Bill W.’s Experience at Winchester Cathedral
By Ken B. (based on research by Dick B.)
© 2015 Anonymous. All rights reserved
On page one of “Bill’s Story” in Alcoholics Anonymous (affectionately known within A.A. as “the Big Book"), Bill W. briefly mentions his visit to Winchester Cathedral in England during World War I:
We landed in England. I visited Winchester Cathedral. Much moved, I wandered outside. My attention was caught by a doggerel on an old tombstone:
“Here lies a Hampshire Grenadier
Who caught his death
Drinking cold small beer.
A good soldier is ne’er forgot
Whether he dieth by musket
Or by pot.”
Ominous warning—which I failed to heed.
He states that he was “much moved” while he was in Winchester Cathedral, but provides no details about the experience.
On page 10, Bill mentions Winchester Cathedral a second time:
That war-time day in old Winchester Cathedral came back again.
I had always believed in a Power greater than myself. I had often pondered these things. I was not an atheist.
And although he mentions his always-held belief in “a Power greater than” himself and declares that he “was not an atheist,” he still doesn’t provide details as to what he experienced at Winchester Cathedral.
Bill then brings up his wartime trip to Winchester Cathedral a third time while discussing the visit by his Burr and Burton Seminary schoolmate Ebby T. to his and Lois’s residence at 182 Clinton Street in Brooklyn, New York, in late November 1934. And Bill finally provides some details of his experience at the Cathedral, but only in hindsight:
Thus was I convinced [through the discussion with Ebby T.] that God is concerned with us humans when we want Him enough. At long last I saw, I felt, I believed. Scales of pride and prejudice fell from my eyes. A new world came into view.
The real significance of my experience at the Cathedral burst upon me. For a brief moment, I had needed and wanted God. There had been a humble willingness to have Him with me—and He came. But soon the sense of His presence had been blotted out by worldly clamors, mostly those within myself. And so it had been ever since. How blind I had been.
Note the following language used in the second paragraph just quoted above relating to Bill W.’s experience at Winchester Cathedral in 1918:
· “For a brief moment, I had needed and wanted God.”
· “There had been a humble willingness to have Him with me—and He came.”
· “. . . the sense of His presence . . .”
In order to get a better understanding of the nature of Bill W.’s experience at Winchester Cathedral, it is helpful to look at Bill’s description of the event found in drafts of “Bill’s Story” that predated “the Multilith Edition” of the Big Book, as well as to look at a retrospective on the event Bill dictated as part of his “autobiography” in September 1954.
To begin, let’s look at Bill W.’s discussion of how the chapters of the Big Book came into existence:
Each morning I traveled all the way from Brooklyn to Newark where, pacing up and down in Henry’s office, I began to dictate rough drafts of the chapters of the coming book. . . .
As the chapters were slowly roughed out I read them to the New York group at its weekly meeting in our parlor at Clinton Street, and copies were sent to Dr. Bob for checking and criticism in Akron, where we had nothing but the warmest support. But in the New York meeting the chapters got a real mauling. I redictated them and Ruth retyped them over and over. . . .
So the job went until we reached the famous Chapter five. . . .
. . . The hassling over the four chapters already finished had really been terrific.
So, it is not hard to understand why one or more pre-“Multilith Edition” versions of the early chapters of the Big Book have been found in the archives at Bill and Lois Wilson’s home known as “Stepping Stones” in Katonah, New York (and perhaps elsewhere).
On October 2, 1991, author and unofficial historian of A.A. Dick B. photocopied at Stepping Stones—with permission—a 36-page document with lines numbered 1-1,180 titled “W. G. Wilson’s Original Story.” The following excerpt, in which Bill discusses his experience at Winchester Cathedral in England, appears on lines 209-233 of page 9 of that document:
209. Then we were in dear old England, soon to cross
210. the channel to the great unknown. I stood in Winchester
211. Cathedral the day before crossing
hand in hand with head
212. bowed, for something had touched me then I had never felt
213. before. I had been wondering, in a rare moment of sober
214. reflection, what sense there could be to killing and
215. carnage of which I was soon to become an enthusiastic part.
