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James Houck and Alcoholics Anonymous

By Wally P. Archivist, Historian, and Author
Back to Basics


   During the past five years, I have been asked on numerous occasions to answer specific questions about James Houck. The three questions that come up the most are:

  1. Is James Houck a member of A.A.?

  2. Is James Houck a recovering alcoholic?

  3. Is James Houck a member of the Oxford Group?

   Sometimes there are no easy answers even when the questions seem to be simple and straightforward. This is certainly the case when trying to explain the relationship of James Houck, the Back to Basics Beginners' Meetings, and Alcoholics Anonymous.

   Although there are now more than 2,000 Back to Basics Beginners' Groups throughout the world which have produced more than 100,000 recoveries, there are still people within the A.A. community who are unfamiliar with this "original" meeting format or the role James Houck has played in bringing this highly successful "design for living" back to the fellowship. James is the last living link to the spiritual roots of the Alcoholics Anonymous program that produced a 75% recovery rate from alcoholism.

   Many people today know very little about the early days, except for what they have read or what they have heard from some "old-timers" (actually newcomers compared to James Houck) who sobered up in the 1970's. They don't realize that the program of the 1970's was quite different from the "original" program of the 1940's. The program has continued to change over the years and has reached a point where today A.A. has only a 5-10% recovery rate, depending upon which study you read.

   Figures published by GSO show that the fellowship peaked in 1992 at 2.2 million members and has declined 20% since then. Prior to the 1990's, the fellowship doubled in membership every ten years. The objective of Back to Basics is to reverse this decline by reintroducing the "original" Beginners' Meetings that worked for three out of every four people who entered the rooms of Alcoholics Anonymous.

   James Houck is truly a unique individual. He is ninety-five years old, sixty-six years sober, and one of the greatest "life-changers" of the past one hundred years.

   Just like Bill W., Dr. Bob S., and the other "Big Book" authors, James Houck found God and sobriety in the Oxford Group. And, just like Bill W., Dr. Bob S., and the other "Big Book" authors, James had his spiritual awakening as the direct result of taking the Oxford Group Four Steps of Surrender, Sharing, Restitution and Guidance.

   James attended Oxford Group meetings with Bill W. in Frederick, MD from 1935-1937. The Oxford Group considered all addictions to be equally detrimental in terms of cutting a person off from God. There was no more emphasis on alcohol than there was on smoking, womanizing, or drug addiction. All of these behaviors left us in the dark relying on self-will, rather than God's will to solve our problems. The Group believed that self could not overcome self. Only God could remove our addictions and afflictions, provided we established an intimate two-way relationship with Him. In 1937, Bill left the Group to work full time with alcoholics.

   As James explains it, when Bill W. left the Oxford he didn't take all the drunks with him. James remained in the Oxford Group, as did Rowland H., Cebra G., Victor K., and Charles C. among others. In fact, Dr. Bob didn't leave the Group until 1940; almost a year after the "Big Book" was written.

   James is the only person alive today who has first hand knowledge of the material Bill W. and the other "Big Book" authors used to write the book Alcoholics Anonymous. On numerous occasions, he has stated that the "Big Book" is Oxford Group literature written for a specific segment of the Oxford Group fellowship.

   Although James stayed in the Oxford Group, he did have contact with the early A.A. fellowship through Sam Shoemaker, a mutual friend of his and Bill W.'s. Sam Shoemaker was the rector of the Calvary Church in New York City, which was the United States headquarters of the Oxford Group. Bill W. attended Oxford Group meetings at the Calvary Church and Sam was instrumental in assisting Bill W. with the writing of the "Big Book" Bill acknowledged this linkage when he wrote on page 39 of A.A. Comes of Age:

"The early A.A. got its ideas of self-examination, acknowledgment of character defects, restitution for harm done, and working with others straight from the Oxford Groups and directly from Sam Shoemaker, their former leader in America, and from nowhere else."

