Four Absolutes -
Their Source, Application, and Significance
Honesty, Purity, Unselfishness, and
Dick B., Copyright, 2002
are these "Four Absolutes?"
have to be around A.A. for quite
a while before you hear much about
the "Four Absolutes."
to that statement are those who
read our Conference Approved history
DR. BOB and the Good Oldtimers,
or Dr. Bob’s last major speech,
or are in the chain of sponsees
beginning with Clarence Snyder,
or come from the Akron area, or
who have dipped their feet into
A.A.’s Oxford Group origins, the
role of Rev. Sam Shoemaker, and
the notes made and shared by Dr.
Bob’s wife, Anne Smith.
provide a brief statement and documentation
of the facts about the Absolutes.
And these are long overdue because
there have been many misunderstandings,
misinterpretations, and confusing
questions. Just take this example:
Even those who ought to have known
better sometimes say that the Four
Absolutes constitute a distillation
by Dr. Robert E. Speer of Jesus’s
teachings in the sermon on the mount.
But that is not so!
"Four Absolutes" actually
originated in a book by Dr. Robert
E. Speer, titled "The Principles
of Jesus." Speer laid down
four principles which he believed
represented the uncompromising moral
principles taught by Jesus. Speer
cited verses from the Bible for
each proposition. And his four principles
were thereafter most commonly called
the "Four Standards."
heard several early Oxford Group
activists use that term. I’ve seen
it used often in Anne Smith’s journal.
And it pops up in some of the Oxford
Group writings I’ve researched.
On the other hand, Dr. Bob often
said the "standards" were
"yardsticks." But the
term "absolutes" really
came from Professor Henry B. Wright
of Yale who popularized the expression
"absolutes." He cited
Speer’s work. He dug up many verses
from the Gospels and the Church
Epistles that set forth these same
principles. And Wright’s immense
influence on Dr. Frank Buchman,
Founder of the Oxford Group, resulted
in the adoption of the phrase "Four
Absolutes." Bill Wilson referred
to them by that name and even claimed
they were incorporated into his
Steps Six and Step Seven.
were they used?
more misinformation than information
about the application of the absolutes.
As I have written so often, there
were no Steps either in A.A. or
in the Oxford Group during the four-year
period when A.A. was being developed.
But there was lots of literature
then being read and circulated on
the topic of the absolutes. I believe
the first significant use of those
moral standards occurred about 1919
in China, when Frank Buchman suggested
to Sam Shoemaker that "sin"
might be blocking Sam’s relationship
with God. Shoemaker wrote down the
four absolutes–honesty, purity,
unselfishness, and love–and then
compared as "sins" those
areas in his life which fell short
of the standards. Shoemaker remarked:
"My sins arose before me like
tombstones;" and Sam then made
a decision to surrender his life
to God–a decision and event to which
he referred every single year of
his life thereafter in his own personal
at least that early point, Oxford
Group people often made lists using
the Four Absolutes as moral standards.
They would write down the four standards.
Then they would write down where
they had fallen short of these standards.
Then they would confess the shortcomings
to another and go about forsaking
the behavior, changing themselves,
and making restitution for harms
done–all based on surrendering their
lives to God and receiving His guidance
from the Bible, the Standards, prayer,
listening to His Voice, and talking
to each other.
AAs in Akron often incorporated
a pledge in the prayers they made
when they surrendered "upstairs"
in the home of T. Henry Williams.
In addition to accepting Jesus Christ
as their Lord and Saviour and asking
God to take alcohol out of their
lives, they would ask for help in
living up to the four standards–concepts
one oldtimer called the "cardinal
principles of Jesus Christ."
Wilson early criticized the Four
Absolutes as being too tough for
alcoholics to swallow, just as he
later criticized several other Oxford
Group principles and practices.
