It is the 9th of March 2021. Welcome to the Christian History Almanac brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org. I'm Dan van Voorhis.
The year was 1907.
The late 19th and early 20th centuries were wild and wooly times on many frontiers. New thoughts, new land, and new technical developments put much of the western world into a mental spin cycle which only halted for the Great War in 1914.
Theologically these "new thoughts" often centered on the fulfillment of God's earthly plan to both evangelize the whole world and through it inaugurate the kingdom of God on earth. This would give rise to new religious movements, sectarianism, and new eschatology, that is, the doctrine of the last things.
The "new land" was not only the ports in the far east, the Indian subcontinent, and islands in the Pacific but also the newly settled Australia and the "wild west" in America.
The new technological developments included faster travel and communication, more efficient and sanitized medical procedures, previously unknown vanities, and the rise of particular popular consumer culture.
In this show, we have often highlighted those curious characters who mix their faith and the spirit of the age in such a way to become enormous celebrities. The philosophical and theological individualism of the Renaissance and Reformation was morphing into an amorphous western love of celebrity. From Charles Taze Russell to Mary Baker Eddy, John Smith, William Miller, we know of those figures whose traditions have outlived them. Today we remember an eccentric faith healer and utopian. If you don't know his name, pull up a chair. John Alexander Dowie, the General Overseer of the Christian Catholic Apostolic Church, died on the 9th of March in 1907. New thought, new land, and new technology would set the stage for his supernova-like existence on the church's radar.
Dowie was born in Scotland in 1847 in Edinburgh into a lower-middle-class family. Like many in their socio-economic status, the family moved to Australia to strike out a new path in a more favorable climate. Here John became interested in theology and was sent back home to study for the ministry. After a few turbulent years of studying, he was ordained and returned to Australia as a congregationalist. But soon left the established ministry for one of itinerant preaching and healing services. Authorities soon started questioning his claims, his authoritarian manner, and his growing financial trouble. Just around this time, a mysterious fire burned down Dowie's church. He collected the insurance, paid off his debts, and jumped a freighter to the West Coast of the United States.
In 1888, Dowie arrived in San Francisco and found that his brand of an independent preacher and faith healer attracted a kind of American roughneck. Seeking an even bigger audience, Dowie and his growing band of followers moved to Chicago in 1890. This was on account of the Chicago's World Fair in 1893. Amongst those who came to see Dowie's brand of theatrical Christianity was the daughter of Buffalo Bill Cody. The wildly popular western show was across the street from Dowie's church. The increased visibility led to investigations from the city who claimed that his "healing houses," as he called them, were, in fact, illegitimate hospitals on account of what he claimed he was doing, things like physically removing tumors from people using sleight-of-hand techniques.
As the heat was closing in, Dowie decided to take his congregation to New York to evangelize the city. While this utopian plan was a failure, it led to creating a smaller utopia, Zion, just north of Chicago. Here Dowie taught that this "clean city for clean people" would allow Christians to live a sinless life in anticipation of the second coming. In the meantime, Dowie spent his years embezzling from the Zion Bank traveling and proclaiming himself the new Elijah. Dowie went to Mexico in 1905 to scout a location for a new Zion community. By this time, those back in Zion, Illinois, had enough of the embezzling and eccentric preacher. They deposed him while he was away. Dowie returned to Illinois to contest the charges but was weakened by a stroke. The eccentric Scottish utopian in America by way of Australia was at the end of the line. John Alexander Dowie died, with only a few people left around him, on the 9th of March in 1907.
Fun fact: John Alexander Dowie appears in James Joyce's Ulysses along with another eccentric favorite of this show: Valentine Greatrakes.
The reading for today comes from Lucille Clifton. It may or may not feel like Spring yet where you are listening, but this is a poem entitled "Spring Song," a reflection on the season and the promise of Jesus.
the green of Jesus
is breaking the ground
and the sweet
smell of delicious Jesus
is opening the house and
the dance of Jesus music
has hold of the air and
the world is turning
in the body of Jesus and
the future is possible
This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 9th of March 2021 brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org. The show is produced by my favorite Utopian faith healer, Christopher Gillespie. The show is written and read by Dan van Voorhis. You can catch us here every day. And remember that the rumors of grace, forgiveness, and the redemption of all things are true. Everything is going to be ok.