The nineteenth and twentieth centuries witnessed a significant rise in messianic claims by individuals ranging from the western to the eastern hemispheres of the world. The majority of these claimants quite naturally belonged to the messianic faiths of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Perhaps the reason the claims of the followers of these faiths surfaced in a similar timeframe is due to the parallel time scale of the second advent of the Messiah given by their respective faiths.
The list of claimants is rather extensive but sets and subsets can be made on a variety of bases. One such set could be made on the time of the claim and a subset on their associated sub-claims. This article will examine the claims of three such individuals who claimed to be the Messiah and Saviour of the latter days in the late nineteenth century. These three claimants were John Alexander Dowie, John Hugh Smyth-Pigott and Hazrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmadas. Each one of them belonged to a different part of the world; ranging from India in the East, England in the heart of the world and to America in the west.
What is more interesting to note than the simple fact that all three claimed to be messiahs, is their peculiar attachment to their places of ‘advent’ and their towns. All three were convinced that their abode of residence held as much importance as everything else associated to the truthfulness of their very claims.
Another interesting factor is that all three claimants were aware of the other’s claims and were in correspondence on the matter. Hazrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmadas (1835-1908) wrote to John Alexander Dowie (1847-1907) and John Hugh Smyth-Pigott (1852-1927) warning them that he alone was the Promised Messiah of the latter days and that both of them should refrain from making claims to messiahship or should be prepared to face the wrath of God.
Dowie’s response to Ahmad’sas correspondence is recorded in the annals of history but there seems to have been no written response from Smyth-Pigott, in general or even in the Ahmadiyya history. The Ahmadiyya historians, however, claim that Smyth-Pigott refrained from his claim as a reaction to Ahmad’sas warning but faced the divine wrath by repeating the same claim after Ahmad’sas death.
Before actually moving on to the tale of their cities, it is important to have an insight into the correspondence of the trio.
Dowie founded the ‘Christian Catholic Church’ in 1896. He bought a piece of land in Illinois, USA and built a town where people – he claimed – could live a sinless life providing they abided by the conditions laid down by him. He gained significant success in his faith-healing ventures and consequently earned a vast number of followers. This swelling rate of success led him to proclaim to be ‘Elijah – the restorer’ and a ‘messenger of God’. He condemned all religions except the one founded by him. Islam faced the most vigorous attacks by Dowie but received a similar backlash from none other than Ahmadas, who himself was declared a heretic by the mainstream Muslims. Ahmadas wrote to Dowie and warned him to refrain from claims of divine appointment as he [i.e. Ahmadas alone was the one appointed by God to save people of all faiths. Ahmadas clearly wrote that if Dowie refuses to retract his claim, he would face destruction and that too in the lifetime of Ahmadas.
1He stated that the ‘false messenger would die in the life of the truthful messenger.’ Dowie, convinced of his own divine appointment, ignored Ahmad’sas warnings, calling him a ‘silly messiah of India’2 and continued to mock Muhammadsa and ‘Muhammadanism’.
The ‘prayer-duel’ between the two messiahs was widely publicised in the American and British press. Ahmad’sas claims, warnings and challenges gained even more publicity when Dowie died in 1907, a year before the death of his Indian counterpart.
A number of American newspapers covered not only Dowie’s death, but gave extensive coverage of the prayer-duel that had ensued between him and the ‘Indian Messiah’. Ahmadas heralded the fulfilment of the prophecy of Dowie’s death as a great triumph of Islam over other religions and, of course, as his own triumph above all other claimants to messiahship. However it was not the death of Dowie that was a great victory of a ‘true messiah’ over a ‘false messiah’ for Ahmadas, but the series of events that unfolded before Dowie’s death was an equally significant sign of victory. Ahmadas rejoiced his victory by publishing tracts to highlight how Dowie had witnessed the ‘wrath of God’ in his life and through death. Dowie’s realisation of being an illicit child through an extra-marital relationship, the loss in the number of his followers, the subsequent dip in subscription money, the exposure to the world of his immoral character, falling to tatters financially and socially alike, his disposition from the leadership and seclusion and, finally, the stroke that he suffered and succumbed to; all of this, Hazrat Ahmadas claimed, was a result of the challenge given to him. The newspapers were not there to decide who the truthful messiah was, but they acknowledged the victory of the Indian Messiah over the American one.
Zion, the ‘Holy City’ of Dowie, had started to crumble as health and fortune started to betray him. He imported external help to keep the system running by calling Wilburn Voliva to manage the denomination and Zion, which he had called the ‘City of God’.
Failing health meant that full power of attorney was given to Voliva and eventually saw Voliva trying to topple Dowie from leadership. A court case ensued in which the verdict allowed the people of Zion to decide their fate by electing their leader.
