Alcoholics Anonymous & History of AA

 Last updated:
January 05, 2012

Alcoholics Anonymous History
Awakening to the Real Spiritual Experience of the
First Three AAs

By Dick B. and Ken B.

© 2012 Anonymous. All rights reserved

A.A.’s Own Attempts Today to Define Awakenings and Experiences

What was the meaning of the phrase “spiritual experience” in Step Twelve as that Step was worded on page 72 of the first printing of the first edition of Alcoholics Anonymous (affectionately known with A.A. as the “Big Book”) published on April 10, 1939?

What was the meaning of the replacement phrase “spiritual awakening” in Step Twelve as that Step was reworded in the second and following printings of the first edition of the Big Book?[1]

Possibly the closest explanation is contained in the first edition of A.A.’s “basic text,” the Big Book. It can still be found in each of the subsequent editions. And here it is as first presented:

            There is a solution. . . .

The great fact is just this, and nothing less: That we have had deep and effective spiritual experiences* which have revolutionized our whole attitude toward life, toward our fellows and toward God’s universe. The central fact of our lives today is the absolute certainty that our Creator has entered into our hearts and lives in a way which is indeed miraculous. He has commenced to accomplish those things for us which we could never do by ourselves.[2] [Emphasis in original]

Do you know what the section of text quoted above describes? What it means? In the fourth edition, there is an asterisk after the phrase “spiritual experiences” on page 25. The asterisk refers readers to a note at the bottom of the page which states: “Fully explained—Appendix II.” There was no such appendix in the Big Book when the first edition was first published on April 10, 1939. The “Spiritual Experience” appendix was added in the second printing of the first edition and began on page 399.[3] The appendix was also included in the three editions that followed.[4]

Most of Appendix II focuses on correcting the “impression” apparently made on many readers of the first printing of the first edition that the use of the terms “spiritual experience” and “spiritual awakening” to describe the solution early A.A. pioneers found for their alcoholism meant that those experiences “must be in the nature of sudden and spectacular upheavals.”[5] Sadly, in showing that such a “conclusion is erroneous,” the appendix also substantially muddied the waters as to the meaning of the terms “spiritual experience” (used many times in the first and following editions) and of the rare, newly-added term “spiritual awakening” (occurring only once—in the modified language of Step Twelve). Appendix II significantly expanded the list of terms and concepts used to describe the solution, rather than simply explaining that the experiences didn't have to be “sudden” or “spectacular.” Here are those terms and supposedly synonymous concepts—as presented in Appendix II in the fourth edition:

  • “spiritual experience”:
  • “spiritual awakening”:
  • “personality change sufficient to bring about recovery from alcoholism”
  • “these personality changes”
  • “[these] religious experiences”
  • “sudden revolutionary changes”
  • “an immediate and overwhelming 'God-consciousness' followed at once by a vast change in feeling and outlook”--”such transformations, though frequent”
  • “Most of our experiences are . . . the 'educational variety' because they develop slowly over a period of time.”
  • “a profound alteration in his reaction to life”--“such a change could hardly have been brought about by himself alone.”
  • “they have tapped an unsuspected inner resource which they presently identify with their own conception of a Power greater than themselves.”
  • “Most of us think this awareness of a Power greater than ourselves is the essence of spiritual experience.”
  • “Our more religious members call it 'God-consciousness.'”[6]

Appendix II leaves readers having to decide for themselves whether “the central fact of our lives today is the absolute certainty that our Creator has entered into our hearts and lives in a way which is indeed miraculous” was still the solution or whether a “personality change” would do the job. And to decide whether the God who “could and would if He were sought” was the same as or different from an “inner resource which they presently identify with their own conception of a Power greater than themselves.” The move from a “spiritual experience” to a “spiritual awakening” to a “personality change” closely resembles the shift which took place in the “great compromise” to appease atheists just before the Big Book went to the printer in 1939.[7]

Even Rev. Samuel M. Shoemaker, Jr.—whom Bill W. called a cofounder of A.A.—took a crack at explaining a “spiritual awakening” in his address to AAs at their St. Louis Convention in 1955.[8] In Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age, Shoemaker is quoted as follows:

I believe there are four universal factors in all genuine spiritual awakenings: conversion, prayer, fellowship, and witness. By conversion I mean the place where a person turns toward God. Where he begins to want to be honest with himself in the light of his religion.[9]

And in many A.A. meetings, I (Dick B.) have heard people share that their “awakenings” were numerous. Some have adopted the language in Appendix II, saying that they have had an “immediate and overwhelming ‘God-consciousness’ followed at once by a vast change in feeling and outlook.” Most settle for the idea that their experience was “of the educational variety.” Many just call it “change”—much as their Oxford Group forbears spoke of being “changed.” And then I (Dick B.) have heard others return triumphantly from a Joe and Charlie Big Book Seminar in Sacramento, California, and say it is merely a “personality change sufficient to bring about recovery from alcoholism.” And they emphasize “personality change” instead of “our Creator has entered into our hearts and lives in a way which is indeed miraculous.”

As with so many variations of and confused statements about A.A. ideas (as interpreted by the “wisdom of the rooms” in a wide variety of ways), all the declared, varying definitions of “spiritual experience” and “spiritual awakening” left me annoyed and uncertain. And they did so long after I (Dick B.) had spent many hours studying the Big Book, and taking newcomers through the Twelve Steps--doing so without the slightest realization that the history of Alcoholics Anonymous itself could at last clearly show the origins of this fundamental A.A. objective—a spiritual experience. This “spiritual experience” was fully described in Chapter Two of the first edition of the Big Book, “There is A Solution,” as quoted above. In Chapter One of the first edition, titled “Bill's Story,” Bill W. said the following things:

My friend promised when these things were done I would enter upon a new relationship with my Creator; that I would have the elements of a way of living which answered all my problems. 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.

            Simple, but not easy; a price had to be paid. It meant destruction of self-centeredness. I must turn in all things to the Father of Light who presides over us all.

            These were revolutionary and drastic proposals, but the moment I fully accepted them, the effect was electric. There was a sense of victory, followed by such a peace and serenity as I had never known. There was utter confidence. I felt lifted up, as though the great clean wind of a mountain top blew through and through. God comes to most men gradually, but His impact on me was sudden and profound.[10]

And there is a more full and adequate account of Bill’s oft-stated and frequently-requested “blazing white light experience” in which Bill declared that he sensed the presence of God, and concluded: “So this is the God of the Scriptures.” And was told by Dr. Silkworth that he had had a “conversion experience.”[11]

How about “God has done for me what I could not do for myself?”

This is the message that Bill Wilson’s “sponsor” and long-time friend Ebby Thacher carried to Bill right after Ebby told Bill: “I’ve got religion.”[12]

Ebby said to Bill: “that God had done for him what he could not do for himself. His human will had failed. Doctors had pronounced him incurable. Society was about to lock him up.”[13] Bill said: “That floored me. It began to look as though religious people were right after all. Here was something at work in a human heart which had done the impossible.”[14] Bill thereafter repeated this language about God’s doing the impossible.

Stating the “solution,” Bill wrote: “He [the Creator] has commenced to accomplish those things for us which we could never do by ourselves.”[15] Bill spoke of Dr. Jung’s advice to Rowland Hazard that Hazard might get help through a “conversion experience.” Rowland pursued the suggested route, and Bill said Rowland had the “extraordinary experience . . . which made him a free man.” Bill added: “We, in our turn, sought the same escape with all the desperation of drowning men. What seemed at first a flimsy reed, has proved to be the loving and powerful hand of God.” Bill then wrote of “the staff member of a world-renowned hospital [who] recently made this statement to some of us: ‘What you say about the general hopelessness of the average alcoholic’s plight is, in my opinion, correct. As to two of you men, whose stories I have heard, there is no doubt in my mind that you were 100% hopeless apart from Divine help. . . . For most cases, there is virtually no other solution.’”[16] Finally, as Bill described the Twelve Step process, he wrote about his “promises” of what would happen to those who were painstaking about their development: “We will suddenly realize that God is doing for us what we could not do for ourselves.”[17]