   Since the Oxford Group had been responsible for his spiritual awakening, James remained with the fellowship even after it changed its name to Moral Re-Armament in 1938. He didn't attend A.A. meetings until the 1980's when he was working with a grandson who had a drinking problem. At these meetings, he saw people practicing a program that did not even remotely resemble the "original" program of the 1940's. That's when he started to speak at A.A. events about the early days of the fellowship.

   James Houck does not consider himself to be a recovering alcoholic. The term "recovering" is belittling, it refers to someone still struggling with the problem rather than living in the solution. It is an expression that evolved from the treatment centers in the 1970's. This is how James describes his recovery:

"To me 'recovering' means you haven't made the grade yet. You're still not sure of your position.

"I am absolutely sure of my position. God took alcohol out of my life on December 12, 1934, and when God took alcohol out of my life, He took it out forever."

   James is a recovered alcoholic, which is the term used by Bill W., Dr. Bob S. and the A.A. pioneers. The word can be found seventeen times in the first 164 pages of the "Big Book." In addition, James sometimes refers to himself as an ex-alcoholic. This expression was used in the first ten printings of the first edition of the "Big Book." In 1947, "ex-alcoholic" was changed to "ex-problem drinker."

   James does not identify himself as an alcoholic from the podium. Here again he follows the precedent set by Bill W., Dr. Bob S. and the A.A. pioneers. Neither Bill nor Dr. Bob ever identified themselves as alcoholics when speaking at A.A. meetings. To verify this all you have to do is listen to the audio tape recordings of their speeches. The ritual of identifying oneself as an alcoholic, followed by a chant from the audience of "Hi _______," also came from the treatment centers decades after the fellowship came into being. It is not a part of the "original" A.A. program.

   James does not claim to be the oldest living member of A.A. because he does not want, in any way, to overshadow those who have maintained continuous sobriety after the fellowship was formed in the spring of 1939. Therefore, Duke P. of Jacksonville Florida is the oldest member of A.A. with a sobriety date of 8/15/40, even though Duke's sobriety date is almost six years after James=.

   This is also the reason James uses his last name when speaking at A.A. events. He downplays his membership in A.A. to avoid being considered the oldest living member of the fellowship.

   Keep in mind that James Houck, Bill W. and Dr. Bob S. all found permanent sobriety in the Oxford Group. If we say that James Houck's sobriety date isn't important because he sobered up in the Oxford Group, then we must say the same thing about Bill and Dr. Bob.

  1. This has been a lengthy explanation of several very simple questions. In summary:

    Is James Houck a member of A.A.?

    Yes, he is as much a member of A.A. as anyone else who has a desire to stop drinking. However, for James the compulsion to drink was successfully removed on December 12, 1934. He has not had a drink of alcohol or taken a mood altering substance (including nicotine) since that day.

    James has an A.A. home group. It meets on Thursday nights at the Towson, MD Methodist church.

  2. Is James Houck a recovering alcoholic?

    No. James Houck, Bill W. and Dr. Bob S. all had drinking problems, which they overcame in the Oxford Group as the direct result of taking the Four Steps of Surrender, Sharing, Restitution, and Guidance. Since December 12, 1934, James has been a recovered alcoholic or ex-alcoholic.

  3. Is James Houck a member of the Oxford Group?

    James Houck was a member of the Oxford Group in the 1930's and is a member of Moral Re-Armament today. He is also a member of the Hunt Valley Rotary Club and the Towson, MD Methodist Church.

   Although the Oxford Group, as such, does not physically exist anymore, the principles of the Group are just as valuable as a "design for living" today as they were in the 1930's. Both James Houck and I apply the Four Standards of Honesty, Purity, Unselfishness and Love to our thoughts, words and deeds; use Restitution to become life-changers; and rely upon the Guidance of God to direct every area of our lives. In this sense, the Oxford Group is alive within each and every person who practices the "original" A.A. program in order to witness once again the miraculous results obtained by our A.A. pioneers.

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