Father Ed Dowling


Glenn F. Chesnut

Also search under the following common variants and misspellings: Glenn Chesnut, Glen Chesnut, Glen Chestnut, Glenn Chestnut, Glen F. Chesnut, Glenn F. Chestnut, Glen F. Chestnut, Glenn C. South Bend

Glenn F. Chesnut, Father Ed Dowling, Glenn Chesnut
Glenn F. Chesnut, Father Ed Dowling: Bill Wilson's Sponsor, July 2015, ISBN 978-1-4917-7085-6, ebook ISBN 978-1-4917-7087-0, viii + 640 pp., $35.95 U.S.

The life and teaching of Father Ed Dowling, S.J., the Jesuit priest who served for twenty years as sponsor and spiritual guide to Bill Wilson, the co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous.

An icy evening in December 1940 saw the first meeting of two extraordinary spiritual leaders. Father Ed said that the graces he received from meeting Bill Wilson were as great as those he had received from his ordination as a priest, and Bill in turn described encountering the Jesuit as being like a second conversion experience, where he could feel the transcendent presence of God filling the entire room with grace. The good priest taught Wilson about St. Ignatius Loyola's Spiritual Exercises, about the eternal battle between good and evil which the Spanish saint described in that book, and explained the Jesuit understanding of the way we can use our deepest emotions to receive guidance from God while serving on that battlefield. The co-founder of the twelve step movement in turn supplied Father Ed with some of the most valuable tools he possessed for carrying out small group therapy on a wide range of different kinds of troubled people.

Together the two men discussed Poulain's Graces of Interior Prayer and Bill's attempts to make spiritual contact with both spooks and saints, and explored the world of LSD experiences and the teachings of the Catholic, Hindu, and Buddhist mystics in Aldous Huxley's Perennial Philosophy.

And we will see how Father Ed, with his deep social conscience, helped Bill W. turn his book on the Twelve Traditions into a Bill of Rights for the twelve step movement, and how he laid out his own spiritual vision of Alcoholics Anonymous at the A.A. International in St. Louis in 1955.

From Ernie Kurtz: "Glenn Chesnut is the leading expert
on spirituality among today's AA historians."

The author earned a doctorate in theology at Oxford University and had a long career teaching religion and history at the University of Virginia, Boston University, and Indiana University.

In his early years, he was closely associated with the Catholic Nouvelle Théologie (New Theology) movement, and served for three years as the American representative for Éditions Beauchesne in Paris, the leading French theological publishing house.

More recently, he has authored books on a number of topics in A.A. spirituality and history.

Among these was the famous book, Changed by Grace (2006), on the Oxford Group and its influence on Alcoholics Anonymous, a book which is considered by many of the experts to be the best historical account in print of AA’s Evangelical Christian roots.

And he joined with early AA figure William E. Swegan, the major spokesman for the wing of early Alcoholics Anonymous which stressed the psychological side of the program, to write The Psychology of Alcoholism (2011). This important work is the sole detailed statement of belief which we have from the small circle of AA atheists and agnostics who made up one faction of the movement during the 1930s, 40s, and 50s.

Glenn F. Chesnut, San Francisco, May 2015, Glenn Chesnut
Glenn Chesnut at the ferry harbor in San Francisco (May 2015)

CLICK HERE to read the book online or download it as
either an MS Word DOC file or an Adobe PDF file.

*** For a collection of Father Dowling's writings CLICK HERE ***

Table of Contents

Father Dowling's Early Life

1. The Route to Becoming a Priest: 1898-1931

2. The Queen's Work and the Cana Conference

3. Cognitive Behavioral Psychology and Small Group Therapy

4. Father Ed Receives a Gift of Grace: 1940

Father Ed Dowling's childhood home
The long narrow light grey house is Father Ed Dowling's childhood home
on 8224 Church Road, just two city blocks west of the Mississippi River,
in the tiny suburb of Baden on the north side of St. Louis

Father Ed and Bill Wilson: Two Spiritual Masters

5. Discovering A.A. and Meeting Bill W: 1940

6. Pain and Suffering: (1) Emmet Fox

7. Pain and Suffering: (2) Matt Talbot

8. Pain and Suffering: (3) Ignatian Spirituality

St. Stanislaus Jesuit Seminary where Father Ed Dowling was a student
The Old Rock Building at St. Stanislaus Seminary in Florissant, Missouri

