AA in the 1930s: God As We Understood Him
By bob k
The wheels were set in motion for what would eventually become Alcoholics Anonymous at Bill Wilson’s kitchen table in November of 1934. Bill’s old school chum and sometime drinking buddy, Ebby Thacher, came to visit and he arrived in a shocking condition. He was sober!
The door opened and he stood there, fresh-skinned and glowing. There was something about his eyes. He was inexplicably different. What had happened? I pushed a drink across the table. He refused it. Disappointed but curious, I wondered what had got into the fellow. He wasn’t himself. “Come, what’s all this about?” I queried. He looked straight at me. Simply, but smilingly, he said, “I’ve got religion.” (BB p. 9)
Over the years, there has been some misunderstanding regarding Bill Wilson’s pre-conversion “belief status.” The author of the We Agnostics chapter in the Big Book was neither atheist nor agnostic. “I had always believed in a Power greater than myself…. I was not an atheist.” (BB p.10) Essentially parentless, and strongly under the influence of a liberal maternal grandfather, Wilson confessed some admiration for Christ, but disdain for the hypocrisy of his followers and the mandates of the Preachers. As were so very many others, Wilson was further jaded by the horrors of the “Great War,” and “honestly doubted whether, on balance, the religions of mankind had done any good…. (T)he power of god in human affairs was negligible, the Brotherhood of Man a grim jest.” (BB p. 11)
William Griffith Wilson, and Grandfather Gardner Fayette Griffith were deists. Our friends at Wikipedia help us here: “According to deists, the creator does not intervene in human affairs or suspend the natural laws of the universe. Deists typically reject supernatural events such as prophecy and miracles, tending instead to assert that a god (or “the Supreme Architect”) does not alter the universe by intervening in it.” This was undeniably a fairly radical position among the Christian super-majority of the era, but neither was it agnosticism nor atheism.
The desperation of an advanced state of alcoholism propelled Wilson to consider abandoning “the vestiges of my old prejudice… (reconsidering) that there might be a God personal to me….” (BB p. 12) After some resistance, and some further drinking, a second visit from Ebby, still more drinking, and the passage of a couple of weeks Bill Wilson (only half-drunk) ventured to the very Christian Calvary Mission and made a public “testimony” of his newfound faith in a rescuing God. Buoyed by a renewed optimism that the solution to his drinking problem was at hand, he headed to Towns Hospital for his fourth and final de-tox AFTER a few more days of serious drinking.
At Towns, as per the procedures of the time, Bill was drugged with barbiturates and belladonna. He awoke in a state of severe depression, but a visit from Ebby renewed his resolve to attempt the “God cure.” After all, he had nothing to lose. Now, students of AA history may well know that Bill’s paternal grandfather, a prodigious drinker, was moved by the words of an itinerant preacher at a revival meeting to “surrender liquor.” Many times, young Bill heard of grandpa’s “spiritual experience” involving the ever-present white light and the refreshing coolness of a mountain breeze. Cynics will find Bill’s hospital “experience” remarkably similar to Grandpa Willie’s!
William James has cited “deflation at depth” as a pre-requisite for “spiritual experience.” Even without the assistance of Monty Hall, our founder could clearly see death and alcoholic insanity behind doors number one and two. The choice of door number three required only the swallowing of some intellectual pride, and the conversion from belief in an uninvolved Creator, to One who would help in his time of need.
Many see, in instances such as these, the awesome power of the supernatural. Others detect the tremendous power of the fear of death or disability. The case for the “fear theory” is made by wealthy, and otherwise clear- thinking people, who plunk down tens, or hundreds of thousands for bogus cancer cures, or at cryogenic clinics. A recollection of Psychology 101 brings to mind the surprising effectiveness of the “placebo effect.” The incredible power of the mind can produce some amazing results. Mothers who, to save an endangered child, lift great and weighty objects – angelic assistance or adrenaline rush?
So on went Bill to a new and sober life and a motivating missionary zeal for helping others. Although his somewhat preachy proselytizing produced no lasting conversions, he was managing to keep himself sober. A tip from Dr. Silkworth to ease up on the salvation story and “white light experience,” and instead to open with powerful truths of the progressive and fatal nature of the disease, led to a new approach with Dr. Bob Smith. The good Akron doctor was well along the “God-path,” but achieving no relief from his dissipation. He did react favourably to the “one alcoholic talking to another” tactic, and the living example of another such as he. This was the start of Alcoholics Anonymous (as yet unnamed). These were the godliest of the Christian glory days. New converts in Akron, like Bill D., Ernie G. the first, and Phil S. delighted in their new-found recovery with resistance to neither God nor Jesus Christ. The “alcoholic squad” of the Oxford Group’s Christian fellowship was enjoying some success. Of course, a number of others, Eddie R., “Victor” and “Lil” famous for AA’s first thirteenth step, and many others sought the “God-cure,” but no “miracle” was forthcoming.
