The History of Alcoholics Anonymous: Some of “The Rest of the Story”
From Sunday School at East Dorset Congregational Church, Bill W. Had a Relationship with Jesus Christ. And That Is Presented Here
©2014 Anonymous. All rights reserved
- Bill W. virtually began his life in Vermont hearing about his grandfather Willie Wilson’s vital religious experience and the cure of alcoholism at the top of Mount Aeolus, next to Bill’s boyhood home at East Dorset, Vermont. Biographer Susan Cheever relates the following details:
William Wilson’s drinking had led him to take a series of temperance pledges. One Sunday morning in despair he climbed to the top of Mount Aeolus and beseeched God to help him. He saw a blinding light and felt a great wind and rushed down into town to interrupt the service at the Congregational Church. Demanding that the minister leave the pulpit, Wilson described his experience to the congregation of his friends, neighbors, and family. [Bill’s mother loved this story and told it to her son and husband as often as they would listen. In the eight years William Wilson lived after that experience, he never had another drink, page 17
- Bill’s parents, Gilman Wilson and Emily Griffith Wilson had, prior to their marriage, lived in the houses adjacent on either side of the little white East Dorset Congregational Church between. Emily’s family (the Griffiths) attended that church and regarded it as their family church. The Wilson family had an even more active role there. They had founded the church, helped build it, contributed to it, and owned Pew 15. Bill’s parents were married in that church and immediately went to live in the parsonage for a time.
- Bill Wilson attended Sunday school at East Dorset Congregational Church. His pastor, D. Miner Rogers presented Bill a New Testament inscribed as follows:
Will Wilson, for perfect attendance at Sunday School, Fourth Quarter 1906 from his pastor D. Miner Rogers East Dorset Vt. Jan 1, 1907 II Tim.3/14.15
- Bill’s biographer Robert Thomsen describes Bill’s grandfather Fayette Griffith as one who “read his Bible, supported the church,” page 34.
- Bill was an avid reader and certainly did study the Bible—not just in Sunday school, church, chapel, and Burr and Burton Seminary. In fact, in the Stepping Stones archives today, there is a book titled “Studies in the Scriptures,” published in 1914, with the inscription “W. G. Wilson, East Dorset, Vermont.” Bill went unquestioningly to the East Dorset Congregational Church Sunday school. He attended Temperance meetings. He had seen people witnessing to conversions at the tent revivals he attended as a boy. Biographer Raphael stated that when Ebby Thacher visited Bill years later, “Bill relaxed into childhood memories of starchy Sunday sermons and old-time temperance pledges,” pages 76-77. And Bill’s biographer Robert Thomsen wrote:
Always, even as a small boy in Sunday school, he had been taught that one must forgive, even try to love, the enemy, as one did unto the least of these—and this he believed, page 200.
- Biographer Susan Cheever pointed out that one of Bill’s earliest memories was of his mother’s playing the piano while Gilly [Bill’s father] was singing. And Bill wrote his mother:
It is eventime at the parsonage. The parlor is softly illuminated by that wondrous old kerosene lamp with the large 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.”[See Matthew 21:9: “And the multitudes that went before, and that followed, cried, saying, Hosanna to the Son of David. Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord; Hosanna in the highest.
- Bill also attended, in successive order, two different Congregational Churches, their services, and their events in Vermont during his Christian upbringing there. The first was the East Dorset Congregational Church in East Dorset, Vermont. Its Confession and Covenant were seen by us in the East Dorset Church, and much resembled those of the Manchester church. The second was The First Congregational Church, Manchester, Vermont. The written history of The First Congregational Church, Manchester, Vermont: 1784-1984 was published by its Bicentennial Steering Committee in 1984. The Confession of Faith and the Church Covenant can be found on page 128, and are discussed on pages 26-27. And they leave little doubt as to the profession of faith that Burr and Burton Seminary students accepted.
