Relocating for Religion: The Christian Catholic Church and “The Leaves of Healing”

Faith healing. A flat earth. The promise of a Utopian society.[1] If not for a religious sect whose doctrine makes me squirm, I would not be alive.

“The Leaves of Healing,” vol. 34, no. 9, 30 May 1914, p. 196

In 1901, my teen-aged great-grandmother walked beside a covered wagon from Kansas to northeastern Illinois, accompanying her parents and siblings to make a home in the city of Zion.[2] They were drawn from the prairie to Lake Michigan’s shore by the Reverend John Alexander Dowie and his Christian Catholic Church.

Dowie, described as a charismatic preacher,[3] purchased a large amount of farmland on which to build his church and the city that it would control.[4] Church-run industries including lace, candy, and cookie factories employed the faithful.[5] The Zion Banner and The Zion Herald newspapers were published by church overseers.[6] Houses were built and sold, but ownership reverted back to the church if the overseer saw fit, or after a period of 1,100 years.[7]

Thousands migrated to Zion, drawn by the promise of a perfect society and to worship with the man who proclaimed that he was Elijah the Restorer.[8] Among those were my great-grandfather and his parents, also traveling from Kansas. Their migration story, perhaps less interesting than a long walk beside a covered wagon, did not survive the generations.

My great-grandparents met and married in this Utopian city. Neither would remain faithful to the church that dragged them to their destinies.

Dowie built a mansion and preached in extravagant robes[9] as his church neared bankruptcy.[10]  He was ousted by his own flock. Wilbur Glenn Voliva assumed control and continued the church’s theocratic rule.[11] He eventually faced financial and legal trouble.[12]

Who could have guessed malfeasance by leaders of a church[13] where donations were collected in barrels?[14]

The billboard at the edge of town listed a lengthy warning to those hoping to preach other faiths within city limits. In part, it read:

“Those who do are nothing more nor less than religious bums tramps and vagabonds, with less honor than a gang of highway robbers and thugs. Get out of this community, if you have a drop of honest blood and go and establish a settlement of your own!”[15]

In time, church buildings burned.[16] Voliva died, and the church as he and Dowie knew it was done.[17] A new church, with doctrine somewhat different from its predecessor, replaced it.[18]

People are no longer arrested for smoking, for whistling on Sunday, for practicing medicine, or for preaching another religion within the city limits. Residents can eat pork and oysters. Globes are not outlawed.[19]

The Zion stories from my family contain fragments of a religious experiment that ended before my birth. That teen of a great-grandmother, bitter at the church with age, who threw religious tracts at their bearers. My great-aunt, just a child, chastised by her parents for gathering nuts on Sunday, because working on the Sabbath was cause for arrest. My great-great-grandmother, suffering with a hole in her cheek, the tissue eaten away by an odoriferous cancer that no doctor attended, as faith alone healed. Church elders taking valuables from a widowed great-grand-aunt’s home after she passed away, while family members watched and scavenged a few family papers and photographs.[20]

The church’s serial publication, The Leaves of Healing,[21] proselytized and printed testimonials from readers around the world, along with the names of adults who were baptized and children who were consecrated. It was distributed in the U.S., Europe, Australia, and South Africa.[22] Some issues have been digitized and are available online.

I created a table of digitized issues of The Leaves of Healing, an incomplete run of volumes 1—50, printed from 1894—1922.[23]

Names, locations, blank membership forms, and articles giving insight into church leaders and practices were printed. Questions asked of prospective members invited answers of interest to genealogists. Membership records are privately held by the successor church.

I found mention of my great-great-grandfather, Mr. P. S. Loy, and his family, in the 27 December 1919 issue. They pledged $15.00 to Zion’s educational institutions,[24] which taught that the earth was flat.[25]

The Leaves of Healing is of value to those with Dowieite ancestors, people interested in Lake County, Illinois, or in the Pentecostal movement’s roots.[26]

Reading it makes me think of that teen-aged great-grandmother, and her longest walk.

I would have turned back. Thanks for walking, Winnie.


[1] “John Alexander Dowie,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Alexander_Dowie. “Wilbur Glenn Voliva,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wilbur_Glenn_Voliva. Dowie and Voliva preached faith healing. Dowie’s vision of Zion was as a Utopian society. Voliva preached that the earth was flat.

[2] Family tradition from Winnie Cunningham Loy to her children and grandchildren. “Early Settler Building New Home,” The Zion Banner (Zion, Ill.), 30 September 1902, p. 1 col. 2, Illinois Digital Newspaper Collections, http://idnc.library.illinois.edu/cgi-bin/illinois?a=d&d=TZB19020930.1.1&srpos=3&e=——-en-20-TZB-1–txt-txIN-cunningham——-, (accessed 17 October 2017), says that J. B. Cunningham “drove through to Zion City from Kansas more than a year ago.”

[3] Leaves of Healing: The Life, Ministry, and Message of John Alexander Dowie, https://sites.google.com/site/leavesofhealing/

[4] “John Alexander Dowie,” Wikipedia.

[5] “Christ Community Church,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christ_Community_Church. “Wilbur Glenn Voliva,” Wikipedia.

[6] The newspapers show Dowie or Voliva as the publisher and printed church and other news. A third newspaper, The Zion City Independent, did not have the same leanings.

