The recent rise in the popularity of flat Earth conspiracy theories has been well-documented, appearing as the focus of news broadcasts, YouTube videos, and even a 2018 documentary. This fascination is obviously due in part to the eccentricity of their beliefs, but it's also due to the relative newness of the movement.Before the internet, genuine flat earthers were rare and there are few historical examples. The idea that medieval Europeans thought that the Earth was flat until the voyage of Christopher Columbus in fourteen-ninety-two is actually a pop-cultural myth, with the earliest mentions of a spherical Earth dating back to the fifth century BCE.
It really is a modern movement, regressive as it may seem, not a continuation of a belief that any group of people has historically held. The few historical examples of flat-Earthers were viewed as oddities even in their time, and had few supporters, and any flat-Earth societies that were founded really only existed in name only.
But there was one man who would reach a surprising level of success with his bizarre beliefs, with an entire American town becoming dedicated to his flat-Earth teachings.
His name was Wilbur Glenn Voliva, and this is the story of the city of Zion, his attempt at a theocratic flat-Earther utopia just outside of Chicago.
Part One: The Construction of Zion City
Zion, Illinois was an incubator for unusual religious beliefs from its inception. It was founded in the year 1900 by John Alexander Dowie, a Scottish evangelist and faith healer.
Dowie already had an extensive and controversial career before Zion.He lived in Australia for a time but, after being jailed for a month for being a temperance agitator, left for America in 1888. He gained fame in the 1893 Chicago’s world fair, with the Chicago Inter-Ocean newspaper describing how Chicago’s Central Music Hall would be “packed from floor to ceiling with those drawn by necessity, sympathy or curiosity to hear the Rev. Dowie and testimonies of those who have been cured of their disease.”
It’s known now that a large portion of these faith healings were actually staged, using audience plants who might pretend to blind, “demon-possessed”, or be unable to walk without crutches, only to then be miraculously cured, and the discarded crutches and leg braces would be added to Dowie’s growing collection, which he displayed behind his altar. Those that weren’t plants were carefully screened and interviewed beforehand to make sure they were true believers in his methods, and therefore more likely to perceive benefits from the faith healing process -- either from the placebo effect or because they were actually suffering from psychosomatic illness.
Barry Morton, a historian who has done a lot of research into early 20th century evangelical conmen, was able to thoroughly dissect Dowie’s methods and what made him so remarkably successful. The idea that faith healings could be working psychologically was actually known at the time, so many people were skeptical of his claims, and the local newspapers overwhelmingly took the opinion that he was a fraud. However, people had never seen a faith healer before with the same showmanship and charisma that Dowie had. Morton actually argues that we should consider Dowie the first modern faith healer, saying that “Prior to emergence of Dowie, faith healing was well known to be “a means of obtaining money under false pretenses.” What set Dowie apart from other religious con men was the sheer enormity of his fraud — which made him a multimillionaire in the 1890s.”
Dowie’s faith healings drew a diverse crowd, with working, middle, and upper class people all attending. The congregation were also integrated, albeit predominantly white, because Dowie had what were for the time very progressive views on race and was outspoken against racism if he encountered it in his congregation. He would go on to found “healing homes” across the city of Chicago (this got him in legal trouble with the city several times for practicing medicine without a license though he was never convicted for it) as well as his own church, the Christian Catholic Apostolic Church or the CCAC.
The exact beliefs of the CCAC are somewhat difficult to describe beyond “evangelical” and “fundamentalist” as the church does not belong to any particular denomination or sect of Christianity. Its beliefs have been described as “unclassifiable” and a “genuine oddity”. The closest label might be a kind of proto-Pentecostalism, since both Dowie and Pentecostalists believe in what’s known as “charismatic Christianity”, a form of Christianity associated with multiple denominations that believes in spiritual gifts called charismata, such as faith healing, speaking in tongues, or performing miracles. Many of Dowie’s followers would actually later convert to Pentecostalism, but it's important to note that Dowie would not have been directly involved in the creation of Pentecostalism in the early twentieth century, and as we will soon see, Pentecostals would eventually be viewed as heretical and dangerous in Zion City.
