John Alexander Dowie: The Flawed Dreamer and Servant of God

Updated on December 28, 2018

John Alexander Dowie

Life and Times of John Alexander Dowie

John Alexander Dowie was one of the most colorful and effective Christian men of God in the 19th century. His vision and gifted organizational skills allowed him to not only dream big, but to put numerous plans into action.

Unfortunately, in the latter part of his life about the time of the turn of the century, he lapsed into the error of self-exaltation, which has been the primary focus of his legacy, rather than his extraordinary accomplishments.

Among some of the things Dowie accomplished were the restoration of physical healing to the church in general, and in some cases, world at large. He had the vision of starting a city near Chicago, and once that was operational, to build other cities in America and around the world, culminating with a final city build in or near Jerusalem; he considered buying the entire city of Jerusalem to prepare it for the return of Jesus. Bear in mind this was long before Israel once again became a nation, as Dowie died in 1907.

Along with launching the Zion Tabernacle in downtown Chicago in 1984, he also founded the Christian Catholic Church in Zion in 1896.

These were just a few of the major accomplishments of his life. There were many more significant evangelistic campaigns and strategies he employed in various parts of the world.

He was so resisted and persecuted in his lifetime, that in 1895 alone he said he was arrested more than 100 times. Amazingly, it never seemed to get him down for any prolonged period of time.

Dowie was very influential in the lives of people, and had the gift of developing a vision and getting people involved in making it a reality. While his opponents at the time attempted to paint him as somewhat uneducated and the leader of unintelligent and lower types of people, in fact he was extremely intelligent, as his own writings testify to. And the people that followed and implemented his vision were more than capable, as their exploits confirm.

Finally, he eventually put out a weekly publication called Leaves of Healing, a news-focused nightly named The Coming City (later changed to the Zion Banner), and a monthly magazine focused on theology called " A Voice from Zion.

Taking Care of the Elephant in the Room

As mentioned above, one of the tragedies of Dowie's life was the fact that in the latter part of his life he entered into pride and self-exaltation, which has become the defining explanation and criticism of his life and his work.

This is tragic in that Dowie had enormous vision, gifts, desire for obedience to God's commands, and for most of his life went on the offensive against God's enemies. He also wasn't afraid to take a verbal poke at those Christians he considered to be false or walking in error.

Since he was in many ways a person that gave birth to various aspects of the Christian life that hadn't been seen in centuries, and in the case of building Zion City, probably the first attempt to do it from a theocratic point of view.

There have been other cities built by Christians, such as Bethlehem, PA, but that was for different reasons than Dowie had.

Since he literally had no peers in regard to his specific work, it left what I consider to be a lack of accountability that probably led to some of his conclusions and eccentricities concerning his evaluation of himself. In a nutshell, he ended his last few years in a whirlwind of pride that reduced his influence and probably led to a debilitating stroke that eventually ended his life.

While he was in a state of pride, some that knew him or diligently researched his life, believe his overworking could had led to a mental and physical breakdown, and possibly the persecutions he went through may have led to mental illness or paranoia. I don't think he experienced mental illness from that because of how strong he was in the Lord, but if the body and mind break down, it could make even the strongest person vulnerable to a mental collapse.

Along with the heavy persecution Dowie experienced, his daughter died, he reportedly started to have marriage problems, and seemingly may have lost his focus on his ministry of healing. Some think he abandoned his healing calling to build up Zion and other projects. I'm not one of them. I believe he did see something important that needed to be done, but he appears to have been unwilling to let go of control and allow others to shoulder the administrative burden.

All of that led to his most disastrous conclusion in regard to himself and his position in the kingdom of God, and that was that he proclaimed himself to be the third and final manifestation of Elijah, calling himself Elijah the Restorer. The first Elijah was of course Elijah himself, and the last was John the Baptist.

Why an intelligent man would risk his legacy and life's work to declare this is puzzling, but I think it may have been a way for him to further cement his authority with his followers. Or if he had suffered a form of mental illness or breakdown, he may have actually really believed this is who and what he was.

