The Evangelical Universalist Forum

The Oxford Groups - Where Alcoholics Anonymous Got Most Of It's Principles - The Principles That Caused Bill Wilson (Founder of AA) To Have a Spritual Experience (Ego Collapse)

The principles of AA originated in a Christian group called “The Oxford Group” started by a Lutheran evangelical. One of the main influences of “The Oxford Group” was “The Varieties of Religious Experience” by the psychologist William James. Bill Wilson and Doctor Bob (The founders of AA) attended Oxford Group Meetings when they were getting sober. Bill Wilson would later break with the Oxford Group because they were too Christian and Bill Wilson’s focus was just alcohol.From the AA Big Book (4th Edition):

Forward to the Second Edition pages XV XVI

The spark that was to flare into the first AA group was struck at Akron, Ohio, in June 1935, during a talk between a New York stockbroker (Bill Wilson) and an Akron physician (Doctor Bob). Six months earlier, the broker had been relieved of his drink obsession by a sudden spiritual experience, following a meeting with an alcoholic friend who had been in contact with the Oxford Groups of that day. He had also been greatly helped by the late Dr. William D. Silkworth, a New York specialist in alcoholism who is now accounted no less than a medical saint by A.A. members, and whose story of the early days of our society appears in the next pages. From this doctor, the broker had learned the grave nature of alcoholism. Though he could not accept all the tenets of the Oxford Groups, he was convinced of the need for moral inventory, confession of personality defects, restitution to those harmed, helpfulness to others, and the necessity of belief in and dependence upon God.

From Wkipedia:

The co-founders of Alcoholics Anonymous met through the Oxford Group, and codified several of its tenets into AA, the first twelve-step program

Moral standards of absolute honesty, absolute purity, absolute unselfishness, and absolute love, though recognized as impossible to attain, were guidelines to help determine whether a course of action was directed by God. The Four Absolutes seem to have first appeared in a book by Robert E. Speer, titled The Principles of Jesus .[14] In the Chapter, Jesus and Standards , Speer laid down Four Principles (honesty, purity, unselfishness, love) that he believed represented the distilled, uncompromising, moral principles taught by Jesus. Speer quoted Bible verses for each Principle. In 1909, Professor Henry B. Wright of Yale, citing Speer’s work, dug up many more Bible verses that set forth these same Principles in the YMCA book: The Will of God and a Man’s Lifework .[15] Wright dubbed them Absolutes rather than Principles. Next, Frank Buchman and the Oxford Group/Moral Rearmament adopted and popularized the phrase “The Four Absolutes”.

In Oxford terms, sin was “anything that kept one from God or one another” and is “as contagious as any bodily disease”. The soul needs cleansing: “We all know ‘nice’ sinless sinners who need that surgical spiritual operation as keenly as the most miserable sinner of us all.”[9]:11–16

Spiritual practices

To be spiritually reborn, the Oxford Group advocated four practices set out below:[9]:9

  1. The sharing of our sins and temptations with another Christian.
  2. Surrender our life past, present and future, into God’s keeping and direction.
  3. Restitution to all whom we have wronged directly or indirectly.
  4. Listening for God’s guidance, and carrying it out.

I will go through the steps and show how the ideas come from the Oxford Group.

Bill Wilson had a religious experience that changed his life. He later read the book (brought to him by members of the Oxford Groups) “The Varieties of Religious Experience” by the psychologist,William James, that resonated with him. In that book he discovered the truth that genuine religious conversion experiences have one thing in common. And that is ego collapse or ego death. Bill Wilson was a friend of the psychologist Dr. Carl Jung and wrote him Dr. Jung letter talking of this. The full letter can be found here. Notice he says it was the principles of the Oxford Groups that changed him:

Clear once more of alcohol, I found myself terribly depressed. This seemed to be caused by my inability to gain the slightest faith. Edwin T. again visited me and repeated the simple Oxford Groups’ formulas. Soon after he left me I became even more depressed. In utter despair I cried out, “If there be a God, will He show Himself.” There immediately came to me an illumination of enormous impact and dimension, something which I have since tried to describe in the book “Alcoholics Anonymous” and in “AA Comes of Age”, basic texts which I am sending you.

My release from the alcohol obsession was immediate. At once I knew I was a free man. Shortly following my experience, my friend Edwin came to the hospital, bringing me a copy of William James’ “Varieties of Religious Experience”. This book gave me the realization that most conversion experiences, whatever their variety, do have a common denominator of ego collapse at depth. The individual faces an impossible dilemma. In my case the dilemma had been created by my compulsive drinking and the deep feeling of hopelessness had been vastly deepened by my doctor. It was deepened still more by my alcoholic friend when he acquainted me with your verdict of hopelessness respecting Rowland H.

