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Dowie, John Alexander (1847–1907)

by H. J. Gibbney

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 4, (MUP), 1972

John Alexander Dowie (1847-1907), faith healer, was born on 25 May 1847 in Edinburgh, son of John Dowie, breechesmaker, and his wife Ann Macfarlan. His childhood was marked by poverty, sickness and precocious piety; in 1860 the family migrated to Adelaide where he was employed by an uncle and then in a wholesale grocery firm where he became junior partner. At 20 he forsook business to study for the Congregational ministry in Adelaide and Scotland and on 21 May 1872 was ordained to the pastorate of Alma and Hamley Bridge in South Australia.

His resignation nine months later was due, he said, to ill health; others said that he had quarrelled with his congregation. He was called in September 1873 to Manly, New South Wales, and in February 1875 to Newtown. In 1876 he visited Adelaide and married his cousin Jane on 26 May. Although eloquent, Dowie was now markedly eccentric and in February 1878 he announced his resignation, holding up a glass of wine in the pulpit and crying, 'these be thy gods, O Israel'. He then conducted a mission in theatres and halls while his abusive tracts and sermons were ridiculed by the irreverent Sydney press.

In 1880 a confidence man borrowed money from Dowie by promising to donate £21,000 for a church. Dowie publicized the proposed gift widely and left for Adelaide to wait his benefactor's return from Europe but was disappointed to learn of his death. Five years later he recognized the 'deceased' in Melbourne and prosecuted him. In Adelaide Dowie became involved with the Salvation Army and won publicity by his legal action against the commissioner of police for obstructing the Army's work.

In November 1881 at Melbourne Dowie joined battle with Thomas Walker, a leading Spiritualist, and published a pamphlet on their controversy. He intended to return to Sydney but in May 1882 was invited to the Sackville Street Tabernacle, Collingwood. His authoritarian rule soon bred revolt; his story of it was recorded in Sin in The Camp. On 15 February 1883 he led a breakaway group to form a new tabernacle in Johnston Street, Fitzroy. In disputes over ownership the opposition barricaded themselves in the tabernacle; Dowie led his followers against them and was charged with organizing unauthorized processions. He insisted that he must obey the law of God rather than of man but then declared that if the court wanted its pound of flesh, he had fourteen stone (89 kg) to offer. He was gaoled for a month and fined for a second offence; when his sentence expired he refused to pay the fine and was gaoled again for seven days. Many liberals supported him and he was soon released. Dowie had already turned to faith healing and after a mission to New Zealand he left for the United States in June 1888. After two years in San Francisco he went to Chicago where by 1895 he was so notorious that a hundred charges were laid against him, although none succeeded.

On 22 February 1896 Dowie became general overseer of the Christian Catholic Church and in 1900 established Zion City, forty miles (64 km) from Chicago. 'The new Elijah' owned all property there and leaseholders were prohibited from smoking, drinking, eating pork and establishing theatres, dance halls, doctors' surgeries and secret lodges. After trying in vain to convert New York in 1903 he launched a mission to the world in 1904. His visit to Dublin is mentioned in James Joyce's Ulysses but in Australia every appearance was marked by near riots stimulated partly by his blue, white, yellow and purple surplice and partly by the overbearing conduct of his train of Zion City guards. His increasingly luxurious way of life began to scandalize some of his supporters. He visited Mexico to set up a plantation and after a stroke on 24 September 1905 went to Jamaica. In his absence he was deposed on 20 April 1906 by Wilbur G. Voliva, his chief lieutenant. The ensuing litigation dragged on until he died at Zion City on 9 March 1907.

Dowie's success sprang mainly from his Biblical knowledge, personality and talent for showmanship. Whether he was mentally unbalanced or a cunning charlatan remains an open question. According to one commentator, 'there was a force in him whose tremors were felt at the ends of the earth. He had a wonderful faculty of persuasion … If he didn't impose on himself, he imposed himself on others. The instinct of accumulation was active and enterprising in him: he might have been a great financier and capitalist. He had a singularly copious repertoire of abusive epithets and his self opinionativeness combined with his inordinate pugnacity made him a reckless and somewhat dangerous antagonist'.

Select Bibliography

  • E. S. Kiek, An Apostle in Australia (Lond, 1927)
  • Bulletin, 10 Apr 1880, 25 June, 2, 30 July, 6 Aug 1881, 22 July, 2 Dec 1882
  • Argus (Melbourne), 5 May–26 June 1885, 9 Jan 1886
  • Table Talk, 27 Feb 1902
  • Australasian, 20 Feb 1904
  • J. H. Watson scrapbook, vol 1 (State Library of New South Wales)
  • F. W. Cox diaries (Congregational Union Archives, Parkin College, Adelaide).

Citation details

H. J. Gibbney, 'Dowie, John Alexander (1847–1907)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/dowie-john-alexander-3434/text5229, published in hardcopy 1972, accessed online 20 October 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 4, (MUP), 1972

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