A.A., Dr. Silkworth, and the “Great Physician”
Dick B. © 2005 All rights reserved
Game Bird Hunting
Trying to find the facts about early A.A. and its influential founding people is a lot like hunting for game birds.
When you are hunting for pheasant, quail, and even ducks, you may assemble a number of items before leaving home. Probably a shot gun. Definitely some shells. Maybe a camouflage jacket. Maybe a horn or whistle. And hopefully a good bird dog. The dog may be a retriever, but more often than not, you need a hound that can flush out the targets in their abiding places. And you may still return home empty handed.
My dad and I often hunted for game birds when I was a kid. Sometimes with a talented English Cocker. And I learned several things about the birds.
If we were hunting pheasants, we often beat our way through cornfields or maize. You never saw the pheasants. The grain was tall. And you either hoped the pheasants would fly up as you pressed forward; or—if you had a good bird dog—you hoped the dog would flush out the pheasants so that they would fly above the grain and enable you to get a good shot.
Let’s say we were after quail. If so, we’d drive up into the foothills where there was lots of brush. And once again the birds were in hiding because you seldom got a crack at them until something happened. The something was that they left their shelter on hearing you or your bird dog flushed them out where you could wing them on the fly.
And then there were ducks. That was a wholly different story. The ducks were among the reeds or in the water. Some people camouflaged themselves in hunting jackets. Some hung out in duck blinds waiting for some action. And some, like my dad and I, marched along the edge of the pond looking for action. But again, it was better when we scared them out, or a dog did it for us.
Now I don’t deny there were lots of other types of birds to go after. There were doves who were often on the wing or on telephone poles or in trees; but they weren’t necessarily hiding. There were geese on their journeys in the sky, but I never hunted for them. But the others—the pheasants, quail, and ducks—all had one thing in common. They were stashed away in the grain field, the bushes, or the reeds—sometimes feeding, sometimes, resting, and sometimes just quietly preparing for their next flight. But you had to hunt them down. Also, you had to flush them out. And, of course, you had to get a good shot at them and be a good shot to bring one down.
As I said, researching A.A. history and personalities reminded me of hunting those birds. First of all, you had to go to a place where the birds were likely to be hanging out. Second, you had to work at your task and be patient. Third, if you reached a fruitful spot, you needed to get those birds out of hiding and on the wing. Finally, you needed to take good aim, be a good shot, and plan to bag one provided all the factors had come together.
Hunting down the Dr. William D. Silkworth Story
When and where I got sober in 1986, you could have taken a survey among the Marin County A.A. Fellowship members; and I’ll bet few of them knew much about “Silky”—the benign little doctor who loved drunks. They might have known he supposedly wrote the “Doctor’s Opinion” which opened the basic text of their Big Books. They might have gleaned from Bill’s Story in the first chapter of the Big Book that Silkworth had treated Bill Wilson for alcoholism several times, that Bill finally surrendered in Towns Hospital in 1934, that Bill had his “hot flash” experience there—never to drink again, and that Silkworth told Bill he thought Bill had found something. That “something” turned out to be the New York/Big Book solution for alcoholism—a conversion experience as it is properly called by those who know the origin of the idea.
Take it a little farther. Some could and would read in the Big Book that the doctor had felt that something more than moral psychology was needed to cure the drunk. They would see that he was credited with saying a “psychic change” was required. And a few would read in Pass It On and other A.A. writings that Silkworth probably authored the “disease” theory within the fellowship—the theory that the alcoholic suffered from an obsession of the mind that condemned him to drink and an allergy of the body that condemned him to die or go insane once he began again. And the Silkworth story has been presented in many places, in many ways, and by many authors. In fact, there is an excellent website (http://silkworth.net) that assembles and offers many of the Silkworth subjects very well.
Recently, Hazelden published a biography of Silkworth. And it was that biography and several of the snippets about the good doctor, as well as a mis-quote from my own research, that brought to my memory the comments of A.A.’s good friend, Dr. Norman Vincent Peale. Peale’s story had to do with Silkworth, one of Silkworth’s patients (not Bill W.). and the Great Physician.
