Chapter 4: The Nonsense “gods” of Recovery
Let’s Begin with Some Definitions
For God is not the author of confusion, but of peace, as in all churches of the saints (1 Corinthians 14:33).
The Pioneer AA’s in Akron Number One were looking for a way to end their drinking problem and the woes that seemed the inevitable result thereof. Their founders (Bill Wilson and Dr. Bob) turned to God for the answer — for the “way out.” But what God? The answer, of course, was the Creator — the Almighty God of whom they spoke, to whom they prayed, and about whom they studied daily in the Bible.
That should have been the end of it. And apparently it was at first. But confusion — neither of, nor from, God or the Bible — has seemed to reign supreme in the recovery “theology” from 1940 on. Long prior to his attaining sobriety in the Oxford Group and AA., Bill had been an atheist — calling himself a “conservative atheist.” (See Dick B., New Light on Alcoholism; God, Sam Shoemaker, and AA. 2d ed. [Kihei, HI: Paradise Research Publications, 1999]. p. 91.) His wife Lois belonged to a sect known as Swedenborgians — characterizing herself as a “non-Christian.” (See Lois Remembers [NY: Al-Anon Family Group Headquarters, 1979], pp. 2, 26.) This certainly meant that neither was steeped in biblical Christian thinking. Furthermore, before he had met Dr. Bob in Akron, Bill had come under the heavy influence of the Oxford Group, of Rev. Sam Shoemaker, and of the thinking of long-dead Professor William James. This meant that these influences had offered to the non-religious Bill Wilson a nebulous “Power” to add to his mix.
This new “Power” which the doubting Wilson was later to embrace and “empower” did not gain ascendency in his life during his Bible study in the home of Dr. Bob and Anne Smith in the summer of 1935. In fact, as Dr. Bob’s son “Smitty” was to write in the Foreword to one of my titles, “Before there was a Big Book — in the period of ‘flying blind,’ God’s Big Book was the reference used in our home. The summer of 1935, when Bill lived with us, Dr. Bob had read the Bible completely three times. And the references that seemed consistent with the program goals were the Sermon on the Mount, 1 Corinthians 13, and the Book of James. At Anne’s ‘Quiet Time’ — a daily period held with the alcoholics in our home, the Bible was used.” (Dick B., The Good Book and The Big Book: A.A’s Roots in the Bible, 2d ed. [Kihei, HI: Paradise Research Publications, 1997], p. ix.) Bill’s “Power” was not even of great importance when Bill penned the manuscript that, as frequently revised, became the First Edition of his Big Book in the Spring of 1939. “God” was mentioned dozens of times in the First Edition. The “Power” was listed as a “higher power” twice; and even Bill still called that “power” God: “Its [the Big Book’s] main object is to enable you to find a Power greater than yourself which will solve your problem. . . . And it means, of course, that we are going to talk about God. . . . even though it was impossible for any of us to fully define or comprehend that Power, which is God” (Alcoholics Anonymous, 4th ed., pp. 45-46).
Strange New “gods”
At this point in recovery program history, Bill’s “power” has acquired confused, distorted, conflicting, incredible meanings. It has even become a new “god” or “deity.” No less a knowledgeable AA. old-timer and, at times an official AA. historian, than Mel B. has made the statement: “AA members have always issued disclaimers when discussing God: Typical is, ‘Our program is spiritual, not religious.’ If pressed for what the program’s actual definition of spiritual is, however, it is doubtful that many AA. members could explain” (Mel B., New Wine: The Spiritual Roots of the Twelve Step Miracle [MN: Hazelden, 1991], pp. 4-5). While this statement completely ignores the Bible emphasis in early AA.’s “program” (as it was reported by Frank Amos to John D. Rockefeller, Jr. in 1938), it does illustrate Mel’s awareness of the confusion that was set in motion almost as soon as Wilson returned from Akron in the summer of 1935 and fell back into the arms of his Oxford Group friends in New York, the counsel of Rev. Sam Shoemaker at Calvary Church, and the bizarre “higher powers” mentioned in the writings of Professor William James. (See the discussion below of the James ideas.)
The difficulty is that the AA. and the recovery world of the 1940’s and thereafter were soon at work devising dozens of strange names for the new god and later developing new godless theologies to support the nonsense. While some of her assumptions, descriptions, context, and sources leave much to be desired, I think it helpful to quote the following from Dr. Cathy Burns’s title:
Again, it should be unmistakable that AA’s “Higher Power is definitely not the God of the Bible, but AA literature makes it even plainer that other gods are acceptable. One particular alcoholic couldn’t accept the idea of a “Higher Power.” This is his account of how his AA sponsor explained it to him: THEN HE ASKS ME IF I BELIEVE IN A POWER GREATER THAN MYSELF, WHETHER I CALL THAT POWER GOD, ALLAH, CONFUCIUS, PRIME CAUSE, DIVINE MIND, OR ANY OTHER NAME. I TOLD HIM THAT I believe in electricity and other forces of nature, but as for a God, if there is one, He has never done anything for me. . . .”Then all of your troubles are over,” says the man and leaves the room (Cathy Burns, Alcoholics Anonymous Unmasked, p. 39; emphasis added).
Far too many AA. critics just mix up their history, their dates, their sources, and their quotes. It is therefore unfair to judge early AA. by their statements. It is, however, quite fair to note that critics and researchers alike have an abundance of absurd names and quotes from today’s recovery writings to support their statements that the new “deity” includes just about any god or “not-god” or sacred something one might choose to select.
Strange New “Theologies”
What is far more surprising, however, is the new theology that “researchers” are now attributing to AA. itself. Please note the following from Research on Alcoholics Anonymous: Opportunities and Alternatives, edited by Barbara S. McCrady and William R. Miller (NJ: Publications Division of Rutgers Center of Alcohol Studies, 1993):
Flores (1988) argues that there are a number of common misconceptions regarding A.A Among the most common of these misconceptions are the beliefs that: . . AA. is a religious organization. The term “God” is either used or referred to in five of the 12 steps. However, God is defined as a “higher power” and ostensibly, can be extracted from a religious context and taken to be natural forces other than deity. Flores (1988) points out that it is up to AA members to come to their own personal understanding of the meaning and significance of this higher power (pp. 359-60).
Spirituality as a term is, however, used in a considerably broader sense than that discussed so far. Spirituality in this sense appears to be referring to people who are concerned with metaphysical issues as well as their own day-to-day lives. It need have no belief in God. . . . But what is this spirituality if it is entirely outside of a traditional religious focus, and does this spirituality relate to Alcoholics Anonymous’ “Higher Power”? Casual conversation suggests that spirituality might mean being thoughtful or engaging in meditation or just a general concern for metaphysical issues. . . . Spirituality can have a clearer definition than those noted above. Berenson (1990) suggests that ‘spirituality, as opposed to religion, connotes a direct, personal experience of the sacred unmediated by particular belief systems prescribed by dogma or by hierarchical structures of priests, ministers, rabbis, or gurus’ (p. 304).
AA. Pioneers seem to have studied, repeated, and believed the following verse from the Bible that appeared in almost every piece of religious literature they read or mentioned:
Jesus saith unto him, I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me (John 14:6).
See these few, out of many, examples of such literature they read: Samuel M. Shoemaker, Confident Faith (NY: Fleming H. Revell,1932), p. 46; Philip Marshall Brown, The Venture of Belief (NY: Fleming H. Revell, 1935), p. 49; Stephen Foot, Life Began Yesterday (NY: Harper & Brothers, 1935), p. 87; Olive M. Jones, Inspired Children (NY: Harper & Brothers, 1933), p. 50; Norma Smith Holm, The Runner ‘s Bible, p. 21; James Moore Hickson, Heal the Sick (London: Methuen & Co., 1925), p. 266; Oswald Chambers, Studies in the Sermon on the Mount (Great Britain: Oswald Chambers Publications, 1995), p.1 02; many issues of The Upper Room; and the many highly studied titles of Glenn Clark, E. Stanley Jones, and Harry Emerson Fosdick.
Our exploration in this chapter should therefore concern the question: How did “recovery” move from the “Way” to irreligious “spirituality” to absurd deities. And certainly the best answers will come from a look at the compromise names that became a part of AA.’s history.
Some “Higher Power” Homework: What Is This New “god”?
My Own Early Experiences
In grammar school, I said the Pledge of Allegiance to our flag. It talked of “one nation under God.” Then I got hold of some coins and bills. And they all said “In God we trust.” I joined the Boy Scouts, and I pledged that I would do my best to do my duty to God and my country. And, in the Army and when I was admitted to law practice, I must have sworn to uphold, protect, and defend the Constitution — knowing that one of our founding documents talked about our being “endowed by our Creator” with certain rights.
I never had any trouble knowing Who God was. And is! Actually, until I came to AA., I never really met anyone else who had that trouble. That’s not to say I didn’t know what an atheist is: He or she is someone who doesn’t believe in God. I also acquired some knowledge about what an agnostic is: He or she is someone who just plain doesn’t know whether or not there is a God. Finally, I was the attorney for several Humanist groups in the course of my legal work; and I learned they didn’t think there was a God at all. I also learned that, despite the Humanists’ non-belief, the courts have specifically ruled and held they are a “religion” (just as the courts have now frequently ruled that AA. itself is a “religion”).
When I came to Alcoholics Anonymous, I attended thousands of meetings and participated in hundreds of Big Book studies, Step Studies, Conferences, Conventions, and Groups. And I was sufficiently sick that I didn’t give much thought to the frequent mention of “higher power” in meetings where I was present. The “higher power” stuff was, for me, just a phantom ship passing a sick drunk in the night. True, in the Big Book’s 3rd edition, “higher power” was mentioned — but only twice — in its basic text (on page 43 and page 100). In both cases, the usage was clearly in the context of “God.” Bill said so on pages 45 and 46 as well as page 100. Besides, I was told, that when you get to the Third Step and are still talking about a lightbulb or a doorknob as your “higher power,” you will be baffled with a Third Step that says you are to turn your will and your life over to the care of God — a God it says you understood. In fact, that most of us very definitely understand to one degree or another. I certainly understood that this loving God is not a lightbulb or a doorknob.
