Was Alcoholics Anonymous started by Christians and based on the Bible? Many people think so, but is it true?
While it is true that there are some ideas found in Alcoholics Anonymous literature that are in agreement with Christianity, that doesn't necessarily mean that AA is fundamentally Christian or that its founders were Christian. There are many cults which share some common themes and truths found in Biblical Christianity but twist and distort essential Christian doctrine. As a result, they may be Christian in name, but not in substance. With this in mind, we must hold the claims of the AA founders and AA literature to the test of Scripture to see if the doctrines and practices of AA are in alignment with Biblical truth. 1 John 4:1 says, "Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world.” Since there is a real possibility of deception by false prophets, it is wise to examine the teachings of AA and the beliefs of its founders and early supporters so that we can determine if AA is in fact Christian, or if it has followed the path of the cults. Beginning with Bill Wilson, who was the primary co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, this two-part article will attempt to address this question and offer a response to critics.
While there were many contributors, Bill Wilson was the leading source for the basic text of AA - the book Alcoholics Anonymous. There is no evidence that Bill Wilson came to a saving faith in Jesus Christ. In fact, most evidence seems to indicate otherwise.
Dick B., AA historian, professed Christian, and author of many books and articles defending AA, sets up his defense that Wilson was a Christian by making much of his church participation in his article titled, Why Bill Wilson Came Firmly to Believe That Alcoholism Could Be Cured by Conversion. In his article, he writes of Wilson attending church services with his grandparents, his enrollment in Burr and Burton Academy in Manchester, Vermont where he regularly attended daily chapel and the weekly required church service, and his presidency at a local YMCA. Yet none of these things, in and of themselves, make someone a Christian. That's not to say that these aren't things a Christian would do, but it's not conclusive evidence of Bill's own personal convictions and beliefs. Much of this experience had little, if any, positive effect on his beliefs.
In the Alcoholics Anonymous chapter titled “Bill’s Story”, Wilson's own reflection of his childhood sheds tremendous light on the state of his belief after all his religious exposure. While Dick B. gives the impression of a positive spiritual influence from Wilson’s grandfather, Wilson’s recollection seems to indicate otherwise. He recounts his grandfather’s "good natured contempt" for those in church and his continued denial of the preachers right to tell him he must listen (presumably to the gospel). After telling of his grandfather, Wilson goes on to say that he himself had always believed in a "Power greater than myself", but that he would become irritated and his mind would "snap shut" at the thought of a personal and loving God. He then makes a statement which is particularly revealing about the state of his unbelief up to that point, "To Christ I conceded the certainty of a great man, not too closely followed by those who claimed Him. His moral teaching-most excellent. For myself, I had adopted those parts which seemed convenient and not too difficult; the rest I disregarded." Essentially all of the religious exposure he had up to this point amounted to an amorphous belief in something greater than himself and a failure to acknowledge Jesus as the incarnate Son of God. Instead he opted for a view of Jesus as a mere human who was a good moral teacher. To further prove his rejection of God and Christ as revealed in Scripture, consider his thoughts relating to a statement by his friend just a few short paragraphs later:
My friend suggested what then seemed a novel idea. He said, "Why don't you choose your own conception of God?"
In other words, instead of repenting of his refusal to receive God as he revealed Himself in Scripture, he chose to make up his own conception that he could handle. This is extremely important to keep in mind when examining Wilson’s statements that seem to be speaking of Jesus and the Lord as if they are the same as found in true Christianity. Any mention of God or Jesus is ultimately one of his own making.
