(A brief summary of the historical dynamics that shaped the vitriolic and divisive rhetoric of
Dr. John Alexander Dowie)
The Age of Enlightenment witnessed an intellectual backlash against the authority of the Church, as well as some of its fundamental doctrines. French philosophers such as Voltaire and Diderot inspired other eighteenth century intellectuals and leaders, such as Thomas Paine, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, to place their confidence almost entirely in the power of reason, and to use that reason to reexamine, and often sharply criticize, the doctrines of religion, more particularly, in their case, the doctrines of Christianity.
Some religious thinkers of today have traced the roots of today’s moral crisis in America directly to the seminal works written by Age of Enlightenment philosophers (such as the book, The Age of Reason, by Thomas Paine), claiming that the idea they championed?that human beings were wholly capable of solving their problems solely through the application of the faculty of reason?eventually removed religion/spirituality from consideration as a viable part of daily life in America. In short, they believe that the Age of Enlightenment all but destroyed the role of religion in guiding human beings in their daily lives, particularly in the area of morality, and this despite the fact that many Americans today claim to believe in religion.
An example of the distrust of religion, particularly Christianity, that was held by Age of Enlightenment philosophers can be seen from the following quote from Thomas Paine’s, The Age of Reason:
“When we see the studied craft of the scripture-makers, in making every part of this romantic book of school-boy’s eloquence bend to the monstrous idea of a Son of God, begotten by a ghost on the body of a virgin, there is no imposition we are not justified in suspecting them of. Every phase and circumstance are marked by the barbarous hand of superstitious torture, and forced into meanings it was impossible they could have. The head of every chapter, the top of every page, are blazoned with the names of Christ and the Church, that the unwary reader might suck in the error before he began to read.” (Thomas Paine, The Age of Reason, Little Blue Book No. 4, Haldeman-Julius Publications, Girard, Kansas, p. 43)
Well, whether or not the rationalist philosophies developed during the Age of Enlightenment can be held directly responsible for today’s moral decay, it is a fact that the Age of Enlightenment created a positive atmosphere of tolerance that impacted upon the practitioners of Christianity. Religious and ethnic prejudices were held in check, or at least at a tolerable level, due to this spirit of toleration created in part by the Age of Enlightenment. In 1776 there were approximately two thousand Jews living in the colonies, and an example of how this air of tolerance directly impacted American citizens, particularly the Jews, can be seen in the Fourth of July parade that was held in Philadelphia in the year 1788.
During that parade, the Protestants went out of their way to display tolerance to the Jews. For instance, they created separate tables with special foods that the Jews could eat without fear of violating any of their dietary laws. Benjamin Rush, a highly esteemed physician of the time, noted that great care also
“was taken to connect Ministers of the most dissimilar religious principles together, thereby to show the influence of a free government in promoting Christian charity. The Rabbi of the Jews, locked in the arms of two ministers of the gospel, was a most delightful sight. There could not have been a more happy emblem contrived, which opens all its power and offices alike, not only to every sect of Christians, but to worthy men of every religion.” (Benjamin Rush, cited in Morton Borden, Jews, Turks, and Infidels, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1984, p. 5)
Unfortunately, in America, a dynamic struggle was constantly taking place between this idea of religious tolerance on the one hand, and apocalyptic notions, on the other hand, that involved the Christian religious doctrines that had developed surrounding the idea of the Antichrist. The Antichrist was constantly being redefined by the Protestant religious leaders of the new and struggling Christian religious communities of America. The identity of the antichrist varied depending upon the particular need of the religious communities at the time.
In the beginning, in the minds of these Protestant religious colonists, the Antichrist was none other than the Catholic Church (called “Romanism” at the time). This identity of the Catholic Church as the Antichrist had become formalized in Europe by the Protestant reformer, Martin Luther, who directly referred to the Church of Rome (another name for the Catholic Church) as the Antichrist.
[The idea of the antichrist in Christianity comes from the Johanine epistles:
“Children, it is the last hour; and as you have heard that Antichrist is coming, so now many Antichrists have come; therefore we know that it is the last hour.” (1 John, 2:18)]
When the Puritans came to America, the identity of the Antichrist as the Church of Rome continued, and the Puritans saw themselves as setting the stage for creating a new “true” religion, totally devoid of the influences of the Church of Rome. In fact, they came to America in part to escape what they perceived as the Church of England’s unwillingness to divest itself of some of the ritualism that, although it had officially disconnected itself from the Church of Rome, it continued to incorporate within its religious practices. But the Puritans wanted not only a new true religion, but also the actual creation of a Christian paradise on earth?a new Zion?created in preparation of the Second Coming of Jesus Christ.
Now, although, as I stated before, the identity of the Antichrist often shifted throughout American history?even up to today?to include the Native Americans, immigrants, the Church of Rome, etc, there are two particular religious groups that have always maintained their unenviable positions as antichrists in the minds of many Protestants: the Catholic Church and the religion of Islam.
It is upon this background that we can understand the religious, social and cultural forces that shaped the views and rhetoric of one of the most vitriolic and divisive American religious leaders of all time?Dr. John Alexander Dowie, founder of the city of Zion, Illinois.
On August 11-12, 2000, at Carthage College in Kenosha, Wisconsin, an Interfaith Symposium entitled, “Messiah 2000” is being held. When the reader attends this symposium, he or she should keep in mind the historical background that I have presented in this article. Dr. John Alexander Dowie, most unfortunately, carried on the American tradition of “naming the antichrist,” in his vitriolic attacks against the religion of Islam. This tradition is in great part responsible for shaping the rhetoric that justified the genocide committed against Native Americans (See, “Naming the Antichrist,” by Robert C. Fuller).
Let us hope that this symposium will set the stage for a new era of religious tolerance in America. For, when you learn of the circumstances surrounding the sorrowful downfall and eventual demise of Dr. John Alexander Dowie, it will be crystal clear that it is the desire of God Almighty Himself that our great nation, the United States of America, become a perfect example of religious freedom and religious tolerance.
Abubakr Ben Ishmael Salahuddin