The people did not want a failing frail leader and decided to elect Voliva as successor. Consequently, Dowie was deposed and spent the last years of his life surrounded by a very small group of followers.
Voliva took over successorship but lacked the charisma to keep followers of the faith together. The loss in religious and spiritual aspects of the so-called ‘city of God’ dwindled and so did the ‘sacred’ city of Zion.
Dowie today has no following and Zion has no connection with its founder. All it has in association to Dowie is a Museum housing artefacts and relics on shelves or in glass cabinets, for nothing else but a mere reminiscence.
The next messiah that Hazrat Ahmadas wrote to is shrouded in mystery. Rev J H Smyth-Pigott was the spiritual head of the Victorian-times cult, Agapemone. Smyth-Pigott claimed to be the Messiah, and even God in 1902, in his church in the North London area of Clapton. He had succeeded the founder of a cult that was at the verge of extinction because of the death of Prince, who had claimed to be the messiah and hence was meant to be immortal. His death shook their belief and the cult leadership was thinking of ways to rejuvenate the beliefs of the followers. For this, they needed a charismatic leader who could revive in their hearts the belief that their salvation was guaranteed only through membership of the cult. Smyth-Pigott’s character and personality matched the job description and it was thought that he could perform this duty well. His claim to messiahship, and eventually to divinity, brought his followers a new wave of conviction.
This claim was made in September 1902 and somehow reached the tiny Indian town of Qadian, from the world’s greatest metropolis, London. Ahmadas wrote a pamphlet entitled ‘A Warning to a Pretender of Divinity.’3 This three-page-tract written in English, warned Smyth-Pigott that should he not refrain from his bold and blasphemous claim of being the Messiah and God, he would face annihilation and that too in the lifetime of Ahmadas. This tract carried in its header ‘for publication in western newspapers’, hence the interest shown by the press. Various newspapers covered the story and published the controversy.
There is no record to suggest that Smyth-Pigott replied to Ahmad’sas warning, neither in Ahmadiyya nor any non-Ahmadiyya repositories. Ahmadiyya historians subliminally claim that the fact that Smyth-Pigott never publicly repeated his claim in the lifetime of Ahmadas is sufficient evidence to prove that he had refrained from proclaiming messiahship. With the evidence available, it is hard to say whether Smyth-Pigott repented because of this warning or were it other factors that made him remain quiet about his claims. The orthodox Christians living locally and nearby are reported to have attacked him with sticks, stones and umbrellas as soon as he announced the claim to be God in the Clapton Church. The police are reported to have warned him that protection may not be provided should this claim be repeated, as it could potentially lead to protest and violence of great proportions.4
Smyth-Pigott is reported to have retired to his residence in the Church. From there, he safely moved to Spaxton, a small village in the west of England. In Spaxton a walled community with a 20-room-mansion awaited him for his residence and many more houses and quarters belonging to his followers. This walled colony made a town in its own accord with farms, gardens, fields and poultry farms, all being within. This walled ‘city’ was built by Smyth-Pigott’s predecessor, Henry Prince and named ‘Agapemone’, meaning ‘the abode of love’. The Agapemone was strictly an abode for the followers or Agapemonites as they were called. No information was allowed to go out and strictly no one except the inmates from outside could come in. The Agapemone was surrounded by mystery and scandal but the scandals about the blend of sex and sanctity is not the scope of this article.
Smyth-Pigott died in 1927, outliving Ahmadas by nineteen years. Today, not a single person survives from Agapemone to claim that Ahmadas was unsuccessful in his challenge as he died in Smyth-Pigott’s lifetime instead of the contrary. However, even Muslim critics of the Ahmadiyya sect bring up this Smyth-Pigott episode to prove that Ahmadas was not truthful in his claim to be a messiah either.
Ahmadiyya historians have generally maintained that since Smyth-Pigott had not publicly proclaimed divinity as he had done so in 1902, this very fact exempted him from the dire results of Ahmad’sas warning.5 A recent development in the Ahmadiyya stance has been to prove that Smyth-Pigott was caught up in an array of mental illnesses as soon as he repeated his claims after the death of Ahmadas.6Whether this was because of Ahmad’sas prophecy or merely a natural occurring, the accounts of his own followers are there to testify that Smyth-Pigott was struck by mental illnesses.7 His health, both physical and mental, had started to deteriorate and his community began to disappear. Many followers demanded that Smyth-Pigott be deposed while others left the cult quietly. He led a life of seclusion in his room in the large mansion and died in 1927. He was buried in the hall of the chapel attached to his mansion. His death left his ‘soul bride’ Ruth in charge of the administration of the cult. Her death in 1956 signalled the end of the cult. Although she was survived by a few Agapemonites, however, with their death died the entire community. The gates of the cult that had always been firmly shut for outsiders began to creak open and secrets revealed. Properties inside the ‘city of God’ were sold to outsiders.
