Bill Wilson, the cofounder of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), had a spiritual awakening that involved bright light, sometimes referred to as his “hot flash” or “white light transformation.”
Prior to founding AA, Wilson was an extreme alcoholic, and was admitted to the hospital several times for it. At about age 39, on what would be his last visit to the hospital in 1934, he showed signs of delirium tremens, a condition caused by withdrawal from high intakes of alcohol. Similar to Joseph Smith, he found himself in an extremely distressed mental state. He later recounted:
My depression deepened unbearably and finally it seemed to me as though I were at the bottom of the pit. I still gagged badly on the notion of a Power greater than myself, but finally, just for the moment, the last vestige of my proud obstinacy was crushed. All at once I found myself crying out, “If there is a God, let Him show Himself! I am ready to do anything, anything!”
Suddenly the room lit up with a great white light. I was caught up into an ecstasy which there are no words to describe. It seemed to me, in the mind’s eye, that I was on a mountain and that a wind not of air but of spirit was blowing. And then it burst upon me that I was a free man. Slowly the ecstasy subsided. I lay on the bed, but now for a time I was in another world, a new world of consciousness. 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 still all right. Things are all right with God and His world.”
(Source: Alcoholics Anonymous World Services. 1957. Alcoholics Anonymous comes of age: a brief history. New York: Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, 64.)
This experience had a tremendous influence on Wilson. After a seven day stay in the hospital he never drank again for the remainder of his life. This experience, amplified more by Wilson’s subsequent reading of William James’ The Varieties of Religious Experience where James describes at length these types of ecstatic mystical experiences, seems to have become a core influence in the formation and teachings of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA).
In a filmed interview with Wilson he recounts this experience, and emphasizes the intensity of the light he saw, and the effect it had on him: (my transcript below)
…I sunk into the most unbearable depression that I had ever known. I suppose that momentarily, at least, the last vestige of my prideful obstinacy was crushed down. I was just a child, crying alone, very alone, in the dark. For the extremity of this agony I can find no words. And then I remembered crying out, “If there is a God, will he show himself?”
And then came the miracle, the great central experience of my whole life. The room instantly lit up, lit up, in a blinding glare of white, white light. I was seized by an ecstasy such as I had never known. It seemed to me that I then stood on a mountain top, where a great clean wind was blowing. I thought to myself, but this is not air, this is spirit. This is the God of the preachers!
How long I remained in this state, I just cannot say. And again, I have no words to describe what it is like. At length, however, I found myself on the bed, but now I was in a new world, a world in which everything was right, despite the wrongs of the world I had been living in. I felt myself filled with the consciousness of the present, of spirit, of God. A great peace stole over me, and there I lay, and reveled, in this new and loving consciousness.
At length I became truly frightened. I thought I was hallucinating. So I called Dr. Silkworth, told him the story as best I could, and said to him, “Doctor, am I hallucinating? Have I gone crazy?” He questioned me, and at length he said, “No Bill,” he said, “You are not crazy. Some great psychic event has occurred. I can feel it, I can see it, but I can’t define it. Whatever it is, it’s much better than what had you only an hour ago. And you better hold on to what you have.”