I sometimes wonder if he suffered a series of mini strokes in his latter years, leading up to the major stroke he suffered. If so, combined with the stress he had been under from overworking, he may have lost full capacity to think clearly.

Later on he added another title to himself, demanding people identify him as First Apostle. Whatever the reasoning behind these decisions and declarations, it has overshadowed the amazing projects and accomplishments of one of the more colorful, efficient, and interesting Christians of the latter 19th and early 20th centuries.

It's a shame that so many of his detractors and those that wanted to take over as leaders of what he built, focused so heavily on his faults near the end of his life, rather than what he did up until the last several years he was alive.

How he did it provides some great examples and ideas of things related to the kingdom of God that could be built in our generation, and generations to come.

So taking into account he went off the deep end in the latter part of his life, it's definitely valuable to look at his accomplishments before that, including some of the major projects he initiated and the operational excellence employed to make them a reality.

It's also of value to take into account his reasoning behind many of his projects.

What Drove Dowie

Because of the interest in and sometimes, sensationalism associated with people getting healed, it overshadowed much of what drove Dowie to do what he did. While healing provided him with a large public platform, it was how he leveraged that platform that made him what he was and expanded his influence.

To understand what drove Dowie, one has to go back to the time he was living in and ministering in Australia. There came a time when he saw the need to righteously influence the laws of Australia. Consequently, he contemplated running for political office.

Here's what he said in 'The Personal Letters of John Alexander Dowie':

"Our care must be to take advantage of the present position to do our part to promote righteousness in our Government and laws, for triumphant iniquity everywhere opposes the spread of the Gospel and sows future harvests of awful sin and sorrow." (P. 226)

He added that if "Paul could be a tent maker and an apostle, I can surely be a law maker and a minister."

On P. 225 of the same book, he explained the why of it.

"I see clearly that unless I can carry my principles into practical effect in our legislation, I shall only be beating the air for the most part, as so many are doing, and I believe that my ministry in this city must carry me into the legislature ere I can fulfill it."

What Dowie was getting at there was it was extremely difficult for individuals to experience salvation and grow in their faith when the surrounding environment allows for various establishments to provide temptations to everyone. That's what he meant above by "beating the air."

Dowie saw the need for the laws of the land to reflect the righteousness of God, and that, combined with faith in Jesus Christ, would grow and expand the kingdom of God on earth.

All of this is important to understand concerning Dowie, because it was the impetus behind his vision of building a Christian city from scratch, and eventually building many more until he finally landed in Jerusalem to build that into a Christian city in anticipation of the return of Jesus Christ.

I think what he decided was it was premature to significantly influence the laws of any nation with the laws and commands of God, so building a city with those laws inherent in its life and culture would be even better in his view.

That's my own conclusion from reading much of his work and by the actions he took in regard to Zion. After all, why build the city in the first place if the laws of God were included in the laws of the nation? In a sense, he was building a nation within a nation, or his view and idea of Christian civilization as he thought it should be as reflected in a city committed to representing the kingdom of God on earth.

Dowie After His Elijah Declaration

Building Zion

The practical steps taken by Dowie to buy the land to build his dream city of Zion - initially called Zion City, were very effective.

First, it has to be understood that Dowie was one of the most hated and persecuted Christians in America at the time, and possibly one of the most persecuted in the history of the country. The press hated him, as did government leaders, and even some Christian "leaders" who he called out for their sin.

In Chicago, where he had been working for some time, he declared a Holy War against the city, which of course attracted an enormous amount of press coverage. In the meantime, someone had reportedly been buying up large portions of land north of the city, with the assumption being it was a large corporation.

With the focus so much on Dowie's Holy War, no one in the press took note of a man dressed as a tramp traveling around from farm to farm. That man was of course, Dowie.

It appears Dowie declared the Holy War, with at least part of the purpose being to put the attention on what was happening in Chicago, in order to keep the press from investigating what was happening with the acquisition of the farms.