Intrigued by this strange Victorian cult, I travelled to Spaxton to see its remains. Some of the wall is still intact. Old inhabitants of the houses (some of whom are the descendants of Agapemonites) have a vague understanding of the map of the ‘Abode’, as it once existed in its heyday. All of the houses are still in the same condition as they previously stood, but they are all owned by people who either know nothing about Agapemone or only know it to be a myth associated with their village. I had read that Smyth-Pigott was buried in his chapel in an upright position so he could rise upright on the day of resurrection. Standing in the chapel, now owned as a residential property, I asked the occupant if I could see where his grave was. She shocked me by telling me that I was standing right on top of it. She moved the rug to reveal the opening of an empty rectangular space, indicating that this was once the place of his grave; and rumour has it that his body was secretly taken out to be buried elsewhere.
The Ahmadiyya community heralds the annihilation of the cult, its founder and its sacred town as a sign of Ahmad’sas victory in being the true messiah.
In this tale of three cities, the third one is Ahmad’sas own town Qadian. This small village is situated 18 kilometres Northeast of Batala, in the present day Indian Punjab. Unlike London and Chicago – where the other two messiahs lived – Qadian was a remote village almost entirely unknown. It is well-known today by many; who are either associated to it through their belief or those interested in modern-day Islam, but again, unlike its western counterparts it is known only for Ahmadas and the Ahmadiyya community. As far as I have been able to research, it is not known for any other reason.
Like the two western messiahs, Ahmadas too had a special connection with his town. The walled town was once owned by Ahmad’sas ancestors, but all he was left with was a further walled township where he and his family and most of his followers lived. A great number of his followers migrated from their native villages and settled in Qadian to develop this hamlet in to an established town.
Ahmadas claimed to have received many revelations from God about the prosperity of Qadian. He claimed to have had a vision where he saw the name of Qadian written in the Qur’an, the sacred book of Muslims revealed to Muhammad; he was told by God that Qadian would be saved from the deadly plague epidemic of 1897. He was informed by God that Qadian would be protected because it was the place where Allah’s apostle i.e. Ahmadas lived. Ahmadas relates in one of his visions that:
“I saw in a vision that Qadian had developed into a magnificent city. Its streets extended beyond the reach of sight. Its buildings rose up to several stories and its shops were well constructed with high platforms. There were plump and well-nourished bankers and jewellers who graced the market with their presence. They had in front of them heaps of jewels, rubies, pearls, diamonds, and gold and silver coins and there were shops exhibiting all manner of bright shining merchandise. There was so much traffic in the streets of all kinds of conveyances that pedestrians found it difficult to make their way through the traffic”.8
He received a promise from God, ‘I shall safeguard all those who are in your house’9.
Ahmadas was born in Qadian, lived in Qadian, carried out all his mission work from Qadian. He established a community of hundreds of thousands in his lifetime throughout India, its headquarters being Qadian. He was buried in Qadian and his tomb is visited by thousands of his following throughout the year. His community is established worldwide despite bitter persecution faced by his followers in Muslim countries. With Qadian still one of its headquarters, the community’s administrative offices are based in London. The community even today seems to have a profoundly deep love for Qadian, which is evident from the level of renovation work that has taken place.
Having visited this town too, I can give personal testimony to the advancement and progress that the town has made. Multi-storey buildings that are offices of the community, guesthouses with all amenities, a professionally conserved walled area that was once Ahmad’sas residence that today functions as a sacred place of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community with administrative blocks punctuating the span of the whole building.
Without any personal opinion added to the facts in this tale of three cities, we leave it to the reader to reach their own conclusions.10
1. Tadhkirah (Dreams and Visions of Mirza Ghulam Ahmad), Islam Int’l Publications, Tilford Surrey, 2009
2. Leaves of Healing, ed. J A Dowie, Chicago, December 27, 1902
3. Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, Lahore Artistic Printing Works, Lahore. Held in the British Library under General Reference Collection 4182.g.4
4. Hackney Gazzette, September 1902
5. Asif M Basit, John Hugh Smyth-Pigott; His Claim, Prophecy and End in Review of Religions, Feb 2012, London
8. Tadhkirah, p. 539, Islam International Publications, London 2009
10. Information about J A Dowie, J H Smyth- Pigott and Hazrat Ahmad have been derived from the following books:
A Temple of Love (Donald McCormick), Henry Prince and His Abode of Love (Charles Mander), John Alexander Dowie, A Life Story ofTrials,TragediesandTriumps (Gordon Lindsay), Leaves of Healing ed. J A Dowie (digitised by Google and available on the internet), Tadhkirah by Hazrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmadas.