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Spiritual Endeavors

The godly struggles for Chicago’s soul

See Illinois (unpublished)


One doesn’t usually think of Chicago as having been improved by religion, but it has, on and off, since its founding. I dreaded the start of work on this chapter in my never-published guide to the state’s history and culture, but once underway, I found the topic to be unexpectedly interesting.


Readers interested to learn more about the role of the godly in saving Chicago can click here;  the elevating influence of educational institutions is similarly summarized here.  Movements to reform the city's politics and government are recalled here. Reforming educationalists did their share of preaching too; that part of the story is taken up here.


Ask most people who know the place and they will agree that godliness is not next to Lake Michigan. Most histories of Chicagoland mention religion, if it is mentioned at all, as an aspect of ethnicity, like cuisine or language. But as the scholar of religion Martin Marty has noted in the Encyclopedia of Chicago, “The city, known for its material achievements and its reputation as a sometimes cruel center of commercial and industrial com­petition, has also been recognized as a locale where spiritual endeavors have prospered.”


Amazing, really, how religion has been woven into the life of a city reputed for its wickedness. Founding a church of their own was a milestone in the arrival of most ethnic groups, with the result that one is struck not by the number of factory smokestacks in the city’s working neighborhoods but the number of church steeples. All of Chicago's great universities were founded to spread the word of one sect or another. One of the great popular musics pioneered here—gospel—was rooted in churches. Virtually the whole of its social welfare establishment owes to religious-minded philanthropists.


Even Chicago’s fabled politics owes something to religion, and not only because religious differences so often spilled over into public issues such as temperance. The relationship of ethnic voter to political machine under a succession of mayors in some respects mimicked the relationship of parishioner to church. John D. Buenker has pointed out that “wets” and “drys” were typically divided not so much between Chicago and Downstate or by party and class as between new-stock Catholics and Jews and old-stock Protestants, and that the Protestant clergy joined civic associations on the ramparts during anti-gambling and vice crusades, while both were opposed by politicians catering to ethnic working-class—meaning Roman Catholic—constituencies.


His devout Catholicism was a profound factor in the administrative style of Mayor Richard J. Daley. One local priest, a civil rights activist who butted heads with Daley over the years, explained to a newspaperman, “Daley’s office is either modeled on, or is a model for, Archdiocesan chancery offices, where bishops surround themselves with hand­some young monsignors whose main talents are their Irish names, handsome faces and ability to remain unfrustrated rubber stamps and soothsayers.”

The city has been a center of modern thinking on matters religious, full of people who dared to read the Bible as history and did not drop dead in a faint on hearing the name “Darwin.” One could add that Chicago also is a city that has sustained one of the biggest, and one of the most innovative, Roman Catholic archdioceses in the nation. The University of Chicago under William Rainey Harper pioneered in new style of theological training that took the study of God out of the cloister and into the streets. Chicago also is the home of two Christian magazines of national importance.


The Protestant church is as important in the lives of another of Chicago’s great classes of immigrants—the city’s African Americans—as the Roman Catholic Church was in those of its Latino and southern European immigrants. Like the Catholics (albeit for different reasons), African American Protestants are served by multiplicity of churches, whose differences in doctrine and ritual are all but invisible except for those with eyes to see.


As the European immigrants found so often, their churches also were a source of succor in a new home, an anchor in a new world in which many felt adrift. If the panoply of social services offered by African American churches never matched those of the more prosperous Catholic churches, they were even more essential, as public and private charities disdained to deal with black people. This essential role continues today, as churches—which often are the only viable institution in many of Chicago’s poorest neighborhoods—administer government programs of social aid.


As for education, every one of the region’s private institutions of higher learning worthy of the name was founded for explicitly doctrinal purposes. Northwestern Univer­sity was a project of the Methodists, Lake Forest College was Presbyterian in aegis. North Cen­tral College began life as the Evangelical Asso­ciation’s Plainfield College, while Wheaton College was Wesleyan. Baptists were crucial to the founding of both the present University of Chicago and its predecessor, the ”old” University of Chicago that opened in 1857 as a Baptist mission school. Elmhurst College was a project of German Protestants and is affiliated with the United Church of Christ. Northern Baptist Theological Seminary opened in Chicago in 1913 as a "protest school" by evangelicals eager to stem theological liberalism within the American Baptist Churches; the seminary moved to Lombard in 1963, and its undergraduate division set up as Judson College in Elgin.


The Roman Catholic Church was an especially busy founder; its orders founded Barat College in Lake Forest (1858; merged with DePaul, 2001), Loyola University (founded as St. Ignatius in 1870), Mundelein College (1930; merged with Loyola), and DePaul University, which began as St. Vincent’s.


Many of the city’s professional elite during what now appears to be Chicago’s golden age also were religiously inclined. Architect John Root was a follower of Emanuel Swedenborg; his partner Daniel Burnham, came from a Swedenborgean family and conducted prayer services in his home. Even its businessmen of the golden age were not the brigands of legend, or at least not merely brigands. Instead most of them were thoughtful, if narrow men of faith; they may have emulated Darwin's precepts at the office, but it was Christ who ruled their private and civic lives.


