Thursday, September 17, 2015

How Bill Wilson Wrote the Twelve Steps

By Ken B. (based, in part, on research by Dick B.)
© 2015 Anonymous. All rights reserved

 
Since my dad (Dick B.) began his research on A.A. history 25 years ago in 1990, there have been two writers and a husband-and-wife team, in particular, all holding themselves out to be Christians, who have claimed that the original author of the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, A.A. cofounder Bill W., received the Twelve Steps from evil spirits. Those writers are:

1.      Dave Hunt. In his article titled “God as You Conceive Him/Her/It,” Hunt claims:

. . . A.A. with its higher-power-as-you-understand-it opens the door to occultism. The official A.A. biography of Wilson reveals that for years after A.A's founding, regular seances were still being held in the Wilsons' home, and other occult activities were being pursued:

. . .

[A]s he started to write [the A.A. manual], he asked for guidance....The words began tumbling out with astonishing speed....(23)[1],[2],[3]

2.      Martin and Deidre Bobgan. In their article titled “AA: Christian or Occult Roots?”, the Bobgan’s claim:

. . . Wilson combined the Oxford Group practice of guidance with spiritism or channeling, and this appears to be the process he used when writing the Twelve Steps:

As he started to write, he asked for guidance. And he relaxed. The words began tumbling out with astonishing speed.10[4]

3.      John Lanagan. In his article titled “Seances, Spirits, and 12 Steps,” Lanagan claims:

According to PASS IT ON, Bill Wilson considered that “spiritistic matters were no mere parlor game. . . . [T]here are references to séances and other psychic events in the letters Bill wrote to [wife] Lois during that first Akron summer with the Smiths, in 1935.”[12]  

. . . 

. . . [H]ere is how PASS IT ON describes Bill Wilson and the arrival of the 12 Steps. “As he started to write, he asked for guidance. And he relaxed. The words began tumbling out with astonishing speed. He completed the first draft in about half an hour, then kept on writing until he felt he should stop and review what he had written.”[13]

According to PASS IT ON, Wilson asked for “guidance” as he began writing. But guidance from what? The unsaved Wilson was eager to receive messages and leadings from the spirit world. 

. . .

T.A. McMahon, Editor of the Berean Call, writes, “A.A.’s official biography indicates Bill Wilson received the details of the 12 Steps through spirit dictation. Does anyone see a simple, idolatrous problem here?”[14][5]

So is it an “open-and-shut case,” as Lanagan’s source T.A. McMahon implies, that “Bill Wilson received the details of the 12 Steps through spirit dictation”? To answer that question, let’s look at some of “the rest of the story” of A.A. history that Hunt, the Bobgan’s, and Lanagan—all of whom mention Dick B.—either don’t present, misrepresent, or downplay.

To begin to get at “the rest of the story” about how Bill wrote and/or “got” the Twelve Steps, let’s include the paragraph in the A.A. General Service Conference-approved book ‘PASS IT ON’ that appears just before the brief portion of text Lanagan quotes. And let’s add the full paragraph from which Lanagan took his quote:

Bill wrote the Twelve Steps, he said, while lying in bed at 182 Clinton Street with pencil in hand and a pad of yellow scratch paper on his knee. He wrote them in bed, said Lois, not because he was really sick, but he wasn't felling well, and if he could lie down, he did: “He got into bed, that being the best place to think.”

As he started to write, he asked for guidance. And he relaxed. The words began tumbling out with astonishing speed. He completed the first draft in about half an hour, then kept on writing until he felt he should stop and review what he had written. Numbering the new steps, he found that they added up to twelve—a symbolic number; he thought of the Twelve Apostles, and soon became convinced that the Society should have twelve steps.[6]

Now let’s talk about how to do historical research. As Lanagan’s source T.A. McMahon notes, the book ‘PASS IT ON’ is a biography.[7] Note the words “he asked for guidance” in the quotes above. Such third person descriptive language is usually the mark of a biography rather than an autobiography. And the biography ‘PASS IT ON’ was not published until 1984, about 15 years after Bill W. had died on January 24, 1971.[8] Bill W. discussed in his own words how he wrote or “got” the Twelve Steps in at least three places, all written more than 25 years before ‘PASS IT ON’ was written. So we will start with autobiographical material.

