A Tale of Two Claimants, Told in 20 News Clippings

By Tariq Mahmood – Canada

We all enjoy a good story.

Whether it’s around a campfire or in a good book, our brains are primed to consume information as a narrative and have a great time doing it.

But there are some whose lives tell a tale that’s stranger than fiction.

This article uncovers the tantalising tale of two people who claimed to be Prophets, narrated by none other than the newspapers of the world.

Their ink tells our story.

A Startling Proposal by Mirza Ghulam Ahmad (as)

Around the turn of the 20th century, two men claimed to be prophets. In the East, Mirza Ghulam Ahmad of Qadian (as) claimed to be the Messiah whom both the Muslims and the Christians awaited. He set out to prove the truth of his claims, and with it, he explained, the superiority of Islam.

On December 26, 1899, The Arizona Republican published the claims of ‘Mirza Ghulam Ahmad of Kadian, a well known Mohammedan reformer’.

Dowie and His Zion

In the west, the claimant was John Alexander Dowie, a supposed divine healer who claimed to be the third manifestation of Elijah. He established the city of Zion in Illinois with his followers, and claimed he was a prophet of God sent to establish a Heavenly kingdom on earth.

To the surprise, ire and joy of many, he prophesied the return of Jesus Christ within 25 years. He reasoned that just as Elijah came before Jesus in the form of John the Baptist, so too was Jesus going to return after Elijah the Third appeared. The city of Zion anxiously waited with him for the return of Jesus.

Dowie Frankly discloses his belief that in him the prophet Elijah lives again for the third time on earth. He is a remarkable citizen, and will doubtless carry out his plans. [1]

Dowie and His Hatred for Muslims

Dowie despised the Muslims. He once remarked: ‘One of the greatest systems in the Orient is Mohammadanism… Zion will have to wipe out that blot upon humanity… May God help me knock at the fate of the Moslem before long!’[2] The newspapers reported Dowie’s sentiments. The Argonaut (from San Francisco) reported that Dowie’s message reached Hazrat Ahmad (as) as well:

The Challenge

Dowie continued to mock Islam, claiming it would be destroyed. Because Hazrat Ahmad (as) could not stand for such insult to Islam and its prophet, Muhammad (sa), he issued a challenge.

No blood would be shed in this challenge. Prayer alone would decide the truth. Whether it was John Alexander Dowie or Hazrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmad (as) who survived, the matter was up to God.

The Papers Advise Dowie

Newspapers around America advised Dowie to accept the challenge. After all, what is the likelihood that a rich man in America would die sooner than an elderly man from India? It would be cowardly and ill-opportune to let this chance go to waste, they urged.

The Lead Daily Call (of South Dakota) argued this:

Dowie, who has openly professed to have the power of withering with his curse and healing with his blessing, and who has turned the credulity of his people to good account, should not miss this opportunity to prove what he can readily do. There is the chance that Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, who is a simple man and wears scant raiment, may contract a severe case of rheumatism from kneeling on the bare ground; and if the disease should prove fatal what wouldn’t it be worth to Dowie as advertising!’ [3]

More Reasons to Accept the Challenge

The newspapers of the world predicted that Dowie would be victorious, based on sheer odds. Dowie was in a medically developed country, and was younger and richer.

For the loser of the prayer-duel, death lay ahead.

The Mohammedan is generous rather than fair. He waives the consideration that he is ten years the elder and he stipulates that death shall be by disease, lightning stroke, or snakebite. The normal death rate of Chicago is far below that of Quodian [Qadian], and statistics show 673 deaths from snakebites in India last year and none in Cook County. Apart from the prayers the conditions favor Mr. DOWIE.’ [4]

An Announcement Made with Pure Conviction

The newspapers waited for a response, but silence followed for many months.

What was the third manifestation of Elijah so afraid of? Perhaps the confidence of the message startled him. Articles enthusiastically following the affair continued to end with ‘Dowie has not accepted the challenge’.

Many headlines admired the bravery of Hazrat Ahmad (as). This was a challenge made with pure conviction:

Dowie Must Wield This Weapon

If perhaps Hazrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmad (as) proposed wrestling or a race as the duel, Dowie could have found a reason to decline.