However, it is the great public of believers that existed, and exists, in Chicago that make religion both unavoidable and instructive as an historical topic. One could write an intelligible useful history of Chicagoland solely in terms of the ebb and flow of believers—British and American Protestants at first, then Protestants from the European continent such as German Lutherans, masses of Catholic immigrants from Europe, who in turn were substantially challenged by adherents to black churches of the South. (The Great Migration is usually described as an African American phenomenon; it could be described nearly as accurately as a Baptist one.)


In a city in which services to the poor were lacking or second-rate, it was charitable organizations, mainly churches, which constituted the original welfare system. Late-twentieth century scholars of this process of ethnic concentration have been known to use the term "Ghetto Catholicism" when describing the numerous "cradle to grave" services and institutions one would find in Polish, Slavic, Italian, German, Irish, and Bohemian Catholic settlements found in Chicago and other cities of the industrial Northeast and Midwest. As late as mid-nineteenth-century, novelist Caroline Kirkland reported in The Atlantic Monthly that the city had no public recreation grounds, no art gallery, no establishment of music, no public library—“no social institution whatever, except the church.”



World Parliament of Religions

If religion has a place in Chicago’s history, Chicago also has a place in religion’s history. A Parliament of World Religions was convened in Chicago as part of the World Columbian Exposition in 1893. Representatives of the Roman Catholic Church sent delegates and as did some liberal Protestant denominations. Other representation included a dozen Buddhists, eight Hindus, two Shintoists, a Jain, a Taoist, a couple Muslims, Confucians and Zoroastrians.

It is these days often offered as a gesture toward ecumenism, but that misreads the actual history of the event. Its instigators were to admit that their aim in inviting the leaders of the world’s religions was to persuade them that Christianity was the superior religion. (Many Protestant evangelicals such a Dwight Moody disdained to take part on grounds that the event presupposed that all religions were equal.) The meetings had perverse effects. Some visitors took the opportunity to denounce Christian missionaries. It also sparked curiosity about such faiths as Buddhism—the founding of America's first Zen monasteries owed ultimately to the Parliament—and Hinduism.


Nor has religion overlooked the suburbs—not that many people who live there thought it might. Wheaton has earned the title of “the evangelical Vatican,” Among the better-known evangelic groups based in Wheaton or Carol Stream are the National Association of Evangelicals, Billy Gra­ham’s Christianity Today, Inc., and Youth for Christ. The concentration in Wheaton and neighboring Carol Stream of religious headquarters nondenominational churches (some three dozen), and publishing houses (including the publisher of the Living Bible) makes it a source of books and pamphlets, radio programs and missionary supplies is unsurpassed in the U.S. And Chicagoland is the home of perhaps the first of the nation’s new mega-churches in Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, a uniquely American, indeed Midwestern religion mall selling useful Christianity; its appeal, as described by French journalist Bernard-Henri Levy, is its promise “to get rid of the distance, the transcendence, and the remoteness of the divine that are at the heart of European theologies.”


Getting right through God

By the 1890s, reforming Chicago was a big job, and even government needed to bring in God’s help. The city was thought to be the very epicenter of evil, as any town must be that had a church for every two-thousand citizens and a saloon for every two hundred. Religious principle thus was a motivating passion more often in Chicago’s social reform movements than one might expect.


The zeal with which Chicago’s better element went about improving everyone else owed much to their religious faith they were imbibed with. In the first two decades of the twentieth century liberal protestants sought to apply Christian principles to the problems of social injustice and poverty. ministers spread the “So­cial Gospel” of service to the needy through good works, including the founding of good institutions—YMCAs and YWCAs, homes for fallen women, orphanages and old people’s homes. The more ambitious Individual churches turned themselves into service agencies, offering social clubs, gymna­siums, health clinics and hospitals, settlement houses, and of course schools.


Sociology is, or presumes to be Science with a capital S. But as Virginia Lieson Brereton reminds us, the aca­demic discipline of urban sociology that began in the 'teens and twen­ties at the University of Chicago was reformist in ambition but religious in motivation. The first head of the department was a former minister, and the univer­sity chaplain was a member of the department.


Many a settlement house was set up in the 1870s and 1880s to bring Christian morality and clean habits to the people of the slums. Such worthies saw the settlement house as a form of missionary work, with the convenience that the natives came to the missionaries, by streetcar. Prominent among local preachers of the Social Gospel was Congregationalist minister Graham Taylor. He had joined the faculty of Chicago Theological Seminary to teach applied Christianity, and in 1894 he undertook to practice what he preached by opening Chicago Commons (1894), a religious settlement house at 955 W. Grand. Abraham Lincoln Center opened in 1903 a project of Jenkin Lloyd-Jones, uncle of architect Frank Lloyd Wright (who had a hand in its design). The Catholic Archdiocese backed its own settlement house in the Madonna Center.


