Zion, Illinois: A City Founded by a Cult

About an hour north of Chicago and 10 minutes south of the state of Wisconsin lies a city called Zion.  If you were to drive through it, nothing particularly interesting would stand out to you.  In fact, the two times that I have been there, it appeared somewhat deserted.  However, it had an interesting beginning.

Shiloh House at 1300 Shiloh Blvd. Zion, IL 60099

Today, you can learn about Zion’s history at the Zion Historical Society, which is located in a 25-room mansion called Shiloh House. It was built in 1901, the year before Zion’s official incorporation.  This home belonged to John Alexander Dowie, the founder of Zion.  Dowie was born in Edinburgh, Scotland in 1847, but moved to Australia early in his life.  Eventually, he became a preacher and started performing faith healings.  This led him on a missionary tour of the United States.  After working in San Francisco for a while, he eventually went to Chicago.  His fame rose at the World’s Columbian Exposition, also known as the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, where he set up a station right outside the Fair and allegedly healed people.

After the Fair, Dowie decided to stay in Chicago, so with his many followers, he founded a church.  It eventually became known as the Christian Catholic Apostolic Church, although it had nothing to do with Catholicism.  The church encountered a lot of opposition in Chicago, both from religious and city officials, so Dowie decided to start a theocratic society in a farm area north of Chicago, which he named Zion City.  People from all over the world, particularly Europe, came to join this new religious “utopia.”  If I remember correctly, my elderly tour guide told me that his grandparents came over from Scotland to join Dowie’s church.  Throughout my tour, the guide would occasionally share his childhood memories of growing up in Zion.

A bell used to call the people of Zion to prayer.

Dowie did not live in his city for long.  Zion was incorporated in 1902, but Dowie died of a stroke in 1907.  Afterwards, his friend, Wilbur Glenn Voliva, came over from Australia to replace him and continue implementing a theocratic society.  The rules in Zion included bans on alcohol, pork, tobacco, circuses, movies, silk stockings, and globes.  The latter ban was implemented by Voliva, who adamantly believed that the earth was flat.  By the mid 20th century, Zion’s inhabitants had become disillusioned with their theocratic government.  Eventually, the Christian Catholic Apostolic Church evolved into a more mainstream Protestant denomination.  Today, it is Christ Community Church.

Zion’s original church burned down, and the building there today is called Christ Community Church, but its original name can still be found on this 1961 cornerstone.

Other than Washington D.C., Zion is the only U.S. city that was completely planned out prior to being built.  The church was built at the center of the city, and the streets branched off from there.  Zion’s streets are all named after Biblical places or names.

During my tour of Shiloh House, I not only learned about the history of Zion and Dowie, but also got to admire a beautiful Victorian-style mansion.  One object that especially stood out to me in the house was a Biblical high priest’s outfit displayed near the entrance. Apparently, Dowie frequently wore it.  Another interesting part of the house is near the top, where there is a display of different types of lace that were made in Zion.  When Dowie planned Zion, he made sure that there was employment for its citizens, so had businesses such as a lace factory built there.

Because Zion has such a strange and unique history, the Zion Historical Society is my favorite historical society that I have visited so far.  It is definitely worth a visit.

Sources and Further Reading

Best, Wallace. “Zion, IL.” Encyclopedia of Chicago. 2005. http://www.encyclopedia.chicagohistory.org/pages/1399.html (accessed October 17, 2020).

“Early History.” Zion Historical Society. http://zionhistoricalsociety.com/ (accessed October 17, 2020).

Pohlen, Jerome. Oddball Illinois: A Guide to Some Really Strange Places. Chicago: Chicago Review Press, 2000.

Wolfe, Stephanie. “John Alexander Dowie and Zion City, Illinois.” Faith in the City. http://publications.newberry.org/faith-in-the-city/essays/wolfe-dowie-zion-city (accessed October 17, 2020).


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