Instead, the Eastern claimant to Messiahood (as) challenged him to something only God could bestow. Dowie claimed to be a divine healer and prophet, whose prayers were accepted.

The Promised Messiah (as) challenged him to a battle he could not decline.

‘The ‘Promised Messiah’ has shrewdly proposed a test which the Chicago pretender cannot well afford to decline. To refuse to accept prayer as a test would be to acknowledge that he was unwilling to rest his case with the most powerful agency at his command.[5]

Sceptical of Hazrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmad (as)

Though intrigued, the newspapers were naturally sceptical of Hazrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmad (as). The prejudice was evident. For example, The Saint Paul Globe remarked:

​​He hasn’t been very prosperous as a Messiah. Qadian isn’t as profitable a field for religious enterprise as Chicago, and Dowie has the Hindoo eclipsed when it comes to being a commercial Messiah. While Dowie is wearing a gorgeous purple robe and carrying a staff that reaches two feet above his bald poll, Mirza has only a cast-off overcoat, a pair of white breeches, and a bamboo cane. [6]

And so, some papers openly cast their bet on who might win the challenge.

Dowie Met with Hostility in New York City

Dowie tried to find success elsewhere after being ridiculed for not accepting the prayer duel, and so travelled to New York to preach his message and hold a conference. Once more, he reaffirmed himself as Elijah.

The New York Times reports the reaction of the audience:

His declaration caused a demonstration that but for the quick closing of the meeting would have resulted in a riot.The declaration was received with a storm of hisses almost sufficiently intense to drown the cries of ‘imposter,’ ‘fake,’ ‘blasphemer,’ and jeers that resounded throughout the amphitheatre… During the scene of pandemonium the voice of Dowie died away, and he completely lost control of the audience.” [7]

About three quarters of the attendees left, and those who stayed mocked him still. He left with his followers, numbering half of those who remained.

Dowie and His Rather Insane Demeanour

Some seekers of truth with good intentions may have been sitting at the above-mentioned conference. Dowie, on the other hand, had no intention of being courteous. After yelling at the audience in New York, he returned to Zion where he began to act erratic and odd.

Dowie Trapped in a Corner

The newspapers continued to ask why Dowie hadn’t replied to the Promised Messiah (as). They speculated keenly as to whether Dowie didn’t care or was just to scared.

The Sunday Times in Perth, Australia, published their take [8]:

“To the continued challenge of this glove with a fist in it, Dowie still made no reply. Maybe he reckoned it would lower his reputation to enter the ring with a lightweight Restorer like Mirza, or he thought, as a Yankee paper surmised, the Hindoo  had Him In a Corner, and it would be better to stay there.”

Dowie Responds, Seals His Fate

It was in December of 1903 that Dowie responded under pressure from others. In his newsletter called Leaves of Healing, Dowie remarked:

In India, there is a Mohammedan Messiah who keeps writing to me that Jesus Christ lies buried in Kashmir. People ask me why do I not send him the necessary reply. Do you think that I should answer such gnats and flies? If I were to put my foot on them I would crush them to death. The fact is that I merely give them a chance to fly away and survive.’ [9]

The newspaper out of Brooklyn, New York entitled Every Where mentions this response:

And so, Dowie had indirectly accepted the prayer duel. This began his coup de grace.

Dowie Ousted by Loved Ones

Dowie fell sick. As an article quoted above recorded, the Promised Messiah (as) prophesied a death which could not be blamed on human intervention. The newspapers opined that the death should be the result of something like a stroke or a snakebite.

Thereafter, Dowie was afflicted with a sudden stroke, and became seriously ill. He left for treatment, and his congregation learned in his absence that Zion was in financial ruin. The New-York Tribune explained their reaction to this harrowing revelation. The headline read ‘Zion Ousts Dowie‘.

But Dowie’s descent had only just begun.

At a meeting today of 5,000 adherents of the Christian Catholic Church at Zion City, of which John Alexander Dowie is the founder and first apostle, Dowie’s authority was repudiated and Wilbur Glenn Voliva, who for some time has been conducting the affairs of the church, was elected in his stead.