Then I began to listen to the persistent talk in the fellowship about “higher power.” Then to do some reading in AA’s later publications about this “higher power.” Bill Wilson wrote in Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions that you could make the AA. “group” your higher power. My treatment center facilitators told me your higher power could be “good orderly direction.” Speakers sometimes said at meetings that “it” could be “group of drunks.” Therapists said, “Fake it till you make it” and “Act as if.” Fake what, I thought! “Act as if what,” I again thought! And the more I listened, the more absurd the higher powers became in the language of “recovery” — the higher powers were tables, bulldozers, radiators, goddesses, “somethings,” “any god you want,” “yourself as not-god,” the Big Dipper, Santa Claus, and — on Friday Nights, at our Larkspur Beginner’s Meeting – “it” was regularly called “Ralph.” Honest! It was! Sadly, today you can find all of these gods, not-gods, idols, and “somethings” in AA.’s own “Conference Approved” literature and in many “scholarly” writings about the recovery field today. You can find the weird names and descriptions specifically documented in many of my books, particularly The Oxford Group and Alcoholics Anonymous (http://www.dickb.com/Oxford.shtml) and The Good Book and The Big Book (http://www.dickb.com/goodbook.shtml).
But if your life depended upon help from such a “higher power,” wouldn’t you want to know what that “higher power” was! I did. So I’ve been searching for 11 years not only to find out where AA. came from, particularly in the Bible, but also how in the world someone threw Ralph into the mix. The longer I remained sober, the more ridiculous the Ralphs and the radiators seemed. Yet, in a telephone interview several years back, Bill Wilson’s own secretary told me on the telephone that a higher power could be a chair. Of course, she was a Buddhist; and perhaps, in her thinking, there might be a god in a chair. But such a god has no reputation for curing drunks. I sure know it isn’t the Creator or “God” — the God that Bill Wilson often called “Our Father” and Dr. Bob called my “Heavenly Father,” as did Jesus Christ, God’s only begotten Son.
Let’s Start with the Bible to Look for a “higher power”
Dr. Bob said many times that AA.’s basic ideas came from the Bible. You can find that in DR. BOB and the Good Oldtimers and in Dr. Bob’s last major address in Detroit in 1948. You can see it in his talks and in the pamphlets he commissioned in Akron. To this day, I’ve never found or heard anything that indicates Bill Wilson disputed Dr. Bob’s statement about the Bible’s being the source of AA.’s basic ideas. Nor could he. Because, even if AA. had been borrowed exclusively from the teachings of Reverend Sam Shoemaker or exclusively from the Oxford Group itself (and it wasn’t), neither of those sources propounded any idea about Almighty God’s being called some idol like Ralph, a radiator, or a table. Or “Gertrude” — another god I recently found in one particular scholar’s early, anonymous work.
Does the Bible Speak of a “higher power?” What does the Bible say a “higher power” is? My research in Young’s Analytical Concordance, in the Bible itself, and in several Bible dictionaries shows no reference to “God” as a “higher power.” There is a reference in Romans to “higher powers;” but the reference quite clearly is not to the Creator — saying, instead, there is no power but of God:
Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God. Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation.
The Good Book Commands: “Thou shalt have no other gods before me [i.e., Yahweh]”. There are plenty of references to the Creator, Yahweh, as the “high” or “highest” God, but God makes it clear that there are to be no other gods before Him — nowhere! Not in chairs. Not in light bulbs. Not in radiators. Not in yourself Not even in Alcoholics Anonymous:
Thou shalt have no other gods before me
Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them.
There is One with all power: The Creator, Yahweh, the Highest, the God of power.
• He Is High All Right
The Lord is great in Zion; and he is high above the people.
And blessed be the most high God, which hath delivered thine enemies into thy hand. . . .
The Lord on high is mightier than the noise of many waters, yea, than the mighty waves of the sea.
And they remembered that God was their rock, and the high God their redeemer.
• The Most High
But thou, Lord, art most high for evermore.
O thou king, the most high God gave Nebuchadnezzar thy father a kingdom, and majesty, and glory, and honour.
And cried with a loud voice, and said. What have I to do with thee, Jesus, thou Son of the most high God?
• In Truth, the Highest
But love ye your enemies, and do good, and lend, hoping for nothing again; and your reward shall be great, and ye shall be the children of the Highest: for he is kind unto the unthankful and to the evil. Be ye therefore merciful, as your Father also is merciful.
The Good Book Says of the Creator: For Thine Is the Power
They shall speak of the glory of thy kingdom and talk of thy power.
To make known to the sons of men his mighty acts, and the glorious majesty of his kingdom.
Great is our Lord, and of great power: his understanding is infinite.
Praise ye the Lord. Praise God in his sanctuary: praise him in the firmament of his power.
Praise him for his mighty acts: praise him according to his excellent greatness.
Matthew 6:10, 13:
Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil: For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever. Amen.
Ephesians 6:10, 11:
Finally, my brethren, be strong in the Lord, and in the power
of his might.
Put on the whole armour of God, that ye may be able to
stand against the wiles of the devil.
I Corinthians 2:4, 5:
And my speech and my preaching was not with enticing
words of man’s wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit
and of power;
That your faith should not stand in the wisdom of men, but
in the power of God.
And the Bible Has Much More: For a much more thorough and complete study, in the Bible itself, of God’s name, nature, will, power, commandments, and so on, see my titles: By the Power of God (http://www.dickb.com/powerofgod.shtml) and Why Early AA. Succeeded (http://www.dickb.com/aabiblestudy.shtml).
Bill Wilson, Dr. Bob Smith, and the Other Pioneers Spoke in the Beginning Only of the Creator
I’ve spent 11 years endeavoring to learn if AA. was based on the Bible. It was clear, when I began, that Dr. Bob said so. It was clear that Bill W. seems never to have disputed the statement. And the Frank Amos report to John D. Rockefeller, Jr., spoke only of the Bible in reporting on early AA. and its “Program.”
When you read the Big Book’s repeated references to “Creator” with a capital “C,” to “Maker” with a capital “M,” to “Father” with a capital “F,” and to all its other Bible descriptions and mention of Almighty God, you will have a hard time finding a light bulb, a radiator, or a group that’s called our living God. The idols, “somethings,” “not-gods,” and chairs came later. But compromise description of, and claims for, the status of a “god” are as old as the Bible itself. The Creator, God Almighty, Yahweh, doesn’t speak kindly of our having anything to do with other names, other gods, or any other phoney “powers.”
There is no need for any of us to think someone is trying to foist Christianity or the Bible or even God Himself on present-day AA. It can’t be done. Not the way things are now. But it violates no Traditions, no principles, and no Steps of AA. to let people in on our history and on the early AA. reliance on the Creator. For our Pioneers always confirmed the source of early AA.’s “miracle” — the Creator.
It really may cost AA. something in the sale of its reams of literature if people return to discussing and pinpointing the history of God in AA.. After all, you can read a Gideon Bible for free in most hotel rooms. Such discussion of God may and does bother some people who don’t believe in God or the Bible. It may and does cause some treatment centers or therapists to think people won’t check in if there is mention of Almighty God or of AA.’s religious roots. But it does no service to anyone to put a lid on God.
As I’ve said so often: AAs may be sick when they walk into the rooms of AA., but they are not stupid. Many AA. old-timers say to this very day: “If the word “God” scares you out of these rooms, a bottle of booze will scare you back. . . . if you live that long” (See as to one source of this expression: Dick B. That Amazing Grace: The Role of Clarence and Grace S. in Alcoholics Anonymous [Kihei, HI: Paradise Research Publications, 1996], p. 89).
Sure, people stop drinking without God. Certainly, people get sober without AA. In fact, people get sober in AA. while “relying” upon some phantom “higher power.” In so doing, all these people — probably without even knowing it — have directly or indirectly added something to AA. that’s not the original, genuine coin of the realm. For, as Bill Wilson said:
Belief in the power of God, plus enough willingness, honesty and humility to establish and maintain the new order of things, were the essential requirements (Alcoholics Anonymous, 4th ed., pp. 13-14).
Despite all we can say, many who are real alcoholics are not going to believe they are in that class. By every form of self-deception and experimentation, they will try to prove themselves exceptions to the rule, therefore nonalcoholic. If anyone who is showing inability to control his drinking can do the right-about-face and drink like a gentleman, our hats are off to him. Heaven knows, we have tried hard enough and long enough to drink like other people (Alcoholics Anonymous, 4th ed., p. 31).
We trust infinite God rather than our finite selves…. We never apologize to anyone for depending upon our Creator (Alcoholics Anonymous, 4th ed., p. 68).
If he [the candidate for AA.] thinks he can do the job in some other way, or prefers some other spiritual approach, encourage him to follow his own conscience. We have no monopoly on God; we merely have an approach that worked with us (Alcoholics Anonymous, 4th ed., p. 95).
Typically, Dr. Bob said it much more simply:
If you think you are an atheist, an agnostic, a skeptic, or have any other form of intellectual pride which keeps you from accepting what is in this book, I feel sorry for you. . . . Your Heavenly Father will never let you down! (Alcoholics Anonymous, 4th ed., p. 181).
Here’s Your “higher power” Homework
Origin Unknown. I don’t know where Bill Wilson got his “higher power.” As far as I can ascertain, he never told us. He definitely dabbled in spiritualism. He definitely dabbled in “New Thought.” He definitely dabbled in the writings of Williams James. There are even at least two Oxford Group writings that mention a “higher power” (though Oxford Group activist and expert Rev. T. Willard Hunter told me personally that he had never heard in the Oxford Group of any “higher power”). So, like today’s mysterious “Bin Laden,” our “higher power” — varying in location and scope and description from a chair to Santa Claus–seems to be hiding its roots. If you find those roots, please let us all know. I have a hunch you will find the “higher power” is really God in the minds of those who use the phrase. But they are scared to death to surrender and admit their need for God. Or they are scared to death of a church or their former church. Or they just plain don’t want to read the Bible, or our history, or perhaps not even the Big Book and its earlier manuscripts (Compare the facts in: Turning Point: A History of Early AA.’s Spiritual Roots and Successes. http://www.dickb.com/Turning.shtml).