[7] “Wilbur Glenn Voliva,” Wikipedia.

[8] “John Alexander Dowie,” Wikipedia.

[9] “Christ Community Church,” Wikipedia.

[10] “Wilbur Glenn Voliva,” Wikipedia.

[11] “John Alexander Dowie,” Wikipedia.

[12] “Wilbur Glenn Voliva,” Wikipedia. Voliva faced bankruptcy and admitted to using church funds for his own needs.

[13] Ibid. When Voliva was terminally ill he confessed to misusing church funds.

[14] The Leaves of Healing, vol. 34, issue 14, 4 July 1914, p. 317, https://books.google.com/books?id=zg5OAAAAYAAJ, has an image of a donation barrel.

[15] Photograph of billboard in author’s possession.

[16] “Christ Community Church,” Wikipedia, the Zion Tabernacle burned in 1937.

[17] “Wilbur Glenn Voliva,” Wikipedia.

[18] “Christ Community Church,” Wikipedia.

[19] “Wilbur Glenn Voliva,” Wikipedia. Dowie and Voliva outlawed many things in order to create a community ruled by their church.

[20] Stories from various family members to author. Their names are not included for privacy reasons.

[21] “Christ Community Church,” Wikipedia.

[22]  Ibid.

[23] “Lake County, Illinois: The Leaves of Healing,” The Advancing Genealogist, http://advancinggenealogist.com/resources/lake-county-illinois-the-leaves-of-healing/

[24] The Leaves of Healing, vol. 45, no. 14, 27 December 1919, p. 211.

[25] “Wilbur Glenn Voliva,” Wikipedia, church schools taught that the earth was flat.

[26] “John Alexander Dowie,” Wikipedia.

 

© 2017, Debbie Mieszala. All rights reserved.

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7 Responses to Relocating for Religion: The Christian Catholic Church and “The Leaves of Healing”

  1. Jeannie Tabailloux says:

    Thank you Debbie for your research and bringing it it together in story . Looking forward to your next post

  2. Mark F. Bramlette says:

    Good to hear from you, Debbie. Thanks for the research and writing it up. The history is certainly grim. You and I are cousins of some degree, as I recall, but I don’t remember through what relatives. Who is your P. S. Loy to my ancestors, George Frederick Loy, Direct ancestor (5 generations); Aug 11 1751 to Apr 1831; and his son Frederick Loy, my Great-great-grandfather, 1772 to Apr 6 1851 ? Keeping my home in Nevada, I bought a second home last year. It is in Cumberland County, Pennsylvania, near Mechanicsburg. A lot of our Pennsylvania German family members lived near there in the southeastern counties of Pennsylvania. Wishing you the best, cousin.

    • debbiemieszala says:

      Hi Mark. Frederick is our common ancestor. His daughter Margaret is your ancestor, and his son Martin Luther is my ancestor. Martin Luther was the father of Peter Stillman Loy (“P.S. Loy” in the article). It is good to hear from you again. Next step, DNA!

  3. Georgie Kennedy says:

    Thanks for all this research, Debbie. Although I have no known ancestors linked to this story, it provides one more fascinating piece of the picture that was late 19th Century USA.

  4. Steven Slaughter says:

    Hello All. Debbie, thank you for this very interesting post. I found it on a most-specific sort of internet search: I am looking for personal accounts of life in Zion during those Dowie-Voliva years. Several months ago, after reading a current newspaper story on a man working to prove the earth flat, I was lead to several articles and to the excellent book, Christine Garwood’s excellent “Flat Earth: History of an Infamous Idea”. She writes a chapter on Zion, and I’ve tried to find more.

    I am a teacher and theatre director at a Christian international school in Nairobi, Kenya. Something about religiously-zealous communities like Zion, with their utopian ideas meeting inevitable abuses, strikes a chord for me. I have been thinking about writing a play set in 1920s/30s Zion. Initially, I was most interested in the flat earth aspect, and may still include that…but as I’ve read more, I am increasingly interested in the role of doubt and openness (or in this case, harsh close-mindedness) to dissent and honest intellectual inquiry in places like Zion City. The us-them mindset of Voliva and his harsh, nasty campaigns against those he considered his enemies, is most powerful as a theme of a play. And it feels very relevant to Trump’s America today.

    My school community is a fairly ‘big tent’, with very conservative and more progressive folks doing our best to live together in harmony. For this reason, I am searching for any personal memoirs, letters, and stories I can find. I don’t want this play to be ABOUT Voliva or Zion City – an expose or history or those places. Instead, I want to invest characters and a story within the world of this town and this unique, stifling culture. Would you have any further information that you know about and might be willing to share privately? Again, I am looking for research material to help bring the richness of specific detail to my story, not to reveal any personal secrets or name names. Please let me know.

    Warm Regards,

    Steven Slaughter
    Rosslyn Academy
    Nairobi, Kenya

    • debbiemieszala says:

      Hi Steven. I do not have any letters to share. You might try the local historical society to see if they have any holdings.

  5. Marko says:

    Thank you Debbie for sharing this story. I live in the north Chicago suburbs close to Zion so it is interesting to learn of the local history. I came across the history of Zion while learning about the flat earth. It is a big topic of discussion now and it’s interesting to hear the ties to this local town. I am also interested in reading some of the publications.

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