7 Broken Men: Alexander Dowie

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.

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The views expressed are my own and do not necessarily represent the official views of Morling College or its affiliates and partners.

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6 thoughts on “7 Broken Men: Alexander Dowie

  1. Oh dear, Mike, this is so disappointing. A pity you didn’t actually research your facts. Take a look at my book The Spirit of Pentecost for a very different, carefully researched portrayal of Dowie.

    1. Well, I didn’t make it all up, Barry. Of course, I researched it. But I’ll defer to you as a charismatic scholar. Which parts did I get wrong?

  2. Mr. Frost, is there another way to contact you besides the comment section, Facebook and Twitter?

    I’d like to express some thoughts about this article with you, but not publicly.

    Great series. I’ve enjoyed it.

    Thanks.

    1. It would be helpful if you would provide your comments publicly since you challenged Mr. Frost publicly. I would like to know! 🙂

      1. Portland,

        It’s subtle, but this is exactly why I’d like to discuss with Mr. Frost on a non-public forum: I did not challenge him. Unfortunately, with threads of this nature, the tone of comments and responses is often read with a “challenging” voice, of which I do not have, nor intend to have.

        I suppose since I’ve explained that, I can share after all.

        I’ve read the article twice. From my perception, the way the information in this article presents him, Mr. Dowry sounds like a criminal who was well aware that he was scamming people with false signs and wonders in order to make a buck. I don’t think that’s on the part of Mr. Frost’s authorship – he said he’s researched, and I’m trusting that Mr. Frost has no personal vendetta against Mr. Dowry to present him in a negative light in this article. My concern is this: if (and I mean IF, because I don’t know) Dowry knew what he was doing was wrong, yet continued in it, even though a supposed movement of God came from this man’s life and work, I have a hard time believing that this man was actually a Spirit-filled, born again follower of Jesus Christ. This is all based on my assumption that Mr. Dowry knew what he was doing was wrong, so please don’t crucify me if I’m off on this. I’d like to have a discussion, not be a target for arrows to be shot at. It says a great deal about the Lord to use a criminal’s work for His glory. Since mankind’s inception, He’s used our worst for His highest, which is a testament to who He is in all of His remarkable splendor, and I love Him for that. It is hard for me, however, as a man who knows he is broken, to find comfort in God using a criminal (a judgment of the man based only on my presumption based on my limited knowledge of him). I can find comfort from the life of other men mentioned in this series, like David Brainerd, who was aware of his frailties, and Lonnie Frisbee, who knew that his struggle with homosexuality is a sin, yet despite of those things, God graciously used their lives for His glory. That gives me hope, that God will glorify himself through my life as He gives grace for me to be faithful to Him, since I’m also riddled with sin and frailties. Dowry, on the other hand, glory to God for using what He did from him, might be in hell today… This is ALL based on my presumption that he was well aware of his deception ONLY based on what I’m reading here, but the thought that Dowry may be there selfishly doesn’t comfort me in my life. I want to be used by God, but I also, by His grace, want to make it to the end and receive the reward promised for enduring faith in His risen Son, Jesus.

        It’s pretty sensitive stuff, and I don’t want anything to get heated, nor am I interested in being criticized for expressing my thoughts, but alas, I can’t control that.

        Is what I was trying to say made clear? I can clarify if I didn’t express clearly enough.

        Thanks.
        Joshua

  3. Mirza Ghulam Ahmad said; The gist of my mubahala was that Islam is the true faith and the Christian doctrine is false; and I am the Messiah who is from God, and whose coming in the latter days was promised in the scriptures of the Prophets. I also wrote that Dr. Dowie was false in his claim of Prophethood, as well as in his doctrine of Trinity, and that if he accepted the challenge of mubahala he would die within my lifetime in great pain and misery. Even if he did not accept the challenge, he would still not be able to escape Divine Punishment.

    was found to be an embezzler and drinker, although he had prohibited the use of liquor in his teachings. In a state of great despair he was driven out of Zion—the city which he had himself established at a cost of millions of rupees. He was also deprived of seventy million rupees which he possessed in cash. His wife and son turned against him and his father even announced that he was a misbegotten son, and it was established before the people that his birth was illegitimate. As for his claim that he miraculously cured the sick, all such bragging and boasting turned out to be false, and he suffered all sorts of humiliation. He was finally afflicted with paralysis and had to be carried about by men like a wooden plank. Soon afterwards he went mad due to his intense grief and sorrow. His claim that he had a long life ahead of him and that he was getting younger by the day, while others were getting old, turned out to be another lie. Finally, in the first week of March 1907, he died in a state of great distress, pain and sorrow. Can there be a greater miracle?

    Links for further reading;
    https://trueprophecies.wordpress.com/2011/04/07/dowies-prayer-duel-with-ahmad-as/amp/

    https://www.reviewofreligions.org/7840/the-great-victory/amp/

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