Atlas Obscura shares the fascinating story of John Alexander Dowie, a health and wealth huckster who paved the way for the Benny Hinn’s and Creflo Dollar’s of today. Dowie was not ashamed of his wealth, and he lived in unabashed luxury. “Jesus came to make His people rich,” Dowie preached. Not in the “life to come,” but a “hundredfold now in this time.”
John Alexander Dowie was not America’s first faith healer—but he was the first to get rich doing it. Dowie, a Congregational minister originally from Scotland, discovered his unusual gift in 1876, when he was 29. A small girl dying of diphtheria was miraculously cured after Dowie prayed at her bedside.
A year later he launched his healing ministry. After stints in Australia and California, Dowie moved to Chicago and opened a church near the site of the 1893 World’s Fair. Sadie Cody, who was in town to see her uncle Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show at the fair, went to see Dowie about a tumor in her back. After he laid his hands on her, Cody later said, she “felt a new life” inside her. The tumor vanished, and word of Dowie’s seemingly miraculous healing powers spread quickly.
In his lifetime, Dowie claimed to cure scores of serious afflictions, including smallpox, cancer, broken limbs, and blindness, as well as lesser ailments like asthma and arthritis. Medical doctors and mainline Protestant ministers, however, dismissed Dowie as a charlatan, noting that many of the illnesses he claimed to cure were psychosomatic, while the most dramatic healings were obviously staged.
Nonetheless, Dowie’s flock multiplied rapidly, and by 1901 he had amassed enough followers to establish his own version of utopia, a biblical city built from scratch on 10 square miles of farmland 40 miles north of Chicago.
Read more: The Sketchy Faith Healer