The Religious Roots of Alcoholics Anonymous
and the Twelve Steps

Chapter 26:
Bill Wilson Gets Religion (And Drugs) And Sees God

And what rough beast,
Its hour come round at last,
Slouches toward Bethlehem to be born?

William Butler Yeats,
from the poem The Second Coming (1921).

This whole sordid pathetic tragic Oxford Group mess was the mother of Alcoholics Anonymous.

Bill Wilson did not accidentally join the Oxford Group. Rather, his old friend, Burr & Burton Seminary high school alumnus and drinking buddy, Ebby Thacher, who, in 1934, was one of the enthusiastic new converts to the Oxford Group, and temporarily sober, was actively recruiting, and he was out to get Bill Wilson to join the cult.

How Ebby had ended up in the Oxford Group was: He was on trial, in court in Vermont, about to be sentenced to six months in jail for habitual public drunkenness, when two Oxford Groupers, Rowland Hazard, who was another alcoholic, and Cebra Graves, who was the judge's nephew, came to Ebby's rescue. They asked Judge Graves to give Rowland Hazard custody of Ebby. Rowland would take Ebby to New York City and use the "religious cure" on Ebby. Both Judge Graves and Ebby agreed. Soon, Ebby was a happily babbling convert of the Oxford Group, mindlessly slinging slogans with the rest of them.

Ebby received a "Guidance" that he should get Bill Wilson to join the Oxford Group. He worked on Wilson for a month, telling him that he had "got religion" and didn't need to drink any more. Bill didn't want to hear it at first. Bill thought that Ebby was just crazy:

      I pushed a drink across the table. He [Ebby Thacher] refused it. Disappointed but curious, I wondered what had got into the fellow. He wasn't himself.
      "Come, what's this about?" I queried.
      He looked straight at me. Simply, but smilingly, he said, "I've got religion."
      I was aghast. So that was it — last summer an alcoholic crackpot; now, I suspected, a little cracked about religion. He had that starry-eyed look. Yes, the old boy was on fire all right. But bless his heart, let him rant! Besides, my gin would last longer than his preaching.
The Big Book, 3rd Edition, William Wilson, Chapter 1, Bill's Story, page 9.

William Wilson (left) and Ebby Thacher (right)

The last known photograph of Ebby Thacher

Ebby and his friend Shep Cornell described the Oxford Group program to Bill Wilson, and Wilson immediately disliked the sound of it, because Ebby and his friends were pushing an irrational cult religion that demanded that people stop thinking and just "have faith":

Ebby and Shep C. were now asking him to give up the one attribute of which he was the most proud, the one quality that set a man above the animals — his inquiring, rational mind. And they wanted him to give this up for an illusion.
      ... what they were asking him to do represented weakness to him. How could a man so demean himself as to surrender the one thing in which he should have faith, his innate, inquiring mind?   ...
      It might be the last arrogant gasp of alcoholic pride but, miserable and terrified as he was, he would not humble himself here. On this point he would go out swinging.
Not-God: A History of Alcoholics Anonymous, Ernest Kurtz, page 18, and
Bill W., Robert Thomsen, pages 213-214.

Bill supposedly vowed to resist such an anti-intellectual program to the bitter end, but within two weeks, under the influence of alcohol withdrawal, delirium tremens, and the hallucinogen belladonna and other drugs, Bill Wilson gave up his "innate, inquiring, rational mind", and "surrendered", and was "changed" into an irrational true-believer Oxford Group cult member who then went on to insist that all other alcoholics must also give up their reason, logic, and rational thinking.

What happened was: After many months of suicidally-intense binging, knowing that death was near, Bill reconsidered Ebby's answer to alcoholism. And he told Ebby that he was reconsidering things. So Ebby set him up and then knocked him down.

Ebby set him up by first getting him to go to an Oxford Group meeting at Sam Shoemaker's Calvary House in New York, where, even though drunk, he was talked into coming forward and "giving himself to God". Then the Oxford Groupers sent Bill back to Charles Towns' Hospital in New York for detoxing (again, for the fourth time in a little over a year), where Ebby and other Oxford Groupers ambushed Wilson while he was at his weakest — sick and detoxing and tripping his brains out on alcohol withdrawal, delirium tremens, and a drug cocktail containing morphine, barbiturates, megavitamins, henbane, and even the very toxic hallucinogenic drugs strychnine and belladonna.

Ebby Thacher, Rowland Hazard, and other Oxford Groupers "tag-teamed" Bill Wilson, working on him in shifts, until they succeeded in "changing" him. After 2 or 3 days of alcohol withdrawal and round-the-clock hallucinogenic drugs and Oxford Group coaching, Bill Wilson broke down and "had a spiritual experience" and "saw God", and became a true believer in the Oxford Group cult.

And the conversion worked extremely well. As the expression goes, Bill not only took the bait, he swallowed it all, hook, line, and sinker. Bill Wilson was so completely taken in that he was a raving true believer for the rest of his life, even after the Oxford Group asked him to leave, because he was spending all of his time with alcoholics, and not enough time doing "the will of God", as the Oxford Group saw the will of God (which really meant 'obeying the orders of the Oxford Group elders').

