Journey with Jesus
Dr. Robert E. Speer and the Four Absolutes
2005 by Dick B. All rights reserved
Four Absolute Standards of Jesus
so-called “Four Absolutes”—Absolute
Honesty, Absolute Purity, Absolute
Unselfishness, and Absolute Love—have
long been known and popular in many
parts of the Alcoholics Anonymous
Some have attributed their origin
to Professor Henry B. Wright and his
title The Will of God and a Man’s
Lifework. The attribution has some
merit in that Wright took the “four
standards” of Robert Speer and expanded
on them by citing a number of correlative
verses from various different church
epistles in the New Testament. Some
attribute the Four Absolutes to Dr.
Frank N. D. Buchman, founder of the
Oxford Group; and certainly Buchman
mentioned them and wrote about them
with great frequency. You can find
them in Buchman’s speeches that are
recorded in his book Remaking the
World. In the Oxford Group itself,
they were sometimes known as the “Four
Absolutes” and sometimes as the “Four
Standards.” Reverend Samuel M. Shoemaker,
Jr., whom Bill Wilson dubbed a co-founder
of A.A., also wrote about the absolutes
in his very first title, Realizing
Religion. Though he had an outspoken
distaste for them, Bill Wilson often
spoke about their commonality in the
early A.A. Oxford Group circles in
New York.. Dr. Bob Smith, on the other
hand, pointed out that early A.A.
had no other moral principles, that
these four were its “yardsticks” for
behavior, and that—to the end of his
life—he felt they were of great importance.
His remarks are contained in A.A.’s
Co-founders pamphlet. Dr. Bob’s wife
Anne expressed an even stronger enthusiasm
for them as she wrote about them frequently
in her 64 page journal that she shared
with early AAs and their families.
(See Anne Smith’s Journal, 1933-1939).
Old-timer Clarence Snyder spoke about
them often. (See That Amazing Grace:
The Role of Clarence and Grace S.
in Alcoholics Anonymous). The Four
Absolutes appeared on the masthead
of Cleveland A.A.’s Central Bulletin
for a number of years. An interpretation
of them is still widely circulated
out of the Cleveland and Akron A.A.
offices. And even out here in Hawaii,
Clancy U.—who was sponsored by both
Dr. Bob and Clarence—was well-known
for concluding his talks by saying,
“And don’t forget those Four Absolutes!”
In fact, he and his wife traveled
all over the United States, and he
never stopped mentioning “those Four
Their Source: The Principles
of Jesus by Dr. Robert E. Speer
I personally saw but one of Robert
E. Speer’s titles among the books
in Dr. Bob’s Library. That was Studies
of the Man Christ Jesus (NY: Fleming
H. Revell, 1896). It was owned a circulated
by Dr. Bob and recommended by Anne
Smith in her journal. On the other
hand, both Bob and Anne were quite
conversant with writings by Sam Shoemaker;
and Shoemaker mentioned several times
that he felt, “One of the simplest
and best rules for self-examination
that I know is to use the Four Standards
which Dr. Robert E. Speer said represented
the summary of the Sermon on the Mount—Absolute
Honesty, Absolute Purity, Absolute
Unselfishness, and Absolute Love”
(Samuel M. Shoemaker, Jr., How to
Become a Christian. NY: Harper &
Row, Publishers, 1953, p. 57). I cannot
say for sure that either Dr. Bob or
Anne actually read Speer’s book that
spelled out the four absolute standards;
but they certainly seemed to understand
where they came from.
What Dr. Speer Had to Say
about Purpose and Principles
My copy of the well-known Speer title
is The Principles of Jesus: Applied
To Some Questions of To-day, by Robert
E. Speer. NY: Fleming H. Revell Company,
1902. Speer’s writing is clear and
easy to understand, always documented
with Scriptural references. It deserves
actual quotation, and that is what
I shall provide below:
“Men are no longer content with the
conventional judgments about conduct
that satisfied them a few years ago.
It is a striking sight to see them
turning instinctively to Jesus for
light on their difficulties or to
claim His authority in support of
their solutions of the problems of
life (p. 9).
“Jesus Christ is the revelation of
right in life. Whatever he approves
is right. Whatever he condemns is
wrong. But what would He approve if
He were here to- day, and what would
He condemn? It is possible to err
in either of two ways in answering
this question. (1) Some attempt to
apply with rigid literalness the exact
sayings of Christ to present conditions.
