What Is "a Power greater than ourselves"?

Dick B.

What Is "a Power greater than ourselves"?

Another New "god" in A.A., or Our Creator?

By Dick B.

An Early A.A. Experience I’d Like to Share

Let me introduce you to Rich. He’s a young newcomer I met at my Wednesday night Home Meeting more than ten years ago. A friend of mine named John came up to me, pointed to Rich (who was sitting alone), and asked me to talk to him. I asked why. John replied: Because he came out of the same treatment center I did. He’s fresh out. And I know you like to work with newcomers. So approach Rich I did. He was about twenty-one years old, had a job, had just gotten out of treatment, and was following their instructions to "go to a meeting."

After the meeting, I asked Rich to come to my apartment where we could talk more about A.A. He did; and, after some general questions and comments, I asked him if he believed in God.

Rich’s immediate comment was: "They told me it could be a tree." And I’d heard that one before.

I asked Rich to step over to the big window in my apartment. The window looked out on a beautiful forest of Redwoods, Oaks, Bays, and other indigenous trees. I said: Rich. Look out there. What do you see? He replied: Trees. I asked: Do you think any one or all of those trees created the heavens and the earth? He said: I get your point. And that was the last I heard of trees from Rich. In fact, he’s been sober for many years now. He’s over 30, married, has a great job, and has a youngster on the way. I’m hoping he will name the child "Richard." The problem is that, if he does, it could be named after Rich or myself. Either way, I’ll probably claim the credit.

Rich has gone to thousands of meetings, just as I have. He’s been a speaker at, and secretary of, many A.A. meetings. He’s been to A.A. Conferences, to Big Book Seminars, and to lots of fun events like A.A. dances, camp-outs, and visits to comedy shows. I was his A.A. sponsor for several years and took him through the Twelve Steps. In turn, he’s sponsored many men in their recovery and taken them through the Twelve Steps. He took Bible classes, became a born again Christian, and attended our Bible fellowship. His aunt is a Roman Catholic Nun. His sister is married to a Jew. I’ve never heard him criticize either religious denomination.I guess he’s had good exposure to several now because his wife is also a Christian. But I’ve never heard him talk about a tree.

In fact, a few years ago, Rich was coming to Hawaii to get married at a beautiful site on the North Shore of Oahu. He phoned and asked me to be his Best Man. We went to the wedding site, which was surrounded by flowers, rocks, a creek, a beautiful waterfall. And trees. But I never heard either Rich or the officiating minister say a word about a tree–even during the prayers. And, since I keep in touch with him, I can say that I’ve never heard Rich talk about trees and God since that long ago day in my apartment. But when I ask him: Who loves you? He still answers: God does, and you do, Dick. And we do.

A brief look at Wilson’s "Power" in Early A.A.

Prior to publication of the First Edition of the Big Book in 1939, Bill Wilson prepared a number of draft manuscripts. In what purports to be the very first draft of the Second Step, here’s an alleged statement of what Bill then wrote:

[Allegedly in the "very first draft of the Twelve Steps. . . This is an approximate reconstruction of the way he first set them down" (quoting the original draft of Steps 2 and 3)]: "2. Came to believe that God could restore us to sanity. 3. Made a decision to turn our wills and our lives over to the care and direction of God" (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, p. 198).

Dr. Bob died. Wilson decided to write his own essays and his own history. And these were edited with a fine tooth comb by two Jesuit priests, Father John C. Ford and Father Ed Dowling. Bill inserted his new idea: "You can, if you wish, make A.A. itself your ‘higher power’" (Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions. New York: Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Inc., p. 27)

In his history, Bill added his own, expanded version of the change from "God" to "Power" in the Second Step:

In Step Two we decided to describe God as a "Power greater than ourselves. . . . Such were the final concessions to those of little or no faith; this was the great contribution of our atheists and agnostics. They had widened the gateway so that all who suffer might pass through, regardless of their belief or lack of belief. God was certainly there in our Steps, but He was now expressed in terms that anybody–anybody at all–could accept and try" (italics in the original) (Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age. New York: Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Inc., 1957, p. 167).

There may be lots more history about what and why Bill did what he did with his new "group-Power" substitution for God. But the foregoing will suffice in light of our two previous articles on "higher power" and our article to come on "God as we understood Him." The simple fact is, that under pressure from a couple of atheists–perhaps only one–Bill had boldly reversed the original A.A. idea of a restoration and cure by God Almighty.

