“Jesus asked, ‘Who do you say that I am?’ Simon Peter answered, ‘You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.'” Matthew 16:15-16

It was amazing – what God did in the life of Bill Wilson, known as Bill W., one of the founders of Alcoholics Anonymous. He and his wife, Lois, had reached a point in the mid-1930s where,

their defeat was total…Bill drank with desolate abandon…When Lois wasn’t working or cleaning up after him, she was investigating sanitariums and gathering her strength. (Francis Hartigan’s Bill W.: A Biography of Alcoholics Anonymous Co-Founder Bill Wilson, p. 56) Bill seemed hopelessly lost. 

It was then that his friend Ebby Thacher showed up on the doorstep, sober.  Ebby had been in worse shape than Bill, if such a thing was possible. The rumor had swirled around Ebby that he was going to be committed to a state asylum because of his drinking.

Yet, now, he showed up – in his right mind, clean and all together. Bill asked him, “What happened?” Ebby replied, “I got religion.” 

Ebby had gotten involved in the evangelical Oxford Group movement which had a growing track record of enabling its participants to experience God and have radical life change as a result. Ebby had had a “conversion experience.” He had profoundly encountered God. Francis Hartigan states, in this recounting of Ebby and Bill’s meeting, that,

In the 1930s, religious conversion experiences were attaining legitimacy not previously known in modern times. Most of them occurred among people who already believed in God. They were believers who had either lost touch with, or never had a sense of connection to, something larger than they were. Spiritual conversions have in common a sudden revelatory experience followed by a 180-degree shift in the way the individual feels about himself (or herself) and the world. Connectedness, benevolence, and optimism replace feelings of isolation, alienation, and hopelessness. (p. 57)

The long and short of it is that Ebby got Bill to attend the worship service at the Calvary church mission in New York City where he was staying. Bill arrived there drunk and made a commotion. He managed to wrangle a chance to speak to the crowd, saying that, “if what they were selling had helped Ebby, he was sure it could help him, and he was willing to try it.” (p. 60)

But, Bill didn’t immediately try “religion” per his friend’s urging.  He drank for several more days and then entered Towns Hospital in New York. With “his back against the wall,” he cried out to God that if God was real, He should SHOW himself. At that moment, Bill had an incredible experience, his room filling with light and wind. He had a vision of himself on a mountaintop with the wind blowing through him. Through this he felt an incredible sense of freedom. (p. 61) 

This was his “hot flash” as he would refer to it in later years. He never drank again and felt extraordinarily driven to help others to find the same freedom.

On a later trip to Akron, Ohio, feeling some temptation to drink, Bill connected with another man, Dr. Bob Smith. That man would cease to drink through his friendship with Bill. Both of them became more involved with the Oxford Group in their respective towns and through their friendship and partnership, Alcoholics Anonymous began to be birthed.

The Oxford Group had a strong impact on A.A. After all, it was the Oxford Group and their teaching of surrendering yourself to God that caused Bill to desperately cry out to God in the hospital. And he liked their practices of taking a moral inventory and confession, etc.

But the Oxford Group was also trying to guide its members towards biblical holiness principles so they had 4 absolutes that members were to practice:

Absolute Honesty, Absolute Unselfishness, Absolute Love, and Absolute Purity

Bill began to worry that this was a bit much for the alcoholics they were trying to save (and for him). Bill saw himself as a rational and scientific person.  As Francis Hartigan wrote:

Bill Wilson, an admirer of Thomas Edison and Henry Ford, always said that, shorn of their Christian rhetoric and with the holes plugged that an alcoholic might escape through, the Oxford Group principles became the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous. (p. 58)

Bill was apparently a complicated man, though charismatic and deeply concerned about helping the vast numbers of people struggling with addiction. According to Francis Hartigan, and stated on his back book cover, Bill suffered from “…depression, was a womanizer, and experimented with LSD.”

He seemed to have been most concerned with what would get people sober and keep them sober and not with deepening people’s relationships with God beyond what it took to have sobriety.  It is important to note this as it was the flavoring of the foundation of AA – Bill’s personality and goals.  In the beginning of A.A., there was much Christian spirituality, particularly in Dr. Bob Smith’s home.  The Bible and many Christian books were studied there. (Dick B., The Books Early AAs Read for Spiritual Growth)

Another important historical feature in this birthing and maturing of A.A. is the fact that Bill and Lois Wilson tried to stay with the Oxford Group for the first couple of years of Bill’s sobriety, but then left. Bill Wilson saw that the radical devotion characterizing the Oxford Group’s faith was stirring up opponents to their enthusiasm across the nation. Bill didn’t want this to spill over onto A.A. He also felt that their ideas might be more than a struggling alcoholic could take to get well, and sadly – this, to me, is of the greatest sadness – Lois Wilson would state later that the “Oxford Group kind of kicked us out.” (Dick B., The Oxford Group and Alcoholics Anonymous, p. 146) The recovering alcoholics didn’t quite feel welcomed by the “church people.”