Later in his article, Dick B. quotes Wilson's experience at Calvary Rescue Mission:
"There were hymns and prayers. Tex, the leader, exhorted us. Only Jesus could save, he said. . . . Then came the call. Penitents started marching toward the rail. . . . Soon I knelt among the sweating, stinking penitents. Maybe then and there, for the first time, I was penitent too. Something touched me, I guess it was more than that. I was hit." [ellipses original]
On the surface, this might appear to some as a true conversion. However, Wilson's documented behavior and beliefs cast serious doubt on the authenticity of his supposed conversion to Christianity. Virtually all evidence points to the reality that even though he may have claimed faith in Jesus, he never truly possessed it. Given his previously documented refusal to receive God as he has revealed himself, one can only wonder exactly who Wilson had in mind when he thought of Jesus.
One clue that reveals the direction of Wilson’s belief is his endorsement of Emmet Fox's book Sermon on the Mount. Fox was a false teacher, mystic and prominent New Thought leader operating as an ordained Divine Science Minister at The Church of the Healing Christ in New York city from 1931-1951. In his book Sermon on the Mount, he firmly rejects essential Christian doctrines such as the deity of Christ, original sin, and a vicarious blood atonement. Even stating there was no such thing as a plan of salvation found in the Bible. This book, with its damnable heresy, was given to newcomers of AA to read by both AA co-founders, Bill Wilson and Dr. Bob Smith. AA defender Dick B. even admits that his writings were favored by them both.
Despite the admission that the book was favored by AA’s co-founders, Dick B. makes this incredulous defense in one of his blog posts, "cherry picking this or that author or book and labeling it as representative of the Christian faiths, denominations, creeds, and beliefs of early AAs is just another path to the myths now being manufactured by some who are violently opposed to A.A." There is a valid argument to be made here, and to be fair, Wilson did read books by many authors. Just because someone reads a book filled with heresy doesn't necessarily mean that they actually believe what is in the book (on a side note, this also applies when one reads books presenting orthodox Christianity). Yet vital questions remain. Which ones did he actively promote? Which authors seemed to have the most influence in the ideas expressed in the 12-steps? What Dick B. has either overlooked, or refused to accept, is that Bill and Dr. Bob didn’t merely read Fox’s book, they embraced it. So much so, that its ideas made its way into the 12-steps and they recommended it to newcomers. This simple fact alone is indicative that they agreed with what they found in it.
Further on in his blog post, Dick B. clouds the issue even more by citing Dr. Bob's suggestion to early AA members to read the Sermon on the Mount and other passages directly from the Bible. Elsewhere he also acknowledges that "the Sermon on the Mount contained the underlying philosophy of A.A." Unfortunately, this does little to alleviate the glaring reality that their view of Jesus' sermon was poisoned with deadly heresy when influenced by Fox's book of the same title. Even more concerning is that they gave it to newcomers as they began to sober up.
In still another article where Dick B. scoffs at Christian concern about AA, he makes an attempt to invalidate all discerning investigation into Wilson’s faith:
Bill Wilson himself had [dabbled in spiritualism] through having been introduced to Swedenborgian ideas by his marriage to and the family of Lois Burnham Wilson, his wife. The erring Christian critics ignored the plain teachings of the New Testament that “even” Christians walked in the flesh, were carnal in their meanderings, and violated God’s commandments. See Romans, Chapter 8, for example. But Wilson’s vagaries—ranging from New England Congregationalism in his youth to atheist thinking to Swedenborgian influences to born-again Christianity at the Mission to spiritualism to Roman Catholic doctrine to psychic experiments—could not alter A.A. or even Wilson’s status as a Christian, which came from his decision for Jesus Christ at Calvary Mission—the validity of which is for God and God alone to judge—not some anti-A.A. Christian writer.
