The History of the Manuscripts of
A Course in Miracles
Kenneth Wapnick, Ph.D.
As will be discussed in more detail below, circumstances have recently arisen surrounding the earlier manuscripts of A Course in Miracles that have necessitated this explanation of the history of the Course, from Helen Schucman’s notebooks to its publication in 1976. What the reader is viewing is an edited and enlarged transcript from a session of a workshop, held in Atlanta in 2007, which directly addressed this issue in response to a question from a participant. While much of what I will say is already discussed in my book Absence from Felicity: The Story of Helen Schucman and Her Scribing of “A Course in Miracles,” it is my hope that this will further help to answer questions, correct misunderstandings, and allay any concerns students may have about the Course—authorized by Helen herself and published by the Foundation for Inner Peace—they are reading.
An Overview of the Scribing
Let me start by giving a brief overview of how the Course was written, and how what Helen took down ended up as the books we have. This will begin the process of addressing the questions that have been raised, which have largely been based on erroneous information.
When Helen started taking down the Course in October 1965, she wrote down what she heard. One of the misconceptions or myths surrounding her scribing is that this was the first time Helen had heard an inner voice. This is not the case. She had been hearing Jesus’ voice at least through the latter part of the summer, and her experience was clear that this was Jesus. Incidentally, I should say that while Helen said she heard an inner voice, the traditional way this kind of experience is described, she told me years later that the experience was closer to seeing words in her mind, and then writing down what she “saw.”
The early pre-Course messages she received had to do largely with helping her deal with a close colleague of hers who was dying of brain cancer, and who later died. Helen took these messages down in shorthand, in stenography notebooks. She had learned shorthand when she was in graduate school and had developed her own version, which was partially a blend of Gregg and Pitman, the two main shorthand methods.
The following day, whenever she and Bill would have time in what was then a very busy schedule, she would dictate to Bill what had been dictated to her, and he would type it out. As he would jokingly say afterwards, he would type it out with one hand on the typewriter (this was before computers) and the other hand holding Helen up, because she would be so nervous. Sometimes when she would read it to Bill, she would start to stutter or lose her voice. She was always an excellent speaker, and so this was most uncharacteristic of her.
In the first several weeks of the scribing, which consists roughly of the material up to and including Chapters 4 and 5 in the text, the dictation was much more personal than was the case later. It was as if Helen and Jesus were sitting on her living room couch having a conversation. Helen asked questions that Jesus answered, and there were also corrections to her mis-hearing, what she, Bill, and I later referred to as “scribal errors.”
The Course actually began with Jesus saying: “This is a course in miracles. Please take notes. The first and fundamental thing to remember about miracles is that there is no order of difficulty among them.” It does not begin that way in the published version. Some time into the scribing, Helen complained to Jesus that he needed a better introduction, saying, in effect: “You know, who is going to start a book with ‘There is no order of difficulty in miracles’!” So she wrote down some things that metamorphosed into the current introduction.
Typically, Helen would write down a miracle principle and then there would be a lot of discussion about it, including the aforementioned questions. These also included things Bill had in mind that he asked Helen to ask for him. Much of the material that came during this time was clearly not meant for publication. It was obviously meant to help Helen personally, and to help Helen and Bill in their relationship, the troubled aspect of which was the original stimulus for the coming of the Course. The material was also directed toward Helen’s relationship with her husband, Louis, and Bill’s relationship with his friends (Bill was homosexual and never married).
In addition, material was given to help Helen and Bill bridge the gap between the psychology that was being offered in the Course and the psychology they both knew, which was basically Freudian. While the psychology of A Course in Miracles is heavily psychoanalytic, it deviates significantly from what Freud taught in many specifics, though not in the general contours or dynamics of the ego’s thought system. There was thus some material on Freud and other psychologists, like Jung and Rank.
There also was some discussion of Edgar Cayce, because Bill was quite interested in him at that time. In fact, he pressured Helen to read some of the Cayce writings. Moreover, they both went to the Association for Research and Enlightenment in Virginia Beach, the institute Cayce founded. Edgar was already dead, but Helen and Bill met with his son, Hugh Lynn Cayce, who took over leadership of the A.R.E.
Finally, there was, among other subjects, material on sexuality, statistics, and mental retardation; the last two being major interests of Helen’s.
For a number of reasons, none of this material belonged in the published version. First, much of it was personal to Helen and Bill, and had nothing to do with the teachings of A Course in Miracles. Perhaps even more importantly, Helen was notoriously inaccurate when her own ego was involved. A great deal of this early material was colored by Helen. She was incredibly accurate when her ego was not in the way, however, and that is why the pure teaching of the Course is what it is. One could never imagine Jesus saying, for example, what is in the Urtext on sex—not that it was anything horrific, but it obviously reflected Helen’s own values and biases. I’ll return to this later. The material on Freud is heavily weighted in favor of Freud—Jung does not come off very well. Helen did not like Jung, and neither did Bill; they did not know much about him and his work, but they did not like him. And so, when one reads these comments about Freud and Jung, it becomes clear that distinct biases are involved.
Another important point is that when the messages Helen wrote down had to do with something specific in the world, they were frequently wrong. One of the myths surrounding Helen and the scribing is that anything Helen heard had to be from Jesus, and therefore should be regarded as sacred; not too different from the fundamentalist position regarding the unerring nature of every word in the Bible. Nothing could be farther from the truth regarding the Course. Helen did not believe the words she took down were sacred; nor did Bill (or I for that matter). At the end, I will discuss what should be treated as sacred.
At any rate, after the first few weeks, Helen’s experiences began to change. Instead of being a conversation, the dictation became essentially straight lecture, as if Jesus were standing at a podium speaking, and Helen, his devoted student in the auditorium, were writing down everything he said. As one reads the text from Chapters 4 and 5 on, one can see a real difference in the style of writing—more fluent, less inconsistent in language. The writing also becomes increasingly more beautiful, reflecting Helen’s love of Shakespeare. From about Chapter 16 on, there are an increasing number of passages in verse, and the last two chapters are all in iambic pentameter. This was unknown to Helen at first, but after a while she realized the words were coming in a definite rhythm. From Lesson 99 on, the entire workbook, including rather prosaic instructions, are in blank verse (i.e., unrhymed poetry). Finally, portions of the manual are in blank verse, as are portions of the two pamphlets that were scribed later (Psychotherapy: Purpose, Process and Practice; The Song of Prayer). In other words, as Helen’s hearing became clearer, the writing became clearer and more beautiful.
One of the examples I have used in the past to describe the early weeks of the scribing is how if you live in the Northeast or Midwest and leave your house for vacation and shut the water off, when you come back and turn it on, very often you get rust because the pipes are old. You have to run the water for a while until the rust runs through, and then the water is clear again. In a sense, Helen’s hearing was like that. She had a vision prior to the Course coming through her in which she saw herself on a beach with a boat, and it was her job to get the boat into the water. A stranger, whom she later identified as Jesus, arrived to help her. On seeing what she described as an ancient sending-and-receiving set in the boat, Helen said to him: “Maybe this will be helpful.” But he responded: “No, you’re not ready to use this yet.” In retrospect, Helen understood this as a reference to the Course, which had not yet begun. She was the “ancient sending-and-receiving set,” but her equipment was still entangled in seaweed, to keep to the nautical metaphor.
Helen took down the text in about three years (1965-1968). Nine months went by and she began taking down the workbook (1969), and a few months after the workbook was completed (1971), the manual for teachers came, concluding in September of 1972, almost seven years since she began the scribing.