The Puritan Hangover

Bill Wilson, theologian of AA.

Book cover

Salesmanship, self-help, and surrender to a deity, or some other higher power, form a central trinity in American popular culture, giving rise to religious movements fueled by therapeutic strivings and therapeutic movements infused with religious ideals. That’s why it’s sometimes difficult to distinguish between therapy and religion in America. Freudianism and a tendency to regard evil as a sickness may be anathemas to some religious beliefs, but practical, formulaic programs for personal development are apt to offer spiritual as well as psychic fulfillment. Similarly, religious movements aiming for broad appeal are apt to promote self-help and self-love while preaching self-surrender and love of God.

Evangelical churches today are offering a mix of religious and therapeutic teachings, sometimes “playing down doctrine in favor of feelings,” as Alan Wolfe observes in The Transformation of American Religion. Or consider the 19th-century New England mind-cure movement, which preached positive thinking as the route to health, salvation, and, eventually, material success while demanding no wrestling with evil. In mind-cure’s most radical and successful form, Christian Science, evil is a kind of mirage. It was a lie, “a false belief,” according to founder Mary Baker Eddy. Conceiving of God as Mind or “Infinite Intelligence,” mind-cure preached that oneness with God, and good health, could be achieved by surrendering the conscious mind and controlling the subconscious through habit-training and auto-suggestion (which William James described as “something like hypnotic practice”).

It may be tempting to fold Alcoholics Anonymous, perhaps America’s best-known amalgam of popular psychology and religion, into this tradition. Indeed, Bill Wilson, who co-founded AA 70 years ago, was apparently familiar with Eddy’s teachings and personal story. (Armed with her religion, she recovered her health after years of invalidism and discovered a calling.) In her biography of Wilson, My Name Is Bill, Susan Cheever observes that Eddy’s ideas about the “connection of the soul and the body were similar to those behind Alcoholics Anonymous.” Yet AA takes a strikingly divergent path to recovery, or salvation. Its version of redemption comes not from realizing you are well—that sickness, like evil, is an illusion—but from acknowledging your disease.

Wilson wasn’t saved by Christian Science or other forms of mind-cure, not surprisingly. Suffering from periodic bouts of paralyzing depression and a nearly fatal attraction to alcohol, he was hardly someone William James would have characterized as “healthy minded.” Wilson was, in James’ nomenclature, a “sick soul,” and he was cured, as Cheever’s biography demonstrates, by conversion and spiritual rebirth. Jonathan Edwards might speak more directly to his journey than Mary Baker Eddy does.

Unfortunately, Cheever’s account of AA demonstrates only a vague understanding of the broader context of religious belief and personal development movements in America, and her version of Wilson’s life is familiar. He was born in rural Vermont in 1895 to a father who abandoned the family when Bill was 10 and a mother who left her son and daughter in the care of her parents soon after, to forge a new life in Boston. His father drank, and so did his grandfather, until a dramatic conversion experience, involving a “blinding light” and “a great wind.” In his youth, Wilson embraced the ideal of temperance but refused to take the pledge and declared himself an atheist. Smart and inventive, he enjoyed early success at prep school until his girlfriend died suddenly, plunging him into a deep depression that left him barely able to graduate high school. He suffered, then met his future wife, Lois, a woman four years his senior from a prosperous family. His depression lifted, they married, and he entered World War I. It was then he started drinking. His downfall began at a party when he found that his feelings of social discomfort were obliterated by a couple of cocktails. He suddenly felt at ease, at home: “I was part of things at last.”

Years of drinking, futile efforts to stop, financial ruination, and the specter of irreversible physical and mental deterioration followed. He reunited with a former drinking buddy, Ebby Thatcher, who to Wilson’s surprise had become a “Christer” and joined the evangelical Oxford Group. Thatcher explained that a drunk will only stop drinking after a “life-changing conversion experience,” but though drawn to the mission, Wilson was soon back at the sanitarium, drying out but drugged. His doctor had given him belladonna and barbiturates. Thatcher visited, advising surrender and prayer. Conversion followed—a dramatic awakening. Cheever writes:

Although he didn’t believe in God, although he believed only in the power of his own mind, he found himself begging God for help. “If there be a God let him show himself” he cried. The response was amazing. “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,” he wrote later. “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, clear strength it blew right through me. Then came the blazing thought, ‘you are a free man.’ “

This is not an unfamiliar conversion narrative. William James cited several like it in The Varieties of Religious Experience, which Wilson read, either right before or right after his own conversion, and he went on to credit James as “one of the founders of AA,” Cheever notes. James himself might have demurred, but it’s easy to understand how his sympathetic examination of individual religious experiences and their fruits, as well as his understanding of drunkenness and depression, might have helped Wilson interpret both his alcoholism and his awakening. James described the similarities between the altered consciousness of the drunk and the mystic consciousness, suggesting that alcohol, and other intoxicants, had a quasi-religious appeal. Reading James, an alcoholic might interpret his own alcoholism as a misdirected search for God. (Addiction is enthrallment to a false God, the recovery movement preaches today.) He might begin to understand his own life as exemplary of a universal drama of sin and redemption.

Whether Wilson’s conversion was the work of God or the pharmaceutical industry, it took hold, and he remained sober for the rest of his life, much of which was devoted to building and maintaining the network of groups that became AA. Wilson was, as Cheever notes, a natural born salesman and synthesizer. In practice and principle, AA reflects America’s secular voluntary tradition, democratic ideals of small-group self-governance, the revivalist tradition of testifying, and (its nonsectarianism notwithstanding) Protestant beliefs in salvation by grace. In 18th-century America, Jonathan Edwards was exhorting people to surrender their wills to God long before anyone dreamed of AA (although drunkenness was common enough). During the First Great Awakening in the mid-1700s, Edwards also encouraged the formation of what we might now call spiritual support groups. In his monumental biography of Edwards, George Marsden reports that Edwards persuaded the townspeople of Northampton to gather in small prayer and study groups, reviving a Puritan tradition. “Nothing was more distinctive about Puritanism,” Marsden writes, “than its encouragement of lay spirituality.”

Reliance on lay leadership is also a trademark of AA, along with a strong belief in the power of the group to facilitate individual recoveries. One of the lessons Bill Wilson learned early on, according to Cheever, was that “God tended to speak more clearly to groups than to individuals.” If there is a prominent strain of American culture missing from AA, it is the celebration of individualism. The theology of AA (and the recovery movement it spawned) teaches that the road to addiction is paved by individual willfulness and a belief in the efficacy of self-control. In stressing the need for self-surrender, it rejects Enlightenment faith in self-determination and the potential goodness of purely human endeavors.

Alcoholics Anonymous can claim many successes in the fight against alcohol abuse. Given its tradition of anonymity, its successes are, in fact, innumerable; but so are its failures. (How might we count the unnamed people who attend a meeting or two and never return?) AA teaches humility, but its advocates often display startling hubris in recounting its successes. AA is routinely described as the only way, not simply one way, of recovering from alcoholism. You’d think it was the Holy Grail. Wilson’s program “proved that the soul existed,” Cheever writes. Some of us are unconvinced.