John Alexander Dowie: The case of Messianic hope and cosmic disappointment

Asif M Basit, Ahmadiyya Archive & Research Centre
John Alexander Dowie

So much has been written about the prayer-duel of Hazrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmadas and John Alexander Dowie in Ahmadiyya literature and otherwise that there remains no need to further reiterate a point already so well proven.

I would, however, like to discuss a point often raised by some: When there were hundreds of claimants of Jesus’ reincarnation, why did Hazrat Ahmadas only target two?

To address the question, we must go back in time and glance at the climate that loomed at the time of Hazrat Ahmad’s own claim to being the Messiah.

Towards the end of the second millennium – spanning over several centuries – Millennialism (also:  Millenarianism) was at its height and almost all religions were experiencing a high tide of reform movements. Doomsday was seen as lurking closer and the final transformation of the world was deemed due, or even overdue, in various religious belief systems. Abrahamic faiths had their expectations invested in the one character that was to appear to make it all happen – the Messiah. For some, it was to be his first and final appearance, for others the second and conclusive – Islam and Christianity sharing the latter.  

The time of the claim of Hazrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmadas – of being the awaited Messiah of Abrahamic faiths – was a time when Messianic hope was rife. The last decade of the nineteenth and the first one of the twentieth century saw many figures claiming the same, or similar.

Since the case of John Hugh Smyth Pigott has been dealt with thoroughly, we try to analyse below why Dowie’s claim attracted such significant attention of Hazrat Ahmadas – the warning, the emphasis, the prayer-duel, and subsequently, the celebration of victory. For this, we will first have to see what these figures – both ambassadors of Messianic hope – stood for.

The claim of Hazrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmad

Hazrat Ahmad’s claims can all be summed up in one: The awaited reformer of all faiths. As for the Abrahamic faiths in general, his claim was that of the promised reformer, the Messiah. In the case of Islam specifically, this meant being the Mahdi as well, for that role too stood for a reformer of the latter days. For other faiths, he was the final Godsend, whomsoever they awaited. Summed up, he was the awaited reformer for any and every religion in the world.

Since he saw in Islam the finality of all faiths, he claimed that all religions are destined to culminate in Islam and unite as one whole and not remain fragmented. For this, he had to prove that the God of Islam was the only acceptable and the best concept of Deity because God, through Islam, had given mankind a complete code of life – one encompassing spiritual, social, political, moral and economic principles. 

Hinduism and Christianity as prime targets

A question often asked is why a reformer sent to redress all faiths devoted all his efforts towards Hinduism and Christianity. Everyone can address this in their own way, but one way of seeing it is that these two faiths were based on shirk and potentially led to more avenues of associating deities with the One God. Where Hinduism was based on polytheism by way of belief in multiple gods, Christianity had gone way beyond by turning a human being into a deity. 

To establish the Oneness of God, Hazrat Ahmadas saw in refutation of these two religions as uprooting shirk altogether; if beliefs of these two could be proven false, all other avenues would shut down automatically.

In this cause, he went to every possible limit. He wrote, he spoke and he warned the leaders of these faiths, asking them not to misguide innocent people away from tauhid – the Oneness of God. In both cases, Hazrat Ahmadas had to touch the limit set by the Holy Quran, known as mubahalah – a prayer-duel where the untruthful one is annihilated, usually in the truthful one’s life. 

In the case of Hinduism, the Arya Samajist Lekh Ram invited this decisive mode of religious conflict and met his fate and as for Christianity, John Alexander Dowie. I do not include here John Hugh Smyth Pigott as Hazrat Ahmadas saw him as belonging to no faith for his claims to be God himself, hence not being an adherent of any.

Claims of John Alexander Dowie

Setting off as a minister of religion and having moved on to being a faith healer, Dowie went to claim that he was Elijah the restorer, the messenger of God’s covenant and a restorer of the Kingdom of God – sent to annihilate every other faith in order for Christianity to prevail.

