Dowie’s Divine Healing and the Professionalization of Modern Medicine

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Matt Zussman

West Coast GLS Symposium at USC, 24 June 2012

Abridged from a paper begun at the Newberry Library in Chicago
Dowie’s Divine Healing and the Professionalization of Modern Medicine
In 1900, John Alexander Dowie, the “Divine Healer,” spoke in London during one of his world preaching tours. The London Chronicle described a riot that erupted as Dowie concluded a public lecture: “…the students – about 150-200 strong – rose from their seats in a body, and after shouting at the speaker and loudly hissing at him, made a rush for the platform. Chairs were thrown about in all directions, many being smashed in the melee. Dr. Dowie fearing personal injury left the hall.”1 The police arrested and fined four students in the scuffle. The following week, Dowie spoke again at the same venue, but this time he required tickets for entry. Nearly a thousand students mobbed the outside of the building, inducing several more arrests and fines.

Much of the protest reiterated accusations of charlatanism and derided Dowie for profiting from religion, but it is especially telling that the protestors were medical students. Divine Healing and other so-called “fringe healers” stole profits from the official medical industry. The occupation’s future employees retaliated with “rallying shouts of ‘King’s,’ ‘Guy’s,’ and the names of other London hospitals.”2 The students protested against Dowie and cheered for hospitals, which they felt should be the only permissible venues of healing.

Despite his incendiary celebrity status for nearly a decade in Chicago, the United States, and worldwide, John Alexander Dowie now barely exists in historical scholarship. But in his time, the Divine Healer, industrialist, and founder of Zion City, Illinois inflamed the professionalizing medical establishment and mainstream press, frequently inciting legal action or violent protests such as the London medical student riots of 1900.

My paper focuses on conflicting conceptions of healing and medicine; I explore this conflict through Dowie and his Divine Healing Homes, which came under legal attack from Chicago and Illinois. Medicine is just one specific type of healing – medicine is science’s very successful conception of healing; but the medical establishment sought to prosecute Dowie by arguing that any type of healer fell under the sweeping jurisdiction of medicine, and that non-scientific healing was impermissible. In response, the Divine Healer contended that medical licensing laws should not apply to him because he was not a "doctor" and his "Healing Homes” had nothing to do with "hospitals."

Dowie’s legal and conceptual battle with medicine illustrates how the definitions of healing are more complex and contested than modern medical science would have us assume. Moreover, Dowie’s story demonstrates how a battle of ideas has concrete effects on power – that is to say, control of the conception of healing determines whom society allows to heal.

A brief biographical sketch will first provide necessary background.

John Alexander Dowie was born into an Evangelical family in Edinburgh, Scotland in 1847.3 By age six, Dowie had read the entire bible and vowed to abstain from opium, alcohol, and tobacco. Proclaiming the sins of these intoxicants would remain prominent in his teaching – for along with Faith, the precept of Holy Living later became a prerequisite for Divine Healing. The Dowies immigrated to Australia when John was thirteen, and he returned to Scotland to attend the University of Edinburgh from 1867 to ‘72. Dowie then moved back to Australia and became a Congregationalist minister.

Dowie resigned from the Congregationalist Church in 1877, complaining that the ministers’ power made them grow “rich and worldly minded.”4 Five years later, Dowie established his International Divine Healing Association in Melbourne, and in 1888, he immigrated to San Francisco. Aside from extensive traveling, Dowie would live in the United States for the remainder of his life.

After five years touring the States preaching and healing,5 Dowie settled in Chicago, where he founded the Christian Catholic Church and appointed himself its General Overseer.6 In Chicago, Dowie’s popularity grew exponentially, from a small tabernacle at the 1893 World’s Columbia Exposition, to 450 members at his church’s inception, and finally, to more than 5,000 followers at the turn of the century.7

