A.A., Dr. William D. Silkworth, and the “Great Physician”
By Dick B.
© 2013 Anonymous. All rights reserved
[This article updates and substantially enhances the information and citations previously included in my article of several years ago. For now, we know a great deal more about Bill Wilson’s own writings, the talk of the Great Physician, and A.A.’s own early history.]
Researching A.A. history and personalities often reminded me of hunting game birds with my dad. First of all, you had to go to a place where the birds were likely to be hanging out. Second, you had to work at your task and be patient. Third, if you reached a fruitful spot, you needed to get those birds out of hiding and on the wing. Finally, you needed to take good aim, be a good shot, and plan to bag one provided all the factors had come together.
A.A. History: Hunting Down the Dr. William D. Silkworth Story
When and where I got sober in 1986, you could have taken a survey among the Marin County, California A.A. Fellowship members; and I’ll bet few of them knew much about “Silky”—the benign little doctor who loved drunks. They might have known he was credited with writing the “Doctor’s Opinion” which opened their Big Books. They might have gleaned from “Bill’s Story” (the first chapter in the Big Book) that Silkworth had treated Bill Wilson for alcoholism several times; that Bill’s hospital room had “blazed with indescribably white light” during his final visit to Towns Hospital in December 1934; and that, as a result of the profound “white light” experience in the hospital, Bill was never to drink again. And perhaps that Bill W. had told Dr. Silkworth as he entered Towns Hospital on December 11, 1934, that he (Bill) had “found something.” That “something” turned out to be the New York/Big Book solution for alcoholism—a “vital religious experience”—as it was originally called by Professor William James, Reverend Samuel Shoemaker, and Dr. Carl Jung (and even Bill himself in the earliest writings). This vital religious experience (as it was commonly called by those who knew the real origin of the idea) was the transforming religious experience later spoken of on page 25 of the fourth edition of the A.A. Big Book. Some likened it to the conversion experience of the Apostle Paul on the road to Damascus—something we will discuss here shortly. (See Bill W.’s own mention of Paul’s experience in Bill W., My First 40 Years, 152.)
Take it a little further. Some could and would read in the Big Book that Dr. Silkworth had felt that something more than moral psychology was needed to cure the drunk. And Silkworth often used the word “cure.” These readers would see that Dr. Silkworth was credited with saying a “psychic change” was required. And a few would read in “Pass It On” and other A.A. writings that Silkworth probably authored the “disease” theory within the fellowship—the theory that the alcoholic suffered from an obsession of the mind that condemned him to drink and an allergy of the body that condemned him to die or go insane once he began again.
But the A.A. history of the William D. Silkworth story has been presented in many places, in many ways, in diverse terms, and by many authors. In fact, there is an excellent website (http://silkworth.net) that assembles and offers many of the Silkworth subjects very well.
Recently, Hazelden published a biography of Silkworth: Dale Mitchel, Silkworth: The Little Doctor Who Loved Drunks (Center City, MN: Hazelden, 2002). That book opened doors that had long been closed. They were opened by an assiduous researcher named Dale Mitchel, who had access to Silkworth’s papers and family’s recollections. There, the extensive exchange between Dr. Silkworth and Bill Wilson on the subject of Jesus Christ, the “Great Physician,” is well-documented on pages 44, 48, 49, 50, 51, and 225.
And it was that biography, and several of the snippets about the good doctor and Bill W., that brought to my memory the comments of A.A.’s good friend, Dr. Norman Vincent Peale. Peale’s story had to do with Dr. Silkworth, one of Silkworth’s patients (not Bill W.), and the Great Physician.
Now, until fairly recently and after I had published the Great Physician story in its relationship to A.A., the remaining facts were still like the game birds. They had virtually been hidden, un-discovered, and never flushed out or targeted for their important value. Some still need some hunting and flushing.
These pertain to Dr. Silkworth’s beliefs and comments about: (1) Jesus Christ, the Great Physician. (2) Discussions Silky had with Wilson about this subject. (3) Silkworth’s Christian and religious background as a devoted physician who knew Dr. Norman Vincent Peale and actually attended Calvary Episcopal Church in New York, where Reverend Samuel Shoemaker was Rector. (4) Silkworth’s actual views, thoughts, and evaluation of “conversion,” about a “higher power,” about a “psychic change,” and about “moral psychology.” (5) The significance to Silkworth and Bill Wilson of the phrase “Great Physician.” (6) The interrelationships of Silkworth, Bill Wilson, Rev. Sam Shoemaker, and Dr. Norman Vincent Peale.