216. Where could the Deity be - could there be such a thing –
217. Where now was the God of the preachers, the thought of which
218. used to make me so uncomfortable when they talked about him.
219. Here I stood on the
abyss edge of the abyss into which
220. thousands were falling that very day. A feeling of despair
221. settled down on me - where was He - why did he not come-
222. and suddenly in that moment of darkness, He was there. I
223. felt an all enveloping, comforting, powerful presence.
224. Tears stood in my eyes, and as I looked about, I saw on the
225. faces of others nearby, that they too had glimpsed the great
226. reality. Much moved, I walked out into the Cathedral yard,
227. where I read the following inscription on a tombstone. 'Here
228. lies a Hampshire Grenadier, Who caught his death drinking
229. small good beer - A good soldier is ne'er forgot, whether
230. he dieth by musket or by pot.' The squadron of bombers
231. swept overhead in the bright sunlight, and I cried to myself
232. 'Here's to adventure' and the feeling of being in the great
233. presence disappeared, never to return for many years.
Note the following language used in lines 209-233 of the “W. G. Wilson’s Original Story” document just quoted above relating to Bill W.’s experience at Winchester Cathedral in 1918:
· “I stood in Winchester Cathedral . . . with head bowed, for something had touched me then I had never felt before.”
· “Where could the Deity be – could there be such a thing – Where now was the God of the preachers, the thought of which used to make me so uncomfortable when they talked about him.”
· “A feeling of despair settled down on me - where was He - why did he not come - and suddenly in that moment of darkness, He was there. I felt an all enveloping, comforting, powerful presence. Tears stood in my eyes, and as I looked about, I saw on the faces of others nearby, that they too had glimpsed the great reality. Much moved, . . .”
· [And after going outside, seeing the doggerel on the tombstone, and seeing the airplane squadron flying overhead, Bill said:] “I cried to myself 'Here's to adventure' and the feeling of being in the great presence disappeared, never to return for many years.”
Here is an excerpt from another (purported)—and apparently later—version of what eventually became “Bill’s Story” in Alcoholics Anonymous.
We were in England. I stood in Winchester Cathedral with head bowed, in the presence of something I had never felt before.
Where now was the God of the preachers? Across the Channel thousands were perishing that day. Why did He not come? Suddenly in that moment of darkness – He was there! I felt an enveloping comforting Presence. Tears stood in my eyes. I had glimpsed the great reality.
Much moved, I wandered through the Cathedral yard. My attention was caught by a doggerel on an old tombstone:
“Here lies a Hampshire Grenadier
Who caught his death
Drinking cold small beer
A good soldier is ne’er forgot
Whether he dieth by musket
Or by pot.”
My mood changed. A squadron of fighters roared overhead. I cried to myself, “Here’s to Adventure.” The feeling of being in the great presence disappeared.
Finally, let’s look at one other description Bill W. gave of what happened when he visited Winchester Cathedral in August 1918. The following version of the Bill’s experience at the cathedral comes from the “autobiography” that Bill dictated to Ed Bierstadt in September 1954 at the Hotel Bedford:
In Winchester [, England], there came another illuminating experience. We [American troops on their way to France to fight in World War I] were, of course, permitted to sightsee in town, and one of the very first places I visited was old Winchester Cathedral. . . . I walked inside the cathedral, and there was a company of soldiers there, some of them pretty tough-looking specimens, and all were very much subdued by the atmosphere of that place. I have been in many cathedrals since and have never experienced anything like it. . . . There was within those walls a tremendous sense of presence. I remember standing there and again the . . . spiritual experience repeated itself. I thought of France, I thought of wounds, I thought of suffering, I thought of death, even of oblivion. And then my mood veered sharply about as the atmosphere of the place began to possess me, and I was lifted up into a sort of ecstasy. And though I was not a conscious believer in God at the time—I had no defined belief—yet I somehow had a mighty assurance that things were and would be all right. And then it was that I went out and read the inscription about the Hampshire grenadier, and once more I was possessed with the spirit of adventure, and the spiritual experience. And the depression that had preceded it vanished into the background.
