Miracles by Craig S. Keener — Two Con Men Who Invented A New Form of Faith Healing Spectacle: John Alexander Dowie and John G. Lake

Craig Keener in his work, Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament, mentions Dowie and Lake as healers extraordinaire. But many of their claims have been revealed to be cons, including in the end, conning themselves.

Con Man, John Alexander Dowie
John Alexander Dowie and the Invention of Faith Healing, 1882-1889
John Alexander Dowie invented a new form of faith healing spectacle in the 1880s that was substantively different to all previous forms of “Divine Healing.” In order to construct his new faith healing public performances, Dowie drew from two secular gnostic traditions--Spiritualism and the “Mind Cure” Movement.

Section Five of Jim Jones - The Malachi 4 Elijah Prophecy by John Collins

By the late 1870s John Alexander Dowie became known to his followers as a “Christian Spiritualist,” and he spoke on topics such as “How I Became a Medium.” He became known throughout parts of Australia as a “healer by faith,” using his “supernatural powers” to heal the sick and afflicted. By 1880, he had such a strong following that he began receiving large donations to start a church, and decided to run for Parliament. His self-proclaimed spiritualism did not go unnoticed, however. Thomas Walker, a well-known free-thought lecturer, began exposing Dowieʼs claim to be a “medium,” and published an article in The Age (Melbourne newspaper). Shortly after his “Spiritualism Unmasked” was published...
Three years later, in 1888, Reverend John Alexander Dowie came to the United States... There was a gathering for those seeking “healing and salvation.” According to the Oakland Tribune reporter present, he waited an hour and twenty minutes listening to fervent prayers and expecting to see a modern miracle, yet none came. One young lady summed up the service well: “Now I think it is a shame that this man should be allowed the use of Christian churches to talk and set good but weak minded people crazy. I have an aged mother in there, and Iʼve been waiting for her nearly three hours. Sheʼs nearly lost her reason several times over the doctrines, and now I think this man will utterly upset her mind.” After the series of meetings, a handful of people claimed they were cured of various diseases, and gave written testimonies to the Oakland Tribune The Tribune published these testimonies alongside an evaluation of the “healings” by local ministers, who claimed they had examined some of the “healed” to find them not healed at all. When a brief period of time passed and Dowieʼs “miracles” were found to be lacking in actual healing, the public opinion of the “healer” from Australia began to quickly change. By January of 1889, Dowie found himself unable to gain an audience at many of the churches in Oakland... Though newspaper reporters attempted to gain access to witness the “healings,” Dowie refused to allow them inside... Dowie pushed the people of Pittsburgh for money. He claimed that many thousand dollars were required to carry on “the work,” and that all missions thus far had been at his own expense. He then took a collection and gathered what was assumed to be a large sum of money. At 6:30 in the evening, twenty-seven of the persons attending who claimed to have been healed met in the “Green Room” of Carnegie Hall gathered to receive instructions from Rev. Dowie. Dowie interrogated the “healed,” screening them to confirm that their testimony to the newspapers would be in his favor. But when a physician examined the situation, he declared that he was greatly concerned with Dowieʼs mental stability. “His mind, like others, is so full of ego that he cannot come into a harmonious touch with the world. He really thinks he possesses the power of curing, or, as he words it, that he can cure with the help of God. These people who tragically throw away their crutches are not cured. A man, for instance, may suffer from hysterical paralysis, and being worked up to a state of frenzy by Dr. Dowieʼs words, he will stir up all his latent energy and will by a supreme effort dispense with artificial means of support. When his enthusiasm deserts him, however, a relapse must occur. In the same way with other maladies, the great French physicians have temporarily banished pain by hypnotizing their subject. If we examine this matter closely, we will see how closely allied divine healing is to hypnotizing. I have no doubt the doctor is honest, but that he performs what some dyspeptic old ladies think is simply ridiculous.”