GOD’S GENERALS DEMYSTIFIED (PART I)
By Barry Morton
Originally published in 1996, "God's Generals: Why They Succeeded and Why Some Fail” is a widely popular book among Pentecostal and Charismatic Christians. In the book, Robert Liardon chronicles the lives, teachings, and ministries of prominent 19th century leaders of the Pentecostal movement such as William J. Seymour, Aimee Semple McPherson, Smith Wigglesworth, and Kathryn Kuhlman, to name a few.
Although God’s Generals painted a glowing portrait of these individuals, this series of commentaries will shed light on some of the unreported atrocities committed by a few of the so-called powerful men and women of God.
Today, we are going to start with John Alexander Dowie.
Prior to the 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. In the end, however, the scale of his enterprise ended up getting away from him, with both he and his organization, Zion City, ending up bankrupt at his death in 1907.
The fact that Dowie’s organization went bust should not detract from his engagement in systematic and large-scale fraud. The entire financial structure of the Christian Catholic Church and Zion City was carefully constructed to render all their assets under his complete, personal control.
Much of Dowie’s revenue actually came from a “legitimate” source – tithing. His business model was based on finding those susceptible to placebo cures, healing them, making them members of his church, and then demanding ten per cent of their income. By the early 1890s, he was making $30,000 a year from tithes, and by the turn of the century, $250,000 annually, according to sworn court testimony. All tithing income from across his church was collected and sent to him first before being allocated for other uses. When Dowie felt that offerings were too low, he commonly used the threat of potential illness or eternal damnation to get his people to give more.
Demands for money never stopped with tithing, though. The typical person who came to see Dowie for help or healing was typically ill or in distress, and had also been screened to see whether their worldview could be manipulated. Whether he healed them or not, they were in an extremely vulnerable situation for him to exercise “undue influence” over them. There is overwhelming evidence to show that he used this “undue influence” to extract money whenever he could.
Although Dowie trumpeted the fact that he did not charge for his healings, he routinely demanded that “offerings” be made before he could be seen. This was often justified on the grounds that individuals could not be cured if they had not been making contributions to the church, and hence were not in a state of holiness. At other times Dowie was apparently brazen enough to steal money from people’s pockets while he was laying hands on them!
Dowie often made threatening demands for offerings once the healing ceremony was over if they were not forthcoming, even if the patient died, was not cured, or had lapsed after initial improvement. Individuals who were admitted to Dowie’s “Healing Homes” also faced demands for money. In addition to paying boarding fees and making offerings, they were usually asked to turn over life insurance policies to the Church (especially if they were written by Masonic organizations).
Additionally, “undue influence” was commonly used to make those on the verge of dying amend their wills to turn their estates over to the Christian Catholic Church. Other instances of duplicity attested to in court testimony include pocketing funds raised to aid victims of natural disasters, selling worthless securities to church members, and using deception to obtain lower fares from transportation companies.
Once Dowie formulated his plan to build his utopian society, Zion City, in the late 1890s, he made himself less reliant on the forms of petty swindling described above. Zion City itself was a carefully devised large-scale platform for “securities fraud” requiring significant organizational, legal, and propagandistic preparation to carry out.