Where Did Author and A.A. Historian Dick B. Find This!
(Why Bill Wilson Came Firmly to Believe That Alcoholism Could Be Cured by Finding or Rediscovering God)
© 2013 Anonymous. All rights reserved.
Many AAs, and certainly critics of Bill Wilson and Alcoholics Anonymous, probably have no accurate information about Bill’s Christian upbringing in Vermont, his extensive study of the Bible, and his growing conviction in later years that alcoholism could be permanently cured by the “Great Physician,” through a vital religious experience, based on “finding or rediscovering God” through acceptance of Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.
And it has taken years of investigation to paint a comprehensive, truthful picture of how Bill Wilson, from his earliest youth, heard about his own grandfather Willie Wilson’s vital religious experience at the top of Mount Aeolus next to the little village of East Dorset, Vermont. A “rediscovery” of God by this Christian grandfather, and permanent cure of alcoholism that Wilson, his early biographers, and writers today have finally begun to mention, sometimes in substantial detail. This was a vital religious experience that Dr. Norman Vincent Peale may have heard from Bill himself and then related to me in a personal meeting at the Peale Center in New York as Dr. Peale spoke to me of “two” religious experiences Bill had told him about when the two men were good friends and Bill was still alive.
Here, in staccato form, I will tell you what I have found and here documented in footnotes, much of it beginning to come together when I wrote my own biography of Bill Wilson, titled The Conversion of Bill W.: More on the Creator’s Role in Alcoholics Anonymous, http://www.dickb.com/conversion.shtml.
Point by point, look at what Dick B. found:
1. Bill Wilson was born behind the bar at the Wilson House, and raised in East Dorset, Vermont, a village which lay at the feet of Mount Aeolus. A village which sported a little East Dorset Congregational Church (still present) that was located between the Wilson House of Wilson’s paternal grandparents and the Griffith House on the other side of the church—home of Wilson’s maternal grandparents.
2. The Wilson family had long owned the Inn renovated and now known as the Wilson House. They also were among the founders of the East Dorset Congregational Church. The family owned Pew 15 in that church, and church records show that the Wilsons had served as officers of the church, attended it, and contributed funds and efforts to the church itself.
3. The beliefs of the church members are no mystery—a matter resolved as we were allowed to enter the East Dorset Congregational Church with its treasurer and archivist. We saw Pew 15 and the church record that showed it was owned by the Wilsons. We saw the church’s Christian covenant and creed. We saw records of sermons, and learned about the Wilson family’s participation in the church, as well as that of the Griffith family. We saw the little Sunday school next to the church.
4. Grandfather William Wilson attended the East Dorset Congregational Church before Bill Wilson was born. And grandfather Wilson had a long record of alcoholism. He had tried to lick it through Temperance and Revival meetings, but to no avail. However, one Sunday, grandfather William climbed to the top of Mount Aeolus, cried out to God for help, suddenly saw a blinding light and felt a great wind – much as Bill W. was to experience at Towns Hospital many many years later. Grandfather Wilson believed he had sensed the presence of God and been saved. He rushed down to the little church, interrupted the services, seized the pulpit, announced to the congregation that he had been saved, and that he was healed. Moreover, he never drank again during the remaining eight years of his life. See Dick B., The Conversion of Bill W.
5. For many years during his childhood, Bill Wilson repeatedly heard that his paternal grandfather William C. (“Willie”) Wilson had been cured of alcoholism in a conversion experience atop Mt. Aeolus in Bill’s home town village of East Dorset, Vermont.
6. Throughout his youth, Bill was exposed to the account of his grandfather’s conversion and cure of alcoholism. (And, as I found, his exposure to the Bible, to religious training, and to spiritual growth was far more substantial than has previously been known.)
7. Bill W.’s mother (a Griffith who had married a Wilson) delighted in telling this story to anyone who would listen, and certainly to Bill W. himself. As stated, many others, including Bill W., have told this conversion story through the years.