... [One newspaper] went so far as to say that “victims are snatched from the brink of the grave.” It made no mention of those in the Pittsburgh meetings who sought professional care after their trip to the healer, and did not describe Dowieʼs careful process of excluding reporters from the actual “healing” to prep those who might testify and eliminate those with negative statements. The public attention gained by the newspaperʼs promotion of his ministry was highly effective. By April of 1894, Dowieʼs following had grown so large that he began seeking land to hold them all... Things grew quite a bit worse for Dowie and his followers later that year when a young Albert Garbett, a youth from Minneapolis who came to “Doctor” Dowie to be healed, died of spinal illness. Many began to question his “power” of healing. A few months later, in January of 1895, Dowie was arrested after taking $120 from a patient under his care. According to the report, Frank E. King had given “Doctor” Dowie $120 for healing. King was in the final stages of consumption, and was taken to the Zion establishment. When he could not be cured, and was put out to die, the State Board of Health was informed and intervened. Dowie was finally arrested... Dowie quickly became a well-known, frequent prisoner in police courts for operating a “hospital” without a license. By August, of 1895, he had forty-four cases against him, for which they were all finally dismissed. Judge Chetlain eventually issued a restraining order preventing the city from interfering with “the doctor.” The restraining order did little to stop the many arrests and trials, however. As “patients” and family involved with Dowieʼs “hospital” continued to file civil suits for malpractice and even death, Dowie and his elders found themselves in and out of the court system. In August of 1899, Mrs. Henrikka Bratz and D. C. Holmes, elders in the Zion commune, were arrested after the death of Mrs. Anneta Flanders. They were arrested on charges of criminal negligence and malpractice after Flanders, who was suffering from blood poisoning, died for lack of treatment. The trial that ensued was nationally publicized, feeding the frenzy of a nation gripped with the interesting saga. Even the New York Times noted that Dowie was untouchable – “laws do not reach him.”... Battered from the frequent arrests, civil suits, criminal suits, and barrage of negative press, Dowie pressed his cult victims at Zion for more money. Declaring himself the “General Overseer of the Christian Catholic Church of Chicago,” he asked that they give him $1,000,000 [in Jesusʼs name of course]... By 1901, Dowie started claiming that he was the reincarnation of Elijah the prophet, as predicted in the fourth chapter of Malachi. This strategic move turned out to be highly profitable, both from a financial standpoint and a public relations standpoint. Shortly after claiming to be the reincarnation of Elijah the prophet, Dowieʼs wealth and popularity skyrocketed. Newspapers all across the nation published full-page, front-page spreads of the famous “divine healer” from Zion, Illinois who made a record profit of $15,000,000 in just ten years. Some soon labeled him as the “richest man in the West.” Interestingly, the timeline for Dowieʼs highly publicized ministry and successful establishment of his “holy city” Zion coincides directly with Frank Sandfordʼs “vision” to establish his own. As Dowie was breaking ground for Zion city, Sandford began claiming to have seen visions and angelic beings. John Alexander Dowie began claiming to be the reincarnation of Elijah in 1901, about the time Sandford made the same proclamation in his Holy Ghost and Us society. And like Sandford, Dowie asked his cult victims to forfeit all of their possessions and surrender to his full authority.