Now, until fairly recently and after I had published the Great Physician story in its relationship to A.A., the facts were still like the game birds. They had virtually been hidden, un-discovered, and never flushed out or targeted for their important value. Some still need some hunting and flushing. These pertain to Silkworth’s beliefs and comments about: (1) Jesus Christ, the Great Physician. (2) Discussions Silky had with Wilson about this subject. (3) Silkworth’s Christian and religious background. (4) Silkworth’s thoughts about “conversion,” about a “higher power,” about a “psychic change,” and about “moral psychology,” (5) The significance to Silkworth and Bill Wilson of the phrase “Great Physician.” (6) The interrelationships of Silkworth, Bill Wilson, Rev. Sam Shoemaker, and Dr. Norman Vincent Peale.
Now let’s turn the bird dogs loose and see how much game is on the wing and how much is still in the reeds, the bushes, and the trees.
Dr. Silkworth, the “Great Physician,” and Bill Wilson
In the present-day secular climate in 12 Step Fellowships, I don’t see great value in doing anyone’s homework for him when it comes to phrases like the “Great Physician.” Nor in laying out a great quantity of details as to the roots of the phrase. Nor in trying to “prove” anything at all about Dr. Silkworth, his religious beliefs, the Great Physician, or Jesus Christ. But I will mention two or three good starting points for those who are on the hunt. And in this article, I’ll just lay out some statements made by others who researched or knew Silkworth or who have looked into this subject.
First, let’s look at some things that Silkworth’s recent biographer Dale Mitchel found and wrote in his biography, Silkworth: The Little Doctor Who Loved Drunks. Center City, MN: Hazelden, 2002. Mitchell wrote:
Silkworth’s family remembers him as a deeply spiritual man, yet unsatisfied with any particular denomination. A devout Christian, he initially fit well into the temperance mind-set developing across the country. For years he attended a church that would also have an impact on the formation of Alcoholics Anonymous, the Calvary Christian (Episcopal) Church, pp.11-12.
Though Mitchell doesn’t specifically say so, this Calvary church was born on September 19, 1836 and was commonly called Calvary Church in the City of New York in which Church, Congregation or Society Divine Service is celebrated according to the Protestant Episcopal Church of the State of New York. See Samuel M. Shoemaker. Calvary Church Yesterday and Today. New York: Fleming H. Revell Company, 1936, pp. 15-16. And it was in 1925 that Samuel Moor Shoemaker, Jr., accepted the call to become the 12th Rector of Calvary Church. Shoemaker, Calvary Church, supra, pp. 231-245.
Incidentally, on this subject of Silkworth’s attendance at Sam Shoemaker’s church, we could certainly use a lot more research and information on Silkworth’s religious upbringing, denominational background, and churches attended (just the type of research we did on Dr. Bob’s). Also, on the years of Silkworth’s being a communicant at Calvary. More on the nature and extent of his interest, attendance, and activities there. More on his personal papers and his family’s observations—those that led them to say that he was “a devout Christian.” And much much more on whether and how well Silkworth knew Rev. Sam Shoemaker, the rector. Such information might tell us much about Silkworth’s actual discussions with Bill Wilson, his views on conversion, and his understanding of faith cures and divine healing. Also, if there were further exploration into Silkworth’s membership and activities in Norman Vincent Peale’s church in New York, this too could bring some important A.A. roots to light.
Now let’s return to an extremely interesting, though inadequately detailed, account that Mitchel wrote about several discussions between Bill Wilson and Dr. Silkworth:
During his third visit to Towns Hospital, Bill had a discussion with Dr. Silkworth on the subject of the “Great Physician.” Many theorists mistakenly believe this discussion occurred on his last and successful visit. In fact, Bill Wilson himself wrote that he had thought about this discussion before he decided to check himself into Towns for the last time, at the urging of his wife and his brother-in-law (Mitchell, Silkworth, supra. p.
The official AA position on Bill’s experiences at Towns Hospital includes little mention of the amount of time he had already spent with Dr. Silkworth, particularly during his prior visit to Towns. Long before he had experienced his “enlightenment,” Bill Wilson had grown to trust the compassion offered by Dr. Silkworth. They would spend hours talking in Dr. Silkworth’s little office (Mitchel, Silkworth, supra., pp. 44-45).
