Dr. William D. Silkworth advised Bill Wilson that Jesus Christ, the Great Physician, could cure Bill of his alcoholism. At the time of Bill Wilson’s third hospitalization in Towns Hospital, Bill had a discussion with his physician, Dr. William D. Silkworth, on the subject of the “Great Physician.” And Silkworth’s biographer Dale Mitchel wrote in Silkworth: The Little Doctor Who Loved Drunks:
- “Silkworth has not been given the appropriate credit for his position on a spiritual conversion, particularly as it may relate to true Christian benefits. Several sources, including Norman Vincent Peale in his book The Positive Power of Jesus Christ, agree that it was Dr. Silkworth who used the term ‘The Great Physician’ to explain the need in recovery for a relationship with Jesus Christ… In the formation of AA, Wilson initially insisted on references to God and Jesus, as well as the Great Physician… Silkworth challenged the alcoholic with an ultimatum. Once hopeless, the alcoholic would grasp hold of any chance of sobriety. Silkworth, a medical doctor, challenged the alcoholic with a spiritual conversion and a relationship with God as part of a program of recovery. His approach with Bill Wilson was no different. . . Wilson did often confirm Silkworth as ‘very much a founder of AA.’ … [Bill wrote:] “I was in black despair. And in the midst of this I remembered about this God business. . . and I rose up in bed and said, “If there be a God, let him show himself now! All of a sudden there was a light. . .a blinding white light that filled the whole room. A tremendous wind seemed to be blowing all around me and right through me. I felt as if I were standing on a high mountain top. . . I felt that I stood in the presence of God.” [In Norman Vincent Peale, The Art of Living] The Silkworth copy of this book inscribed by Peale is available at the Silkworth Collection Archives… In this book in particular he describes the need for surrender (p.105), he uses the term ‘The Great Physician’ (later used by Bill Wilson) as a methaphor for Jesus Christ (pp. 123 -26, and 151), and the details of an act of making amends, the AA Ninth Step, (pp. 128-31), all of which are cornerstones of spiritual living ripe within the Alcoholics Anonymous program and that of Dr. Silkworth.”1
Ebby Thacher visited his old school friend and companion Bill Wilson shortly after this third hospitalization. Ebby told Bill that he (Ebby) had been lodging at Calvary Rescue Mission,2 had “got religion,”3 and that “God had done for him what he could not do for himself.”4 Ebby had there made a decision for Christ.5 In a manuscript I found at Stepping Stones, titled, “Bill Wilson’s Original Story,” every line was numbered. The numbers ran from 1 to 1180; and here is how Bill there described Ebby’s approach and Bill’s observation that Ebby had been born again at the Mission:
- “Nevertheless here I was sitting opposite a man who talked about a personal God, who told me how he had found Him, who described to me how I might do the same thing and who convinced me utterly that something had come into his life which had accomplished a miracle. The man was transformed; there was no denying he had been reborn.” (lines 935-42).6
Bill Wilson shortly set out for Calvary Mission to receive what his friend Ebby had received.7 Upon his arrival at Calvary Mission, Bill went to the altar just as Ebby had done.8 And just as Ebby had done, Bill made a decision for Christ.9 Rev. Sam Shoemaker’s wife was present. She told me on the telephone from her home in Burnside very explicitly that she was present at the Mission and that Bill there “made a decision for Christ.”10
In a recorded talk at Dallas, Texas, Bill Wilson’s wife Lois Wilson described the events that took place at Bill’s conversion:
- “Well, people got up and went to the altar and gave themselves to Christ. And the leader of the meeting asked if there was anybody that wanted to come up. And Bill started up… And he went up to the front and really, in very great sincerity, did hand over his life to Christ.”11
The Rev. W. Irving Harris was Dr. Shoemaker’s Assistant Minister. Harris and his wife Julia lived in Calvary House where Shoemaker lived, and knew Bill Wilson quite well. Rev. Harris typed a memorandum which his wife Julia gave to me, which said of the Mission Conversion:
- “. . . it was at a meeting at Calvary Mission that Bill himself was moved to declare that he had decided to launch out as a follower of Jesus Christ.”12
Then, it was Bill Wilson himself who began to describe his own conversion to Christ at the Calvary Mission altar.. First, while drunk, Bill wrote a letter to his brother-in-law Dr. Leonard Strong, using the same description that Ebby had used regarding his own conversion. Bill said, “I’ve got religion.”13
Of far greater importance are the remarks that I found twice in Bill’s manuscripts at Stepping Stones and which are now recorded in his own autobiography published by Hazelden. Bill wrote:
“For sure I’d been born again.”14
Even Bill’s wife Lois, having seemingly become resentful of Bill’s victory, wrote: Although my joy and faith in his rebirth continued, I missed our companionship. We were seldom alone now.”15
But the decision at the altar did not, at first, produce sobriety. Bill had not yet had quite enough to drink. After his conversion, he wandered drunk in despair and dark depression to Towns Hospital one more time. He was, he said, still pondering “that mission experience.”16
Concluding he could no longer defeat alcoholism on his own and still remembering Dr. Silkworth’s assurance that Jesus Christ the Great Physician could cure him, Bill thought:
- “Yes, if there was any great physician that could cure the alcohol sickness, I’d better seek him now, at once. I’d better find what my friend had found.”17
Bill arrived at Towns Hospital for his last visit as a patient. For Bill, “The terrifying darkness had become complete.” Then he thought, “But what of the Great Physician? For a brief moment, I suppose, the last trace of my obstinacy was crushed out as the abyss yawned. I remember saying to myself,
- ‘I’ll do anything, anything at all. If there be a Great Physician, I’ll call on him.'”18
And here are a few of Bill’s comments about what happened when he “made the call” and had his ensuing “white light experience”—an experience that changed his life forever, an experience that dominated the early A.A. thinking about the importance of Jesus Christ, and an experience that may give strength to the faith of Christians in A.A. today:
- “Then, with neither faith, nor hope, I cried out, ‘If there be a God, let him show himself.’ The effect was instant, electric. Suddenly my room blazed with an indescribably white light. I was seized with an ecstasy beyond description. I have no words for this. Every joy I had known was pale by comparison. The light, the ecstasy, I was conscious of nothing else. Then, seen in the mind’s eye, there was a mountain. I stood upon its summit where a great wind blew. A wind, not of air, but of spirit. In great, clean strength it blew right through me.”19 “And then the great thought burst upon me: ‘Bill, you are a free man! This is the God of the Scriptures.’ And then I was filled with a consciousness of a presence. A great peace fell over me, and I was with this I don’t know how long. But then the dark side put in an appearance, and it said to me, ‘Perhaps, Bill, you are hallucinating. You better call in the doctor.’ So the doctor came, and haltingly I told him of the experience. Then came great words for Alcoholics Anonymous. The little man had listened, looking at me so benignly with those blue eyes of his, and at length he said to me, ‘Bill you are not crazy. I have read about this sort of thing in books but I have never seen it first hand. . . .’ So I hung on, and then I knew there was a God and I knew there was grace. And through it all I have continued to feel, and if I may presume to say it, that I do know these things.”20
A.A.’s official biography of Bill Wilson summarized the results of Bill’s white light experience:
- “Bill Wilson had just had his 39th birthday, and he still had half his life ahead of him. He always said that after that experience, he never again doubted the existence of God. He never took another drink.”21
Not only had he quit drinking for good, but he set about feverishly witnessing to anyone who would listen. Dr. Samuel M. Shoemaker, Jr., to whose church the Calvary Mission belonged, encouraged Bill to spread the message of change and spiritual recovery to others like himself. William G. Borchert reports the events as follows:
- “Bill took the preacher at his word. With Lois’s full support, he was soon walking through the gutters of the Bowery, into the nut ward at Bellevue Hospital, down the slimy corridors of fleabag hotels, and into the detox unit at Towns with a Bible under his arm. He was promising sobriety to every drunk he could corner if they, like he, would only turn their lives over to God.”22
Yet, as Dr. Bob put it, “Time went by, and he [Bill Wilson] had not created a single convert, not one. As we express it, no one had jelled. He worked tirelessly with no thought of saving his own strength or time, but nothing seemed to register.”23 But the message was carried to Dr. Bob and simmered to its essence by three months of Bible study and discussion by Bill and Bob in the summer of 1935.24 The simple Original program, founded in Akron on June 10, 1935, developed by the Akron Christian Fellowship, and incorporating the basic ideas taken from the study of the Good Book, achieved astonishing success by November of 1937.
Bill Wilson’s message, incorporating his view of the importance of Jesus Christ, is recorded in two places in A.A.’s subsequent literature.
On page 191 of the latest edition of A.A.’s Big Book, Bill is quoted as saying:
- “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.”25
And, in earlier A.A. years continued to express this basic idea to others still in need of help. One account begins with a visit by Dr. Bob’s sponsee, Clarence H. Snyder, with a Cleveland man:
- [Said this Cleveland man:] “One evening I had gone out after dinner to take on a couple
of double-headers and stayed a little later than usual, and when I came home Clarence
was sitting on the davenport with Bill W. [Bill Wilson]. I do not recollect the
specific conversation that went on but I believe I did challenge Bill to tell me something
about A.A., and I do recall one another thing: I wanted to know what it was that worked
so many wonders, and hanging over the mantel was a picture of Gethsemane and Bill
pointed to it and said, “There it is,” which didn’t make much sense to me.”26
And this was it. For those in early A.A. who thoroughly followed the path that began with belief in God and surrender to Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour, the path was a path to success. And Bill’s message for those who wanted to hear it was that the Lord had cured him. Dr. Bob confirmed Bill’s message with the last line of Bob’s own personal story when he said, “Your Heavenly Father will never let you down!”27
1 Dale Mitchel, Silkworth The Little Doctor Who Loved Drunks: The Biography of William Duncan Silkworth, M.D. (Center City, MN: Hazelden, 2002), 33-34, 44-52, 63, 65, 78, 96, 100=01, 106-09, 121-22, 151, 159-61, 193-99, 225.
2 Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age: A Brief History of A.A. (New York: Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Inc., 1957), 58-9; Bill Wilson: Bill W. My First 40 Years: An Autobiography By the CoFounder of Alcoholics Anonymous (Center City, MN: Hazelden, 2000), 132.
3 Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age, 58.
4 Alcoholics Anonymous, 4th ed. (New York: Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Inc., 2001), 11.
5 T. Willard Hunter, “It Started Right There”: Behind the Twelve Steps and the Self-help Movement, Rev. ed. (Claremont, California: Ives Community Office, 2006), 6.
6 Dick B., Turning Point: A History of Early A.A.’s Spiritual Roots and Successes (San Rafael, CA: Paradise Research Publications, 1997). Note: This and other such manuscripts will shortly be published in Dick B.’s latest book with the working title, The Early Manuscripts and Papers I Was Allowed to See and Copy at Stepping Stones Archives in 1991.
7 Bill W., My First 40 Years 135-37.,
8 Bill W., My First 40 Years, 137.
9 Dick B., The Conversion of Bill W.: More on the Creator’s Role in Early A.A. (Kihei, HI: Paradise Research Publications, Inc., 2006), 92-94.
10 Dick B., The Conversion of Bill W., 94.
11 This quote was discovered by A.A. historian Richard K., who listened to the Lois Wilson recording, wrote down the “Christ” remark, and provided the information to me. See Dick B., When Early AAs Were Cured and Why, 3rd ed. (Kihei, HI: Paradise Research Publications, Inc., 2006), 11.
12 Dick B., New Light on Alcoholism: God, Sam Shoemaker, and A.A., Pittsburgh ed. (Kihei, HI: Paradise Research Publications, Inc., 1999), 533.
13 Dick B., When Early AAs Were Cured and Why, 12.
14 Bill W. My First 40 Years, 147; See Dick B., The Conversion of Bill W., 110, reporting the two places (pp. 130 and 103) of the manuscript titled “Wilson, W. G. Wilson Recollections,” dated September 1, 1954, that I personally inspected and was permitted to copy of Stepping Stones Archives in 1991.
15 Lois Remembers, 98.
16 Bill W. My First 40 Years, 138.
17 Bill W. My First 40 Years, 139.
18 Bill W., My First 40 Years, 145.
19 Bill W., My First 40 Years, 145-46.
20 The Language of the Heart: Bill W.’s Grapevine Writings (New York: The AA Grapevine, Inc., 1988), 284.
21 “Pass It On,” 121.
22 William G. Borchert, The Lois Wilson Story When Love is Not Enough: A Biography of the Cofounder of Al-Anon (Center City, MN: Hazelden, 2005), 170.
23 The Co-Founders of Alcoholics Anonymous: Biographical Sketches Their Last Major Talks [Pamphlet P-53] (New York: Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Inc., 1972, 1976), 10.
24 The Co-Founders of Alcoholics Anonymous, 13-14
25 Alcoholics Anonymous, 4th ed., 191
26 This account was included in the third edition of Alcoholics Anonymous (New York: Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, 1976), 216-17. It has now been removed from the subsequent edition. The picture to which Bill W. pointed was a well-known depiction of “a place called Gethsemane” where Jesus had gone to prayer and “saith unto his disciples, sit ye here, while I go and pray yonder… And he went a little further, and fell on his face, and prayed, saying, O my Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me: nevertheless not as I will, but as thou wilt.”
27 Alcoholics Anonymous, 4th ed., 181.