Now let’s turn the bird dogs loose and see how much game is on the wing and how much is still in the reeds, the bushes, and the trees.
Dr. Silkworth, the “Great Physician,” and Bill Wilson
In the present-day secular/pluralistic climate in 12 Step Fellowships, I don’t see great value in doing anyone’s homework for him when it comes to phrases like the “Great Physician.” Nor in laying out a great quantity of details as to the roots of that phrase. But it is clear that Jesus Christ had long been referred to as “The Great Physician.” (See my documentation of the comments of Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, Irenaeus, Boardman, Worcester and McComb, Weatherhead, Maillard, Willitts, McIntyre, and Osborn in Dick B., The Conversion of Bill W. www.dickb.com/conversion, 63-66. Also see Maria Woodworth-Etter, Signs and Wonders (New Kensington, PA: Whitaker House, 1997), 124, 132, 324, 370; Smith Wigglesworth, Smith Wigglesworth on Healing (New Kensington, PA: Whitaker House, 1999), 158; C.S. Lovett, Jesus Wants You Well! (Baldwin Park, CA: Personal Christianity, 1973), 27, 123; John G. Lake on Healing, comp. by Roberts Liardon (New Kensington, PA: Whitaker House, 2009), 25; F.F. Bosworth, Christ the Healer (NY: Fleming H. Revell, 1973), 23, 77-78, 84.
Nor do I see any profit in this particular article in debating or trying to “prove” the many things set forth here but virtually unknown about Dr. Silkworth, his Christian beliefs, the Great Physician, or Jesus Christ. The reader can review the statements, turn to the citations, and then add these items to the many subjects on Alcoholics Anonymous history that still deserve further research and publishing. But I will mention two or three good starting points for those who are on the hunt. And in this article, primarily, I will focus on some statements made by others who researched or knew Silkworth, or who have looked into this subject extensively. And these include many who have studied the Bible, Jesus Christ, healing, and the subjects in which Silkworth was thoroughly versed.
First, let’s look at some things that Silkworth’s recent biographer Dale Mitchel found and wrote in his biography, Silkworth: The Little Doctor Who Loved Drunks (Center City, MN: Hazelden, 2002). Mitchel wrote:
Silkworth’s family remembers him as a deeply spiritual man, yet unsatisfied with any particular denomination. A devout Christian, he initially fit well into the temperance mind-set developing across the country. For years he attended a church that would also have an impact on the formation of Alcoholics Anonymous, the Calvary Christian (Episcopal) Church. [pp. 11-12].
Though Mitchel doesn’t specifically say so, this Calvary Episcopal Church was born on September 19, 1836. It was commonly called Calvary Church in the City of New York in which Church, Congregation or Society, Divine Service is celebrated according to the Protestant Episcopal Church of the State of New York. [See Samuel M. Shoemaker. Calvary Church Yesterday and Today (New York: Fleming H. Revell Company, 1936), 15-16.] And it was in 1925 that Samuel Moor Shoemaker, Jr., accepted the call to become the 12th Rector of Calvary Church. (See Shoemaker, Calvary Church, 231-45.)
Incidentally, on this subject of Silkworth’s attendance at Sam Shoemaker’s church, we could certainly use a lot more research and information on Silkworth’s Christian upbringing, denominational background, and other churches, if any, attended (just the type of research we did on Dr. Bob’s). Also, on the years of Silkworth’s being a communicant at Calvary. Also on the nature and extent of his interest, attendance, and activities there. And more on his personal papers and his family’s observations—those that led them to say that he was “a devout Christian.”
We would also like to have much more information on whether and how well Silkworth knew Rev. Sam Shoemaker, the Calvary Church Rector. Such information might tell us much about Silkworth’s actual discussions with Bill Wilson, his views on conversion, and his understanding of faith cures and divine healing. Also, if there were further exploration into Silkworth’s membership and activities in Norman Vincent Peale’s church in New York, this too could bring some important A.A. roots to light.