Mrs. Dowie also repudiated her husband, and their son, Gladstone Dowie, the unkissed, cast his lot with his mother and the new leader, Voliva, [10].’

The People of Zion Renounce Dowie

After Dowie granted power of attorney to Wilbur Glenn Voliva (the head of the Australian branch, and Dowie’s confidante), the latter used this power to reveal the situation in Zion, and legally won over the rights of Zion. He gathered the congregation to preach against John Alexander Dowie. He did not hold back.

Wife Exposes Dowie

Alexander Dowie’s wife joined Voliva’s movement and gave astonishing reports of Dowie’s character. She confirmed that Dowie was promiscuous, as other women in the town had previously claimed. The Saint of Zion was exposed as a habitual sinner.

Dowie Dies Alone

Dowie died with a handful of followers surrounding him. He refused to see his wife and son, and was mourned by only a few followers in Zion.

One March 7, 1907 the the prayer duel that had held the attention of both hemispheres, ended. At one time, Dowie was a man of wealth, health, family, fame, and a future.

On that day, he died without any of these.

Hazrat Ahmad (as) Lauded in the Press

The Prophecy of Dowie was special in many ways. The Promised Messiah (as) predicted the state of affairs at the death of Dowie. Dowie’s death would not be glorious, but rather he would depart from this world in a pitiful state. And thus it happened, as the Nebraska State journal reports:

The Victor Announces Fulfilment of Prophecy

However, some of the media seemed to have no interest in declaring the Promised Messiah (as) a victor. After all, what benefit would it serve them to proclaim the victory of Islam in Christian countries? This would enrage the readership, and the revenue stream by extension.

For a while, the media fell silent.

The Promised Messiah (as) published the sign to demonstrate the power of his prayer. The announcement was published in the English magazine of the Promised Messiah (as) called The Review of Religions, which is in its 120th year.

The message was the same then as it is now. The power of prayer and the support of Allah the Almighty rests with the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community.

Newspapers Predict the Death of Ahmadiyyat

The Christian journals and magazines of the world were frustrated with the popularity of the Promised Messiah (as). So, they did what all opponents of prophets do: they prophesied the destruction of the mission of the prophet.

The Missionary review of the World remarked [11]

The Ahmadiyya Muslim Community is not only alive and well, but rather grows with every passing day. From the very same distant land of Punjab mentioned in the newspapers above, it has reached the corners of the earth.

Zion, Illinois has changed in the 115 years since the death of Dowie. Many Zionites do not even remember the founder of their town.

This month, the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community opens another mosque, this time in the city that once belonged to Dowie. It is called Fath-e-Azeem Mosque, or ‘Mosque of the Great Victory.’

Over the past week, followers of Hazrat Ahmad (as) in the thousands have thronged to populate the very city erected to destroy Islam.

Just today, the worldwide head of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, His Holiness Hazrat Mirza Masroor Ahmad (aba) expressed how great a victory this was. His Holiness (aa) quoted newspapers at the time of the Promised Messiah (as) and how they attested to the same fact: this tale of two claimants to prophethood was proven in favour of the Promised Messiah (as).

How ironic that John Alexander Dowie, who announced that the Messiah is coming, ended up proving through his death that the Promised Messiah (as) has indeed come. Today, the city of Zion – established to “blot out the smear of Islam from humanity” has become a historic proof of Islam’s truth.

About the Author:Tariq Mahmood is a graduate of the Ahmadiyya Institute of Languages and Theology in Canada and serves as Secretary of The Existence Project Team for The Review of Religions.


[1] The Literary Digest, March 21, 1903

[2] Leaves of Healing, Vol. 13, p. 474

[3] Lead Daily Call, South Dakota, May 16, 1903

[4] The New York Times, March 29, 1903

[5] Burlington Daily Free Press, Vermont USA, June 27, 1903

[6] The Saint Paul Globe, July 19, 1903

[7] The New York Times, October 20, 1903

[8] The Sunday Times, Perth Australia, May 29, 1904

[9] Leaves of Healing, December 27, 1903

[10] New-York Tribune, April 2, 1906

[11] Missionary review of the World, February 1904