Bill’s “abc’s” stated the solution quite well: “(a) That we were alcoholic and could not manage our own lives. (b) That probably no human power could have relieved our alcoholism. (c) That God could and would if sought.”[18]

I (Dick B.) believe, as I believe almost all AAs do, that theology is rarely the province of the drunks in A.A. It is they who hit bottom. It is they who reach the “turning point.” It is they who may surrender their lives to God—often crying out something like, “God help me.” And it is they who may or may not experience what Bill called the “miracle of healing.”[19]

What drunks need not do is try to explain a miraculous healing in the way Appendix II does. And the miracle is certainly not just a personality change. Nor is it just about salvation. The endless stories of deliverance in the rescue missions can be found in descriptions of the lives of Jerry McAuley and S.H. Hadley. There are there many testimonies involving drunks who came to the mission only to have needs met, not necessarily for salvation. Then follow the accounts of those who got on their knees, accepted Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior, and were saved. Then stories also tell of how men “fell” (went out and got drunk many many times after they were saved). And, for the missions, reclamation came by never giving up on a person who “fell.” The mission was back in business with that drunkard if and when he decided to stand on his relationship with God through Christ, and return to “the Christian life”—living in accordance with God’s Word. Walking after the spirit, and not after the flesh.

Early AAs were required to seek salvation (if they were not already children of God)—a deliverance from darkness by the grace of God through accepting Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior, receiving the gift of the Holy Spirit, and being assured of everlasting life. And this was something far more important and far different to them than just quitting drinking and even from resisting temptation and being delivered from it. Over and over in the rescue missions, from which AAs derived many ideas, salvation and enduring sobriety came at the same time, merely flowing from a cry to God for help. But the mission objective for the derelict was an event (salvation) followed by a Christian life based on the Bible, prayer, God’s guidance, and walking according to the Word.[20]

After Bill W. and Dr. Bob and A.A. Number Three (Bill Dotson) got sober, the early emphasis was on “First Century Christianity.” The pioneers not only got saved but pursued a Christian life of growth through Bible study, prayer meetings, Quiet Time, using Christian literature and devotionals, and then being certain to witness to others while maintaining fellowship and attending religious services if they chose.

God had done for the early A.A. pioneers what they could not do for themselves. He had enabled salvation (if the person was not already a child of God). And he had provided plenty of information for living in accordance with His will and Word. The obedience and action were in the hands of the newcomers.

For me, the greatest lesson I (Dick B.) have learned from A.A. history after years of researching, thinking, and study concerns the experiences of the first three AAs—Bill Wilson, Dr. Bob Smith, and Bill Dotson. The accounts of their experiences showed how these three each found and stood on the power of God working in their lives to heal them. The long-submerged facts show us the results, rather than providing any needed theological explanations and variations. And that is the last point to be made here.

Look at How and Why God’s Healing Miracle Worked in the First Three AAs

Not many know, and some won’t even concede, the following documented, historical accounts. [For the documentation for the ideas and quotes in the remainder of this article, please see: Dick B. and Ken B., The Dick B. Christian Recovery Guide, 3rd ed. (Kihei, HI: Paradise Research Publications, Inc., 2010).]

First, by the time they sought relief from their alcoholism, all three of the first three AAs:

(1)   Reached a very low point of despair and hopelessness—“deflation in depth” as Wilson liked to describe the so-called “bottom.”[21]

(2)   Believed in God.

(3)   Had received a Christian upbringing where salvation and the truth of God’s

Word were an assured part of what was learned.

(4)   Had long before accepted or recently accepted Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior.

(5)   Sought help from God.

(6)   Were cured of their alcoholism.

Second, there was no common, specific way in which they had put themselves in the position where God had healed them. Each may have “found,” “discovered,” “rediscovered,” or “established his relationship with” God in a different manner.[22] But all had been healed.

Third, their miraculous healings can briefly be described as follows:

(1)   Bill W. was told by Dr. Silkworth that Jesus Christ, the “Great Physician,” could cure him of his alcoholism. Ebby Thacher had demonstrated his rebirth to Bill and told how he had gone to the altar at the Calvary Mission and been healed. Bill himself accepted Jesus Christ as his Lord and Savior at Calvary Mission's altar. Bill wrote he had been born again. He was saved. Then he went to Towns Hospital, having decided that the Great Physician could cure Him. He cried out to God for help. He sensed the very presence of God in his hospital room. He exclaimed: “So this is the God of the Scriptures.” Bill wrote that the Lord had cured him of his “terrible disease.” He never drank again. And he believed that God had called him to save all the alcoholics. The healing was complete.