While Jane Addams these days is more often praised as a proto-feminist than a Christian (at least in works aimed at general audiences) she had been strongly shaped by her evangelical father. Jon W. Lundin, in his fine history of Rockford, writes, “Her church upbringing—her father was a Quaker—and her tuition at the Rockford Seminary for Women under principal Anna Peck equipped her to be a missionary of a secular sort” who sought salvation in this world through good works and civic virtue. Toynbee Hall, the East London settlement house that inspired her to open Hull House, was a Christian undertaking. Jean Bethke Elshtain of the University of Chicago Divinity School in a 2002 book insists that Addams sought to imitate Christ through a service ethic, that she actually lived John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. 


Hull House counted many a committed Christian among its supporters. Typical was Lake Forestan Clifford W. Barnes, a Protestant minister. Canned meat king Phillip Armour, a capitalist with a Christian conscience, supported a mission at Thirty-first Street in what was by then becoming the Black Belt, where he liked to lecture the children on character. Louise deKoven Bowen taught a Sunday school class at St. James Episcopal Church held for wayward boys. Mary McDowell, who in 1894 took over a settlement house near the Union Stockyards that had been founded by the Christian Union of the University of Chicago, was a devout Methodist whose previous experience included setting up kindergartens for the Woman's Christian Temperance Union.


Historian James Gilbert reported many of the most prominent of Chicago's community leaders in the 1890s—Turlington W. Harvey, George Pullman, Daniel Burnham, and Marshall Field, Harlow Higinbotham, John V. Farwell, Potter Palmer, Lyman Gage, and Philip Armour—had been born in the 1830s in the "burned over" district of New York known for its religious enthusiasms. All of them shared a millennial perfectionism that they picked up there, as they might have picked up a virus from drinking from the same well, and it showed in all they did.


Pullman, Harvey, and, to some extent, Armour were involved in one variety or another of urban Utopian community building informed by Christian teachings as they understood them. Like most of his compatriots, farm machine magnate Cyrus H. McCormick was convinced that he knew what the Chicago of mid-century needed, and one of those things was a Presbyterian Seminary. Much of the same ambition fired the rhetoric of Chicago minister Frank Gunsaulus who in 1890 delivered what came to be known as the "Million Dollar Sermon." From the pulpit of his Plymouth Congregational ­Church on the then-posh South Side, Gunsaulus posed a question, “What I Would Do With $1,000,000.” The answer was, he would build a school where students of all social backgrounds could prepare for meaningful roles in a changing industrial society. An educated worker would not be distracted by socialism, and thus would do a better job for the people in the front pews. This reasoning lay behind the enthusiasm for the idea shown by one of Gunsaulus’s congregation, Philip Armour, who founded the Armour Institute along just those lines.


Not that the reform impulse was felt only by Protestants. His biographers note that Julius Rosenwald, for instance, was deeply influenced by rabbi Emil Hirsch of Chicago's Sinai Congregation, a social activist who cited Jewish tradition in urging charity that encouraged self-help. Such a doctrine appealed to a self-made millionaire. Rosenwald saw private giving as an alternative to government welfare, which he thought led to dependence—not to mention higher taxes. He knew the value of a good investment—his fortune was the result of his buying by buying a one-fourth interest in the mail order house Sears, Roebuck and Company when it was small—and he believed in investing in people. Typical of these efforts were his support for Hebrew Free Loan Societies, charitable institutions that furnished small amounts of capital, interest-free, to needy Jews—anticipation of today’s “micro-loans” to Third World entrepreneurs.


Old-time camp meetings

Because of its wickedness—and the prospect of sizable audiences—evangelists have long buzzed around Chicago like flies in the stockyards, and several of the best-known of them were adopted Chicagoans.


Billy Sunday had deep connections to the city. Beginning in 1883 he played big league baseball for the White Sox for seven years. He was converted to Christ in 1886 through a street preacher from the Pacific Garden Mission, the "Old Lighthouse" in Chicago’s Levee district on South State Street, and eventually gave up baseball for the pulpit. That he was the most popular evangelist in an era in which evangelists draw audiences that make talk show host envious is not disputed; other of his assertions about the efficacy of his ministry—he was supposed to have preached to over 100 million people, and to have converted over a million in his campaigns—must be regarded as hooey. Sunday died in Chicago in 1935; services were held in the Moody Memorial Church; so many people attended that a passerby could be forgiven thinking that a gangster or tavern keeper had died.


Dwight L. Moody’s roots in Chicago went deeper. Moody moved to Chicago, in 1856, and found potential converts by the dozens in the form of the boat crews and dock workers of the river port. Moody vowed to tell some person about the Savior each day, which must have made him an unwelcome sight in many neighborhoods. Starting with his own Sunday School in an abandoned freight car, Moody founded a church and built a building on Chicago Avenue and LaSalle Street.


