AA sobriety coin. (Wikimedia Commons)

The Mystical Roots of Alcoholics Anonymous

Founders of the twelve-steps drank deeply from esoteric sources

Mitch Horowitz
19 min readNov 6, 2023

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Historically, some of the most effective purveyors of therapeutic or self-help spirituality in modern life harbor little-seen ties to mystical and occult movements.

Among such figures, the most consequential in shaping a persuasive, globally popular mental-therapeutic spirituality were Bill Wilson (1895–1971) and Bob Smith (1879–1950), cofounders of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA).

Nearly a century ago, AA arose, and continues, as the primary vehicle of practical mysticism in modern life, with spiritual sources as widespread as they are, in many cases, esoteric.

As tradition records, the Vermont-born men, Wilson and Smith, first met in May 1935 in Akron, Ohio. Bill was a newly sober alcoholic traveling on business from New York. Alone at a hotel, he was desperate for a drink. He thumbed through a local church directory seeking a minister who could help him find another drunk to talk to. Bill had the idea that if he could locate another alcoholic to speak with, and to help, it might ease his pangs for booze.

On that day, Bill found his way to Bob Smith, an area physician who had waged his own long and losing battle with alcohol. Both men had spent years vainly sampling different techniques and treatments. When they met in Akron, however, each discovered that his capacity to stop drinking grew in proportion to his ability to counsel the other. Wilson and Smith’s friendship burgeoned into the founding of Alcoholics Anonymous and the modern twelve-step movement.

Bill and Bob appeared as all-American as their names. In their looks, dress, and politics, both men were as conservative as an old-fashioned banker, which, in fact, Wilson was.

But each was also a spiritual adventurer, committed to exploring the terrain of metaphysical experience, from Spiritualism and mediumship to positive-mind and Eastern metaphysics, in search of a workable solution to addiction. Together, they wove Christian, Swedenborgian, Jungian, Jamesian, Christian Science, mediumistic, and New Thought (positive-mind) themes into the twelve steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, fostering perhaps the most explicitly therapeutic metaphysical…

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Mitch Horowitz

"Treats esoteric ideas & movements with an even-handed intellectual studiousness"-Washington Post | PEN Award-winning historian | Censored in China