8. We now know how much Bill’s family had been involved in the church—as had Bill.
As stated, there are ample records there of the Wilsons, their status as officers and contributors (even of labor and materials), and their ownership of Pew 15. Not only do the records show the family activity, but Bill’s father (Gilman Wilson) and Bill’s mother (Emily Griffith) were married in the church. They lived in the parish house, and they attended the church. Bill’s mother, Emily, confirmed that the East Dorset Congregational Church was her family’s church. And that all the Griffiths attended. So did Bill W. himself as a youngster. And Bill remembered some of the hymns, sermons, conversion, and Temperance meetings he had attended, as well as his own enrollment in the church Sunday school. See The Conversion of Bill W.
9. Bill was an avid reader. His friend Mark Whalon gave him books, and he borrowed some from Rose Landon’s lending library, but he would read anything, even the big Griffith Dictionary. His grandfather Griffith encouraged Bill’s voracious reading. One of Bill’s earliest recollections was that of sitting on his grandfather’s knee while grandpa Griffith read to Bill—naming books of travel, the Heidi books, and the Horatio Alger books. Cheever states: “The more Bill read, the more he wanted to red. He had read about Horatio Alger and Thomas Edison. He read Heidi and the family encyclopedia and, of course, the Bible.”
10. Bill’s parents were living in the parsonage at first, and Bill remembered a stirring Christian moment between his parents there. As Cheever tells it as Bill wrote of it to his mother:
It is eventime at the parsonage. The parlor is softly illuminated by that wondrous old kerosene lamp with the large and imposing globe. You are sitting at the piano and as you play, father sings. The song is concerned with Jerusalem and is ended in a climax marked by the word “Hosanna.” Though I first heard this evensong well over fifty years ago, I am still moved by it. It made me feel secure and mysteriously happy because you two were father and mother and because your music told me of the Great Father whose arms are outstretched toward us all, pages 28-29.
11. When Bill and his parents had moved to nearby Rutland, Vermont, the marriage was in trouble. Bill’s father “Gilly” Wilson left the family. And his mother Emily Griffith Wilson brought Bill and his sister back from Rutland and left them with her parents—Fayette and Ella Griffith—where Bill lived in the Griffith House with his sister. Bill read the Bible with his grandfather Griffith, and lived there until his grandfather enrolled him in Burr and Burton Seminary in nearby Manchester, Vermont.
12. It was at Burr and Burton Seminary that Bill’s Christian experiences broadened very substantially. Bill took a four year Bible study course there. Daily, Bill attended chapel where there were sermons, hymns, reading of Scripture, and prayers. The Seminary was dominated by Congregational leaders, and students were frequently required to attend Manchester Congregational Church for services and some school events. The church owned a pew reserved for Burr and Burton scholars. And the records show the scholars marching down from the Seminary and the Church a number of times. The details of this Burr and Burton period can be found in Dick B. and Ken B., Bill W. and Dr. Bob, the Green Mountain Men of Vermont: The Roots of Early A.A.’s Original Program, 2012.
13. It was at Burr and Burton that Bill met and fell in love with Bertha Bamford, daughter of the town’s Episcopal priest. Both Bill and Bertha became active in the “Y” and attended its functions together. Bill became president of the Burr and Burton Young Men’s Christian Association, and Bertha became president of the Burr and Burton Young Women’s Christian Association. As the footnote shows, salvation and conversion of young men, plus encouraging Bible study, was a major objective of the associations.
14. Bill’s long-time friend, Ebby Thacher also attended Burr and Burton during some of the time Bill was matriculating there. Ebby stemmed from a long line of five clergymen in his family and was quite familiar with the Bible and Christian principles and practices. In fact, Ebby boarded with the pastor of the Manchester Congregational Church (Rev. Sidney Perkins) and received substantial Christian indoctrination not only from the pastor, but also his son Roger Perkins—who was attending Burr and Burton as well.
15. But all this came to an untimely end just before Bill and his Bertha were to have graduated. Bertha underwent surgery and unexpectedly died. Bill was heart-broken, distracted, and suffered a serious depression. In fact, Bill blamed God for the death, turned his back on God, and was not to recover from that unbelief until years later when his doctor, William D. Silkworth, his friend Ebby, and a trip to Calvary Mission in New York caused Bill to go to the altar and accept Jesus Christ as his Lord and Savior—a subject thoroughly covered in The Conversion of Bill W. and discussed further below.
