In the early summer of 1906, Charles Fox Parham received a vision of Zion City, Illinois, and the voice of the Lord said: “‘Arise and go to Zion and take up the burden of an oppressed people'” (“Kingdom Come” . . . ). In late September, Bro. Parham entered the troubled city with the message of the baptism of the Holy Ghost evidenced by speaking in tongues. As the self-proclaimed “Projector” of the pneteocstal message, Parham saw a clear opportunity to win converts among the dissillusioned followers of John Alexander Dowie, the deposed leader of the Christian Catholic Apostolic Church. Parham’s presence in the city and some high-profile conversions caused a firestorm of controversy and a showdown with Wilbur Glenn Voliva, the newly-appointed overseers of Zion’s official and only church.
Zion City was the utopian experiment of John Alexander Dowie, an evangelist from Australia. Dowie began meetings in Chicago and attracted widespread media attention with his open denouncement of medical practitioners and corrupt city leaders. His sermons were filled with overt invectives and dire warnings to unrepentant sinners. In response to the social degeneracy of metropolitan Chicago, Dowie announced in 1900 a new venture, the establishment of a city where the faithful could live out the simple message of their church: salvation, healing, and holy living. In 1902, when the city incorporated, over 5,000 believers claimed residency in Zion (Cook 135.).
Initially, Zion seemed to be the anticipated haven promised by Dowie. The city prospered as a “theocracy” and developed industries, manufacturing products as diverse as lace, fig bars, and chocolate. The city formed a bank, a school, and band, and there were no doctors, druggists, or dance halls. Dowie and his followers were trusting God in their veritable Promised Land, and citizens worshipped in the Shiloh Tabernacle, one in faith, doctrine, and love.
Unfortunately, Dowie himself became progressively corrupt, mismanaging church funds, living opulently, and forming a cult of personality. In 1904, Dowie presumptuously styled himself Elijah the Restorer and First Apostle of the Christian Catholic Apostolic Church and began dressing in liturgical robes modeled after the Levitical high priest’s garment. Dowie’s excesses and doctrinal eccentricities increased; and in the end, he was replaced by Wilbur Glenn Voliva, a convert who had overseen Zion’s work in Australia. Feeble and marginalized, Dowie retained only a small following as Voliva attempted to stabilize the crumbling church and financially-devastated city.
It was in this state of turmoil and confusion that Charles Parham entered Zion. He rented schoolhouses and the main tabernacle and defiantly announced to a furious Voliva his full intention to remain in Zion “till Kingdom Come [sic]” (“New Prophet” . . .). In a short time, Voliva closed the doors of the city buildings to Parham, and meetings were moved to private homes. At the revival’s peak, Bro. Parham was holding five meetings each evening, traveling to each location to preach (Parham 157). Voliva issued a burning ultimatum to his church: “You must choose either me or this intruder . . . You can not [sic] have two leaders” (“Kingdom come” . . . ). Escalating the controversy, Voliva erected a printed billboard declaring his city to be “established by Zion people and for Zion people only.” The sign orders Parham to leave Zion and establish his own settlement, calling his faith “an ecclesiastical ‘goat-house'” or “garbage dump” and threatening: “The war is on RED HOT . . .” (“Zion Signs”).
In addition, Dowie himself spoke out against Bro. Parham’s growing influence over his flock, and a confident Parham rebutted that “Dowie was not in his right mind but if placed under his care would soon be restored to his former self” (Parham 160).
Within a week, Bro. Parham had attracted hundreds of followers. Zion City was home to many who would become influential workers in the Pentecostal Movement. Dowie’s own restorationist doctrine had prepared Zion’s denizens to receive the message of the Apostolic Faith. Like their leader, they fully anticipated the full recovery of the New Testament Church, and Bro. Parham’s experiential message of speaking in tongues was certainly a credible corollary, supported by the Scriptures. Among those converted under Bro. Parham were F.F. Bosworth, director of the city band, E.N. Richey, Zion’s mayor, John G. Lake, a deacon in Zion’s church, and D.C.O. Opperman, who later became an influential leader in the Oneness movement (Blumhofer 4). By New Year’s Eve 1906, 2,000 were attending Parham’s meetings, and hundreds had been filled with the baptism of the Holy Ghost (Parham 172).
While faithful Zionites viewed Bro. Charles Parham as an opportunist and proselytizer, his unflagging commitment to the Apostolic Faith empowered him to endure the persecutions and personal attacks wielded by the spiritual leaders of Zion. Though Dowie and his successor never accepted Parham’s message, their watchwords of salvation, healing, and holy living are still meaningful to modern Pentecostals, complemented by the baptism of the Holy Ghost. Despite Zion’s troubles and ultimate degeneration from its original ideals, the city proved to be a fertile seedbed for Pentecostal revival in the Midwest, and many of the workers were instrumental in propelling the Pentecostal Movement around the globe and completely restoring the original message of the New Testament Apostolic Church.
Blumhofer, Edith. “A Pentecostal Branch Grows in Dowie’s Zion.” Heritage. Fall 1986, 3-9.
Cook, Philip Lee. Zion City, Illinois: Twentieth Century Utopia Thes. U of Colorado, 1965.
“Kingdome Come: Parham Makes Big Convernts.” Waukegan Daily Sun 26 Sept 1906.
“New Prophet in Zion Defies Voliva.” Waukegan Daily Sun 21 Sept 1906.
Parham, Sarah E. The Life of Charles F. Parham: Founder of the Apostolic Faith Movement. New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1985.
Zion Signs. Flower Pentecostal Heritage Center.