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?"
That statement hit me hard. It melted the icy intellectual mountain in whose shadow I had lived and shivered many years. I stood in the sunlight at last.
It was only a matter of being willing to believe in a Power greater than myself. Nothing more was required of me to make my beginning. [emphasis original]
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]
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.
- He takes for granted that when Wilson speaks of Jesus Christ and God, that he had in mind the same as described in the Bible, and not his own version. All evidence before and after this experience indicate that he rejected the true God in favor of a vague power of his own conception, though this conception appeared to be loosely based on Scripture. To reject the God of the Bible is to place one’s faith in a false god that can’t save at all, even if you call it by the same names found in the Bible. Wilson’s belief in idols is condemned in Romans 1:23.
- By stating that an "anti-A.A. Christian writer" cannot judge Wilson's status as a Christian, he also opens the door of that argument to himself. By unequivocally declaring Wilson a Christian, he hypocritically fails to abide by his own argument. For if one cannot judge that someone is not a Christian, neither can they judge someone to be a Christian.
- It appears to be founded on the false doctrine of the "carnal Christian". Despite his claim, there is no such thing as a carnal Christian. A refutation of this doctrine is outside the scope of this article, but for the purpose of this paper it should be stated that the idea of a carnal Christian reflects a gross misunderstanding of the nature of saving faith, insults the Holy Spirit's work in regeneration and sanctification, and has lulled many into a false assurance of salvation by relying upon a dead faith to save them.
- It contradicts New Testament teaching about discerning false teachers and testing the spirits. If we cannot judge, either positively or negatively, whether one is a false teacher or a Christian, then we cannot possibly follow the Bible’s teaching on the issue. In addition to this, by using the false doctrine of the carnal Christian to defend Wilson, he makes it virtually impossible for a cult leader claiming to be a Christian to be labeled as a false teacher. Under this guise, they would just claim to be a Christian living carnally so there's nothing to worry about. Obviously, this contradicts numerous passages found in the New Testament warning of false teachers (Matthew 7:15-20, 16:11-12, 23:1-39, Acts 20:28-30, 2 Corinthians 11:3-15, Ephesians 5:11, 2 Timothy 4:3-4).
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.
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.