To learn more about the psychic change called ego death or psychic death here’s a Wikipedia article on ego death:

It’s what all the mystics have in common. It’s a death to self as one merges with Ultimate Reality. Absolute humility dissolves ego. It’s a loss of self-identity. It’s painful and uncomfortable to die to self.

I cover the twelve steps here:

In union with Christ on the cross (we are crucified with Christ as we die to self and resurrected to new life) God’s love arrow pierces the heart creating the need or desire for Himself. He fills the emptiness with Himself. He’s the answer to our problems. From “The Art of seduction” by Robert Greene:

Create a need - stir anxiety and discontent:

A perfectly satisfied person cannot be seduced. Tension and disharmony must be instilled in your targets minds. Stir within them feelings of discontent, an unhappiness with their circumstances and with themselves: their life lacks adventure, they have strayed from the ideals of their youth, they have become boring. The feelings of inadequacy that you create will give you space to insinuate yourself, to make them see you as the answer to their problems. Pain and anxiety are the proper precursors to pleasure. Learn to manufacture a need that you can fill.

God fills the void with Himself causing us to fall in love with Himself. We surrender and abandon ourselves to Him in total Trust. From Francesco Alberoni:

No one can fall in love if he is even partially satisfied with what he has or who he is. The experience of falling in love originates in an extreme depression, an inability to find something that has value in everyday life. The “symptom” of the predisposition to fall in love is not the conscious desire to do so, the intense desire to enrich our lives, it is the profound sense of being worthless and of having nothing that is valuable and the shame of not having it. This is the sign that we are prepared for the experience - the feeling of nothingness and shame over our own nothingness. For this reason, falling in love occurs more frequently among young people, since they are profoundly uncertain, unsure of their worth, and often ashamed of themselves. The same thing applies to people of other ages when they lose something in their lives - when their youth ends or when they start to grow old. There is an irreparable loss of something in the self, a feeling that we will inevitably become devoid of value or degraded, compared with what we have been.

I’ve tried to capture all this in poetry:


In union with you upon the cross
As love’s arrow pierces my heart
I die to myself and suffer loss
Then given a new life and start

Buried to my old self I then rise
Vision is now clear as I can see
New self reflects in Your eyes
The person I am and want to be

Looking deeper into Your face
Beauty becomes brighter inside
With no more wrath only grace
In union with You I now confide

God’s arrow pierces the heart deflating the ego and creating a passionate love for Him. God doesn’t force us against our will. No, we come to Christ because we want to. When the falling in love is fully developed we want Christ more than anything. This is the essence of true freedom.

Death To Self

Honey warms the fires of passion
Of the throbbing of my heart
Your heart pumps beauty apart
Of a flaming blaze in like fashion

Your gentleness warms my skin
As I pant for your loving embrace
Soul to soul and face to face
As I open myself up You enter in

Ego is crucified; painfully deflated
An empty vessel I now let go
Wind of the spirit gently blow
Death to self I am annihilated

Penetrating through the spirit’s core
Love is infused deeply and melting
Entering the wounds and helping
An ecstatic union forever more

To see more go here:

I’ve written about falling in love with God here:

From the Orthodox Church in America:

The Greatest Virtue is Love

God is Love … od-is-love

The second definition of love as eros is love for the sake of union with the other. Erotic love is no sin when it is free from sinful passions. It can be the utterly pure desire for communion with the other, including God. All spiritual writers have insisted that such love should exist between God and man as the pattern for all erotic love in the world between husband and wife (See Sexuality, Marriage, and Family). Thus the mystical writers and spiritual fathers have used the Old Testament’s Song of Songs as the poetic image of God’s love for man and man’s love for God (Philo the Jew, Gregory of Nyssa, Bernard of Clairvaux, John of the Cross, Richard Rolle in England, et al.). Indeed the prophets have used the image of erotic love in explaining the Lord’s relation with Israel (Is 54; Jer 2–3,31; Ezek 16; Hos). And Saint Paul uses this image for Christ’s love of the Church (Eph 6). In the scriptures, the union of man with the Lord in the Kingdom of God is primarily revealed in the image of eros (Mt 22, Rev 19–22).