He founded a Christian Catholic Church – which he emphatically disassociated from its Roman namesake – and styled himself as the First Apostle. He purchased vast expanses of farmland in the north of Illinois and became the owner of a 10 square-mile land where he built his Utopian town and named it “Zion”. He established here his church and his rule by having his own legal and penal system, staying aloft the law of land.

It was from here that he intended to build a network of similar cities where, he claimed, only his teachings would prevail and will hence, bring about the rule of Christianity in the whole world.

His vision of Zion can be summed up in a passage that he preached to his congregation:

“Get ye all out and come into this City of God beside this lovely Lake, and, when we have filled it to overflowing, we shall build another, another, and another until every Nation has its Zion City.”1

Dowie’s strong aversion to Islam

Of all other faiths, he despised Islam the most. Why? Only he could tell, but from what we gather from his own words, he possibly saw it as a tough nut to crack and the strongest competitor.   

This aim to annihilate Islam seems to be at the heart of building Zion, as he said:

“This is the reconstruction of Zion, spiritually and physically. 

“The reorganization of the administration of government throughout the entire world will proceed from Zion’s Holy Hill at Jerusalem.

“Every other Zion will be subordinate to that. From there the Messiah, the Christ, the King of all the Earth and all the Nations will reign.

“It is beginning to be about time to rebuild that old city, to clear away the rubbish of the many generations […]

“How can any one who knows exactly what Mohammedanism is, for one single moment imagine that God or man can forever stand that abomination? 

“‘Where the Moslem hoof comes no grass grows,’ is the Eastern proverb. Wherever the accursed teaching of Mahomet has come, there has been an end of all real progress. How can there be progress when one-half the people are treated as spiritless beasts? 

“The nation has no right to political existence that makes a religion of bestiality, and promises a heaven of harlotry to man —his reward being a number of peri or houri as paramours. 

“The theology of Mohammedanism is that no woman has a spirit. The Mohammedan paradise is a palace where the satisfaction of a man’s dirty belly, his abominable passions, are the highest form of reward through endless ages. 

“It is time that such an organized abomination as that should be swept out.”2

The presence of Islam haunted him so badly and he incited the hatred in his followers had been quite conspicuous, when he had spoken of it a year earlier:

“Great portions of the world that were Christian when the Apostles died, and within the first three centuries of the Christian era, are heathen and Mohammedan today. On the northern shores of Africa, where great Christian churches flourished, the Moslem now rules. Where many of the noblest Fathers of the Early Church toiled, suffered and died, to plant great Churches, there are none to be found today. 

“A great deterioration has taken place.”3

By the summer of 1902, Dowie was possessed by his own idea that he was Elijah. He was dreaming of taking over control of all faiths with his centre at Jerusalem. His message was bold and loud when he ordered his congregation:

“Tell them that Elijah has entered upon his work, and, if he takes some care of himself, he will last a little time.

“Elijah will have to get away and rest awhile.

“People must take care and not be foolish and try to run Elijah. They cannot do it.”4

His biographers observe that “one of the tragedies of Dowies’ life was the fact that in the latter part of his life, he entered into pride and self-exaltation”.5

Gary Bourgeault observes that this episode of vanity and self-exaltation “led to his most disastrous conclusion in regard to himself and his position in the kingdom of God, and that was that he proclaimed himself to be the third and final manifestation of Elijah […]”6

Commenting on this tragedy of his life, biographers almost agree with Bourgeault, with their own reasoning, that “why an intelligent man would risk his legacy and life’s work to declare this, is puzzling.”7

And now we turn to solve this puzzling twist of Dowie’s life.

Invitation to a prayer-duel

We have seen that Dowie’s sermons in the summer of 1902 had turned quite fiery against Islam and Muslims, and he was obsessed with the idea of having them annihilated. 

These sermons reached the township of Qadian in the British-Indian Punjab and in the hands of Hazrat Ahmadas. It is hard to believe that if these brazen claims of Dowie could reach Qadian – a town with the least amenities of postage and telegraphic connections – they would have remained inconspicuous to other Muslims and their leaders. 