And, sadly, Ebby, the "cosmic messenger" who converted Bill Wilson to Buchmanism, would relapse after two years of sobriety, and go back to being a chronic drunkard, and would die of complications from alcoholism and cigarette smoking. Later, Bill Wilson wrote that Rowland Hazard didn't stay sober, either.24

So neither of the two people who enthusiastically recruited Bill Wilson for the Oxford Group and taught Bill "the spiritual program for achieving sobriety" actually found lasting sobriety in that program. As is typical of cults, the recruiters gleefully declared that they had the panacea, even while the program wasn't actually working for them.

Ken Ragge, in his book More Revealed, describes Bill Wilson's conversion this way:

      At Towns [Hospital], he was given the standard treatment, barbiturates and several hallucinogens, including belladonna and henbane, until "the face becomes flushed, the throat dry, and the pupils of the eyes dilated."
      After several days, Ebby came to see him. While there is no record of what was said, it is recorded that after Ebby left, "Bill [Wilson] slid into very deep melancholy. He was filled with guilt and remorse over the way he had treated Lois [his wife]..." Evidently, Ebby had done something to provoke it and, knowing the five C's, it is easy to put together what happened.
      Ebby was sent to Wilson in a Guidance session. He won Wilson's "Confidence" through "humble confession," eliciting a confession from Wilson. Apparently, Wilson confessed to something he had tremendous guilt over; the way he had treated Lois. Ebby was able to use this to give Wilson a "vision of the hideousness of his own personal guilt."
      Now the time of "Conversion" was upon Wilson. In what appears to have been a drug- and stress-induced hallucinatory breakdown, Wilson found "the programme of His Kingdom." From that day forward, Bill Wilson never drank again.

Even before the Ice Age, belladonnas were used world-wide in religious ceremonies. The drug promoted babbling trances in shamans and other human oracles...
      Belladonna had two salient advantages for the cure specialists. Because it annulled morphine's mental clarity and euphoria by replacing it with a drowsy, babbling disconnected stupor, it became established in science as a morphine anti-toxin (artificial Autotoxin), providing a conceptually elegant framework for ridding the body, once and forever, of every addiction-promoting substance. And belladonna had the important advantage of keeping patients comatose: they wouldn't even think of sneaking out of the ward, being entirely occupied in talking to their ancestors, and flying through the sky with weird animals.
Flowers in the Blood: the story of opium, Dean Latimer and Jeff Goldberg, page 247.

The way Bill described it, Bill went to Towns Hospital and the Oxford Groupers indoctrinated him while he was detoxing and tripping on hallucinogenic drugs:

      At the hospital I was separated from alcohol for the last time. Treatment seemed wise, for I showed signs of delirium tremens.
      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 for the first time that of myself I 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.
      My schoolmate [Ebby] visited me, and I fully acquainted him with my problems and deficiencies. We made a list of people whom I had hurt or toward whom I felt resentment. [i.e., Bill Wilson confessed his sins to Ebby]....
      I was to test my thinking by the new God-consciousness within. Common sense would thus become uncommon sense. ...
[Then Ebby told Bill Wilson about the Oxford Group cult religion practices.]
      My friend promised when these things were done I would enter upon a new relationship with my Creator; that I would have the elements of a way of living which answered all my problems. ...
      Simple, but not easy; a price has to be paid. It meant destruction of self-centeredness. I must turn in all things to the Father of Lights who presides over us all.
      These were revolutionary and drastic proposals, but the moment I fully accepted them, the effect was electric. There was a sense of victory, followed by such a peace and serenity as I had never known. There was utter confidence. I felt lifted up, as though the great clean wind of a mountain top blew through and through. God comes to most men gradually, but His impact on me was sudden and profound.
The Big Book, 3rd Edition, William Wilson, Chapter 1, Bill's Story, pages 13-14.

In the A.A. book Alcoholics Anonymous Comes Of Age (1957) Bill Wilson described his experience this way:

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 in an ecstasy which there are no words to describe. It seemed to me in my mind's eye, that I was on a mountain and that a wind not of air but of spirit was blowing. And then it burst upon me that I was a free man. Slowly the ecstasy subsided. I lay there on the bed, but now for a time I was in another world, a new world of consciousness... and I thought to myself, "So this is the God of the preachers!" A great peace stole over me...
Alcoholics Anonymous Comes Of Age (1957), William G. Wilson, page 63.

One of the saddest aspects of this whole event is how desperately A.A. true believers try to make Bill's vision out to be "a genuine spiritual experience" in spite of the heavy-handed use of extremely toxic hallucinogenic drugs. The book The Soul of Sponsorship says,

Dr. William Duncan Silkworth on the next day confirmed the experience as spiritual.
The Soul of Sponsorship: The Friendship of Fr. Ed Dowling, S.J. and Bill Wilson in Letters, edited by Robert Fitzgerald, S.J., page 11.
Hazelden Pittman Archives Press, Center City, MN, 1995.