16. Subsequent to Bertha’s death and before Bill was shipped overseas, his mother arranged to have him attend Norwich University military academy in Northfield, Vermont. Ebby joined him in that academy as well. There, Bill once again was required to attend and did attend daily chapel—with his now familiar sermons, Scripture reading, prayers, and hymns. There was also the requirement that every student attend a church service once a week. Details can be found in Bill W. and Dr. Bob: the Green Mountain Men of Vermont.
17. Bill’s stated doubts about God after Bertha’s death continued during Bill’s own periods depression and of alcoholic drinking. Yet this agnosticism was interrupted on the three different “spiritual experiences” Bill said he had in that period; and which he said gave him a sense of God’s presence. The following are the events Bill described:
(a) While the details are extensive and documented in The Conversion of Bill W., at pages 35-37, Bill’s Newport, Rhode Island, “spiritual experience” amounted to this—after Bertha Bamford’s death, Bill had fallen in love with his wife-to-be, Lois Burnham. The two were married. Bill had been commissioned as a military officer, and the “dreaded” day of his assignment to World War I duty overseas had arrived. Bill and Lois were alone on a cliff in Newport overlooking the ocean. Their gloom and doom over the pending military service and its dangers grew into a sense of duty and patriotism; and, as they talked about it, there was a growing sense of exaltation—which Bill termed a “spiritual experience.” Bill began talking about such events as “illuminating” experiences, Conversion, 36.
(b) Next, Bill believed he had a “spiritual experience” as he was traveling to Europe on the British ship Lancashire. There was an undercurrent of apprehension and anxiety over the threat from German submarines. Suddenly, there was an ear-shattering crash. The ship trembled and shook; and Bill thought to himself, “This is it!” There was a rush by the men from their bunks seeking escape in hatchways. Bill offered to shoot them to stop it. He drew his pistol and quieted them down even though all thought their number was up and that they had no chance of surviving what might have been a submarine attack. But the anxiety was replaced by a feeling of “we made it after all.” And Bill termed this his second “spiritual experience”—another one of those “illuminating” experiences. Conversion, 37.
(c) But Bill’s third experience made it into the pages of A.A.’s Big Book and was far more substantial in content and substance than the first two. In fact, this so-called Winchester Cathedral even might well be called the Winchester Cathedral
Spiritual Experience. Furthermore, (rather than the mountaintop rediscovery of God experience Bill’s grandfather Wilson had before he was born), this Winchester event might well have been the second “vital religious experience” that Bill had related to Dr. Norman Vincent Peale and that Dr. Peale related to me in his office.
In his autobiography, Bill wrote of this quite different experience which bears repeating. Bill had wandered into the grave yard at the Cathedral and then entered the Cathedral itself. And the next experience was repeated when he visited the Cathedral years later in 1950:
There was within those walls a tremendous sense of presence. I remember standing there. . . I thought of wounds, suffering, death, even oblivion. And then my mood veered sharply about as the atmosphere of the place began to possess me, and I was lifted up into a sort of ecstasy. And though I was not a conscious believer in God at the time—I had no defined belief—yet a somehow had a mighty assurance that things were and would be all right.
This was very much like the experience at Newport, very much like it, except this time the notion of the supernatural and the notion of God kept crossing my mind, and the sense of some sort of sustaining presence in that place was overpowering. I didn’t define it, but it was a valid spiritual experience and it had the classic mechanism: collapsed human powerlessness, then God coming to man to lift him up to set him on the high road to his destiny. Bill W. My First 40 Years: An Autobiography by the Cofounder of Alcoholics Anonymous, pages 49-51.