But defending and rejuvenating the faith of Islam was a task assigned to Hazrat Ahmadas, and so it was he who stood up to the call of duty. He immediately wrote to Dowie – in what can be called an open letter for its publication in the Ahmadiyya journal The Review of Religions, alongside a whole array of global newspapers:

“Since Dr Dowie is the messenger of the powerful deity who was crucified by the Jews, I would entreat him to refrain from destroying the whole body of Muhammadans living on the face of the earth […]

“As regards the Muhammadans, we hope Dr Dowie will renounce his claim upon all if the decision can be come to by an easier method. Whether the God of Muhammadans or the God of Dowie is the true God may be settled without the loss of millions of lives which Dr Dowie’s prediction would involve. That method is that without threatening the Muhammadan public in general with destruction, he should choose me as his opponent and pray to God that of two whoever is the liar may perish first.”8

Global coverage of the news

This invitation attracted attention on a global scale. Newspapers in the USA picked up the story and rarely was there a newspaper that did not seem excited. The UK press was equally enthralled and so was the press in Australia and New Zealand. 

This global interest in the fate of the two Messiahs left Dowie no escape and compelled him to respond. In one of his sermons, he responded to Hazrat Ahmadas:

“In India, there is a foolish Messiah who writes me often telling me that the tomb of Jesus Christ is in Kashmir and the people sometimes say to me, why do you not reply to this and that or other things. “Reply! Do you think that I shall reply to these gnats and flies. If I put my foot on them, I would crush out their lives. I give them a chance to fly away and live.”9

This contemptuous response might have earned the self-styled Elijah a round of applause and a few sycophant cries of cheers from his followers in the Tabernacle but the global press did not see the Indian Messiah as “foolish”, nor his words as “gnats and flies”. Newspapers from the West Coast to the distant Eastern shores of New Zealand heavily advertised the warning and the invitation to a prayer-duel issued by Hazrat Ahmadas

This scale of press coverage for the words of someone he saw as “foolish” must have added insult to injury. The ego of an “Elijah” and a “Messenger” was deeply wounded. What followed, hence, was a vicious circle of claim-after-claim from a “restorer” to restore his own position – the only possession he could secure, if at all.

This perhaps could be a sufficient answer to what Dowie’s biographers saw as “puzzling”. Someone who had such bold and blazing claims to be told by someone that he would perish away into nothingness had shaken the man to his core. He was given the same warning as he was used to issuing to other claimants of divinity. 

The eventful summer of 1889

Hazrat Ahmadas had claimed to be the Promised Messiah and Saviour and started accepting allegiance from his followers in May 1889. Dowie had only recently migrated from Australia to America to find out about a claimant of the second advent of Jesus Christ – not Ahmad, but another man in Illinois, USA, namely George Jacob Schweinfurth.

Schweinfurth owned a vast expanse of land in Rockford, Illinois and called it Mount Zion, having established his own denomination by the name of The Church Triumphant. Dowie seems to have been as much fascinated by the idea, as he was infuriated.

While in Chicago, Dowie visited this “messiah” on 29 July 1889. Dowie asked George:

“Do you declare that you are the Christ Who came to the earth, and that who I am speaking to is He?”

 George is said to have calmly replied, “I am He.”

The interview is reported to have lasted two hours and a half, with Dowie declaring at the end:

“I am glad that I have come and glad that I have seen you and for these two hours and a half spoken with you […]

“I venture to prophecy in the Name of the Lord that you will wither away […]

“I have no other feeling than one of intense desire that you should repent of your great sin […]”10

When Dowie had been warning others of repenting from the grave sin of falsely claiming to be God’s messenger, committing the same sin must have left him puzzled himself. What followed such claims left his biographers even more puzzled. Thus, the same warning – to “wither away” – coming to him from a Messiah must have struck him hard.

Ironic it is to note that Dowie followed the same pattern as George Jacob Schweinfurth in establishing his own enterprise as a false Messiah; he purchased farmland, established his own town, devised his own law and called it “Zion”, etc. One wonders why he expected his own fate to be different from what he had “prophesied” for the one whom he hired his own inspiration from.