Moody went on to become the model of the modern evangelist. These evangelists were salesmen—before he took up revival work, Moody had been a shoe salesman—and Christ was the product, and where better to make your pitch than the city than invented mass market retailing? As historian James Gilbert notes of Moody, “He sought to graft middle-class business ethics and evangelical re­vivalism onto some of the newest instruments of mass culture and communication that he discovered in the modern city” to entice youths into his Sunday School (which became one of the largest, reaching some 1,500 weekly) Moody offered prizes, free pony rides, and picnics—an innovation for a sect that had long preached that the rewards of faith would be bestowed in the next life, not this one.


In 1871 Moody met gospel singer Ira Sankey, and thew two went on the road as a duo. Moody and Sankey’s first big revival in Chicago was in 1876, at which he preached for 16 weeks in a temporary 10,000-seat tabernacle at Monroe and Franklin. Some 160,000 people are thought to have attended, although God was not always what they went there to find. Carter Harrison the younger recalled that attendance was popular among his set of young bachelors for the opportunity for flirtations it provided. And the shows were entertaining. “The Moody and Sankey revivals were advertised like a 4-ring circus,” he wrote. Such meetings “had the neurotic appeal of an old-time camp meeting.” 


Later crusades were housed in permanent structures run by the Chicago Evangelization Society (later Moody Bible Institute). When the world poured into Chicago in 1893 for the World's Columbian Exposition, Moody was waiting—Bible meetings in different languages, 125 Sunday services of sundry types. The number who were thus introduced to Christ is conjecture, although it is know exactly how many people (1,933,210) signed the guest register of the Bible School.


Moody left behind the Moody Bible Institute, which occupies the ground on which he had built his first church. He also had a hand in founding a town, Harvey, a model factory town was set up by Moody follower Turlington Walker Harvey and funded by Moody and leading Chicago philanthropists to provide the environment for the good life, Christian-style.


Amanda Berry Smith was a daughter of slaves who became a temperance crusader and a revivalist preaching the “second blessing” doctrine of the Methodist Holiness sect. She was one of the revivalists who came to Chicago around the time of the World’s Fair, in her case to preach a ten-day revival at Chicago’s South Park Avenue Church. She relocated to the city and in 1899 opened an orphanage and industrial school for African American children—usually reckoned to be Illinois’s first—in Harvey. The institution burnished the town’s reputation for progressive Christianity. But the burden of financing it quickly overwhelmed Smith. Black clubs and churches could or would not help, and it grew run down; state inspectors allowed the institution to remain open in spite of its poor condition be­cause no one else would take black kids. Smith gave it up after only seven years.


However successful were revivalists in the latter 1800s in saving souls—and Moody alone claimed to have saved a million during the World’s Fair alone—they never quite saved the city. Chicago remained, as the song famously puts it, “The town that Billy's Sunday could not shut down.”


Leaders of the flocks


The number of religious thinkers and writers, the saintly nuns and courageous priests, the ministers and rabbis who rose to positions of leadership within their faiths are uncountable. Every denomination has its heroes. Some regard Rosemary Radford Ruether, author and teacher at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, to be the “leading feminist theologian working within the Christian tradition.” Charles Coppens, priest and professor of education at Loyola University for 18 years, had “a strong influence on Jesuit education in America.” Bernard Felsenthal for many years rabbi of Zion Congregation in Chicago, has been called “a leading figure in the development of Reform Judaism in the Middle West.”


The names that ring bells tend to be the heads of religious organizations—in effect the bureaucrats ad mayors of the religious establishment—survive above the doors and on the walls of countless churches and school buildings. Occasionally, pols have dared to recognize—meaning pander to—religious-oriented constituents only after their deaths. One such is Chicago African American religious activist Louis H. Ford, presiding bishop of the 8.5 million-member Church of God in Christ; after he died at age 81 in 1995 the Calumet Expressway on the South Side was renamed Bishop Ford Freeway.


Most of Chicagoland’s religious leaders are unknown save to their spiritual brothers and sisters but a few enjoy wider fame. Mother Frances Cabrini founder of the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart. was the first American declared a saint by the Catholic Church. Italy-born, she was invited to Chicago from New York City in 1899 to organize the Assumption School, for many years the only Italian American parochial school in Chicago. Wherever she went she establishing schools and hospitals for the poor, which in Chicago meant Columbus Hospital (converted from an abandoned hotel in 1903) and what became St. Cabrini Hospital. (Mother Cabrini’s example was emulated by Joseph Cardinal Bernardin, who died in 1996; Bernardin arguably was the first archbishop of the Chicago diocese who was a hero to non-Catholics.) The room in which she lived from 1899 until her death in 1917 in the original Columbus Hospital building at 2520 North Lakeview Avenue has been preserved as a shrine and is open to the public.


Today’s Chicago can boast of being home to two contemporary religious leaders—Jesse Jackson, heir to the Southern Protestant activism of the 1960s, and Louis Farrakhan, head of the Nation of Islam—although critics of both men are quick to suggest that they are celebrities and politicians more than religious thinkers.


