are a number of challenging questions
that present a dilemma for those who wish
to know or attempt to define what A.A.
stands for today. Such people may include
AAs themselves, other Twelve Step fellowships,
churches and clergy, and the recovery
community. Here are some points that may
leave them wondering:
should always give full credit to its
several well-springs of inspiration
and . . . should always consider these
people among the founders of our Society
(Kurtz, Not-God, p. 323, n. 33).
was not invented! (As Bill Sees It,
invented AA? It was God Almighty that
invented A.A. (Sam Shoemaker's record
of Bill Wilson's November 9, 1954 address
at the Commodore Hotel in New York;
Episcopal Church Archives, Texas).
a society we must never become so vain
as to suppose that we have been the
authors and inventors of a new religion.
We will humbly reflect that each of
A.A.'s principles, every one of them,
has been borrowed from ancient sources.
. . . Let us constantly remind ourselves
that the experts in religion are the
clergymen; that the practice of medicine
is for physicians; and the we, the recovered
alcoholics, are their assistants (Alcoholics
Anonymous Comes of Age, pp. 231-32).
are only operating a spiritual kindergarten
in which people are enabled to get over
drinking and find the grace to go on
living to better effect (As Bill
Sees It, p. 95).
problem of the Steps has been to broaden
and deepen them, both for newcomers
and oldtimers. But the angles are so
many, it's hard to shoot them rightly.
We have to deal with atheists, agnostics,
believers, depressives, paranoids, clergymen,
psychiatrists, and all and sundry. How
to widen the opening so it seems right
and reasonable to enter there and at
the same time avoid distractions, distortions,
and the certain prejudices of all who
may read, seems fairly much of an assignment
(Pass It On, p. 354).
Retired Archivist Said
M., A.A.'s just-retired archivist at General
Services in New York, has frequently said:
a civilization or society perishes,
there is always one condition present.
They forgot where they came from [often
heard by the author].
even before Dr. Bob died, Bill seemed
increasingly pressured by several major
issues that had surfaced in the course
of A.A.'s shift from Akron to New York
in terms of spiritual ideas, thinking,
Lois Wilson Saw Them
wife Lois said of Bill's writing of the
Big Book and A.A.'s abandonment of specific
mention of A.A.'s biblical and Christian
it was agreed that the book should present
a universal spiritual program, not a
specific religious one, since all drunks
were not Christian (Lois Remembers,
I didn't have much use for the Oxford
Group; I didn't think I needed "conversion"
(Kurtz, Not-God, p. 314, n. 58).
Oxford Group kind of kicked us out (Pass
It On, p. 174).
was another issue - Roman Catholic distaste
for the Oxford Group. A.A. Historian Ernest
Kurtz has said that Father John C. Ford,
S.J. is a significant figure in the history
of A.A.; that he was America's leading
Roman Catholic moral theologian in the
1950's; and that he was a frequent writer
on the moral problems of alcoholism and
alcoholics. Father John Ford met Bill
Wilson at Yale in 1943, and Wilson became
impressed with Ford as a writer. In consequence,
Wilson sought Ford's editorial assistance
for A.A.'s Twelve Steps and Twelve
Traditions (published in 1952 after
Dr. Bob's death) and A.A.'s Alcoholics
Anonymous Comes of Age (published
in 1957). The following facts deserve
Cuthbert Ford, S.J. said] . . . I recalled
the early 1950's, when I taught at the
Yale School of Alcohol Studies, edited
Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions
and A.A. Comes of Age for Bill
Wilson, and met Sister Ignatia and Dr.
Bob Smith (Darrah, Sister Ignatia,
Ford's main concern with the texts was]
"too explicit MRA attitudes"
(Kurtz, Not-God, p. 323, n. 31).