Here he openly admits Wilson's wide ranging and ever shifting forms of unbelief, yet still attempts to defend Wilson’s status as Christian, despite only having positive affirmations of heresy and constant rejections of orthodoxy. These were not temporary lapses into sin by a believer, but sustained unbelief of someone who was never truly born again. Dick B.'s defense is problematic on at least four counts:
According to Wilson’s biography Pass it On, he also refused to “ally himself with any formal belief system. His personal hang ups with organized religion, including Christianity, kept him from joining the church through faith in Christ and influenced his insistence that AA not be allied with any particular religious sect. He obviously cared more about his false religion than the true church. To claim faith in Jesus while refusing to integrate and fellowship with his body in a local church seems more indicative of dead faith than true faith. To take an earthly example, it would be equivalent to a man saying he loves his wife, but will never see her or spend time with her and instead opts to spend his time with strange women. The wife would naturally understand that the man doesn’t truly love her. So it was with Wilson. While he claimed to love God and Jesus, he never spent time with the body of Christ in the local church and instead opted for friendship with the world and to love a strange god of his own making. For all their focus on the book of James, the early AA’s must have missed James 4:4, “You adulterous people! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God.”
Further action revealing Wilson’s unbelief was his extended practice of necromancy. Wilson first became involved in séances with Dr. Bob and his wife in 1935, four years before Alcoholics Anonymous was published. This activity of attempting to talk to dead spirits continued on to at least the mid 1940’s and eventually evolved into what they called “spook sessions”. These spook sessions involved levitating tables, Ouija boards, and receiving messages from spirits while in a meditative state. This is particularly problematic considering that God condemned people who practiced necromancy to death in the Old Testament and gave the Israelites harsh warnings concerning the practice (Leviticus 19:31, 20:6, 27, Deuteronomy 18:10-14). In the New Testament, Paul writes that those who practiced sorcery would not inherit eternal life (Galatians 5:19-24). Clearly, Wilson’s spooking was a manifestation of the flesh, not a fruit of the Spirit which leads to eternal life.
The most reasonable conclusion to be made from the evidence is that Wilson was a false teacher and his life reflects the fruit of an unregenerate heart that does not have in mind the things of God (Mark 8:33).
In part two, we’ll look at Wilson’s co-founder Dr. Bob Smith, his wife Lois Wilson, and other early Alcoholics Anonymous associates.
Read Part 2 of this article: Was Alcoholics Anonymous Started by Christians? - Part 2
1. Dick B., Why Bill Wilson Came Firmly to Believe That Alcoholism Could Be Cured by Conversion, (2008), http://www.dickb.com/aaarticles/Alcoholism-Could-Be-Cured.shtml
2. Alcoholics Anonymous, Alcoholics Anonymous, 4th Edition (New York: A.A. World Services, 2001), 10.
3. Ibid., 11.
4. Ibid., 12.
5. Dick B., Why Bill Wilson Came Firmly to Believe That Alcoholism Could Be Cured by Conversion
6. Meet Dr. Emmet Fox, http://www.emmetfox.net/about%20emmet%20fox.htm
7. Emmet Fox, The Sermon on the Mount: The Key to Success in Life, (Harper Collins Publishers, 1989), 4.
8. Alcoholics Anonymous, Dr. Bob and the Good Oldtimers: A biography, with recollections of early A.A. in the Midwest, (New York: A.A. World Services, 1986), 310-311.
9. Dick B., Alcoholics Anonymous History: Dick B.'s Early A.A. Resources, http://silkworth.net/dickb/earlyresources.html
10.Dick B., The Emmet Fox Myths Regularly Promulgated by A Few Against A.A, (2012), http://mauihistorian.blogspot.com/2012/03/jesus-or-emmet-fox-and-foxs-higher.html
12. Dick B., Alcoholics Anonymous History: Dick B.'s Early A.A. Resources; quoting from Dr. Bob and the Good Oldtimers, 228.
13. Dick B., My Search for the Curious Nonsense “gods” Floating Around Recovery Talk, (2011), http://dickb.com/articles/AA-Higher-Powers.shtml
14. Alcoholics Anonymous, Pass it On, (New York: A.A. World Services, 1984), 283-284.
16. Ibid, 275.
17. Ibid, 276-280.
Chad Prigmore is Pastor and President of The Way Ministry Church USA & Kenya.