Some Sources Which Were Probably Read by Some Early AAs — Sources Which You Can Research. Some Pioneer AAs did read the following titles which mention a “higher power” of one sort or another: (1) Ralph Waldo Trine, In Tune with the Infinite: Or Fullness of Peace, Power, and Plenty (NY: Thomas H. Crowell, 1897); (2) William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience (NY: First Vintage Press/The Library of America Edition, 1990); (3) Elwood Worcester, Samuel McComb, and Isador H. Coriat, Religion and Medicine: The Moral Control of Nervous Disorders (NY: Moffat, Yard & Company, 1908); (4) Victor C. Kitchen, I Was a Pagan (NY: Harper & Brothers, 1934); (5) A. J. Russell, For Sinners Only (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1932). And are there more? I’m inclined to think there may be because of the large numbers of new thought writers of that era, the immense research and writing done by William James, the interest in “mind-cure” ideas, and the popularity of Victor Kitchen with Bill Wilson and in the New York Oxford Group circles.
I personally have no particular interest in “new thought” literature. Nor am I a fan of the religious views, whatever they may be, of William James, the psychologist. Nor has much evidence come to my attention concerning even the possible successes of McComb, et al. Nor do I find anything in Kitchen’s writing that suggests he was simply referring to some “Higher Power,” with which he needed to establish a relationship, but which he came to recognize as God as a result of his Oxford Group experiences. Nor, however, have I seen much in any of the foregoing writings (other than Kitchen’s) that suggests a strong belief in the power of the Creator; or in the necessity for coming to Him through confessing Jesus as Lord and believing God raised Jesus from the dead (Romans 10:9). My particular interest, as is known by many, is in the Bible; the truth about God, His power, and His will that can be found in the Bible; the necessity for coming to Him through Jesus Christ (Romans 10:9); and the exceedingly abundant power and healing available to those of us who choose that route (see Ephesians 3:20). In fact, I have found that even Bill Wilson’s medical mentor, Dr. William Duncan Silkworth, had spoken positively about making the turn to Jesus Christ (whom Silkworth and Wilson both called the Great Physician) for the healing of alcoholism (see The Positive Power of Jesus Christ by Norman Vincent Peale).
This next part may prove helpful to you in tracking the origin and meaning of “higher power” and help you do more research on that subject if you care to. It’s sure not my area of expertise.
Some Additional “Higher Power” Homework: Where Did This New “god” Come from?
No Need for a Label
In the previous part, I hope we established that we (or at least I) don’t know what this new “god” is. We don’t know what a “higher power” is. AAs have called “it” a something, a not-god, an “any god,” a “group,” and Gertrude. You know all the other names — lightbulb, radiator, and so on. So it doesn’t seem necessary to put a label on this “higher power” phenomenon. “It” can be just about anything! We don’t necessarily need to put it in a box and call it “higher-powerism” either. Nor is “it” just an AA. higher-power-ism. You can find it in most 12 Step Groups, in self-help groups, in “anonymous” groups, and even in many Christian recovery groups. But you sure can’t find it in the Bible.
Whence Came “higher-power-ism?”
I’ll tell you at the outset that I don’t know. I do know it didn’t come from the Bible, and we’ve already covered that. Moreover, Bill Wilson said that no one “invented” AA. So — true or false — Bill’s statement indicates he wasn’t taking credit for “it” or for any other specific ideas in AA.’s spiritual program of recovery — even the ones that came from the Bible. Despite these truths, you find scholarly writers laying a laudatory trip on Alcoholics Anonymous and its very special “higher power.” For example, Walter Houston Clark, Professor of the Psychology of Religion, had these things to say:
. . . Preach faith till you have it and then, because you have it, you will preach faith.” When a neophyte applies to Alcoholics Anonymous and is told he must rely on a Power greater than himself for strength, he often objects that he believes in no Higher Power. The reply is that he must behave as if there were a Higher Power. This frequently results in what is in effect a true conversion in which, whether by slow process or swift, atheists and agnostics often arrive at a belief in God (Walter Houston Clark. The Psychology of Religion: An Introduction to Religious Experience and Behavior [New York: MacMillan, 1958], pp. 195-96).
Professor Clark demonstrates his lack of knowledge of AA. and helps compound the questionable and erroneous later language and theories that were added to AA.’s “spiritual” precepts. You’d think — from the foregoing remarks — that Professor Clark was describing some religion. First, he quoted the itinerant Methodist preacher, John Wesley, on preaching faith. Then Clark says a neophyte “applies” to AA. — which he doesn’t. And can’t. A neophyte (otherwise known as a drunk) just plain shows up unless some court or treatment center orders or takes him to a meeting. Then, says Clark, the newcomer “must rely on a Power greater than himself.” Must? The Big Book says that AA. spirituality means dependence upon our Creator! (Alcoholics Anonymous 4th ed., p. 68). With just such fallacious reasoning as that of Clark, the compromise process begins — similar, in a way, to the deception of Eve in the Garden of Eden. Add a word. Subtract a word. Change a word. And soon, no word. Clark must also be faulted for tendering an easily repudiated canard; he claims without qualification: The newcomer says “he believes in no Higher Power.” But I have never heard that language used, in the Big Book or in meetings. A newcomer occasionally says he is an atheist or that he doesn’t believe in God. However, I’ve yet to hear one even mention, let alone deny belief in some “higher power.” You have to come into AA.’s influence to get hit with a “higher power. And, regrettably, the newcomer is seldom turned away these days from his “higher power” if and when he “gets” one.
And what “higher power”? How did that forbidden fruit get planted in our AA. Garden? I’ve yet to speak to an un-indoctrinated newcomer who didn’t say that he believed in God! It’s how you pose the question that produces the result. Next, Clark introduces the William James “act as if “ language. This despite the fact that probably no newcomer but Bill Wilson, and probably Dr. Bob, ever read William James in early sobriety or even thereafter. Try reading it. It’s a bear! And Professor Clark then just plain ignores everything in the Bible from Romans 10:9 to John 3:1-16. Clark asserts that this higher-power-ism “process” frequently results in a “true” conversion. No Bible verses. No documentation. No apparent understanding of, or definition of, “conversion.” No mention of Jesus. And no support in the Big Book. In fact, the most you might say today is that most atheists and agnostics would — if they actually did what Clark says they do — wind up with a belief in a radiator. And retain that bizarre idea. In fact, preach it. I hear that idea on the rare occasions when an e-mail from an atheist or agnostic really does tell me about god. I have no particular mission to single out or attack Dr. Clark’s position. He’s actually surrounded by a hundred modern writings that tell you how to find anything but God in AA. through a mystical process that doesn’t involve Jesus Christ or the Bible or the receipt of the gift of the Holy Spirit. This new “god” of the revisionist writers just “growed”! It keeps growing too — in diversity and seeming importance. If you would like to have the names and writings of people who have promoted the new, humanist/revisionist “god” of recovery, just read the bibliographies in those of my books which list “AA. Pro and Con;” i.e., http://www.dickb.com/titles.Shtml.
Now for Your Additional Homework
As I’ve said, I don’t know where “higher power” came from. I do know it didn’t come from God or from the Good Book. Here, however, are some of the sources a few AAs were exposed to and which perhaps triggered the new “ism”:
Ralph Waldo Trine:
Said the great Hindu sage, Manu, He who in his own soul perceives the Supreme Soul in all beings, and acquires equanimity toward them all, attains the highest bliss. It was Athanasius who said, Even we may become Gods walking about in the flesh. The same great truth we are considering is the one that runs through the life and teachings of Gautama, he who became the Buddha. People are in bondage, said he, because they have not yet removed the idea of I. To do away with all sense of separateness, and to recognize the oneness of the self with the Infinite, is the spirit that breathes through all his teachings. Running through the lives of all the mediaeval mystics was this same great truth. Then, coming near our own time, we find the highly illumined seer, Emanuel Swedenborg. . . . All through the world’s history we find that the men and women who have entered into the realm of true wisdom and power, and hence into the realm of true peace and joy, have lived in harmony with this Higher Power (Ralph Waldo Trine, In Tune with the Infinite: Or Fullness of Peace Power and Plenty. 1933 ed. [Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1897], pp. 198-99; bold face added).
Trine talks of the Hindu, the teachings of Buddha, the mystics, and the spiritualist Emanuel Swedenborg (of whom Lois Wilson was a follower). But nary a mention of the Bible or of Yahweh, the Creator in the foregoing “Higher Power” dissertation. The writings of Trine and other “New Thought” authors were studied by some early AAs, including Dr. Bob. In fact, the Emmet Fox books are still frequently mentioned in AA.
If there be higher powers able to impress us, they may get access to us only through the subliminal door (William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience [New York: First Vintage Books/The Library of America Edition, 1990], p.224; bold face added).
The solution is a sense that we are saved from the wrongness by making proper connection with the higher powers (James, The Varieties of Religious Experience, p. 442; bold face added).
The whole array of Christian saints and heresiarchs, including the greatest, the Bernards, the Loyolas, the Luthers, the Foxes, the Wesleys, had their visions, voices, rapt conditions, guiding impressions, and ‘openings.’. . . The subjects here actually feel themselves played upon by powers beyond their will. The evidence is dynamic: the God or spirit moves the very organs of their body. The great field for this sense of being the instrument of a higher power is of course ‘inspiration’ (James, The Varieties of Religious Experience, p. 428-29; bold face added).
The difficulty with Professor William James is that he lumps his “higher powers” and “higher power” into one bin — a receptacle which includes discussions of inspiration, being an instrument, receiving openings, and access by subliminal doors. And, in discussing experiences with these phenomena, James further pumps hypnotism, “suggestion,” “diabolical possession,” “hystero-demonopathy,” “prophecy,” and “levitation” into his wide-ranging analysis. It is safe to say, I believe, that William James was not confining his discussion of “higher power” to Yahweh, the Creator.