For illustrations of the pioneer original attitude, see Alcoholics Anonymous, 3rd ed:

"God had restored his sanity," p. 57; " "Your Heavenly Father will never let you down!", p. 181; and "Henrietta, the Lord has been so wonderful to me, curing me of this terrible disease, that I just want to keep talking about it and telling people," p. 191).

Had Bill Wilson evicted our Creator from the rooms of Alcoholics Anonymous subsequent to 1939? From my standpoint, of course, that was and is impossible. Still, was A.A. no longer a place for restoration to sanity by God? For a cure of alcoholism by the Lord? Had the A.A. rooms been opened to "somethings," "not gods," "any gods," the group, or "somebody else" as restorative, healing agents?

Not if you could receive or had received the restoration, healing, and deliverance that Dr. Bob did. That Wilson said he did. That the pioneers did. That I did. Like those pioneers, I relied on our Creator, and here I am. But what of this "Power greater than ourselves" that has turned so many 12 Step people toward light bulbs, chairs, groups, radiators, and Ralph. Quite frankly, I don’t know. Bill Wilson is dead, and he can’t tell us. Yet many of his successors at the helm of A.A.’s publishing arm appear to think you can be healed by a lightbulb or a radiator or the other idols. Thankfully, however, there is plenty of room for some homework–research that will enable a full, frank, and accurate comparison of these revisionist interpretations of the "Power greater than ourselves" phrase with some of the very clear original Big Book language about "that Power, which is God" (See Alcoholics Anonymous, 3rd ed., p. 46, for example). Then you–inside or outside of Twelve Step Fellowships–can choose the radiator or the living God for recovery. And do so with knowledge that the radiator didn’t come from God or the Bible or early A.A..

Revisionist ideas about "Power-greater-than-ourselves-ism"

A.A. worked! Forty pioneers–real alcoholics all–had recovered from their medically incurable malady of alcoholism. They had used no Steps because there were no Steps. Their parent group–the Oxford Group–had helped alcoholics with no steps, no "six" steps, and certainly no Twelve Steps. In the words of A.A.’s own literature:

(1) "They [the forty pioneers] had the Bible, and they had the precepts of the Oxford Group" (DR. BOB and the Good Oldtimers. New York: Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Inc., 1980, p. 96).

(2) "We already had the basic ideas, though not in terse and tangible form. We got them. . . as a result of our study of the Good Book," said Dr. Bob (DR. BOBsupra, p. 97).

(3) "Dr. Bob, noting that there were no Twelve Steps at the time. . . said they were convinced that the answer to their problems was in the Good Book. ‘To some of us older ones, the parts we found absolutely essential were the Sermon on the Mount [Matthew 5-7], the 13th chapter of First Corinthians, and the Book of James,’ he said" (DR. BOB, supra, p. 96).

(4) . . . "the Book of James was a favorite with early A.A.’s [said Bill Wilson]–so much so that "The James Club" was favored by some as a name for the fellowship" (DR. BOBsupra, p. 71).

(5) [As to the Oxford Group influence] "Emphasis was placed on prayer and on seeking guidance from God in all matters. The movement also relied on study of the Scriptures and developed some of its own literature as well. At the core of the program were the ‘four absolutes’: absolute honesty, absolute unselfishness, absolute purity, and absolute love" (DR. BOBsupra, p. 54).

(6) "We had much prayer together in those days and began quietly to read Scripture and discuss a practical approach to its application in our lives" (DR. BOBsupra, p. 111).

(7) In November of 1937, Bill Wilson was in Akron. "Bill’s writings record the day he sat in the living room with Doc, counting recoveries. ‘A hard core of very grim, last-gasp cases had by then been sober a couple of years,’ he said. ‘All told, we figured that upwards of 40 alcoholics were staying bone dry’" (DR. BOBsupra, p. 123).

(8) Meeting at T. Henry Williams’s house in Akron, the alcoholics had a "long, hard-fought session. But together Bill and Bob persuaded a bare majority of 18 A.A.’s gathered at T. Henry’s. . ." to accept Bill’s package and allow Bill to write a book of experiences that would carry the message of recovery to other cities and other countries (DR. BOBsupra, pp. 123-24).

