May 24, 2019

The Other Zionism

“Looking up the rickety stairs of the run-down building on Melbourne’s Pitt Street, Mrs Spinks was deeply afraid. She had been suffering near-uncontrollable vaginal bleeding for months, accompanied by dizzyingly painful cramps in her stomach. She had consulted a number of Melbourne’s physicians – including the notorious Dr James Beaney, whom Melbourne society whispered had murdered a bar-maid when he had operated upon her blind-drunk – but none of these eminent male physicians had been able to help her. They had only prodded her painfully with terrifying metal implements and recommended grizzly sounding surgeries. She was left penniless and hopeless.

At the end of her tether (she had consulted – unsuccessfully – a mesmerist who boasted he could heal her through the power of electricity), Mrs Spinks had unexpectedly received a recommendation from her neighbour in the cramped building she lived in in Collingwood – one of Melbourne’s new urban slums – who swore by a marvellous new ‘faith-healing’ doctor. All of Collingwood was supposedly now seeing ‘the Dr Alexander Dowie’, a charismatic Scot who had left the Presbyterian church to found his own ‘Free Christian Tabernacle’. Any Sunday, and on several evenings during the week, shabbily dressed invalids could be seen pouring into the Tabernacle on Pitt Street in order to experience what the tabloids breathlessly recounted: the electrifying experience of Dowie or his wife, Jane, laying hands on them and praying for their bodily healing in the name of ‘Zion’, or the coming Kingdom of God.

This is the story of the international success of John Alexander Dowie’s faith-healing church among the working-class residents of the newly industrialised cities of the late 19th-century. While Zionism is almost always connected to Jewish promotion of the state of Israel, the experience of individuals such as Mrs Spinks “

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