That is an absurd statement. Dr. Silkworth did no such thing. He was a medical doctor, not a priest, so he was not in the habit of certifying people's detoxification hallucinations as "genuine spiritual experiences". Besides, Dr. Silkworth knew full well that he had been dosing Bill Wilson out of his gourd with hallucinogenic drugs. That was one of the goals of the belladonna cure — to induce hallucinatory experiences that might provide an incentive to patients to NOT "Keep Coming Back" to the hospital.

Bill wrote in the Big Book:

      For a moment I was alarmed, and called my friend, the doctor, to ask if I were still sane. He listened in wonder as I talked.
      Finally he shook his head saying, "Something has happened to you I don't understand. But you had better hang on to it. Anything is better than the way you were."
The Big Book, 3rd Edition, William Wilson, Chapter 1, Bill's Story, page 14.

Dr. Silkworth was not about to disillusion Bill by telling him that his grand vision of God was all just a drug trip. Dr. Silkworth was happy that Bill had flipped out and become something other than a drinking-to-die alcoholic — anything else. Dr. Silkworth figured that even being a crazy raving religious maniac was better than dying. Dr. Silkworth had already, many months and another relapse earlier, told Lois Wilson that the end was near for Bill if he kept on drinking (and Bill kept on drinking anyway). Bill Wilson wrote that earlier that year,

After a time I returned to the hospital. This was the finish, the curtain, it seemed to me. My weary and despairing wife was informed that it would all end with heart failure during delirium tremens, or I would develop a wet brain, perhaps within a year. She would soon have to give me over to the undertaker or the asylum.
The Big Book, 3rd Edition, William Wilson, Chapter 1, Bill's Story, page 7.

Dr. Silkworth also told Bill Wilson much the same thing. In spite of those dire warnings, Bill went right back to drinking within a few weeks of getting out of the hospital, just as he had done after his previous two hospitalizations at Charlie Towns' hospital. Dr. Silkworth had concluded that Bill Wilson was a hopeless case. So this time, when Bill started raving about the White Light, Dr. Silkworth said, "Anything is better than the way you were." And Dr. Silkworth wasn't going to do anything to try to snap Bill out of his new-found religious obsession.

Years later, Bill Wilson embroidered the story of his detox experience for his book about the early history of Alcoholics Anonymous, adding a line where Dr. Silkworth assured Bill that he was not hallucinating:

In December, 1934, this man of science had humbly sat by my bed following my own sudden and overwhelming spiritual experience, reassuring me. "No, Bill," he had said, "you are not hallucinating. Whatever you have got, you had better hang on to; it is so much better than what you had only an hour ago."
Alcoholics Anonymous Comes Of Age, William Wilson, page 13.

It is extremely unlikely that Dr. Silkworth ever told Bill Wilson that he wasn't hallucinating, because Dr. Silkworth knew full well what belladonna does to people...

[And why did Dr. Silkworth have to sit "humbly" by Bill's bed? Was Dr. Silkworth supposed to be humbled, "listening in wonder", while Saint Bill described his "miraculous vision of God"? Bill Wilson's delusions of grandeur were showing again...]

[So was his Narcissistic Personality Disorder. Bill Wilson couldn't bear to think that he was just another ordinary derelict alcoholic, hallucinating while he detoxed. No, Bill had to be a visionary prophet, chosen by God, a great spiritual teacher at whose feet people humbly sat and prayed and listened in wonder while The Prophet described his Holy Visions.]

See the chapter The Funny Spirituality of Bill Wilson and A.A. for more detailed descriptions of Bill's hallucinogenic trip and the drugs that got him there.

Bill Wilson immediately turned into a religious fanatic. He started collecting alcoholics and establishing home churches intended to save them. He even moved several alcoholics into Lois' house at 182 Clinton Street in New York, where he felt sure that he could convert them to a life of pious sobriety.

Bill Wilson had quite literally "seen the light." His vision of recovery from alcoholism embraced one thing and one thing only: religious conversion. To Wilson, research wasn't necessary; religion was The Answer. And when one has The Answer, research and questioning are obstacles, not aids. The problem is not finding new, better approaches, but rather putting an end to questions so that The Answer can be adopted without opposition.
The History of Addiction and Recovery in the United States, Michael Lemansky, page 53.

Bill Wilson's initial attempts at proselytizing failed miserably because he scared people away with his fanatical preaching. Wilson didn't sober up a single alcoholic, nor did he succeed in converting any of them to Buchmanism. He didn't recruit a single new member for the Oxford Group, and the other Oxford Group members regarded Bill Wilson as a real loser. Worse yet, Bill's alcoholic house guests did everything from steal and sell his best clothes to commit suicide in his kitchen.

Next: Bill and Dr. Bob start A.A.

Previous: Obscurity

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Last updated 21 April 2011.
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