18. Parenthetically, I would point out these things. First Bill’s beloved Bertha Bamford had died unexpectedly; the death threw Bill into a deep depression; he was heart-broken; and he turned his back on God. Then, he married Lois Burnham in a Swedenborgian Church. Lois made it clear she was not a Christian, but instead a Swedenborgian; and Bill had been exposed to substantial teaching by Lois’s family, And Bill was still calling himself alternately a “conservative atheist,” “not a conscious believer in God at the time,” and with “no defined belief,” which perhaps classified him as an agnostic at that point. But, as explained in the next point, Bill did not lose or forget or denounce all of his Christian upbringing. He simply built his resentment over Bertha’s death into a resentment against His Creator. Coupled with his depressions, outrageous drinking bouts, and use of high powered sedatives, Bill was left without help or belief until his unusual encounters with Dr. William D. Silkworth, with his friend Ebby Thacher, and with the altar at Calvary Mission where Bill accepted Jesus Christ as his Lord and Savior, wrote that he had “found religion,” and then wrote in two different places, “For sure I’d been born again.” My First 40 Years, 147.
19. Bill could not possibly have buried his remembrance that he and his paternal and maternal families attended the East Dorset Congregational Church. There they listened to sermons, and recited the confession and creed. There were tent meetings and revivals, and Bill witnessed conversions. Moreover, Bill and his maternal grandfather, Fayette Griffith, read the Bible individually and together. Grandfather Fayette enrolled Bill in the East Dorset Congregational Church Sunday school. We are still investigating what transpired of a religious nature, if anything, during Bill’s residence in Rutland, Vermont. However, during his matriculation at Burr and Burton Seminary in Manchester, Vermont, Bill regularly attended the daily chapel, and heard Scripture reading, sermons, hymns, and prayers. He attended the required services at the Manchester Congregational Church. He took a required, four-year Bible study course at the Academy. And Bill was president of the Academy YMCA, while his girlfriend, Bertha Bamford, was president of the Burr and Burton YMCA, and both attended chapel together at the Academy.
20. But the unbelief, resentment, depression, and fear took a backseat to what became for Bill a seemingly hopeless sickness of mind and body, a “medically incurable condition, and the “last gasp” “deflation in depth” (as Bill termed it) that is the eventual lot of every real alcoholic who cannot quit on his own or with the help of others.
21. Thus at his lowest point—and after three consistently and progressively worsening alcoholism and trouble, Bill’s psychiatrist, Dr. William D. Silkworth, explained to Bill that Bill could be cured by the “Great Physician,” Jesus Christ. This explanation occurred during Bill’s third hospitalization at Towns Hospital in New York, where Silkworth told Bill that there was a need in recovery for a relationship with Jesus Christ, Silkworth using the term “the Great Physician.” to describe the Savior to whom Bill was about to turn in desperation. [Dale Mitchel, Silkworth: The Little Doctor Who Loved Drunks (Center City, MN: Hazelden, 2002), 50].
22. Then Bill’s old friend, Ebby Thacher, made a visit to Bill. Ebby related to Bill that the celebrated psychiatrist, Dr. Carl Jung, had made a statement—“the one which saved Rowland Hazard’s life and set Alcoholics Anonymous in motion. . . . ‘Occasionally, Rowland, alcoholics have recovered through spiritual experiences, better known as religious conversions.’” [Bill W.: My First Forty Years (Center City, MN: Hazelden, 2000), 125]. Ebby also told Bill that he had been lodged at Calvary Rescue Mission on the East Side in New York. [Bill W., 131]. Ebby was sober. He said to Bill, “I’ve got religion.” [My First 40 Years, 133]. Ebby touched upon the subject of prayer and God. [My First 40 Years, 133-34]. And then, as Bill stated in his own words,
My friend sat before me, and he made the point-blank declaration that God had done for him what he could not do for himself. His human will had failed. Doctors had pronounced him incurable. Society was about to lock him up. Like myself, he had admitted complete defeat.” [Alcoholics Anonymous, 4th ed. (New York: Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Inc., 2001), 11].
