I had not heard of the ‘Tabernacle’ until I was reading The Age 6 April 1935 which had letters of a few people reminiscing the ‘Early Days’. One of these letters remarks “The old bus stables were turned into a market when the trams were built, and a couple of doors away in Johnston-street was Dowie’s faith healing temple.“
Reverend John Alexander Dowie (Head of the Free Christian Tabernacle) 1882/3 – 1888
So I went looking for some more information and stumbled across Episode 6 – From Fiztroy to Zion a Podcast produced by Carly Godden, Lee Hooper, Robin Waters and Ben Robertson. The Dead & Buried Podcast is incredibly well put together and interesting and insightful. It is easy to see why they are award winning.
John Alexander Dowie was a Scottish evangelist and faith healer born in 1847 in Edinburgh, Scotland. He came initially to Adelaide, South Australia in 1860 and after failing to gain success commercially he concentrated on giving his life to Christ in 1867. After studying In Australia and back in Scotland he returned to South Australia and was ordained on 21 May 1872 as pastor at Alma. He didn’t spend long there returning 9 months later to Adelaide where he was quite ill for some time. He then went to Sydney. (Sin in the Camp, by John Alexander Dowie)
According to Dead & Buried, this was as a result of being rejected, for he had fallen in love with his cousin. He spent some time in Newtown, Sydney and it was here he found his calling to healing. He also finally got to marry his cousin. But it wasn’t all good, and when Dowie could not heal his sick daughter and is swindled by a fraudster, he moves his family to Melbourne. (Dead & Buried podcast).
In Melbourne Dowie initially sets up in Collingwood but eventually takes up in the Tabernacle on Johnston St. Due to a dispute with the landlord he is evicted in 1885 and he moved his sermon to a boot factory. “In the evening, however, he assembled his followers in front of the Tabernacle with lighted torches, and marched in procession through some of the streets, followed by a disorderly crowd of 2,000 or 3,000 persons who pelted the police with stones, the helmets of Constables Bourke and Crowe being battered with missiles. The procession returned to the tabernacle and an attempt was made to hold a religious service or meeting on the vacant ground alongside; but the crowd jostled the preacher and he gave up on the attempt” (The Australiasian, 9 May 1885).
According to the podcast, Dowie would regularly rebuke the Councillors in his sermons and his outside walks would attract both the faithful and all those looking to jeer and shout, resulting in each one causing a public disturbance. As such the council passed a bye-law against such outdoor processions. Rev. Dowie however continued and was fined and when he could not pay his fine was jailed for a month. He also served another week after being released and still not able to pay the fine, but his supporters campaigned to have him released. At this point the Courts ordered to allow the use of the Johnston St Tabernacle.
But it was not without incident, including on 31 August 1885, he left early having a dark premonition, and shortly after his pastor room exploded – an apparent assassination attempt. Which might be quite likely according to Dr Barry Chant, Christian Historian, Dowie was quite outspoken in his denouncement of things such as drinking, theatre, opera and smokers which he called ‘unmitigated stink pots’.
In 1888 he writes that he has ‘greater and bigger callings’ and leaves for the US. Mr Wilber Glenn Voliva from the US takes over in Australia.
I highly recommend listening to the Dead & Buried podcast for the full story! Dowie goes on to create success and wealth as a healer in Chicago and sets up the Zion City in Illinois. Ultimately he passed away in March 1907.
Following the use as a church, the Salvation Army used the building as a meeting hall. The building was mostly old wood and iron and on Monday 14 July 1913 at shortly after 10am, the fire brigade were informed of a fire via a street alarm and proceeded with nineteen men, two motor hose carriages, one ladder carriage and two other ordinary hose carts to the scene. According to the paper the “fire had a good hold, and was bursting through the windows on all sides. Fortunately there was a good water pressure and in 14 minutes the brigade had the fire under control”. It was suspected that the fire was lit by boys playing with matches and were seen running from the site. The building at this point was owned by Mr E A Pleasants. (The Age, Tuesday 15 July 1913).
Vau d’vile Drag Cabaret Restaurant
At the time of the Podcast in 2016, the location was being used as a Tiki Bar, and today it is a drag cabaret restaurant. I am sure that Dowie would be shocked if he was around today.