Dowie’s most widely circulated publication, Leaves of Healing, chronicled a series of stories titled, “God’s Witnesses to Divine Healing,” each recounting individuals whom modern medicine could not cure, but whom Dowie physically saved through Divine Healing. The magazine’s first issue displayed a photograph of Willie Esser, a boy standing with his now unneeded crutches and braces. Esser’s leg was paralyzed, and doctors’ treatments were futile. Under the photograph, Dowie described saving Esser: [Quote – from Leaves of Healing] “We led him to Jesus, and God gave him the Witness of His Holy Spirit in his heart that he was forgiven…The following week…we took [his mother and him] into our room where she removed his brace and boot, and then we prayed for him in Jesus’ name and laid our hands upon the poor withered little leg and gently pulled it down…What was his mother’s joy and his to find that all pain had departed, that he could easily stand upon it and walk up and down the floor without either crutch or brace or boot.”8

According to Leaves of Healing, Dowie cured Willie Esser’s ailment by leading him to faith and forgiveness, praying, and laying hands upon the affliction’s physical location.

Leaves of Healing frequently showcased similar miracles, in which Divine Healing obviated conspicuous physical aides. Dowie’s magazine proudly displayed photographs of the walls of his Healing Homes and Tabernacles, decorated with crutches, braces, boots, and other “trophies captured from the enemy.”9

Dowie’s “Divine Healing Homes” offered sick believers guided prayer twice a day, personal interviews, and healing services. The Healing Homes attracted fierce opposition from the scientific medical community. In January 1895, the state of Illinois began prosecuting Dowie for practicing medicine without a license. With that dispute still in court, the Chicago Board of Health passed a city hospital ordinance. Dowie refused to comply with the licensure demanded by both city and state. While the courts eventually dropped all charges and declared the hospital ordinance unconstitutional,10 the resulting media scrutiny made Dowie a celebrity.

Dowie embraced his new popularity, even bragging of his 102 arrests – actually an exaggeration of his 100-plus related charges.11 With celebrity came material wealth. Dowie collected tithes from his burgeoning congregation. He also profited from his Healing Homes, for while he emphasized that Divine Healing ministrations were free, his Homes charged for room and board.12 The minister invested his funds into more tabernacles for preaching in Chicago, a ministerial school called Zion College, and the Zion Publishing and Printing House, which published three periodicals. Under increasing criticism in the Windy City, Dowie purchased land North of Chicago on Lake Michigan. Then in 1900, Dowie consecrated his utopian theocracy of Zion City, Illinois. [The small city of Zion still exists today, though no longer as a theocracy.]

In Zion, Dowie established a profitable lace-manufacturing industry. While developing his city, Dowie continually traveled to teach, heal, and proselytize. The General Overseer’s “world tours” began and ended with heroic sendoffs from and returns to Zion. Out on tour, the mainstream press lavished Dowie with the attention of a celebrity and scrutinized him as a charlatan, who exploited religion for wealth and fame.13 Zion’s manufacturing industry was initially lucrative, but by the end of his life, Dowie and his city were in financial ruin. Dowie ultimately declared bankruptcy, left Zion City deep in debt, and was deposed as the head of his church and city by the time he died of a stroke in 1907.14

It is unclear what caused Dowie’s economic and popular downfall. Likely, he succumbed to some combination of factors, including: a national recession, expensive legal wrangling with his brother-in-law over his lace-industry, and prodigal borrowing to finance his industry, city, and expanding religion.15 [Dowie’s often-admiring, religious biographers attribute his downfall to the sin of pride or to “lack of personal prayer.”16]. Despite the uncertainty of his downfall, however, it is clear that the nascent medical profession did not defeat Dowie. The Divine Healer ultimately triumphed over the medical establishment and his more than 100 charges relating to the city’s hospital ordinance and the state’s medical license requirement. Three years after Dowie’s death, The Flexner Report sought to strengthen the medical establishment’s power that had recently failed to eliminate Dowie.

Dowie: A Target of the Professionalization of Modern Medicine

Published in 1910, The Flexner Report catalyzed the professionalization of the medical occupation. As the seminal document of medical professionalization, it serves my paper as a textual representation of that movement.