(9) Investigating the Akron "Program" in some depth, Frank Amos–later an A.A. trustee–reported to John D. Rockefeller, Jr., on the program’s details (DR. BOB, supra, p. 131-36).

With such a backdrop of recoveries and a developed "Program" that had worked for forty tough, "medically incurable" cases, Bill began writing his Big Book. He was fashioning a "how it worked" program from the Akron success with the Bible and the precepts of the Oxford Group. Certainly not supported by his own failures on the New York scene (See Dick B., Turning Point: A History of Early A.A.’s Roots and Successes, pp. 109-16). There was not one warped or distorted word, in Wilson’s earliest drafts, about a "higher power," a "power greater than ourselves," or "God as we understood Him." Not when he first started, that is. There was God! Creator. Maker. Spirit. Father. Yahweh–Who had been the subject of Bill’s three months of Bible study with the Smiths at their home in Akron in the summer of 1935. Then things began to change–even as the drafts changed and were re-oriented by Bill. And Yahweh–Whose name was holy and not to be profaned–began to get new names and attributes affixed.

And, over sixty-five years later, here is what others have said Bill meant to say about this program that worked and the Creator upon whom its adherents had placed their reliance.

Terence T. Gorski:

[Step Two.] There is something more powerful than I that can help me to stop drinking. I can’t, but somebody else can (Terrence T. Gorski. Understanding The Twelve Steps: A Guide for Counselors, Therapists, and Recovering People (Missouri: Herald House/Independence Press, 1989, p. 75).

In Step Two we develop a sense of faith that there is someone or something bigger and more powerful than we are. There is someone or something out there that knows more about addiction and about recovery than I do. There is someone out there that has the answer, someone who can tell me what to do to recover from my alcoholism. A "power greater" implies that this "something" is greater than we are. There are some people who claim that a Higher Power can be anything, even a Coke bottle. I personally have trouble with that (Gorski, Understandingsupra, p. 95).

Marianne W. Gilliam:

A.A. correctly anticipated the problems they would encounter in placing reliance upon a Higher Power and so decreed that a Higher Power could be anything we interpret it to be, even a tree. However, the focus was still on something outside ourselves. But I was starting to discover that in order to find our own inner power we needed to find that personal aspect of God WITHIN us. . . . I believe we have God’s energy manifesting in us every day of our lives (Marianne W. Gilliam. How Alcoholics Anonymous Failed Me: My Personal Journey to Sobriety Through Self-Empowerment. New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1998, p. 45).

Saul Selby:

AA’S STEP TWO: CHRISTIAN ADAPTATION: To experience Jesus as personal and available (Saul Selby. Twelve Step Christianity: The Christian Roots and Application of the Twelve Steps. MN: Hazelden Foundation, 2001, p. 25).

Martin and Deidre Bobgan:

The "Power greater than ourselves" can be anybody or anything that seems greater than the person who takes Step Two. It can be a familiar spirit., such as Carl Jung’s Philemon. It could be any deity of Hindu-ism, Buddhism, Greek mythology, or New Age channeled entities. It could be one’s own so-called higher self. It could even be the devil himself. The extreme naivete of Christians comes through when they confidently assert that their higher Power is Jesus Christ. Since when did Jesus align Himself with false gods? Since when has He been willing to join the Pantheon or the array of Hindu deities. Jesus is not an option of one among many. He is the Only Son, the Only Savior, and the Only Way (Martin and Deidre Bobgan. 12 Steps To Destruction: Codependency Recovery Heresies. California: East Gate Publishers, 1991, p. 115).

Ken Ragge:

The reading of the sacred text [A.A.’s Big Book] is also a part of every meeting. The Oxford Group, being "more spiritual than religious," but still (in Christian countries) acknowledging it Christian roots, used the Bible for readings. Alcoholics Anonymous, being "spiritual, not religious," doesn’t use the Bible at all; rather it uses another sacred text, the inspired Word of God as expressed through Bill Wilson, the Big Book. . . .Unlike the Oxford Group, which claimed salvation and redemption by Jesus through the Oxford Group, AA proclaims "recovery" by one’s "Higher Power" through the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous. Ken Ragge. The Real AA: Behind the Myth of 12-Step Recovery. AZ: Sharp Press, 1998, pp. 82-83).

