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1935 A CHANGE OF FOCUS

Bill’s failure to transmit his experience to other alcoholics leads to a conversation with Dr. William Silkworth. After this conversation, Bill approaches alcoholics with a medical description of their shared condition, and saves the “God stuff” for later.

One can imagine that, if Bill had conformed to the norms of the Oxford Group and attempted to apply its principles to areas of his life other than drinking, he might have been an extremely successfully Oxford Group member. He had a dramatic story of sin and salvation, and a steady supply of people eager to hear him and follow his example.

However, Bill feels compelled to focus solely on alcoholism, in his self and in others. He is also driven to draw potential converts from outside the Oxford Group pool. He opens his home to select street drunks and then exposes them to his understanding of Oxford Group principles. Bill strongly believes that he can induce a spiritual experience in other alcoholics by convincing them that they need help. When he is unsuccessful, Bill questions his methods and assumptions. He turns to Dr. Silkworth for advice.

Dr. Silkworth had given me a great piece of advice. Without it, A.A. might never have been born. “Look, Bill,” he had said, “you’re having nothing but failure because you are preaching at these alcoholics. You are talking to them about the Oxford Group precepts of being absolutely honest, absolutely pure, absolutely unselfish, and absolutely loving. This is a very big order. Then you top it off by harping on this mysterious spiritual experience of yours. No wonder they point their finger to their heads and go out and get drunk. Why don’t you turn your strategy the other way around? Aren’t you the very fellow who once showed me that book by the psychologist James which says that deflation at great depth is the foundation of most spiritual experiences?…you’ve got the cart before the horse. You’ve got to deflate people first. So give them the medical business, and give it to them hard…Only then can you begin to try out your other medicine, the ethical principles you have picked up from the Oxford Group.

Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age
Bill Wilson

Bill shifts gears and begins to approach other alcoholics with a description of their medical condition rather than addressing their spiritual need. In Bill’s mind, this is the origin of the first three Steps.

This new approach is significant because it introduces a medical understanding into AA thought, the “disease concept” of alcoholism. This medical understanding coexists with the moral understanding of alcohol inherited from the Oxford Group in AA literature and practice up to the present day.


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