Bill Wilson Came to Believe Alcoholism Could Be Cured by Conversion
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For many years during his childhood, Bill Wilson repeatedly heard that his paternal grandfather William C. (“Willie”) Wilson had been cured of alcoholism in a conversion experience atop Mt. Aeolus in Bill’s home village of East Dorset, Vermont.
Throughout his youth, Bill was exposed to the account of his grandfather’s conversion and cure of alcoholism. And his exposure to the Bible, to Christian upbringing, and to spiritual growth was far more substantial than has previously been known or reported.
For example, Bill and his paternal and maternal families attended the East Dorset Congregational Church. They listened to sermons, reading of Scripture, prayers, hymns, and recited the confession and creed. There were tent meetings and revivals, and Bill witnessed conversions. Moreover, Bill and his maternal grandfather, Fayette Griffith, read the Bible individually and together. Grandfather Fayette enrolled Bill in the East Dorset Congregational Church Sunday school. We are still investigating what transpired of a religious nature, if anything, during Bill’s residence in Rutland, Vermont.
However, during his matriculation at Burr and Burton Seminary in Manchester, Vermont, Bill regularly attended the daily chapel, and heard Scripture reading and hymns. He participated in prayer meetings. He attended the required weekly church service at the Manchester Congregational Church. He took a required, four-year Bible study course at the Seminary. And Bill was president of the Seminary Young men’s Christian Association, while his girlfriend, Bertha Bamford, was president of the Burr and Burton YMCA. Both attended chapel and “Y” activities together at the Seminary.
However, Bertha Bamford came to an untimely end—dying in surgery. Bill was devastated. He plunged into one of his many depressions. He blamed God for the death, and he turned his back on God for a good many years.
Quite some time later, Bill reached his bottom in alcoholism. He was hospitalized three times. Bill’s psychiatrist, Dr. William D. Silkworth, explained to Bill that Bill could be cured by the “Great Physician,” Jesus Christ. This explanation occurred during Bill’s third hospitalization at Towns Hospital in New York, where Silkworth told Bill that there was a need in recovery for a relationship with Jesus Christ, Silkworth using the term “the Great Physician.” [Dale Mitchel, Silkworth: The Little Doctor Who Loved Drunks (Center City, MN: Hazelden, 2002), 50].
Then Bill’s old friend, Ebby Thacher, made a visit to Bill. Ebby related to Bill that the celebrated psychiatrist, Dr. Carl Jung, had made a statement—“the one which saved Rowland Hazard’s life and set Alcoholics Anonymous in motion. . . . ‘Occasionally, Rowland, alcoholics have recovered through spiritual experiences, better known as religious conversions.’” [Bill W.: My First Forty Years (Center City, MN: Hazelden, 2000), 125]. Ebby also told Bill that he had been lodged at Calvary Rescue Mission on the East Side in New York. [Bill W., 131]. Ebby was sober; and he told Bill, “I’ve got religion.” [Bill W., 133]. Ebby told Bill how Rowland and two others had tried to help him with his drinking by telling him about prayer and God. [Bill W., 133-34]. Ebby said he had learned these as a child and believed them. And then, as Bill stated in his own words, “My friend sat before me, and he made the point-blank declaration that God had done for him what he could not do for himself. His human will had failed. Doctors had pronounced him incurable. Society was about to lock him up. Like myself, he had admitted complete defeat.” Alcoholics Anonymous, 4th ed. (New York: Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Inc., 2001), 11.
I [Dick B.] found a manuscript at Stepping Stones which, at lines 935-942, told of Bill’s further statement: “Nevertheless here I was sitting opposite a man who talked about a personal God, who told me how he had found him, who described to me how I might do the same thing and who convinced me utterly that something had come into his life which had accomplished a miracle. The man was transformed; there was no denying he had been reborn.” [See Dick B., Turning Point: A History of Early A.A.’s Spiritual Roots and Successes (San Rafael, CA: Paradise Research Publications, 1997, 99-100.] Bill also pointed to a further statement by Ebby, saying, “But my friend sat before me, and he made the point-blank declaration that God had done for him what he could not do for himself. His human will had failed. Doctors had pronounced him incurable. Society was about to lock him up. . . . That floored me. It began to look as though religious people were right after all.” Alcoholics Anonymous, 4th ed., 11.
Skeptical to a degree, Bill attended an event at Rev. Samuel M. Shoemaker’s Calvary Church. He heard Ebby give the same testimony from the pulpit. And Bill thought that if the Great Physician had helped Ebby, perhaps he could help Bill be cured—just as Dr. Silkworth had predicted.
Bill’s next move was to go to Calvary Rescue Mission. He stated, “Remembering the mission where Ebby stayed, I figured I’d go and see what did they do, anyway down there. I’d find out. . . . There were hymns and prayers. Tex, the leader, exhorted us. Only Jesus could save, he said. . . . Then came the call. Penitents started marching toward the rail. . . . Soon I knelt among the sweating, stinking penitents. Maybe then and there, for the first time, I was penitent too. Something touched me, I guess it was more than that. I was hit.” Bill W.: My First Forty Years, 136-37.