Ford wrote in 1960] Catholic participation
in MRA was ably discussed by R. Bastian,
S.J. and J. Hardon, S.J., about two
years ago. . . . The authors unhesitatingly
reject active cooperation of Catholics
in this movement. MRA is a religious
movement with fundamentally Protestant,
theological orientation, and involves
Catholics in serious dangers to their
faith (N.C.C.A. "Blue Book",
Vol 10, 1960: "Moral Re-Armament
And Alcoholics Anonymous").
to Sam Shoemaker on June 14, 1957 about
John Ford's A.A. editing work, Bill
Wilson said] He [Father Ford] went over
Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions
with a fine-tooth comb and is most solicitous
that we never get into a jam with the
[Roman Catholic] church. He is one of
our very best under-cover agents (Episcopal
Church Archives, Austin, Texas).
one of several lengthy letters to Father
Ford, Bill wrote Ford on May 14, 1957]
Please have my deepest appreciation
for the careful pre-publication survey
you have made of our book, "A.A.
Comes of Age", from the theological
point of view. No one could agree more
fully than I on the principle that we
should avoid every possibility of theological
dispute which might result in a justification
for declaring Alcoholics Anonymous a
heresy. What you have done might well
make much difference in later time.
Needless to say I have transferred nearly
all your suggestions to the new book,
hedging on a few points only (Episcopal
Church Archives, Austin, Texas).
can seriously question just how many atheists,
Jews, Hindus, and Moslems were participants
in A.A.'s earliest years. But Bill Wilson
later gave "atheists" a great
audience. Question: Were the people he
mentioned even atheists? One person was
Bill's partner Hank Parkhurst who was
actually an Oxford Group point man in
New Jersey - a fact verified when the
author examined the Shoemaker-Parkhurst
correspondence in the Episcopal Church
Archives in Texas. The other "atheist"
was James Burwell. Granted, Burwell originally
"flabbergasted" Bill "by
denouncing God at our meetings."
But Bill was later to point out to a distinguished
Yale audience that Burwell had read the
Bible one day at a point of despair, had
then seen Bill and another involved in
prayer and meditation, and had thereafter
managed to get sober for the first time
in five years of trying. Nonetheless,
Bill wrote in A.A. Comes of Age:
first they [Parkhurst and Burwell] wanted
the word "God" deleted from
the book entirely. Henry had come to
believe in some sort of "universal
power," but Jimmy still flabbergasted
us by denouncing God at our meetings.
. . . What Henry, Jimmy, and company
wanted was a psychological book
which would lure the alcoholic in. Once
in, the prospect could take God or leave
Him alone as he wished (A.A. Comes
of Age, p. 163).
legend has it that Jimmy Burwell invented
the phrase "God as we understood
Him" and that this phrase was inserted
to placate the atheists and open A.A.'s
doors. The first part of the claim was
never, to the author's knowledge, authenticated
by Bill himself. The fact is that surrendering
to God "as you understand Him"
was a well-known and long-used Oxford
Group phrase and that Bill retained the
word "God" in one form or another
more than four hundred times even in later
editions of the Big Book. When Bill wrote
his chapter to agnostics, he pointed out,
"And it means, of course, that we
are going to talk about God" (First
Edition, Alcoholics Anonymous,
Treatment and Therapy Jabber
the years moved on, and therapy and treatment
moved in, a new lingo crept into the Twelve
Step scene: "abuse," "acceptance,"
dependency," "child within,"
"dry drunk," "enabler,"
"fake it till you make it,"
"feelings," "Good Orderly
Direction," "group therapy,"
"guilt," "HALT," "higher
power," "higher power is the
A.A. group," "higher power is
a tree," "higher power is a
light bulb," "inner child,"
"in recovery," "intervention,"
"ism," "Keep It Simple
Stupid," "relapse," "renewal,"
"spiritual, not religious,"
thinking," "substance abuse,"
"support group," "tapes,"
"therapeutic community," "therapy,"
"victim," and many many more.
Some were descriptive. Some were helpful.
Some were nonsense. Some were called "psychobabble."