9. Bill Wilson's First Great Epiphany: November 1934

10. Bill Wilson's Second Great Epiphany: December 1934

11. Bill Wilson's Third Great Epiphany: December 1940

12. Richard Maurice Bucke's Cosmic Consciousness

13. Characteristics of Cosmic Consciousness

14. Panentheism, Nature Mysticism, and Walt Whitman

Father Ed Dowling
Father Ed Dowling

15. Father Dowling's Version of Cosmic Consciousness

16. The Radical Wing of the Jesuits

17. Jean Daniélou S.J. and St. Gregory of Nyssa

18. Gregory of Nyssa: the Transcendent Realm

19. Gregory of Nyssa: The Spiritual Life as Perpetual Progress, from Glory to Glory

20. Two Kinds of Catholicism

Father Ed Dowling
Father Ed Dowling standing with Dred Scott's great-grandson John A. Madison on March 6,1957,
one hundred years after the famous Supreme Court decision which started the Civil War, with Dowling
pointing with his cane to the section of grass where the former slave was buried and announcing his
plans to erect a memorial to Scott's bravery in making his stand for freedom.

21. Aldous Huxley and the Perennial Philosophy, Gerald Heard and the LSD experiments

22. The Intersection of Four Major Religious Movements

23. Ignatian Spirituality

24. Consolations: Feelings, Visions, Voices, and Contact with Saints and Heavenly Beings

25. Bill W. Does His Fifth Step with Father Dowling: 1940

Father Dowling's Later Life

26. Bill Wilson and A.A. from 1941 to 1945

27. Making Moral Decisions: An Ignatian Pro vs. Con List in Father Ed’s 1945 Queen’s Work article

28. Bill W. Takes Instructions in Catholicism from Fulton J. Sheen: 1947

29. Bill W. and Father Ed on Papal Infallibility: 1947-1948

30. Ratifying of the Twelve Traditions and Dr. Bob’s Death: 1950

Father Ed Dowling
Father Ed Dowling

31. Spooks and Saints

32. Spiritual Experience and Poulain’s Graces of Interior Prayer

33. Father Ed Has a Retinal Stroke in 1952 and Bill W. Works on the Twelve and Twelve

34. Father Dowling’s 1953 Article Comparing St. Ignatius’s Ascetic Theology and the Twelve Steps

35. Father Ed’s 1954 Article: How to Enjoy Being Miserable

36. Father Dowling in 1955: Appendix to the Second Edition of the Big Book

Father Ed Dowling, Kiel Auditorium, 1955 AA International in St. Louis
Kiel Auditorium in St. Louis, where Father Ed Dowling spoke to the AA International Convention in 1955

37. Father Dowling in 1955: The A.A. International in St. Louis — Part I

38. The 1955 A.A. International in St. Louis — Part II

39. The 1955 A.A. International in St. Louis — Part III

40. Bill Wilson and Father Dowling Take LSD: 1956

41. Father Dowling’s Last Years: 1957-1960

42. From Substance Abuse, Insanity, and Trauma to Gays and Gluttony: 1960

43. Death: April 3, 1960

Outline of topics covered

Topics include Father Ed Dowling's childhood and youth in St. Louis, entering the Jesuit order in 1919, Regency teaching at Loyola Academy in Chicago, (1926-1929), involvement in the Catholic Action and Christian Family movements, finding the unmarked grave of the black hero Dred Scott and putting a monument over it, working for the Jesuit magazine The Queen's Work, his "love affair with the cross," his problems with smoking and overeating.

Paddlewheel steamers at St. Louis
Paddlewheel steamboats on the Mississippi river at St. Louis,
on the way down to Memphis and New Orleans

His defense of democracy, siding with the poor against the rich, and the most famous Father Dowling quotation: "The two greatest obstacles to democracy in the United States are, first, the widespread delusion among the poor that we have a democracy, and second, the chronic terror among the rich, lest we get it."

Founding the Cana Conference movement in 1942, teaching in the Summer School of Catholic Action. Involvement in the Montserrat Circle for scrupulosity and other emotional self-help groups, including Divorcées Anonymous. Instead of the neo-Freudian approach used by many Protestant A.A.'s when dealing with psychological issues, Father Dowling (like Father Ralph Pfau) encouraged the use of the cognitive behavioral psychology of Dr. Abraham A. Low in Chicago.

Fr. Dowling founds the first AA meeting in St. Louis on October 30, 1940. Jack Alexander finally comes to believe in A.A. after seeing this St. Louis AA group in action, and writes his praiseworthy Saturday Evening Post article.

Father Ed meets Bill W. for the first time -- late November or early December 1940 -- at the AA clubhouse on West 24th Street in New York City. When Father Ed walks in the door, he is covered with snow and sleet.

Snow in New York City - December 1940
The snowfall that hit New York City at the beginning
of that winter, photo taken in December 1940


(1) Emmet Fox and New Thought: pain and suffering are caused by wrong thoughts. If we change the way we think, the pain and suffering will disappear. As can be seen, Fox preached many radical New Thought ideas, but he had been born in Ireland, was brought up as a Catholic, and had been trained by the Jesuits. God as Creative Intelligence and the power of Being Itself.

