The Story of the Course

by Allen Watson

A Course in Miracles was first published in June of 1976. As spiritual teachings go, then, it is a very recent document. Many people who have studied it find it on a par with, or even superior to, other writings often referred to as scriptures. I personally believe that the influence of the Course has barely begun, and that people will be studying and discussing it hundreds of years from now.

What Led Up to the Writing

Bill and Helen In 1965, Helen Schucman, a 56-year-old woman, was working as a Professor of Medical Psychology at Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center in New York City. Helen had been hired seven years before, in 1958, by William Thetford, who was known as Bill. In 1965, Bill, Helen’s boss and colleague, was 42. (Bill and Helen are pictured at left.)

Their department was filled with competition and hostility between coworkers, and the same situation existed in relation to a similar department at Cornell, where Helen and Bill were consultants. The staff meetings were usually scenes of strife and competition among the workers—despite the fact that all of them were psychologists. In particular, there was a good deal of tension between Helen and Bill.

One day they met at Bill’s apartment on their way to a meeting at Cornell. Both of them were dreading the meeting. In a way not typical of him, Bill made an impassioned, preplanned speech to Helen, in which he declared, “There must be another way”—meaning, another way of dealing with their meetings, their relationships, and their lives. He declared that he was determined not to get angry in the meeting and not to attack people. Rather than focusing on mistakes and pointing out errors, he was going to look for the constructive side in what people said, and cooperate rather than compete.

Incidentally, according to the most authoritative version of the story, Bill said, “There must be another way,” and not “There must be a better way.” The phrase “a better way,” however, does appear in the Text, and this phrase was chosen as the name of the newsletter for the Circle of Atonement.

Much to Bill’s surprise, Helen piped up to say that he was absolutely right, and she would join him in trying this new approach and in finding another way to deal with people. That event was the birthplace of the Course. It contained the seeds of the entire approach of A Course in Miracles. It was a moment, in a relationship, when two people joined in a common purpose, which is a key to what the Course calls a “holy relationship.” It was a “miracle,” a “holy instant,” a moment of laying aside our usual way of thinking and opening to “a better way.” Whether they realized it or not, it was a turning point from fear and attack to love, and thus allowed the Holy Spirit into their minds.

Although that was the birth of the Course, the Course itself did not begin to appear right then. For three months, Helen experienced a series of dreams and psychic experiences which were leading up to the writing of the Course. Twice she had visions of a large book and was told, or was aware, that this was somehow “her” book. She began having mental conversations with a voice she identified as Jesus. She would ask questions of Jesus about her life, and Bill’s, and write down the answers, even though the whole process was disturbing to her. The dreams and visions terrified her; being a psychologist, she feared for her own sanity. She began talking with Bill about everything that was happening to her.

The Writing of the Course – 1965-1972

Finally, one day (October 21, 1965), Helen’s “voice” said, “This is a course in miracles. Please take notes.” She wrote down about a page of notes before she realized that this was not going to be something short; the voice was asking for a long-term commitment.

In a panic, she called Bill to ask his advice. Bill encouraged Helen to do what the voice asked, and take the notes. He told Helen he would meet with her the next morning before work, read over the notes, and discuss them with her. When they did that, what he read so impressed him that he encouraged Helen to keep taking the notes. They recognized that the notes, which became the Course, was their answer, the “another way” they had agreed to find together. And that is how it all began. For the next seven years, with some breaks, they met together nearly every morning. Helen would read the notes from her shorthand notebooks, Bill typed them up, and they would discuss them.

These were both respected psychologists. Neither one of them dared to talk with anyone else about what they were doing; they were afraid they would be thought unstable and might lose their jobs. Eventually they shared the material with a few close friends—first a Catholic priest who worked with them, then with Kenneth Wapnick, and then with Jon Mundy. The latter two are both well-known teachers of the Course today. Helen and Bill studied the notes themselves and then put them into black notebooks on the shelf. Even though it became clear from the material itself that it was meant to be shared, Helen and Bill thought it likely that it would not be published until after their deaths.

As time went by, the relationships in Helen’s and Bill’s department improved dramatically as they applied what they were learning. Unfortunately, after the Course was completed, the relationship between Helen and Bill actually got worse. Eventually Bill moved to the West Coast, and their relationship appears never to have been completely healed. To me this does not invalidate the Course. It only shows that Helen and Bill were students of the Course, like we are, not the authors.

Helen definitely did not consider herself the author. In fact, quite frequently she was very disturbed by what she wrote, or even disagreed with it. To her it was evident that the real author was Jesus, although part of her mind was so disturbed by Jesus that she rarely talked about him by name, and for a long time referred to him simply as “the Voice” with a capital V. When she asked the Voice, “Why me? I’m not even religious,” the answer she got was, “You are an excellent choice, and for a very simple reason. You will do it.”