23. I found a manuscript at Stepping Stones which, at lines 935-942, told of Bill’s further statement: “Nevertheless here I was sitting opposite a man who talked about a personal God, who told me how he had found him, who described to me how I might do the same thing and who convinced me utterly that something had come into his life which had accomplished a miracle. The man was transformed; there was no denying he had been reborn.” [See Dick B., Turning Point: A History of Early A.A.’s Spiritual Roots and Successes (San Rafael, CA: Paradise Research Publications, 1997, 99-100.] Bill also pointed to a further statement by Ebby, and said, “But my friend sat before me, and he made the point-blank declaration that God had done for him what he could not do for himself. His human will had failed. Doctors had pronounced him incurable. Society was about to lock him up. . . . That floored me. It began to look as though religious people were right after all.” [Alcoholics Anonymous, 4th ed., 11].
24. Bill could not get Ebby’s story and deliverance out of his head. But he still decided to check out Ebby’s tale. He went to Calvary Church itself and heard Ebby’s testimony as to the events he had related to Bill.
25. Bill’s next move was to go to Calvary Rescue Mission. He stated, “Remembering the mission where Ebby stayed, I figured I’d go and see what did they do, anyway down there. I’d find out. . . . There were hymns and prayers. Tex, the leader, exhorted us. Only Jesus could save, he said. . . . Then came the call. Penitents started marching toward the rail. . . . Soon I knelt among the sweating, stinking penitents. Maybe then and there, for the first time, I was penitent too. Something touched me, I guess it was more than that. I was hit.” [My First Forty Years, 136-37].
26. Several witnesses have confirmed what Bill did at the altar: (a) Mrs. Samuel M. Shoemaker, Jr., talked with me on the telephone and told me she was present when Bill “made his decision for Christ.” [The Conversion of Bill W., 61]. (b) Bill’s wife, Lois Wilson, also confirmed Bill’s decision for Christ. Speaking of Bill’s trip to the altar at the Mission, Lois Wilson said: “And he went up, and really, in very great sincerity, did hand over his life to Christ.” [“Lois Remembers: Searcy, Ebby, Bill & Early Days.” Recorded in Dallas, Texas, June 29, 1973, Moore, OK: Sooner Cassette, Side 1]. (c) Rev. Sam Shoemaker’s assistant minister, W. Irving Harris, wrote this: “It was at a meeting at Calvary Mission that Bill himself was moved to declare that he had decided to launch out as a follower of Jesus Christ.” [Dick B., New Light on Alcoholism: God, Sam Shoemaker, and A.A., 2d ed. (Kihei, HI: Paradise Research Publications, Inc., 1999), 533-35.]. (d) Bill twice made a further statement of great interest. It is not clear whether Bill was referring to his decision for Christ at the Calvary Mission altar and salvation there, or to his subsequent “sanctification” experience after calling on the “Great Physician” at Towns Hospital not long thereafter.
27. But Bill Wilson twice wrote, “For sure I’d been born again.” [See Bill W., My First Forty Years, 147; Dick B., Turning Point, 94-98; and Dick B., A New Way In (Kihei, HI: Paradise Research Publications, Inc., 2006), 61-62)]. (e) At Stepping Stones, I (Dick B.) personally found a letter that Bill had written to his brother-in-law stating that he [like Ebby] had “found religion.” [The Conversion of Bill W., 62].
28. After his born again experience at the Calvary Rescue Mission altar, Bill wandered drunk for a time and then staggered into Towns Hospital for his last visit there. Bill said, “I remember saying to myself, ‘I’ll do anything, anything at all. If there be a Great Physician, I’ll call on him.’ Then, with neither faith nor hope I cried out, ‘If there be a God, let him show himself.’ The effect was instant, electric. Suddenly my room blazed with an indescribably white light. . . . I became acutely conscious of a presence which seemed like a veritable sea of living spirit. I lay on the shores of a new world. ‘This,’ I thought, ‘must be the great reality. The God of the preachers.’ . . . I thanked my God who had given me a glimpse of his absolute Self. . . . Save a brief hour of doubt next to come, these feelings and convictions, no matter the vicissitude, have never deserted me since.” [Bill W.: My First 40 Years, 145-46]. As Lois Wilson’s biographer related the situation, Bill said, “I thanked my God, who had given me a glimpse of his absolute Self. . . . It was December 11, 1934. Bill had just turned thirty-nine. He would never again doubt the reality of God.” [William G. Borchert, The Lois Wilson Story: When Love Is Not Enough (Center City, MN: Hazelden, 2005), 166]. And in an article published in The Language of the Heart, Bill said of the “white light” experience that he thought, “Bill you are a free man. This is the God of the Scriptures.”