Here is Bill’s description of how he wrote the Twelve Steps in an article he penned for the July 1953 issue of the A.A. Grapevine titled “A Fragment of History: Origin of the Twelve Steps”:

I well remember the evening on which the Twelve Steps were written. I was lying in bed quite dejected and suffering from one of my imaginary ulcer attacks. Four chapters of the book, Alcoholics Anonymous, had been roughed out and read in meetings at Akron and New York. . . .

Having arrived at Chapter Five, it seemed high time to state what our program really was. I remember running over in my mind the world-of-mouth phrases then in current use. Jotting these down, they added up to the six named above. . . .

At length I began to write on a cheap yellow tablet. I split the world-of-mouth program up into smaller pieces, meanwhile enlarging its scope considerably. Uninspired as I felt, I was surprised that in a short time, perhaps half an hour, I had set down certain principles which, on being counted, turned out to be twelve in number. And for some unaccountable reason, I had moved the idea of God into the Second Step, right up front. Besides, I had named God very liberally throughout the other Steps. In one of the Steps, I had even suggested that the newcomer get down on his knees.[9]

Notice the absence of any reference to the word, or concept of, “guidance” in this account Bill wrote—more than 30 years before ‘PASS IT ON’ appeared—of the night he penned the Twelve Steps. And yet Hunt, the Bobgan’s, and Lanagan all hang their “Bill Wilson received the details of the 12 Steps through spirit dictation” argument on the use of the word “guidance” in the biography ‘PASS IT ON.’ Notice also Bill’s comment in his “A Fragment of History” article in the A.A. Grapevine quoted immediately above—absent from the snippets Hunt, the Bobgan’s, and Lanagan excerpted from the ‘PASS IT ON’ biography—in which he states:

. . . I had moved the idea of God into the Second Step, right up front. Besides, I had named God very liberally throughout the other Steps. In one of the Steps, I had even suggested that the newcomer get down on his knees.[10]

Many readers may not know the following four facts about the wording of the Twelve Steps as Bill W. originally wrote them around early December 1938[11]:

1.      The phrase “a Power greater than ourselves,” as seen today in Step Two in Alcoholics Anonymous,[12] was not present. Bill W. stated that he had originally written the single word “God.”[13]

2.      The phrase “as we understood Him,” following and modifying the word “God, as seen today in Step Three in Alcoholics Anonymous, was not present.[14] Bill W. stated that he had originally written the single word “God.”[15]

3.      The phrase “as we understood Him,” following and modifying the word “God,” as seen today in Step Eleven in Alcoholics Anonymous, was not present.[16] Bill W. stated that he had originally written the single word “God.”[17]

4.      According to ‘PASS IT ON,’ Step Seven—as Bill W. originally wrote it—probably read: “Humbly on our knees asked Him to remove these shortcomings—holding nothing back.”[18]

The facts set forth in items 1-3 immediately above—at least with respect to the Twelve Steps themselves—do not support Hunt’s claim quoted earlier about: “A.A. with its higher-power-as-you-understand-it opens the door to occultism.” Bill W., according to his own words, had in “the original draft” of the Twelve Steps “consistently used the word ‘God,’ . . .”[19] As I noted in the footnotes in this article, ‘PASS IT ON’ states concerning the earliest version(s) of the Twelve Steps:

“The very first draft of the Twelve Steps, as Bill wrote them that night, has been lost. This is an approximate reconstruction of the way he first set them down: . . .

‘2. Came to believe that God could restore us to sanity.’

‘3. Made a decision to turn our wills and our lives over to the care and direction of God.’