Now let’s return to an extremely interesting, though inadequately detailed, account that Dale Mitchel wrote about several discussions between Bill Wilson and Dr. Silkworth:
The Actual Conversations Silkworth Had with Bill Wilson on Jesus Christ
During his third visit to Towns Hospital in September 1934, Bill had a discussion with Dr. Silkworth on the subject of the “Great Physician.” Many theorists mistakenly believe this discussion occurred on his last and successful visit. In fact, Bill Wilson himself wrote that he had thought about this earlier discussion before he decided to check himself into Towns for the last time, at the urging of his wife and his brother-in-law (Mitchel, Silkworth, 44).
The stated A.A. publications position on Bill’s experiences at Towns Hospital includes little mention of the amount of time he had already spent with Dr. Silkworth during Bill’s final hospitalization. And particularly with Silkworth during his prior third visit to Towns in September 1934. But Silkworth’s biographer tells us that long before he had experienced his “enlightenment,” Bill Wilson had grown to trust the compassion offered by Dr. Silkworth. They would spend hours talking in Dr. Silkworth’s little office. (Mitchel, Silkworth, 44-45).
In his autobiography, Bill wrote of the darkness that had descended upon him before his hospitalization for the last time, and said:
But what of the Great Physician? For a brief moment, I suppose, the last trace of my obstinacy was crushed out as the abyss yawned. [See Bill W.: My First 40 Years (Center City, MN: Hazelden, 2000), p. 145.] Later, according to Mitchel, Bill Wilson wrote in Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age: A Brief History of A.A., “Alcoholism took longer to kill, but the result was the same. Yes, if there was any Great Physician that could cure the alcohol sickness, I’d better find Him at once.” [Mitchel, Silkworth, 44.]
Furthermore, in his autobiography, Bill wrote that, just before he had his hot extraordinary white light experience at Towns Hospital, the following occurred:
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.” [Bill W., My First 40 Years, 145].
Mitchell fails to mention that, after Bill W.’s “Great Physician” discussion with Silkworth (during Bill’s third hospitalization), and before Bill’s finally checking in at Towns Hospital on December 11, 1934, Ebby T. had come to Bill’s home at 182 Clinton Street in New York City in late November 1934 to discuss his (Ebby’s) “surrender” at Calvary Rescue Mission on November 1, 1934, in which he (Ebby) had accepted Jesus Christ as his Lord and Savior. Ebby told Bill that he (Ebby) had been to Calvary Rescue Mission (also operated by Shoemaker’s Calvary Church); that he there had “found religion;” and that God had done for him what he could not do for himself. Wilson himself made off for the Calvary rescue mission about December 7, 1934. He related that he wanted what Ebby had received there. And Bill then went to the altar at the mission; he knelt in prayer; and he gave his life to God, accepting Jesus Christ as his Lord and Savior.
I personally talked with Mrs. Samuel Shoemaker on the phone, and she told me she was there when Bill made that decision for Christ. Mrs. Shoemaker used those very words. Many years later, Lois Wilson herself stated, in a recorded address, that Bill had there sincerely handed his life to Christ. See Dick B., The Conversion of Bill W., 59-63, 88-115.
Bill then made an important statement. I cannot be sure that the statement referred to his decision at the Calvary Mission altar or to his blazing indescribably white light experience at Towns Hospital. But Bill stated in his autobiography that he (Bill Wilson) had concluded, “For sure I’d been born again” [See Bill W., My First 40 Years (Center City, MN: Hazelden, 2000), 147.] Bill also wrote this a second time. [See Dick B., Turning Point: A History of Early A.A.’s Spiritual Roots and Successes (San Rafael, CA: Paradise Research Publications, 1997), 94-98.] In addition, I personally found at Stepping Stones a letter that Bill had written in which he also stated that he [like Ebby] had “found religion.”
As to Bill Wilson’s transforming, “white light experience” at Towns Hospital, Mitchel wrote:
What is not known is on what day of this eleven-day stay at Towns Hospital the now famous “white light transformation” occurred. Most believe it occurred on the third day of his belladonna treatment and also after possible use of Phenobarbital. While lying in bed, suicidal, depressed, and hopeless, Wilson would accept anything to help him quit drinking. He had tried everything he knew. He had reached a bottom that he had never experienced. Just prior to his experience with “the veritable sea of living spirit” Wilson often later talked about, he chastised God and said to himself “I’ll do anything at all. If there be a Great Physician, I’ll call on him!” Again referring to his prior discussions with Silkworth. Then, according to Wilson, he cried out, “If there be a God, let him show himself.” . . . Suddenly the room lit up with a great white light. . . . All about me and through me there was a wonderful feeling of Presence, and I thought to myself, ‘So this is the God of the preachers!’ A great peace stole over me and I thought, ‘No matter how wrong things seem to be, they are all right. Things are all right with God and His world.’” [Mitchel, Silkworth, 47].
