My 7 Broken Men series continues. Check out the other entries in the blog section of this site to see the previous inductees into my hall of shame.
Our fourth entry is nothing if not the most flamboyant of our seven, the Scottish-born Australian evangelist, Alexander Dowie.
If God can use a character as colorful as Alexander Dowie, he can use anyone!
Raised in Adelaide, Australia, Dowie became a theatrically eccentric but popular evangelist in Sydney and Melbourne in the 1870s and 80s. However in 1888, while heavily in debt, Dowie’s church was burnt down in a suspicious arson attack. Dowie claimed the insurance money and skipped to the USA, where there were bigger fish to fry.
Setting himself up in San Francisco, Dowie launched the International Divine Healing Association, through which he guaranteed healing to those who sent requests (and payments) by mail or telegram. It was a huge commercial success.
Never one to do things by halves, Dowie then invested the ill-gotten gains in securities of bankrupt companies and defrauded his flock by selling them off to unsuspecting devotees. In case you missed it, that’s using defrauded money to defraud people.
Things got a bit too hot for him in San Francisco as various legal suits started to mount up, so he cashed in his chips and fled to Chicago, where the World’s Fair was to be staged in Chicago in 1893.
Dowie knew a sure thing when he saw it. He acquired a pavilion at the World’s Fair where he staged elaborate “Divine Healings” in front of large audiences. Many of these “healings” were staged using audience plants and the careful screening of anyone brought on stage to be healed. Despite the doubtfulness of his methods, Dowie made a small fortune.
But he had even bigger plans than being a shonky healer and evangelist. In 1896, he used his takings from the World’s Fair to establish the Christian Catholic Apostolic Church, which grew spectacularly under his leadership. A few years later, he bought land 40 miles outside Chicago and moved his congregation there to establish the city of Zion, Illinois.
No one had ever seen anything quite like Zion, IL. Dowie set it up with a kind of theocratic political structure. He claimed God had appointed him mayor and pastor and he promptly banned smoking, drinking, eating pork, and any form of modern medicine. He also established a range of businesses, “healing homes”, and a large Tabernacle.
Soon followers from across the world descended on Zion. Before long, he had a congregation, um, city of 6000 followers. Er, I mean, citizens.
As for its economic structure, Zion has been described as, “a carefully-devised large-scale platform for securities fraud requiring significant organizational, legal, and propagandistic preparation to carry out“.
Dowie forced his citizens to deposit their wealth in Zion Bank, which had the outward appearance of being a registered entity but which was in fact an unincorporated entity under his control. He also sold worthless stock in an array of Zion’s businesses. The entire structure of Zion was continually in debt.
Things got kookier from there. Since the founding of Zion, Dowie had been referring to himself as “God’s Messenger”, but by the early 1900s he informed his faithful Zionites that he was in fact the return of the biblical prophet Elijah, and started styling himself as “Elijah the Restorer.” He began wearing the most ridiculous robes, fashioned in part on the religious garb of Old Testament priests.
In the end it was Dowie’s propensity for publicity that became his undoing, but not in the way you might imagine. Dowie was world famous and his appeals for people to join him in Zion were ubiquitous, reaching as far afield as India where he attracted the attention of a certain Muslim teacher, Mirza Ghulam Ahmad from the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community.
Ahmad read of Dowie’s particular dislike of Islam (Dowie believed Muslims were agents of Satan, and that they would be destroyed first upon Christ’s return), and Ahmad was as nutty as Dowie.
Whereas the Australian believed himself to be the forerunner of the return of Christ, Ahmad believed himself to actually be Christ. The Indian wrote to Dowie and challenged him to a “prayer duel”. Yep, you read that right. Prayer duel.
Ahmad declared that they should each pray for the other man’s death, and whoever died, well, their God was a loser.
Dowie had at least enough good sense to decline the duel, but within five years of Ahmad’s challenge, Dowie was dead from a stroke. Ahmad died a year later. Should we call that a draw?
Anyway, this story might have ended there, except for another unlikely turn of events.
A few years before Dowie’s death, Petrus Louis Le Roux, an Afrikaner faith healer, read Dowie’s book, Leaves of Healing, and contacted him to say they needed his ministry in South Africa. In 1904, Dowie quickly dispatched a “missionary” named David Bryant to drum up business in Africa.
A community was formed, based on Dowie’s teaching and modelled on the city of Zion. Two years later a Pentecostal revival hit southern Africa and the fledgling Zionist group took off. By the middle of the century the Zion Christian Church had 50,000 members. Today, it’s a movement numbered at over one million people. It is one of the most evangelistically successful church movements in Africa.
God used the most unlikely person to catalyse a movement that has changed so many lives in Africa. And, whether they’ve even heard of Alexander Dowie or not, they see a version of him every Sunday: Zion Christian Church pastors still wear a facsimile of Dowie’s bizarre Elijah the Restorer get-up.