Zion: Theocracy on the Prairie

For the next few months, I will be writing about various utopian communities that I have been researching as background for my next historical novel. One of the many reasons for my interest in this topic is that I happen to live in a community that was founded as a religious utopia at the turn of the twentieth century. Zion, Illinois, was founded in 1901 by a faith healer named John Alexander Dowie.

Dowie was born in Edinburgh in 1847 to a religious family. His father worked as both a tailor and minister. In 1860, the family moved to Australia to better their economic situation. The young Dowie became interested in the spiritual aspects of healing at an early age. An experiment with his father’s pipe at the age of six made him feel so sick that he swore off the use of tobacco or alcohol. He developed digestive problems once they moved to Australia, a condition that he claimed to heal by praying and trusting in God.

When Dowie was 21, he returned to Scotland to enroll at Edinburgh University, where he studied theology and English. His father called him back to Australia before he obtained his degree, but once there, he was ordained as a minister in the Congregational Church, a denomination he served for nearly ten years. During this time, he published an anti-Catholic work called Rome’s Polluted Springs.

He became an independent minister once he began to preach divine healing, the belief that he could cure people through prayer and the laying on of hands. He was briefly involved with the Salvation Army and later got in trouble with the Melbourne, Australia, authorities for leading unauthorized processions. Fire destroyed his church under questionable circumstances, bringing the suspicion of arson down upon Dowie. He used the insurance money to pay off his debts and then moved to the United States.

He held services up and down the West Coast for a couple of years and then visited Chicago in 1890 for a convention on divine healing. A successful experience healing a woman with a fibroid tumor convinced him that God wanted him to stay there. During the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893, he rented a nearby property and held services of “Divine Healing.” Many scholars believe that the majority of the healings that took place were entirely staged, although there is some evidence that Dowie was able to relieve people of psychosomatic illnesses.

He continued his work in Chicago after the fair, gaining quite a few followers—and substantial opposition from those who thought he was a fraud. In 1896, he founded the Christian Catholic Church in Zion. (At this point, Zion was a reference to the mountain in Israel, not the later community in Illinois.)

Because of the continuing controversies about his work, Dowie secretly bought 6,000 acres of land in far northern Illinois (45 miles north of Chicago) on the shore of Lake Michigan. On that land, he founded one of the only completely planned communities in the world. The streets were laid on a grid with a circular drive surrounding the church at the center of the town. All north-south streets except two were given Biblical names. (The two non-Biblical names were chosen to honor his native Scotland.) East-west streets were numbered, starting with 1st Street on the Wisconsin-Illinois border and going south. A great deal of land was reserved for parks, a feature that continues to distinguish the city today.

The government of Zion was a theocracy, controlled by Dowie’s church, which prohibited consuming alcohol, tobacco, and pork, or practicing modern medicine. Dowie owned all the land in town and offered settlers 1,100-year leases.

The town, supposedly built as a community where believers could lead a perfect Christian life, turned out to be a giant economic fraud. Dowie’s followers were required to deposit their money in Zion Bank, which was not a legitimate financial institution but was wholly under Dowie’s control. He also sold worthless stocks in various Zion businesses. The town was continually in financial trouble, and in 1905 when Dowie traveled to Jamica for health reasons, he was deposed. The town came under the leadership of Wilbur Voliva, Dowie’s lieutenant. An investigation discovered that somewhere between two and three million dollars were missing.

Gradually, the church’s hold on the town diminished. Other churches were founded in Zion, as were new businesses. It remained a dry community for nearly a century, but in 2000, the city council passed an ordinance allowing liquor to be sold within the city limits.

Dowie’s fame, however, will live on as long as people read great literature. James Joyce was so intrigued by the man that he made him a character in his novel Ulysses.

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Oneida: Perfectionism and Free Love

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For the next few months, I will be writing about various utopian communities that I have been researching as background for my next historical novel. The first one is the Oneida Community.

The founder of Oneida was John Humphrey Noyes, who lived from 1811 to 1886. In 1831, Noyes experienced a religious conversion at a revival meeting led by Charles Grandison Finney at the tail end of the Second Great Awakening, a period of religious fervor in the United States that lasted about forty years. Finney was one of the theologians of the period who believed in the doctrine of Christian perfectionism, the idea that believers could be free of sin after their conversion.

Noyes was heavily influenced by this doctrine. After his conversion, he wanted to attain sinlessness, but he was not sure how to achieve it. He began to attend seminary, first at Andover and then at Yale, but his academic studies did not provide the answer he sought. One night in 1834, after preaching a sermon whose theme was, “He that committeth sin is of the devil,” Noyes had a mystical experience as he lay awake in bed. He felt “a stream of eternal love” flow through him three times in succession, and after that, he believed that his heart was clean, his life was sinless, and that God lived within him.

Within two years following this epiphany, he had started a community of “Bible Communists” in Putney, Vermont. Members lived together, worked together, worshipped and studied together and eventually held all property in common. In his most controversial move, Noyes began to preach free love and his own unique doctrine of complex marriage. Each female adult member of the community was the wife of all the men, and each male adult member was the husband of all the women. The reason for this is that exclusive ties of monogamy were considered the source of jealousies and problems. In complex marriage, sexual relations were permissible among any consenting heterosexual partners as long as the men pulled out before orgasm to prevent pregnancy. The community practiced selective breeding, deciding as a group who would be allowed to have children together. As soon as children were able to walk, they were taken from their parents and raised by the community so they would not be corrupted by the worldly teachings under which their parents had been raised.