See some contrasting examples in: (1)
The Recovery Book; (2) Robertson,
Getting Better Inside Alcoholics Anonymous;
(3) Hazelden, A Spiritual Odyssey;
(4) Clinebell, Basic Types of Pastoral
Care Counseling, (5) Daily Reflections;
and (6) Ragge, More Revealed: A Critical
Analysis of Alcoholics Anonymous and the
out of A.A.'s own publishing organization,
came a flood of ideas that bear no resemblance
to any of the early spiritual principles
we have discussed above. For examples,
see Turning Point: A History of Early
A.A.'s Spiritual Roots and Successes,
pp. 5-8, 161-62: a "higher power"
that can be "Him, Her, or It,"
a "lightbulb," a "chair,"
a "tree," a Group Of Drunks,
"Good," or nothing at all.
Conservative Christian Recoil
"any god" became more and more
synonymous with "higher power"
in A.A., some Christian writers: 1) Rejected
A.A. (Playfair, The Useful Lie),
2) Condemned A.A. (Bobgans, Twelve
Steps to Destruction and Burns, Alcoholics
Anonymous Unmasked), 3) Proposed some
"Christian" alternatives - sometimes
called "Christ-centered Twelve Step
Groups" (Bartosch, Overcomers
Outreach: A Bridge to Recovery, Chambers,
Two Tracks-One Goal, and Doyle,
In Step with God).
Lies the Answer?
A.A. bury its Christian roots because
not all AAs are Christians? Does A.A.
ignore the fact that its basic ideas came
from the Bible because not everyone respects
the Bible? Does A.A. gloss over its hundreds
of borrowed ideas, phrases, and practices
from the Oxford Group and Sam Shoemaker
because some Roman Catholic clergy didn't
like the Oxford Group? Does A.A. turn
God into an dumb idol, a group, or an
"it" because someone thinks
that will attract newcomers? Does A.A.
surrender its biblical/Christian history
to manufactured words and ideas that come
from outside A.A.
does A.A. endeavor to understand itself
better, to learn why it was so successful
in the beginning, and take pains to avoid
being so "inclusive" that it
excludes no self-made religion, no half-baked
prayers, and no absurd names for God?
Does A.A. ignore the clergy, the church,
and the religious community of its roots
by surrendering to ideas propounded by
Bill Wilson's wife, some dissenting religious
writers, two or three outspoken atheists,
the fears of treatment programs, and just
plain market appeal? These are not wholly
accurate descriptions of the pressure
factors, but one needs to bear in mind
that A.A. developed something between
1935 and 1939 that worked! Depending upon
which documentation one prefers, AAs who
really tried in that early period attained
a seventy-five percent success record
(Alcoholics Anonymous, 3rd ed,
p. xx), an eighty percent success record
(Kurtz and Ketcham, The Spirituality
of Imperfection, pp. 109-10), a ninety-three
percent success record (DR. BOB and
the Good Oldtimers, p. 261), or a
one-hundred percent success rate among
non-psychotics (The Jack Alexander
Article about AA, p. 15).
soon as his thinking began to clear enough
to wonder how A.A. started, the author
began to prefer the success rate of yesteryear.
In the earliest published draft of their
proposed basic text (the multi-lith volume),
AAs proclaimed "Rarely have we seen
a person fail who has thoroughly followed
our path" (p. 26). That was the phrase
that caught the author's attention. Though
most of the personal stories in that volume
have since been removed, those original
stories talked of a path which involved
a "Heavenly Father" and expressed
pity for atheists, agnostics, skeptics,
or prideful people who refused to accept
the formula in the book. See the Personal
Stories, p. 6: God (pp. 11, 15-16, 18-20,
26, 41-42, 48, 55, 68, 73, 79); Christ
(p. 15), Divine help (p. 19), Our Father
in heaven (p. 29), Father (p. 75) the
Bible (p. 19, 79).
success rate of yesteryear was explained
again and again in A.A.'s DR. BOB and
the Good Oldtimers. These were the
golden years. They involved God, the Bible,
prayer, Quiet Time, surrenders to God
(actually acceptance of Jesus Christ as
Savior), Christian literature, Christian
fellowship, and daily Bible devotionals.