The “Great Physician” for Bill Was Jesus Christ
In the days of Silkworth, Shoemaker, Bill Wilson, and Dr. Bob, there were a number of expressions which may not be familiar in usage within A.A. today. But in A.A.’s founding period, when someone spoke of the Good Book, that person meant the Holy Bible. Also, when someone spoke of the Great Physician, that person meant Jesus Christ.
Let’s look again at a few of the hundreds of writings about the Jesus, the “Great Physician,” that make this usage well-known:
William Boardman, The Great Physician (Jehovah Rophi). (Boston, MA: Willard Tract Repository, 1881).
Ethel B. Willitts, Healing in Jesus Name (Crawfordsville, IN: published by the author, 1931). This Willitts title was owned, studied, and circulated by Dr. Bob; and Ethel Willitts repeatedly referred to Jesus as the Great Physician. (See, for example, pp. 66, 104, 151, 209, cf. 95.)
Joe Mcintyre, E. W. Kenyon and His Message of Faith. (Orlando, FL: Creation House,
T.L. Osborn, Healing the Sick (Tulsa, OK: Harrison House, Inc., 1992). At pages 18, 55, Osborn referred to Jesus as “Christ the Healer” and the “High Priest of our confession.”
David Fedder, Back to God: The Great Physician (n.p.: n.p., Oct.10, 1999).
Dr. Silkworth’s Specific Referral of a Patient to the Great Physician
Author Mitchel made a correct statement about the Silkworth episode, but erroneously attributed to me a supposed statement about my (Dick B.’s) research:
According to AA historian Dick B., in a conversation with Peale [Dr. Norman Vincent Peale] shortly before his death, Peale discussed the following account of a hopeless alcoholic named Charles. After Silkworth told Charles that his treatment was over and that, as a doctor, he had done everything he could, Silkworth told him there was an area in his brain about which he still held a reservation and that could be the cause of his return to drinking after he left the hospital. [Mitchel, Silkworth, 50].
[Then, at pages 50-51, Mitchel quotes a supposed conversation I—Dick B.—had with Peale. But no such conversation ever took place.]
I did, however, have an hour interview with Dr. Peale at Pawling, New York. It took place not long before his death. We prayed together, and I also communicated with him before and after by mail.
The interview itself did concern two subjects:
(1) Whether Peale knew who Wilson was speaking of when Wilson used the phrase “higher power;” and Peale replied that he had never met anyone, including Wilson, who thought the “higher power” was any god other than Almighty God. Dr. Peale told me he had written that in his book The Power of Positive Thinking; and sure enough, you can find a lengthy discussion of Almighty God as the “Higher Power” in that book.
(2) What Peale knew about Wilson’s “spiritual experience.” Peale replied that Wilson had told him of two different experiences, both similar in form and content. Later, I discovered that Wilson’s paternal grandfather, William C. (“Willy”) Wilson, had had such an experience in East Dorset, Vermont, and described it in terms almost identical to those used by Wilson of Wilson’s own Towns Hospital blazing “indescribably white light” experience.
On the other hand, my interview with Peale never involved the topic of the “Great Physician.”
What did occur in the course of my own historical research is that my attention was called to Peale by a person attending a conference at which I was a speaker. The person showed me Peale’s The Positive Power of Jesus Christ. And in that book is Peale’s own written account (set forth below in a moment)—an account which I have since often quoted—but not in company with any claim that Peale and I ever discussed it.
Mitchel went on to make the following important comments about Silkworth, Peale, Shoemaker, Ebby, Rowland, Jung, James, and Wilson:
Over time, Silkworth and Norman Vincent Peale became very good friends. Dr. Silkworth and his wife once held their church membership at Marble Collegiate Church in New York where Peale was the lead pastor. Much later, during the Alcoholics Anonymous continued discussion on the validity of the Carl Jung theories on spiritual conversion, Peale held his stance in support of Dr. Carl Jung’s belief that far too many men turn to physicians rather than to the minister for spiritual healing. Silkworth furthered this declaration in his own early writings, presented later in this book. A student of Sigmund Freud, Jung was instrumental in convincing Rowland H., Ebby’s Oxford Group friend, and later Bill Wilson of the importance of ego. An avid reader, Silkworth followed the principles of Jung and William James as they pertained to deflation of depth and the usual requirement of reaching a “bottom” to enable the alcoholic to first feel the despair of crisis, then accept the possibility of a Supreme Being as the answer. Silkworth referred to Jung in his speeches and saved a private letter from him. It was Carl Jung who impressed upon AA through his conversations with Rowland and Bill there existed an opportunity of a spiritual (“religious”) conversion as a last chance from chronic alcoholics. [Mitchel, Silkworth, 51].