- Two things were required for those who were members of both churches: (1) Baptism. (2) Profession of faith.
- By the time Bill was later attending Norwich University (the military academy) in Northfield, Vermont, there was a Congregational Church in Northfield, Vermont (built in 1835). It was located less than a mile away from the current grounds of Norwich University in Northfield, Vermont. Young cadets attending the Norwich University were required each week to attend a church of their choosing in addition to the academy’s daily chapel. Whether Wilson opted for this nearby Congregational church is not presently known.
- When Bill attended Burr and Burton Seminary, in Manchester, Vermont–an academy dominated by Congregational ministers and leaders–Bill took a required four year Bible study course there. Burr and Burton students attended events and were required to attend weekly services at nearby Manchester Congregational Church where the Seminary owned a pew for the students.
Every day, Burr and Burton Seminary required its students to attend daily chapel; and there a minister would give a sermon, there were hymns, there was reading of Scripture, and there were prayers. Bill and his girl-friend participated in “Y” events at the Seminary, And Bill became president of the Young Men’s Christian Association, and his girl-friend Bertha Bamford became president of the Young Women’s Christian Association. Details can be found in Fredericka Templeton, The Castle in the Pasture: Portrait of Burr and Burton Academy, published by the Burr and Burton Academy in 2005.
Bertha Bamford was the daughter of the rector of the Zion Episcopal Church in Manchester. Bertha died unexpectedly from surgery just before graduation time. Bill became deeply depressed and despondent. He left the Seminary without graduating. And he blamed God for the death and held that resentment for almost all of his following years of drinking.
• As stated above, when Bill was later attending Norwich University, a prestigious military academy in Northfield, Vermont, Bill was required to attend a church of his choosing every Sunday. The Reverend James B. Sargent, D.D. was the University chaplain during the time Bill was attending Norwich. The University had completed erection of Dewey Hall in 1902, and cadets attended daily chapel in its assembly hall. The chapel had a seating of five hundred. Details can be found in Volume Iv of the History of Norwich University 1912-1965. Additional details are located in History of Norwich University: Images of Its Past, by Gary Thomas Lord, and published by Harmony House in 1995; Norwich Congregational Church United Church of Christ Norwich, Vermont: A Brief History of the Church, and a pamphlet on Norwich University 1819-1911 edited by William Arba Ellis and discussing Religious Work at the University, particularly daily chapel at Dewey Hall, Bible study classes, and YMCA activities at the university, the Student Conference at Northfield, Mass., and the World Students Conference in 1920.
• Called into the Army in World War I When Bill was serving overseas in World War I, he visited Westminster Cathedral and was much moved. In his autobiography My First 40 Years, Bill wrote:
I walked inside the cathedral. . . . There was within those walls a tremendous sense of presence. I remember standing there and again the spiritual experience repeated itself. . . . 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 I somehow had a mighty assurance that things were and would be all right. . . . And then it was that I went out and read the inscription about the Hampshire grenadier, and once more I was possessed with the spirit of advent ure, and the spiritual experience. And the depression that had preceded it vanished into the background
. . . 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 quite 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. These were my impressions of my experience in the cathedral, pages 50-51.
• Having turned his back on God and blamed God for the untimely death of his girlfriend Bertha Bamford, Bill retained that resentment for most of his drinking years and seemed to doubt even the existence of God. But in his autobiography published many years after he got sober, he certainly mentioned how he had interludes of “spiritual experiences” and that they involved his sensing the presence of God.
- Then, after many tortured years of drinking and high powered sedatives, and deep into his alcoholic sickness, Bill checked into Towns Hospital one more time; and on his third hospitalization was given a virtual death sentence by his physician, Dr. William D. Silkworth. Frightened, Bill and his wife Lois asked Dr. Silkworth what was next. Silkworth replied that either insanity or death awaited Bill if he didn’t quit. Then Silkworth—a devout Christian–told Bill that the Great Physician Jesus Christ could cure Bill.