That was very much like the experience at Newport, . . . except this time the notion of the supernatural and the notion of God kept crossing my mind, and the sense of some sort of sustaining presence in the place was quite overpowering. I didn’t define it, but it was a valid spiritual experience and it had the classic mechanism: collapsed human powerlessness, then God coming to man to lift him up to set him on the high road to his destiny. Those were my impressions of my experience in the cathedral.
Hopefully Bill W.’s three discussions of his experience at Winchester Cathedral presented in this article—two from pre-“Multilith Edition” manuscripts of Alcoholics Anonymous, and one from the “autobiography” he dictated in September 1954—will help you better understand Bill’s references to his experience at that cathedral found in “Bill’s Story” in today’s Big Book.
 Alcoholics Anonymous, 4th ed. (New York, NY: Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Inc., 2001), 1.
 Alcoholics Anonymous, 4th ed., 10.
 To get a much clearer understanding of Bill W.’s comments about his understanding of, and degree of belief in, God around the time of Ebby T.’s visit, please note that the entire four-paragraph section on page 12 of the fourth edition of the fourth edition of Alcoholics Anonymous—beginning with the words “Despite the living example of my friend . . .” and ending with the words “Would I have it? Of course I would!”—was not present in the prepublication edition of Alcoholics Anonymous (often referred to as “the Multilith Edition” or “the Original Manuscript). That four-paragraph section was inserted at the last moment in the printer’s manuscript of Alcoholics Anonymous just before the book was published in April 1939. See Appendix 1: “Why Don’t You Choose Your Own Conception of God” in Dick B. and Ken B., Pioneer Stories in Alcoholics Anonymous: God’s Role in Recovery Confirmed! (Kihei, HI: Paradise Research Publications, Inc., 2012): http://www.dickb.com/Pioneer-Stories-in-Alcoholics-Anonymous.shtml.
 Alcoholics Anonymous, 4th ed., 12-13.
 Bill W. stated that—after “the story section of the book” and “the text” were completed “in the latter part of January, 1939”—“a prepublication copy of the text and some of the stories” was made and “[f]our hundred mimeograph copies of the book were made and sent to everyone we could think of who might be concerned with the problem of alcoholism.” [See: Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age (New York: Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Inc., 1957), 164-65.] This “prepublication copy” has come to be known more popularly as “the Multilith Edition” and “the Original Manuscript”: http://silkworth.net/originalmanuscript/originalmanuscript.html; accessed 8/22/2015.
 Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age, 159-60.
 The physical address of Stepping Stones is 62 Oak Road, Katonah, NY 10536. Although the house itself sits on the Bedford Hills border, and Bill and Lois Wilson always referred to their home as being in Bedford Hills, both Katonah and Bedford Hills are hamlets of the larger Town of Bedford: http://www.steppingstones.org/visiting.html.
 By June 1938, Bill W. had written a rough draft of the first two chapters of what was to become the book Alcoholics Anonymous. (See A Narrative Timeline of AA History, accumulated and ed. by Arthur S., March 2014, 28: http://hindsfoot.org/aatimeline.pdf; accessed 8/22/2015.) At that time, the chapter titled “There Is a Solution” was the first chapter, and the chapter titled “Bill’s Story” was the second chapter. Bill W. stated that he (and one or more others) had used those two chapters to raise money “. . . from early summer  to early fall . . .” (See Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age, 152-54). The order of the chapters was reversed by the time “the Multilith Edition” was circulated after January 1939.
 This version of the story seems to be a revision of the version of the story found in the 36-page document with lines numbered 1-1,180 titled “W. G. Wilson’s Original Story” quoted above. And this revision seems to have been made before “the Multilith Edition” was circulated after January 1939.
 “Bill’s Story: The Original Version” (BBSG-SONJ), page 5: http://www.laurenceholbrook.com/AAHistoryLovers/Bills%20Story%20BBSG%5B1%5D.pdf; accessed 8/22/2015. This version of “Bill’s Story,” still labeled “Chapter Two,” followed the chapter titled “There Is a Solution,” originally labeled as “Chapter One.”
 Bill W., My First 40 Years (Center City, Minn.: Hazelden, 2000), 49-51.