The Christian Upbringings of Bill W. and Dr. Bob, and
the Early Years of Alcoholics Anonymous
By Dick B. and Ken B.
© 2011 Anonymous. All rights reserved
Dr. Bob was born in St. Johnsbury, Vermont, on August 8, 1879. His parents raised him in North Congregational Church, St. Johnsbury, and he participated very actively in that church—including in the United Society of Christian Endeavor's activities in the church--until he graduated from St. Johnsbury Academy in 1898. Dr. Bob's father, Judge Walter P. Smith, was president of the St. Johnsbury Young Men's Christian Association, from 1895 until at least 1897. And the YMCA actively advertised in the St. Johnsbury Academy's student publication and offered students many opportunities to come to its building on Eastern Avenue, just down the street from the St. Johnsbury Academy. Beginning in January 1933 in Akron, Dr. Bob and his wife, Anne, became involved with an evangelical Christian organization known as the Oxford Group. He and Anne became charter members of Akron's Westminster Presbyterian Church on June 3, 1936, and were involved with that church until April 3, 1942. One year before he died, he became a communicant at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church of Akron.
Bill Wilson was born in East Dorset, Vermont, on November 26, 1895. Initially, he was raised by his parents in the East Dorset Congregational Church. About 1903, his family moved to Rutland and stayed there until 1906. We don't know whether they attended a church there and are currently researching the matter. Soon after returning to East Dorset about 1906, Bill was raised by his maternal grandparents, the Griffiths, who were very active in the East Dorset Congregational Church. Bill read the Bible with his grandfather, Fayette Griffith, and with his close friend, Mark Whalon. During the four years he attended Burr and Burton Academy (from the spring of 1909 to the spring of 1913), Bill attended the required daily chapel. He also took the required four-year Bible study course. He became was president of the Burr and Burton Academy Young Men's Christian Association. And his girl friend, Bertha Bamford, was president of the Young Women's Christian Association. Burr and Burton Academy students were required to attend weekly Sunday services at the Manchester Congregational Church; although Bill may not have attended these, as he boarded in Manchester during the week and returned to East Dorset each weekend.
When Bertha Bamford died unexpectedly on November 18, 1912, Bill turned his back on God. Then he married Lois Wilson in a Swedenborgian Church. Lois and her family were Swedenborgians. Bill lived with them early in his marriage. Later, Dr. Silkworth told him during his third visit at Towns Hospital in September 1934 that if he did not stop drinking, he would either die or go insane. But Dr. Silkworth also told Bill that the “Great Physician,” Jesus Christ, could cure Bill of Bill's alcoholism. In late November 1934, Bill's old drinking buddy, Ebby Thacher, came to Bill and Lois's home at 182 Clinton Street in New York City, and told Bill that he had gotten “religion.” He also told Bill that God had done for Ebby what he could not do for himself. About December 7, 1934, Bill went to the Calvary Mission operated by Calvary Episcopal Church, made a decision for Jesus Christ, wrote that he had been born again, and credited the Lord with his cure. (See the Big Book, 4th ed., page 191.) He asked Rev. Sam Shoemaker’s help in formulating the Twelve Steps but never became a communicant at Calvary Episcopal Church. After the publication of Alcoholics Anonymous (the “Big Book”) on April 10, 1939, Bill met up with Father Ed Dowling, a Jesuit priest, and had a long relationship with him, beginning in 1940. He is said to have taken instruction with Bishop Fulton Sheen, but he never “joined” the Roman Catholic Church.