“What Geneva is to Calvinists,” noted Italian sociologist Marco D’Eramo, “Chicago is to America’s Black Muslims.” Founded in Detroit in 1930, the Nation of Islam was brought to Chicago by Elijah Muhammad (previously Elijah Poole) who was one of the ministers of the movement’s founder who took over after the founder suffered some unpleasantness in the Motor City involving prison. The organization established a physical presence on south side in the form of a mansion complex around 49th and Woodlawn.


As happens so often in new churches, the Nation of Islam was riven by factions by doctrine and personalities and ambitions. Follower Malcolm X and, in 1972, purchased a Greek Orthodox church that became the Nation Of Islam Temple #2. Elijah Muhammed died in 1975 and his son sought to take movement back to a less eccentric Islam, changing its name; in 1977 Minister and former nightclub singer Louis Farrakhan returned to the NOI and undertook to resurrect both the organization and the racist teachings of its founder.


The NOI is perhaps better understood as a social movement—black nationalism with a religious gloss from which derive racial/cultural pride. At several points in US history, people displaced by economic change or social change, sought solace in religion. The displacement of the African Americans in Chicago was the result of the Great Migration from the South, whose folkways inform it. D’Eramo notes that the NOI’s Islamism, while styled as the antithesis of white Christianity, is itself heavily Christianized, as he puts it, “almost as though it were the poor Black man’s version of the Protestant sects.” (The sect teaches economic self-sufficiency, strong families, and upright living.) Nation of Islam mosques have pastors and its teaching borrow from the credo of the Advent (in common with Mormons and Adventists). In 1988 when Louis Farrakhan purchased NOI Temple #2 he renamed it Mosque Maryam—after Mary, mother of Jesus, who is venerated of course in Catholic churches across Chicagoland.


Not since the days of Alex Dowie’s Zion has a religious community stirred the comment that Louis Farrakhan’s NOI has done. Farrakahn’s speeches often stray into mysticism and racist or anti-Semitic diatribe and his business dealings are dubious, with the result that its membership is declining. In all this the NOI is entirely within the tradition of Illinois’s many religious sects. The movement has not excited the ire stirred by the Mormons in the 1830s, perhaps because whites feel no need to expel the NOI as African Americans are already in exile, in the city’s South Side.


God moves to the suburbs


Usually the suburbs are associated with white bread Protestantism. The worldwide Theosophical Society was founded in New York in 1875. Its guru was Russian Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, who believed that the truest knowledge comes not through reason or the senses, but through a direct communion of the soul with divine reality. The American section of the Society has its national center in Wheaton.

Today the variety of religions in Chicagoland is astonishing. The roster of religious sects in DuPage County for example now includes temples and churches for believers of the Bahai, Buddhist, Swaminarayan Hindu, Greek Orthodox, and Mennonite faiths. The Swedenborgian Church of New Jerusalem created a religious community in Glencoe in 1894. (The Swedenborgian church is now called the New Church.) Some half-dozen Serbian Orthodox churches can be found in the suburbs, plus a couple of monasteries and, in Libertyville, the St. Sava Serbian orthodox college of theology and monastery, which is the headquarters of the church in North America.


Thousands of Hindu families migrated from India to the United States from the early 1960s attracted by college and the chance for jobs. As so many have done in a strange land, Hindu emigrants met in church basements schools and public halls and each other’s homes and talked about someday building a proper temple and schools for kids. And as so many newly arrived ethnics had done before them, they felt the need to preserve not just way of worship but a way of life that was if not under assault, being undermined by life in the West.


The result was a spate of temple-building in Chicagoland—some two dozen by 2002. One of the newest and largest was opened in Bartlett to serve members of the Swaminarayan faith, the fastest growing sect of Hinduism in America, mainly because former residents of the Indian state of Gujarat make up a big chunk of recent Indian immigrants to the U.S. One of only three Sri Venkateswara Hindu temples in the United States, the Sri Venkateswara Balaji Temple at 1145 West Sullivan Road in Aurora was constructed by Indian artists in the mid-­1980s. By 2000, more than 5,400 Asian Indians were living in Lake County, most of them Hindu; in 2004 two local groups, the education-oriented Chinmaya Mission and the local Indian Cultural Association, announced plans to build a school and a temple, respectively, in the Grayslake area.


In a process more familiar from the city, new sects acquire the places of worship abandoned by predecessors. The temple Manav Seva Mandir occupies a former Korean church in Bensenville. A statue of Swami Vivekananda, the first in America, was installed in 1998 at the Hindu Temple of Greater Chicago in Lemont. The swami thus made his return to Chicago; the 10-foot bronze was modeled after his photograph taken in Chicago after his appearance at the World's Parliament of Religions in 1893. In 1995, a section of Michigan Avenue, where the parliament of Religions met, was ceremonially renamed "Swami Vivekananda Way."


