Published Humanitas, Volume XXII, Nos. 1 and 2, 2009

In the fall of 1899 itinerant preacher and faith-healer John Alexander Dowie purchased 6,600 acres of land along the shores of Lake Michigan just north of Chicago. Placing the church at the center of a city configured to look like the Union Jack, Dowie established a community based upon the rule of God through His representative leader. Dowie wanted to create a community that would guarantee employment and “health-care” (usually administered via Dowie’s healing touch) to all its citizens so long as those citizens were born-again Christians, a requirement also for everyone with whom they did business. Because of his elect status and thaumaturgic powers, Dowie’s rule over the city included dictating to all citizens everything from how they should vote in presidential elections to whom they should marry. Rather than granting clear titles to purchasers of land in the city, Dowie provided 1,100 year leases (100 years to the return of Christ, plus another 1,000 for the subsequent millennium) that Dowie could revoke at any time if he saw fit to do so. Dowie had believed the kingdom of God was now present, but began to succumb to the temptations frequently attendant to the belief that one has ushered in a new age, including a laying-on-of-hands that became increasingly amorous. By 1903, in part because of Dowie’s refusal to have business dealings with anyone who was not a member of the elect, the economy of the community began to deteriorate. After two to three years of initial prosperity many residents of Dowie’s city, having donated all of their resources to Dowie’s church, became dependent on state-administered charity. By 1906 the theocracy of Zion, Illinois, had crumbled.

The city of Zion plays a powerful metaphorical role in JudeoChristian history, for it is the realm of perfection (Psalm 50:2) and the place where all live in perfect obedience to the perfect law, where “nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more” (Isaiah 2:4). Zion operates as a metaphor of the relationship between God’s chosen people and the surrounding world. It can be the place to which all nations come, or it can be the city that, though separate from the world, radiates its law. In the former instance, Zion keeps to itself while waiting for the world to see the wisdom of its ways. In the latter case, Zion seeks to expand its law of perfection to the surrounding world. At its core, the emphasis on communal perfection seeks to quell the religious anxiety generated by a faith that is demanding, uncertain, and absolutist in its claims.

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