A Brief summary of WJ’s impact on BW and A.A.

Bill Wilson had a very powerful spiritual experience in December 1934 during his last detoxification.  Bill describes the experience as follows:
“My depression deepened unbearably and finally it seemed to me as though I were at the bottom of the pit.  I still gagged badly on the notion of a Power greater than myself, but finally, just for the moment, the last vestige of my proud obstinacy was crushed.  All at once I found myself crying out, ‘If there is a God, let Him show Himself!  I am ready to do anything, anything!’

Suddenly the room lit up with a great white light.  I was caught up into an ecstasy which there are no words to describe.  It seemed to me, in my mind’s eye, that I was on a mountain and that a wind not of air but of spirit was blowing.  And then it burst upon me that I was a free man.  Slowly the ecstasy subsided.  I lay on the bed, but now for a time I was in another world, a new world of consciousness.  All about me and through me there was a wonderful feeling of Presence, and I thought to myself, ‘So this is the God of the preachers!’  A great peace stole over me and I thought, ‘No matter how wrong things seem to be, they are still all right.  Things are all right with God and His world. (1957, p. 64)’”

The very next day someone gave Bill the book The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature (2002) by the American physician, psychologist and founder of Pragmatism, William James. This book was, and still is, a frequently referenced, in- depth study of just the kind of spiritual experiences that Bill had experienced.  Imagine how fortuitous this gift was.  Bill had been frightened by the experience and asked his physician Dr. Silkworth if he was going crazy.  Despite Dr. Silkworth’s reassurances Bill must have had lingering doubts. He was very depressed. His life was in ruins. He was an alcoholic who had lost everything important.  Then someone puts into his hands a book that is all about this type of experience.  Bill reads the book immediately and studied it in subsequent days, months and years, recommending it to everyone in Alcoholics Anonymous (A.A).  He called William James a “founder” of A.A.  He cited William James numerous times in the core A.A. text Alcoholics Anonymous, first published in 1939, one of only two citations of “outsiders.”    He wrote many years later in a famous letter to Carl Jung that in creating A.A. he had simply made what he learned from William James available on a “wholesale” basis, to any alcoholic who was interested (1988).  

So in brief what did Bill learn? Powerful religious experiences had been happening since recorded history.  In instances in which the individual to whom the religious experience happened was alcoholic or otherwise addicted, a spontaneous result of the experience was often the cure of what today we would call alcoholism and other Substance Use Disorders.  James documented, with numerous case examples, that the ability to have religious experiences was a normally distributed human ability most obvious in the extreme examples of “religious geniuses,” but observable in most people occasionally.  Such experiences were often associated with profound personal suffering, but not always.  Sometimes such experiences just happened.  When they “just happened” they were often called mystical states of consciousness characterized by ineffability and noetic characteristics, i.e., having enormous significance for the person.  James observed that the consequences of such experiences was the transformation of the person to whom they happened into a much better person, and in extreme cases into the type of individual we call a “saint.”  James argued that such experiences showed that their was access to “power” residing outside the conscious self. In those saintly transformations, the saint often introduces into society ideas and concepts that change the world.  These experiences are, James said, best evaluated by their consequences, their fruits, not by their antecedents or “roots.”  We know these experiences are good and valuable because of the very positive changes they make in the individual and in the impact that individual may have on society. Religious experiences can be either spontaneous or the result of a methodical practice and thus James referred to some as the result of “systematic” practice.  Religious experiences can also be sudden and thus very dramatic changing the individual instantaneously e.g., conversion, or they can be slow and gradually with only small changes progressing over time.  James said that sudden religious experiences were often the result of the resolution of a dramatically “divided self,” an extreme difference between the individual’s real and ideal self.

James argued that such experiences came from outside the conscious self, outside the functioning ego.  The conscious self, the functioning ego were impediments to such experiences and as long as the individual “tried” to have such experiences, tried to “will” or “control” such experiences, they would not happen.  James also noted that the conscious self functioned only for a limited portion of the time.  When the individual relaxed, when the individual “let go” or “gave up” sometimes as a result of exhaustion, then forces, “powers,” activated in the sub-conscious regions of the mind and brain would produce the desired outcome. James talked about the “Gospel of Relaxation” a current theme at the time in Mind-Cure circles.  As long as the individual “tried” the religious experience and the desired change would not occur, but when the individual let go completely, then s/he would have access to power greater than the conscious self that would produce the longed for personal transformation.  James demonstrated how religious, as well as more secular practices, such as meditation, prayer, various spiritual exercises, diet, physical exercise, experiences w nature (think Emerson or Thoreau), were devoted to the quieting of the conscious self and accessing these “higher powers,” i.e., these subconscious powers.  James hypothesized that it was possible if there were a MORE, i.e., something outside of time and space, that this MORE is positively predisposed to humankind and that the MORE might work through these sub-conscious processes.  James believed this was in fact the case but acknowledge that he had no way to confirm this and he thought it was enough simply to see the role of these sub-conscious processes in human development.

Over the next five years Bill Wilson and his co-founders of A.A. wove these ideas into a program of recovery that owed its origins to several sources.  But Bill was the first person to acknowledge his debt to James.  The observer can see that except for the first step, an amazingly prescient addition, the A.A. step program is an essentially commonplace compilation of traditional spiritual practices.  These practices aim for a goal, the spiritual awakening of the Twelfth Step, that appears directly derived from James and VRE: “… the most important meaning of it is that he has now become able to do, feel and believe that which he could not do before on his unaided strength and resources alone. He has been granted a gift which amounts to a new state of consciousness and being. He has been set on a path which tells him he is really going somewhere, that life is not a dead end, not something to be endured or mastered.  In a very real sense he has been transformed, because he has laid hold of a source of strength which, in one way or another, he had hitherto denied himself. He finds himself in possession of a degree of honesty, tolerance, unselfishness, peace of mind, and love of which he had thought himself quite incapable.  What he has received is a free gift, and yet usually, at least in some small part, he has made himself ready to receive it. (1952 p. 106ff.)”  This spiritual awakening is quite a broad definition of religious experience that welcomes in the individual and is divorced from sectarian and denominational association of any sort.  It could easily come from a contemporary study of altered states of consciousness and their consequences.

One can read VRE itself or other more in depth analyses of VRE (McPeake, 2010) to get a more nuanced discussion of these topics.  But the foregoing demonstrates that the A.A, program is deeply indebted to William James and VRE.

For a more in-depth analysis please click here to read the complete analysis.


Anonymous (1957) Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age.  New York: Alcoholics Anonymous World Service, Inc.

Anonymous (2002)  Alcoholics Anonymous. New York: Alcoholics Anonymous World Service, Inc. Originally published in 1939.

Anonymous (1952) Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions. New York: Alcoholic Anonymous World Service, Inc.

James, W. (2002) The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature. New York: The Modern Library. Originally published in 1902.

McPeake, J.D. (2010) William James, Bill Wilson and the Origin of Alcoholics Anonymous. Dublin, NH: The Dublin Group, Inc www.dubgrp.com

Robertson, N. (1988) Getting Better: Inside Alcoholics Anonymous.  New York: William Morrow.  
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