Back in New York, Fitz M., a minister’s son resentful against God, dropped his resentments, returned to the fold, and got sober – a grateful prodigal son. Then, the whole religious “kumbaya” singing unit was thrown for a loop by the arrival of Hank P., who though happy to be sober, attributed this “blessing” to the power of the fellowship. Although in his story, The Unbeliever, desperation drives him to attempt prayer, it is widely known that he continued in his disbelief and lobbied for a book EXCLUDING God entirely. Spiritual solidarity had lasted a mere four months. The chapter We Agnostics tells us that although many started as atheists or agnostics, these failing philosophies were quickly and easily abandoned once their “lack of power” was understood. This is not at all true. The New York Group detached completely from the Oxfords in 1937. Many wanted a more secular path, and others a non-sectarian path. Ohio AA was very Christian, but New York was quite eclectic.
January, 1938, brought Jim Burwell, atheistic, aggressive and argumentative. Those sympathetic to his lack of belief did not rally round Jimmy’s cause as the “Don’t Tell” attitude was producing results. Those believing in the power of the group, wisely do not aggressively attack the group. Jim B. is written of in the Twelve and Twelve as “Ed” – “His pet obsession was that AA could get along better without its ‘God nonsense.'” Many undoubtedly did some ungodly praying that he would get drunk, and after seven months, he did. He returned and was far less argumentative. However, it is not true that he abandoned his disbelief. Months later, when the book was written, it did NOT include his story. Still sober in 1955, his story was added to the book. He states quite clearly that, for many years, his higher power was the group itself.
Jim’s biography “Sober for Thirty Years” makes it quite clear that he never developed any belief in a supernatural god. Wikipedia supports this as well – According to Clarence Snyder (an early AA member from Cleveland): “Jimmy remained steadfast throughout his life and ‘preached’ his particular [non-God] brand of AA wherever he went.”
For the man credited with the phrase “God, as we understood Him,” in extreme situations such as his own, this could be stretched to “even if we understood Him to NOT be God.” In 1991, when it was sensed that I had a resistance to the religious aspects of AA, the more liberal members invited me to use God as “G” “O” “D” – Good Orderly Direction, or Group Of Drunks. This I found to be very awkward, but serviceable. I took consolation in the study of AA history which clearly illustrates that the spiritual homogeneity touted in our book NEVER existed past September or October of 1935. “To show other alcoholics precisely how we recovered” is a gross oversimplification. Of course, it was expected that over time I would develop a higher Higher Power. It hasn’t happened yet.
It is somewhat irksome that the success of cases such as mine are used to militate AGAINST any change in the wording of the steps, or the book. Of course, the same fine folks in a different conversation, will tell you with great assurance that those who recover on “human power” were never “real alcoholics” in the first place.
In the Alcoholics Anonymous of the new millenium, there are several ongoing, and vocal movements of “Big Book Fundamentalism.” It is no overstatement that the book is worshipped, and all ideas not contained within the covers of the book (most particularly the first 164, 103, or 88 pages) are summarily dismissed! The common thread: GOD, GOD, and MORE GOD. These movements are in Texas and Pennsylvania, and Toronto, Scarborough, Oshawa and Markham. Tolerance for higher powers other than God are on the decline. Newcomers resistant to God are told to return to drinking. Sober non-believers were NEVER “real” alcoholics. The number of “God” references in the book is continually cited (albeit the number fluctuates quite a bit). Appendix II, Spiritual Experience, with its talk of “psychic change” is seen as diluting the message. The rather significant “Back to Basics” movement would love a return to Oxford Group Christian principles. Sharing of experience is being replaced by the unapologetic preaching of absolutes.
All of the above is based on the misguided notion that the venerated “First 100” followed precisely the formula described in the book. This is ridiculously untrue and akin to claiming that Dalton McGinty was unanimously elected in the past provincial election.
Here we have the atmosphere in which Toronto Intergroup has delisted the non-conformists. Kind of reminds me of a very exciting day at the Keep It Simple Group, in 1992. A rather defiant “Richard the Atheist” was vociferously expressing some “non-conforming” views when one of the more orthodox disciples was propelled by Christian love to leap across the table, with fists flying, in an evangelical effort to bring about in Richard the requisite “religious experience.” Didn’t work – the obstinacy of some being beyond all imagining!