Primarily intended to raise medical school standards, Flexner’s influential recommendations also spurred the movement towards a more carefully defined medical profession – one guided by mainstream scientific standards and stricter licensure requirements. Flexner argued for reducing the number of doctors by defining a “doctor” as a graduate of medical school and for reducing the number of medical schools. In part, these standards attempted to address real dangers to patients.

In addition to receiving poor treatment from unqualified, well-intentioned doctors, unsuspecting patients were susceptible to exploitative charlatans. Flexner and other reformers readily admitted to abridging individual liberty for public health. And reformers certainly had individuals such as Dowie in mind.

The press regularly labeled Dowie a “charlatan.” It is now difficult to determine Dowie’s intentions and judge whether or not he was a fraud; and this elusive question is not the focus of my paper. Nevertheless, Dowie’s vilification was not groundless – in adherence to Divine Healing, many followers died refusing treatment from physicians or pharmaceuticals.

These deaths shocked the secular, scientific public. Regardless of Dowie’s intentions, and regardless of whether Divine Healing was “real” or “worked,” there was a real issue of people refusing modern medicine made available by science. Thus, Dowie and other healers helped catalyze the movement to regulate medicine.

But Progressive reformers’ socially beneficent concern for the public interest does not alone explain the resentment Dowie inspired in the medical establishment and mainstream press.

The Power of Definition: How the Medical Establishment Tried to Weed out Dowie

An exploration of how the medical establishment attempted to subdue Dowie and control who gets to heal begins to explain why its proponents regarded him as such a threat.

Medicine was one of many occupations during the Progressive Era that developed more concrete definitions of what it meant to be part of the profession.

For optimal control, authorities constructed both narrow and broad definitions of medical practice. Narrowly, the new standards of the Flexner Report mandated that a “doctor” adhere to mainstream science and pass specific educational and license requirements. But broadly, the report also declared that a doctor could be anyone the medical profession wanted in compliance with its requirements: “[from Flexner] It is clear that so long as a man is to practice medicine, the public is equally concerned in his right preparation for that profession, whatever he calls himself…he should be grounded in the fundamental sciences upon which medicine rests, whether he practises under one name or another [italics added].”17 Fifteen years before The Flexner Report transformed them into international standards, the city of Chicago unsuccessfully prosecuted Dowie under these definitions.

Unlike the medical profession, the Divine Healer separated healing from medicine. In his refusal to comply with Chicago’s hospital ordinance, Dowie’s main complaint was that it subsumed Divine Healing under its broad medical definitions; he asserted distinctness between religious healing of the sinful and scientific medical treatment of the sick.

Dowie insisted that his Healing Homes were homes, in no way related to any hospital: “[from a letter reprinted in Leaves of Healing:] I wish to respectfully say that I am not conducting any Home which brings me under the provisions of the law which you have sent to me entitled ‘An Ordinance concerning Hospitals in the City of Chicago.’…They are not hospitals in any sense of the word. No ‘medicine’ is used. No ‘treatment’ is given. No nurses are provided and there are none of the arrangements of an hospital.” Dowie declared that he did not need to apply for a permit because according to his definitions, his Healing Homes had nothing to do with a hospital, medicine, or treatment.

While disputes between alternative and mainstream, scientific forms of medicine still persist today, the secular public now generally accepts science’s conception of healing. But when the loosely defined medical occupation gradually became a regulated profession, it possessed a more tenuous conceptual authority than it does now. In Dowie’s time, scientific medicine was only just emerging as the dominant form of healing; and Dowie threatened medical science when it was still in the process of obtaining its authority.

Progressive reformers, who battled Dowie in court and wrote The Flexner Report, possessed a dogmatic faith in medical science and in their own abilities to determine the boundaries of permissible healing, to mandate educational and medical standards, and to redefine crucial terms, like doctor and medicine. These reformers felt enlightened to know what was best for the populace at large; they guarded science’s recent, seemingly-miraculous insights with religious awe and fervor. The existence and apparent success of Dowie’s non-modern form of healing frustrated proponents of science and modern progress. Divine Healing and the medical establishment clashed in an eternal struggle – that is, a power struggle between adversaries, who each assert a revelatory system of thought as the true, best system for all.