In his autobiography, Bill wrote of the darkness that had descended upon him before his hospitalization for the last time, and said, “But what of the Great Physician? For a brief moment, I suppose, the last trace of my obstinacy was crushed out as the abyss yawned.” Bill Wilson, Bill W.: My First 40 Years (Center City, MN: Hazelden, 2000, p. 145. Later, according to Mitchel, Bill Wilson wrote in Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age: A Brief History of A.A., “Alcoholism took longer to kill, but the result was the same. Yes, if there was any Great Physician that could cure the alcohol sickness, I’d better find him at once.” Mitchel, Silkworth, supra, p. 44.
Also, in his autobiography, Bill wrote that just before he had his hot flash experience at Towns Hospital, the following occurred: “I remember saying to myself, ‘I’ll do anything, anything at all. If there be a Great Physician, I’ll call on him.’ Then, with neither faith nor hope I cried out, ‘If there be a God, let him show himself.’ The effect was instant, electric. Suddenly my room blazed with an indescribably white light.” (Wilson, Bill W., supra, p. 145).
Mitchell fails to mention that before, or possibly just after, his “Physician” discussion with Silkworth during Bill’s third hospitalization, and before his finally check-in at Towns Hospital, Bill had met with Ebby Thacher to discuss Ebby’s altar call at Shoemaker’s Calvary Rescue Mission. Thacher told Bill that he (Ebby) had been to Calvary Rescue Mission—also operated by Shoemaker’s Church; that he there had “found religion;” and that God had done for him what he could not do for himself. Wilson himself then went to the Rescue Mission, stated he wanted what Ebby had received there, and then went to the altar and made a decision for Christ. I personally talked with Mrs. Samuel Shoemaker on the phone, and she told me she was there when Bill made that decision for Christ. Mrs. Shoemaker used those very words. Many years later, Lois Wilson stated in an address that Bill had there given his life to Christ.
And whether Bill then was referring to his decision at the Calvary Mission altar or to his hot-flash conversion experience at Towns Hospital not long thereafter, Bill Wilson twice wrote “For sure I’d been born again” (Bill Wilson., Bill W.: My First 40 Years. Center City, MN: Hazelden, 2000, p. 147; Dick B., Turning Point: A History of Early A.A.’s Spiritual Roots and Successes. San Rafael, CA: Paradise Research Publications, 1997, pp. 94-98). I personally found at Stepping Stones a letter that Bill had written in which he stated that he [like Ebby] had “found religion.”
As to Bill Wilson’s subsequent conversion experience at Towns Hospital, Mitchel wrote:
What is not known is on what day of this eleven-day stay at Towns Hospital the now famous “white light transformation” occurred. Most believe it occurred on the third day of his belladonna treatment and also after possible use of Phenobarbital. While lying in bed, suicidal, depressed, and hopeless, Wilson would accept anything to help him quit drinking. He had tried everything he knew. He had reached a bottom that he had never experienced. Just prior to his experience with “the veritable sea of living spirit” Wilson often later talked about, he chastised God and said to himself “I’ll do anything at all. If there be a Great Physician, I’ll call on him!” again referring to his prior discussions with Silkworth. Then, according to Wilson, he cried out, “If there be a God, let him show himself.” . . . Suddenly the room lit up with a great white light. . . . All about me and through me there was a wonderful feeling of Presence, and I thought to myself, ‘So this is the God of the preachers!’ A great peace stole over me and I thought, ‘No matter how wrong things seem to be, they are all right. Things are all right with God and His world.’” Mitchel, Silkworth, supra, p. 47.
The “Great Physician” was Jesus Christ
In the days of Silkworth, Shoemaker, Bill Wilson, and Dr. Bob, there were a number of expressions which may not be familiar in usage within A.A. today. But in that period, when someone spoke of the Good Book, that person meant the Holy Bible. Also, when someone spoke of the Great Physician, that person meant Jesus Christ.
Let’s look at a few of the hundreds of writings about the Jesus, the “Great Physician,” that make this usage apparent:
William Boardman, The Great Physician (Jehovah Rophi). Boston, MA: Willard Tract Repository, 1881.
Ethel B. Willitts, Healing in Jesus Name. Crawfordsville, IN: published by the author, 1931. This title was owned, studied, and circulated by Dr. Bob; and the author repeatedly referred to Jesus as the Great Physician, pp. 66, 104, 151, 209, cf. 95.
Joe Mcintyre, E. W. Kenyon and His Message of Faith. Orlando, FL: Creation House,
1997, p. 79.
