Tyndale House Publishers advertises their Life Recovery Bible with these words: “Imagine having Abraham, King David, and the Apostle Paul in your 12-step group.” The ad continues: “Like you, they found recovery by trusting in a power greater than themselves.” Besides presenting a psychological, 12-step biased “character profile” of Abraham, David, and Paul, this adulterated version of the Bible includes “fascinating 12-step notes on almost every page,” “recovery themes at the beginning of each book,” “12-step devotions, serenity prayer devotions, and much, much more.” The ad assures the reader that “every study help has been written by a biblical scholar who has personally experienced the 12 steps.”

When Christians seek to combine the ways of the world with Christianity they end up with a distorted gospel at least, but more often it ends up being another gospel and another form of sanctification. Twelve-Step programs originated with Alcoholics Anonymous. Now they are embraced and followed religiously by numerous other groups, including Al-Anon, Adult Children of Alcoholics, and Co-dependents Anonymous. Churches have housed AA meetings for years and now many leading Christians are promoting various Twelve-Step programs. We wonder if they have explored the history of AA’s Twelve Steps and the implications of programs centered around any unspecified higher power. The following excerpt from our book 12 Steps to Destruction: Codependency/Recovery Heresies gives a brief background of AA in terms of its religious roots and goals.

Alcoholics Anonymous Religion.

The Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, originally written by Bill Wilson, came from his own personal experience and world view. Step One, “We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable,” expresses the relief he experienced when his doctor convinced him that his heavy drinking was caused by an “allergy” over which he was powerless.

Thus, when Wilson completed his drying out treatment, he thought his problem was solved. He had been relieved of guilt for moral failure and had been diagnosed as having a disease. The cure was simple. Just don’t take another drink. Nevertheless, his confidence in his newly found sobriety did not last long. In spite of his belief that his excessive drinking was not his fault, but rather due to an “allergy,” Wilson felt doomed.

During this bleak time Wilson received a phone call from an “old drinking buddy,” Ebby Thatcher. They hadn’t seen each other for five years and Thatcher seemed like a new man. When Wilson asked him why he wasn’t drinking and why he seemed so different, Thatcher replied, “I’ve got religion.” He told Wilson that when he had prayed God had released him from the desire to drink and filled him with “peace of mind and happiness of a kind he had not known for years.”1

Wilson was uncomfortable with Thatcher’s testimony. Yet he desired Thatcher’s freedom from alcohol. Wilson drank for several more days until he reached a point of great agony and hopelessness (the full intensity of Step One). He then returned to the hospital for detoxification treatment.

Wilson’s Conversion.

Wilson’s religious experience occurred at the hospital. He deeply desired the sobriety his friend had, but Wilson still “gagged badly on the notion of a Power greater than myself.” Up to the last moment Wilson resisted the idea of God. Nevertheless, at this extreme point of agony, alone in his room, he cried out, “If there is a God, let Him show Himself! I am ready to do anything, anything!”2

Because Wilson believed he was helplessly afflicted by a dread disease, he cried out to God as a helpless victim, not as a sinner. He had already been absolved from guilt through the doctor’s allergy theory. Thus he approached God from the helpless stance of a victim, suffering the agony of his affliction, and commanded God to show Himself. Here is Wilson’s description of his experience:

Suddenly, my room blazed with an indescribably white light. I was seized with an ecstasy beyond description. Every joy I had known was pale by comparison. The light, the ecstasy—I was conscious of nothing else for a time.3

He saw an internal vision of a mountain with a clean wind blowing through him. He sensed a great peace and was “acutely conscious of a Presence which seemed like a veritable sea of living spirit.” He thought, “This must be the great reality. The God of the preachers.” He said:

For the first time, I felt that I really belonged. I knew that I was loved and could love in return. I thanked my God, who had given me a glimpse of His absolute self. Even though a pilgrim upon an uncertain highway, I need be concerned no more, for I had glimpsed the great beyond.4

The experience had a profound effect on Wilson. From that point on he believed in the existence of God and he stopped drinking alcohol. Thus, Steps Two and Three read: “Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity,” and “Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.”5 (Emphasis in original.)

While this experience included God as Bill Wilson understood him, there is no mention of faith in the substitutionary sacrifice of Jesus Christ and salvation from sin based upon Jesus’ death and resurrection. Rather than attempting to understand his experience in the light of the Bible, Wilson turned to William James’s book The Varieties of Religious Experience.

Philosopher-psychologist William James (1842-1910) was intrigued with mystical, existential experiences that people reported to him. He contended that such experiences were superior to any religious doctrine.6 He did not care about the religious persuasion of mystics as long as they achieved a personal experience. James says:

In mystic states we both become one with the Absolute and we become aware of our oneness. This is the everlasting and triumphant mystical tradition, hardly altered by differences of clime or creed. In Hinduism, in Neoplatonism, in Sufism, in Christian mysticism, in Whitmanism, we find the same recurring note, so that there is about mystical utterances an eternal unanimity. . . .7

It is easy to see how such a description fit Bill Wilson’s experience. The mystical experiences reported by James also followed calamity, admission of defeat, and an appeal to a higher power. The official AA biography of Wilson says:

James gave Bill the material he needed to understand what had just happened to him—and gave it to him in a way that was acceptable to Bill. Bill Wilson, the alcoholic, now had his spiritual experience ratified by a Harvard professor, called by some the father of American psychology!8 (Emphasis in original.)

Most people assume that the founders of Alcoholics’ Anonymous were Christians. After all, Wilson talks about God, prayer, and morality. On the other hand, Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior is absent from his spiritual experience. There is no mention of Jesus Christ providing the only way of salvation through paying the price for Bill Wilson’s sin. Wilson’s faith system was not based on Jesus Christ and Him crucified. Nor is there any mention of Jesus Christ being Lord of his life.

Not only is there clear evidence that Bill Wilson did not embrace Jesus Christ as His Lord and Savior and as the only way to the Father, but Wilson was also heavily involved in occult activities in his search for spiritual experiences. These are the roots of Alcoholics Anonymous rather than Christianity. Part Two of this article discusses Wilson’s spirituality and occult practices.

1 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, pp. 111, 115.
2 Ernest Kurtz. Not-God: A History of Alcoholics Anonymous. Center City, MN: Hazelden Educational Services, 1979, p. 19.
Pass It On, op. cit., p. 121.
4 Ibid.
5 Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions. New York: Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Inc., 1952, 1953, 1981.
6 William James. The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902). New York: Viking Penguin Inc. 1982, p. xxiv.
Ibid., p. 419.
8 Pass It On, op. cit., p. 125.