Again, the press was aware of farms being acquired, it just didn't interest them near as much as the war between Dowie and his followers, and the sins of Chicago.

A major reason that's important is because if people had learned what was going on, the farmers would have without a doubt increased the price of the farms they were selling, making it harder, if not impossible, for Dowie to get the amount of land needed for the project.

To get an idea of what a distraction the Holy War was with the press, think in terms of when the Drudge Report broke the Bill Clinton scandal with Monica Lewinsky. Millions of eyes were glued to the Drudge Report daily to get the latest breaking news on the subject. Dowie had as much, if not more, attraction to the press as Clinton did.

Think of Drudge taking time away from that story to report on major farm acquisitions. It was never going to happen. As for Dowie, when he was buying up the land, his disguise was for the purpose of doing research and making decisions on what farms to buy. The person making the purchases on his behalf was an agent he hired, which had been sworn to secrecy. The end goal as to the size of the land to be acquired was about ten square miles. Eventually over 6,000 acres was acquired or secured by option.

Part of Dowie's idea of his dream city was one that didn't allow brothels, liquor, tobacco, drugs, dance halls, swine’s flesh or theaters, among other things that were forbidden.

Concerning the land itself, the unique provision of allowing it to only be leased for a period of 1,100 years was put in place; it wasn't allowed to be sold.

Readers need to know that the idea of the city wasn't new, as Dowie had spoken of it a number of times. It was the location and timing that his followers didn't know about. He revealed it to them on New Year's Eve, 1900. It was to be located about fourty miles north of Chicago on Lake Michigan, near the Wisconsin border.

John Alexander Dowie: A Life Story Of Trials, Tragedies And Triumphs (P. 126)

When Dowie talked of the city, he reportedly said this to those that would reside there and take up the vision:

"Other Zion cities would be built near all the other great cities of the world until, at Jerusalem, their work should be crowned by the city of Jesus the Great King, with Whom they should reign over a world from which all evil, all sickness, all poverty, and all unhappiness should be purged."

'John Alexander Dowie: A Life Story Of Trials, Tragedies And Triumphs' (P. 126).

After the unveiling of the location, the year 1900 was spent building the infrastructure of the city in preparation for its eager inhabitants.

Knowing the city would need industry to employ many of the people living there, among other things, Dowie imported a lace factory from Great Britain, including all the personnel that had been working there. It actually did very well. It was the first of its kind in America, essentially introducing an entirely new industry into the country.

As for the end goal in regard to population, Dowie said the size of the land could hold as many as 200,000 inhabitants. Not long after it was opened for settlement, about 7,500 people lived in the city.

Dowie's Disastrous Declarations

A couple of things probably contributed to the downfall of John Alexander Dowie, and both related to extraordinary strengths he had in the area of developing a powerful vision, and second, his organizational capabilities that brought numerous projects into fruition.

The problem he faced was that building a city was far different than anything he had done before, and what served him well in the past couldn't be applied at the level of minutia that was part of the daily lives of thousands of people.

Dowie inaccurately assessed his own abilities, and consequently took far too much responsibility for every area of life in the city, not encouraging businessman and elders to bear the burden. Even Moses quickly found out he couldn't judge Israel on his own.

So when Dowie revealed to the people that the town would be administered almost solely by him, a number of those that were experienced in temporal affairs were concerned. Dowie was not only going to take care of the major aspects of the city, but said he was going to take control of the small details of the operation as well.

This wasn't considered a power play by Dowie, as the people trusted him. The issue at hand was it was apparent to some that it would be impossible for Dowie to do what he stated he was going to do, even with his enormous skills.

Another obvious issue to me was how would Dowie effectively run the city if he had plans in place to build many other cities as well? It doesn't seem he thought this through very carefully, or had taken his eyes off the larger vision and focused primarily on Zion City, as it was initially named.