Zion was conceived as a refuge from what Dowie viewed as the evils of the modern secular world, like medical science, people who eat pork, secret societies & labor unions, and lawsuits accusing his mail-order faith healing business of being mail fraud (which, for the record, it absolutely was).
Zion has been described by historian Grant Wacker as “among the largest and most grandly conceived utopian communities in modern American history” and by Clifford John Doerksen as “[a] cross between a company town and a spiritual commune...designed as a theocratic solution to the problems of the modern industrial order”.
[Mayor Hill interview]
The town began with a population of between seven to ten thousand people, who were forbidden from owning property, instead leasing their land for eleven hundred years. This odd arrangement was done for the purpose of Dowie being able to terminate the contract if the tenant engaged in actions against the strict moral code of the church. The terms of the lease forbid selling tobacco or alcohol, opening a theater or circus, and, of course, being a practicing physician.
For all its eccentricities, it seems like the city was in a state of relative peace in the early years. But this tranquility would be short-lived, and the town would soon begin to fracture along lines of loyalty, allowing Wilbur Glenn Voliva to eventually gain control over the town and church.
Part Two: Voliva's Rise to Power
Voliva was born in 1870 to a Methodist family and was an ordained minister by the age of nineteen. He moved from denomination to denomination, dissatisfied with them all, until he encountered Leaves of Healing, a newspaper published by the CCAC with surprisingly wide circulation, being read as far away as India and South Africa (this will become important later on).
Within the span of months, he had moved to Chicago, joined Dowie’s church, and was ordained as an elder in 1899, just before the opening of Zion City. He was highly successful at preaching and converting, and in 1901 was given the title of Overseer and left for Australia, where Dowie still maintained a congregation.
Meanwhile, Dowie’s health was failing and his beliefs were becoming increasingly unconventional. In 1901, he declared himself the reincarnation of Elijah the prophet and began wearing elaborate robes with geometric patterns that he designed himself.
An 1896 writer commented that “One may easily step across the border without being conscious that he has passed into an enemy’s country. This is nowhere seen, perhaps, more frequently than in the facile transition that is so often made from faith to fanaticism.” Some of Dowie’s supporters, already followers of a fringe movement peddling miracles and faith healings, were starting to realize that their community was moving in a much stranger direction than they had anticipated, and eventually, they would begin to hatch a plan to depose Dowie and put Voliva in his place. Unfortunately, this would prove to only plunge the town further into the territory of fanaticism.
Meanwhile, Dowie’s claims about being a prophet, as well as the extremely hostile and offensive remarks about Islam he would regularly publish in Leaves of Healing, would catch the attention of Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, an Indian Muslim and self-proclaimed messiah who would become the founder of the Ahmadiyya movement, a sect of Islam that today claims ten to twenty million adherents worldwide or around 1% of the total Muslim population. Beginning in 1902, they would exchange a series of letters, and Ahmad would eventually challenge Dowie to a prayer duel, where they would each pray to God asking that the other be divinely punished for being a false prophet. Ahmad then predicted that Dowie, who was a decade younger than him, would die first.
The prediction would come true. In 1905 Dowie suffered a stroke while traveling in Mexico and Voliva was sent a telegram to return to Zion immediately.
Researcher Robert Schadewald wrote that “Zion City was built on faith and sweat but sustained on smoke and mirrors.” When Voliva returned in early 1906, he found Dowie had nearly bankrupt the town. It had been an open secret for some time that Dowie was seriously mismanaging church financest. Journalist T. P. O’Connor had written in 1903 that "the one incomprehensible element in the man's gigantic success is the personal luxury in which he lives, and his superb refusal at the same time to account for any of the sums of money entrusted to him.”