichotomies presented in the Æolus chapter (130:31-131:25; 133:12-30; 139:30-34) and during Bloom's and Stephen's discussions in Ithaca (687:36-689:20), which end with an explicit connection of Bloom and Dowie (690:1-6).

Although Dowie was a Scot, half his career and all his greatest successes took place in America. Joyce seems to stress this "Americanness," perhaps as part of his presentation of the country as a chaotic place where "those things were continually happening" (221:21-22), e.g., the General Slocum disaster, the "Black Beast Burned in Omaha, Ga.," and the loony religions which have prospered on these fertile shores; when Dowie appears phantasmally at the end of Oxen of the Sun and again in the Circe chapters, his increasingly fervent tent-revival sermonizing starts as a very American mixture of stage-Yankee dialect humor and Coney Island barker come-on before transmogrifying into a full black-face minstrel show stump speech.

John Alexander Dowie as Elijah
Swiss anti-Dowie Pamphlet, c. 1904:
A brief discussion about and
refutation of the statements
of Dr. John Alex. Dowie
and his 'Zion'"

It is interesting to speculate whether the evangelist is allowed to speak in his own voice at the appearance of THE END OF THE WORLD, heralding, or perhaps becoming, Elijah/"A.J. Christ Dowie:" this might explain why, attired in a pastiche of highland clothing, it speaks "with a Scotch accent" (507:8-23). Cylinder recordings made by Dowie in 1901-02 reveal that, although clearly trying to speak distinctly into the primitive recording horn, he still had a Scots burr. Printed transcripts of his sermons show that — while frequently abusing his enemies (present or absent) and encouraging audience participation — Joyce's depiction of Dowie's oratorical style is a literary fiction.

It is almost impossible to assess Dowie's motives and sincerity from this distance. He was not the first — and will not be the last — religious leader to inspire both great devotion and great skepticism during his lifetime; forming an accurate judgment is even more difficult a century later. It is possible that he suffered mental deterioration or personality change in later life, perhaps a result of undiagnosed vascular events prior to the massive strokes which, in 1905, severely disabled and then, in 1907, killed him — although he would also not be the first public figure to secure his downfall by starting to believe his own publicity.

Two contemporary and fairly even-handed appreciations of the man and his work are given below, one a personal observation and the other a typical press report. Many of Dowie's ideas appear eccentric (at best) in the early twenty-first century; it should not be forgotten, however, that he was well ahead of his time in espousing beliefs considered similarly eccentric at the dawn of the twentieth — such as equality of the races. Zion City was one of the first communities in the world planned as an integrated city. Today some two to three thousand Christians still describe themselves as "Dowieites," many in South Africa, where Zionites represent the largest Christian sect. In the rest of the world, John Alexander Dowie is better remembered by Muslims (as a false prophet and enemy of Islam) than by Christians (as an early faith healer and forerunner of Pentecostalism) — and also, of course, by Joyceans, for his guest appearance in Ulysses.

• • • • •

PHOTO CREDITS: Both images of Dr. Dowie above were published as supplements to Leaves of Healing and are courtesy of the Zion, IL, Historical Society.

Cylinder Recordings of J.A. Dowie

Click > to play;
click >> and << to cycle through the tracks.

Track 1: "Coming of Zion City"
Track 2: "Benediction for the Zion of God"
Track 3: "Monogamatic Marriage"

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Cover of Two Thousand Miles on an Automobile

Two Thousand Miles on an Automobile; Being a Desultory Narrative of a Trip through New England, New York, Canada, and the West

By "Chauffeur"
[Arthur Jerome Eddy, 1859-1920]
with eighteen illustrations by Frank Verbeck

Philadelphia, London, J.B. Lippincott Company, 1902, pp. 29-31.

(Read the complete text online.)

As we passed Zion Temple, near Twelfth Street, the home of the Dowieites, the Professor said:

"A very remarkable man, that Dowie."

"A fraud and an impostor," I retorted, reflecting current opinion.