(2)   Dr. Bob—long acquainted with the Bible, salvation, and Christian programs and practices—nonetheless had never really wanted to quit drinking. He said he was probably one of those “wanna wanna” guys. And he had never openly conceded that he was a drunk. But he was persuaded to join a little group on their knees on the floor in Akron and with them to pray for his deliverance. He did not quit drinking immediately after the prayer. But a miraculous phone call by Bill Wilson to Henrietta Seiberling resulted in Henrietta's declaring that Bill was “manna from heaven.” Bill and Bob met for six hours. Bob grasped the importance of service—helping others—and joined Bill in a quest to find and develop methods to help others. After one brief, final binge, Dr. Bob decided to quit drinking for good. In a little-known interview, Dr. Bob said he had been healed by prayer. In his personal story, he announced that he had been cured. He never drank again. The healing was complete.

(3)   Bill Dotson—an alcoholic Akron attorney—was visited in the Akron City Hospital by Bill W. and Dr. Bob. They told Dotson their stories. They told him he must give his life to God, and they told him he must help others when he got well. Dotson turned to God for help. He was cured of his alcoholism. He so stated at a later point. And he became the needed third party around whom the original Akron A.A. Christian program was built. Bill W. said that the first A.A. group—Akron Number One—was founded the day that Dotson walked out of the hospital a free man. The date of the founding was July 4, 1935. And Dotson went on to become the “grand old man” in Akron—serving drunks at every turn. The healing was complete

Finally, these and other little-known details about the first three AAs have convinced me that—before there was a recovery program called in Akron a “Christian fellowship,” before there were any “six” “word-of-mouth” ideas being used by Wilson, and before there was any Big Book and its included Twelve Steps in 1939: (1) All three had turned to God for help in overcoming their alcoholism. (1) All three men had experienced healing of their alcoholism by God. (3) All three could join in saying “God had done for us what we could not do for ourselves.” Those were their “spiritual experiences.” And all had proved that point.

[1] This reworded version of Step Twelve, containing the phrase “spiritual awakening,” also occurs in the second edition (1955), the third edition (1976), and the fourth edition (2001) of the Big Book—on page 60 in these later editions.

[2] Alcoholics Anonymous: The Story of How More Than One Hundred Men Have Recovered from Alcoholism  (New York City: Works Publishing Company, 1939), 37-38; Compare: Alcoholics Anonymous: This is the Fourth Edition of the Big Book, the Basic Text of Alcoholics Anonymous, 4th ed., (New York City: Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Inc., 2001), 25.

                   For reference, the phrase “spiritual experience(s)” occurs 21 times in the front matter and main text (up to page 164), together with “Appendix II: Spiritual Experience,” of the fourth edition (2001) of the Big Book as follows:

                (a) “Foreword to Second Edition,” once, on pages xv-xvi;

                (b) Chapter 2, “There Is a Solution,” four times, on pages 25, 27 (twice), and 29;

                (c) Chapter 4, We Agnostics,” three times, on pages 44, 47 (note), and 56;

                (d) Chapter 5, “How It Works,” once, on page 66—keeping in mind that Step Twelve originally read “spiritual experience” in the first printing of the first edition of the Big Book;

                (e) Chapter 6, “Into Action,” twice, on pages 75 and 79;

                (f) Chapter 8, “To Wives,” once, on page 119;

                (g) Chapter 9, “The Family Afterward,” four times, on pages 124, 128, 130, and 131;

                (h) Chapter 11, “A Vision for You,” three times, on pages 155, 157, and 158; and

                (i) Appendix II, “Spiritual Experience,” twice, on pages 567 and 568.