Holy towns

Godliness is one of the virtues widely advertised as suburban, and indeed Chicago’s hinterland appealed from the start as a refuge for believers in what was by mid-1800s clearly a place in which godlessness was rampant. The pious sought to build self-sufficient communities in which virtue would stand a fighting chance. Nauvoo and Bishop Hill were the most famous such efforts from elsewhere in Illinois but Chicagoland was home to a few.


The Spirit Fruit Society was founded in Illinois in the late 1890s by Jacob Beilhart. Like residents in most experimental communities, Beilhart’s disciples alarmed its neighbors, and the believers fled to Wooster Lake in Ingleside in 1904, where they stayed for ten years before decamping to California, a place much more congenial to the growing of fruit, spiritual and otherwise, than northern Illinois.


Zion, today a town of some 23,000 in far northern Lake County, is known chiefly as the site of one of the world’s largest nuclear generating stations. In the earlier part of the 20th century it was known for power of a different kind. John Alexander Dowie, a Scottish faith-healer, in 1899 announced that from this rather scruffy bit of the Lake Michigan shore midway between Chicago and Milwaukee would rise a new city of Zion, to be build by followers of his Christian Catholic Apostolic Church.

Ben Hecht wrote that Dowie was one of the few exceptions to what Hecht called “daisy-chain messiahs” that then made life in the city so entertaining. “He was a man of frightening virtue.” His ambition was self-sufficient City of God, the means to reduce commerce with a corrupting world. The city offered the chance to, in Dowie’s words, live in the world and yet not be of it—a commonly felt impulse in the Chicagoland of those years, felt in varying degrees by the parish patriot, the suburbanite fleeing the city, the businessman in hi private club. Dowie’s plan for a place where his people could work and play, insulated from a sinful world, for example, was a pitch indistinguishable from that made by suburban residential developer.


Its planning eccentricities owed to zealotry and the founder’s vanity. (The street layout resembled the British flag, and the streets were given Biblical names except for two named after his hometown in Edinburgh.) However, Dowie’s Zion did share other crucial assumptions with model suburbs and model towns like Pullman. Chief among these was the belief that the environment was instrumental to morals, that place shaped character, that conduct followed environment as naturally as water followed the contours of a hill. Dowie banned vice, as commonly defined, and providing healthful alternatives through wholesome play and self-improvement.


As happened in Nauvoo in the 1840s and Bishop Hill in the 1850s, the energy of the founder’s followers created something like a miracle of town-building. Fired by faith, Dowie’s followers created their new town almost instantly. Within a few years Zion’s population reached 10,000.


While Dowie’s Zionites did not live as one family—each built a comfy house—Dowie, like the Swedish Eric Jansson of Bishop Hill, sought to control the means of production communally. The church owned all industries—the economic heart of Zion was a lace factory, for the operation of which he imported skilled workers from England—and most commercial establishments.


Dowie considered democracy too crude an instrument for God’s purposes. His intention was to establish a theocracy, a Christian republic. Like the Taliban or the Iranian mullahs, Dowie believed that, as he put it, “where God rules, man prospers.” The new town was to be a place where the tenets of that church would govern every phase of life. God of course made his rules known through the person of Dowie, who looked over Zion with what one follower called, not complainingly, “supreme untrammeled, and unquestioned authority in all matters.”


The list of prohibitions given force by the municipal code would daunt a saint. One source summed it up thus:


In addition to supervision of speech and press, the Zion hierarchy added to its censorship of individuals their diet, amusements, hygiene, and love making. The use and sale of liquor, tobacco, playing cards, oysters, pork, and clams were prohibited by an early city code. Through a special ruling obtained from the Illinois Commerce Commission, no trains stop in Zion on Sundays. Drug stores, saloons, pool halls, bowling alleys, and theaters to which admission was charged, were forbidden. Doctors were banned. Courtship in public parks was taboo. Bathing beaches were divided into three parts: one for single girls, one for single men, and between them a section for married couples.

Profanity was prohibited—at least, in public—by municipal ordi­nance . . . . Any business for gain on Sunday, including the sale and delivery of newspapers or merchandise, was illegal; and it was unlawful “to disturb the peace and good order of society by labor” on Sunday. Athletic exhibitions were illegal, if an admission fee were charged. Baseball and other games were not allowed in the streets on Sunday. “Nothing disloyal to the word of God” was permitted to be taught in the public schools of Zion. This led to the teaching that the world is flat, and of other poetic inferences from scriptural des­cription of natural phenomena for which science provides a totally different explanation and nomenclature. 

In addition to supervision of speech and press, the Zion hierarchy added to its censorship of individuals their diet, amusements, hygiene, and love making. The use and sale of liquor, tobacco, playing cards, oysters, pork, and clams were prohibited by an early city code. Through a special ruling obtained from the Illinois Commerce Commission, no trains stop in Zion on Sundays. Drug stores, saloons, pool halls, bowling alleys, and theaters to which admission was charged, were forbidden. Doctors were banned. Courtship in public parks was taboo. Bathing beaches were divided into three parts: one for single girls, one for single men, and between them a section for married couples.