Step Two, to the uninitiated, appears to be mostly about finding faith in God. While there may be some truth in this, working this Step is more a matter of defining God in AA’s image (Ragge,The Real AA, supra, p. 117).

William L. Playfair, M.D.

They [the Twelve Steps] do not derive exclusively or even primarily from truths or concepts found in either the Old or New Testament. One cannot find anything even remotely similar to the Twelve Steps in the writings of ancient or modern Christian theologians. The secular nature of the Twelve Steps is, in fact, freely admitted by A.A. groups. Al-Anon, for instance, plainly asserts: The Twelve Steps . . . although spiritually oriented, are not based on a specific religious discipline. They embrace not only the philosophies of the Judeo-Christian faiths and the many religions of the East, but nonreligious, ethical and moral thought as well. . . As a matter of fact, AA’s Twelve Steps are more akin to the Bahai faith than to Biblical Christianity (William L. Playfair. The Useful Lie. Illinois: Crossway Books, 1991, p. 87).

This any power of AA and the recovery industry is really just that–any power, imagined or real. Continuing its message to the clergy, AA concedes that: Some members of the clergy may be shocked to learn that an agnostic or an atheist may join the Fellowship, or to hear an AA [member] say: "I can’t accept that ‘God concept’; I put my faith in the AA group; that’s my higher power, and it keeps me sober." The idea of the AA group as the Higher Power or god of an AA member should not be shrugged off as hypothetical or even all that exceptional. Recovery industry literature is replete with testimonials of this kind (Playfair, The Useful Liesupra, p. 91).

Jan R. Wilson and Judith A. Wilson:

There are many different ideas of a Higher Power. The chapter on Step Two in Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions describes several types of experiences with God before getting into a recovery program. Some are what one might call a traditional idea of God and some are very nontraditional. All that seems to be required is that the Higher Power be someone or something that you can relate to that is more powerful than your addiction. . . . Some people have such negative reactions to the traditional ideas that for a while they have to think of "GOD" as Good Orderly Direction, from wherever it comes. Some even say their Higher Power was just a Group Of Drunks (Jan R. Wilson and Judith A. Wilson. Addictionary: A Primer of Recovery Terms and Concepts from Abstinence to Withdrawal. New York: A Fireside/Parkside Recovery Book, 1992, pp. 181-82).

Ernest Kurtz and Katherine Ketcham:

The use of the phrase Higher Power–his, hers, yours, or mine–rather than the word God, reminds members of A.A.’s tolerance of individual differences in religious belief and spiritual inclination. The most basic understanding of the concept "Higher Power" within Alcoholics Anonymous is that which keeps me sober. In a sense, this is to out-James William James; it is the ultimate pragmatic concept of God. For alcoholics who have tried and failed time after time to stay sober by themselves, for alcoholics who have tried and failed after using any one of innumerable techniques, that which finally does keep one sober becomes "God." (Ernest Kurtz and Katherine Ketcham. The Spirituality of Imperfection: Modern Wisdom From Classic Stories. New York: Bantam Books, 1992, p. 208).

But Where Did "It" Come From

Above, in the quotes, you have it all. From Yahweh to Something. From God to Group Of Drunks. From our Creator to Somebody Else. From Bible to Baloney. From Baptist to Bahai. From Bible-believing to power-greater-than-ourselves-ism!

I’ll not spend much time on where "Power greater than ourselves" really came from. I just don’t know. And, as usual, its author Bill Wilson didn’t us. But it sure didn’t come from God. And it sure didn’t come from the Bible.

Truthfully, I would frankly assert that the ill-defined, distorted, utterly confusing "it" is the product of whole-cloth manufacture. A product fashioned by the combined forces of atheists, booksellers, salaried service writers, iconoclasts, uninformed clergy, misguided Christian writers, treatment programs, therapists, angry bleeding deacons, frustrated failures, and probably the just-plain-ignorant. But certainly not by Dr. Bob, nor Anne, nor Henrietta Seiberling, nor T. Henry or Clarace Williams.

Yet I personally have heard all the weird names in the rooms of A.A. or recovery literature; and–desperate for deliverance, recovery, and freedom–I picked these bizarre appellations and really toyed with them for far too long. But no more! I can this very day be a certified, recovered, delivered, happy, joyous, free, Bible-studying, Christian, ex-real-alcoholic within the halls of Alcoholics Anonymous. Just think! Within the halls of A.A.! I don’t have to worry about whether a radiator is a power or whether I need to understand radiators to get well.