. . .

‘11. Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our contact with God, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.’” [See 'PASS IT ON,' 198.]

Now let’s look at more autobiographical material from Bill W. 30 years before ‘PASS IT ON’ was published, Bill gave a talk at the Texas State A.A. Convention in June 1954. Here is what he said in his speech about the night he wrote the Twelve Steps:

So then came that night when we were up around about Chapter 5. As you know, I'd gone on about myself, which was natural after all. And then the little introductory chapter and we dealt with the agnostic and we described alcoholism, but boy, we finally got up to the point where we really had to say what the book was all about and how this deal works. As I told you, this was a six-step program then. On this particular evening, I was lying in bed on Clinton Street wondering what the deuce this next chapter would be about. The idea came to me, well, we need a definite statement of concrete principles that these drunks can't wiggle out of. Can't be any wiggling out of this deal at all. And this six-step program had two big gaps in-between they'll wiggle out of. Moreover, if this book goes out to distant readers, they have got to have an absolutely explicit program by which to go. This was while I was thinking these thoughts, while my imaginary ulcer was paining me and while I was mad as hell at these drunks because the money was coming in too slow. Some had the stock and weren't paying up, A couple of guys came in and they gave me a big argument and we yelled and shouted and I finally went down and laid on the bed with my ulcer and I said, “Poor me.”

There was a pad of paper by the bed and I reached for that and said, “You've got to break this program up into small pieces so they can't wiggle out.” So I started writing, trying to bust it up into little pieces. And when I got the pieces set down on that piece of yellow paper, I put numbers on them and was rather agreeably surprised when it came out to 12. I said, “That's a good significant figure in Christianity and mystic lore.” Then I noticed that instead of leaving the God idea to last, I'd got it up front, but I didn't pay much attention to that; it looked pretty good. Well, the next meeting comes along. . . .[20]

Notice again the absence in Bill’s speech of any reference to the word, or concept of, “guidance.” So this talk offers no support for the arguments made by Hunt, the Bobgan’s, and Lanagan; which again were: 

·         That “other occult activities [i.e., other than seances] were being pursued” and were involved in Bill’s writing of the Twelve Steps. [Hunt’s claim];

·         That Bill’s (claimed) combination of “the Oxford Group practice of guidance with spiritism or channeling . . . [appeared] to be the process he used when writing the Twelve Steps.” [The Bobgan’s claim]; and

·         That Bill W. “. . . was eager to receive messages and leadings from the spirit world.” And that he had “‘. . . received the details of the 12 Steps through spirit dictation.’” [Lanagan’s claim]

The A.A. General Service Conference-approved book Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age presents more autobiographical material by Bill W. concerning how he wrote the Twelve Steps. Bill presented the following description of the background of, and his process of writing, the Twelve Steps in a talk he gave at A.A.’s twentieth anniversary celebration in St. Louis in 1955, nearly 30 years before ‘PASS IT ON’ was published in 1984. And here is what the author of the Twelve Steps himself had to say:

So the job [of writing the drafts of the chapters of Alcoholics Anonymous] went until we reached the famous Chapter 5.[21] . . .

. . . The hassling over the four chapters already finished had really been terrific. I was exhausted. On many a day I felt like throwing the book out the window.

I was in this anything-but-spiritual mood on the night when the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous were written. I was sore and tired clear through. I lay in bed at 182 Clinton Street with pencil in hand and with a tablet of scratch paper on my knee. I could not get my mind on the job, much less put my heart in it. But here was one of those things that had to be done. Slowly my mind came into some kind of focus.

. . .  

This particular evening, . . . it seemed to me that the program was still not definite enough. It might be a long time before readers of the book in distant places and lands could be personally contacted. Therefore our literature would have to be as clear and comprehensive as possible. Our steps would have to be more explicit. There must not be a single loophole through which the rationalizing alcoholic could wiggle out. Maybe our six chunks of truth should be broken up into smaller pieces. Thus we could better get the distant reader over the barrel, and at the same time we might be able to broaden and deepen the spiritual implications of our whole presentation. So far as I can remember this was all I had in mind when the writing began.