By contrast, Dr. Bob Smith consistently
favored application of the Four
Absolutes. So did his wife Anne,
and the other leaders such as Henrietta
Seiberling and T. Henry and Clarace
Williams. Today, these absolutes
have become all but forgotten except
for the pockets I first mentioned.
are also misinterpreted because
observers haven’t taken the time
to learn their Biblical origins
and their intended guidance and
application. And I suggest the following
path that will help. First, take
the "standards" as the
"yardsticks" for A.A.’s
Fourth Step inventory (something
which was actually done before there
was a "Fourth Step" concept
in 1939). Second, take the "standards"
as the "yardsticks" for
the "continued" personal
inventory in the "Tenth Step"
before the was a Tenth Step had
been adopted in 1939. Third, consider
the "principles" of the
"Twelfth Step" before
there was a Twelfth Step in 1939.
Then look at the twenty-eight Oxford
Group principles that impacted on
A.A. and which Bill virtually codified
in his Big Book "Steps"
in 1939. Finally, look through the
Big Book for its emphasis on honesty,
unselfishness, and love. You can
forget "purity" because
that was probably the stickler for
Wilson though it was the insistent
subject of teaching in Akron and
Cleveland A.A. If you take this
study course, you have the application
of these four ideas in pioneer A.A.
have the documentation, and You
do the homework.
and where they are:
A good reference point for your
start can be found on pages 237-238
of my title, The Oxford Group
and Alcoholics Anonymous: A Design
for Living That Works, 2d. ed.
My squib on page 237–based on Oxford
Honesty, Absolute Purity, Absolute
Unselfishness, and Absolute Love
are the essence of Jesus’s teachings
about the Will of God, the ideals
for man’s life, and the moral standards
by which man’s thoughts and actions
may be tested for harmony with God’s
extensive footnotes show you exactly
where you can find these in Frank
Buchman’s speeches, in books about
Buchman, in descriptions of Oxford
Group principles, in Sam Shoemaker’s
writings, in A.A. conference-approved
books, in Anne Smith’s writings,
and in some A.A. groups today. Save
yourself some time, and begin there
for extensive, precise documentation.
principles of Jesus and Dr.
Robert E. Speer’s book: The
"Four Absolutes" or "Four
Standards," as they were also
called, emerged directly from the
research by Dr. Robert E. Speer
into the heart of Jesus’s teachings.
Speer set out to prove that Jesus
taught some four, specific, "absolute"
moral standards. Perfection was
Jesus’s measuring standard. To get
the roots straight, you need to
start with Robert E. Speer, The
Principles of Jesus. New York:
Fleming H. Revell, 1902, pp. 33-35.
Speer provided the following Biblical
documentation for the absolute standards
John 8:44: "When he [the devil]
speaketh a lie, he speaketh of his
own: for he is a liar and the father
of it" (Speer, p. 35).
Matthew 5:29-30: "And if thy
right eye offend thee, pluck it
out, and cast it from thee: for
it is profitable for thee that one
of thy members should perish, and
not that thy whole body should be
cast into hell. And if thy right
hand offend thee, cut it off, and
cast it from thee, for it is profitable
for thee that one of thy members
should perish, and not that thy
whole body should be cast into hell"
(Speer, p. 35).
Luke 14:33: "So likewise, whosoever
he be of you that forsaketh not
all that he hath, he cannot be my
disciple" (Speer, p. 35).
John 13:34: "A new commandment
I give unto you. That ye love one
another, as I have loved you, that
ye also love one another" (Speer,
the following: First, the principles
did not come exclusively
from the "sermon on the mount"
(Matthew 5 - 7). Second, they
are demanding, absolute "targets"
and "yardsticks" as far
as the Oxford Group, Shoemaker,
Dr. Bob, and Anne Smith saw them.
Third, you can find other Gospel
citations by Dr. Speer to verses
that support the foregoing asserted
moral standards. Fourth, the "moral"
inventory idea–from which A.A.’s
Fourth Step came–was definitely
intended as a "moral"
(as distinguished from immoral,
sinful, unacceptable) inventory–not
merely a list of good and bad characteristics.
Henry B. Wright’s Role: Wright
examined Speer’s standards in terms
of the uncompromising standards
that Jesus set. Then Wright looked
at Jesus’s teachings about life
lived by the absolute standards.
