Category Archives: Research

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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Building a Back Story

Yesterday, I figured out a plausible back story for the protagonist of my next novel. Like The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte, this one will be based on the life of a real women—but this story is more difficult because she left her New England home to go west and then refused to talk about her childhood because of some unspecified break with her family of origin. Historians have not even been able to identify her birth family with complete accuracy because there are three different recorded birth dates for her and two different maiden names!

Needless to say, this situation has both pros and cons. On the one hand, I get to make up her back story to suit myself, while on the other hand, the field is almost too wide open. It’s difficult to make choices that hang together properly. I’ve been struggling with it for several weeks and finally decided to read a history of the state where she grew up, which unfortunately, is one of the few states I’ve never even set foot in. Reading that book made a huge difference. I learned that the industry I thought dominated the state had all but died out by the time she was born, and something else entirely had begun to take its place. Then, about a week ago, I had an intuitive flash in which I “saw” this woman as a child in a distinctive setting. After that, everything fell into place. I now know how I’ll portray the events that brought about the unlikely occurrence of a single woman from New England leaving behind her well-established family and traveling alone to the frontier.

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More research photographs

I usually do this on Sunday, but I had something else to post yesterday. (Another review of The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte. Yeah.)

These are more of the research photos I took last summer. I’m not sure I’m actually going to need these in my next novel, but it was too fascinating not to photograph.

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Outlining Historical Fiction

It feels as though I’ve been very slow at starting the new novel, mostly because of the distraction of cancer treatment. This week, however, I finally felt like I was getting somewhere. That’s because I stopped just reading about the historical background for the book. I actually started on the outline.

My method is pretty direct. I start by listing chronologically the main events from the life of the woman I’m writing about—at least, the ones that pertain to the period of the novel. Unlike The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte, which covered a time span of more than 30 years, the next book will cover only a few months. Once I have my list of actual historical events, I’ll start adding fictional episodes as needed: events that fill in the gaps of motivation and character development. The third and final step will be to sort those roughly into chapters.

I still have a lot of reading and research to do yet, including a trip this summer to the area where the action of the novel took place. But as a writer, I’m happiest when I’m juggling research and more creative activities.

I also received some really terrific news today. I heard from a state historical society that they have three photographs of the interior of my main character’s house (taken before the attacking Indians burned it). And I can purchase copies. That’s going to be an invaluable help to me as I write.

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Doing Distressing Research

Because of my current treatment plan (for breast cancer) and my resulting emotional fatigue, it’s been hard to get excited about working on the new novel. Another reason for my reluctance was the type of research I was doing.

The novel I’m planning to write is based on the true experiences of a woman who was taken captive during one of the most brutal Indian wars in U.S. history. To get a broader background, I decided to read a 400-page book on the beginning of the conflict. I have to say, it was one of the hardest reads I’ve done in a long time. The book went into excruciating detail about the violence committed during the conflict. Some of it was really barbaric.

It’s not like I’ve never done this sort of research before. As a textbook editor and writer, I have covered some really horrible periods of history in which humans have committed unspeakable horrors against each other. Immersing myself in such knowledge always depresses me. I remember one three-week period in which I had to write a chapter on Reconstruction. Having to spend all my working hours dealing with stories of lynchings and the other forms of terrorism inflicted on the recently freed slaves left me feeling so sad and heavy. I was never so glad to be finished with a chapter!

With that assignment, at least, I knew I’d be done after a relatively short time. In contrast, my novel will probably take me a couple of years from research to final revisions. As I read that book that described attack after attack, I began to wonder if I’m really up to dealing with this oppressive material—especially since I’m already dealing with other stressors.

Well, for the time being, I’ve decided to soldier through. I’m just going to have to alternate the upsetting reading with research about more pleasant things, such as fashion or native culture. Fortunately, my main character didn’t personally witness too many barbarities, so I can limit my exposure to that material should I need to. At least, that’s the plan for now.

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Sunday Check In

Last week I was adjusting to daily radiation treatments, so I never got around to writing my own or reading other people’s blog posts. This afternoon, I decided that I’m not going to be able to catch up reading other blogs, so I’ll just try to start fresh tomorrow.

One thing I did last summer was to go to an interactive history museum as early research for my next novel, which is set in a frontier area. I think I might make it a regular practice to post a few pictures from that every Sunday. And I’ll start today.

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