“Sell all that you have.” “Lay not
up treasure on the earth.”. . . But
this view is impossible. None of its
advocates sells all that he has. .
. . It is un-Christlike. . . . He
came to displace legalism by the spirit
of a true life, to supplant prescription
by principle. . . . “The Spirit will
come,” He said. “He will guide you.”
(2) On the other side men err in so
refining away the teaching of Jesus
in ethical sublimates that nothing
sold and stable is left. Jesus established
no organization, they say. He laid
no hard constraints upon men. He broke
up the enslavements of the past whether
of opinion or ritual. . . . But Jesus
was not just this. He came to give
men power to live a new and eternal
life, it is true. But the new life
was to be eternal life lived in time
before entering upon eternity. And
He revealed in Himself the objective
standards and principles of the eternal
life thus abiding in time (pp. 10-11).
“Following in Jesus’ steps accordingly
is not wearing the sort of clothes
which He wore. Neither is it merely
the possession of sweet feeling towards
all men irrespective of the moral
life. It is the application of conduct
to-day under its changed conditions
of the principles which found expression
in the life and teaching of Jesus
nineteen hundred years ago, but which,
because they are principles, are not
local, transient, and personal, but
universal and abiding (p. 11).
“The purpose of these studies will
be to seek in the life of Christ for
some of those principles which should
guide our lives. These principles
found one application in His life.
He lived in His own age and country,
and He fitted Himself to His time
and the people among whom He moved.
We live in another age, and the methods
and problems of our life are different;
but the same principles which guided
Him are to guide us (pp. 11-12).
“That study is most directly helpful
which leads us to look straight at
Him whom Luther called “the Proper
Man,” who was the revelation of the
Father’s will for every man. What
Jesus was, the Father would have each
of us be. What Jesus did, the Father
would have each of us do” (p. 12).
Speer’s writing makes me think a good
deal about the United Christian Endeavor
Society, in which Dr. Bob participated
so actively as a youngster. That Society
asked so many times, “What would Jesus
do?” And a good deal of its inspiration
came from the famous book by United
Christian Endeavor writer and leader
(Charles M. Sheldon. In His Steps.
Nashville, Broadman Press, 1935).
This book was owned and circulated
by Dr. Bob!
In Chaper III, after writing about
“Jesus and the Father” (Chapter I)
and “Jesus and Prayer” (Chapter II),
Speer wrote about “Jesus and the Will
of God.” He began:
“The ruling principle in the life
of Jesus, both in its prayer and in
its service, was the will of God.
He conditioned His prayers upon the
Father’s will (Luke 22:42), and He
declared that He never did anything
but the will of His Father (John 5:30).
He found the truest relationships
in life, not in the mere ties of flesh
and blood, but in common devotion
to God’s will (Mark 3:35). In doing
that will was His meat and drink,
so that He could even forego other
nourishment while some noble ministry
sustained Him (John 4:34). He taught
His disciples to love it. They were
to pray not so much for a million
details, as simply that the will of
God might be done on earth as in heaven
(Matt. 6:10). Those were to enter
into His kingdom who did the will
of His Father (Matt. 7:21) [p. 22]
“Whoever wills to do God’s will, he
shall be able to understand Jesus’
teaching, to “behold” Him as the open
way to the Father, and the peace and
strength of His noble will (John 7:17).
This was the preaching and practice
of Jesus about the will of God. 1.
It delivered Him from all fear. Nothing
can intimidate God’s will of the man
who is set in it. “Fear not,” said
Jesus (Luke 12:7, 32). 2. It brought
Him perfect steadiness of life and
composure of heart. There is no fitfulness
or vacillation in God’s will. . .
. 3. It gave Him the power of God.
God does His will through the man
who does God’s will . . . . As Jesus
did the will of God, we are to do
it. 1. And it is to be with us, not
only submission to power above our
own, but also partnership in power
greater than our own. . . . 2. It
will be with us a deliverance from
sin. . . . 3. It will glorify life
into personal partnership with the
living God. . . . 4. It will open
to us the secret of accomplishing
prayer (1 John 5:24). 5. And make
us sharers in the abiding eternity
of God (1 John 2:17)” [pp. 22-24].