is an answer as to whether A.A. should
bury its Biblical and Christian history
or relearn and study it. A.A. has had
no problem hashing and rehashing the supposed
relevance of Washingtonian mistakes, though
the events occurred a century and a half
ago. Yet A.A. virtually ignores it more
recent, direct, and relevant roots involving
events barely more than half a century
old. The real answer concerning A.A. history
lies in how much value one places on the
Biblical principles and the success rate
these principles produced when factors
are compared to the hodge-podge of fellowship
prattle that abounds today.
their recent title discussing A.A.'s program
of recovery versus fellowship ideas today,
Joe and Charlie point to the early success
rate, to today's diminished success rate,
and to their belief that drunks haven't
changed, alcohol hasn't changed, the Big
Book hasn't changed, but the fellowship
has. These active, recovered A.A.
only thing that has really changed is
the fellowship itself. We believe that
this is a big problem in many AA meetings
today. It's a serious problem, too,
because far fewer people are recovering
from their illness (A Program for
You: A Guide to the Big Book's Design
for Living, p. 15).
How Can You Use the History of Early A.A.'s
Big Book Study with Historical Roots Study!
recovered AAs today lack respect for A.A.'s
basic text, Alcoholics Anonymous.
That text contains a description, albeit
edited and changed over the years, of
how the early AAs recovered. It
describes "the steps they took."
It suggests these steps as a program of
recovery. And it very definitely contains
specific instructions on "how to
take" most of these steps; and where
the instructions are not specific, details
are nonetheless there for those who care
to look for them. In fact, a study of
the Big Book will demonstrate that the
entire program of recovery is explicitly
described in the first chapter, Bill's
author learned early on that he was getting
little helpful information on either the
Big Book or the Steps from Big Book meetings,
Step Study meetings, or the other types
of meetings he was attending daily. His
sponsor and grand-sponsor, though dedicated
AAs, did not seem to have the capacity
to instruct and perhaps did not even have
an understanding of how the Big Book instructed
its readers in taking the Steps.
he attended his first Joe and Charlie
Big Book Seminar in Sacramento, California.
From this detailed, line-by-line, humorous,
and analytical study, he learned a great
deal about A.A.'s Big Book. He does not
agree today with all the teaching, but
he does believe that all of it
was extremely useful. It focused the student
on the Big Book and what Joe and Charlie
believed to be its plan. The Seminar was
so useful, in fact, that the author attended
it several more times and succeeded in
getting most of his sponsees to attend.
Today, that material is available in written
and in taped form. But the most significant
thing for the author was that the seminar
always began with a discussion of A.A.'s
beginnings and how the Big Book was written.
the Big Book Seminar history presentation
was informative, it was far too scanty
for those in search of the spiritual roots
- a fact that has several times resulted
in the author's being invited to Sacramento
to make his books available during the
seminar period. And the absence of specific
details is one reason why the author undertook
his research, travel, interviews, and
first suggestion here, therefore, is that
every AA - every AA who wants to understand
recovery and tap into A.A.'s vital
ideas about God, the Bible, forgiveness,
healing, deliverance, prayer, meditation,
and Christian standards that inspired
the pioneers - should learn A.A.'s true
spiritual roots when he or she is learning
the Big Book.
such study, it is too easy to slip into
all the pitfalls and pressures that were
the Good Book First on the Study List
has been so busy tar and feathering the
Oxford Group for the last fifty years
that it has derailed attention from A.A.'s
primary source, the Bible.
critics of A.A.'s spiritual roots focus
on the shortcomings of Oxford Group Founder
Frank Buchman or upon Roman Catholic criticism
of Moral Re-Armament or upon the fact
that AAs left the Oxford Group in the
very late 1930's. They ignore the fact
that A.A. was founded on the Bible,
not the Oxford Group. Oxford Group ideas
came from the Bible. A.A. ideas
also came from the Bible. But these
similarities are far from making the two
should know by now that A.A.'s
basic ideas were taken from the Bible.
