Saturday, June 12, 2010

Did the Hand of God Touch Zion, Illinois?

By Hasan Hakeem & Aasim Ahmad

“I pray to God that Islam should soon disappear from the world. O God, accept this prayer of mine. O God, destroy Islam”. Again, on August 5, 1903, he wrote in his paper: “The black spot on the mantle of man (Islam) will meet its end at the hands of Zion”. -- Dr. John Alexander Dowie, Founder, Zion, Illinois USA

For over a decade, Chicagoans woke up to Bob “Uncle Bobby” Collins on their radio. The WGN-AM 720 morning radio host’s death brought an outpouring of emotion and tears as Chicagoans sought to share their grief.

Collins died after a mid-air collision over downtown Zion on Feb. 8, 2000. Collins’ plane, after both airplanes came down in the city of Zion, narrowly missing the Sheridan Nursing Home crashed into the roof of Midwestern Regional Medical Center, 2501 Emmaus Ave., and subsequently exploded. The other plane plunged into the middle of Elim Avenue striking a tree before coming to rest on a residential sidewalk between 25th and 26th streets.

The damaged hospital was founded by a family practice physician in the community of Zion, to serve the medical needs of local residents. It was simply known as the Zion Hospital. It was eventually sold to the Cancer Treatment Centers of America (CTCA) and eventually became known as the Midwestern Regional Medical Center on September 25, 1991. The renovation of the hospital had assistance from the Zion City Council. The council approved an ordinance to issue $20 million in general obligation bonds to finance the project.

Several years later, planning was well underway to add a two-story, outpatient oncology clinic above the radiation oncology center. Those plans were put aside when Collins’ plane crashed onto the roof of the hospital. The crash caused extensive damage to the roof and fifth floor of the hospital. The energy that would have gone into adding the two additional floors, instead went into renovating the existing hospital.

All of this probably would have gone unnoticed, except for religious historians and older Zion residents, who commented on the fact that the Collins’ fatal accident brought back dark memories of Zion’s history and its founder, Dr. John Alexander Dowie. Civic, religious and political leaders prefer the image of Zion being a quiet little town, located along the lakeside, some 41 miles north of Chicago and a stone’s throw away from Illinois’ northern border that touches Wisconsin. Dowie’s name is rarely mentioned in Zion, most residents have no knowledge of the city’s founder.
Yet, in the words of religious historian Grant Wacker, Zion was an experiment in social engineering “that ranks among the largest and most grandly conceived utopian communities in modern American history.”

The architect of this brave new utopian world was Dowie. A Scot, who began his clerical career as a Congregationalist, Dowie left that body in 1878 to launch his own denomination, which, despite its purely Protestant nature, he dubbed as the Christian Catholic Apostolic Church (CCC). When Zion City was incorporated in 1902, 7,000 inhabitants made their home in the Christian utopia. Named after the mountain upon which Jerusalem was built, Zion City was to be communitarian and theocratic, a place of Christian cooperation, racial harmony, and strict fundamentalist morals.

Dowie’s Christian perspective was based on “divine healing.” He argued that sickness and infirmity were manifestations of sin and inadequate faith. Consequently, he preached a radical rejection of all conventional medical treatment in favor of prayer and clean living. He had a profound and rabid hatred for the medical profession.

Dowie’s initial claim to divinity can be traced to his life in the “land down under.” It was in Australia, 1876, when a plague had stricken Newtown, a suburb of Sydney. A resident there, John Alexander Dowie was greatly grieved by the horror of that plague.1 Dowie could not bear to see the suffering that surrounded him and he refused to do nothing. It was in this passionate state that he claimed to have had some revelation. Dowie himself writes of this revelation that,

‘The words of the Holy Ghost inspired in Acts 10: 38 stood before me all radiant with light, revealing Satan as the defiler and Christ as the Healer. My tears were wiped away, my heart was strong, I saw the way of healing, and the door thereto was opened wide, and so I said, ‘God, help me now to preach that word to all the dying ‘round, and tell them how ‘tis Satan still defiles, and Jesus still delivers, for He is just the same today.’2