Some similarities to Joseph Smith’s First Vision seem to include:
- Being alone, in solitude
- Having extreme mental distress and anxiety, depressed
- Being in an extremely “dark” and gloomy place psychologically and emotionally
- Crying out to God to help, for rescue from the agony of this darkness
- Experiencing a heavenly vision, a miracle
- Feeling as though his “mind” was caught away, seeing this in his “mind’s eye”
- Suddenly seeing a very great bright white “light,” blinding in intensity
- This light enveloping his immediate surroundings
- Being seized by an ecstasy, filled with a tremendous joy
- Being unspeakable, indescribable, ineffable. There are no words to describe it. It defied all description
- Feeling as though he was in the “Presence” of divinity, of God, the God of the preachers, the “spirit” of God
- A sense of profound freedom, perhaps forgiveness, feeling free from his sins
- After a time, feeling as though he “found himself” again lying where he was previously
- Afterwards feeling left in a state of consciousness of great “peace,” calm, joy, tranquility, being filled with “love”
A few notes
Some might discount this account because Wilson becomes “frightened” and thinks he might have been “hallucinating.” He doesn’t seem to have had the same conviction as Joseph did of the reality of the vision. What’s interesting is that Joseph too had similar feelings of uncertainty, but he notes that it came later, after his vision of Moroni. This is found in the earliest known account of the First Vision, written in 1832, and just a few sentences after Joseph wrote about the First Vision:
…and then I immediately went to the place and found where the plates was deposited as the angel of the Lord had commanded me and straightway made three attempts to get them and then being excedingly frightened I supposed it had been a dreem of Vision but when I considred I knew that it was not therefore I cried unto the Lord in the agony of my soul why can I not obtain them…
(“History, circa Summer 1832.” Joseph Smith Papers. http://josephsmithpapers.org/paperSummary/history-circa-summer-1832?p=4)
Joseph repeats this sentiment in the official 1842 account, when he recalls first seeing the angel Moroni:
When I first looked upon him, I was afraid; but the fear soon left me. (JS-H 1:32)
It should be noted that it seems most people become “frightened” when having such divine mystical experiences, and may wonder subsequently if they were real. Hugh Nibley noticed that one of the most common reactions to divine experience is fear:
Whenever an angel appears, what is the first reaction? People are scared to death, sore afraid, whether it be the apostles on the Mount of Transfiguration, the shepherds in the field, Mary in her room, or Zacharias in the temple. When someone comes from that other world, people are scared stiff, so the first thing the angel has to say is, “Don’t be afraid. I bring good news, not bad news.” It is culture shock. If the Lord were to come here, what would we ask? We would ask the rocks to cover us–anything but such a visit. It is not hell that we are afraid of–we can take plenty of that–but the thought of heaven, the thought of joy, that simply frightens us. The scriptures use the strongest possible language whenever they describe a person’s reaction: “sore afraid”; still the translation is weak. The original means that they were scared to the point of paralysis. When the angel reassures them, they feel all right again.
(Hugh Nibley, “Three Degrees of Righteousness from the Old Testament,” in Approaching Zion.)
It is also interesting to note that Wilson felt in his “mind’s eye” as though he was caught up to a mountain top where a divine “spirit” was blowing as the wind, which he identified as “God,” although it seems clear he remained in his bed throughout the experience. This recalls the visionary account of Nephi in the Book of Mormon, and being “carried away in the Spirit of the Lord.” This vision lasts for four chapters:
For it came to pass after I had desired to know the things that my father had seen, and believing that the Lord was able to make them known unto me, as I sat pondering in mine heart I was caught away in the Spirit of the Lord, yea, into an exceedingly high mountain, which I never had before seen, and upon which I never had before set my foot. (1 Nephi 11:1; see also 1 Nephi 14:30; 1 Nephi 15:1)
If you would like to submit a “First Vision” account, either personal or found, for inclusion on this website, please click here. Thanks again to Jason, for reminding me of this one.
Many more to come…
2 thoughts on “AA Co-Founder Bill Wilson’s “First Vision” Account”
Just a short note to tell you that I am delighted and surprised to see many of my own ideas about “First Visions” laid out in such a detailed and succinct way. I have always felt that my FV experience at age 20 was similar to JS, and because mine proceeded out of suffering, much like I would later learn about Bill Wilson – as a recovered alcoholic inside the program of Alcoholics Anonymous – I was even more struck by the idea that; perhaps there were more such experiences right under my nose. To add to your list of similarities, remember that Joseph told his father about the vision, much like Bill Wilson told Dr. Silkworth, and BOTH recipients of the news declared it to be of divine origin. And much the way JS had the feeling that his experince would be shared. so too did Bill Wilson react after his Awakening. Bill had the feeling that the “drink problem was removed” and then he considered: “how many other alcoholics are there out there that need this?” His thoughts seem to have been, “If God did this for me, He would do it for anyone who desired it.
A final, and more tenuous connection is, of course, the Book that always seems to follow these “satori”. Although “100 Alcoholics” are credited with the writing and publication of “Alcoholics Anonymous” – the text from which the fellowship got its name – Bill wrote nearly all of it himself. He recounts that in writing the manuscript of the “Big Book”, as it is known, as well as the later “12 Steps and 12 Traditions”, his pen seemed to flow across the paper as if guided by the unseen hand of God.
Great stuff Bryce!
Great thoughts, Robb! Thank you for sharing. Yes, those are all similar connections. I think there are over 20 “First Vision” accounts on the website now, so feel free to browse through them. Many connections, many similarities. This happens much more often than we think. If you feel comfortable sharing your FV experience, please feel free to submit it for inclusion in the site. See: https://thymindoman.com/2017/04/19/submit-a-first-vision-account-for-thymindoman-com/