AA is a Cult, part 1

Bill Wilson (left) and Ebby Thacher, image via Orange Papers

Last May I wrote an in depth series on The Cults of Frank Buchman. It’s been seven months and I finally feel ready to begin the sequel series, on Alcoholics Anonymous. Before I begin I want to give thanks to the author of the Orange Papers blog. Their extensive , thoroughly sourced, simply massive collection of essays and primary sources was essential to the Buchman series and will be vital to this one as well. 

Bill Wilson, known in AA literature as Bill W., was the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous. He was born to innkeepers in Vermont in 1895 and raised by his grandparents. He struggled with depression and panic attacks and had a few false starts academically. Bill joined the National Guard and started drinking to the point of alcohol poisoning routinely. 

Bill married Lois Burnham in 1918, just before his WWI military service. Once he was dicharged, he was drinking even more heavily, and destroyed all career opportunities. He flunked out of law school and lost clients as a stock prospector. Bill was drinking so much and so often he was dying. Within a year he was admitted to the Towns Hospital for addiction recovery to take the “Belladonna cure” and detox four times. Delirium tremors were a normal part of his life in 1934. 

That’s when an old drinking buddy Ebby Thacher appeared. Ebby was a brand new convert to Frank Buchman’s Oxford Group with a few short weeks of sobriety under his belt. He was already a recruiter for the group, which had spared him a jail sentence. Ebby was set to be convicted of habitual public drunkenness when two Oxford Group members, one an alcoholic and the other a nephew to the judge, had Ebby remanded to the alcoholic’s custody for rehabilitation instead. 

It’s easy to understand why newly sober Ebby, at the urging of his new friends, might quickly and enthusiastically recruit his dying friend to try what seemed to be working for him. The group had kept him out of prison and given him a new sense of purpose. Ebby told Bill he’d “got religion” and began pitching his new faith. Initially, Bill was not persuaded. It would take his own “rock bottom” for that to happen. 

Tune in next time for a look at 1930s addiction treatment and Bill’s “spiritual awakening”. 

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