Almost instantly after receiving this revelation, some men rushed into Dowie’s room requesting his assistance in prayer for a girl, Mary, who was believed by a local physician to be fast approaching her death. Believing this to be the fulfillment of the prophecy he received moments ago, Dowie rushed over to Mary’s home intent on her recovery.3 Dowie, upon reaching the girl’s room, began praying fervently for her recovery, invoking God and Prophet Jesusas. Dowie believed disease and suffering was attributed to the work of Satan. In Dowie’s mind, illness was a sign of a lack of faith. The doctor was confused and told Dowie there was nothing to be done and that the impending death of Mary was simply God’s will. Dowie refused to allow such nonsense and continued to pray.4 Throughout this period of the late 1870’s, Dowie grew in popularity as a faith healer in Australia, and soon this popularity spread to many western countries as well as Dowie’s head. It was his new mission to preach salvation and healing, which ultimately led to his moving to the United States, specifically Chicago, Illinois.5

Dowie entered the United States in the year 1888 in San Francisco where he was already known and respected. One woman described Dowie’s early preaching in the Americas as focused more on spirituality than on his healing abilities.6 In addition to this, Dowie would refuse to pray for those who were not faithful themselves.7

Gordon Gardiner provides an account of one Jennie Paddock who was one of the early Americans who was prayed for by Dowie and was healed. Gordon writes, She [Mrs. Paddock] had a large fibroid tumor in her abdomen which had grown so firmly to the blood vessels that the doctors believed an operation would prove fatal…Dr. Dowie first satisfied himself that the woman was a Christian. Then he offered prayer for her…details of her healing were published in the Chicago Inter-Ocean, one of the leading newspapers of the day.8 After this early success, the methodology of Dowie began to morph into something more egoistic and arrogant. One example of his growing arrogance was the manner by which he executed his “healing homes.” It was in May of1894 that Dowie set up one of his first healing homes in Chicago.9 The “healing homes” required that all medical supplies and drugs etc. be left and one need only bring themselves and faith in God.10 Dowie had an absolute mistrust of the medical profession, which was unfortunate. In fact, Dowie was repeatedly arrested for practicing medicine without a license.11

A number of interesting events occurred in relation to Dowie between the period of his arrival in America and the opening of Zion city. One interesting event is the healing of a cousin of Abraham Lincoln, Amanda M. Hicks. Miss. Hicks was plagued by a cancerous tumor and upon Dowie’s prayer was apparently healed. The spiritual aspect of Dowie’s healing was the requirement that one should place his or her full faith in God.12 Another interesting event was a meeting between Dowie and the then President Mckinley. Dowie had allegedly predicted the assassination of the President, which occurred some days after their meeting.13

An intensely charismatic preacher, Dowie quickly accumulated a substantial midwestern following. In 1901 he persuaded 10,000 of his congregants to settle on 6,600 acres of unoccupied land he had mortgaged at the northernmost end of Sheridan Road, now known as the City of Zion. There Dowie proposed to build a prosperous theocratic utopia free of sin, vice, class antagonism, and poverty—a veritable anti-Chicago, in other words. The shining city by the lake was conceived as a hybrid of commune and company town. Settlers would be employed in various collectively owned light industries, which included a lace factory, candy factory, print shop, lumber mill, and bakery.

To keep this hive of industry on the straight and narrow path, Dowie forbade his followers to purchase property outright. Instead, the citizens of Zion leased their homes for a generous term of 1,100 years, their tenancy subject to swift termination should they attempt to exploit it for any immoral enterprise. Expressly forbidden by the terms of the lease were saloons, tobacco shops, opium joints, theaters, opera houses, gambling dens, dance halls, circuses, brothels, and “any place for the manufacture or sale of drugs or medicines of any kind, or the office of a practicing physician.”

Dowie and his followers sought to escape what they saw as the lawlessness and sin of American society by establishing a carefully planned utopia with Dowie as “general overseer.” In the first issue of the paper he edited, The Coming City (June 27, 1900), he declared: “Zion City will be built by Theocrats. It will be run by Theocrats. It will aim to overthrow Democracy, and establish Theocracy over all the earth, and sea, and in deepest hell, even as God rules in highest heaven.”

Initially, some 25 businesses and commercial interests jump-started Zion City’s economy, providing work for the people who moved there from around the world. The Zion Department Store and the factory of Zion Lace Industries together employed as many as 3,000 workers. But by 1905, Zion’s local economy was in shambles. However, some say the fall of Zion was due to Dowie’s worldly ambitions and his declaration in 1903 that he declared himself Elijah the Restorer, messenger of the Second Coming of Christ.

