Bill W.’s grandfather was a drunk. Grandfather Wilson, an innkeeper, had had alcohol turn against him. “One Sunday morning in despair he climbed to the top of Mount Aeolus and beseeched God to help him. He saw a blinding light and felt a great wind, and rushed down to interrupt the service at the Congregational Church. Demanding that the minister leave the pulpit, Wilson described his experience to the congregation. Emily [Bill’s mother] loved this story about her husband’s father, and she told it to her son and husband as often as they would listen. In the eight years that he lived after that experience, the elder Wilson never had another drink” (Cheever, My Name is Bill, p. 17). During Bill’s final stay as a patient at Town’s Hospital, perhaps the familiar tale of his grandfather’s miraculous recovery came to mind. Bill’s description of his 1934 “spiritual experience” was remarkably similar to that of his grandfather. When Bill later told the story of his recovery, it was in the form of a 19th century Protestant redemption story of the sort he would have heard repeatedly from his mother. He resurrected that style when it came time to write about the Third Tradition.
In the essay on Tradition Three, Bill tells the story of “Ed”, an obstreperous atheist/agnostic, who vociferously and repeatedly disagrees with the predominant religious tone of AA. Ed falls off the wagon while on a sales trip and his pleas for help are rebuffed by his fellows at home [Bill later was to denigrate the exclusionary attitude and quest for respectability of early AA. Only “pure alcoholics” were to be admitted, he reports. “They could have no other complications. So beggars, tramps, asylum inmates, prisoners, queers (sic), plain crackpots, and fallen women were definitely out” (Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, p. 140) and so, apparently, were atheists and agnostics]. Bill relates that, after a couple of weeks, Ed did return to Brooklyn chastened and, Bill implies, freshly converted to the ranks of the religious.
Part of this story is true. “Ed” was really a fellow named Jim Burwell, one of the first ten AA members in New York. Jim did work selling car polish for a company owned by Bill and Hank. He did go out of town on a sales trip and get drunk. He was rebuffed by the other members. He did sober up and return to New York. Jim, by his own admission, was thereafter less contemptuous of the religiosity of the other members. Bill gets a bit creative in returning to the conversion story format by adding a mysterious interaction with a bible in a hotel room and has Jim appear in the home of an unnamed fellow AA asking if the family had had their “morning meditation”, implying Jim had abandoned his disbelief. These parts did not happen. The home in which Jim appeared was Hank’s. Hank was also an atheist; the chance that he would have been having a religious meditation is small. Jim never mentioned a bible in relating his story, nor did he ever abandon his disbelief. According to Clarence Snyder (an early AA member from Cleveland): “Jimmy remained steadfast throughout his life and ‘preached’ his particular [non-God] brand of AA wherever he went.” Jim died in 1974, sober 35 years and still an atheist. Jim was responsible for the “God as you understand Him” and “Higher Power” wording of the Steps. Burwell’s contribution to Alcoholics Anonymous is considered by many to be second only to that of AA’s two co-founders.
Bill, in later years, regretted his earlier position. In 1957, writing in AA Comes of Age (footnote, page 232), Bill said, “Nothing, however, could be so unfortunate for AA’s future as an attempt to incorporate any of our personal theological views into AA teaching, practice or tradition. Were Dr. Bob still with us, I am positive he would agree that we could never be too emphatic about this matter.” In a Grapevine article in 1961 (“The Dilemma of No Faith”), Bill went further: “In AA’s first years I all but ruined the whole undertaking…God as I understood Him had to be for everybody. Sometimes my aggression was subtle and sometimes it was crude. But either way it was it was damaging – perhaps fatally so – to numbers of non-believers.”
This article was written by Brian C., a member of Stony Brook Freethinkers. It was published in the June edition of the SIA Bulletin.