The result of the William James influence on Sam Shoemaker and on Bill Wilson, for me, seems to require my having to listen-one hundred years later — to AAs both in California and in Hawaii talking about a “higher power,” “spiritualism,” “spirituality,” the Eleventh Step, and “sexual fantasies” all in one breath. And they most assuredly do, which is precisely what I believe can happen when you “open” your mind to the intrusion of compromise and spiritual wickedness into a Bible-based recovery program. And, to quote Lois Wilson, apparently in pursuit of a “universal spiritual program” (Lois Remembers: Memoirs of the co-founder of Al-Anon and wife of the co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous [NY: Al-Anon Family Group Headquarters, 1979], p. 11 3).Would that the Wilsons — either or both — had heeded Bill’s favorite Book of James in the Bible. For James 4:7 states: “Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.” I believe the early influences of Professor James on AA. were definitely corrupting. They did not seem to produce any resistance whatever to their devilish nature and impact. Again, quoting the Book of James: “This wisdom descendeth not from above, but is earthly, sensual, devilish” (James 3:16). Even today, one website moderator who specifically excludes all such writing, including mine, from her AA. “history” game preserve calls the making of the foregoing remarks “preaching.” I call them quoting! AAs read the Book of James far more than they read William James. They so favored the Book of James that they even wanted to call their new Fellowship The James Club — and they weren’t referring to the good professor.
The more AAs have listened to the revisionists in the last fifty years, the farther the program has moved from the Bible to its present “any god,” “not-god,” and “something” idol worship. One of the many new gods appearing in revisionist literature is that the “higher power is simply that which gets you sober. Disulfiram (Antabuse)?Naltrexone (ReVia)? Acupuncture? Hypnosis? Therapy? Forced attendance? Meetings? Service? A “group” of drunks? A lightbulb? (And see Clarence Snyder. My Higher Power the Lightbulb [Florida: Steve Foreman, 1982]). One new writer on the scene says this:
Belief in something transcendental — a “higher power,” outside of the individual — is part of the program, and prayer and meditation are seen as the principal means of conscious contact with this “higher power.” The idea is not so much to pray to God for help in finding a way out of an alcohol problem; it has more to do with humility – “cleaning house” so that the “grace of God can enter us and expel the obsession.” . . . . “AAs Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions stresses that AA does not demand belief in anything” (Anne M. Fletcher. Sober for Good [Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2001], pp. 240-41).
My, oh my! Whatever happened to Dr. Bob’s assurance that “Your Heavenly Father will never let you down!”
Elwood Worcester, Samuel McComb, and Isador H. Coriat
Now among the things which seem to tell against faith in the infinite goodness of the Power which this universe discloses are the facts of pain and disease. . . . But if the order of nature is the expression of the Divine Will it follows that God wills health, that He means his creatures to be healthy, and that He is opposed to pain, disease, abnormality of every kind, just as He is opposed to sin and vice (Elwood Worcester, Samuel McComb, and Isador H. Coriat, Religion and Medicine: The Moral Control of Nervous Disorders [New York: Moffat, Yard & Company, 1908], p. 292).
However man first became aware of a Spirit behind or within this universe, he has been aware of it, and he has felt that in this Infinite Spirit he lives and that on this Spirit his life and salvation depend. Not only has man been conscious of his dependence on a higher Power, but also he has sought to bring himself more and more into harmonious relations with this Power, and his desire goes forth in prayer. In a sense prayer is man’s language with God (Worcester, etc., Religion and Medicine, p. 304; bold face added).
A diligent, researching, AA, named Cliff M., called the Religion and Medicine citation to my attention, for which I thank him. The three Religion and Medicine authors rejected Christian Science and other New Thought ideas and quoted much from the Bible to support the idea that God is and has the “Power” to heal man and keep him healthy. For them and probably for the Emmanuel Movement of which they wrote, God was the “higher” “Power” upon which they sought to rely for treatment. And that is the concept that Bill Wilson spelled out on pages 43, 45, and 46 of the Fourth Edition and earlier editions of the Big Book when Bill spoke of a “Higher Power,” said he was going to talk about “God,” and then defined the “Power” as “God.” Quite a difference from his writing in Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions where readers were invited to consider the option that this “higher power” could be the “group.” That particular nonsense sent me spinning for months in an AA. Step Meeting until my mind really began to heal and clear. Yet it has become doctrinal these days in many a meeting room.
Victor C. Kitchen
The re-direction of old desires and substitution for old stimuli has extended not only throughout my sensual life, but into my social and intellectual life as well. It enters into all of my thinking and into all of my dealings with other people. When, for instance, I only thought about God — when He existed only in my mind as a belief — I could reach Him only as an intellectual conclusion. I concluded that there must be some Higher Power to account for all the things taking place in space much as scientists concluded that there must be an atom to account for all the things taking place in physics (Victor C. Kitchen, I Was a Pagan [New York: Harper & Brothers, 1934], p. 85; bold face added).
Victor Kitchen was a good friend of Bill Wilson’s. Kitchen was a member of the same Oxford Group businessman’s team of which Bill was a member around 1935-1936. Kitchen wrote articles for Rev. Sam Shoemaker’s Calvary Evangel. He was a member of the Oxford Group team that brought the Oxford Group to the famous Firestone events of the 1933 period-events that led to the recovery of Dr. Bob in Akron. Kitchen’s I Was a Pagan was a very popular book about the time Bill Wilson was getting sober. It uses many phrases similar to those of Wilson. (See Dick B., The Oxford Group and Alcoholics Anonymous [http://www.dickb.comlOxford.shtml]).
If you want to know whether Kitchen thought his “Higher Power” was Almighty God and that you came to him through His Son Jesus Christ, just read I Was a Pagan. In two words. Kitchen did. He tells how he stopped pursuing false gods (as he called them) and came to believe in the one, true living God as God is described in the Bible.
Canon L. W. Grenstead. The most popular title written by A. J. Russell was For Sinners Only: The Book of the Oxford Groups (New York: Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1932). My good friend and Oxford Group authority Reverend T. Willard Hunter told me some years back that he had never heard “Higher Power” used in the Oxford Groups. However, we’ve seen above that Victor Kitchen used it, albeit in the context of Almighty God. And I’ve found that, if you keep looking long enough, the influence of compromise language and universalism in the Oxford Group, as well as the ideas of William James, seem to have pushed “Higher Power” into the Oxford Group niche from time to time. Thus, Russell has a chapter of his title devoted to an interview with Canon L. W. Grenstead, “one of the foremost scholars and psychologists in the Church of England, Oriel Professor of the Philosophy of the Christian Religion, the Bampton Lecturer of 1930, a member of the Archbishop’s Committee on Doctrine and on Spiritual Healing, and Canon of Liverpool” (p.236). Russell quotes Canon Grenstead as follows:
The Group [Oxford Group] change men. They know that if you try to solve a conflict by effort from within, you never solve it. But if you try to solve it by a higher Power from without you always solve it, though the solution may not necessarily be what you or others expect (pp. 239-40).
The next few pages include the Canon’s remarks on “Guidance.. . the work of the Holy Spirit in human life” and “willingness to do the Will of God . . . the measure of a man’s true understanding of His will” (pp. 241-42); and such remarks leave little doubt in my mind that Grenstead was consistently speaking of the Creator as the “higher Power.”
Norman Vincent Peale. During my hour-long interview and visit in Pawling, New York, with Dr. Norman Vincent Peale. that famous preacher and religious leader stated to me that he had never met anyone who didn’t think that God was the “Higher Power” to which Bill Wilson referred. Peale was a long-time friend of Wilson’s and a long-time supporter of AA. Later, I found Peale had written the following in his best-selling book:
For many years I have been interested in the problem of the alcoholic and in the organization known as Alcoholics Anonymous. One of their basic principles is that before a person can be helped he must recognize that he is an alcoholic and that of himself he can do nothing; that he has no power within himself; that he is defeated. When he accepts this point of view he is in a position to receive help from other alcoholics and from the Higher Power — God (Norman Vincent Peale, The Power of Positive Thinking [New York: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1952], p.230; bold face added).
In the same book, Peale related the story of a man who had said he had no interest in religion, who was fighting a losing battle over alcoholism, and was persuaded to attend an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. The alcoholic said that a rebirth had taken place. He went to church. Peale told of his friendship with the man and of the man’s telling him (Peale) this:
Just where my new life began is a matter that is difficult to determine. Whether it was when I met Carl in the bar [who had suggested AA.], or wrestling past the drinking places [asking God to help him get past the places], or at the Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, or at the church, I do not know. But I, who had been a hopeless alcoholic for twenty-five years, suddenly became a sober man. I could never have done this alone, for I had tried it a thousand times and failed. But I drew upon a Higher Power and the Higher Power, which is God, did it (Peale, The Power of Positive Thinking, p. 233; bold face added).
The date Carl’s new life began was April 24,1947. To paraphrase the Archie Bunker theme song: Those were the days! Dr. Bob was still alive. The first edition of the Big Book — published in 1939 — was still the basic text. Wilson had not yet written his own treatises (Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age and Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions). The “Higher Power” of those days was God! In the words of a well-known comedian, “Let’s have a little respect, please!” What a boon it would to the dismal recovery scene of today if all the government agencies, grant-subsidized research projects, and other scholars, historians, revisionists, therapists, and treatment people would take a look at the real AA. of yesteryear, as seen by those who were there: Fosdick, Peale, Shoemaker, Buchman, Lupton, Russell, Hazard, Cornell, and even Bill’s beloved, but drunken Ebby (Bill’s sponsor). They all talked about God! Just God! Only God!
And that completes your homework assignment which has been covered in two foregoing two parts that ask “who is this new god” and “whence came this new god.” — the One that has become a lightbulb, just any old idol, a “something,” and even nothing at all. The One which our Big Book nonetheless says is our Creator and has all power!
What Is “a Power greater than ourselves”? Another New “god” in AA.? Or the Creator?
An Early AA. Experience I’d Like to Share
Let me introduce you to Rich. He’s a young newcomer I met at my Wednesday night Home Meeting more than ten years ago. A friend of mine named John came up to me, pointed to Rich (who was sitting alone), and asked me to talk to him. I asked why. John replied: Because he came out of the same treatment center I did. He’s fresh out. And I know you like to work with newcomers. So approach Rich I did. He was about twenty-one years old, had a job, had just gotten out of treatment, and was following their instructions to “go to a meeting.’’
After the meeting, I asked Rich to come to my apartment where we could talk more about AA. He did; and, after some general questions and comments, I asked him if he believed in God.
Rich’s immediate comment was: “They told me it could be a tree.” And I’d heard that one before.