Finally I started to write. I set out to draft more than six steps; how many more I did not know. I relaxed and asked for guidance. With a speed that was astonishing, considering my jangling emotions, I completed the first draft. It took perhaps half an hour. The words kept right on coming. When I reached a stopping point, I numbered the new steps. They added up to twelve. Somehow this number seemed significant. Without any special rhyme or reason I connected them with the twelve apostles. Feeling greatly relieved now, I commenced to reread the draft. At this moment a couple of late callers arrived. One of them was my boon companion of those days, Howard A. With him was a newcomer, dry barely three months. I was greatly pleased with what I had written, and I read them the new version of the program, now the “Twelve Steps.”[22]

So here, in a talk Bill W. gave at A.A.’s St. Louis convention in 1955 (for which a transcript was provided in the A.A. General Service Conference-approved book Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age published in 1957), Bill used the word “guidance.” He said, “I relaxed and asked for guidance.” So does Bill W.’s own use of the word “guidance” in his talk in St. Louis in 1955 prove the claims made by Hunt, the Bobgan’s, and Lanagan?

So far, we have seen that neither the three autobiographical reports by Bill W. himself as to how he wrote the Twelve Steps--all of which predated the publishing of 'PASS IT ON' in 1984 by about 30 years, nor the biographical material in 'PASS IT ON,' state or clearly imply that Bill ". . . received the details of the 12 Steps through spirit dictation" (as Lanagan claimed using the words of T. A. McMahon). Consequently, the most Lanagan can come up with in an effort to prove his claim is to pose a question: “. . . [G]uidance from what?”[23]

The word “guidance” is used only once on pages 1-164 (i.e., in chapters 1-11) of the current, fourth edition of “the basic text for” the Society of Alcoholics Anonymous, the Big Book.[24] Here is that occurrence: “To sum up about sex: We earnestly pray for the right ideal, for guidance in each questionable situation, for sanity, and for the strength to do the right thing.”[25] So the Big Book speaks of the need to “earnestly pray . . . for guidance . . .” Again, no mention here of seeking or receiving information from an evil spirit.

If you would like to see what “guidance” really was about before early December 1938 when Bill W. wrote the Twelve Steps, I suggest you check out the following resources:

·         Dick B., “A.A.'s Meditation Roots: Article 13:  A Look at ‘Meditation’ in Early A.A.: http://www.dickb.com/articles/meditation_roots_dsb.shtml (for background relating to the word “guidance.”)

·         Dick B., The Oxford Group and Alcoholics Anonymous: http://www.dickb.com/TheOxfordGroup&AlcoholicsAnonymous.shtml;

·         Dick B., The Akron Genesis of Alcoholics Anonymous:  http://www.dickb.com/Akron.shtml;

·         Dick B., Good Morning!: Quiet Time, Morning Watch, Meditation, and Early A.A.    :  http://www.dickb.com/goodmorn.shtml.