Dr. Bob said so explicitly (The Co-Founders
of Alcoholics Anonymous: Biographical
Sketches, Their Last Major Talks,
pp. 13-14). These ideas, which were derived
from the Bible, came from Bible study,
use of daily Bible devotionals, Quiet
Time observances that involved Bible study,
Christian literature of all kinds - including
the Roman Catholic writings of St. Augustine,
Thomas a Kempis, Brother Lawrence - and
Anne Smith's Journal. All these contained
comments about and references to the Bible.
Furthermore, if Sam Shoemaker was regarded
by Bill Wilson as the teacher of A.A.'s
Oxford Group concepts, one should remember
that Sam's major focus was on the
Bible, not the Oxford Group per se. The
Oxford Group, for Sam, was a vehicle for
bringing people to Christ, not the source
of the idea. Sam was an Episcopal Clergyman,
and he left the Oxford Group in 1941 primarily
because he did not want to give up his
own primary focus upon his church and
the liturgy and methods of that church.
second major suggestion for understanding
A.A. by using its roots, therefore, is
that one can understand A.A. best by pulling
out the Bible. Then by doing a line-by-line
study of important parts of the Bible
(particularly Matthew 5 to 7, 1 Corinthians
13, and the Book of James). The student
should focus on those words, phrases,
and ideas which the author has specifically
identified as biblical in origin and rooted
in the specific portions of the Bible
first. Accept help. Understand afterward.
That's the approach to Big Book study
that worked for the author. That is the
approach to the Bible that God suggested
(John 5:39; Acts 17:11, 8:26-35; 2 Timothy
2:15). It is an approach to understanding
A.A.'s spiritual program of recovery that
can lift the fog.
the Early Technique for Quiet Time
their haste for a quick fix and easy reading,
some AAs have allowed writers to burden
them down with meditation after meditation
after meditation book. And each book seems
to get shorter and farther away from the
why Anne Smith said the Bible is
the main source book. It is the book that
explains who God is. It is the book which
tells what God's will is. It is the book
that points out how to come to God, or
- if you prefer - to "find"
God. It is the book which contains God's
promises, God's admonitions, and God's
suggestions for communications to and
from Him. "Thy will be done"
means very little if one does not know
where and how to find God's will. Yet
Jesus Christ taught that doing "the
will of my Father which is in heaven"
was key to entry into the kingdom of heaven
(Matthew 7:21). Jesus said in a prayer
to God that he had spoken God's Word (the
words of God he had received by revelation)
and that it (collectively, the word) was
truth (John 17:14, 17). Then Jesus declared
unequivocally that "the truth shall
make you free" (John 8:32,
one understands the technique for Quiet
Time - Bible study; helpful books; prayers
for help and guidance; prayers of thanksgiving
and praise; prayers for healing and forgiveness;
and listening for God's messages - he
or she can begin to reap the rewards of
communion with God. Jesus admonished against
vain repetitions that simply displayed
ego to a Father who already knew the needs
and how to take care of them. Anne Smith
explained that to early AAs.
Anne Smith's Spiritual Journal
is not difficult to get far afield of
A.A.'s original spiritual program of recovery
if one ignores the precise material Anne
Smith wrote, shared, and taught to the
pioneers and their families. The interrelationship
of the Bible, the Oxford Group life-change,
the Christian literature, and daily Bible
devotionals becomes clear from reading
on the Oxford Group for Understanding,
debt to the Oxford Group lies in a number
of areas. The Oxford Group brought special
focus on the need for God, the guidance
of God, the importance of fellowship,
the importance of witnessing, and the
necessity for practicing Christian principles
as a way of life. A.A. bought these ideas
whole hog, whatever they called them.
Hence one can look to the writings of
Sam Shoemaker and of the Oxford Group
people for specific explanations of specific
ideas A.A.'s adopted. The ideas are still
there. God is there. The need for God
is there. The need to quit playing God
is there. Guidance is there. The Four
Absolutes (perhaps minus purity) are there.
Restitution is there. Continuance is there.