I asked Rich to step over to the big window in my apartment. The window looked out on a beautiful forest of Redwoods, Oaks, Bays, and other indigenous trees. I said: Rich. Look out there. What do you see? He replied: Trees. I asked: Do you think any one or all of those trees created the heavens and the earth? He said: I get your point. And that was the last I heard of trees from Rich. In fact, he’s been sober for many years now. He’s over 30, married, has a great job, and has a youngster on the way. I’m hoping he will name the child “Richard.” The problem is that, if he does, it could be named after Rich or myself. Either way, I’ll probably claim the credit.
Rich has gone to thousands of meetings, just as I have. He’s been a speaker at, and secretary of, many AA. meetings. He’s been to AA. Conferences, to Big Book Seminars, and to lots of fun events like AA. dances, camp-outs, and visits to comedy shows. I was his AA. sponsor for several years and took him through the Twelve Steps. In turn, he’s sponsored many men in their recovery and taken them through the Twelve Steps. He took Bible classes, became a born again Christian, and attended our Bible fellowship. His aunt is a Roman Catholic Nun. His sister is married to a Jew. I’ve never heard him criticize either religious denomination. I guess he has had good exposure to several now because his wife is also a Christian. But I’ve never heard him talk about a tree.
In fact, a few years ago, Rich was coming to Hawaii to get married at a beautiful site on the North Shore of Oahu. He phoned and asked me to be his Best Man. We went to the wedding site, which was surrounded by flowers, rocks, a creek, a beautiful waterfall. And trees. But I never heard either Rich or the officiating minister say a word about a tree-even during the prayers. And, since I keep in touch with him, I can say that I’ve never heard Rich talk about trees as God since that long ago day in my apartment. But when I ask him: Who loves you? He still answers: God does, and you do, Dick. And we do.
A Brief Look at What the Wilson “Power” Was in Early AA.
Prior to publication of the First Edition of the Big Book in 1939, Bill Wilson prepared a number of draft manuscripts. In what purports to be the very first draft of the Second Step, here’s an alleged statement of what Bill then wrote:
Dr. Bob died. Wilson decided to write his own essays and his own history. And these were edited with a fine tooth comb by two Jesuit priests, Father John C. Ford and Father Ed Dowling. Bill inserted his new idea: “You can, if you wish, make AA. itself your ‘higher power”’ (Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions [New York: Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, p. 27]).
Then, in his version of AA. history, Bill added his own, expanded version of the change he had wrought in substituting “Power” for “God” in the Second Step:
In Step Two we decided to describe God as a Power greater than ourselves. . . . Such were the final concessions to those of little or no faith; this was the great contribution of our atheists and agnostics. They had widened the gateway so that all who suffer might pass through, regardless of their belief or lack of belief God was certainly there in our Steps, but He was now expressed in terms that anybody — anybody at all — could accept and try” (Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age [New York: Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, 1957]. p. 167; italics in the original).
There may be lots more history about what, and why Bill did what he did, with his new “group-Power” substitution for God. But the foregoing will suffice in light of our two previous sections on “higher power” and our next section to come, discussing “God as we understood Him.” The simple fact is, that under pressure from a couple of atheists — perhaps only one supposed atheist (Hank Parkhurst) — Bill had boldly reversed the original AA. idea of a conversion, with restoration to sanity, and a cure by God Almighty.
For illustrations of the original Pioneer attitude, see how it is still expressed in Alcoholics Anonymous, 4th ed:
God had restored his sanity (p. 57).
Your Heavenly Father will never let you down! (p. 181).
The Nonsense “gods” of Recovery 105
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 (p. 191).
Had Bill Wilson evicted the Creator from the rooms of Alcoholics Anonymous subsequent to 1939? From my standpoint, of course, that was and is impossible. Still, was AA. no longer a place for restoration to sanity by God? For a cure of alcoholism by the Lord? Had the AA. rooms been opened to “somethings,” “not gods,” “any gods,” a “group power,” or a “somebody else” as restorative, healing forces?
Not if you could receive or had received the restoration, healing, and deliverance that Dr. Bob said that he did. That Bill Wilson said he did. That the pioneers did. That I did. For — just like those Pioneers — I had relied upon the Creator, and here I am today. He didn’t let me down. But what of this “Power greater than ourselves” that has turned so many 12 Step people toward light bulbs, chairs, groups, radiators, and Ralph. Quite frankly, I don’t know. Bill Wilson is dead, and he can’t tell us. Yet many of his successors at the helm of AA.’s publishing arm appear to think you can be healed by a lightbulb or a radiator or the other idols. Thankfully, however, there is still plenty of room for some homework — research that will enable a full, frank, and accurate comparison of these revisionist interpretations of the “Power greater than ourselves” phrase with some of the very clear original Big Book language about “that Power, which is God.” (See, for example, Alcoholics Anonymous, 4the ed., p. 46.) Then you — who are seeking recovery inside or outside of Twelve Step Fellowships — can choose the radiator or the living God for your power in recovery. And do so with knowledge that the radiator didn’t come from God or the Bible or early AA.
Revisionist Ideas about “Power-greater-than-ourselves-ism”
The Unabridged Version of Early AAs. AA. worked! Forty pioneers — real alcoholics all — had recovered from their medically incurable malady of alcoholism. They had used no Steps because there were no Steps. Their parent group — the Oxford Group — had helped alcoholics with no steps, no “six” steps, and certainly no Twelve Steps. In the words of AA.’s own literature:
They [the forty pioneers] had the Bible, and they had the precepts of the Oxford Group (DR. BOB and the Good Oldtimers [New York: Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, 1980], p. 96).[Dr. Bob said:] We already had the basic ideas, though not in terse and tangible form. We got them . . . as a result of our study of the Good Book (DR. BOB, p. 97).
Dr. Bob, noting that there were no Twelve Steps at the time. said they were convinced that the answer to their problems was in the Good Book. “To some of us older ones, the parts we found absolutely essential were the Sermon on the Mount [Matthew 5-7], the 13th chapter of First Corinthians, and the Book of James,” he said (DR. BOB, p. 96).
the Book of James was a favorite with early A.A.’s [said Bill Wilson] — so much so that “The James Club” was favored by some as a name for the fellowship (DR. BOB, p. 71).[As to the Oxford Group influence:] Emphasis was placed on prayer and on seeking guidance from God in all matters. The movement also relied on study of the Scriptures and developed some of its own literature as well. At the core of the program were the “four absolutes”: absolute honesty, absolute unselfishness, absolute purity, and absolute love (DR. BOB, p. 54).
We had much prayer together in those days and began quietly to read Scripture and discuss a practical approach to its application in our lives (DR. BOB, p. 111).
In November of 1937, Bill Wilson was in Akron. “Bill’s writings record the day he sat in the living room with Doc, counting recoveries. ‘A hard core of very grim, last-gasp cases had by then been sober a couple of years,’ he said. ‘All told, we figured that upwards of 40 alcoholics were staying bone dry”’ (DR. BOB, p. 123; see also Lois Remembers, pp. 107-08).
Meeting at T. Henry Williams’s home in Akron, the alcoholics had a “long, hard-fought session. But together Bill and Bob persuaded a bare majority of 18 AA.’s gathered at T. Henry’s…” to accept Bill’s package and allow Bill to write a book of experiences that would carry the message of recovery to other cities and other countries (DR. BOB, pp. 123-24).
Investigating the Akron “Program in some depth, Frank Amos — later an AA. trustee — reported to John D. Rockefeller, Jr., on the program’s details (DR. BOB, p. 131-36).
With such a backdrop of recoveries and a developed “Program” that had worked for forty tough. “medically incurable” cases, Bill began writing his Big Book. He was fashioning a “how it worked” program from the Akron success with the Bible and the precepts of the Oxford Group. His suggested “path” certainly was not germinated by or supported by his own failures on the New York scene. (See Dick B., Turning Point: A History of Early AA’s Roots and Successes, pp. 109-16; Lois Remembers, pp. 95, 124.) There was not one warped or distorted word — in Wilson’s earliest drafts — concerning Almighty God and a “higher power,” a “power greater than ourselves,” or “God as we understood Him.” Not when Bill first started, that is. There was God! Creator. Maker. Spirit. Father. Yahweh — Who had been the subject of Bill’s three months of Bible study with the Smiths at their home in Akron in the summer of 1935. Then things began to change — even as the drafts changed and were given new orientations by Bill. And Yahweh — Whose name was holy and not to be profaned — began to get new names and attributes affixed to Him by recovery theorists and revisionists.
Then Everybody Took a Crack at It. Now, over sixty-five years later, here is what others have said and fashioned about what Bill meant to say about this program that worked and the Creator upon whom its adherents had placed their reliance.
Terence T. Gorski[Step Two.] There is something more powerful than I that can help me to stop drinking. I can’t, but somebody else can (Terrence T. Gorski, Understanding The Twelve Steps: A Guide for Counselors, Therapists, and Recovering People [Missouri: Herald House/Independence Press, 1989], p. 75; bold face added).
In Step Two we develop a sense of faith that there is someone or something bigger and more powerful than we are. There is someone or something out there that knows more about addiction and about recovery than I do. There is someone out there that has the answer, someone who can tell me what to do to recover from my alcoholism. A “power greater” implies that this “something” is greater than we are. There are some people who claim that a Higher Power can be anything, even a Coke bottle. I personally have trouble with that (Gorski, Understanding, p. 95; bold face added).
Marianne W. Gilliam
AA. correctly anticipated the problems they would encounter in placing reliance upon a Higher Power and so decreed that a Higher Power could be anything we interpret it to be, even a tree. However, the focus was still on something outside ourselves. But I was starting to discover that in order to find our own inner power we needed to find that personal aspect of God WITHIN us. I believe we have God’s energy manifesting in us every day of our lives (Marianne W. Gilliam, How Alcoholics Anonymous Failed Me: My Personal Journey to Sobriety Through Self-Empowerment [New York: William Morrow, 19981, p. 45; bold face added).
• Saul Selby
AA’S STEP TWO: CHRISTIAN ADAPTATION: To experience Jesus as personal and available (Saul Selby, Twelve Step Christianity: The Christian Roots and Application of the Twelve Steps [MN: Hazelden Foundation, 2001], p. 25).
• Morris E. Chafetz and Harold W. Demone, Jr.
If the alcoholic striving for sobriety can turn his will over to AA (“a new-found Providence”), he will begin moving in an appropriate direction. Although AA is mindful that dependence can be dangerous in therapeutic relations, it is their experience that dependence on an AA group or on a higher “Power” has not produced any disastrous results (Morris E. Chafetz and Harold W. Demone, Jr. ,Alcoholism & Society [NY: Oxford University Press, 1962], p. 150; bold face added).