Whether or not Mitchel is correct in his assumptions about Dr. Silkworth’s alleged agreement with the principle of “deflation of depth,” Mitchel’s point about Silkworth’s interest in a religious conversion of the type to which Carl Jung referred is particularly interesting when you compare it to Dr. Norman Vincent Peale’s account of Dr. Silkworth and his patient Charles K., a businessman in Virginia, who had become a full-fledged alcoholic; so much so that Charles had to have help, and fast, for his life was cracking up. Peale then relates the following:
He [Charles K., the alcoholic] made an appointment with the late Dr. William Duncan Silkworth, one of the nation’s greatest experts on alcoholism, who worked in a New York City hospital. Receiving Charles into his clinic as a patient, the doctor gave him treatment for some days, than called him into his office. “Charles,” he said, “I have done everything that I can do for you. At this moment you are free of your trouble. But there is an area in your brain where you may hold a reservation and that could, in all likelihood, cause you to return to your drinking. I wish that I might reach this place in your consciousness, but alas, I do not have the skill.” “But, doctor,” exclaimed Charles, “you are the most skilled physician in this field. When I came to you it was to the greatest. If you cannot heal me, then who can possibly do so?” The doctor hesitated, then said thoughtfully, “There is another Doctor who can complete this healing, but he is very expensive.”
“That’s all right,” cried Charles. “I can get the money. I can pay his fees. I cannot go back home until I am healed. Who is this doctor and where is he?”
“Oh, but this Physician is not at all moderate as to expense,” persisted Dr. Silkworth. “He wants everything you’ve got. He wants you, all of you. Then He gives the healing. His price is your entire self.” Then he added slowly and impressively, “His name is Jesus Christ and He keeps office in the New Testament and is available whenever you need Him.”
“I need Him now,” said Charles softly, “right now, I need Him, and I will give Him myself.”
“Great,” remarked the doctor. “You will find healing and you will never need to come back to me as a patient, only as a friend. God Bless you, and,” he concluded, “He will do just that.” [Peale then tells how Charles came to Peale’s church and found the doors locked. But, said Peale, Charles seemed to feel a Presence, a strong Presence in which was wondrous power and love. Peale then continues:]
Reaching for his wallet, [Charles] drew out his business card. Taking out his pen, he wrote on the reverse side of the card, “Dear Dr. Jesus, this is Your unworthy servant Charles. Dr. Silkworth says that only You can completely heal me. I hereby now and with all my heart give myself to You. Please touch me in my brain and in my heart with your healing grace. I love You, dear Jesus.” He signed it “Charles” and dropped the card in the mail slot.
HEALING COMES. Charles stood quite still, unconscious of either rain or snow. Suddenly he sensed light and a pervasive warmth spread throughout his entire being, beginning at the head and running down to his feet. It was as if a great big hand touched his head in loving-kindness. He had the same feeling that a person has when after a long illness comes a sense of well-being. He knew for sure that he had been healed. There was no doubt of it at all. He felt clean with a cleanness never before experienced, and with it an awareness of newness. He had been reborn. He was a new man in Christ. Old things long held in his nature were passed away. We became acquainted through his card dropped in the church mail slot, and I met him later while on a speaking engagement in Virginia. . . . Charles never returned to his old life. He had many problems subsequently, but the power held firm. It never weakened. His healing, which came so dramatically, was permanent. He paid the full price, as the doctor had said he must. He gave himself, all of himself, with nothing held back; and he received the power, the full power, with none of it held back. [See Norman Vincent Peale, The Positive Power of Jesus Christ: Life-changing Adventures in Faith (Carmel, NY: Guideposts, 1980), 60- 62.]
