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The Religious Affiliation of
Bill Wilson
Founder of Alcoholics Anonymous


From: Ervin Shaw, "Bill Wilson and Alcoholics Anonymous" webpage, Revised and posted: 20 Nov. 2000; 17 Feb. 2002 in "Christian Testimonies" section of "The Truth . . . What Is It?" website (http://poptop.hypermart.net/testaa.html; viewed 14 February 2006):
As the Dow went down, his booze went up: "My depression deepened unbearably, and finally it seemed to me as though I were at the bottom of a pit. I still gagged badly at the notion of a Power greater than myself, but finally, just for the moment, the vestige of my proud obstinacy was crushed. All at once I found myself crying out, 'If there is a God, let Him show Himself! I am ready to do anything, anything!' Suddenly the room lit up with a great white light. I was caught up into an ecstasy which there are no words to describe. It seemed to me, in the mind's eye, that I was on a mountain and that a wind not of air but spirit was blowing. And then it burst upon me that I was a free man. Slowly the ecstasy subsided. I lay on the bed, but now for a time I was in another world, a new world of consciousness. All about me and through me there was a wonderful feeling of Presence, and I thought to myself, 'So this is the God of the preachers!' A great peace stole over me and I thought, 'No matter how wrong things seem to be, they are right. Things are all right with God and His world.'"

Here is more:

Wednesday, Oct. 11, 2000 (from Breakpoint web site).

I saw the news of President Bill Clinton's speech. But the first person I thought of was Bill Wilson. Wilson, who died in 1971, was the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, the most popular self-help group in the history of the United States. I thought of him for two reasons. First, Clinton's pose, hand on chin, eyes cast downward, and hunched back...sort of the "The Thinker" in abasement...reminded me of the pose of an alcoholic at an A.A. meeting revealing some particularly painful sin of his past. Wilson would recognize, and even appreciate, the posture.

However, the President had something in his hand you'd never find at an A.A. meeting: a microphone. And Wilson would not have liked that at all. Further, he...Wilson...wouldn't have been too crazy about the words that came out of the microphone and the triumph of narcissistic self-revelation they represent.

In the "Culture of Oprah", of course, nothing could be healthier than the Presidents' purging. Our messy, imprecise modern language of psychological "healing" and forgiveness has infused our collective consciousness with the idea that confession...any confession...is good for the soul; but public confession is even better. Better still is if it's a public confession that isn't really a confession at all.

To many cultural critics, this Weltanschauung began in the 1930s with the founding of Alcoholics Anonymous. But this is a serious misunderstanding of A.A. and the religious ethic that informed its values...values that are now, as Clinton's satellite-ready prostration proves, as extinct as milk delivered in glass bottles.

When asked about his spiritual state, the president claimed to "feel much more at peace than I used to." Hitting his stride, he went on: "I think that as awful as what I went through, humiliating as it was...more to others than to me, even...sometimes when you think you've got something behind you and then it's not behind you, this sort of purging process, if it doesn't destroy you, can bring you to a different place." Clinton then called himself "a work in progress."

The seeds of A.A. were planted in 1931 when a wealthy young American alcoholic named "Rowland H." traveled to Zurich, Switzerland and placed himself under the care of psychiatrist C. G. Jung. Rowland worked with Jung for almost a year. He then set out for home, but got no further than Paris before he was drunk again. He returned to Zurich, and what happened next became what A.A. cofounder Bill Wilson called, in a letter to Jung, "the first link in the chain of events that led to the founding of Alcoholics Anonymous. Jung told Rowland that medicine and psychiatry could do nothing more for him. The single alternative left was a religious or spiritual experience...what Jung called "a genuine conversion." Jung had heard of such experiences helping alcoholics get sober but admitted that such cases were "comparatively rare."

To Rowland, anything was better than the alternative...drinking himself to death...so he returned to New York and joined the Oxford Group, a nondenominational group of conservative Christians who sought conversion through a program of prayer, confession, and service to others. Rowland was able to provide this service when in August 1934 he heard that his old friend Ebby T. was about to be institutionalized for alcoholism. Here was a soul he could help. Rowland intervened, passing on his message of conversion. Ebby took the bait and joined the Oxford Group. Then he went to carry the message to the most hopeless alcoholic he knew...his friend, stockbroker Bill Wilson.