Holy eros is a passionately wanting God. It came to refer to physical sex and can be found there but it’s not limited there. It’s also found in hope and compassion. From the Greek Orthodox Church:

The psyche of man, who is created in the image and likeness of God, yearns for God and desires union with Him. No matter how moral, how good man may be, no matter how many good deeds he may perform, if he does not find God, if he does not unite with Him, he finds no rest. Because holy God Himself placed within him this holy thirst, the divine eros, the desire for union with Him, for deification (gr. theosis). He has in himself the erotic power, which he receives from his Creator, in order to love truly, strongly, selflessly, just as his holy Creator falls in love with His world, with His creatures. This is so that with this holy erotic impetus and loving power, he falls in love with God. If man did not have the image of God in himself, he would not be able to seek its prototype. Each of us is an image of God, and God is our prototype. The image seeks the prototype, and only when it finds it does it find rest.


Moreover falling in love has a sense of fate and destiny. This is more so with God who satisfies the longing of our souls. We were meant to be together. We see this in Romans:

For those God foreknew , He also predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son, so that He would be the firstborn among many brothers. And those He predestined He also called, those He called He also justified, those He justified He also glorified.…

God fore loves the bride of Christ that is predestined. The word “know” when applied to relationships in the Bible is a deep intimate “knowing” of loving. Here’s an example from Genesis:

And Adam knew Eve his wife; and she conceived, and bare Cain - KJV

Adam made love to his wife Eve, and she became pregnant and gave birth to Cain. She said, “With the help of the LORD I have brought forth a man.” - NIV

Now the man had relations with his wife Eve, and she conceived and gave birth to Cain - NASB

I explained this to Randy in his thread but it deserves repeating here. Kath meditation centers on the belly or breathing in the belly. It’s the grounding center which is related to the energies of the life force or Divine Eros. When the belly centers become more developed as you also become more present to the moment you become more in touch with the raw energies of your life force. You connect the paradox of the divine with the eros (or passionate desires of wanting) maintaining and egoless or selfless love. Wanting, passion, or desire is mixed together with love to develop the Divine Eros. You can explore the paradox and bring them together by going through your life and seeing how you have experienced selfless giving of love and the experience of passionate wanting. Selfishness seeks it’s own private pleasures at the expense of others. Love is different in that it seeks joy in doing good. Love rejoices in the truth and in doing good. When I do good for someone and they say “Thank you” it’s not selfish for me to respond by saying, “It’s my pleasure”. We love doing good. That is, we should want to do good with a passion for God. Our joy is found in God. From the Orthodox church in America:

So it is that love as goodness (agape), love as union (eros), love as friendship (phila) are all to be found in God and man, between God and man, and between human beings. There is no form of true love which lays outside the realm of the spiritual life.

The Greatest Virtue is Love

God is Love

To learn more about Holy Eros here’s a good book on the subject called “Holy Eros: Pathways to a Passionate God”

Evelyn Eaton Whitehead is a developmental psychologist (Ph.D., University of Chicago) whose work focuses on spiritual development in adult life. James D. Whitehead is a theologian (Ph.D., Harvard University) who studies the interplay of religion and culture. In their shared career spanning forty-five years and fifteen books, the Whiteheads continue to explore the vital themes emerging in contemporary Christian spirituality.

A few quotes from the book:

Eros is most often associated with sexual arousal, but essayist Noelle Oxenhandler recognizes it’s presence in the midst of parenting. She describes the overwhelming delight of caring for her baby daughter. “I remember how palpably I experienced her too-muchness. It was a shudder in my body, an energy I had to soften, reign in, lest I squeeze her too hard, startle her with too exuberant a kiss.” She adds, “It is this feeling I want to call the eros of parenthood: an upswelling of tenderness, often with a tinge of amazement” ~~ Holy Eros, Pathways to a Passionate God, page 16 by Whitehead

From the chapter “Eros of Compassion”

Jesus told the story of a wayward son who returned to the father he had sorely wronged. The son’s homecoming took a surprising turn when his father did not respond in anger or withhold his welcome until after he had received an apology. He seemed uninterested in pointing out the error of his son’s ways or in ensuring that he had learned his lesson. Instead, the father rushed out to meet his son, overjoyed at his return. Sensing the boy’s humiliation and despair, his father treated him as an honored guest and planned a great celebration. Jesus tells us this is what God is like. God receives us not as judge but Abba, an extravagantly loving parent who wants our care for one another to show the same abundant concern. The lives of the godly will be marked not so much by the conspicuous good deeds of the righteous as by the humble compassion of those who to the world’s needs. Compassion is an experience of eros. Ordinarily we think of compassion as commiseration, as feeling the suffering of another person, but compassion has a more expansive meaning.