Needless to say, such practices were highly controversial in the mid-nineteenth century. Noyes was arrested for adultery. Jumping bail, he moved to Oneida, New York, and established a new community. There, the Oneida Community developed successful industries, including the manufacture of a particularly effective steel trap, silverware, and embroidered silks.

Despite their economic success, the community was regarded with suspicion and hostility by their neighbors because of complex marriage. In 1879, Oneida abandoned the practice at their founder’s recommendation. Noyes and a few followers moved to Canada. The remaining members also gave up their socialist institutions and reorganized their businesses as a joint stock company, which continues in operation today.

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What I’ve Been Reading: In the Shadow of Lakecrest

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In the Shadow of Lakecrest by Elizabeth Blackwell is a lively story in the gothic style that I mostly enjoyed. Kate Moore meets handsome, wealthy, kind Matthew Lemont on a transatlantic crossing and is thrilled when he wants to continue their relationship after they dock in New York. On a whim, she travels with him in his private train car to Chicago, where they wed after a short courtship. This should be the answer to Kate’s prayers, who was determined to marry well to escape her violent and poverty-stricken past—a past that she is careful to hide from Matthew.
When Matthew takes Kate to his family’s estate—a crumbling hodgepodge of a mansion on Lake Michigan, cobbled together from odds and ends Matthew’s grandfather imported from Europe—Kate begins to realize that the Lemonts have their own dark secrets. What happened to the aunt, who disappeared one night after holding a strange ceremony in the labyrinth built on the grounds? And why does Matthew’s twin sister seem so jealous of Kate?
The story is a page turner that is hard to put down. I have mixed feelings about the ending though; I wish there had been more hints that the person who takes the final action of the novel had the potential to do such a thing.

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What I’ve Been Reading: Wolf Winter

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WOLF WINTER by Cecilia Ekbäck is amazing. The mood is atmospheric, and the setting—far northern Sweden in 1717—is unique in my reading experience. The book is a historical thriller, but there are so many cultural, psychological, and even political layers underlying the story, that in many ways, it felt more like a literary novel.

Maija, her husband Paavo, and their two daughters have come from Finland to their uncle’s old homestead in Lapland. Almost immediately, the oldest daughter, Frederika, discovers a mutilated body high on the nearby mountain when she takes the family’s goats up to pasture. Maija and her daughter are pulled into trying to solve that crime and unearth the many dark secrets of their new community even as they fight to survive the most brutal winter in Sweden’s history. As events unfold, Frederika discovers her own supernatural gifts and must choose whether to use them.

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Janus: the Two-Faced God

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Head of Janus, Vatican Museum, Rome

The month of January is said to be named after the Roman god Janus, who was the god of beginnings, transitions, and endings among other things. He had two faces, which enabled him to look to the future and to the past.

I find this fitting because that’s what my husband and I always do on New Year’s Eve; we talk about the milestones of the past year and we set our hopeful goals for the future.

One of the biggest milestones of 2017 for me was the publication of my second novel, Blood Moon: A Captive’s Tale. In some ways, getting that second novel out into the world was even more satisfying than the first because it proved that getting published wasn’t a fluke and that I wasn’t going to be plagued by the “sophomore slump.”

However, 2017 had its writing difficulties too. One of the big adjustments I had to make was to completely abandon the idea for my next novel after having spent six to eight months researching it. The more I read, the more I realized that the person I thought was I was going to write about just wasn’t a good fit for me right now.

So I am starting over from scratch, and the reboot coincides almost exactly with the beginning of the new year. The good news is that I am very excited about the new story idea, and I can already feel the creative juices stirring in a way they didn’t last year.

Watch this space. Over the next few months, I plan to share some of the intriguing tidbits that I uncover during my research process.

And I wish each and every one of you a wonderful 2018 in which you achieve some of your own deeply cherished goals and received some pleasant surprises!

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What I’ve Been Reading: Tan

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TAN by David Lawlor is a solid adventure / war story. The pace is quick, there is plenty of action, the plot has twists and turns. If you want a quick read set during the Irish War of Independence—and one with a pro-Irish slant—you’ll probably enjoy it. But the book has weaknesses. I thought the characterizations were disappointingly black and white. The book is populated with good characters and bad characters without much of the complexity that most humans display.

I was also disappointed to see that the book had errors that should have been caught before publication. I found many punctuation mistakes and several typos—such as the character of Eoin suddenly being called Eon. And there were distracting misused words: cygnet ring instead of signet ring; heap of slack instead of heap of slag, and others. No published work is ever completely clean, but there were more issues than I would expect from someone with this author’s experience.

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What I’ve Been Reading: The Secret Language of Women

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The Secret Language of Women by Nina Romano is such an unusual and exotic story. Lian, a half Italian-half Chinese woman, falls in love with Giacomo, an Italian sailor whose ship is patrolling the waters around China during the violent Boxer rebellion of the late 1890s when Chinese nationalists tried to drive all foreigners from their country. In such a difficult situation, the lovers’ lives are endangered simply because of who they are, and their relationship only places them in more jeopardy. I don’t want to say anything more about the plot for fear of giving too much away. But what I loved most about the novel was the way rich aspects of both Sicilian and Chinese culture are interwoven into the story and the way these two very different people realized they are kindred spirits.

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