The decline of Alexander Dowie

The overambitious claims of Dowie might leave his biographers and commentators puzzled today, but this is not something new. His followers, who attended his sermons and services in person, had experienced something similar. 

Gordon Lindsay is among the most, if not the most, authentic biographers of Dowie. He was born, in the lifetime of Dowie in Zion to parents who were his ardent followers. His childhood was spent in Zion and he had the chance to speak first-hand to many of the surviving followers alongside having access to collections of material that is otherwise rarely accessible.

Lindsay states, on authority of those who witnessed Dowie’s days of decline:

“But those who knew Dr Dowie from the earlier years of his Chicago ministry, and had associated with him most intimately, were vaguely conscious that something was happening to their leader. A change was taking place, yet a change so exceedingly subtle as to be almost imperceptible. Yet although it was difficult to lay a finger on the tangible evidence of the change, one thing was certain – the John Alexander Dowie who lived in the Twentieth Century was not the same John Alexander Dowie who had preached in ‘The Little Wooden Hut’ outside the gates of the World’s Fair in Chicago.

“[…] Something deep within him, something fundamental in his nature, had changed. There had been a peculiar erosion of a certain vital quality in the faculties of John Alexander Dowie, of which he himself was unaware, but which resulted in a definite altering of his outlook and judgment.”11

This was around 1903 – a time when Dowie had been forewarned by Hazrat Ahmadas of his destiny, should he not refrain from his false claims. It was, as all his biographers agree, the beginning of his end. The downfall was a rapid decline on a very steep slope. From failing physical health to deteriorating mental faculties, and from the crumbling of Zion’s economic model to a dismissal by his once-upon-a-time confidants. He was deposed and left to die in the most miserable state. While he was allowed to remain a tenant in one of the rooms of his Shiloh Tabernacle, he died in a miserable state. 

A Chicago newspaper reporter met Dowie and reported back as such:

“The curtain is about to fall. The star has left the stage; the prompter has closed his book; the scene-shifters are shuffling in the wings; and the stage manager has his finger on the bell. 

“It is a city hopelessly bankrupt, facing and indebtedness of six million dollars – a city built upon sand. The dream of Zion as conceived by Dowie is gone forever. The vision has faded.

“Dowie, sick, suffering from hallucinations, still sat in the Shiloh House […] his eyes were deeply sunken, and voice quavered in disappointment”.12

Gordon Lindsay interviewed a Mr Samuel Shadd, then 86 and one who had witnessed the final days of Dowie. I quote Lindsay where he paraphrases Shadd’s recollections:

“One of the questions that we asked was whether Dr Dowie, during those last months, made any reference to his Elijah Declaration, but the reply was that as far as could be remembered, Dr Dowie never mentioned nor alluded to it […]

“Mr Shadd emphasized that […] as the days slipped by, and he knew that his time of going was at hand, he became very gentle, and he expressed his resignation to all that had come upon him and no longer struggled against it.

“True it was that he did not seem to understand his own part in the tragedy. He just seemed to know that something terrible had gone wrong […]

“Once when those who took care of him tried to move him, they lost their grip and his body fell with a hard thud on the floor […]”

Thus dropped the curtains of John Alexander Dowie’s pretentious claims.

Why the importance to Dowie

We now return to the question as to why Hazrat Ahmadas saw Dowie as being eligible for so much of his attention, and why the press around the world showed so much interest.

1. While Dowie can be placed among a whole band of impostors, he was a hard-line enemy of Islam – the faith that Hazrat Ahmadas believed to be the only restorer for humanity, faith and morality. Hazrat Ahmadas was to later state:

“With each passing day, he grew in fame, wealth, and the number of his followers. He started living like a king, whereas previously he was akin to a beggar. If a Muslim, who was weak in faith, had seen him ascending to such glory despite his falsehood and fabrication, he would have gone astray and been at a loss. Even if such a Muslim had been a learned scholar, he could not have saved himself from falling into error, the reason being that [Dowie] was an enemy of Islam who used foul language against our Prophet, the Best of Mankind, yet reached the pinnacle of fame and wealth.”13

2. Why the large-scale publicity of the mubahalah? Hazrat Ahmadas knew people would enquire, and thus he addressed the issue:

“[…] There was nothing hidden or secret about the mubahalah; rather, it was a matter well advertised all over the world – in the east and in the west, in the north and in the south.