Gloria Deo


[1] Dave Hunt, “God as You Conceive Him/Her/It”: http://mcaf.ee/0ak52c; accessed 9/13/2015. 
[2] “The official A.A. biography of Wilson” to which Hunt refers here is ‘PASS IT ON’: The Story of Bill Wilson and How the A.A. Message Reached the World (New York, N.Y.: Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Inc., 1984), as can be seen in his footnotes 17, and 22-24. However, he wrongly attributes the A.A. General Service Conference-approved book to Ernest Kurtz, as can be seen clearly in his footnote 17: “Kurtz, Pass It On; The Story of Bill Wilson and how the A.A. message reached the world (Alcoholics Anonymous World Service, Inc., 1984), 102.” His footnote 22 states: “Kurtz, 276-79,” even though the quote in the text of the article and the page numbers in the footnote refer to the A.A. book ‘PASS IT ON.” And footnotes 23 and 24, both say “Ibid. . . .” referring back to footnote 22 which listed Kurtz as the author of the A.A. book ‘PASS IT ON.’ (“Ibid.” is Latin. It is a shortened form of “ibidem” and means “in the same place.” It is a term “used to provide an endnote or footnote citation or reference for a source that was cited in the preceding endnote or footnote.” See the entry for “ibid.” in Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ibid.; accessed 9/13/2015.)
     Frequent sloppiness in citing sources is common with Hunt.  Another example: In footnote 28, Hunt mentions Dick B.’s title Anne Smith’s Spiritual Workbook—an early edition of what is today known as Anne Smith’s Journal, 1933-1939—but fails to put a comma after “Dick B.”; fails to underline or put in italics the book’s title; and fails to provide the place of publication for the book—all of which are standard requirements in providing publication data for a book, as can be seen, for example, in the Chicago Manual of Style.
[3] Hunt’s insertion in brackets of the words “the A.A. manual” is misleading. A look at pages 196-99, the section of ‘PASS IT ON’ from which Hunt’s quote is taken, make clear that ‘PASS IT ON’ is discussing specifically in that section, not the whole “A.A. manual,” but rather Bill’s writing of the actual Twelve Steps, which appear early in chapter five of Alcoholics Anonymous.
[4] The excerpt I have quoted here is found in a section of the article titled “Occult Guidance.” See [Martin and Deidre Bobgan], “AA: Christian or Occult Roots?” on the “PsychoHeresy Awareness Ministries” website belonging to Martin and Deidre Bobgan: http://mcaf.ee/gyp3ck; accessed 9/13/2015.
[5] John Lanagan, “Seances, Spirits, and 12 Steps”: http://mcaf.ee/i3cqjy; accessed 9/13/2015.  Lanagan’s footnote 12 reads: “PASS IT ON, Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Inc., pg. 275.” His footnote 13 reads: “PASS IT ON, Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Inc., pg. 198.” And his footnote 14 reads: “T.A. McMahon, The Berean Call Newsletter, March 1, 2002.”
[6] ‘PASS IT ON,’ 197-98.
[7] The Merriam-Webster online dictionary gives the following definition for the word biography: “the story of a real person's life written by someone other than that person.” http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/biography; accessed 9/13/2015.
[8] “William Griffith ‘Bill’ Wilson”: http://mcaf.ee/t6108p; accessed 9/13/2015.
[9] Bill W., “A Fragment of History: Origin of the Twelve Steps,” in the A.A. Grapevine, July 1953, 200-01.
[10] Bill W., “A Fragment of History,” 201.
[11] A Narrative Timeline of AA History, accumulated and ed. by Arthur S., Version 2014-03-10, page 30 of 134: http://hindsfoot.org/aatimeline.pdf: accessed 9/16/2015.
[12] In the current (2001) edition of Alcoholics Anonymous (affectionately known within A.A. as “the Big Book”), Step Two reads: “Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.” See: Alcoholics Anonymous, 4th ed. (New York City: Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Inc., 2001), 59.
[13] See Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age (New York: Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Inc., 1957, 1985), 166. On that page, Bill W. states: “All this time I had refused to budge on these steps. I would not change a word of the original draft, in which, you will remember, I had consistently used the word ‘God,’ and in one place the expression ‘on our knees’ was used.” ‘PASS IT ON,’ states: “The very first draft of the Twelve Steps, as Bill wrote them that night has been lost. This is an approximate reconstruction of the way he first set them down: . . . ‘2. Came to believe that God could restore us to sanity.’” ‘PASS IT ON,’ 198.