Confession is there. Bill thought Conversion
was there. Confidence is there. And Conviction
had better be there. Fellowship is there.
And witnessing is there. One does not
need to agree with or fear the Oxford
Group theology to know their ideas are
important if one hopes to understand how
A.A.'s "spiritual awakening"
can possibly be the result of taking the
steps. There is no message to carry if
one has not learned and understood it.
There are no principles to practice if
one does not know what they are or what
they are for.
an Understanding of God as He Understands
the Bible, God describes Himself in a
way that we can understand. He is the
Creator. He is the Maker. He is Spirit,
not a man. He is light, not darkness.
He is love, not hate. He is Father, if
we choose to be born of His spirit. He
is Almighty, if we want power. He heals,
if we are sick. He forgives, if we sin.
He delivers, if we are in trouble. He
guides, if we do not know the way or want
to be told. He promises health, prosperity,
abundance, an everlasting life, and a
way out of alcoholism, if we care to seek
and entrust our lives to Him for care
and direction. He is the God of peace,
comfort, consolation, grace, mercy, and
love, if that is what we want. That is
how He understands and explains Himself.
And the modern-day absurdities can't hold
at candle to that.
AAs are told to find God now, and
they certainly are - in emphatic terms
by their own basic text, then why settle
for anything less than the "God of
our fathers," of which Wilson and
Smith spoke, and the "God of A.A.'s
own founders" upon which Wilson and
ARE YOU TO SAY THERE IS NO GOD?"
Those words, in capital letters, can be
found on page 69 of the First Edition
of Alcoholics Anonymous. What ever
happened to that idea? "What seemed
at first a flimsy reed, has proved to
be the loving and powerful hand of God,"
said page 38. Whatever happened to that
idea? "The central fact of our lives
today is the absolute certainty that our
Creator has entered into our hearts and
lives in a way which is indeed miraculous,"
said page 36. Whatever happened to that
idea? "But my friend (Ebby Thacher)
sat before me, and he made the point-blank
declaration that God had done for him
what he could not do for himself,"
said pages 20-21. Whatever happened to
that idea? "As to two of you men,
whose stories I have heard, there is no
doubt in my mind that you were 100% hopeless,
apart from Divine help," said page
55. Whatever happened to that idea? "We
never apologize to anyone for depending
upon our Creator?," said page 81.
Whatever happened to that idea?
nothing has happened to any of these ideas.
They are not lost, but they seem to be
slipping away. Most of the phrases are
still present in A.A.'s basic text today.
They are part of the program of recovery.
It's just that people are scared to death
to talk about them in many of today's
meetings and discussions - - to talk about
God, the Creator, Divine help, the hand
of God, and the way in which pioneers
placed total reliance upon these.
way to use the roots today is to "Go
tell." Sam Shoemaker taught:
run from your arguments about God, they
will not listen to your elaborate explanations;
but when you tell them what life was
without God, and then tell them what
it is with Him, their hearts, as John
Wesley said, are "strangely warmed,"
and their minds also are strangely persuaded
(National Awakening, p. 28).
as he usually did, Shoemaker pointed to
the Bible and to this reply Jesus gave
to the disciples of John when they asked
if Jesus was the person who was to come:
answered and said unto them, Go and
shew John again those things which ye
do hear and see: The blind receive their
sight, and the lame walk, the lepers
are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the
dead are raised up, and the poor have
the gospel preached to them (Matthew
another point, Shoemaker repeated an idea
well-known in the Oxford Group and
in early A.A.: "The Gospel was originally
'news,' not 'views'" (The Conversion
of the Church, p. 73).
ever recovered from alcoholism by relying
upon a tree. Nobody ever recovered from
alcoholism by praying to a group. Nobody
ever recovered from alcoholism by meditating
upon a lightbulb. Alcoholics may be sick.
But they are not stupid. Tell the AAs
of today the facts. Tell them the early
success statistics. Offer them the opportunity
to learn more. And let them decide
where they wish to place their reliance
for recovery and deliverance from the
deadly disease from which they suffer.