                   The phrase “spiritual awakening(s)” does not occur at all in the first printing of the first edition. (The term “religious awakening” occurs once on page 390 in the personal story titled “The Rolling Stone.”) The phrase “spiritual awakening” only occurs twice in the second printing of the first edition; once as a replacement term for “spiritual experience” in the language of Step Twelve, and once in “Appendix II: Spiritual Experience”--on page 569 in the second and third editions, and on page 567 of the fourth edition.

[3] “Big Book Changes,”; accessed 1/2/12.

[4] It was found on pages 569-70 of the second and third editions; and it is found on pages 567-68 of the current (fourth) edition.

[5] Alcoholics Anonymous, 4th ed., 567.

[6] Alcoholics Anonymous, 4th ed., 567-68.

[7] This began when John Henry Fitzhugh Mayo, the Episcopal minister’s son from Maryland and the second man to recover at Towns Hospital, doubled and redoubled the debate over the Big Book’s language. Fitz thought the book ought to be Christian in the doctrinal sense of the word and that it should say so. He was in favor of using Biblical terms and expressions to make this clear. Wilson’s partner Henry Parkhurst (who got drunk shortly thereafter) was called the “liberal” who wanted a psychological book which would lure the alcoholic in.” The battle and  the compromise are largely explained by Wilson himself in pages 162-168 of Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age: A Brief History of A.A. (NY: Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Inc., 1957). The heavily edited and scribbled result is graphically portrayed in The Book That Started It All: The Original Working Manuscript of Alcoholics Anonymous (Center City, MN: Hazelden, 2010.) Lois Wilson stated her version and reasons for the dramatic change in her memoirs 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, Inc., 1987). 113. She said the compromise agreement had produced “a universal spiritual program.”

[8] Shoemaker’s talk at the 1955 International Convention is published in full on pages 261-70 of Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age (New York: Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Inc., 1957).

[9] Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age, 276.

[10] Alcoholics Anonymous, 1st ed., 23-24 (= 4th ed., 13-14):

[11] Bill W., My First 40 Years: An Autobiography by the Cofounder of Alcoholics Anonymous (Center City, MN: Hazelden, 2000), 145-48.

[12] Alcoholics Anonymous, 1st ed., 19.

[13] Alcoholics Anonymous, 1st ed., 20-21.

[14] Alcoholics Anonymous, 1st ed., 21.

[15] Alcoholics Anonymous, 1st ed., 36.

[16] Alcoholics Anonymous, 1st ed., 36-38. [Later, in correspondence between Bill W. and Dr. Jung, the “necessary vital spiritual experience” was called a “conversion experience.” The correspondence is in “Pass It On,” 38, 54-55.

[17] The statements in this paragraph can be found in their order on the following pages of Alcoholics Anonymous, 1st ed., pp. ______.

[18] Alcoholics Anonymous, 1st ed., 72.

[19] Alcoholics Anonymous, 1st ed., 36, 69, 97.

[20] See Samuel H. Hadley, Down in Water Street: A Story of Sixteen Years Life and Work in Water Street Mission A Sequel to the Life of Jerry McAuley, Memorial Edition (NY: Fleming H. Revell Company, n.d.); J. Wilbur Chapman, S.H. Hadley of Water Street (NY: Fleming H. Revell Company, 1906).

[21] Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age (New York: Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Inc., 1957), 64, 68.

[22] Bill Wilson followed the dicta of both William James and Rev. Shoemaker:  (1) “Finding” God through “living in harmony with God,” “doing” his will (John 7:17); (2) Having a resultant “vital religious experience.” (3) Attaining it through Jesus Christ. See Samuel M. Shoemaker, Jr., Realizing Religion (NY: Association Press, 1929), 9, 16, 27, 29. Dr. Bob “rediscovered” God when, as a Christian, he finally recognized he was “licked” by liquor and prayed to God with others for his deliverance. Bill Dotson’s story was that he, as a Christian, had just never turned to God for help, but when he did, he gave God the credit and said he had “found Him.” All three had “established a relationship with God” before or at their sobriety by belief in God, being Christians, turning to God for help, and being rewarded by God for their believing. Hebrews 11:6. 


Dick B.'s son Ken
P.O. Box 837
Kihei, Hawaii
Tel.: (808) 276-4945
Fax: (808) 874-4876

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