Remaining Facts about Dr. Silkworth That Need to Be Hunted Down
Mitchel’s biography leaves us with the following questions about Silkworth:
First, using his own subjective terminology (“Higher Power”), Mitchel says of Silkworth:
He believed quite early that a sound personal relationship with a Higher Power was paramount to the spiritual healing that went hand in hand with the physical healing of the addict and alcoholic. Many of the letters he had received from patients mention Silkworth’s description of a spiritual journey; the patients also thank him for introducing them to a spiritually based lifestyle.” [Mitchel, Silkworth, 34.]
Unfortunately, Mitchel reveals his bias and revisionist thinking about God—to Whom he ascribes the title “Higher Power.” The questions he leaves unanswered are whether Silkworth talked to these “many” patients—as he did to Charles K.—about the Great Physician, and thus about Jesus Christ. This information would be very important. For Wilson had pointed out that “Silkworth was deeply involved ‘in the midst of them,’ not just at Towns Hospital but with AA as a whole.”
Bill also said Silkworth was “very much a founder of AA.” Finally, that “Dr. Silkworth ‘twelfth-stepped’ 40,000 alcoholics.” (Mitchel, Silkworth, 107, 109.)
The “Acknowledgments” portion of Mitchel’s book (clearly not written by Silkworth) mentions a bevy of folks interested in A.A. history [White, Kurtz, Pittman, Whaley, O’Neill, La Croix]. However, it is astonishing that none of these folks has made any mark in researching and publishing about Silkworth’s Christian background and his advice to Bill and others on the importance of a relationship with Jesus Christ. (Mitchel, Silkworth, xxiii-iv.).
Furthermore, Hazelden no longer publishes this Mitchel book. And we are left with the usual “higher power,” “spirituality,” and “not-god-ness” that has substantially obscured the Creator, His Son Jesus Christ, the gift of the Holy Spirit, and the Bible in many contemporary A.A. history writings.
Personally, I have been much rewarded by the material that Dale Mitchel did hunt down and reproduce—however out of step it may be with the secular and universalization ideas which have left treatment programs, twelve step fellowships, and the public in general without a founding influence that focused on what the Great Physician could do, did do, and is reported to have done.
Second, when Silkworth and Wilson had their discussions about the “Great Physician” at Towns Hospital, was Jesus Christ (the actual name “Jesus Christ”) also specifically mentioned to Bill and then to Dr. Silkworth by Bill himself? Moreover, did Wilson ever discuss with Silkworth Bill’s own altar call and decision for Jesus Christ at Calvary Rescue Mission?
That altar call with Bill’s declared “born again” comment has all but disappeared from current history accounts—including the Silkworth advice to Bill about Jesus. So too, Ebby Thacher’s rebirth details that were recounted to Bill about Ebby’s surrender to Christ at Calvary Mission. There is therefore a gaping hole left in A.A. history writings detailing the exact picture as to how much the Akron Number One group’s principles and practices were really oriented to First Century Christianity ideas. [My son Ken and I have begun to address this gaping hole in our recent publications. See, for example: Dick B. and Ken B., Stick with the Winners! http://mcaf.ee/s50mq; and Dick B. and Ken B., Pioneer Stories in Alcoholics Anonymous: God’s Role in Recovery Confirmed! http://mcaf.ee/gj7iw.]
Third, Mitchel swiftly covers and then dodges the heated arguments which involved John Henry Fitzhugh M.’s (“Fitz’s”) insistence on the Big Book’s being a Christian book. Similarly, Mitchel fails to take into account the “Pass It On” statement that 400 manuscript pages were tossed out before publication, and that the secretary (Ruth Hock) specifically told Hazelden’s Director of Historical Information Bill Pittman that these discarded pages contained Christian and Bible materials.
Mitchel himself wrote:
In the formation of AA Wilson initially insisted on references to God and Jesus as well as the Great Physician. As the fellowship grew, however, other members persuaded Bill that a purely Christian format would alienate many, keeping potential members away from joining the group. Silkworth challenged the alcoholic with an ultimatum. Once hopeless, the alcoholic would grasp hold of any chance of sobriety. Silkworth, a medical doctor, challenged the alcoholic with a spiritual conversion and a relationship with God as part of a program of recovery. His approach with Bill Wilson was no different. Mitchel, Silkworth, 50.
As he sometimes did, Mitchel makes this statement without citing references to authenticate his assertion. But his statement leaves a strong suggestion that the original, and now missing, manuscript pages of the Big Book specifically referred to God, to His Son Jesus Christ, and to the Great Physician. And wouldn’t you like to know Mitchel’s authority for that claim! I would, and I’ve been hunting for that bird for many years.