Wilson had been drinking around the clock for weeks when Ebby appeared at the front door of his New York apartment. When the two men sat down at the kitchen table, Wilson noticed something different about Ebby: his eyes were clear, his face content. Ebby was sober. Wilson produced a bottle. Ebby declined, saying that he had "got religion." Through Rowland and the Oxford Group, Ebby had discovered a simple plan for staying sober: "Realize you are licked, admit it, and get willing to turn your life over to the care of God."

Wilson was floored. He concluded that Ebby, once an "alcoholic crackpot," was now "a little cracked about religion." Still, something about Ebby had piqued Bill's curiosity, and the next day...after getting drunk...Wilson paid a visit to the Oxford Group. There he found "life's discards and the rejects of society." After a few more days of drinking, Wilson decided to check himself into the hospital to "dry out" so he could think more clearly about what was happening to him. Wilson put himself under the care of Dr. William Silkworth, and it was in the hospital that Wilson had the spiritual experience that would change his life. He began feeling more and more depressed when the following occurred:

"My depression deepened unbearably, and finally it seemed to me as though I were at the bottom of a pit. I still gagged badly at the notion of a Power greater than myself, but finally, just for the moment, the vestige of my proud obstinacy was crushed. All at once I found myself crying out, 'If there is a God, let Him show Himself! I am ready to do anything, anything!' Suddenly the room lit up with a great white light. I was caught up into an ecstasy which there are no words to describe. It seemed to me, in the mind's eye, that I was on a mountain and that a wind not of air but spirit was blowing. And then it burst upon me that I was a free man. Slowly the ecstasy subsided. I lay on the bed, but now for a time I was in another world, a new world of consciousness. All about me and through me there was a wonderful feeling of Presence, and I thought to myself, 'So this is the God of the preachers!' A great peace stole over me and I thought, 'No matter how wrong things seem to be, they are right. Things are all right with God and His world.'"

Shortly after his experience Wilson was visited by Ebby, who brought him a copy of The Varieties of Religious Experience. From the book he gleaned that conversions have something in common: absolute despair and deflation of the human ego often precede them. After getting out of the hospital, Wilson set off "on jet propulsion" to cure other drunks. But despite his conversion he was still plagued by cravings. In 1935, while staying in a hotel in Akron, Ohio, his thirst grew so powerful that he called a church and asked to be put in touch with an alcoholic...after all, if nothing else, preaching to other alcoholics had kept Wilson himself sober. Wilson was referred to Dr. Bob Smith, an alcoholic physician. The meeting, which took place on Mother's Day, 1935, convinced the two men that alcoholics who couldn't stay sober separately could do so together. A.A. was born.

Wilson's experiences led him to conclude that the only way to stay sober was by deflating the ego, which he believed was largely responsible for the will to drink. Borrowing from various religions, Wilson came up with the Twelve Steps, which encourage alcoholics to admit they are powerless over booze, "turn our will and our lives over to God," make "a fearless and searching moral inventory," make amends to all the people they hurt in the past, and live a more conscientious, humble, and spiritual life dedicated to God and helping other alcoholics. Wilson then contradicted the Oxford Group, which thrived on the visibility and proselytizing of its members, by insisting that it was vital for alcoholics to stay anonymous: Alcoholics who talked too much on public platforms were likely to become inflated and get drunk again [thus] discrediting A.A.

What a difference a few years and the rise and conquest of the culture of narcissism makes. According to A.A., the Twelve Steps all flow from the first: without admitting powerlessness over the problem one cannot truly ask God for help and change one's life. Clinton admitted that he had "an inappropriate relationship" with Monica Lewinsky. Unfortunately, what went unsaid was the underlying problem of his allegedly chronic and abusive pattern of using women for his personal sexual gratification, including the possible rape of Juanita Brodderick. If Clinton never got through step one, he never made it to step four: "Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves." And forget about steps eight and nine: "made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all" and "made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others."

Perhaps Clinton has done these things in private. Maybe he scheduled a secret meeting with Monica Lewinsky, and then his staff, in which he sincerely apologized for putting them in the position of lying for him. He might have even had a talk with Hillary. But I doubt it. That wouldn't be as satisfying as adopting the self-regarding mantle of Deeply Changed Man for an audience of millions. I'd say that Bill Wilson's definition of an alcoholic still fits William Jefferson Clinton: "an extreme example of self-will run riot."

The author of the above is Mark Gauvreau Judge, a freelance writer who lives near Washington, D.C. His most recent book is "If it Ain't Got that Swing: The Rebirth of Grown-up Culture" (Spence 2000).


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