T.L. Osborn, Healing The Sick. Tulsa, OK: Harrison House, Inc., 1992. At pages 18, 55, Osborn referred to Jesus as “Christ the Healer” and the “High Priest of our confession.”
David Fedder. Back to God: The Great Physician, Oct.10, 1999, n.d.
Dr. Silkworth’s Specific Referral of a Patient to the Great Physician
Author Mitchel made this erroneous statement about my (Dick B.’s) research:
According to AA historian Dick B., in a conversation with Peale [Dr. Norman Vincent Peale] shortly before his death, Peale discussed the following account of a hopeless alcoholic named Charles. After Silkworth told Charles that his treatment was over and that, as a doctor, he had done everything he could, Silkworth told him there was an area in his brain about which he still held a reservation and that could be the cause of his return to drinking after he left the hospital. Mitchel, Silkworth, supra, p. 50.
[Then, at pages 50-51, Mitchel quotes a supposed conversation I—Dick B,–had with Peale; but no such conversation ever took place. However, I did have an hour interview with Peale and prayed with him prior to his death, and I also communicated with him by mail. But the interview did concern two other subjects: (1) Whether Peale knew who Wilson was speaking of when Wilson used the phrase “higher power;” and Peale replied that he had never met anyone, including Wilson, who thought the “higher power” was any god other than Almighty God. He told me he had written that in his book The Power of Positive Thinking; and sure enough, you can find a lengthy discussion of Almighty God as the “Higher Power” in that book. (2) What Peale knew about Wilson’s “spiritual experience.” Peale replied that Wilson had told him of two different experiences, both similar in form and content. And later, I discovered that Wilson’s grandfather had had such an experience in East Dorset, Vermont and described it in terms almost identical to those used by Wilson of Wilson’s own Towns Hospital “hot flash” experience. On the other hand, my interview with Peale never involved the topic of the “Great Physician.” What did occur in the course of my own historical research is that my attention was called to Peale by a person attending a conference at which I was a speaker.The person showed me Peale’s The Positive Power of Jesus Christ. And in that book is Peale’s own written account (set forth below in a moment)–an account which I have since often quoted—but not in company with any claim that Peale and I ever discussed it:
Though he did not have his Peale source correct, Mitchel went on to make the following important comments about Silkworth, Peale, and Wilson:
Over time, Silkworth and Norman Vincent Peale became very good friends. Dr. Silkworth and his wife once held their church membership at Marble Collegiate Church in New York where Peale was the lead pastor. Much later, during the Alcoholics Anonymous continued discussion on the validity of the Carl Jung theories on spiritual conversion, Peale held his stance in support of Dr. Carl Jung’s belief that far too many men turn to physicians rather than to the minister for spiritual healing. Silkworth furthered this declaration in his own early writings, presented later in this book. A student of Sigmund Freud, Jung was instrumental in convincing Rowland H., Ebby’s Oxford Group friend, and later Bill Wilson of the importance of ego. An avid reader, Silkworth followed the principles of Jung and William James as they pertained to deflation of depth and the usual requirement of reaching a “bottom” to enable the alcoholic to first feel the despair of crisis, then accept the possibility of a Supreme Being as the answer. Silkworth referred to Jung in his speeches and saved a private letter from him. It was Carl Jung who impressed upon AA through his conversations with Rowland and Bill there existed an opportunity of a spiritual (“religious”) conversion as a last chance from chronic alcoholics. Mitchel, Silkworth, supra, p. 51.
Whether or not Mitchel is correct in his assumptions about Dr. Silkworth’s agreement with the principle of “deflation of depth,” Mitchel’s point about Silkworth’s interest in a religious conversion of the type to which Carl Jung referred is particularly interesting when you compare it to Dr. Norman Vincent Peale’s account of Dr. Silkworth and Charles K., a businessman in Virginia, who had become a full-fledged alcoholic; so much so that he had to have help, and fast, for his life was cracking up. And Peale then relates the following:
He [Charles K., the alcoholic] made an appointment with the late Dr. William Duncan Silkworth, one of the nation’s greatest experts on alcoholism, who worked in a New York City hospital. Receiving Charles into his clinic as a patient, the doctor gave him treatment for some days, than called him into his office. “Charles,” he said, “I have done everything that I can do for you. At this moment you are free of our trouble. But there is an area in your brain where you may hold a reservation and that could, in all likelihood, cause you to return to your drinking. I wish that I might reach this place in your consciousness, but alas, I do not have the skill.”