That was unfortunate because the Apostles turned over the practical administration of the Grecian widows to deacons appointed by the people for that reason. They refused to abandon their core purpose and ministry for areas they weren't meant to serve in. This is division of labor, something we see throughout the Bible.

As for the exercise of authority and power, Dowie declared that “Zion is to be a theocracy, not a democracy.” In other words, it's not going to be ran the same way other cities were.

I don't have any problem with that idea in general, but Dowie really meant he wasn't going to allow anyone else to make decisions concerning the direction of Zion City. My conclusion is this is probably what led to his worst decision and self-deception, which was to announce he was the third Elijah.

Not only that, but around the same time he made that announcement, he added that it had been revealed to him that he was the "fulfillment of the prophecy of Moses in Deut. 18:18-19, which says, 'I will raise them up a prophet from among their brethren, like unto thee, and will put my words in his mouth; and he shall speak unto them all that I shall command him.' This was a huge error because it was obvious that this refers to the Lord Jesus Christ when He was to come in the future.

Finally, Dowie claimed it had been revealed to him that he was the Messenger of the Covenant as prophesied in Malachi 3:13. Again, almost all teachers or commentators on the Bible agree this is a reference to Jesus Christ.

Taken together, Dowie outrageously asserted he was Elijah, the Restorer, the Prophet foretold by Moses, and the Messenger of the Covenant. Many of his most ardent supporters believed he had become a victim of paranoiac delusions. Those who knew him believed it came from his heavy schedule, where at times he wouldn't sleep for almost two days at a time.

That said, those that knew him asserted he was very clear in thinking to the end, although that doesn't mean he hadn't entered into a stage of paranoia. Some of his decisions on leadership of the city seem to suggest that may have been the case since the beginning of the building of Zion.

There's been a lot of conjecture and different ideas as to why Dowie made these declarations. Either he started to believe his own press, or he in fact had some type of breakdown that made him lose sight of some aspects of reality. In other words, he either entered into a prideful state of self-exaltation, or self-deception. Either way, it destroyed his legacy.

Why it Matters

The major reason I see for the life of Dowie being researched is because of what he accomplished before 1900, or slightly afterwards with Zion starting to be built.

The breadth of his vision, his faith in Jesus, his restoration of physical healing, and his ability to juggle operations efficiently, were traits he had at a very high level. If he hadn't made his declarations, I believe he may have been considered one of the great Christians of all time, as far as what he accomplished on the earth.

As it is, he's still a significant historical force that shouldn't be ignored. We can all learn from his victories as well as his errors, taking into account even the most successful man can be led astray if he doesn't watch over himself and have at least some peers that will give him honest feedback.

Dowie was able to correctly identify the real issues and take unique steps to combat and solve the problems. That is something we need far more of from Christian leaders of our day. Dowie also wasn't afraid to go against the powers and sin of his day, and was persecuted almost beyond belief.

Conclusion

John Alexander Dowie has been an historical anomaly. While some have followed in his footsteps in relationship to physical healing and building some interesting projects, such as Christian universities and TV stations and ministries, no one has come close to embracing the vision he had, and which he believed he would be able to bring into being.

Again, if he had lived only until a little after Zion started to be built, he would have went down in history, in my opinion, as one of the most important Christian men that ever lived.

Also, if he hadn't made the declarations of his being the fulfillment of specific Bible verses, he may have went on to build Christian cities across America and the world, which would have changed the course of history.

Nonetheless, there is the fact that he did build a city called Zion, that will almost certainly remain until the return of Jesus Christ. How many people can say they accomplished something like that? And that was only a small part of what he wanted to do.

There is a lot more to the story of Dowie, and if this article interested you, I recommend getting this inexpensive, five-book set that goes into much more detail of his early life, the many skills he had, and what he did beyond what this small article talks about.

His life story offers a lot of insight for people of today, and taking into account his obvious failures near the end of his life, he offers enormous wisdom and vision that should inspire many people to try great things for God while maintaining a humble view of playing only a small part in God's great plan for this age.

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