Big Book Religion I
Bill Wilson’s god
The beginning of Bill Wilson’s sobriety was a visit from an old friend and drinking buddy, Ebby Thatcher. When Bill offered Ebby a drink, he refused stating that he had ‘got religion.’ Ebby was under the influence of the Oxford Group. (Unfortunately Thatcher’s sobriety did not last.) The Oxford Group (not to be confused with the Oxford or Tractarian Movement within the Anglican Church) was founded by Frank Buchman, a Lutheran clergyman who would go on to form Moral Re-Armament. Information on the Oxford Group and Moral Re-Armament is readily available elsewhere.
Suffice it to say that the Oxford Group’s emphasis was on a spiritual and moral Christianity. Its four ‘absolutes’ were: (1) honesty, (2) purity, (3) unselfishness, and (4) love. These were coupled with four spiritual practices: (1) sharing of sins and struggles with another Christian, (2) surrender to God of the past, present, and future, (3) making restitution to those wronged, and (4) seeking guidance which, when received would be followed.
One night thereafter Bill Wilson, looking for Thatcher, went to the Calvary Rescue Mission, a ministry of Calvary Episcopal Church in New York whose priest was Sam Shoemaker, who would become a mentor to Bill Wilson. That night Bill went forward and surrendered his life. However, within days, still drinking, Bill admitted himself to a hospital where he underwent the ‘Belladonna treatment’ (a drug cocktail). After a visit from Ebby Thatcher, Bill Wilson had an experience which he called a conversion during which he saw a bright light in his room.
This is enough background to ask the question, Who was the God Bill Wilson commended to alcoholics? The relevance of this question is two-fold: (1) The movement Bill Wilson founded, Alcoholics Anonymous, has within it both conservatives and liberals, traditionalists and progressives. Some of the ‘old timers’ contend that Bill Wilson held orthodox views of God, did not mean to leave open belief in any god a person might choose, and would not approve concepts the ‘modernists’ are fine with such as making your god a tree, or yourself, or the group. (It is interesting that another tension is about changes and additions to theBig Boo which some describe as ‘divinely inspired.’) (2) Some orthodox Christians, wanting to be helpful to people struggling with all sorts of behavioural issues, adopt or try to adapt Bill Wilson’s teachings on the suppositions either that the teaching itself (including its view of God) is solidly grounded in the Bible or that the teaching is not inconsistent with the Bible and can be ‘redeemed’ by attaching to it Bible verses/passages.
It is not my intention to judge what Bill’s Wilson’s private beliefs about God were, nor his faith, nor his eternal destiny, but only to point out what he says about the god he commends in the Big Boo. One note may be helpful in understanding what he thought about God and religion. The historical/theological/ecclesiastical context is 1930’s American Christianity, which tended toward moralism of the ‘brotherhood of man, Fatherhood of God’ sort. The Religious View on A. A., Appendix V, cites a Roman Catholic priest, the Episcopal Church’s magazine The Living Church, and Dr. Harry Emerson Fosdick.
When Ebby Thatcher visited with Bill Wilson, Wilson was not an atheist, but he was hostile to the concept of God as he the thought of him.
I could go for such conceptions as Creative Intelligence or Spirit of Nature but I resisted the thought of a Czar of the Heavens, however loving his sway might be.
The turning point came when his friend suggested,
Why don’t you choose your own conception of God?(Bold added)
It was only a question of my being willing to believe in a Power greater than myself. Nothing more was required of me to make my beginning.
Wilson describes the place with regard to God to which he came later in the hospital:
There I humbly offered myself to God, as I then understood Him, to do with me as he would. I placed myself unreservedly under His care and direction. I admitted to myself for the first time that I myself was nothing; that without Him I was lost. I ruthlessly faced my sins and became willing to have my new-found Friend take them away, root and branch. I have not had a drink since.
I was to test my thinking by my new God-consciousness within . . . I was to sit quietly when in doubt, asking only for direction and strength to meet my problems as He would have me . . .
. . . Belief in the power of God, plus enough willingness, honesty and humility to establish and maintain the new order of things, were the essential requirements.
Such were the elements of Bill Wilson’s belief about God at the time of his conversion experience. (Bill’s Story, pp. 1-16, Big Book)
In the chapter that follows, There Is a Solution (pp. 17-29), there is a description of what one must (and of what one also may) believe:
The distinguished American psychologist William James, in his book, Varieties of Religious Experience, indicates a multitude of ways in which men have discovered God. We have no desire to convince anyone that that there is only one way by which faith can be can be acquired. If what we have learned and felt means anything at all, it means that all of us, whatever our race, creed, or color are the children of a living Creator with whom we may form a relationship upon simple and understandable terms as soon as we are willing enough to try. Those having religious affiliations will find here nothing disturbing to their beliefs or ceremonies. There is no friction among us over such matters. We think it no concern of ours what religious bodies our members identify themselves with as individuals. This should be an entirely personal affair which each one decides for himself in the light of past associations or his present choice. Not all of us join religious bodies, but most of us favor such memberships.
The most important chapter of the Big Book for understanding Bill Wilson’s concept of God is We Agnostics (pp. 44–57). Here we learn what the alcoholic’s great problem is:
Lack of power, that was our dilemma. We had to find a power by which we could live, and it had to be a Power greater than ourselves. Obviously. But where and how were we to find this Power?
Addressing the person who finds belief in God to be problematic, he commends God on practical grounds (the chapter also includes several theistic arguments):
We found that as soon as we were able to lay aside prejudice and express even a willingness to believe in a Power greater than ourselves, we commenced to get results, even though it was impossible for any of us to fully define or comprehend that Power, which is God.
But what definition and comprehension does he commend to agnostics?
When, therefore we speak to you of God, we mean your own conception of God. This applies, too, to other spiritual terms you find in this book. Do not let any prejudice you may have against spiritual terms deter you from asking what they mean to you. At the start this was all we needed to commence spiritual growth, to effect our first consciousness with God as we understood Him. Afterward we found ourselves accepting many things that seemed entirely out of reach. That was growth, but if we wished to grow we had to begin somewhere. So we used our own conception, however limited it was. (Emphases added.)
We needed to ask ourselves but one short question. ‘Do I now believe, or am I even willing to believe, that there is a Power greater than myself?’ As soon as a man can say that he does believe, or is willing to believe, we emphatically assure him he is on his way. It has been repeatedly proven among us that upon this simple cornerstone a wonderfully effective spiritual structure can be built.
Bill Wilson’s god is the god of your understanding – a god who is understood apart from the revelation of himself in the Bible, in the Person of his Incarnate Son, and in the atoning work of Jesus Christ. There is much that could be said, and which perhaps will be said at some other time, about the religion of passivity (surrender) and activism (amends, sharing) of Bill Wilson and A.A. There will also perhaps be time for examining whether the 12 Steps are drawn from or are even consistent with the Bible, as some Christians claim. For now, it is enough to demonstrate who the god was whom Bill Wilson commended to others.
It is possible to believe in this god, follow A.A, and get sober. (It is possible also to believe in no god at all, not follow A.A., and get sober.) On the one hand, we can be happy for the better life in this world those who believe in Bill Wilson’s god and get sober enjoy. But it is sobering to consider what those who believe in Bill Wilson’s god and die sober lose of everlasting life in the world to come. These are things worthy of serious consideration before we commend Bill Wilson, the Big Book, and A.A. or attempt to baptize them with the Bible.
Bill Smith is a PCA pastor and lives in Flowood, Mississippi. Part II – ‘Bill Wilson’s Salvation’ can be found here
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