[14] In the current (2001) edition of Alcoholics Anonymous, Step Three reads: “Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.” See: Alcoholics Anonymous, 4th ed., 59.
[15] See Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age, 166. On that page, Bill W. states: “All this time I had refused to budge on these steps. I would not change a word of the original draft, in which, you will remember, I had consistently used the word ‘God,’ and in one place the expression ‘on our knees’ was used.” ‘PASS IT ON,’ states: “The very first draft of the Twelve Steps, as Bill wrote them that night, has been lost. This is an approximate reconstruction of the way he first set them down: . . . ‘3. Made a decision to turn our wills and our lives over to the care and direction of God.’” ‘PASS IT ON,’ 198.
[16] In the current (2001) edition of Alcoholics Anonymous, Step Eleven reads: “Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.” See: Alcoholics Anonymous, 4th ed., 59.
[17] See Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age, 166. On that page, Bill W. states: “All this time I had refused to budge on these steps. I would not change a word of the original draft, in which, you will remember, I had consistently used the word ‘God,’ and in one place the expression ‘on our knees’ was used.” ‘PASS IT ON,’ states: “The very first draft of the Twelve Steps, as Bill wrote them that night, has been lost. This is an approximate reconstruction of the way he first set them down: . . . ‘11. Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our contact with God, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.’” ‘PASS IT ON,’ 198.
By the time what Bill called variously “a prepublication copy of the text and some of the stories,” “mimeograph copies of the book,” “[e]ach mimeograph,” “the mimeograph issue ‘Alcoholics Anonymous,” and “mimeographs”—better known more recently as “the Multilith Edition” and “the Original Manuscript”—had been produced and circulated, the phrase “a Power greater than ourselves” had already replaced the word “God” in Step Two, and the modifying phrase “as we understood Him” had already been added following the word “God” in Step Three. That was not, however, the case with Step Eleven. In the so-called “Original Manuscript,” Step Eleven read: “Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our contact with God, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.” See: “Chapter Five: HOW IT WORKS” in The Original Manuscript of ALCOHOLICS ANONYMOUS: http://www.silkworth.net/originalmanuscript/chapter5.html; accessed 9/16/2015. The addition of the modifying phrase “as we understood Him” was not made until the very last moments before the publication of the first edition of Alcoholics Anonymous in April 1939, when what Bill W. called “the printer’s copy of the book” was produced from “one of the mimeographs, and in Henry’s [Bill W.’s business partner and first “successful” New York “sponsee,” Henry P.] clear handwriting all the corrections were transferred to it.” See Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age, 169. The older wording of Step Eleven—with no modifying phrase “as we understood Him” following the word “God”—may be seen in The Book That Started It All: The Original Working Manuscript of Alcoholics Anonymous (Center City, Minn.: Hazelden, 2010), ____.
[18] PASS IT ON,’ 198.
[19] Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age, 166.
[20] “Bill W. Speech, Texas State Convention, June 1954,” excerpted in the April 2014 issue of [the A.A.] Grapevine Magazine: http://www.aagrapevine.org/feature/35758; accessed 9/16/2015.
[21] Chapter Five is titled “How It Works.” It is the chapter in which the Twelve Steps are listed. They are found on pages 59-60 of the current (fourth, 2001) edition of Alcoholics Anonymous.
[22] I have retained enough of the context of Bill W.’s eyewitness report on how he wrote the Twelve Steps to allow the reader to understand properly what Bill was saying about the “mechanics” of how he wrote them. For the full text of what Bill said, found on pages 159-62 of the A.A. General Service Conference-approved book Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age, see: Bill [W.,] “How the Twelve Steps Were Born,” September 1962 (The AA Grapevine):  http://silkworth.net/pdfBillW/How-The-Twelve-Steps-Were-Born-Sep-1962.pdf; accessed 9/10/2015.
[23] Lanagan, “Seances, Spirits, and 12 Steps”: http://mcaf.ee/i3cqjy; accessed 9/13/2015.
[24] “. . . [T]his book [Alcoholics Anonymous] has become the basic text for our Society . . .” See Preface in Alcoholics Anonymous, 4th ed., xi.
[25] Alcoholics Anonymous, 4th ed., 70.

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