At this point, many who have studied
my books and research will begin to
see just how much this approach by
Speer impacted on the teachings of
Rev. Sam Shoemaker, the life of Dr.
Bob, and the writings of Anne Smith.
And we need not go further into the
many succinct chapters in Speer’s
book, but we do recommend their reading
by those who want to see more. Here,
however, our objective is simply to
lay the foundation for Speer’s approach
to the Four Absolutes which have meant
so much to so many founders and other
Speer’s Chapter on Jesus and
Would that we could quote every word
in Speer’s Chapter VI. Those words
would put some solid truth about A.A.’s
real history before every reader.
Those words might also put an end
to so much of the speculative and
opinionated jabber among AAs and the
recovery community about the “principles”
of the Big Book, the Steps, and the
Traditions. Thus AAs are often in
a dither as to the real meaning of
“practice these principles,” “the
Twelve Principles of the Steps,” the
expression “principles before personalities,”
and the welcomed declaration that
“we are not saints.” By contrast,
let’s put the magnifying glass on
what Speer actually wrote about the
“principles”—the principles of the
Bible—on which A.A. was founded:
“1. Jesus did not attempt to issue
a code of laws to guide human conduct.
He put men in possession of great
moral principles which they would
have to apply themselves. . . . 2.
It might seem from Jesus’ teaching
that He was not doing this, but rather
dealing with points of application
of principle to practice, He was so
practical and illustrative (Matt.
5:39-42), But he taught in this way
in order to make people understand,
and the illustrations He used were
themselves such as to make some principle
perfectly clear. They set up standards.
. . . 3. And those standards were
absolute, the more boldly absolute
because Jesus intentionally framed
His teaching in direct opposition
to the casuistical method of the scribes.
. . . He cut off escapes and pretexts,
and taught that standards were standards
“4. Men say: “I think this course
is right. My conscience does not reprove
me. Therefore it is right for me.”
Nonsense. Jesus told His disciples
that some day men would kill them
conscientiously and for God’s sake
(John 16:2). He pointed out that there
is such a thing as moral color-blindness
(Matt. 6:23) [p. 34].
“5. Jesus was, then, the teacher of
absolute principles. He made no comparisons,
no abatements for human lust or weakness.
Perfection was His standard (Matt.
5:48). He had attained it (John 8:29).
He demanded it. We are to be His disciples
in this. Right is to be right. Thinking
it right or thinking it wrong does
not make a thing right or wrong. It
is right or wrong irrespective of
our thought about it. To know whether
it is right or wrong, drag it into
Jesus’ presence, and see how He looks
at it and how it looks before Him.
. . .” (pp. 34-35).
And Now for the 4 Standards!
[Truth – the standard of Absolute
“6. Jesus set up an absolute standard
of truth. Find all His allusions to
lies. If Satan is the father of lies,
how can any lie be justifiable? Jesus
did not make truthfulness depend upon
its profitableness or its loss. Men
must be true and speak the truth regardless
of consequences (p. 35).”
[Unselfishness – the standard
of Absolute Unselfishness]
“7. Jesus set up an absolute standard
of unselfishness. This was His own
spirit. . . . The kingdom with its
service of God and man was to be above
home, friends, comfort, life (Matt.
19:29).” [p. 35]
[Purity – the standard of
“8. Jesus set up an absolute standard
of purity. He tolerated no uncleanness
whatsoever. The inner chambers of
imagery and desire must be pure (Mark
7:15). A hand or an eye, outer or
inner sin, must be sacrificed to the
claims of the kingdom of heaven (Matt.
5:29, 30).” [p. 35]
[Love – the standard of Absolute
“Jesus set up an absolute standard
of love (John 23:34). Neither dirt
(Luke 16:20), nor poverty (Luke 14:13),
nor social inferiority (Luke 7:39)
were annulments of the law of love.
He Himself loved to the limit (John
13:1), and with no abatements. The
law of love makes it impossible to
say: “I don’t like those people. I
can’t love them.” (pp. 35-36).
Jesus Himself Was the Standard,
“Jesus Himself was the standard He
set up. He was unchangeable. He had
been before Abraham (John 8:58). He
would be forever (Heb. 13:8). The
absolute Teacher was the absolute
lesson. It is a great thing in this
day of wavering, of quibbling by moral
evasions and straddles, to have a
faith and a faithful Master who cannot
be moved” (p. 36).
© Dick B.