Arguments persist to this day over the conceptions of healing and permissible healing, as alternatives once again increasingly contend with mainstream medical science. The medical establishment declared that Dowie’s conception of healing fell under the jurisdiction of medical treatment but that it was not permissible healing. While Dowie won his argument, the incipient medical profession ultimately strengthened its hold over its interpretation of healing. Perhaps in doing so, scientific medicine moved the boundaries in too far, subduing many legitimate alternatives to mainstream healing. The wonderful insights of medical science deserved to guide regulation in medical education. But The Flexner Report and its contemporaries frustratingly applied as universal their subjective, limited understanding of healing defined by medicine. Even if we remain skeptical of the miracles of Divine Healing, Dowie still symbolizes free-expression, individuality, and different ways of thinking in the face of modern standardization; moreover, he is an expression of other approaches to healing that should be allowed to coexist alongside scientific medicine.

1 “Dowie in London: Riotous Scene: Medical Students Arrested,” London Chronicle, 19 Oct. 1900, Zion City (Ill.) Records, Midwest Manuscript Collection, The Newberry Library, Chicago, box 4, pg. 63.

2 “Conspuez, Dowie!: Another Riot at St. Martin’s Yesterday.”

3 “History of the Christian Catholic Apostolic Church, Zion City, and John Alexander Dowie.” Finding Aid for Inventory of the Zion City (Ill.) Records, 1888-1974, bulk 1899-1907, Midwest Manuscript Collection, The Newberry Library, Chicago. My biographical sketch draws heavily from the Newberry Finding Aid’s “History,” which provided an indispensable, succinct chronological guide to Dowie’s scantly documented life.

4 Philip L. Cook, Zion City, Illinois: twentieth century utopia (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1996), 9. The only extensive academic work in the past half-century on Dowie or Zion, Zion City was Cook’s previously unpublished dissertation from the University of Colorado in the 1960’s. Cook relied primarily on the oral history of his family members, who were citizens of Zion City and members of the Christian Catholic Apostolic Church. As a result, Cook’s work has a tone of uncritical, religious adulation for Dowie and his church.

5 “History of the Christian Catholic Apostolic Church, Zion City, and John Alexander Dowie.”

6 Despite the name, Dowie’s church was of evangelical denomination. It later became the Christian Catholic Apostolic Church.

7 Zion City (Ill.) Records. Various newspaper clippings. See box 4 vol. 4, pg. 2 for these statistics.

8 “God’s Witnesses to Divine Healing, No. 1,” Leaves of Healing, ed. John Alexander Dowie, vol. 1 no. 1., 31 Aug. 1894, 9. General Collections, The Newberry Library, Chicago.

9 Leaves of Healing, vol. 1 no. 3., 14 Sept. 1894, 48.

10 Grant Wacker, “Marching to Zion: The Story of John Alexander Dowie’s 20th Century Utopian City – Zion, Illinois,” A/G Heritage, Summer 1986, 8.

11 “Overseer of Zion Here: Dr. Dowie, Divine Healing Teacher Bound for Holy Land,” New York Times, 11 Aug. 1900, Zion City (Ill.) Records, box 4 vol. 4, pg. 2. Dowie’s repeated boasting of his more than 100 “arrests” is an exaggeration of his more than 100 “charges.” This article is just one example.

12 “No charges are made for his personal ministrations and the rates are only for table board and room accommodation.” Leaves of Healing., vol. 1 no. 1., 31 Aug. 1894, 9.

13 Zion City (Ill.) Records. See, for example, boxes 4 and 10.

14 Seldes, 400-401.

15 In addition to expanding his following through constant travel, Dowie was in the process of purchasing property in Mexico, possibly to create another utopian city.

16……on this site, David K. Eames cites Gordon Lindsay’s John Alexander Dowie and Artuhr Newcomb’s Dowie Anointed of the Lord

17 Henry S. Pritchett, “Introduction” to Bulletin Number Four of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching: Medical Education in the United States and Canada (Boston: D.B. Updike, The Merrymount Press, 1972 [1910]), viii.

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