He documented his Scriptural references
by citing verses from both
the Gospels and the Epistles. Verses
such as Luke 16:10-11 (honesty);
Matthew 5:8 (purity); Luke 9:23-24
(unselfishness); Matthew 25:41-43,
45 (love). See Henry B. Wright,
The Will of God and a Man’s Lifework
(New York: The Young Men’s Christian
Association Press, 1909). Then,
much as AAs later would individually
do in expanding the checklists in
Steps 4 and 10, Wright pointed to
many Biblical proscriptions such
as adultery, stealing, killing,
lying, fornication, covetousness,
and defrauding found in such verses
as Mark 10:19-21; Ephesians 4:25-5:4;
Colossians 3:5-14; 1 Thessalonians
4:3-12; James 3:17. These remained
a part of early Oxford Group ideas
about unacceptable and immoral behavior.
Big Book: Whatever has happened
to the Four Absolutes in the A.A.
recovery program, and despite criticisms
of them by Bill Wilson, the principles
are still in the Big Book for all
to see. Honesty can be found emphasized–all
through A.A.’s basic text. Unselfishness
and the need for altruism, thoughtfulness,
and consideration for others are
paramount ideas. Love and the ideas
of 1 Corinthians 13 are mentioned
again and again, with an occasional
Biblical reference as well. And
purity? Was it lost? Not in Akron,
where Dr. Bob and his group refused
to have anything to do with those
who committed adultery and other
"sins." Today, the "purity"
concept has slipped between the
cracks in the fellowship and in
its groups in favor of widespread
filthy language, adultery, and a
host of other sins that man falls
prey to. But these activities are
not part of the A.A. recovery program
as set forth in its Big Book–whether
or not the teachings of Jesus have
influenced that fact.
Definitions of Men and Women
can find lots of descriptions of
the four absolutes in Oxford Group
and other literature today. But
these are the definitions of men
and women, and not necessarily the
commandments found in Scripture.
That is why I admire Dr. Bob’s emphasis
on the Bible. When he was asked
a question about the "program,"
his usual reply was: "What
does the Good Book say?" Sometimes,
it was: "What would the Master
do?" And the farther our fellowship
moves from the Good Book and the
teachings of the Master, the farther
it moves toward compromise moral
ideas, language, behavior, and writings.
I believe that is a major reason
why Dr. Bob spoke in his last major
address saying he still felt the
Four Absolutes (taken, as he would
say, from the Good Book) were still
E. Speer. The Principles of Jesus.
New York: Fleming H. Revell Company,
B. Wright. The Will of God and
a Man’s Lifework. NY: The Young
Buchman. Remaking the World.
London: Blandford Press, 1961, pp.
36, 40, 96, 131.
Almond, Foundations for Faith,
2d ed. London: Grosvenor Books,
19800, pp. 11-13.
M. Shoemaker, Jr. The Church
Can Save the World. NY:
Harper & Brothers, 1938,
BOB and the Good Oldtimers.
NY: Alcoholics Anonymous World Services,
Inc., 1980, pp. 54, 163.
B., The Oxford Group and Alcoholics
Anonymous, 2d ed. Kihei, HI:
Paradise Research Publications,
Inc., 1998, pp. 237-246.
New Light on Alcoholism: God, Sam
Shoemaker, and A.A., 2d ed., Kihei,
HI Paradise Research Publications, Inc.,
1999, pp. 97-101.
Anne Smith’s Journal: A.A.’s
Principles of Success, 3rd
ed, Paradise Research Publications,
Inc., 1998, pp. 29-36, 49-53, 74-79,
94-95, 100-01, 104-08, 118, 121-22,
B., New Wine: The Spiritual Roots
of the Twelve Step Miracle. MN:
Hazelden Foundation, 1991, pp. 76-138.
Four Absolutes. Cleveland:
Cleveland Central Committee of A.A..,
B., PO Box 837, Kihei, HI 96753-0837; 808
874 4876; email@example.com