- Bill was thereafter to use this Bible-based description of Jesus Christ as the Great Physician a number of times: See (1) In Bill W. My First 40 Years: (a) “Yes, if there was any great physician that could cure the alcohol sickness, I’d better seek him now, at once,” p. 139; (b) “But what of the Great Physician?,” p. 145; (c) “If there be a Great Physician, I’ll call on him,” p. 145. In Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age, Bill wrote at page 61: “So if there was a great Physician who could cure the alcoholic sickness, I had better seek Him now, at once. I had better find what my friend [Ebb Thacher] had found.”
- Quite soon, Bill received an unexpected phone call and visit at his home by his old drinking buddy, Ebby Thacher. Ebby visited Bill, told him that he had “got religion” and was staying at Calvary Mission where he was born again. Ebby told a questioning Bill that God had done for him what he could not do for himself. And the desperate Bill could not get Ebby’s remarks out of his mind.
- Bill checked out Ebby’s story by going to Calvary Episcopal Church (which owned Calvary Mission) and heard Ebby tell his remarkable story from the pulpit of the church. And Bill decided that if the Great Physician had healed Ebby at the Calvary Mission, he (Bill) could perhaps receive the cure there that Silkworth had told him about.
- Though drunk, Bill staggered down to Calvary Mission and attended its service. The leader said that “Only Jesus can save.” The Bible was read. Hymns were sung. And then came the altar call. Several witnesses were there when Bill went down to the rail, kneeled, and “in all sincerity handed his life over to Christ.” He wrote his brother-in-law that (like Ebby) he had “got religion.”
- Bill drank for a few more days and, both depressed and despairing, staggered back to Towns Hospital. On the way, he thought: “Perhaps the Great Physician can help me.” Bill checked into Towns and was placed in a hospital room.
- Biographer Susan Cheever described part of what happened in that hospital room:
He found himself begging God for help. “If there be a God, let him show himself!” The response was amazing. “Suddenly my room blazed with an indescribably white light. I was seized with an ecstacy beyond description. Every joy I had known was pale by comparison. Then, seen in the mind’s eye, there was a mountain. I stood upon its summit where a great wind blew. A wind, not of air but of spirit. In great, clean strength it blew right through me. Then came the blazing thought, “you are a free man,” page 118. [In an article in The Language of the Heart, Bill wrote that he also thought: “This is the God of the Scriptures.”
Bill thought “he heard the voice of God!”
- Bill was cured and never drank again. And wrote: “For sure, I’d been born again. “ See My First 40 Years, page 147. He repeated those words in a manuscript I found at Stepping Stones.
- Bill felt that he had been commissioned to save all the drunks in the world. On his discharge from the hospital, he went out with a Bible under his arm. He visited drunks in the streets, a mental hospital, Towns Hospital, and flea bag hotels. And he urged the drunks to give their lives to God; and Bill told this story: “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.”
- But Bill failed utterly in his attempts and did not get a single person sober. Dr. Silkworth told Bill his witnessing emphasis was backward and that he should first hit the derelicts with the awesome consequences of alcoholism. But Rev. Sam Shoemaker encouraged Bill to keep carrying the spiritual message he had been using.
- Bill carried that message to a perfect stranger—Dr. Bob Smith in Akron.
- Bill quite clearly recognized that the Lord had cured him. Bill continued to tell his story that the Lord had been so wonderful to him curing him of this terrible disease and that he just wanted to keep talking about it and telling people. He wrote those very words in a personal story in the Big Book, 4th edition, where the statement can be found on page 191.
- In the October, 1928 issue of The Calvary Evangel, there is a photograph of Rev. San Shoemaker and his staff in full vestments preceded by a member of Calvary Episcopal Church who is carrying a cross. The caption under the photograph reads “On our Way to Rejoicing in Madison Squire.” In the photograph, one church member was carrying a sign which stated, “Jesus Christ Changes Lives.” Other signs urged onlookers to “Come with Us to Calvary Church.”