• Martin and Deidre Bobgan
The “Power greater than ourselves” can be anybody or anything that seems greater than the person who takes Step Two. It can be a familiar spirit., such as Carl Jung’s Philemon. It could be any deity of Hindu-ism, Buddhism, Greek mythology, or New Age channeled entities. It could be one’s own so-called higher self. It could even be the devil himself. The extreme naivete of Christians comes through when they confidently assert that their higher Power is Jesus Christ. Since when did Jesus align Himself with false gods? Since when has He been willing to join the Pantheon or the array of Hindu deities. Jesus is not an option of one among many. He is the Only Son, the Only Savior, and the Only Way (Martin and Deidre Bobgan, 12 Steps To Destruction: Codependency Recovery Heresies [California: East Gate Publishers, 1991], p. 115; bold face added).
• Philip Kavanaugh
Spirituality in its simplest form is anything non-material. . . To succeed in this healing journey, we don’t have to believe in God (meaning someone who pulls our strings). Recovery asks for a willingness to acknowledge that some power other than ourselves (the one who messed us up), whether that power is–Jesus Christ, Jehovah, Buddha, Nature, Mighty Mouse, or a nameless personal belief that there is a higher power that guides us (Philip Kavanaugh, M.D., Magnificent Addiction [Santa Rosa, CA: Aslan Publishing, 1992], p. 132; bold faced added).
Step Three. Finally we look beyond ourselves, to a power greater than ourselves, to whom we can surrender control. Someone who is totally trustworthy, totally dependable, totally loving, totally powerful, someone named with words such as “God,” “Higher Power,” “Allah,” “Creative Life Source,” or others. It does not matter whether we locate this power or presence in ourselves or in the heavens, whether we use the name of Nature, Jehovah, Christ, Mohammed, or Buddha, and whether we affiliate with a religious group or have only our own relationship with this Energy (Kavanaugh, Magnificent Addiction, p. 201).
• Katherine Ketcham, et al.
AA embodies a “spirituality of imperfection,” which encourages alcoholics to look at themselves as they truly are and in that honest assessment discover not only humility but gratitude, tolerance, and forgiveness. Choose your own conception of God, and then let go of the demand for ultimate control: That philosophy forms the beating heart of AA. . . . As long as you accept the fact that you are not God — then you are free to think of God in any way that you please (Ketcham, et al., Beyond the Influence: Understanding and Defeating Alcoholism [New York: Bantam Books, 2000], p. 204).
The Nonsense “gods” of Recovery 111
• Ken Ragge
The reading of the sacred text [AA.’s Big Book] is also a part of every meeting. The Oxford Group, being “more spiritual than religious,” but still (in Christian countries) acknowledging its Christian roots, used the Bible for readings. Alcoholics Anonymous, being “spiritual, not religious,” doesn’t use the Bible at all; rather it uses another sacred text, the inspired Word of God as expressed through Bill Wilson, the Big Book. . . Unlike the Oxford Group, which claimed salvation and redemption by Jesus through the Oxford Group, AA proclaims “recovery” by one s “Higher Power” through the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous (Ken Ragge, The Real AA: Behind the Myth of 12-Step Recovery [AZ: Sharp Press, 1998], pp. 82-83).
Step Two, to the uninitiated, appears to be mostly about finding faith in God. While there may be some truth in this, working this Step is more a matter of defining God in AA’s image (Ragge, The Real AA, p. 117; bold face added).
• William L. Playfair, M.D.
They [the Twelve Steps] do not derive exclusively or even primarily from truths or concepts found in either the Old or New Testament. One cannot find anything even remotely similar to the Twelve Steps in the writings of ancient or modern Christian theologians. The secular nature of the Twelve Steps is, in fact, freely admitted by AA. groups. Al-Anon, for instance, plainly asserts: The Twelve Steps . . . although spiritually oriented, are not based on a specific religious discipline. They embrace not only the philosophies of the Judeo-Christian faiths and the many religions of the East, but nonreligious, ethical and moral thought as well. . . . As a matter of fact, AA’s Twelve Steps are more akin to the Bahai faith than to Biblical Christianity (William L. Playfair, The Useful Lie [Illinois: Crossway Books, 1991], p. 87).
This any power of AA and the recovery industry is really just that — any power, imagined or real. Continuing its message to the clergy, AA concedes that: Some members of the clergy may be shocked to learn that an agnostic or an atheist may join the Fellowship, or to hear an AA [member] say: “I can’t accept that ‘God concept’; I put my faith in the AA group; that’s my higher power, and it keeps me sober.” The idea of the AA group as the Higher Power or god of an AA member should not be shrugged off as hypothetical or even all that exceptional. Recovery industry literature is replete with testimonials of this kind (Playfair, The Useful Lie, p.91; bold face added).
• Jan R. Wilson and Judith A. Wilson
There are many different ideas of a Higher Power. The chapter on Step Two in Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions describes several types of experiences with God before getting into a recovery program. Some are what one might call a traditional idea of God and some are very nontraditional. All that seems to be required is that the Higher Power be someone or something that you can relate to that is more powerful than your addiction. . . . Some people have such negative reactions to the traditional ideas that for a while they have to think of “GOD” as Good Orderly Direction, from wherever it comes. Some even say their Higher Power was just a Group Of Drunks (Jan R. Wilson and Judith A. Wilson. Addictionary: A Primer of Recovery Terms and Concepts from Abstinence to Withdrawal [New York: A Fireside/Parkside Recovery Book, 1992], pp. 181-82; bold face added).
• Ernest Kurtz, Ph.D. and Katherine Ketcham
The use of the phrase Higher Power — his, hers, yours, or mine — rather than the word God, reminds members of AA.’s tolerance of individual differences in religious belief and spiritual inclination. The most basic understanding of the concept “Higher Power” within Alcoholics Anonymous is that which keeps me sober. In a sense, this is to out-James William James; it is the ultimate pragmatic concept of God. For alcoholics who have tried and failed time after time to stay sober by themselves, for alcoholics who have tried and failed after using any one of innumerable techniques, that which finally does keep one sober becomes “God” (Ernest Kurtz and Katherine Ketcham, The Spirituality of Imperfection: Modern Wisdom from Classic Stories [New York: Bantam Books, 1992], p. 208; bold face added).
• Albert Ellis and Emmett Velten, Jr.
Medicine and psychiatry in 1935 got nowhere with most problem drinkers. Clinical psychology, clinical social work, and counseling hardly existed. What could Bill Wilson and Dr. Bob Smith call upon for help but religion) AA’s answer for alcohol abusers was a simple form of spiritual healing through the Grace of God, but without the trappings of formal religion and churches. Many twelve-step program followers (who abide by the twelve steps used in AA and other “Anonymous” groups) today make a distinction between spiritual and religious, as if religion were automatically a bad thing. However, “the God part” is a big feature of AA and remains a major strength and attraction (Albert Ellis and Emmett Velten, When AA Doesn’t Work for You: Rational Steps to Quitting Alcohol [Fort Lee, NJ: Barricade Books, 1992], p. 79; bold face added).
But Where Did “It” Come From
Above, in the quotes, you have it all. From Yahweh to Something. From God to Group Of Drunks. From our Creator to Somebody Else. From Bible to Baloney. From Baptist to Bahai. From Bible-believing to power-greater-than-ourselves-ism!
I’ll not spend much time on where “Power greater than ourselves” really came from. I just don’t know. And, as usual, its author Bill Wilson didn’t tell us. But it sure didn’t come from God. And it sure didn’t come from the Bible.
I feel quite free to assert that the ill-defined, mythical, distorted, utterly confusing “it” is the product of whole-cloth manufacture. A product fashioned by the combined forces of atheists, booksellers, salaried service writers, iconoclasts, uninformed clergy, misguided Christian writers, treatment programs, therapists, angry bleeding deacons, frustrated failures, and probably the just-plain-ignorant. But certainly not by Dr. Bob, nor Anne, nor Henrietta Seiberling, nor T. Henry or Clarace Williams! Not even by Bill Wilson in his wildest writing moments.
Yet I personally have heard all the weird names in the rooms of AA. or read them in recovery literature; and — desperate for deliverance, recovery, and freedom — I picked up some of these bizarre appellations and really toyed with them for far too long. But no more! Today, I believe myself to be a certified, recovered, delivered, happy, joyous, free, Bible-studying, Christian, ex-real-alcoholic within the halls of Alcoholics Anonymous who believes in the one true living God and came to Him through His son Jesus Christ. Just think! Within the halls of AA.! I don’t have to worry about whether a radiator is a power or whether I even need to come to believe in or develop an understanding of radiators to get well.
When I finally plunged in to my Oxford Group research several years ago, I found the “Power greater” expression was in common usage in the Oxford Group, and probably was devised as a way of rejecting Biblical usage in favor of Buchman usage. (See the innumerable Oxford Group usages quoted in my title, The Oxford Group and Alcoholics Anonymous, pp. 341,344,346, 349, 362.) Something done in the Group without really intending to change the Bible itself. Something that would make Christianity “more appealing.” That, of course, is something I don’t think can or should be done. It gives rise to the same nonsense we have quoted above. But for your reading pleasure, here are some of the possible sources of the “power-greater-than-ourselves” language. Almost all, I believe, were written well before the Big Book was published in the Spring of 1939:
The Rev. Canon Samuel M. Shoemaker, Jr., D.D., S.T.D. – “Co-founder of AA.”:
A vast Power outside themselves (Shoemaker, A Young Man’s View of the Ministry, p. 42).
A Force outside himself, greater than himself (Shoemaker, If I Be Lifted Up, p. 176).
Only God, therefore, can deal with sin. He must contrive to do for us what we have lost the power to do for ourselves (Shoemaker, If I Be Lifted Up, p. 133).
We talked of daily Quiet Time, of Bible study, prayer and listening, and of the power of God to lead and guide those who are obedient enough to be led (Shoemaker, Children of the Second Birth, pp. 148-49).
I have done wrong. I know I need to be changed, and I know some Power outside myself must do it (Shoemaker, God and America, p. 19).
