Emmet Fox: The Sermon on the Mount and Alcoholics Anonymous

By Angus Thomas 01/20/15

The Sermon on the Mount is one of the most influential texts for AA literature. Who was Fox, and how did this book become the basis for the Big Book?

emmet fox
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When I first came to Alcoholics Anonymous I was encouraged to make the Fellowship “my own.” What I understood by that was that I should spend some time reading the literature of AA, researching its history and studying the Traditions. Certainly, this helped me to take ownership of my recovery and as I have written elsewhere it was an investment in my recovery, the only thing that had worked for me in my first 37 years on the planet.

I was to take this to the next level completely, as only an addict can. By a quirk of fate at four months sober, my then-wife organized a family trip from Europe to the US ski resort of Okemo, VT. Little did I know, just down the road was the village of East Dorset, home of Bill Wilson, co-founder of AA. I hijacked our first sober family holiday and to my shame, in my devotion to my new way of life, turned it into a somber pilgrimage. 

AA was born on June 10, 1935, when Dr. Bob Smith, helped by Bill Wilson, took his last drink and the two set about trying to rescue other alcoholics. There followed a period of four years when AA could only be transmitted through face-to-face contact, one alcoholic speaking to another. The Big Book, largely written by Wilson and the mainstay of the AA program of recovery, was not published until 1939 and was the first published material produced.

Well before formal meetings were conceived, Wilson and Smith sought out drunks to work with in hospitals, networking through the Oxford Groups. The pair would tell their personal stories at the bedsides of their prospects and leave the patient with some of the religious literature of the day that had profoundly influenced their own journey. 

They used three main spiritual texts at the time. One of the texts, The Upper Room, was a quarterly magazine started in 1935 and published by the Methodist Church. This was largely an interdenominational collection of spiritual experiences related by its own readers with daily prayers and meditations. The second was The Greatest Thing in the World, a book by Scottish evangelist Henry Drummond, which was published in 1894. The third, and probably most important, was Sermon on the Mount: The Key to Success in Life, a practical handbook of spiritual development by Emmet Fox written in 1938. 

Emmet Fox was born in 1886 in Ireland, the son of a physician and member of Parliament. He was educated at a Jesuit school in London and came to believe that he had healing powers. From his late teens, he began studying the literature of the New Thought Movement, and in time, came to know one of its leading writers, Thomas Troward. Fox gave his first New Thought talk in 1938 at Mortimer Hall in London following which he moved to the US. In 1931, he became minister of New York’s Divine Science Church of the Healing Christ and subsequently held weekly services at the New York Hippodrome and then in Carnegie Hall. 

Fox’s secretary had a son who worked in Bill Wilson’s office during the pioneering times of AA in New York, a connection I am sure Wilson would have delighted in. The AAs were also known to have gone to hear Fox’s sermons after their meetings owing to the proximity of their meeting house to Carnegie Hall. Emmet Fox was therefore woven into the early roots of AA, both in its conception and establishment.

The New Thought Movement believed the idea that God in the form of Infinite Intelligence or Universal Power is everywhere, that divine thought is a force for good, sickness originates in the mind and "right thinking" has a healing effect. This would have appealed to Wilson for whom organized religion had delivered nothing but shame and disapproval. His experience of getting sober was by placing reliance on God with its roots in the Bible, which he called a Higher Power, and taking appropriate action, like seeking out other alcoholics to work with in order to save himself. Interestingly, the Big Book, authored primarily by Wilson, refers to God in a variety of ways: Creator, Maker, Father, Director, Principle, One, Infinite Power, Great Reality, Spirit of the Universe, Supreme Being, and Creative Intelligence amongst many others. The key identifier for the reader was the capitalization of the words used.

The message of The Sermon on the Mount was simple and appealing to those struggling for answers outside the dogma of traditional religion, which had failed alcoholics. It sets out Fox’s view that the Bible is merely a “textbook of metaphysics, a manual for the growth of the soul.” The book promoted the idea that the teachings of Jesus express a practical approach “for the development of the soul and for the shaping of our lives into what we really wish them to be” without dogma.