(2) Matt Talbot and self-punishment, the very different path taken by another Irish Catholic, a laboring man in Dublin. Wearing chains around his body, sleeping on a bare wooden plank, and so on. We must atone for our sin and guilt by deliberately inflicting pain and hardship on ourselves before God will forgive us. The self-torture game.

(3) In Ignatian spirituality: pain and suffering exist because life in this fallen world is a war. As a good soldier, you must continue to do your duty and fight for the good down to your last breath, even when surrounded on every side by death and horror. The central Ignatian teaching of the Two Standards (Las Dos Banderas), choosing which of these two battle flags you will follow in the war between the forces of Good and the forces of Evil. Choosing between the way of Pride and the way of Humility. St. Augustine and the two cities: the City of God vs. the Earthly City, surrender of my ego to God vs. trying to play God myself.

The centerpiece of traditional Catholic spirituality: humility in the Christ Hymn in Philippians 2:3-11. Father Dowling's message to Bill Wilson: quit beating yourself up because you don't think you're good enough. Remember the Fourth Beatitude from the Sermon on the Mount, "blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness," that is, blessed are those who, with humility, try to make continual spiritual progress, instead of whipping themselves mercilessly in a vain quest for perfectionism and absolutism. St. Thomas Aquinas and the Baltimore Catechism: human beings in this fallen world can with the aid of God's grace avoid committing mortal sins, but can never avoid committing venial sins.

The sense of the divine presence, including Bill Wilson's vision of the light at Towns Hospital on December 14, 1934. The hospital gave patients massive doses of belladonna back in 1909-1912 under Dr. Alexander Lambert, but was no longer doing that in 1934, now that Dr. William Duncan Silkworth was in charge. Bill W. may not have been given any belladonna at all, but would at most have been given enought to make him a little sleepy. And visions of heavenly light were not part of belladonna trips: this particular drug was a deliriant, not a psychedelic.

Richard Maurice Bucke's book Cosmic Consciousness, the English Romantic poets, the New England Transcendentalists, and the formative American poet Walt Whitman. Bill Wilson saw Father Dowling as a charismatic messenger who had himself already experienced some form of Bucke's cosmic consciousness.


(1) In the area of political thought and Christian ethics: liberation theology and Father John Courtney Murray S.J.

(2) Father Teilhard de Chardin S.J. and his understanding of the growth of human spirituality in our evolution from the apes.

(3) Cardinal Jean Daniélou S.J. and the other famous members (many of them Jesuits) of the Catholic Nouvelle Théologie movement over in Europe. Daniélou on the theology of the Jewish philosopher Philo and the early Christian teachers Origen and St. Gregory of Nyssa.
The frightening view into the darkness of the existential abyss according to St. Gregory, and his portrayal of the Jewish patriarch Moses climbing up Mount Sinai and the frightened wandering of the young woman in the Song of Songs through the Dark Night of the Soul. An ancient message that was peculiarly relevant to the issues raised by twentieth-century European existentialists and other modern atheists: how to find God in what was in fact, St. Gregory proclaimed, a Luminous Darkness.

From glory to glory: perfection as perpetual progress. A doctrine of the continual evolution of the soul, driven by a divine Eros and always being asked to peel "the next layer off the onion" and discover even deeper and more profound depths of spirituality.
Two kinds of Catholicism: the religion of the parish church vs. the spirituality of the monasteries.

Aldous Huxley and The Perennial Philosophy (1945): showed the similarities between the teachings of the great Catholic monastic authors and the teachings of many important Asian religions, particularly Vedanta Hinduism. Part of a major American religious movement which began to flourish and grow in the 1940's, 50's, and 60's: Huxley, Gerald Heard, Huston Smith, Alan Watts (who introduced Americans to Zen Buddhism), and so on.
Some of the major Catholic spiritual authors whom Huxley talked about in The Perennial Philosophy: the important fourteenth century Catholic theologian Meister Eckhart was the most quoted figure in Huxley's book, but he also had numerous quotes from St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Augustine, St. Bernard of Clairvaux, St. Catherine of Siena, St. Francis de Sales, St. John of the Cross, and the Theologia Germanica. His most important source for Hindu spirituality was Swami Prabhavananda, the founder of the Vedanta Society of Southern California.
Huxley, Heard, Huston Smith, and the LSD experiments (in which Bill W. and Father Dowling both joined). A sideshow, which Bill W. backed away from when the hippies and drug addicts began to take over during the 1960's. Bill W. and Father Dowling originally became interested in Huxley and Heard as important religious thinkers, and that remained their central interest.

CLICK HERE  Click here to return to main page