Dr. Bob Smith: A Christian "Root" of AA?
AA denies being a religion and denies being Christian. It is not acceptable at meetings for anyone to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ, that He is "the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me" (John 14:6) and that "there is none other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved" (Acts 4:12). No exclusive god or definition of God is permitted. Nevertheless, there are some who want to believe that AA is really Christian, after all—that its roots are solidly Christian and that its founders were Christians indeed.
The cofounders of AA were Bill Wilson and Dr. Bob Smith. It is clear by his own words that Wilson, who wrote the 12 Steps, AA’s "Big Book" titled Alcoholics Anonymous, and Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, was not a Christian. (See our book 12 Steps to Destruction.) The arguments that AA is Christian are based on the fact that AA was connected with the Oxford Group in its early beginnings and on the possibility that Dr. Bob Smith was indeed a Christian. Based on all we have read directly from Smith or about Smith, no one truly knows whether or not he was a true follower of Christ. He may have been, but the following pieces of evidence reveal that his understanding of biblical Christianity was, at minimum, deficient and distorted.
1. Bob Smith and the "Good Book"
In his final address to AA, Smith said, "I had refreshed my memory of the Good Book, and I had had excellent training in that as a youngster."1
Referring to the Bible as the Good Book is noteworthy, but anyone can call it a "Good Book." Why did he not refer to the Bible as the very Word of God? We would look for evidence to the effect that he both believed and communicated to those in AA that the Bible is the very Word of God, God-breathed, and inerrant. Indeed, that is what a true Christian would do.
Smith’s "excellent training" must have been lacking, because the Bible clearly prohibits necromancy (the practice of communicating with dead persons) and Smith and his wife regularly hosted seances in their home in Akron. These seances could have been as important to the development of AA as the other spiritual activities, such as the Oxford Group and their questionable form of meditation.2 (See our critique of the Oxford Group in 12 Steps to Destruction, pp. 100-106.)
It is also reported that the Bible was read during the early meetings of AA.3 However, again this does not say that AA was founded on Christianity but rather that it followed the format of the Oxford Group. Cultists and occultists read the Bible as well.
2. Bob Smith’s Religious Background
In his personal story of his religious background Smith said, "From childhood through high school I was more or less forced to go to church, Sunday School and evening service, Monday night Christian Endeavor and sometimes to Wednesday evening prayer meeting." 4 He does not sound as though he was as committed to Christian Endeavor as would have been expected. A writer by the name of Dick B, who believes Smith was a Christian, admits that Smith "said he resolved never again to darken the door of a church." He says, however, that there is evidence that Smith did send his children to Sunday school and also became a church member.5 In an email to Biblical Discernment Ministries Dick B wrote that Smith had been "a member of a Presbyterian Church" and later, "on letter of transfer, [Smith] became a communicant at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Akron, Ohio." Church membership may be tantamount to being a Christian to Dick B.
3. Bob Smith’s Library
Smith had some Christian books in his library. However, one of his favorite authors was Harry Emerson Fosdick, who was the Minister of Riverside Church in New York and a well-known liberal who denied the deity of Jesus Christ.
Smith also studied and supposedly profited from reading books by William James, Carl Jung, Mary Baker Eddy, Emmet Fox and various New Thought writers.6 In his book Dr. Bob and His Library, the author, Dick B, lists and discusses various books in Smith’s library. In his chapter "The Books Dr. Bob Owned, Read, and Recommended," Dick B titles one section "Two of A.A.’s Other ‘Founders.’" They are William James (psychologist) and Carl Jung (psychiatrist). Dick B mentions how helpful James’ book had been to Bill Wilson after his "dramatic spiritual experience" and then quotes James:
To be converted, to be regenerated, to receive grace, to experience religion, to gain an assurance, are so many phrases which denote the process, gradual or sudden, by which a self hitherto divided, and consciously wrong, inferior and unhappy, becomes unified and consciously right, superior and happy, in consequence of its firmer hold upon religious realities.7
As far as James was concerned it did not matter to what religion or persuasion a person was converted. What mattered was the experience, not the belief system to which one was converted. If one reads the above quotation carefully, one will find certain words that would cancel this out as a Christian experience. Since when should a sense of "superiority" accompany Christian faith?