Several witnesses confirmed what Bill did at the altar: (a) Mrs. Samuel M. Shoemaker, Jr., talked with me on the telephone and told me she was present when Bill made his decision for Christ. Dick B., The Conversion of Bill W. (Kihei, HI: Paradise Research Publications, Inc., 2006), 61. (b) Bill’s wife, Lois Wilson, confirmed Bill’s decision for Christ. Speaking of Bill’s trip to the altar at the Mission, Lois Wilson said: “And he went up, and really, in very great sincerity, did hand over his life to Christ.” [“Lois Remembers: Searcy, Ebby, Bill & Early Days.” Recorded in Dallas, Texas, June 29, 1973, Moore, OK: Sooner Cassette, Side 1]. (c) Rev. Sam Shoemaker’s assistant minister, W. Irving Harris, wrote this: “It was at a meeting at Calvary Mission that Bill himself was moved to declare that he had decided to launch out as a follower of Jesus Christ.” Dick B., New Light on Alcoholism: God, Sam Shoemaker, and A.A., 2d ed. (Kihei, HI: Paradise Research Publications, Inc., 1999), 533-35.. (d) Bill twice made a further statement of great interest. It is not clear whether Bill was referring to his decision for Christ at the Calvary Mission altar or to his vital religious experience after calling on the “Great Physician” at Towns Hospital not long thereafter. But, at the hospital, Bill cried out to God for help. His room blazed with an indescribably white light. He sensed a presence. He felt he was on top of a mountain he had not climbed. And he thought: “Bill, you are a free man. This is the God of the Scriptures.”
Bill Wilson twice wrote, “For sure I’d been born again.” Bill W., My First Forty Years, 147; Dick B., Turning Point, 94-98; and Dick B., A New Way In (Kihei, HI: Paradise Research Publications, Inc., 2006), 61-62. (e) At Stepping Stones.
I (Dick B.) personally found a letter at Stepping Stones that Bill had written to his brother-in-law stating that he [like Ebby] had “found religion.” Dick B., The Conversion of Bill W., 62.
After his acceptance of Jesus Christ as his Lord and Savior at the Calvary Rescue Mission altar, Bill wandered drunk for a time and then staggered into Towns Hospital for his last visit there. Bill said, “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. . . . I became acutely conscious of a presence which seemed like a veritable sea of living spirit. I lay on the shores of a new world. ‘This,’ I thought, ‘must be the great reality. The God of the preachers.’ [In his article published in The Language of the Heart, Bill phrased it this way: “Bill, you are a free man. This is the God of the Scriptures”] . . . I thanked my God who had given me a glimpse of his absolute Self. . . . Save a brief hour of doubt next to come, these feelings and convictions, no matter the vicissitude, have never deserted me since.” Bill W.: My First Forty Years, 145-46. As Lois Wilson’s biographer related the situation, Bill said, “I thanked my God, who had given me a glimpse of his absolute Self. . . . It was December 11, 1934. Bill had just turned thirty-nine. He would never again doubt the reality of God.” William G. Borchert, The Lois Wilson Story: When Love Is Not Enough (Center City, MN: Hazelden, 2005), 166.
When Bill consulted Dr. Silkworth after the experience, Dr. Silkworth said to Bill, “You have had some kind of conversion experience.” Bill W.: My First Forty Years, 148. And the recent biography of Bill Wilson’s wife, written by William G. Borchert, tells the details of Bill’s immediate, enthusiastic witnessing as follows:
The doctor [Dr. Silkworth] always allowed Bill to share his God-experience with some patients, hoping somehow it might help. And Bill began learning about the mental and spiritual part of his alcoholic malady from Dr. Shoemaker, who had now befriended the former Wall Street analyst. Dr. Shoemaker encouraged Bill to spread the message of change and spiritual recovery to others like himself.
Bill took the preacher at his word. With Lois’s full support, he was soon walking through the gutters of the Bowery, into the nut ward at Bellevue Hospital, down the slimy corridors of fleabag hotels, and into the detox unit at Towns with a Bible under his arm. He was promising sobriety to every drunk he could corner if they, like he, would only turn their lives over to God. Borchert, The Lois Wilson Story, 170.
And what was the simple message, as Bill explained it to the wife of A.A. number three and set forth in his “Basic Text” (Alcoholics Anonymous, 4th ed.) at page 191:
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.’
Bill’s conviction about his permanent cure was so strong that he arranged a meeting in December 1937 at the boardroom on the 56th floor at the Rockefeller Plaza in New York City. The meeting lasted five hours. Four Rockefeller associates—Albert Scott, Leroy Chipman, W. S. Richardson, and Frank Amos—were present. So, too, were Dr. Silkworth and Bill’s brother-in-law, Dr. Strong. In addition, there was an array of what Frank Amos called “the following ex-alcoholics, William G. Wilson, Henry G. Parkhurst, William J. Ruddell, Ned Pointer and Bill Taylor, all of New York and vicinity; Mr. J. H. F. Mayo of near Baltimore, Maryland; Dr. Robert H. Smith and J. Paul Stanley of Akron, Ohio.”
Frank Amos stated that Bill Wilson had briefly told Mr. Richardson, “the story of how, after many vain attempts to discontinue the use of alcohol, he had achieved what he believed was a permanent cure, through what he termed a religious or spiritual process.” Dr. Silkworth stated “without reservation that while he could not tell just what it was that these men had which had effected their ‘cure’ yet he was convinced they were cured and that whatever it was, it had his complete endorsement.” [The foregoing is contained in the “History of the Alcoholic movement up to the formation of The Alcoholic Foundation on Aug. 11, 1938.” I personally obtained, with permission, my copy of this second report by Frank Amos at the Stepping Stones archives in Bedford Hills, New York.]
For further details, please see Dick B., The Conversion of Bill W.: (http://dickb.com/conversion.shtml)