Victor C. Kitchen — Oxford Group Writer, Colleague of Sam Shoemaker, Friend of Bill Wilson:
A power within yet coming from outside myself — a power far stronger than I was (Kitchen, I Was a Pagan, p. 63).
Higher Power (Kitchen, I Was a Pagan, p. 85).
It was this power of the Spirit flowing into me that. . . gave me not only the courage [but also] the strength . . . I needed (Kitchen, I Was a Pagan, p. 94).
It takes the power of God to remove these fears and mental conditions (Kitchen, I Was a Pagan, p. 143).
It takes the power of God to remove the desire for these indulgences (Kitchen, I Was a Pagan, p. 143).
Many did hesitate to call this force the “power of God” (Kitchen, I Was a Pagan, p. 16).
Stephen Foot, British Oxford Group Writer, Author of Best-selling “Life Began Yesterday”
New power and direction came to her when she started listening to God (Foot, Life Began Yesterday, p. 150).
This Power by which human nature can be changed . . . and through this Power problems are being solved (Foot, Life Began yesterday, p. 22).
There is at work in the world today a Power that has for many generations been neglected by masses of mankind (Foot, Life Began Yesterday, p. 22).
I will ask God to show me His purpose for my life and claim from Him the power to carry that purpose out (Foot, Life Began Yesterday, p. 11).
Harold Begbie, Author of One of the Earliest, Popular Oxford Group Books:
The future of civilization, rising at this moment from the ruins of materialism, would seem to lie in an intelligent use by man of the ultimate source of spiritual power(Begbie, Life-Changers, P. 22).
K. D. Belden — Longtime Oxford Group Leader and Writer:
Only the Power which raised Jesus Christ from the dead can, and will, raise us from our old nature and begin to form in us the new (Belden, Reflections on Moral Re-Armament, p. 28).
What a Ride!
I can and do speak for myself and perhaps for some other recovered believers in AA. who have been willing to apply reason to absurd names for God. I’ve been taken on a royal ride. I came to AA. sick, sorry, bewildered, terrified, and guilty. I believed in God, and I still do. I believed in what His Son Jesus Christ accomplished for me. (See, for example: 1 Corinthians 1:30: “But of him are ye in Christ Jesus, who of God is made unto us wisdom, and righteousness, and sanctification, and redemption”; 1 Thessalonians 1:9-10: “For they themselves shew of us what manner of entering in we had unto you, and how ye turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God; And to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, even Jesus, which delivered us from the wrath to come”;1 Peter 2:24: “Who his own self bare our sins in his own body on the tree, that we, being dead to sins, should live unto righteousness: by whose stripes ye were healed..”)
And I still do believe in that deliverance, righteousness, and healing that was accomplished for me. I believed that God’s Word contained the truth about these things, and I still do. But I have put out the foregoing quotes by the theorists, just to show you how many roadblocks appeared on my ride, confused me at the outset, resulted in many an unfortunate diversion by AA. friends, and caused me to hold back in my work to help others. Now that I know just how much nonsense has been poured into the “Power greater than ourselves” mold, I’ll never take, or invite anyone to take, that detour again. And, to those, who offer a trip on the royal “something” or “any power” or “group” train, I’ll say for myself (and for those I try to help) to those who are the engineers: “Jesus answered them and said unto them, Ye do err, not knowing the scriptures, nor the power of God” (Matthew 22:29).
Bill and Bob were not selling snake oil. They were selling the good news in Scripture. And I bought that product — after an unneeded delay; and I was healed by the power of God in Alcoholics Anonymous, just like the forty pioneers were. You can also be healed. Your Heavenly Father will never let you down!
“God as we understood Him” An Alleged Compromise That Opened the Door
My Own Experience
At my first AA. meeting, I was delighted. Friendliness, laughter, concern, suggestions. All came pouring toward me at the “Wednesday Night What It’s Like Now” meeting-later to become my Home Group. At my second meeting, I made a speech about needing help with a pending court appearance. And a non-attorney offered to come with me; he said he had studied law in Brazil. By my third meeting, I was beginning to detox heavily. Yet I didn’t know what detoxing was, what was happening, or that I was becoming really sick. They told me to use orange juice and honey. I searched high and low for honey, bought a bag of oranges, put them in the microwave, and never saw them again. But I made another speech.
This time, I stood at the door of the “Friday Nite Beginners’ Meeting,” announced that I had been very frightened, said I had seen “God as we understood Him” on the wall, had prayed to God as I did understand Him, and had really found peace, for that night at least. Unquestionably, however, I was a little crazy-as only AA. newcomers can be. A few days later, I had three grand mal seizures at an AA. meeting. I was trundled off in an ambulance to the Emergency Room and then Intensive Care. In a day or two, I checked in to a treatment center. But that’s another story. The point here is that I stuck, and have stuck, with AA. I believed I could and would receive help because AA. had seemed to recommend entrusting my life to the care of God as I understood Him. I’ve since found out that thousands have done the same thing in the more than sixty-five years since AA.’s founding. They, like myself, have received help. Some are simply “dry” still suffering from “untreated alcoholism.” Some say they are “in recovery.” Some of us say we have “recovered,” Some of us, just as Bill Wilson, Dr. Bob, and AA. Number Three (Bill Dotson) said, say we have been “cured.” Some of us, who are believers, are very clear that we have been delivered by our Heavenly Father from the power of darkness, translated into the kingdom of His dear Son, and made known to us the riches of the glory of the mystery — which is Christ in you, the hope of glory (Colossians 1:13, 27).
So, Was AA. Really about God “as we understood Him”?
It didn’t take very long for me to get an answer to that question. Of course it wasn’t! And how did I find out. Well, I’ve already covered the myriad of “higher power” and “power greater than ourselves” phrases that were floating around the rooms and in recent Twelve Step literature. No rational person could say these have anything whatever to do with the Creator. These “powers” seemed to mean just about anything to the confused crowd with which I hung out. Whether my new-found AA. friends had been lawyers like myself, painters like my first sponsor, warehousemen like his sponsor, teachers like my room mate, or “consultants” (a handy AA. word for unemployed, devastated, newcomers), all had different ideas about this “power greater than themselves.”
My first sponsor did occasionally talk about God. His sponsor talked about a “higher power.” My roommate talked about witchcraft. Others talked about a “rock,” a “Big Dipper,” and a “Group of Drunks” as their higher powers. Some even offered to “loan” out their own “higher power” until the newer person could find his own-which, they said, could be anything greater than himself. One authoritative sounding fellow assured those present at almost any and every Friday Nite Beginners’ Meeting, that his “higher power” was Ralph. Somehow. I was able to resist buying in to that one. However, his name for a god still rings loudly in my ear.
But, as my increasing period of sobriety droned forward, and my continued need for God’s help multiplied by leaps and bounds. I determined that there was no “common solution” or agreement in the AA. rooms where I was going daily. There clearly was no consensus as to “who” or “what” this so-called higher power was. There certainly was plenty of confusion and confused thinking. In fact, many an older member has simply said in my presence that he couldn’t and didn’t need to understand “it.” Rather, that he just needed to keep his “program” very very simple. All you had to keep in mind, these members proclaimed, was: “Just don’t drink. And go to meetings.” I have had no trouble following that advice for years. But as one writer said, “Drinking’s not the problem.” And I realized that many of these keep-it-simple guys had rarely advanced to any understanding of God at all. Certainly not that they would admit to. Almost all had not read the Bible, gone to any church, or developed any interest whatever in “religion.” They boasted about the abandonment of their old religion. They bragged about AA.’s being “spiritual, but not religious” even though few had the slightest idea what any of that meant.
Where Did This Phrase Originate?
I won’t quote or cite the circulating accounts about where this “as we understood Him” phrase came from. Many are wrong. Most are conflicting. In fact, until my research was under way, I had found no one that even mentioned the phrase in the same breath with AA. The story tellers had simply ignored the very probable, real source-the Reverend Samuel Moor Shoemaker, Jr., Rector of Calvary Episcopal Church in New York.
Shoemaker had been a vibrant leader of the Oxford Group in America. He had long been a friend and supporter of Oxford Group Founder Frank Buchman. He even provided housing for the virtual American headquarters of the Oxford Group in Calvary House, next to his Calvary Church in New York. He allowed Dr. Buchman to live there when Buchman was in the New York area. And Shoemaker wrote dozens of Oxford Group books, pamphlets, and articles until he split in 1941 with Buchman, the Oxford Group’s founder and leader.
Actually, you can find many words and phrases in Sam Shoemaker’s books that seem to have been incorporated almost verbatim in Bill Wilson’s Big Book, talks, and writings. Bill often sang the praises of Reverend Shoemaker, dubbed Sam a “Co-founder” of AA., said Sam had been a well-spring of its ideas, exchanged lots of correspondence with Sam, and had him speak at two AA. International Conventions. Sam was also invited to, and did, write several articles for AA.’s “house organ,” the AA Grapevine. Bill had many a talk with Sam Shoemaker before he (Bill) drafted AA.’s basic text. Bill submitted a draft manuscript to Shoemaker for review prior to publication in 1939. And Bill had asked Sam Shoemaker to write the Twelve Steps. However, Shoemaker declined-saying the Steps should be written by an alcoholic, namely, Bill.
Shoemaker was the closest thing to a spiritual mentor that Bill Wilson had, prior to his completion and publication of AA.’s Big Book in the Spring of 1939. Bill had never belonged to a church. He had (by his own acknowledgment) been a “conservative atheist.” Bill has been reported, by his wife and by AA’s first archivist, to have read practically no religious literature. Bill himself said he knew nothing about the Bible until he moved in with Dr. Bob and Anne Smith in the summer of 1935-the period when AA. was founded — and when Bill and Dr. Bob had conducted nightly discussions of the Bible and Oxford Group principles and practices.
The foregoing facts about Bill, AA., and Sam Shoemaker can be found specifically documented in a number of writings. I have covered most all of them all in my title, New Light on Alcoholism: God, Sam Shoemaker, and AA 2d e d. (httD://www.dickb.com/newlight.shtml). I’ve also covered them in my titles about the Oxford Group and Shoemaker: The Oxford Group and Alcoholics Anonymous: A Design for Living That Works (http://www.dickb.com/Oxford.Shtml) and Good Morning!: Quiet Time, etc. (http://www.dickb.com/goodmorn.shtml). I’ve discussed them as well in Courage to Change (a title I wrote with Bill Pittman) and in The Akron Genesis of Alcoholics Anonymous, 2d ed. (http:// www.dickb.com/Akron.stmhl). Wilson himself discussed most of these facts. They are recorded, here and there, in Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age, The Language of the Heart, Pass It On, and the Best of the Grapevine volumes (all being “Conference Approved” publications of Alcoholics Anonymous World Services).