This more practical and less dogmatic interpretation of the Bible would have been immediately appealing to Bill Wilson and the early AAs. Their experience of coming to know a God was through practical action in the real world. Later on, of course, this was to be formalized into the 12 steps. According to Emmet Fox, “all the doctrines and theologies of the churches are human inventions built up by their authors out of their own mentalities, and foisted upon the Bible from the outside” and this would certainly have tallied with the experience of early AAs whose condition, now recognized by the WHO as a disease, would have been seen as a moral failing.

Fox says, “Jesus, as we shall discover later on, made a special point of discouraging the laying of emphasis upon outer observances; and, indeed, upon hard and fast rules and regulations of every kind. What he insisted upon was a certain spirit of one’s conduct, and he was careful to teach principles only, knowing that when the spirit is right, details will take care of themselves.” 

How interesting that AA has relatively few “outer observances,” no positions other than temporary assignments of responsibility such as tea person, greeter etc., and the meetings are not adorned with anything that could be seen as iconic or religious. Also, what I find interesting is the temptation of some in AA to create such things – little rituals that get blindly followed and then set in stone and spread from group-to-group as if having some value. In the U.K., for example, people have in recent years been saying in unison “We think not!” like a mantra when the Promises are read. I don’t understand why and I am sure Bill Wilson would also be baffled.

Furthermore, the Big Book talks extensively about the programs reliance on principles as Fox advocates. The references are many but the 12th Step of AA’s program of recovery says, "Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics, and to practice these principles in all our affairs." The principles of the AA program might be summarized as willingness, open-mindedness, and honesty with an emphasis on humility.  

At the time, the AA principles must have seemed heretical, to those outside the fellowship, as they are somewhat vague concepts outside of organized religion. However, the absence of absolutes was paramount to the success of AA in attracting newcomers. Where the Big Book insists on something being done, it is usually in relation to eliminating character defects such as selfishness or resentments rather than a demand for blind faith or acceptance of abstract concepts. AA, like Fox, promotes belief through experience. As they say in AA, religion is for people who believe in hell and AA is for people who have been to hell.

Emmet Fox was part of a stream of thought, which was to flourish and diversify in the late twentieth and early twenty-first century as religious tolerance broadened. My own route from Emmet Fox and The Sermon on the Mount was to lead me to read voraciously about the Religious Science movement and the philosophy of the Science of Mind created by Ernest Holmes in the 1930s. Holmes was a contemporary of Fox, although he was American and based mostly on the West Coast of the US. Science of Mind was incorporated as a religion in the 1950s as the Church of Religious Science, but has been dogged with infighting and factions at regular intervals. 

On my own journey from first reading the Big Book, to Ernest Holmes, which led me to Rhonda Byrne and her hugely successful book, The Secret, published in 2006, which has sold more than 19 million copies worldwide. Byrne writes about the law of attraction and strongly promotes the idea that positive thinking can create life-changing results including increased wealth, health, and happiness. 

The film of that book led me to one of its stars, Mike Dooley, whose “Notes from the Universe” are received by millions of email subscribers daily. I wonder what Wilson would have thought of Dooley’s philosophy that “Thoughts become things”? I feel pretty sure that he would have signed up for that because he promoted coming to know a God/Higher Power through positive action and experience of the results. For Wilson, that meant the active work of the 12 steps – admitting defeat, relying on a Higher Power, taking inventory, clearing away the wreckage of the past, making amends, living a life of example and passing the message on. He had, after all, witnessed many thousands of lives profoundly changed by following the AA program of recovery.

I think Fox would have been less pleased. The movement of today’s popular New Thought writers away from their biblical roots towards the experiential, and perhaps more abstract concepts of creating the conditions for wealth and happiness in order for it to manifest in one's life would perhaps have been even abhorrent. For me, I don’t take anything on trust. I had to work the program to get the results. And I also do the Byrne/Dooley visioning and mental creating and I similarly get results. We will see what transpires, but I am asking, I am believing, and up to now, I have been receiving! 

Emmet Fox died in Paris from a brain hemorrhage on Monday, August 13, 1951.

Angus Thomas is a London based portrait photographer, wellness advocate & athlete using #plantpower to fuel his journey. He last wrote about lifting weights (instead of a drink) and about gratitude as an action.

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