“But, doctor,” exclaimed Charles, “you are the most skilled physician in this field. When I came to you it was to the greatest. If you cannot heal me, then who can possibly do so?” The doctor hesitated, then said thoughtfully, “There is another Doctor who can complete this healing, but he is very expensive.”
“That’s all right,” cried Charles. “I can get the money. I can pay his fees. I cannot go back home until I am healed. Who is this doctor and where is he?”
“Oh, but this Physician is not at all moderate s to expense,” persisted Dr. Silkworth. “He wants everything you’ve got. He wants you, all of you. Then He gives the healing. His price is your entire self.” Then he added slowly and impressively, “His name is Jesus Christ and He keeps office in the New Testament and is available whenever you need Him.”
“I need Him now,” said Charles softly, “right now, I need Him, and I will give Him myself.”
“Great,” remarked the doctor. “You will find healing and you will never need to come back to me as a patient, only as a friend. God Bless you, and,” he concluded, “He will do just that.” [Peale then tells how Charles came to Peale’s church and found the doors locked. But, said Peale, Charles seemed to feel a Presence, a strong Presence in which was wondrous power and love. Peal then continues:]
Reaching for his wallet, he drew out his business card. Taking out his pen, he wrote on the reverse side of the card, “Dear Dr. Jesus, this is Your unworthy servant Charles. Dr. Silkworth says that only You can completely heal me. I hereby now and with all my heart give myself to You. Please touch me in my brain and in my heart with your healing grace. I love You, dear Jesus.” He signed it “Charles” and dropped the card in the mail slot.
HEALING COMES. Charles stood quite still, unconscious of either rain or snow. Suddenly he sensed light and a pervasive warmth spread throughout his entire being, beginning at the head and running down to his feet. It was as if a great big hand touched his head in loving-kindness. He had the same feeling that a person has when after a long illness comes a sense of well-being. He knew for sure that he had been healed. There was no doubt of it at all. He felt clean with a cleanness never before experienced, and with it an awareness of newness. He had been reborn. He was a new man in Christ. Old things long held in his nature were passed away. We became acquainted through his card dropped in the church mail slot, and I met him later while on a speaking engagement in Virginia. . . . Charles never returned to his old life. He had many problems subsequently, but the power held firm. It never weakened. His healing, which came so dramatically, was permanent. He paid the full price, as the doctor had said he must. He gave himself, all of himself, with nothing held back; and he received the power, the full power, with none of it held back. See Norman Vincent Peale, The Positive Power of Jesus Christ: Life-changing Adventures in Faith. Carmel, NY: Guideposts, 1980, pp. 60- 62.
Remaining Facts to be Hunted
Mitchel’s biography leaves us with the following questions about Silkworth:
First, using his own subjective terminology (“Higher Power”), Mitchel says of Silkworth: “He believed quite early that a sound personal relationship with a Higher Power was paramount to the spiritual healing that went hand in hand with the physical healing of the addict and alcoholic. Many of the letters he had received from patients mention Silkworth’s description of a spiritual journey; the patients also thank him for introducing them to a spiritually based lifestyle.” Mitchel, Silkworth, supra, p. 34. Unfortunately, Mitchel reveals his bias and revisionist thinking about God. The questions he leaves unanswered are whether Silkworth talked to these patients—as he did to Charles K.—about the Great Physician, about Jesus Christ.
Second, when Silkworth and Wilson had their discussions about the “Great Physician,” was Jesus Christ also specifically mentioned to Bill and then by Bill himself. Moreover, did Wilson ever discuss with Silkworth Bill’s own altar call and decision for Christ at Calvary Rescue Mission.
