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Monday, February 25, 2013

Dr. James Brister, Zion, Illinois


Dr. James Brister (1858 - 1916) was the first African-American dentist in Lake County, coming to Zion about 1903.

James Brister, 1903 (right) Collections of University of Pennsylvania Archives and Record Center. 

Brister was born in Philadelphia to Dr. Joseph Brister, D.D.S. and Olivia Parker Brister. He entered the University of Pennsylvania's dental school in 1879, receiving his diploma in 1881. He was the first African-American to earn a degree from Penn. From 1880 until shortly after 1890, James practiced dentistry with his father.

By 1893, James Brister moved to Chicago and opened a dental office on Dearborn Street. In 1897, he married Anna Murrell. Between 1898-1901, Brister's dental office was located on State Street, and then on Michigan Avenue from 1902 to 1903.

While in Chicago, Brister came into contact with John Alexander Dowie's Zion Movement. Chicago's large population, and Dowie's Tabernacle location across the street from the main gate of the World's Columbian Exposition were significant in attracting new members to his church, including Brister.


Born in Scotland and raised in Australia, John Alexander Dowie (1847-1907) (above) was a charismatic preacher and faith healer who established the Christian Catholic Church.

Dowie came to Illinois in 1893 to preach his message of “clean and faithful living” outside the entrance to the Columbian Exposition. By 1899, his followers numbered in the tens of thousands, and had donated enough money for Dowie to consider establishing a socialist utopia. Ultimately, Dowie  purchased 6,000 acres of farmland in Benton Township for his "City of God," which became Zion, a theocracy under his control.

Although Dowie was a controversial figure and his leadership was criticized for anti-democratic tendencies, he was ahead of his time when it came to social issues. He believed in an eight-hour work day at a time when 12-14 hour days were common, and allowed women to vote in local elections. He also believed in diversity and strongly enforced a policy against racism, making his church and Zion attractive to African-American families.

About 1903, James Brister moved his family to Zion, Illinois as part of Dowie's Christian Catholic Church. By 1905, 200 of Zion’s 10,000 residents were of African-American, South African or Caribbean heritage. Possibly the most influential of these African-American citizens was the town’s dentist, Dr. Brister.

Brister’s dental practice was in the “Temple Cottage” on Sheridan Road, and his family lived on Ezekiel Avenue and later Enoch Street.


In Zion, you did not become a leader in the church or hold public office unless Dowie personally chose you. Dowie selected Brister to be a deacon of the church, and his wife, Anna, a deaconess. Brister was also selected to be a member of the first Zion City Council in 1903. (Photo above showing James Brister - 2nd row left - as a member of the first city council for Zion, 1903. Collections of University of Pennsylvania Archives and Record Center).

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

Where can I get a copy of this picture?

Diana Dretske said...

The photos of Dr. James Brister are from the collections of the University of Pennsylvania. For assistance, contact the University Archives and Records Center uarc@pobox.upenn.edu / http://www.archives.upenn.edu/img/entry.html