"Possibly; but we all impose more or less upon one another; he has simply made a business of his imposition. Did you ever meet him?"

"No; it's hardly worth while."

"It is worth while to meet any man who influences or controls a considerable body of his fellow-men. The difference between Mohammed and Joseph Smith is of degree rather than kind. Dowie is down towards the small end of the scale, but he is none the less there, and differs in kind from your average citizen in his power to influence and control others. I crossed the lake with him one night and spent the evening in conversation."

"What are your impressions of the man?"

"A shrewd, hard-headed, dogmatic Scotchman, — who neither smokes nor drinks."

"Who calls himself Elijah come to earth again."

"I had the temerity to ask him concerning his pretensions in that direction, and he said, substantially, 'I make no claims or assertions, but the Bible says Elijah will return to earth; it does not say in what form or how he will manifest himself; he might choose your personality; he might choose mine; he has not chosen yours, there are some evidences that he has chosen mine."

"Proof most conclusive."

"It satisfies his followers. After all, perhaps it does not matter so much what we believe as how we believe."

A few moments later we were passing the new Christian Science Temple on Drexel Boulevard, — a building quite simple and delightful, barring some garish lamps in front.

"There is another latter-day sect," said the Professor; "one of the phenomena of the nineteenth century."

"You would not class them with the Dowieites?"

"By no means, but an interesting part of a large whole which embraces at one extreme the Dowieites. The connecting link is faith. But the very architecture of the temple we have just passed illustrates the vast interval that separates the two."

"Then you judge a sect by its buildings?"

"Every faith has its own architecture. The temple at Karnak and the tabernacle at Salt Lake City are petrifactions of faith. In time the places of worship are the only tangible remains — witness Stonehenge."
• • •

The Morning Leader for December 9, 1903,
Port Townsend, Washington State

Unsigned editorial, first column, page 2.

(A scanned version of the entire paper is available online.)

It begins to look very much as if the recent Dowieite invasion of New York should rank with Napoleon's advance upon Moswco [sic], so far as the life and adventures of John Alexander Dowie are concerned. That unquestionably clever organizer apparently overreached himself in his expedition to the metropolis. The "invasion" was a dismal failure, as indeed it was doomed to be from the first. The disaster in the East not only weakened the financial position of "Elijah II," but it seems quite apparent that to some extent at least it lessened his rather remarkable influence over his followers. As a result, when the creditors of "Zion" became urgent in their demands, the appeals of Dowie for more money from his followers were not answered with sufficient unanimity to suit the occasion. The financial downfall of Zion was the result. The future of Dowie will be watched with interest. It has been charged that the ventures of the self-styled prophet have been immensely profitable to himself, and that he has already put most of the money so obtained in places where it can [sic] be jeopardized by any possible disaster at Zion City. If Dowie deserts his followers in the present crisis, there will be some cause to believe in the justice of these accusations. If he stands by his followers and is able to speak for himself during the investigation that will be carried on by the receivers appointed by the court, three [sic] will be ample opportunity to judge in just what category the financial activities of the founder of Zion belong. Dowie is certainly an unique character for these early years of the twentieth century. In the Middle Ages he would probably have been thought a great man. More than one self-styled prohet [sic] in the history of the East has risen to positions of fame and lasting influence by the use of much the same sort of claims that Dowie makes for the religious side of his enterprises. Mohammed left behind him a creed which has been of almost inestimable influence on the history of the world during thirteen centuries, and still has more believers than any other religion in the world. Dowie finds himself in the hands of the officers of the United States federal court. Truly, the present day and American republic are most inauspicious as a time and place for the development of prophets! Presently we shall see whether Dowie has any real sincerity in his beliefs and practices, both religious and financial, or whether he is merely a cheat and hypocrite of the worst type. For the present it is difficult to say whether the troubles of Zion are the results of the overweening ambition of a man in whose claims there really is some sincerity, or of a hypocrite and scoundrel upon whom it is well that the law has finally laid its hand.
• • •


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