The history of religious movements seems filled with examples of religious figures proudly proclaiming the imminent coming of God, along with redemption for the faithful and punishment for unbelievers. Many of these religious figures even go so far as to give a specific date when these things would come to pass and instruct their followers to wrap up their affairs and get ready for what was to come. And, sure enough, many followers would do just that, even to the point of quitting jobs or selling houses to await the promised day. That this day of judgment has yet to materialize and previous promises have failed in the past seems not to matter so much to the believers. Except for the inevitable disappointment afterward and the crisis of faith that always seems to follow.
And so it proved for Wibur Glenn Voliva.
Born in 1870 and raised in Illinois, Voliva was drawn, like so many others, to the charismatic John Alexander Dowie. It was Dowie who founded the city of Zion, Illinois in 1901 as a religious community and the hub of his Christian Catholic Apostolic Church. Having joined Dowie's church in 1898, Voliva became one of his chief lieutenants and even traveled to Australia in 1901 to oversee the church's Australian branch.
As an evangelist and faith healer, Dowie had already gained fame at the 1893 World's Fair holding "big tent" meetings and relying on tricks that seem little different from faith healers today. With thousands of followers, he founded the city of Zion only a short distance from Chicago. But Dowie was also shrewd financially. Before announcing the move to Zion, he secretly bought up as much of the real estate in Zion as he could. Along with making a fortune in real estate, he also forced his followers to put all their money in the Zion bank (which he owned). As Dowie proudly proclaimed, his church would control every aspect of life in the new town. "Our motto," he said, "is the unalterable and unassailable truth that where God rules, man prospers . . . our object, the establishment of the rule of God in every department of the government." With the hold he had on the town, and the fortune he made from selling stock in various businesses in the town, Dowie quickly made himself one of the wealthiest men in America.
What ultimately doomed Dowie, and gave Wilbur Glenn Voliva the chance to overthrow his rule over the church, was a stroke that he had in 1905. With Dowie still recovering, Voliva arranged for an audit which determined that millions of dollars were missing from the accounts of the church. Though Dowie fought back through litigation, he was forced to step down and live on a pension until his death in 1907. From that point on, it was Wilbur Dowie who was in control of Zion and the town flourished like never before. Not only did Voliva diversify the town's industries, such as selling chocolates, lace, and other products, but the church stayed under hissolid control. As a one-company town, the people of Zion had no choice but to accept the wages that Voliva allowed, which were well below the standard set in other towns. Instead of owning their homes outright, the people of Zion had to pay for 1100-year leases held by the Bank of Zion. And it worked, at least economically. Though Dowie's mismanagement had left the town bankrupt by the time of his death, Voliva created an economic boom in Zion. Though he certainly had his share of critics of his autocratic rule, including attempts at charging him for perjury and conspiracy, Voliva proved himself untouchable.
But that would change in time...
Along with being the main employer in town, Voliva also established stern guidelines for the kind of behaviour allowed in the town. That meant banning alcohol, tobacco, playing cards, oysters, pork, and shellfish, among other things. Using the influence he had with the state legislature, Voliva even arranged for trains not to stop in Zion on Sundays. He became notorious in other ways as well. As a national advocate or the flat earth movement, Wilbur Glenn Voliva famously offered $5000 to anyone who could disprove the flat earth theory and also made the teaching of a flat earth and creationism mandatory in Zion schools. His radio broadcasts preaching against modern astronomy and biology made him one of the most famous religious pundits of his time. Referring to evolution, modern astronomy, and higher criticism as the "trinity of evils", Voliva's diatribes did little to change public opinion in the rest of the country, but he was still widely quoted. Even after Richard Byrd's historic flight over the Antarctic in 1928, newspapers were quick to publish Voliva's stern pronouncement that Byrd's flight did nothing to prove that the world was round.
What really led to his undoing was his frequent pronouncements on the impending end of the world. Coupled with boasting about the "wonders and miracles the the Lord would work in Zion", Voliva based his doomsday predictions on calculations of key passages from the Book of Daniel. As the Kingdom of Judah ended on October 6, 586 (how Voliva got the precise date was left up to speculation) then the world would come to a final end on that same day in 1943. But the signs of the impending end of the world would begin long before then, Voliva predicted. Prior to the world's ending, Benito Mussolini and "ten kings" would become absolute rulers of the Earth by 1936 and "you would not be able to buy or sell a cent's worth of anything unless you have his sign on your forehead." But the faithful would have nothing to fear since "the Divine Ruler will appear above the Earth and draw His own up to Him." He set various dates for when the Rapture would take place but, needless to say, nobody went anywhere on the dates in question.
Newspapers dutifully reported on Voliva's predictions, and the failure of the Second Coming to materialize. On one promised date, September 10, 1934, Voliva and his followers gathered at Shiloh temple in Zion though they didn't seem to make any real preparation for the Rapture. When nothing happened, Voliva simply argued that the true date of the Rapture would be on September 10, 1942 instead.
In the meantime however, the town and the companies that he had been controlling for so long were suffering from the effects of the Great Depression and all of Voliva's religious sermons failed to keep the townspeople from noticing. Residents in Zion began demanding changes to Voliva's autocratic rule, including the right to own their own property.
Much like his predecessor, Voliva's lavish lifestyle helped force Zion Industries into bankruptcy. His plans to revive the town's fortunes by establishing a Passion Play festival much like the one in Oberammergau failed when a disgruntled employee burned down the theatre in 1937. Soon afterward, Voliva was forced to declare personal bankruptcy (despite a personal forture once estimated to be around $5 million).
Slowly, his once-absolute control of the town slipped away from him. Despite blustering statements to the newspapers of being a "two-gun man" surrounded by armed guards, he suffered the humiliation of losing control of Zion Industries and seeing independents winning important political seats in Zion. Trying to rebuild his financial base with a series of paid lecture tours, he boasted to journalists that "all that riff-raff (in Zion), will come crawling back to me when I get the colony out of receivership. Voliva is still on top and will be when prosperity returns to Zion."
When the people of Zion turned against him, Voliva shifted his base of operations to Florida where he hoped to establish a new religious colony. This went nowhere and Voliva was forced to live on a pension from his church in Zion. Despite his confident predictions, the world never ended and life moved on for everyone but Voliva. Following his death from cancer in 1942, the church that he had led for so long lost most of its followers. Though the Christ Community Church stilll exists, it has only a fraction of the adherents it had during the boom years in the early 20th century. Even the "blue laws" that Voliva had passed in Zion barely survived his death. The last of them were repealed by 1950.
Today, Zion, Illinois has over 20,000 residents and seems little different than other towns its size. That it was once the seat of a worldwide church empire, not to mention the home base of one of America's most colourful religious leaders seems to have been largely forgotten. Still, both Alexander Dowie and Wilbur Glenn Voliva have had a powerful effect on Christian fundamentalism and many of the ideas they once championed live on in the religious crusades of modern evangelists (but mostly without the flat-earth beliefs that made Voliva so eccentric).
So, the next time you listen to Pat Robertson or once of his fellow evangelists, spare a thought for Wilbur Glenn Voliva, the colourful autocrat who outcrazied them all.