Bill Wilson was an enthusiast, a man who was fascinated by whatever was happening at the moment. He bent his lanky body eagerly toward whoever was speaking; he paid such close attention that the ash often fell off his forgotten but still-smoking cigarette. Once he got hold of an idea, he explored it from every angle until he let it go -- if he let it go. Catholicism fascinated him. His spiritual adviser, Father Ed Dowling, was a devout Roman Catholic, and although Bill had stopped going to church in a formal way when he left the Congregational Church of his boyhood, he had become a Christian without a church.
Nevertheless, Bill Wilson insisted that belief in God was not a prerequisite for membership in A.A. He knew how important it was to the survival of the program that it be in no way religious or associated with any religion. He was proud of the way the program had avoided associating itself with a specific God, limiting itself in the steps to what was called God as we understood him. Even so, as soon as many drunks heard the word God, they headed for the door.
In the 1940s Bill met Monsignor Fulton Sheen, the popular Catholic radio host. Sheen, who later converted Clare Boothe Luce to Catholicism, was a man Bill Wilson could talk with. He began visiting Sheen for instruction every Saturday. Perhaps this -- a different kid of religion -- was the answer. In his darkest times he had found solace in a prayer of St. Francis of Assisi, a Catholic saint.
Bill wrote letters to Ed Dowling about the sweetness of Catholicism, and letters to Sheen laying out his questions. "I feel more like a Catholic," he wrote Sheen, "But I think more like a Protestant." Perhaps if this struggle had happened later in his life, it might have had a different result. But his wrestling with the possibility of conversion with its divine certainty was happening in the 1940s. He was still very much the leader and guide of his beloved A.A., and he knew that anything he did would be publicly allied with the program.
Bill Wilson was a man keenly aware of history, especially the history of other groups like his own. He studied the Washingtonians' story and wrote about the group himself. Under the title "Modesty One Plank for Good Public Relation," he wrote about the organization that had at one point enlisted almost 100,000 alcoholics who helped each other stay sober. In his article Bill listed four reasons for the complete dispersal of the Washingtonians: overdone self-advertising; competition with other organizations instead of cooperation; indulgence in controversy; refusal to stick to their original purpose of helping alcoholics. Bill was also impressed by the story of Mary Baker Eddy, another New England teacher who had preached the connection of the soul and the body in an idea similar to those behind Alcoholics Anonymous. Eddy also believed, as did Bill, that the living could communicate with the dead. A powerful woman who had her epiphany after she fell on the ice of a New Hampshire lake and prayed herself back to health, Eddy's movement promoted the idea that all physical ailments were actually spiritual ailments and could be cured through prayer.
Although Eddy's Christian Science Church is still extant, Bill studied the way in which her movement had been damaged by both her refusal to step down as a leader and her willingness to take credit for the work of others. He was also struck by her trials with the membership of the religion she had founded.
Bill Wilson was also distressed by the absolution of Roman Catholicism, even in the gentle interpretations of Monsignor Sheen. He hated the idea of the infallibility of the pope, and he found it hard to believe in transubstantiation -- the literal rather than the metaphorical belief that the sacraments of the bread and wine became the body and blood of Christ. At heart, he was always suspicious of authority -- that was part of his genius -- and the authority wielded by the Roman Catholic Church and all churches was not attractive to him. "The thing that still irks me about all organized religion is their claim how confoundedly right all of them are," he wrote to Bob E., an Akron A.A. member. He also believed that a conversion to Catholicism on his part would profoundly hurt A.A. His longing for the one true church, whatever that might be, was part of his restlessness in his role as the man who represented Alcoholics Anonymous.
Bill's spiritual quest extended beyond organized religion. During the calm postwar years of the Truman presidency Bill and Lois, along with Anne and Bob Smith, continued to investigate psychic and spiritual phenomena. These days, psychic phenomena and the way people use to understand them and identify them are completely out of favor. For Bill Wilson and Bob Smith, though, their investigations were part of a tradition of activity in rural New England at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century. There was no television then and little electricity. When night fell on the small houses in New England towns, the people who lived there found other things to do. Theirs was a society intimate with death; the death rate for children was high, and even healthy men and women often died in their fifties. There were no funeral homes. The dead were laid out in their own homes and mourned before they were taken to the churchyard at the edge of town, where they were buried by those who had loved them the best.