Why am I telling this story?

In the early days of AA, when there was a strong Christian connection, when Bible studies were still going on, there was a 75% success rate for sobriety reported. It can be found stated in the Big Book (the book of Alcoholics Anonymous):

Of alcoholics who came to AA and really tried, 50% got sober at once and remained that way; 25% sobered up after some relapses, and among the remainder, those who stayed on with AA showed improvement. (Alcoholics Anonymous, Foreword to the Second Edition, p. xx)

But, as time went on, the emphasis on the God of the Bible as the Higher Power became replaced by “find your own Higher Power.” There was a noble concern to have the door opened to anyone of any religion or no religion so that everyone could be helped if they were addicted.

But, in this trade off, something got lost and today, a cliche about A.A.’s attitude (whether true or not) is that they will tell you, “If your Higher Power is a doorknob, that’s fine. Just find a Higher Power.”

The problem is, an invented god is no god at all and no help at all. Certainly, helping people to start where they are is good whether in an A.A. meeting, a church, or on the street; people need to be welcomed to explore spirituality with the knowledge and experience that they have. It saddens me that possibly self-righteous people in New York City, years ago, may have made the Wilsons (and others in recovery) feel unwelcome as they reveled in Bill’s new found sobriety and searched for a deeper connection for themselves and ways to help others.

But this idea that God can be anything you want Him to be has had its effects.  And not for the good. Dick B., a member of A.A. and an historian of it, has written:

The author has attended almost two thousand A.A. meetings in many states; and the number of people who rise to claim lengthy sobriety on “sobriety calls” is astonishingly low. Sobriety celebrations, or “birthday meetings,” or “chip” meetings, as they are sometimes described, start with a request for those with “24 hours” (without a drink) to raise their hand or stand. Then for those with “30 days;” then “60 days;” then “90;” then six months; then a year and so on.  And the deathly silence at most “chip” meetings which occurs upon the call for those with more than three or four years is appalling.

A.A.’s critics have reached similar conclusions.  Some have estimated today’s success rate at somewhere between 1.3 percent and 10.8 percent. (Dick B., The Oxford Group and Alcoholics Anonymous, p. 7)

Occurrences of repeated relapse are way too high.

I have a friend who works in a ministry for women out of prison, women who have largely been addicted. They practice a ministry of immersive discipleship, not the Twelve Steps. They teach the women who God, as Trinity, is; what Christ did on the cross; their identity in Christ; how to be a disciple, and so on. This connection to a Person and growing experience of Him, as well as the imparting of practical living skills and attributes of disciples of Christ are really helping them to get established and remain established. I do not know their success rate, but I will ask. I do know, firsthand, of a local Christian recovery community that has a success rate of 75%.

Alcoholics Anonymous has been a glorious move of the Spirit in the 20th and now 21st century. They have helped and continue to help so many, but when we get separated from our roots, we sometimes don’t see the same results. This is true of churches that begin in revival fire and then burn out as they become institutionalized and more focused on human ideas and act out of human strength, not supernatural strength. They need to re-find what, Who, first launched them. They need to again answer that question of Jesus, “Who do you say that I am?”  The Apostle Paul wrote to the increasingly humanistic Galatians:

“You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you?…After beginning by means of the Spirit, are you now trying to finish by means of the flesh?” Galatians 3:1,3

For all of us, not just people in recovery, we are at a critical juncture in America. Revival, the return to our first love, is needed in so many places. We need to hear this call from scripture and respond,

“Wake up, sleeper,

rise from the dead,

and Christ will shine on you.” Ephesians 5:14

I will close with Bill W.’s own words about the faith and effectiveness of A.A. in 1961 and my challenge to A.A. and to the church:

We can also take a fresh look at the problem of “no faith” as it exists right on our doorstep. Though three hundred thousand did recover in the last twenty-five years, maybe half a million more have walked into our midst, and then out again. No doubt some were too sick to make even a start. Others couldn’t or wouldn’t admit their alcoholism. Still others couldn’t face up to their underlying personality defects. Numbers departed for still other reasons. Yet we can’t well content ourselves with the view that all these recovery failures were entirely the fault of the newcomers themselves. Perhaps a great many didn’t receive the kind of sponsorship they so sorely needed. We didn’t communicate when we might have done so. So AAs failed them. Perhaps more often than we think, we still make no contact at depth with those suffering the dilemma of no faith. (from Language of the Heart: Bill W.’s Grapevine writings, p. 252)

To A.A., I would say, “Return to your roots. Explore them. Recover the good.”

To the Church, I would say, “Open your doors wide to people in recovery.  We have the One they need.”

“Return to Me,” declares the Lord Almighty, “and I will return to you.” Zechariah 1:3


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