“The reason for such advertisement was that Dowie was like the great kings in renown. In America and Europe, there was not even a single person in the upper and lower classes of society who did not know him well. In fact, the people in those countries held him in great honour and revered him as a king. Moreover, he travelled extensively and used mesmerizing speeches to lure people into his trap, like a hunter traps his prey.

“This is why no newspaper editor ever refused to publish the material sent to them regarding the mubahalah. Instead, they were eager to publish it out of a strong curiosity to see the end of this contest.”14

3. No other impostor had been so ambitiously active in propagating his claim as was Dowie and hence had to be addressed at a similar level. Hazrat Ahmadas stated:

“He believed Jesus to be God and was so ambitious in spreading the belief in Trinity in the whole world that, despite having read hundreds of books by Christian missionaries, I have not come across anyone so passionate in this cause.”15

4. The Holy Prophet of Islam had prophesied that Islam shall prevail all over the world, and its Sun shall rise from the West, it was important that an impostor, whose claims were so extensively publicised in the West, be exposed as an impostor. Writing to Hazrat Hakim Maulvi Nuruddinra, Hazrat Ahmadas stated:

“Should Dowie agree to my offer of mubahalah and stand up to my challenge, he will, before my eyes, leave this world in great anguish and agony. Such are the signs that have been dedicated for Europe and America. I hope they ponder over these signs and benefit from them.”16

5. Dowie, when making his claim to be the Messenger of the Covenant of God, used in his favour the Biblical prophecy of Deuteronomy 18:18. This prophecy, Hazrat Ahmadas believed and preached, was about the advent of the Holy Prophetsa of Islam. 

The words, “I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their fellow brethren. And I will put my words in his mouth, and he shall speak to them all that I command”, could not so conveniently be given away for abuse by an impostor. 

6. Dowie was not only an enemy of Islam but had set out to wipe out all faiths from the face of the earth. He wanted to see Muslims, Jews, Zoroastrians and even Christians fall to his feet or be annihilated.17

Hazrat Ahmadas respected people of all religions and wanted to bring them peacefully under the banner of Islam. He believed and preached that the second advent of Jesus would not bring with it temporal power, but would rather be a kingdom over hearts through peaceable means. 

7. In his sermons, he incited his believers against the law of the land. He roused a sense of revolt against the government, including the government of the United States of America, stating that “theocracy was the only way” America could be ruled.


His grand visitation of New York, although resulting in failure, was a venture which proved to what extremes he could go to establish his temporal power in the country. 

He chartered eight trains, all heading to New York and filled with a band of his believers, to instil in every citizen of New York to turn to his theocratic ideas and to accept the supremacy of Zion over all other worldly methods of governance. Despite huge publicity in the press, the venture turned out to be a disastrous failure, but the scale of it was something worthy of attention.  

Hazrat Ahmadas, on the contrary, had brought with him a unique political philosophy where revolting and rebelling against the ruler of the land was an un-Islamic act, as long as the ruler provided freedom of faith. Hazrat Ahmadas did not deem it essential that a state must be theocratic for faith to prevail. He saw faith and political affairs as two separate realms which could be brought together like two sides of a coin.

8. Dowie had prohibited any medical facilities, including any drug stores, in Zion. Seeking medical advice, he said, was against faith as only God alone had the power to heal. He led a so-called “Holy War” against the medical professionals, turning most doctors of the land against himself. The doctors obviously found it unflattering and gathered in their thousands to attack him when he appeared to deliver one of such lectures. Had it not been for the Chicago police, the riots could have resulted for Dowie in grave injury and harm.