The way the Course was taken down was similar to, but not identical with, what is called “channeling” in New Age circles. Kenneth Wapnick, who has written a biography of Helen titled Absence From Felicity, describes the process of taking down the Course as “scribing,” not writing. He says:

The scribing was referred to by Helen as “internal dictation”; that is, she did not go into an altered state, a trance,or engage in automatic writing. She was always aware of what she was doing, even if she chose not to pay attention to it. Regardless of her attitude, the writing would continue. (Absence from Felicity, p. 201)

Helen said it was more like taking dictation than automatic writing; it required her conscious cooperation. Sometimes she tried to resist, once staying away from writing for over a month, but the pressure to take notes was always there. Resisting just made her feel depressed. Sometimes she would go to bed without writing and find herself unable to sleep until she got up and did it.

Editing and Publishing – 1972-1976

The dictation ended in September 1972. The books were put on the shelf. Helen and Bill felt their work was done; someone else would publish the Course. Shortly after, on November 25, 1972, Kenneth Wapnick entered their lives. He was a deeply spiritual man who had been raised as a Jew and then converted to Catholicism because he was attracted by the life of Trappist monks. Although he had no particular attraction to Catholic doctrine, the church, or Jesus, he felt strongly guided to become a monk, so he converted. He was planning a visit to Israel before entering the monastery when he met Helen and Bill. He felt an immediate affinity with them, and was intrigued when they told him about their book. But Ken did not read it at the time, and had no room in his luggage to take a copy, which would have been several loose-leaf notebooks.

Ken thought about the book several times, feeling drawn to it. He even had two symbolic dreams about a very holy book he was going to find. When he returned from Israel after five months, in May of 1973, he intended to stay only a short time visiting his family before entering the monastery, but he also wanted to visit Helen and Bill, and look at their book. He says he could not wait to see it. As soon as he read it, or very soon after, he realized the Course was the book he had dreamed about, and was to become his life’s work. He went back to Israel to tie up loose ends in July; Bill and Helen had become such close friends in two and a half months that in August, they visited Ken in Israel.

After Ken returned to the States, Helen, Bill, and Ken spent the next two years editing the Course in preparation for publication. (For a detailed discussion of the editing process, see Robert Perry’s article on this website, entitled The Earlier Versions and the Editing of A Course in Miracles.) The editing was finished early in 1975. There it sat for a few more months, awaiting publication. Helen, Ken, and Bill did not have any idea how it could be published.

In May of 1975, Bill heard Judith Skutch give a lecture on parapsychology. He felt an inner connection with her and a need to meet her. That same night, Judy went home feeling herself to be at the lowest point of her life. She found herself crying out, “Won’t someone up there please help me!” A few days later, her answer came. First, a psychic told her she was about to publish “one of the most important spiritual documents known to humanity.” Then, a friend of Judy’s invited her to meet Bill and Helen for lunch. They all felt an immediate rapport. Helen and Bill told her the story of the Course and handed her a manuscript copy. As she read it, she wept for joy; she know this was the answer to her prayer, and this was the map for her journey home.

Judy had numerous contacts in the world of parapsychology, and began circulating Xeroxed copies of the manuscript among them. The cat was out of the bag, so to speak. Later on, several hundred photo-reduced copies were printed, but these were snatched up almost as soon as they were printed. The appeal of the Course was far wider and greater than either Helen or Bill had believed possible.

Clearly, the Course needed to be published in book form. Several publishers actually expressed interest during this time, but no one was willing to publish the Course without changes; they wanted to edit it and abbreviate it. After seeking guidance about the situation, Helen, Bill, Ken, and Judy concluded that 1) the Course was to be published unabridged, 2) by people who were devoted to this alone, 3) by a nonprofit organization, and 4) with all four of them involved. They realized that the guidance pointed to them publishing the Course, so they committed to doing just that. Judy changed the name of her organization, the Foundation for Parasensory Investigation, to the Foundation for Inner Peace. The money for publication was provided miraculously, through an unsolicited gift, and five thousand sets (Text, Workbook, and Manual for Teachers) were printed. In June 1976, the Course was finally published by the Foundation for Inner Peace.

Helen Shucman died in 1981 at age 71. Bill Thetford followed her in 1988. Once the Course was in Judy’s hands for publication, both Helen and Bill felt their part was done. Messages from Jesus received by Helen seemed to indicate that both had an important future function beyond the scribing of the Course. But neither really stepped into that function, and both remained relatively uninvolved with the dissemination of the Course. Bill attended study groups in California and gave talks telling his story, but refused to take on any teaching role. Helen actually began to depreciate the importance of what she had done. As Ken Wapnick observes in Absence from Felicity:

Helen and Bill’s joining together was essential for this future function, as it was for the scribing of A Course in Miracles, yet these two remarkably faithful and dedicated people chose otherwise. They thus remained estranged from each other until the end, and so what might have been, remained only within the realm of possibility and not actuality. (Absence from Felicity, p. 381)

Even so, what they did manage to do together was remarkable. From the simple decision of two people to join in finding a better way to relate to their fellow human beings, A Course in Miracles was born. Through their work, millions of lives have been touched. All of us who have found that better way through walking the path of the Course can only thank Helen and Bill for their priceless gift to the world.

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