Zion, Illinois: The Town That Was Once A Flat Earth Theocracy

You may have, at some point in your life, been exposed to the belief that, prior to Christopher Columbus getting lost trying to sail around it, everyone thought the Earth was flat. That's not even remotely true, though; nearly two millennia before Columbus, the ancient Greeks had figured out that the Earth was a sphere and, more importantly, wrote it down. As City University of New York reports, the mathematician Eratosthenes had even calculated a remarkably-close estimate of the planet's circumference.

Not everyone appears to have gotten the memo, however. These days, a conspiracy theory — one which, confoundingly, has gained far more traction than it deserves — claims that the Earth is flat and that all evidence to the contrary has been manufactured.

A century ago, one particularly devoted flat Earth believer was so hellbent on proselytizing this belief that he turned an entire town — Zion, Illinois — into his own municipal theocracy in which professing that the Earth was flat was, at the very least, a terrible faux pas and, at worst, could have severe consequences. And as the Daily Beast reports, when the voters of the town rejected his theocratic dictatorship, things turned violent.

Wilbur Glenn Voliva

The story of Wilbur Glenn Voliva (above), Zion's one-time theocratic dictator, begins not with Wilbur himself, but with another man: John Alexander Dowie. According to the book, "The Plane Truth," by Bob Schadewald, available via cantab.net, Dowie was a faith healer who made tons of money preaching against doctors, pharmacists, labor unions, pork, and oysters, among other things, and as Schadewald describes him, "he denounced them from the pulpit with more invective and less charity than Jimmy Swaggart."

The doctors, pharmacists, labor union members, and purveyors of pork and oysters, were not best pleased and persecuted the religious leader, which only fed his zeal and brought him more converts (and more money). One of those converts was Wilbur Glenn Voliva, who bought into Dowie's belief system with equal, if not greater, enthusiasm.

Dowie brought up tracts of land north of Chicago, in what would eventually become the town of Zion, populated by followers of Dowie. Officially, the town was like any other Illinois town, complete with a school board, an elected government, and so on. Unofficially, the church, the Christian Catholic Apostolic Church, and more specifically Dowie, called the shots. And after Dowie was forced out and Voliva took over, Zion's theocracy got even more strict.

'The Theocrat'

Officially, there is no room for theocracy (defined by Merriam-Webster as "government of a state by immediate divine guidance or by officials who are regarded as divinely guided") in the United States. The First Amendment is pretty clear that the governmental establishment of religion in this country is a no-go, and subsequent case law has expanded that to mean that cities can't enforce religious dictates, either. Unofficially, the government of Zion, Illinois said nuts to that, and more to the point, they owned it. As the Library of Congress notes, the town's newspaper was known as "The Theocrat," and it was a mix of church doctrine and some actual news, albeit news taken from other sources and rewritten by Zion writers. Further, as the Daily Beast reports, Voliva named his political party "The Theocratic Party," putting aside any ambiguity about what the town was about.

"Zion City was to be communitarian and theocratic, a place of Christian cooperation, racial harmony, and strict fundamentalist morals," notes the Encyclopedia of Chicago. And the "strict fundamentalist morals" part was abundantly true in town; in Zion, there was no gambling, no smoking, no theaters, and no circuses. Also banned were pork, oysters, swearing, and whistling on Sunday, which could result in jail time.

Flat Earth Fanaticism

According to the book, "The Plane Truth," by Bob Schadewald, via cantab.net, the people of Zion were introduced to Voliva's flat Earth fanaticism during a sermon in which he, perhaps not surprisingly, railed against science in general, geology, and astronomy specifically. "I believe this Earth is a stationary plane; that it rests upon water; and that there is no such thing as the Earth moving, no such thing as the Earth's axis or the Earth's orbit. It is a lot of silly rot, born in the egotistical brains of infidels ... I get my astronomy from the Bible," he said.

Voliva weaponized Zion's schools to propagate his flat Earth beliefs, according to the Daily Beast, and he dissolved the school board and replaced it with his own. In Zion schools, children were taught that the idea of a spherical Earth was "a Satanic lie," as the website describes it.

Proclaiming that the Earth is round may or may not have been a criminal offense in Zion — that's not clear — but it was certainly unwelcome. A photograph posted on the Facebook page of the Flat Earth Society shows a sign from the era, telling visitors exactly what the town of Zion thought about the idea of a round Earth. "No one except a low down scoundrel ... would call the Earth a globe in Zion City," it read.

Election Denialism

Flat Earth theocracy or no, Zion was also an American city that, like American cities, appointed its leaders via democratic elections. And as the Daily Beast reports, when the people of Zion got fed up with Wilbur Glenn Voliva in 1909, they voted him out. Upon learning that he'd lost the election, Voliva's attitude was, "No I didn't" and he went on governing as if he'd won. Further, he alleged voter fraud. "I've hired two big attorneys to prosecute those who perpetrated these election frauds. I mean business," he said.

Soon, the governance of Zion looked like it was going to be in the hands of either the pro-Voliva faction or the pro-democracy faction. And both sides were armed. Eventually, the entire matter was settled with a giant fistfight, as the town's legitimately-elected government and the Voliva holdouts threw down at City Hall. "With Bare Fists From Early Evening Until After Midnight," read a headline from the time.

Voliva and his associates retained power — this time. But by 1934, a legitimate, secular government had taken over, this time without Voliva managing to hold on to power. Nine decades later, Zion is a town of about 25,000 people, according to World Population Review, and it is not a flat Earth theocracy, but a nondescript little Northern Illinois city that is scarcely different from any other Chicago exurb. Presumably, the city and its residents accept that the Earth is round.