- In his book, Calvary Church Yesterday and Today, 1936. Shoemaker wrote: “In the summer of 1927 we began holding out-door services on Madison Square, on its eastern side, opposite 24th Street. The clergy went in vestments and the regular choir in vestments came also. . . . A large number of our parishioners joined with us, handing hymn leaflets to the crowd, moving amongst them and talking with them, and helping with the singing. Sometimes the clergy led the service and sometimes the spoke; more often the main speaking was done by changed lay-people, both men and women, young and old, men from the Mission and people who had a message for those in the city park on a Sunday evening. Live were changed through those services.”
- Having read Shoemaker’s book, I personally went to the home of L. Parks Shipley, Sr., in Princeton, New Jersey to interview this distinguished banker, Oxford Group activist, and parishioner of Sam Shoemaker’s church.. Parks was a prominent banker and a strong activist in the Oxford Group. As my interview progressed, Parks specifically recalled for me his own marching in the Calvary Church processionals in the 1930’s where the march would be followed by public witnessing at Madison Square park from a “soap box.” Shipley specifically recalled that Bill Wilson was among the “rejoicers” at one or more of these events during the period of Wilson’s involvement with the Oxford Group. And it was through Bill Wilson’s secretary Nell Wing that I was put in touch with Parks Shipley and learned this witnessing phase of Bill Wilson’s recovery years.
- In an early draft of the Big Book, Bill made these comments about Jesus Christ: “I had a great admiration for Christ as a man. He practiced what he preached and set a marvelous example” See lines 902-904 of the manuscript with numbered lines that I found during my investigation of the Stepping Stones Archives, around 1991.
- When asked by a newcomer (Abby G.) in Cleveland, “what it was that worked so many wonders, and hanging over the mantle was a picture of Gethsemane and Bill pointed to it and said, “There it is.” And Bill had pointed to a picture of a famous painting—Jesus praying in the Garden of Gethsemane. He told Abby, “There it is.” See Alcoholics Anonymous, 3rd ed., pages 216-217.
- In 1940, Bill wrote a letter (now published in As Bill Sees It, on page 114):
At first the remedy for my personal difficulties seemed so obvious that I could not imagine any alcoholic turning the proposition down were it properly presented to him. Believing so firmly that Christ can do anything, I had the unconscious conceit to suppose that He would do everything through me—right then and in the manner I chose. After six long months, I had to admit that not a soul had surely laid hold of the Master—not excepting myself.
- Illustrating the relationship Bill felt he had with the Lord Jesus Christ, Bill wrote an inscription in a copy of the Big Book he gave to a distinguished minister. Bill addressed it to Jesse Moren Bader, 20th century evangelist, ecumenist and global leader. Dr. Bader became pastor of Jackson Avenue Christian Church in Kansas City, Missouri. He also became Superintendent of Evangelism in United Christian Missionary Society. He served as first president of Churches of Christ. In 1932, Jesse Bader was Associate Executive Secretary of Evangelism for the Federal Council of Churches of Christ in America.
In a First Edition, Third printing, of Alcoholics Anonymous, Bill wrote:
To my friend Dr. Jesse M. Bader. Yours in Christ, Bill Wilson. 1/13/43
There are many other instances in A.A. history of Bill’s references to God, Jesus Christ, and the Bible. Instances which occurred as he conferred with Reverend Samuel Shoemaker on the proposed new version of the A,A program—the Twelve Steps. Instances as he conferred with Father Ed Dowling, S.J., on the “word of God.” Instances when as he used so many biblical descriptions, words, and phrases in the 1939 basic text. And even instances as he addressed large groups on who it was the “invented A.A.”—Almighty God.
But the foregoing facts in this article contain a good chunk of the “rest of the story” of A.A. that those who believe in and seek God’s help, power, and healing may take much joy in learning.