Third, Mitchel swiftly covers and then dodges the hearty arguments which involved Fitzhugh Mayo’s insistence on a Christian book, Pass It On’s statement that 400 manuscript pages were tossed out, and Ruth Hock’s statement to Bill Pittman that these pages contained Christian material. Mitchel says: “In the formation of AA Wilson initially insisted on references to God and Jesus as well as the Great Physician. As the fellowship grew, however, other members persuaded Bill that a purely Christian format would alienate many, keeping potential members away from joining the group. Silkworth challenged the alcoholic with an ultimatum. Once hopeless, the alcoholic would grasp hold of any chance of sobriety. Silkworth, a medical doctor, challenged the alcoholic with a spiritual conversion and a relationship with God as part of a program of recovery. His approach with Bill Wilson was no different.” Mitchel, Silkworth, supra, p. 50. As he sometimes did, Mitchel makes a statement but cites no references to authenticate the statement. But his statement leaves strong suggestion that the original, and now missing, manuscripts of the Big Book specifically referred to God, to Jesus, and to the Great Physician. And wouldn’t you like to know his authority for that claim! I would, and I’ve been hunting for that bird for many years.
Fourth, it would appear that Searcy Whaley (now deceased) disclosed a number of facts to author Mitchel and that these could have been useful in a hunt for the truth. Mitchel contends that Searcy informed him that during the initial manuscript work for the Big Book, Bill confided regularly with Dr. Silkworth on the wording and on the Steps. Without citations, Mitchel then says that “When the first members of AA were discussing the many possible names for their new book, Silkworth and Dr. Bob first supported the name “The James Club,” based upon the principles of the book of James in the Bible.” Mitchel adds, “During the writing of the Big Book, there were often heated discussions about using more Christian-specific language rather than the term Higher Power.” See Mitchel, Silkworth, supra, pp. 64-65. I believe from most of my research that Mitchel may have been correct, but I’d certainly like to see his authority for the assertions. Compare my title, The James Club and The Original A.A. Program’s Absolute Essentials
Fifth, Mitchel presents us with another flock of unflushed game birds when he speaks of Dr. Bob’s introducing Silkworth to the term “treatment” rather than “cure.” Mitchel claims that Sister Ignatia had persuaded Dr. Bob that an alcoholic was never cured and insisted that the word “cure” should be entirely removed from the recovery text. Mitchel, Silkworth, supra, p. 71. Once again, Mitchel fails to authenticate his assertion. My own research demonstrates quite clearly that Dr. Bob, Bill W., Bill Dotson, Clarence Snyder, and almost every early A.A. made it clear that they had a “cure” for alcoholism and had themselves been “cured.” I don’t doubt that Wilson changed that tune. But I’d sure like to know whether it was Bob or Silkworth or Sister Ignatia who persuaded him to change it. Mitchel leaves us in the dark on that one or as to any other possibility like the language of Richard Peabody in his Common Sense of Drinking. See Dick B., When Early AAs Were Cured and Why
Sixth, Mitchel deals with some writings which he believes justify this statement: “Although Silkworth’s conversion beliefs are left for secondary conversations between the two main characters, conversion indeed occurs in every case of recovery presented. In accordance with the Silkworth legacy, it is obvious the book lays the ground for a firm base of medical understanding.” Mitchell, Silkworth, supra, p. 96. And this statement, plus others made by Mitchel make me wonder just how many of the people Mitchel quotes or alludes to really have any understanding of the word “conversion” or of Jung’s use of the word “conversion” or of Wilson’s use of the word “conversion” or of Silkworth’s understanding of conversion. Was it in fact the acceptance of Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour, just as the early Akron surrenders practiced and required? See Dick B., The Golden Text of A.A.
Finally, there are countless other rustles in the bushes that leave you wondering how much more Mitchel knew about Silkworth, how much more he didn’t know, and how much more he’d like to know. Thus on page 100, he says: “One of the most ardent supporters of conversion was William Silkworth.” On page 106, he says that, directed by his friend Fulton Oursler, Reader’s Digest also wrote of Silkworth a few months after his death: “Dr. Silkworth was a great man who failed with all human science and was humble enough to use God for a medicine”—not a higher power, God! On page 122, Mitchel quotes the Canadian AA Grapevine, which spoke of the “almost invisible skill with which he accomplished his daily miracles of medical and spiritual healing.”
There are other interesting and challenging questions raised in Mitchel’s book; and it has certainly shown me once again just how much of our important A.A. history concerning Almighty God, the Holy Bible, Jesus Christ, conversion, cure, and spiritual healing still remains to be discovered.
For lots of additional material on Silkworth, see the excellent Silkworth site: http://silkworth.net/.