Profanity was prohibited—at least, in public—by municipal ordi­nance . . . . Any business for gain on Sunday, including the sale and delivery of newspapers or merchandise, was illegal; and it was unlawful “to disturb the peace and good order of society by labor” on Sunday. Athletic exhibitions were illegal, if an admission fee were charged. Baseball and other games were not allowed in the streets on Sunday.

Historians these days tend toward a more polite generosity about people who paddle in the backwaters of mainstream society, but chroniclers even 75 years were more confident in their biases. Dowie’s project inspired the ridicule that such ventures usually excite among the educated. The authors of the 1939 Federal Writers Project guide to Illinois introduce Dowie as “a man who believed the world to be flat despite his having taken a trip around it.” Lloyd Lewis, noting perhaps irrelevantly, that many of Dowie‘s followers were illiterate im­migrants, pronounced them “pa­thetically loyal and crack-brained.” In any event, Dowie’s environment failed to induce saintliness in its residents, in spite of its institutionalized municipal bossiness.


Factions battled, politically and otherwise, over the legacy of the founder, and what Dowie would have called the forces of darkness had triumphed by mid-century. In 1939 the over­seer who had run the town since Dowie’s death was voted out and the town’s land and buildings were transferred to individuals. Dowie’s governing apparatus, as well as his ideals, gradually crumbled as immigrant unbelievers chipped away at it with their votes. The old impulses lingered into the 21st century. When the nation dropped Prohibition in 1933, Zionites voted to keep their town dry, which it remained, save for new parts of town annexed after 1934. By 2004, voters were pushing to end the ban on booze sales, having decided that saving souls was less vital than saving local restaurateurs. 


Approaching the twenty-first century, Zion’s past as religious community survives mainly in the street names and the city seal. The town is perhaps best known for fighting—and losing—a 1980s court battle to keep a cross on the seal, which also features a Zion Banner in the center beneath the words, “God Reigns.” (Atheist Rob Sherman prevailed in that case.) The town survived even if the dream did not, and today’s Zion is all but indistinguishable from its sister Lake County suburbs.


The founders of most suburban towns shrank from Dowie-style theocracy, but many still wished to place religion—mainly of the Protestant type—in a place of honor. Many a Chicagoland town was begun with hopes of proving to be what historian Philip L. Cook called “a community where it would be easy to do right and hard to do wrong.“ Two towns in the suburbs—Beecher and Norridge—were named in part for the famous 19th century new England Congregationalist Henry Ward Beecher; Elgin’s founder named it after an old Scots hymn tune. Annexed into Highland Park in 1899, Ravinia, now a part of Highland Park, was originally planned as a Baptist village; its founder must be confounded to look down from heaven on modern Highland Park, which is substantially Jewish, and where music is accompanied by the slurps from wine glasses as festival-goers refresh themselves on the lawn of the Ravinia Festival Park on summer evenings. The founders and early leaders of Austin Township all hailed from the “'burned-over district” in Onondaga County, New York, so-called because of the intense movements of religious enthusiasm that developed in the 1820s and 1830s; while they had no detailed blueprint for a Christian town, they shared common principles derived from evangelical Protestantism, especially temperance.


Many towns were planned around a sectarian college or seminary, as were Lake Forest and Evanston. In 1892 or ‘93, the Swedenborg Society of Chicago subdivided land for its members at Glenview, in what was still a farming area; Swedenborg Park soon formed the nucleus of today’s commuter settlement.


Other towns began as resorts, which offered a chance to get away (at least temporarily) from the evils of the city in every way. Des Plaines is widely known as the site of a Methodist encampment, held annually since 1860. Lake Bluff first became generally known in 1874, when it was chosen as a camp-meeting ground by a group of Methodist ministers and laymen; for a time, it was a favorite meeting place for national prohibitionists. The campgrounds and buildings were disposed of in 1898, but residents exhibit as relics garden benches made of the tabernacle wood.


Faith is not much devalued in the suburbs, even today. Southwest suburban Lemont is dotted with church spires; its motto is "Village of Faith." South Holland's municipal water tower is decorated with painted hands folded in prayer. The old fire, alas, has gone out. These days,  local debates are less likely to be about how to get God into the community as how to keep crime and high taxes out. ●




John Hallwas

Essential for anyone interested in Illinois history and literature. Hallwas deservedly won the 2018 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Illinois State Historical Society.

Lee Sandlin Author

One of Illinois’s best, and least-known, writers of his generation. Take note in particular of The Distancers and Road to Nowhere.

Chicago Architecture Center

See Home Page/Learn/

Resources for a marvelous building database, architecture dictionary, even a city planning graphic novel. Handsome, useful—every Illinois culture website should be so good.

The Encyclopedia of Chicago


The online version of The Encyclopedia of Chicago. Crammed with thousands of topic entries, biographical sketches, maps and images, it is a reference work unmatched in Illinois.

