From the uttermost part of the earth have we heard songs… –Isaiah 24:16
A dot on the map midway between Waukegan and Kenosha, the lakeside Illinois town of Zion doesn’t make the news much these days, but throughout the first third of the 20th century it was nationally famous–“notorious” may be a better word. Zion’s celebrity peaked between 1923 and 1928, when the town was home to WCBD, one of the most popular radio stations in the pioneering age of American broadcasting.
Note, please, we’re not talking about the Golden Age of Radio here. Forget about Jack Benny, Walter Winchell, the Shadow, the Lone Ranger, and cornball soap opera dialogue punctuated by swelling organ chords. All that came later, in the 30s and 40s. The 20s were a separate era: call it the “bronze age of radio.” The medium was entirely new, without ratings, rules, or an FCC. Everything that went out on the air was an experiment of sorts.
Such were the open-ended circumstances that enabled little Zion, population 6,250, to capture one of the largest listening audiences of the day with homegrown programming that combined faith healing, classical music, sentimental Victorian parlor ballads, fire-and-brimstone fundamentalist preaching, and zealous advocacy of the notion that the earth is flat.
The seeds of Zion’s brief season as a mass media capital were sown at the time of the town’s creation. Incorporated in 1902, Zion was a prime example of what the neohippie set would term an “intentional community.” 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 world was the Reverend John Alexander 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 the Christian Catholic Apostolic Church (CCC for short). Doctrinally, this start-up faith was distinguished from the competition by Dowie’s ideas about “divine healing.” According to revelations given to Dowie by God, 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. That meant no tobacco or booze, and strict adherence to the pork- and shellfish-free diet prescribed in Leviticus.
For a time Dowie plied the trade of an itinerant revivalist, spreading his take on the word of God throughout the English-speaking colonies of the Pacific Rim and building a sizable international following. In the late 1880s, however, mob violence precipitated by Dowie’s radical temperance agitations in Australia led to a short stretch in an Adelaide penitentiary. Upon his release in 1890, Dowie moved his base of operations to Evanston, a bone-dry bastion of the American temperance movement.
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. 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.”
A forward thinker on many questions, Dowie possessed a Jules Verne-like understanding of what the future of communications technologies held in store for evangelists like himself. In 1904, for example, 16 years before radio broadcasting began in earnest, he was already making uncanny prophecies about television. “I know not the possibilities of electricity,” Dowie instructed his flock in the course of a Sunday sermon preserved for posterity in the pages of Zion’s weekly magazine, Leaves of Healing. “It is possible that it may yet convey the face of the speaker, and by photoelectricity, show the man as he is talking. Perhaps a discourse delivered here may be heard in every city of the United States. Some day that will be so and the word spoken in Zion will be heard even in the farthest corners of the earth!”
Not content to dream of the evangelical tools of tomorrow, Dowie pushed restlessly at the limits of the technology available to him, as if trying to realize the future in the present through sheer force of will. A 1902 magazine profile of Dowie’s innovative ministry gives the impression of a fully formed televangelist anachronistically stranded in the horse-and-buggy era. “He possesses,” marveled the author of the piece, “a clock stamping-machine. When he receives a request for prayer for the sick, he puts it in this machine, and stamps it, for example, ‘Prayed May 10, 3 P.M. John A. Dowie.’ If the patient gets better about that time, he has a record to show what did it. When he receives a request from a man, say, in Boston to pray for a sick wife, he calls up the husband, or, better yet, the wife, on the long-distance telephone, and prays before the receiver, in order that the effect of his words may be felt. In his spare moments he preaches and prays into a phonograph, reproduces the records by a new invention he has recently secured, and advertises that his followers in far-off Australia may now hear his voice conducting services, at so much a service to defray the cost of making the record and forwarding it. He controls a well-known photographer, and has had a lens made large enough for life-size portraits, and has such a picture of himself. In addition, he has a photograph of himself for every time he turns about, and puts one on every periodical or pamphlet that he sends out.”
To a man like Dowie, a radio station would have been as cream to a cat. Alas, God had other plans for his faithful servant, and chose instead to stick Dowie with the same bum deal He gave Moses–an advance glance at the promised land and then curtains. Except that Moses was at least permitted to keep all his marbles, whereas Dowie’s mind began to wobble badly just as the Zion experiment was getting off the ground. Around 1903, Dowie cast off the identity he’d been issued at birth and declared himself Elijah the Restorer, messenger of the Second Coming of Christ. Settling into his new persona, Dowie was soon swanning about the globe in an Old Testament prophet costume of his own design, replete with elevated patriarchal headgear, jeweled breastplates, and an ornately carved shepherd’s crook. At about the same time, he began endangering an otherwise promising experiment in Christian industrial socialism by borrowing against Zion’s assets to leverage an even more ambitious utopian initiative: the “Zion Paradise Plantations,” a million-acre agricultural commune he proposed to establish in Mexico.
Panicked by Dowie’s increasing instability and by the fact that nearly half of Zion’s original labor force had already abandoned the city, in 1906 the town’s leading citizen-investors summoned Dowie’s second in command, the Reverend Wilbur Glenn Voliva, back from missionary work in Australia. After taking one look at the books and another at Dowie decked out in his Cecil B. De Mille drag, Voliva staged an ecclesiastical coup, usurping Dowie’s position as “General Overseer in Zion.” The following year Dowie, now in an advanced state of dementia, died.
Author: Cliff Doerksen