When Bill Wilson had his spiritual experience some immediate and profound changes took place. His obsession to drink was removed and he become open to seeking spiritual help. He soon was following the plan of the Oxford Groups that his friend Ebby Thatcher expounded. Bill then took to working with other alcoholics, trying to help them get sober. This was first done within the context of the Oxford Groups and their methods. In New York, where Bill was living, there was a contingent of sober drunks in the Oxford Group movement. The approach they used in reaching out to drunks was the Oxford Group approach – give yourself over to God and change your life. Bill initially was unsuccessful in getting anyone else to stop drinking or in staying sober.
During a conversation with Dr. Silkworth Bill expressed his dismay at not having any success with his prospects. Months of hard work seemed to be an utter failure. Dr. Silkworth asked Bill how he was approaching his prospects. He learned that Bill was telling the men he worked with that they needed to get God. Bill after all had a spiritual experience and this is what had changed him. It was also consistent with the Oxford Group methods. The doctor suggested this was too much to push onto a drunk right at the start. Most alcoholics were just not the type that liked being told what to do. Maybe Bill should start by talking about alcoholism. The Oxford Group movement was not unusual (for the times) in believing drunks were immoral, rather than sick. Dr Silkworth felt otherwise. He suggested that Bill talk to his prospects about their mental obsession and physical allergy. They were sick, not bad, and their illness was progressive.
Maybe God was the answer but strictly proselytizing to a drunk might not be best. First suggesting why a drunk might need God would perhaps be more helpful.
Bill left for Akron a short time after this conversation with Dr. Silkworth . The trip to Akron was for business. Bill was heading a delegation that represented a collective trying to assume control of machinery company, via a proxy takeover. Bill was appointed to head the delegation, and the fight, with the expectation that Bill Wilson would assume the presidency of the company once it was securely under the direction of the new owners. Everyone involved was confident they would win. The proxy battle originally went well. Bill and his delegation were able to delay the annual shareholders meeting and were convincing some key stock holders to vote for the new group to assume control of the board. Bill then had to return to New York for a few days and when he returned, things were shifting out of their favor. The situation quickly devolved and it was clear they had little hope of winning. The delegation with Bill left and he was left alone in Akron to try to discover more about why some folks had switched their allegiances.
All of these circumstances led to Bill Wilson finding himself alone in the lobby of the Mayflower hotel. What he thought was a promising opportunity for his first real job in many years, and the chance to make some good money, appeared to be gone. There was a bar just off the lobby and for the first time since he had his spiritual experience, Bill experienced a real desire to have a drink. Bill did not know any sober alcoholics in Akron. His many friends in the Oxford Group, some of them sober drunks, were far away. Bill also did not know any Oxford Group members in Akron. His good friends Sam Shoemaker and Dr. Silkworth, also key in his new found way of life, were also back in New York.
Instead of walking into the bar and instead of trying to contact an Oxford Group Bill did something else. He really wanted to talk to another drunk. Short of finding a sober one he figured he should try and find one he could try to help. He walked over to the phones. There was a church directory there and he began calling clergymen to ask if they knew of any drunks that needed help getting sober. He got a Reverend Tunks on the line, who was an Episcopalian minister, just like Bill’s friend Sam Shoemaker. Tunks also shared something else in common with Shoemaker, as he was also a member of an Oxford Group. From the Reverend Tunks Bill was given the phone numbers of a number of different people that could potentially put Bill in touch with someone that needed help with a drinking problem.
Bill eventually got Henrietta Sieberling on the line and she invited him over to her house right away. She said she had a prospect.
When Bill arrived he was told about Dr. Bob. He was the husband of someone that Henrietta was friends with and they had all been attending Oxford Group meetings together. Dr. Bob was apparently a reluctant participant, with his attendance coming as the result of the insistence of his wife.
After Bill arrived Henrietta Sieberling called the Smith home. She was going to invite the Smith’s over so Bill could meet and talk with Dr. Bob. Unfortunately she learned that Dr. Bob had recently left his home to buy his wife a plant for the following day’s Mother’s Day holiday, only to return home drunk. A meeting was instead scheduled for the following afternoon.
Bill met with Dr. Bob and for the first time approached an alcoholic with the intent of first talking about the disease of alcoholism. This was different than jumping all over his new prospect with his need to give himself over to God. Bill talked about how his own drinking was an illness, not a moral problem as the Oxford Group members had constantly tried to tell him. He explained how he knew what Dr. Bob was going through in not being able to stop drinking. And, as Dr. Silkworth had shared with him, he told Dr. Bob how it was almost certain hew would die of alcoholism or need to be permanently locked up.
The answer to this problem, Bill told him, was not to fight but to give in and realize his own will power was useless. Much of what Bill was talking about was familiar for Dr. Bob. The Oxford Groups talked about giving up in order to win. Dr. Bob had not ever been presented with the idea he was sick though, and Bill did seem to know what he was talking about when it came to drinking troubles.
Dr. Bob later said, after he was sober, that it was the way Bill talked about what he did, rather than the specifics of what he said, that made the strongest impression on him. Bill “spoke his language” and it was clear this Bill was a man that knew what he was talking about when it came to alcoholism.
Some of the important lessons that came out of their meeting formed some important cornerstones of AA. Carrying the message to another drunk can help you stay sober. An alcoholic sharing his experience strength and hope with another can make an important difference in how a drunk sees his plight. It is important that we realize the hopelessness of our alcoholism.
Ebby Thatcher was the first alcoholic to connect with Bill in the way that Bill later connected with Dr. Bob. Ebby’s original talk with Bill about his conversion made an impression on Bill. He simply could not dismiss the real change he saw in a man that he knew was once just like Bill – unable to stop drinking. Dr. Silkworth formulated the idea of the disease concept of alcoholism. It is perhaps not unexpected that he would tell Bill that he should talk to his “prospects” about these ideas. What did work out nicely was their having their conversation when they did and, with Bill being open to hearing this strategy, was able to succeed in making an impression on the very next drunk he tried to help.
I’m grateful that all of those circumstances came together and am especially glad that Bill turned his back on the doors of the Mayflower Hotel bar. A decision to make those few phone calls led to the creation of AA, which has saved my life.