After describing Jung’s influence on Bill Wilson and the founding of AA, Dick B says that Smith both owned and read Modern Man in Search of a Soul by Jung. He then quotes from that book:
Among all my patients in the second half of life—that is to say, over thirty-five—there has not been one whose problem in the last resort was not that of finding a religious outlook on life. It is safe to say that every one of them fell ill because he had lost that which the living religions of every age have given to their followers, and none of them has really been healed who did not regain his religious outlook.8
Here again, what is being promoted is a religious experience or outlook, not specifically Christianity. In fact, Jung denied Christianity and considered all religions myths that help a person deal with life. The influence of both James and Jung was a religious influence, but not a Christian influence. Both helped the founders create a religious system (AA) that does not rely on the God of the Bible or on the doctrines of the Word of God.
4. Smith’s Reference to AA as a "Christian Fellowship"
Smith referred to the early days of AA as being "A Christian Fellowship." In the early days they did read the Bible, pray, and meditate. However, they more resembled the Oxford Group Movement than biblical Christianity in that they emphasized experience and disdained doctrine. Also, there is a broad spectrum of belief and practice that is labeled Christian from liberal to conservative. The only Christian influence in the beginnings of AA was on the liberal end, not on true, biblical Christianity.
But, the AA founders moved away from even liberal Christianity as they developed their own doctrines. Dick B clearly states:
Because of the immense amount of editorial resistance to Jesus Christ in Official A.A. accounts, it is very difficult to do more than quote the various oldtimers who affirmed that one became a Christian when he surrendered ‘upstairs’ in Akron with the group of men who prayed over him, for him and with him.9
And because of the "immense amount of" actual "resistance to Jesus Christ" in official AA meetings, one has to question Smith’s understanding of Christianity. We have yet to find an indication that Dr. Bob Smith testified to the exclusive God of the Bible and Jesus Christ, His Son, "the only-begotten of the Father" (John 1:14). But, for Dick B this may not be necessary.
Just as current members of AA may also be Christians, some of the early members of AA were no doubt Christians. Indeed, there may have been Christian influence in the beginning, but to conclude that AA was founded on Christianity is simply wishful thinking. Its obvious rejection of Christianity reveals that it never truly was Christian in the beginning. John clearly writes in his epistle: "They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would no doubt have continued with us: but they went out, that they might be made manifest that they were not all of us" (1 John 2:19).
We rejoice to know when people are true believers in Christ and we must confess that only God knows the heart. We can only look at the fruit: a movement that denies the exclusivity of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. General references to God and the Good Book and even membership in various churches do not constitute reliable evidence of true Christian faith. Instead, what we have is a desire on the part of those who want to see AA as compatible with Christianity who have therefore expanded their definition of Christianity to include far more than "the faith which was once delivered unto the saints" (Jude 3).
We have not found ample evidence that Smith ever expressed his faith in a clear biblical manner. Lacking that evidence and considering the above information, it is clear that Smith was at least aberrant, if not heretical, with respect to his understanding and practice of biblical Christianity. The evidence Dick B sets forth to prove that Smith was indeed a Christian also raises questions about Dick B’s understanding and practice of biblical Christianity.
If, indeed, AA had Christian roots at the very beginning, they were severed before the organization took official form. As one letter writer to Christianity Today wrote, "AA teaches belief in a generic god while prohibiting discussion of Jesus Christ. This is not a bridge to Christ but a bridge to Babylon. . . . Thank God I was shown a way out from AA’s teachings. Many remain lost."10
1 The Co-Founders of Alcoholics
Anonymous: Biographical Sketches, Their Last Major Talks. New York:
Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Inc., 1972, 1975, pp. 11-12.
10 Chris Deile. "In His 12 Steps." Christianity Today, February 5, 2001, pp. 9-10.
(PAL V11N1 Jan-Feb 2003)