As a matter of fact, after Dr. Bob was dead, and 20 years after the founding of A.A., Bill himself did make this important disclosure:
Alcoholism, not cancer, was my illness, but what was the difference? Alcoholism took longer to do its killing, but the result was the same. 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 [Ebby Thacher] had found. [Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age, 61].
This “great Physician” story by Bill in the A.A. General Service Conference-approved Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age item seems to have been left on the shelf in A.A.’s “basic text,” the Big Book. Moreover, Bill’s phrase did not capitalize the word “great.” Yet note how Bill’s statement about the “Great Physician” Jesus Christ squares with the statements in Bill’s autobiography—statements by Bill not actually published until the next century. (See Bill W., My First 40 Years.).
In his autobiography, Bill mentions the “great physician that could cure the alcohol sickness.” (Bill W., My First 40 Years, 139). And Bill then capitalizes the phrase “Great Physician” which is used twice on page 145 in his autobiography. Next, Bill also makes the following statement about his vital religious experience: “Then the transforming experience would set in—sometimes like a thundercloud, as with St. Paul on the road to Damascus.” (Bill W., My First 40 Years, 145).
And compare the following repeated accounts in the Book of Acts—which was recommended biblical reading by Dr. Bob’s wife Anne in her personal journal (www.dickb.com/annesm.shtml):
And as he [Saul—later changed to Paul] journeyed, he came near Damascus; and suddenly there shined round about him a light from heaven: And he fell to the earth, and heard a voice saying unto him, Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me. And he said, Who art thou, Lord? And the Lord said: I am Jesus whom thou persecutest. It is hard for thee to kick against the pricks. And he trembling and astonished said, Lord, what wilt thou have me to do? And the Lord said unto him, Arise, and go into the city, and it shall be told thee what thou must do. [Acts 9:3-6 KJV].
. . . I received letters unto the brethren, and went to Damascus, to bring them which were there bound unto Jerusalem for to be punished. And it came to pass, that, as I made my journey, and was come nigh unto Damascus about noon, suddenly there shone from heaven a great light about me. And I fell to the ground, and heard a voice saying unto me, Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me/? And I answered, Who art thou, Lord? And he said unto me, I am Jesus of Nazareth, whom thou persecutest. And they that were with me saw indeed the light, and were afraid; but they heard not the voice of him that spake to me. And I said, What shall I do, Lord? And the Lord said unto me, Arise, and go into Damascus; and there it shall be told thee of all the things which are appointed for thee so to do. And when I could not see for the glory of that light, being led by the hand of them that were with me, I came into Damascus. [Acts 22:5-11 KJV]
At midday, O King, I saw in the way a light from heaven, above the brightness of the sun, shining about me and them which journeyed with me. And when we were all fallen to the earth, I heard a voice speaking unto me, and saying in the Hebrew tongue, Saul, Saul, why persecutes thou me? It is hard for thee to kick against the pricks. And I said, Who art thou, Lord? And he said, I am Jesus whom thou persecutest. But rise, and stand upon thy feet; for I have appeared unto thee for this purpose: to make thee a minister and a witness both of these things which thou hast seen, and of those things in the which I will appear unto thee. Delivering thee from the people, and from the Gentiles, unto whom now I send thee. To open their eyes and to turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan unto God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins, and inheritance among them which are sanctified by faith that is in me. Whereupon, O king Agrippa, I was not disobedient unto the heavenly vision. But shewed first unto them of Damascus, and at Jerusalem, and throughout the coasts of Judaea, and then to the Gentiles, that they should repent and turn to God, and do works meet for repentance. [Acts 26:13-20 KV]
Fourth, it would appear that Searcy Whaley (now deceased) disclosed a number of facts to author Mitchel and that these could have been useful in my hunt for the truth. Mitchel contends that Searcy informed him that, during the initial manuscript work for the Big Book, Bill confided regularly with Dr. Silkworth on the wording and on the Steps. Without citations, Mitchel then says that “When the first members of AA were discussing the many possible names for their new book, Silkworth and Dr. Bob first supported the name “The James Club,” based upon the principles of the book of James in the Bible.” Mitchel adds, “During the writing of the Big Book, there were often heated discussions about using more Christian-specific language rather than the term Higher Power.” (See Mitchel, Silkworth, 64-65.) I believe from most of my research that Mitchel may have been correct, but I’d certainly like to see his authority for the assertions. (Compare my title, The James Club and The Original A.A. Program’s Absolute Essentials http://dickb.com/JamesClub.shtml).