The killing stroke Dowie dealt on himself was claiming to be Elijah. Dowie himself had no record of revelation such that this could have been remotely true. Those who claim themselves to be prophets or any messenger of God must have proof of constant revelation. The most interesting account of the blow dealt to Dowie and his beloved Zion City was his interaction with Hazrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, the Promised Messiahas and founder of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community. As Dowie was an enemy of all religions but his own, it is not surprising he had no use for Islam.

On February 14, 1903, he wrote in his paper: “I pray to God that Islam should soon disappear from the world. O God, accept this prayer of mine. O God, destroy Islam”. Again, on August 5, 1903, he wrote in his paper: “The black spot on the mantle of man (Islam) will meet its end at the hands of Zion”. Finally, Dowie directed this caustic remark at Ahmadas in his weekly magazine, the Leaves of Healing of December 1903: “There is a Muhammadan Messiah in India who has repeatedly written to me that Jesus Christ lies buried in Kashmir, and people ask me why I do not answer him. Do you imagine that I shall reply to such gnats and flies? If I were to put down my foot on them I would crush out their lives. I give them a chance to fly away and live.”

In the summer of 1903, this brought a well-publicized challenge to an Islamic prayer duel to the death, or Mubahila, from a small village, Qadian, on 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.”

Whether the Almighty took any interest in their contest, there is no doubt about the winner. Prior to his death, Dowie was paralyzed and suffered from dementia. His beloved city of Zion was bankrupt and eventually placed in receivership. As his life slipped away into darkness, his friends and family deserted him, and now only a faint memory remains…a memory easily forgotten. However, if it were not for the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, the memory of Dowie surely would have been long forgotten. Dowie’s life serves as a proof of the truth of Islam and the truth of Hadhrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmad (as) and nothing more.

The Truth-Seeker of June 15 1907 wrote: “The Qadian man predicted that if Dowie accepted the challenge, he would leave the world before his eyes with great sorrow and torment. If Dowie declined, the Mirza said, the end would only be deferred; death awaited him just the same and calamity would soon overtake Zion. That was the grand prophecy: Zion would fall and Dowie would die before Ahmad.”
The Herald of Boston, in its issue of June 23 1907, observed: “Dowie died a miserable death with Zion City torn and frayed by internal dissensions.”
In 1928 the popular historian Gilbert Seldes claimed that “since the time of Brigham Young there has been no phenomenon like the growth of the Christian Catholic Apostolic Church in Zion”. Seldes exaggerated, yet there is ample evidence that the town, which numbered 7,500 residents at the time Dowie was stricken, ranks among the largest and most grandly conceived utopian communities in modern American history. Even so, students of American religious history for the most part have overlooked it.

Zion City rarely is mentioned in the standard surveys of the field, and even in monographs dealing with early Pentecostalism, where it ought to loom large, the settlement usually receives only brief and grudging attention. The second and larger aim of the essay is to suggest that the impulses that ultimately undergirded the community cannot be translated readily into theories of social disorganization, cultural deprivation, or personal maladjustment.

All of these factors were undeniably present, but they do not explain plausibly the abrupt emergence, nor even the long, drawn-out demise, of the endeavor. Succintly stated, no part of the story of Zion City makes much sense unless one appreciates the central and irreducible role of religious motivations.14

It was 10 years ago that Bob “Uncle Bobby” Collins’ plane took a flight that sadly crashed into a medical facility that could never have existed in Dowie’s Zion. The hospital’s staff is comprised of more than 100 physicians; many have practices in the Zion community. The hospital is now Zion’s largest employer and provides medical care to cancer patients from around the world. It is located directly across the street from Dowie’s 25-room mansion, “The Shiloh House,” a museum filled with Dowie artifacts.

Regarding his fateful encounter with Hazrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmadas, there are no historical records, according to the Zion Historical Society, despite the fact that more than 25 American newspapers followed the story until Dowie’s death, March 9, 1907. Ahmadas died one year later. His legacy continues in Zion through the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community Mission House, 2103 Gabriel Avenue.

Hasan Hakeem is the President of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, Zion and is also a Chaplain at the Kenosha County Correctional Facility, Wisconsin. Aasim Ahmad is a Senior at Lake Forest College.


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