29. And so, A.A. Number One (Bill W.) had “rediscovered” God—the God of the Scriptures of whom he had heard extensively from his grandfather Griffith, his own reading of the Bible, his attendance at East Dorset Congregational Church, his attendance at its Sunday school, what his own parents had passed along to him. That “rediscovery” was buttressed during Bill’ four years at Burr and Burton Seminary—in the four year Bible study course he took, in the daily chapel he attended, at Manchester Congregational Church he attended, in his presidency of the Young Men’s Christian Association, and the Y.M.C.A. events he at tended with his girl-friend Bertha, president of the Y.W.C.A.
30. When Bill consulted Dr. Silkworth after the experience, Dr. Silkworth said to Bill, “You have had some kind of conversion experience.” [My First 40 Years, 148].
31. Ebby Thacher is said to have visited Towns Hospital and gave Bill a copy of the book by Professor William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience. Bill spent the remainder of the day devouring the James book. He found the many many stories of what James called the “conversion experiences” and cures that had been reported particularly from such Gospel Rescue Missions at Jerry McAuley’s Cremorne Mission and the Water Street Mission superintended by S. H. Hadley, Jr.
32. And the recent biography of Bill Wilson’s wife, written by William G. Borchert, tells the details of Bill’s immediate, enthusiastic witnessing as follows:
The doctor [Dr. Silkworth] always allowed Bill to share his God-experience with some patients, hoping somehow it might help. And Bill began learning about the mental and spiritual part of his alcoholic malady from Dr. Shoemaker, who had now befriended the former Wall Street analyst. Dr. Shoemaker encouraged Bill to spread the message of change and spiritual recovery to others like himself.
Bill took the preacher at his word. With Lois’s full support, he was soon walking through the gutters of the Bowery, into the nut ward at Bellevue Hospital, down the slimy corridors of fleabag hotels, and into the detox unit at Towns with a Bible under his arm. He was promising sobriety to every drunk he could corner if they, like he, would only turn their lives over to God.” [Borchert, The Lois Wilson Story, 170]
33. And what was that simple message, as Bill explained it to the wife of A.A. number three and set forth in his “Basic Text” (Alcoholics Anonymous, 4th ed.) at page 191:
“Henrietta, the Lord has been so wonderful to me, curing me of this terrible disease, that I just want to keep talking about it and telling people.’”
34. Bill’s conviction about his permanent cure was so strong that he arranged a meeting in December 1937 at the boardroom on the 56th floor at the Rockefeller Plaza in New York City. The meeting lasted five hours. Four Rockefeller associates—Albert Scott, Leroy Chipman, W. S. Richardson, and Frank Amos—were present. So, too, were Dr. Silkworth and Bill’s brother-in-law, Dr. Strong. In addition, there was an array of what Frank Amos called “the following ex-alcoholics, William G. Wilson, Henry G. Parkhurst, William J. Ruddell, Ned Pointer and Bill Taylor, all of New York and vicinity; Mr. J. H. F. Mayo of near Baltimore, Maryland; Dr. Robert H. Smith and J. Paul Stanley of Akron, Ohio.” Frank Amos stated that Bill Wilson had briefly told Mr. Richardson, “the story of how, after many vain attempts to discontinue the use of alcohol, he had achieved what he believed was a permanent cure, through what he termed a religious or spiritual process.” Dr. Silkworth stated “without reservation that while he could not tell just what it was that these men had which had effected their ‘cure’ yet he was convinced they were cured and that whatever it was, it had his complete endorsement.” [The foregoing is contained in the “History of the Alcoholic movement up to the formation of The Alcoholic Foundation on Aug. 11, 1938.” I personally obtained, with permission, my copy of this second report by Frank Amos at the Stepping Stones archives in Bedford Hills, New York.]
For further details, please see Dick B., The Conversion of Bill W.: (http://dickb.com/conversion.shtml)
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