Specific Examples in Shoemaker Writings of the “God as we understand Him” Idea
First, We Must Look at Surrender to God: Sam wrote much about the importance of surrender — surrender to God! Among his papers at the Episcopal Church Archives in Austin, Texas, I found the following:
There was nothing actually new to be learned from the experience when related. “I just gave my life over to God” or “I surrender to Christ” (Dick B., New Light on Alcoholism, 2d ed., p.92; [http://www.dickb.com/newlieht.shtml]).
Other Examples of Sam’s Surrender Language:
Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God. . . . A man is born again when the control of his life, its center and its direction pass from himself to God (Shoemaker, National Awakening, p. 57).
One may say that the whole development of Christianity in inwardness has consisted in little more than the greater and greater emphasis attached to this crisis of self-surrender (Shoemaker, Realizing Religion, p. 30).
Surrender is not conversion, we cannot convert ourselves; but it is the first step in the process (Shoemaker, Confident Faith, p. 41).
Sam on the Act of Surrender — a Decision:
Decision. . . We must help people to make an act of self-surrender to Christ, which renounces all known sins, accepts Him as Savior, and begins Christian life in earnest (Shoemaker, The Church Alive, p.41).
He went into his room, knelt by his bed, and gave his life in surrender to God (Shoemaker, Children of the Second Birth, p. 175).
She surrendered to God her groundless fears, and with them turned over her life for His direction (Shoemaker, Children of the Second Birth, p. 82).
That night I decided to “launch out into the deep:” and with the decision to cast my will and my life on God, there came an indescribable sense of relief, of burdens dropping away (Shoemaker, Twice-Born Ministers, p. 134).
And Then, Said Sam, Surrender As Much of Yourself As You Can to As Much of God As You Understand:
So they prayed together, opening their minds to as much of God as he understood. . . . (Shoemaker, Children of the Second Birth, p. 47, italics added).
So he said that he would “surrender as much of himself as he could, to as much of Christ as he understood” (Shoemaker, Children of the Second Birth, p. 25; italics added. See also, and compare “In Memoriam” Princeton, The Graduate Council, June 10, 1956, pp. 2-3; and Shoemaker, How to Become a Christian, p. 72).
The finding of God, moreover, is a progressive discovery; and there is so much more for all of us to learn about him. (Shoemaker, How to Find God, p. 1).
Begin honestly where you are. Horace Bushnell once said, “Pray to the dim God, confessing the dimness for honesty’s sake.” I was with a man who prayed his first real prayer in these words: “O God, if there be a God, help me now because I need it.” God sent him help. He found faith. He found God. . . God will come through to you and make Himself known (Shoemaker, How to Find God, p.6. See and compare: Alcoholics Anonymous, 4th ed., p. 37: “But He has come to all who have honestly sought Him. When we drew near to Him. He disclosed Himself to us!” See also, in the Bible book so popular with the pioneers-James: “Draw nigh to God, and he will draw nigh to you,” James 4:8).[A]ny honest person can begin the spiritual experiment by surrendering “as much of himself as he can, to as much of Christ as he understands” (Shoemaker, Extraordinary Living for Ordinary Men, p. 76; italics added).
For a Christian, of course, the intellectual content concerns Jesus Christ. I believe we can start by accepting as much of Him as we understand, but I believe that continuous obedience toward Him and contact with Him will steadily convince us that shallow, humanistic interpretations of Him do not fit the facts. . . . I know many persons who have begun by surrendering as much of themselves as they can to as much of Him as they understand (Shoemaker, The Experiment of Faith, p. 26; italics added).
Shoemaker did not speak at all about surrendering to as much of Ralph or to as much of a lightbulb or to as much of a tree as you understand! AA’s Big Book implored: May you find God, Almighty God, our Creator — not just some AA. group! AA. Groups are found in meeting schedules, not in the Bible.
Said Sam in substance: You simply start where you are in your understanding. You surrender as much of yourself as you can. To as much of God as you understand. Then, added Sam, God will come through to you, make Himself known, and enable you to understand more. You will come to believe. You will find God, said Sam. God will make Himself known. God will not be making known a tree, a coke bottle, or a radiator. He will make known Himself and by name — God, the Creator, Yahweh!
Similar Ideas and Words in Other Oxford Group Writings
Stephen Foot was one of the most popular Oxford Group writers of the early 1930’s. Foot used a slightly different form of expression. It presented the same idea of initial, limited understanding. It spoke not of understanding, but instead of initial, limited knowledge of God (surrendering all that you know of self to all that you know of God). Foot’s language was also used by Dr. Bob’s wife Anne Smith in her journal, and by long-time Oxford Group activist James D. Newton in his biographical Uncommon Friends title. These stalwart Oxford Group admirers were also readers of, and thoroughly acquainted with, the works of Rev. Sam Shoemaker. Respectively, they wrote:
Life began for me with a surrender of all that I know of self to all that I knew of God (Foot, Life Began Yesterday, pp. 12-13; italics added. See also James D. Newton. Uncommon Friends, p. 154).
Are you prepared to do his will, let the cost be what it may? That is surrender of all one knows of self to all one knows of God (Foot, Life Began Yesterday, p. 175; italics added).
Look at What Bill Wilson Said before He Compromised with “Atheism”:
Before he scratched out “God” in favor of his “as we understood Him” compromise language, Bill was telling the story far differently, far more accurately, and far more consistently in terms of what he had learned from his sponsor Ebby Thacher, from Dr. Bob, from Anne Smith and her journal, from Shoemaker, and from Oxford Group writings and talks. Bill wrote:
This is what my friend [Ebby Thacher] suggested I do: Turn my face to God as I understand Him [italics added] and say to Him with earnestness-complete honesty and abandon-that I henceforth place my life at His disposal and Direction forever (Bill Wilson’s Original Story, a thirty-four page document I found at Bill’s home at Stepping Stones, p. 30, lines 989-992).[Ebby Thacher said to Bill:] So, call on God as you understand God. Try prayer (W.W., “The Fellowship of Alcoholics Anonymous,” Quarterly Journal of Studies on Alcohol [Yale University, 1945], p. 463; italics added). [Reciting in AA’s own basic text, precisely how he had followed Ebby Thacher’s instructions, Bill wrote:] There I humbly offered myself to God, as I then understood Him, to do with me as He would. I placed myself unreservedly under His care and direction (Alcoholics Anonymous, 4th ed., p. 13; italics added).
Bill did not turn his face to, or call on, or humbly offer himself to, a radiator, a tree, a lightbulb, a Group of Drunks, or any other blatantly idolatrous symbol. He turned to God as he (Bill Wilson) did then and there understand God. That is a piece of very easily understood, yet virtually ignored AA. history that should be blazoned on the desk of everyone who tries to sell snake oil to an unwary AA. newcomer.
Using language very similar to that used by Sam Shoemaker in his book Confident Faith, Bill wrote quite eloquently:
When we became alcoholics crushed by a self-imposed crisis we could not postpone or evade, we had to fearlessly face the proposition that either God is everything or else He is nothing. God either is, or He isn’t. What was our choice to be? (Alcoholics Anonymous, 4th ed., p. 53. See also Hebrews 11:6 [“…for he that cometh to God must believe that he is, and that he is a rewarder of them that diligently seek Him”]; and Shoemaker, Confident Faith, pp. 20-21 [“God is, or He isn’t. You leap one way or the other”]).
Bill did not assert that a radiator either is or it isn’t. He did not claim that a lightbulb either is or it isn’t. He didn’t declare that Santa Claus either is or he isn’t. Consistent with the words of Hebrews 11:6 in the Bible, and the reasoning of his friend Sam Shoemaker, Bill Wilson made the very simple and rational statement that God either is, or He isn’t. Then, following the instructions of the Oxford Group, Shoemaker, and his friend Ebby Thacher, Bill Wilson “surrendered as much of himself as he understood to as much of God as he (Bill) then understood.”
You Start with Shoemaker, the Oxford Group, and Dr. Bob’s Wife
That’s it, folks. The story of how the “God as we understood Him” phrase came to be inserted in the Big Book and Twelve Steps; and the truth seems to have been much distorted by the claim of an AA. old-timer Jim B. that he (Jim) was responsible for this phrase “as we understood Him.” We thoroughly explored that claim, just as far as we were able; and we found that Bill Wilson had never acknowledged Jim’s claim. As we researched Shoemaker’s writings, Oxford Group books, the writings of Bill’s secretary Ruth Hock, and Anne Smith’s journal, we saw a far different history that suggested a far different origin of the phrase. For one thing, we saw that Jim B. had not been sober until long after Stephen Foot, Sam Shoemaker, Jim Newton, and Anne Smith had tendered the commonly used suggestion that you surrender to as much of God as you understand! Or know. (See Dick B., Turning Point, pp. 172-81 [http://www.dickb.com/Turning.shtml]; Anne Smith’s Journal, 3rd ed., p.26, n.10 [http://www.dickb.com/annesm.shtm1])
You don’t start with an avowed atheist (Jim B.) who apparently was neither sober nor present when the phrase “as we understood Him” was suggested and then substituted in Step Three and Step Eleven. You start with the Bible students (Sam Shoemaker and Anne Smith-Dr. Bob’s wife) who were close to Bill Wilson in the pre-publication years and who had been expressing this idea five to ten years before AA’s Big Book was first published. These leaders did have an understanding of God. They felt others could gain an understanding and knowledge by starting with whatever understanding they had at the time of their “surrender” to God. Quite clearly, Bill and his friends were talking about God, the Creator, Yahweh!
From what I can observe, there appear to have been no “nonsense gods” (higher powers, powers greater than ourselves, or gods of one’s own understanding) in Akron’s spiritual recovery program as that program was observed, described, and reported by Rockefeller’s investigator Frank Amos and by the Akron pioneers themselves.