Fifth, Mitchel presents us with another flock of un-flushed game birds when he speaks of Dr. Bob’s introducing Silkworth to the term “treatment” rather than “cure.” Mitchel claims that Sister Ignatia had persuaded Dr. Bob that an alcoholic was never cured and insisted that the word “cure” should be entirely removed from the recovery text. (Mitchel, Silkworth, p. 71.) Once again, Mitchel fails to authenticate his assertion. My own research demonstrates quite clearly that Dr. Bob, Bill W., AA Number Three Bill D., Clarence S., and almost every other early A.A. made it clear that they had a “cure” for alcoholism and had themselves been “cured.” AA Number Three, in his personal story in the Big Book, quotes A.A. cofounder Bill W. himself as follows:
“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.” [Alcoholics Anonymous, 4th ed., 191—bolding added]
A.A. cofounder Dr. Bob made the following statement about Bill W. in his (Dr. Bob’s) personal story in the Big Book:
But this was a man who had experienced many years of frightful drinking, who had had most all of the drunkard’s experiences known to man, but who had been cured by the very means I had been trying to employ, that is to say, the spiritual approach. [Alcoholics Anonymous, 4th ed., 180—bolding added]
AA Number Three Bill D. also stated in personal story in the Big Book:
That sentence, “The Lord has been so wonderful to me, curing me of this terrible disease, that I just want to keep telling people about it,” has been a sort of a golden text for the A.A. program and for me. [Alcoholics Anonymous, 4th ed., 191—bolding added]
I don’t doubt that Bill W. changed that tune later on. But I’d sure like to see the evidence allegedly that indicates that Dr. Bob or Dr. Silkworth or Sister Ignatia persuaded him to change it. Mitchel leaves us in the dark on that one. Similarly, it would be nice to see the evidence on how the language “We are not cured of alcoholism” (Alcoholics Anonymous, 4th ed., 85), which apparently came from Richard Peabody in his book, The Common Sense of Drinking (Little Brown, 1937), showed up in the Big Book. [For a discussion of some of these matters, see Dick B., When Early AAs Were Cured and Why (www.dickb.com/alcoholismcured.shtml).]
Sixth, Mitchel deals with some writings which he believes justify this statement:
Although Silkworth’s conversion beliefs are left for secondary conversations between the two main characters, conversion indeed occurs in every case of recovery presented. In accordance with the Silkworth legacy, it is obvious the book lays the ground for a firm base of medical understanding.” (Mitchell, Silkworth, p. 96).
And this statement, plus others made by Mitchel, makes me wonder just how many of the people that Mitchel quotes or alludes to really have any understanding of the word “conversion” or of Dr. Carl Jung’s use of the word “conversion,” or of Reverend Sam Shoemaker’s use of the word “conversion,” or of Wilson’s use of the word “conversion,” or of Silkworth’s understanding of conversion. Most originally spoke of a “vital religious experience.” For any of these personalities, did “conversion” in fact mean the acceptance of Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, a documented requirement as part of the “full surrenders” required in early Akron A.A.? [See Dick B., The Golden Text of A.A. (http://dickb.com/goldentext.shtml).]
Finally, there are countless other rustles among the bushes that leave you wondering how much more Mitchel knew about Silkworth, how much more he didn’t know, and how much more he’d like to know. Thus on page 100, Mitchel says: “One of the most ardent supporters of conversion was William Silkworth.” On page 106, he says that, directed by Silkworth’s friend Fulton Oursler, Reader’s Digest also wrote of Silkworth a few months after his death: “Dr. Silkworth was a great man who failed with all human science and was humble enough to use God for a medicine.” Notice that Mitchel spoke not of some illusory higher power. He spoke of God! On page 122, Mitchel quotes the Canadian AA Grapevine, which spoke of the “almost invisible skill with which he accomplished his daily miracles of medical and spiritual healing.”
There are other interesting and challenging questions raised in Mitchel’s book; and it has certainly shown me once again just how much of our important A.A. history concerning Almighty God, His Son Jesus Christ, the Holy Bible, conversion, cure, and spiritual healing still remains to be discovered. And/or correlated with or discarded from other historical accounts.
For lots of additional material on Silkworth, see the excellent Silkworth site: