Is "a Power greater than ourselves"?
New "god" in A.A., or Our
Early A.A. Experience I’d Like to
me introduce you to Rich. He’s a young
newcomer I met at my Wednesday night
Home Meeting more than ten years ago.
A friend of mine named John came up
to me, pointed to Rich (who was sitting
alone), and asked me to talk to him.
I asked why. John replied: Because
he came out of the same treatment
center I did. He’s fresh out. And
I know you like to work with newcomers.
So approach Rich I did. He was about
twenty-one years old, had a job, had
just gotten out of treatment, and
was following their instructions to
"go to a meeting."
the meeting, I asked Rich to come
to my apartment where we could talk
more about A.A. He did; and, after
some general questions and comments,
I asked him if he believed in God.
immediate comment was: "They
told me it could be a tree."
And I’d heard that one before.
asked Rich to step over to the big
window in my apartment. The window
looked out on a beautiful forest of
Redwoods, Oaks, Bays, and other indigenous
trees. I said: Rich. Look out there.
What do you see? He replied: Trees.
I asked: Do you think any one or all
of those trees created the heavens
and the earth? He said: I get your
point. And that was the last I heard
of trees from Rich. In fact, he’s
been sober for many years now. He’s
over 30, married, has a great job,
and has a youngster on the way. I’m
hoping he will name the child "Richard."
The problem is that, if he does, it
could be named after Rich or myself.
Either way, I’ll probably claim the
has gone to thousands of meetings,
just as I have. He’s been a speaker
at, and secretary of, many A.A. meetings.
He’s been to A.A. Conferences, to
Big Book Seminars, and to lots of
fun events like A.A. dances, camp-outs,
and visits to comedy shows. I was
his A.A. sponsor for several years
and took him through the Twelve Steps.
In turn, he’s sponsored many men in
their recovery and taken them through
the Twelve Steps. He took Bible classes,
became a born again Christian, and
attended our Bible fellowship. His
aunt is a Roman Catholic Nun. His
sister is married to a Jew. I’ve never
heard him criticize either religious
denomination.I guess he’s had good
exposure to several now because his
wife is also a Christian. But I’ve
never heard him talk about a tree.
fact, a few years ago, Rich was coming
to Hawaii to get married at a beautiful
site on the North Shore of Oahu. He
phoned and asked me to be his Best
Man. We went to the wedding site,
which was surrounded by flowers, rocks,
a creek, a beautiful waterfall. And
trees. But I never heard either Rich
or the officiating minister say a
word about a tree–even during the
prayers. And, since I keep in touch
with him, I can say that I’ve never
heard Rich talk about trees and God
since that long ago day in my apartment.
But when I ask him: Who loves you?
He still answers: God does, and you
do, Dick. And we do.
brief look at Wilson’s "Power"
in Early A.A.
to publication of the First
Edition of the Big Book in 1939,
Bill Wilson prepared a number
of draft manuscripts. In what
purports to be the very first
draft of the Second Step, here’s
an alleged statement of what
Bill then wrote:
in the "very first draft of the
Twelve Steps. . . This is an approximate
reconstruction of the way he first
set them down" (quoting the original
draft of Steps 2 and 3)]: "2.
Came to believe that God could restore
us to sanity. 3. Made a decision to
turn our wills and our lives over
to the care and direction of God"
(Pass It On: The Story of Bill
Wilson and how the A.A. message reached
the world. New York: Alcoholics
Anonymous World Services, Inc., 1984,
Bob died. Wilson decided to write
his own essays and his own history.
And these were edited with a fine
tooth comb by two Jesuit priests,
Father John C. Ford and Father Ed
Dowling. Bill inserted his new idea:
"You can, if you wish, make A.A.
itself your ‘higher power’" (Twelve
Steps and Twelve Traditions. New
York: Alcoholics Anonymous World Services,
Inc., p. 27)
his history, Bill added his own, expanded
version of the change from "God"
to "Power" in the Second
Step Two we decided to describe God
as a "Power greater than ourselves.
. . . Such were the final concessions
to those of little or no faith; this
was the great contribution of our
atheists and agnostics. They had widened
the gateway so that all who suffer
might pass through, regardless of
their belief or lack of belief.
God was certainly there in our Steps,
but He was now expressed in terms
that anybody–anybody at all–could
accept and try" (italics in the
original) (Alcoholics Anonymous
Comes of Age. New York: Alcoholics
Anonymous World Services, Inc., 1957,
may be lots more history about what
and why Bill did what he did with
his new "group-Power" substitution
for God. But the foregoing will suffice
in light of our two previous articles
on "higher power" and our
article to come on "God as we
understood Him." The simple fact
is, that under pressure from a couple
of atheists–perhaps only one–Bill
had boldly reversed the original A.A.
idea of a restoration and cure by
illustrations of the pioneer original
attitude, see Alcoholics Anonymous,
had restored his sanity," p.
57; " "Your Heavenly Father
will never let you down!", p.
181; and "Henrietta, 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," p. 191).
Bill Wilson evicted our Creator from
the rooms of Alcoholics Anonymous
subsequent to 1939? From my standpoint,
of course, that was and is impossible.
Still, was A.A. no longer a place
for restoration to sanity by God?
For a cure of alcoholism by the Lord?
Had the A.A. rooms been opened to
gods," "any gods,"
the group, or "somebody else"
as restorative, healing agents?
if you could receive or had received
the restoration, healing, and deliverance
that Dr. Bob did. That Wilson said
he did. That the pioneers did. That
I did. Like those pioneers, I relied
on our Creator, and here I am. But
what of this "Power greater than
ourselves" that has turned so
many 12 Step people toward light bulbs,
chairs, groups, radiators, and Ralph.
Quite frankly, I don’t know. Bill
Wilson is dead, and he can’t tell
us. Yet many of his successors at
the helm of A.A.’s publishing arm
appear to think you can be healed
by a lightbulb or a radiator or the
other idols. Thankfully, however,
there is plenty of room for some homework–research
that will enable a full, frank, and
accurate comparison of these revisionist
interpretations of the "Power
greater than ourselves" phrase
with some of the very clear original
Big Book language about "that
Power, which is God" (See
Alcoholics Anonymous, 3rd
ed., p. 46, for example). Then you–inside
or outside of Twelve Step Fellowships–can
choose the radiator or the living
God for recovery. And do so with knowledge
that the radiator didn’t come from
God or the Bible or early A.A..
ideas about "Power-greater-than-ourselves-ism"
worked! Forty pioneers–real alcoholics
all–had recovered from their medically
incurable malady of alcoholism. They
had used no Steps because there were
no Steps. Their parent group–the Oxford
Group–had helped alcoholics with no
steps, no "six" steps, and
certainly no Twelve Steps. In the
words of A.A.’s own literature:
"They [the forty pioneers] had
the Bible, and they had the precepts
of the Oxford Group" (DR.
BOB and the Good Oldtimers. New
York: Alcoholics Anonymous World Services,
Inc., 1980, p. 96).
"We already had the basic ideas,
though not in terse and tangible form.
We got them. . . as a result of our
study of the Good Book," said
Dr. Bob (DR. BOB, supra,
"Dr. Bob, noting that there were
no Twelve Steps at the time. . . said
they were convinced that the answer
to their problems was in the Good
Book. ‘To some of us older ones, the
parts we found absolutely essential
were the Sermon on the Mount [Matthew
5-7], the 13th chapter
of First Corinthians, and the Book
of James,’ he said" (DR. BOB,
supra, p. 96).
. . . "the Book of James was
a favorite with early A.A.’s [said
Bill Wilson]–so much so that "The
James Club" was favored by some
as a name for the fellowship"
(DR. BOB, supra, p.
[As to the Oxford Group influence]
"Emphasis was placed on prayer
and on seeking guidance from God in
all matters. The movement also relied
on study of the Scriptures and developed
some of its own literature as well.
At the core of the program were the
‘four absolutes’: absolute honesty,
absolute unselfishness, absolute purity,
and absolute love" (DR. BOB,
supra, p. 54).
"We had much prayer together
in those days and began quietly to
read Scripture and discuss a practical
approach to its application in our
lives" (DR. BOB, supra,
In November of 1937, Bill Wilson was
in Akron. "Bill’s writings record
the day he sat in the living room
with Doc, counting recoveries. ‘A
hard core of very grim, last-gasp
cases had by then been sober a couple
of years,’ he said. ‘All told, we
figured that upwards of 40 alcoholics
were staying bone dry’" (DR.
BOB, supra, p. 123).
Meeting at T. Henry Williams’s house
in Akron, the alcoholics had a "long,
hard-fought session. But together
Bill and Bob persuaded a bare majority
of 18 A.A.’s gathered at T. Henry’s.
. ." to accept Bill’s package
and allow Bill to write a book of
experiences that would carry the message
of recovery to other cities and other
countries (DR. BOB, supra,
Investigating the Akron "Program"
in some depth, Frank Amos–later an
A.A. trustee–reported to John D. Rockefeller,
Jr., on the program’s details (DR.
BOB, supra, p. 131-36).
such a backdrop of recoveries and
a developed "Program" that
had worked for forty tough, "medically
incurable" cases, Bill began
writing his Big Book. He was fashioning
a "how it worked" program
from the Akron success with the Bible
and the precepts of the Oxford Group.
Certainly not supported by his own
failures on the New York scene (See
Dick B., Turning Point: A History
of Early A.A.’s Roots and Successes,
pp. 109-16). There was not one warped
or distorted word, in Wilson’s earliest
drafts, about a "higher power,"
a "power greater than ourselves,"
or "God as we understood Him."
Not when he first started, that is.
There was God! Creator. Maker. Spirit.
Father. Yahweh–Who had been the subject
of Bill’s three months of Bible study
with the Smiths at their home in Akron
in the summer of 1935. Then things
began to change–even as the drafts
changed and were re-oriented by Bill.
And Yahweh–Whose name was holy and
not to be profaned–began to get new
names and attributes affixed.
over sixty-five years later, here
is what others have said Bill
meant to say about this program that
worked and the Creator upon whom its
adherents had placed their reliance.
Two.] There is something more powerful
than I that can help me to stop drinking.
I can’t, but somebody else can (Terrence
T. Gorski. Understanding The Twelve
Steps: A Guide for Counselors, Therapists,
and Recovering People (Missouri:
Herald House/Independence Press, 1989,
Step Two we develop a sense of faith
that there is someone or something
bigger and more powerful than we are.
There is someone or something out
there that knows more about addiction
and about recovery than I do. There
is someone out there that has the
answer, someone who can tell me what
to do to recover from my alcoholism.
A "power greater" implies
that this "something" is
greater than we are. There are some
people who claim that a Higher Power
can be anything, even a Coke bottle.
I personally have trouble with that
(Gorski, Understanding, supra,
correctly anticipated the problems
they would encounter in placing reliance
upon a Higher Power and so decreed
that a Higher Power could be anything
we interpret it to be, even a tree.
However, the focus was still on something
outside ourselves. But I was starting
to discover that in order to find
our own inner power we needed to find
that personal aspect of God WITHIN
us. . . . I believe we have God’s
energy manifesting in us every day
of our lives (Marianne W. Gilliam.
How Alcoholics Anonymous Failed
Me: My Personal Journey to Sobriety
Through Self-Empowerment. New
York: William Morrow and Company,
Inc., 1998, p. 45).
STEP TWO: CHRISTIAN ADAPTATION: To
experience Jesus as personal and available
(Saul Selby. Twelve Step Christianity:
The Christian Roots and Application
of the Twelve Steps. MN: Hazelden
Foundation, 2001, p. 25).
and Deidre Bobgan:
"Power greater than ourselves"
can be anybody or anything that seems
greater than the person who takes
Step Two. It can be a familiar spirit.,
such as Carl Jung’s Philemon. It could
be any deity of Hindu-ism, Buddhism,
Greek mythology, or New Age channeled
entities. It could be one’s own so-called
higher self. It could even be the
devil himself. The extreme naivete
of Christians comes through when they
confidently assert that their higher
Power is Jesus Christ. Since when
did Jesus align Himself with false
gods? Since when has He been willing
to join the Pantheon or the array
of Hindu deities. Jesus is not an
option of one among many. He is the
Only Son, the Only Savior, and the
Only Way (Martin and Deidre Bobgan.
12 Steps To Destruction: Codependency
Recovery Heresies. California:
East Gate Publishers, 1991, p. 115).
reading of the sacred text [A.A.’s
Big Book] is also a part of every
meeting. The Oxford Group, being "more
spiritual than religious," but
still (in Christian countries) acknowledging
it Christian roots, used the Bible
for readings. Alcoholics Anonymous,
being "spiritual, not religious,"
doesn’t use the Bible at all; rather
it uses another sacred text, the inspired
Word of God as expressed through Bill
Wilson, the Big Book. . . .Unlike
the Oxford Group, which claimed salvation
and redemption by Jesus through the
Oxford Group, AA proclaims "recovery"
by one’s "Higher Power"
through the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics
Anonymous. Ken Ragge. The Real
AA: Behind the Myth of 12-Step Recovery.
AZ: Sharp Press, 1998, pp. 82-83).
Two, to the uninitiated, appears to
be mostly about finding faith in God.
While there may be some truth in this,
working this Step is more a matter
of defining God in AA’s image (Ragge,
The Real AA, supra,
L. Playfair, M.D.
[the Twelve Steps] do not derive exclusively
or even primarily from truths or concepts
found in either the Old or New Testament.
One cannot find anything even remotely
similar to the Twelve Steps in the
writings of ancient or modern Christian
theologians. The secular nature of
the Twelve Steps is, in fact, freely
admitted by A.A. groups. Al-Anon,
for instance, plainly asserts: The
Twelve Steps . . . although spiritually
oriented, are not based on a specific
religious discipline. They embrace
not only the philosophies of the Judeo-Christian
faiths and the many religions of the
East, but nonreligious, ethical and
moral thought as well. . . As a matter
of fact, AA’s Twelve Steps are more
akin to the Bahai faith than to Biblical
Christianity (William L. Playfair.
The Useful Lie. Illinois: Crossway
Books, 1991, p. 87).
any power of AA and the recovery
industry is really just that–any power,
imagined or real. Continuing its message
to the clergy, AA concedes that: Some
members of the clergy may be shocked
to learn that an agnostic or an atheist
may join the Fellowship, or to hear
an AA [member] say: "I can’t
accept that ‘God concept’; I put my
faith in the AA group; that’s my higher
power, and it keeps me sober."
The idea of the AA group as the Higher
Power or god of an AA member should
not be shrugged off as hypothetical
or even all that exceptional. Recovery
industry literature is replete with
testimonials of this kind (Playfair,
The Useful Lie, supra,
R. Wilson and Judith A. Wilson:
are many different ideas of a Higher
Power. The chapter on Step Two in
Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions
describes several types of experiences
with God before getting into a recovery
program. Some are what one might call
a traditional idea of God and some
are very nontraditional. All that
seems to be required is that the Higher
Power be someone or something that
you can relate to that is more powerful
than your addiction. . . . Some people
have such negative reactions to the
traditional ideas that for a while
they have to think of "GOD"
as Good Orderly Direction, from wherever
it comes. Some even say their Higher
Power was just a Group Of Drunks (Jan
R. Wilson and Judith A. Wilson.
Addictionary: A Primer of Recovery
Terms and Concepts from Abstinence
to Withdrawal. New York: A Fireside/Parkside
Recovery Book, 1992, pp. 181-82).
Kurtz and Katherine Ketcham:
use of the phrase Higher Power–his,
hers, yours, or mine–rather than the
word God, reminds members of
A.A.’s tolerance of individual differences
in religious belief and spiritual
inclination. The most basic understanding
of the concept "Higher Power"
within Alcoholics Anonymous is that
which keeps me sober. In a sense,
this is to out-James William James;
it is the ultimate pragmatic concept
of God. For alcoholics who have tried
and failed time after time to stay
sober by themselves, for alcoholics
who have tried and failed after using
any one of innumerable techniques,
that which finally does keep
one sober becomes "God."
(Ernest Kurtz and Katherine Ketcham.
The Spirituality of Imperfection:
Modern Wisdom From Classic Stories.
New York: Bantam Books, 1992, p. 208).
Where Did "It" Come
in the quotes, you have it all. From
Yahweh to Something. From God to Group
Of Drunks. From our Creator to Somebody
Else. From Bible to Baloney. From
Baptist to Bahai. From Bible-believing
not spend much time on where "Power
greater than ourselves" really
came from. I just don’t know. And,
as usual, its author Bill Wilson didn’t
us. But it sure didn’t come from God.
And it sure didn’t come from the Bible.
I would frankly assert that the ill-defined,
distorted, utterly confusing "it"
is the product of whole-cloth manufacture.
A product fashioned by the combined
forces of atheists, booksellers, salaried
service writers, iconoclasts, uninformed
clergy, misguided Christian writers,
treatment programs, therapists, angry
bleeding deacons, frustrated failures,
and probably the just-plain-ignorant.
But certainly not by Dr. Bob, nor
Anne, nor Henrietta Seiberling, nor
T. Henry or Clarace Williams.
I personally have heard all the weird
names in the rooms of A.A. or recovery
literature; and–desperate for deliverance,
recovery, and freedom–I picked these
bizarre appellations and really toyed
with them for far too long. But no
more! I can this very day be a certified,
recovered, delivered, happy, joyous,
free, Bible-studying, Christian, ex-real-alcoholic
within the halls of Alcoholics Anonymous.
Just think! Within the halls of A.A.!
I don’t have to worry about whether
a radiator is a power or whether I
need to understand radiators to get
I finally plunged in to my Oxford
Group research, I found the expression
was in common usage in the Oxford
Group, and probably was devised as
a way of rejecting Biblical usage
in favor of Buchman usage–without
really intending to change the Bible
itself. That, of course, is something
I don’t think can or should be done.
It gives rise to the same nonsense
we have quoted above. But for your
reading pleasure, here are some of
the possible sources. Almost all,
I believe, were written well before
the Big Book was published in the
Spring of 1939:
Rev. Canon Samuel M. Shoemaker, Jr.,
D.D., S.T.D.–"Co-founder of A.A."
vast Power outside themselves (Shoemaker,
A Young Man’s View of the Ministry,
Force outside himself, greater than
himself (Shoemaker, If I Be Lifted
Up, p. 176).
God, therefore, can deal with sin.
He must contrive to do for us what
we have lost the power to do for ourselves
(Shoemaker, If I Be Lifted Up,
talked of daily Quiet Time, of Bible
study, prayer and listening, and of
the power of God to lead and guide
those who are obedient enough to be
led (Shoemaker, Children of the
Second Birth, pp. 148-49).
have done wrong. I know I need to
be changed, and I know some Power
outside myself must do it (Shoemaker,
God and America, p. 19).
C. Kitchen–Oxford Group writer, colleague
of Sam Shoemaker, friend of Bill Wilson
power within yet coming from outside
myself–a power far stronger than I
was (Kitchen, I Was a Pagan,
Power (Kitchen, I Was a Pagan,
was this power of the Spirit flowing
into me that. . . gave me not only
the courage [but also] the strength
. . . I needed (Kitchen, I Was
a Pagan, p. 94).
takes the power of God to remove these
fears and mental conditions (Kitchen,
I Was a Pagan, p. 143).
takes the power of God to remove the
desire for these indulgences (Kitchen,
I Was a Pagan, p. 143).
did hesitate to call this force the
"power of God" (Kitchen,
I Was a Pagan, p. 16).
Foot, British Oxford Group writer,
author of best-selling "Life
power and direction came to her when
she started listening to God (Foot,
Life Began Yesterday, p. 150).
Power by which human nature can be
changed . . . and through this Power
problems are being solved (Foot,
Life Began Yesterday, p. 22).
is at work in the world today a Power
that has for many generations been
neglected by masses of mankind (Foot,
Life Began Yesterday, p. 22).
will ask God to show me His purpose
for my life and claim from Him the
power to carry that purpose out (Foot,
Life Began Yesterday, p. 11).
Begbie, author of one of the earliest,
popular Oxford Group books:
future of civilization, rising at
this moment from the ruins of materialism,
would seem to lie in an intelligent
use by man of the ultimate source
of spiritual Power (Begbie, Life-Changers,
D. Belden–longtime Oxford Group leader
the Power which raised Jesus Christ
from the dead can, and will, raise
us from our old nature and begin to
form in us the new (Belden, Reflections
on Moral Re-Armament, p. 28).
can and do speak for myself and perhaps
for a few other rationally recovered believers
in A.A.. I’ve been taken on a royal ride.
I came to A.A. sick, sorry, bewildered,
terrified, and guilty. I believed in God,
and I still do. I believed in what His Son
Jesus Christ accomplished for me, and I
still do. I believed His Word contained
the truth about these things, and I still
do. But I have put out the foregoing quotes
just to show you how many roadblocks appeared
on my ride, confused me at the outset, resulted
in many a critical comment from A.A. friends,
and caused me to hold back in my work to
help others. Now that I know just how much
nonsense has been poured into the "Power
greater than ourselves" mold, I’ll
never take or invite anyone to take that
ride again. And, to those, who offer a trip
on the royal "something" or "any
power" or "group" train,
I’ll say for myself (and for those
I try to help) to those who are the
engineers: "Jesus answered them and
said unto them, Ye do err, not knowing the
scriptures, nor the power of God" (Matthew
22:29). Bill and Bob were not selling snake
oil. They were selling Scripture. And I
bought it–after an unneeded delay; and I
was healed by the power of God in Alcoholics
Anonymous, just like the forty pioneers
were. You can also be healed. Your Heavenly
Father will never let you down!
© Dick B.
B., PO Box 837, Kihei, HI 96753-0837; 808
874 4876; email@example.com