Bill Wilson"s, of AA, religious experience in the hospital was one of ecstasy after a dark depression. It happened after the Oxford Group formulas were given to him in the hospital. This bright ecstasy is the experience of falling in love with the Divine. It is experienced when the shame is intense and then suddenly released. The lower you are the higher you go. As Bill Wilson states elsewhere, most people gradually undergo a psychic change. This is why they don’t experience an intense ecstasy. The gradually come into it.

Q - Could you describe your spiritual experience for us and your understanding of what happened?

A - In December 1934, I appeared at Towns Hospital, New York. My old friend, Dr. William Silkworth shook his head. Soon free of my sedation and alcohol I felt horribly depressed. My friend Ebby turned up and although glad to see him, I shrank a little as I feared evangelism, but nothing of the sort happened. After some small talk, I again asked him for his neat little formula for recovery. Quietly and sanely and without the slightest pressure he told me and then he left.

Lying there in conflict, I dropped into the blackest depression I had ever known. Momentarily my prideful depression was crushed. I cried out, “Now I am ready to do anything - anything to receive what my friend Ebby has.” Though I certainly didn’t expect anything, I did make this frantic appeal, “If there be a God, will He show Himself!” The result was instant, electric beyond description. The place seemed to light up, blinding white. I knew only ecstasy and seemed on a mountain. A great wind blew, enveloping and penetrating me. To me, it was not of air but of Spirit. Blazing, there came the tremendous thought, “you are a free man.” Then the ecstasy subsided. Still on the bed, I now found myself in a new world of consciousness which was suffused by a Presence. One with the Universe, a great peace came over me. I thought, “So this is the God of the preachers, this is the great Reality.” But soon my so-called reason returned, my modern education took over and I thought I must be crazy and I became terribly frightened.

Dr. Silkworth, a medical saint if ever there was one, came in to hear my trembling account of this phenomenon. After questioning me carefully, he assured me that I was not mad and that perhaps I had undergone a psychic experience which might solve my problem. Skeptical man of science though he then was, this was most kind and astute. If he had of said, “hallucination,” I might now be dead. To him I shall ever be eternally grateful.

Good fortune pursued me. Ebby brought me a book entitled “Varieties of Religious Experience” and I devoured it. Written by William James, the psychologist, it suggests that the conversion experience can have objective reality. Conversion does alter motivation and it does semi-automatically enable a person to be and to do the formerly impossible. Significant it was, that marked conversion experience came mostly to individuals who knew complete defeat in a controlling area of life. The book certainly showed variety but whether these experiences were bright or dim, cataclysmic or gradual, theological or intellectual in bearing, such conversions did have a common denominator - they did change utterly defeated people. So declared William James, the father of modern psychology. The shoe fitted and I have tried to wear it ever since.

For drunks, the obvious answer was deflation at depth, and more of it. That seemed plain as a pikestaff. I had been trained as an engineer, so the news of this authoritative psychologist meant everything to me. This eminent scientist of the mind had confirmed everything that Dr. Jung had said, and had extensively documented all he claimed. Thus William James firmed up the foundation on which I and many others had stood all these years. I haven’t had a drink of alcohol since 1934. © ( N.Y. Med. So©. Alcsm ., April 28,1958)

Alvin Plantinga recognizes this and captures this experience in Warranted Christian Belief. It’s Divine Eros (desire, wanting). It can be found in sex but isn’t limited to sex. It’s a passionate longing. A desire for closeness and intimacy with God without sex. It’s an ecstasy of wonder found in hope and compassion. It’s like the love a mother has for her baby.

It is a longing filled with desire and yearning…It is erotic, and one of the closest analogues would be with sexual eros. There is a powerful desire for union with God, the oneness Christ refers to in John 17. Another perhaps equally close analogue would be love between parent and small child; and this kind of love too is often employed in scripture as a figure for love of God - both God’s love for us and our love for Him. Here too there is longing, yearning, desire for closeness ~~ Alvin Plantinga

In the AA world services book (conference approved) “Pass it On” the psychologist Dr. Carl Jung wrote Bill Wilson (before his ecstatic spiritual experience), stating that the highest religious experience could be described as “the union with God.” Jung quoted psalm 42:1: "As the hart panteth after the water brooks, so panteth my soul after thee, O God.

Pass It On, pp. 384-385

Here’s Dr. Jung’s letter