Additional information on the city that Dowie founded, Zion, Illinois. It became a flat earth theocracy

Additional embarrassing details concerning Dowie and his followers see this piece, and this one.

The city found by Dowie, Zion, Illinois, “occupies a special place in the history of Pentecostalism: in 1906, Charles Parham, widely regarded as the father of the movement, slipped into Zion to hold secret prayer meetings with a small dissident group. Parallels between his teachings and Dowieʼs made his message attractive to CCC members, and the movement began to snowball. Dowie unsuccessfully tried to order the Pentecostals out of Zion; his successor, Voliva, used violence and intimidation against them, also to no avail. The early Pentecostals in Zion coalesced into a church, the Christian Assembly of God, from which emerged several preachers influential to the further spread of Pentecostalism. Even though Pentecostals faced decades of persecution in Zion, the movement has since reclaimed Dowie as one of its own.” The Devil Inside. Zion, IL: Zionʼs prayer technicians wrestle with the demons of illness. by Brenda Wilhelmson (Chicago Reader, April 29, 2004)

The Big Con: John Alexander Dowie and the Spread of Zionist Christianity in Southern Africa

Adherents of various “Zionist” sects and churches represent one half or more of all Christians in southern Africa today... These Zionist churches derive from the evangelism of John Alexander Dowie (1847-1907), the founder and leader of the Christian Catholic Apostolic Church in Zion which in 1901 founded a utopian community named Zion City north of Chicago, Illinois... Dowieʼs newspaper “The Leaves of Healing,” along with several evangelists associated with his church, spread his unique version of Christianity in South Africa prior to 1908. In 1908 this “second evangelization” gained considerable impetus following the arrival of John G Lakeʼs evangelical team, which would remain in South Africa for five years. Lake, a long-time associate of Dowieʼs, had become a Pentecostal in Zion City after speaking in tongues in early 1907 and thus spearheaded the first Pentecostal mission to South Africa. Lakeʼs theology and organizational and preaching methods, though, were derived from Dowie.

Con Man, John G. Lake
John G Lakeʼs Formative Years, 1870-1908: The Making of A Con Man

During his career as a faith healer, John G Lake constructed a falsified biography that served to both legitimize his leadership in the Pentecostal movement and to provide evidence of miracles that he effected. This paper, which focuses on his activities prior to his South African mission of 1908-13, shows that the vast majority of his early biography is mere fiction. He was never an ordained minister as he claimed, nor was he a successful businessman. Later on, after he became involved in a series of brutal killings in Zion, IL, in 1907, he was forced to reinvent himself after fleeing the area. In order to hide this sordid past, he invented a series of visions that allegedly called him to minister in Africa.

Yes, John G Lake was a con man: A response to Marius Nel

This response to Marius Nelʼs 2016 article (in Studia Historiae Ecclesiasticae no. 42, 1, 62-85) uses primary source material to refute his claims that John G Lake, the initiator of Pentecostalism in southern Africa, was an upstanding man of God. A wide array of American and South African sources show that Lake invented an extensive but fictitious life story, while also creating a similarly dubious divine calling that obscured his involvement in gruesome killings in America. Once in South Africa, he used invented “miracles” to raise funds abroad for the Apostolic Faith Mission. Before long, he faced many accusations of duplicity from inside his own church.

Besides Dowie and Lake one should also read about the questionable claims of the faith healer Smith Wigglesworth that Keener features in his book on Miracles.


  1. I agree with your skepticism - to a point. There are always fakers and those who exaggerate. But there are many, many others who can say with the blind man Jesus healed in John 9: "one thing I know, that, whereas I was blind, now I see."

    It is hard to argue with experience.

  2. Miracles, signs, and wonders do happen, even these days where actual applied faith can be found. It is not an every-day event, but on occasion, when the gospel is being preached, God confirms that faith with signs. I have been fortunate enough in my own life to have seen a miracle of “creation,” so to speak, at a service in a small church in Roseville, California that I attended years ago. There was an evangelist/missionary, Wayne Crooke, from overseas speaking about miracles God was doing at outdoor evangelical meetings in Thailand. Wayne and his wife were well known by the church. After the service, he asked if anyone wanted prayer. A woman, Cindy, from our church with a short leg came forward. Wayne asked, “If anyone wants to see a miracle, come up front.” Several of us did. The evangelist, Wayne Crooke, had the pastor say the prayer. He wanted God to get the credit, not him. Cindy sat while the pastor held up her legs. You could clearly see the difference. As the prayer in Jesus’ name continued, the leg started to shift and, after a few seconds, settled even with the other. I think everyone’s mouth dropped open. I was watching from about 4 feet away. It was like an act of creation, a piece of leg where there was none. I wanted more proof. We fiddled with her legs after service. There was no way she could use her built up shoe anymore. It made here hobble. Her unbelieving husband even showed up the next week to see what kind of a church his wife was attending. I had faith previous to this, but now I have personal proof of God’s reality. This only one of several miracles, I have experienced over the years. I'm aware of fakes out their, but I was to close to the event and knew those involved to well for there to be any doubt.

    1. Making "one leg grow longer" is repeatable even by a skeptic posing as a faith healer. Here is a program by an atheist who reproduces the leg lengthening miracle, then trains someone else to perform the same miracle during a street preaching section of the program. https://youtu.be/iuP5uOI7Xwc