Illinois Great Places

The Illinois chapter of the American Institute of Architects in 2018 selected 200 Great Places in Illinois that illustrate our  shared architectural culture across the entire period of human settlement in Illinois.

McLean County Museum

of History

A nationally accredited, award-winning project of the McLean County Historical Society whose holdings include more than 20,000 objects, more than 15,000 books on local history and genealogy, and boxes and boxes of historical papers and images.

Mr. Lincoln, Route 66, and Other Highlights of Lincoln, Illinois


Every Illinois town ought to have a chronicler like D. Leigh Henson, Ph.D. Not only Lincoln and the Mother road—the author’s curiosity ranges from cattle baron John Dean Gillett to novelist William Maxwell. An Illinois State Historical Society "Best Web Site of the Year."

Illinois Digital Archives


Created in 2000, the IDA is a repository for the digital collections of the Illinois State Library and other Illinois libraries and cultural institutions. The holdings include photographs, slides, and glass negatives, oral histories, newspapers, maps, and documents from manuscripts and letters to postcards,  posters, and videos.

The Illinois State Museum


The people's museum is a treasure house of science and the arts. A research institution of national reputation, the museum maintains four facilities across the state. Their collections in anthropology, fine and decorative arts, botany, zoology, geology, and  history are described here. A few museum publications can be obtained here.

Chronicling Illinois

“Chronicling Illinois” showcases some of the collections—mostly some 6,000 photographs—from the Illinois history holdings of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library.


I will leave it to the authors of this interesting site to describe it. "Chicagology is a study of Chicago history with a focus on the period prior to the Second World War. The purpose of the site is to document common and not so common stories about the City of Chicago as they are discovered." 

Illinois Labor History Society

The Illinois Labor History Society seeks to encourage the preservation and study of labor history materials of the Illinois region, and to arouse public interest in the profound significance of the past to the present. Offers books reviews, podcasts, research guides, and the like. 

Illinois Migration History 1850-2017

The University of Washington’s America’s Great Migrations Project has compiled migration histories  (mostly from the published and unpublished work by UW Professor of History James Gregory) for several states, including Illinois. The site also includes maps and charts and essays about the Great Migration of African Americans to the north, in which Illinois figured importantly. 

History on the Fox

An interesting resource about the history of one of Illinois’s more interesting places, the Fox Valley of Kendall County. History on the Fox is the work of Roger Matile, an amateur historian of the best sort. Matile’s site is a couple of cuts above the typical buff’s blog. (An entry on the French attempt to cash in on the trade in bison pelts runs more than

2,000 words.)




Southern Illinois University Press 2017

A work of solid history, entertainingly told.

Michael Burlingame,

author of Abraham 

Lincoln: A Life 

One of the ten best books on Illinois history I have read in a decade.

Superior Achievement Award citation, ISHS Awards, 2018

A lively and engaging study . . .  an enthralling narrative.

James Edstrom

The Annals of Iowa

A book that merits the attention of all Illinois historians

as well as local historians generally.

John Hoffman

Journal of Illinois HIstory

A model for the kind of detailed and honest history other states and regions could use.

Harold Henderson 

Midwestern Microhistory

A fine example of a resurgence of Midwest historical scholarship.

Greg Hall

Journal of the Illinois

State Historical Society

Click  here 

to read about

the book 

Click  here 

to buy the book 


Southern Illinois University Press

SIU Press is one of the four major university publishing houses in Illinois. Its catalog offers much of local interest, including biographies of Illinois political figures, the history (human and natural) and folklore of southern Illinois, the Civil War and Lincoln, and quality reprints in the Shawnee Classics series.

University of

Illinois Press

The U of I Press was founded in 1918. A search of the online catalog  (Books/Browse by subject/Illinois) will reveal more than 150 Illinois titles, books on history mostly but also butteflies, nature , painting, poetry and fiction, and more.  Of particular note are its Prairie State Books,  quality new paperback editions of worthy titles about all parts of Illinois, augmented with scholarly introductions.

University of

Chicago Press

The U of C publishing operation is the oldest (1891) and largest university press in Illinois. Its reach is international, but it has not neglected its own neighborhood. Any good Illinois library will include dozens of titles about Chicago and Illinois from Fort Dearborn to

Vivian Maier.

Northern Illinois University Press

The newest (1965) and the smallest of the university presses with an interest in Illinois, Northern Illinois University Press gave us important titles such as the standard one-volume history of the state (Biles' Illinois:
A History of the Land and Its People) and contributions to the history of Chicago, Illinois transportation, and the Civil War. Now an imprint of Cornell University Press.


Reviews and significant mentions by James Krohe Jr. of more than 50 Illinois books, arranged in alphabetical order

by book title. 


Illinois Center for the Book

Run by the Illinois State Library, The Center promotes reading, writing and author programs meant to honor the state's rich literary heritage. An affiliate of the Library of Congress’s Center for the Book, the site offers award competitions, a directory of Illinois authors, literary landmarks, and reading programs.

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