In a world that was steadily losing faith in God, it was a grave crime to lead people to further abandon their belief in God. Hazrat Ahmadas believed in a God who alone was the healer of pains and ailments, but he also believed that the same God had created facilities for mankind – medicine and practitioners being among them. 

To quit all medical advice and medication would mean testing God, which is un-Islamic, could result in grave consequences in terms of belief.

Above all, it was the scale of publicity – sweeping across the whole world – of his pretentious and harmful claims that called for a similar scale response. That the response Hazrat Ahmadas overshadowed the impostor’s claim and campaign, shrinking it to its annihilation, is already proven and accepted by not only the followers of Hazrat Ahmadas, but by all fair-minded people, contemporaneous and of modern-day alike. 

Post Scriptum

While Dowie was completely deluded in false pretence, we must however credit him for the fulfilment of two of his prophecies.

On a Sunday morning in 1899, Dowie was giving a sermon, when all of a sudden “he stood with uplifted hands, and while weeping with copious tears,” and said:

“I sometimes fear that I shall be like Moses, having led this people on, I shall be set aside – yea God Himself setting me aside and choosing another to lead the people on. I fear that I shall sometime say: Dowie did something, when Dowie never did anything. I shall this grieve God by taking some glory for myself, when it all belongs to him.”18

He got the Moses analogy wrong, but his words were fulfilled. One of his own ministers, Anton Darms, recalled this incident later:

“This premonition may have been a Divine warning […]”

Well, we now know that it actually was. He stubbornly refused to heed. God sent this message in more clearer words through his true Messiah, and yet, Dowie turned a blind eye and a deaf ear. And the fact is that Dowie was, in his own words, “set aside” and God showed vividly who he had chosen, again in Dowie’s own words, “to lead the people on”.19

Another prophecy of Dowie saw fulfilment and we conclude this article on its mention, for nothing more needs to be said.

Around the time when Dowie had been forewarned by Hazrat Ahmadas, and had landed in an abyss of confusion, he declared the following words before his congregation:

“I know not the possibilities of electricity. It is possible that it may yet convey the face of the speaker, and, by photo-electricity, show the man as he is talking. Perhaps a discourse delivered here may be heard in every city of the United States. Some day that will be so and the word spoken in Shiloh Tabernacle will be heard even in the farthest corners of the Earth.”20

He wasn’t wrong. It was to happen. It happened. But it happened in a world where time and tide and tables, had all turned. It was not he who was to speak from Zion and the world was to hear, but a successor of Hazrat Ahmadas

The victory of Hazrat Ahmadas over Dowie saw a new height when Hazrat Mirza Masroor Ahmadaa spoke from the Ahmadiyya mosque in Zion, and his audio and video reached every corner of the Earth. 


Leaves of Healing (being the mouthpiece publication of Zion), 28 February 1903 (Punctuation and capitalisation as in the original text and not the author’s. The same applies to all other passages cited in this article)

Leaves of Healing, 14 February 1903

3 Ibid, 30 November 1902

4 Ibid, 23 August 1902

5 Gary Bourgeault, John Alexander Dowie: The Flawed Dreamer and the Servant of

6 Ibid

7 Ibid

The Review of Religions, September 1907

Leaves of Healing, 27 December 1902

10 Lindsay Gordon, John Alexander Dowie: A life story of trials, tragedies and triumphs, p. 67, Christ for the Nations Inc, Dallas, 1980  

11 Lindsay, pp 186-187

12 Ibid, p 178

13 Haqiqatul Wahi [English translation], Islam International Publications, Surrey, 2018, p. 875

14 Ibid, p 881

15 Haqiqatul Wahi, Ruhani Khazain, Vol. 22, p. 505

16 Maktubat-e-Ahmad, being a collection of letters of Hazrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmadas, Vol. 1, p. 269

17 Leaves of Healing, 1902

18 Lindsay, p. 183

19 Ibid

20 Leaves of Healing, Vol 16, No 1, p. 15

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