Psychiatrist Scott Peck calls it the greatest event of the twentieth century: the “founding” of Alcoholics Anonymous in Akron, Ohio, on June 10, 1935. It did not seem auspicious at the time. Two apparently hopeless alcoholics, one jobless for years, the other a surgeon who had needed a drink that day to steady his scalpel, had found each other.

In the 56 years since, A.A. membership has grown from two to nearly 2 million, A.A.’S 12 Steps, which owe virtually nothing to modern psychology or medicine, are unreservedly embraced by courts, hospitals, and a large number of counselors and psychologists. Beyond A.A., the 12 Steps have become the treatment of choice for a large catalogue of disorders, from sexual addiction to overeating. Author Keith Miller calls the 12 Steps “a way of spiritual healing and growth that may well be the most important spiritual model of any age for many contemporary Christians.”

Yet many Christians have an ambivalent attitude toward Alcoholics Anonymous, A.A.’S 12 Steps recognize not God, but a “Higher Power” who is “God as we understand him.” This sounds like slippery, New Age language. The “disease concept” of alcoholism—not invented, but certainly popularized by A.A.—seems to remove any moral dimension from drinking.

The spiritual roots of the 12 Steps are complex, tangled between experience-oriented evangelical Christianity and secularizing, psychologizing tendencies of American religious pluralism. Understanding how these sources produced the 12 Steps can help Christians know how to interact with them today.

Bill W.’S Hot Flash

Bill Wilson (“Bill W.” in A.A. lore, because of A.A.’S principle of anonymity) was unquestionably the most influential person in the development of Alcoholics Anonymous. In ...

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