When I finally plunged in to my Oxford Group research, I found the expression was in common usage in the Oxford Group, and probably was devised as a way of rejecting Biblical usage in favor of Buchman usage–without really intending to change the Bible itself. That, of course, is something I don’t think can or should be done. It gives rise to the same nonsense we have quoted above. But for your reading pleasure, here are some of the possible sources. Almost all, I believe, were written well before the Big Book was published in the Spring of 1939:

The Rev. Canon Samuel M. Shoemaker, Jr., D.D., S.T.D.–"Co-founder of A.A."

A vast Power outside themselves (Shoemaker, A Young Man’s View of the Ministry, p. 42).

A Force outside himself, greater than himself (Shoemaker, If I Be Lifted Up, p. 176).

Only God, therefore, can deal with sin. He must contrive to do for us what we have lost the power to do for ourselves (Shoemaker, If I Be Lifted Up, p. 133).

We talked of daily Quiet Time, of Bible study, prayer and listening, and of the power of God to lead and guide those who are obedient enough to be led (Shoemaker, Children of the Second Birth, pp. 148-49).

I have done wrong. I know I need to be changed, and I know some Power outside myself must do it (Shoemaker, God and America, p. 19).

Victor C. Kitchen–Oxford Group writer, colleague of Sam Shoemaker, friend of Bill Wilson

A power within yet coming from outside myself–a power far stronger than I was (Kitchen, I Was a Pagan, p. 63).

Higher Power (Kitchen, I Was a Pagan, p. 85).

It was this power of the Spirit flowing into me that. . . gave me not only the courage [but also] the strength . . . I needed (Kitchen, I Was a Pagan, p. 94).

It takes the power of God to remove these fears and mental conditions (Kitchen, I Was a Pagan, p. 143).

It takes the power of God to remove the desire for these indulgences (Kitchen, I Was a Pagan, p. 143).

Many did hesitate to call this force the "power of God" (Kitchen, I Was a Pagan, p. 16).

Stephen Foot, British Oxford Group writer, author of best-selling "Life Began Yesterday"

New power and direction came to her when she started listening to God (Foot, Life Began Yesterday, p. 150).

This Power by which human nature can be changed . . . and through this Power problems are being solved (Foot, Life Began Yesterday, p. 22).

There is at work in the world today a Power that has for many generations been neglected by masses of mankind (Foot, Life Began Yesterday, p. 22).

I will ask God to show me His purpose for my life and claim from Him the power to carry that purpose out (Foot, Life Began Yesterday, p. 11).

Harold Begbie, author of one of the earliest, popular Oxford Group books:

The future of civilization, rising at this moment from the ruins of materialism, would seem to lie in an intelligent use by man of the ultimate source of spiritual Power (Begbie, Life-Changers, p. 22).

K. D. Belden–longtime Oxford Group leader and writer:

Only the Power which raised Jesus Christ from the dead can, and will, raise us from our old nature and begin to form in us the new (Belden, Reflections on Moral Re-Armament, p. 28).

What a Ride!

I can and do speak for myself and perhaps for a few other rationally recovered believers in A.A.. I’ve been taken on a royal ride. I came to A.A. sick, sorry, bewildered, terrified, and guilty. I believed in God, and I still do. I believed in what His Son Jesus Christ accomplished for me, and I still do. I believed His Word contained the truth about these things, and I still do. But I have put out the foregoing quotes just to show you how many roadblocks appeared on my ride, confused me at the outset, resulted in many a critical comment from A.A. friends, and caused me to hold back in my work to help others. Now that I know just how much nonsense has been poured into the "Power greater than ourselves" mold, I’ll never take or invite anyone to take that ride again. And, to those, who offer a trip on the royal "something" or "any power" or "group" train, I’ll say for myself (and for those I try to help) to those who are the engineers: "Jesus answered them and said unto them, Ye do err, not knowing the scriptures, nor the power of God" (Matthew 22:29). Bill and Bob were not selling snake oil. They were selling Scripture. And I bought it–after an unneeded delay; and I was healed by the power of God in Alcoholics Anonymous, just like the forty pioneers were. You can also be healed. Your Heavenly Father will never let you down!


Copyright © Dick B.


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