every AA member learns that two dramatic encounters in
the mid-1930s were key events that helped bring Alcoholics
Anonymous into existence.
first of these encounters was Ebby T.’s visit to Bill
W. in 1934, when the latter sat drinking in the kitchen
of his Brooklyn home. The second great encounter came
about six months later and helped spark the actual founding
of the AA movement. That, of course, was Bill’s famous
meeting with Dr. Bob in Akron, Ohio on Mother’s Day, 1935.
both meetings are rightly regarded as the early seeding
of AA. But in fact, they were also new plantings of work
by the Oxford Group, the inspirational fellowship which
nurtured many of the spiritual ideas and practices that
became essential to Alcoholics Anonymous. What follows
is a bit of history and a discussion of AA’s links to
the Oxford Group and its founder, Frank Buchman.
Oxford Group was an evangelistic Christian movement that
grew up in the 1920s under the leadership of Buchman,
an extraordinary man who eventually became world –renowned
for his work in promoting peace and reconciliation. In
the 1950’s he was twice nominated for the Nobel Peace
Prize. Buchman, a Lutheran minister, was born on June
4, 1878, in Pennsburg in eastern Pennsylvania. He lived
a long life that was marked by great accomplishments and
some controversy. Such was his stature as a world figure
that when he died in Freudenstadt, Germany, in 1961, his
obituary was featured on page one in both The New York
Times and The Los Angeles Times. He was eulogized
on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives by 11
members of Congress, while 20 heads of state sent messages
to his funeral. His passing was also noted in news magazines
and other periodicals.
Buchman’s program was at various times called “First Century
Christian Fellowship,” “The Groups” (1920s), the “Oxford
Group” (1930s), “Moral Re-Armament” (1938), and,
since 2002, Initiatives of Change. Buchman’s friends
and associates knew him as a genial, intuitive, intelligent,
compassionate man—a true humanitarian. He had an extraordinary
ability to motivate able men and women to dedicate all
their time and money in fulfilling his global vision of
world changing through life changing. His tools in effecting
changes in people and situations were the guidance of
God and the four standards (absolutes) of honesty, purity,
unselfishness, and love. It could be said, with justification,
that Buchman attempted to carry essential spiritual principles
to the average person without getting sidetracked in religious
or sectarian issues. He was certainly an early architect
of the spiritual, mutual assistance movements which have
grown up in many forms. John Drakeford writes in his
People to People Therapy that the roots of modern
mutual assistance renewal lies in John Wesley’s group
meetings, Frank Buchman’s Oxford Group, and Bill W’s Alcoholics
Anonymous. Howard Clinebell, author of the classic textbook
Understanding and Counseling the Alcoholic, says
Buchman, as much as anyone, broke people out of the assumption
that problem persons had to go to a professional. He demonstrated
that they might get more help from other persons with
the same problems.
It Started With a Resentment
a saying in AA that all it takes to start a new group
is a member with a resentment. That’s the way it
was with Frank Buchman. He had a resentment, then
he had a spiritual experience which completely turned
him around. Finally he followed through by making
amends and starting a movement. Here’s how it happened.
up in Allentown, “Pennsylvania Dutch” country where his
father ran a saloon near the court house, Buchman was
strongly influenced by his mother to enter the ministry.
He studied at Muhlenberg College and Mt. Airy Seminary,
and then engaged in church work that led to his establishing,
in 1905, a hospice for underprivileged boys in the slums
a run-in with the trustees over their plan to cut costs
by reducing the boys’ food finally brought about his resignation.
Filled with resentment toward the board, Buchman sailed
for Europe. It was 1908, and he was 30 years old.
He was a bitter, disillusioned man, and his rancor towards
the trustees had made him miserable and lonely.
England, he drifted to a religious conference which turned
out to be cold and unexciting. Then, in the little
town of Keswick, Buchman attended an afternoon church
service that proved to be the turning point in his life.
It was a small gathering of only 17 people. The
speaker was Jessie Penn-Lewis, a woman evangelist who
preached in the tradition of Dwight L. Moody and other
19th century reformers. Buchman, by his
own admission, went into the church nursing pride, selfishness,
and ill-will which he later realized were preventing him
from functioning as a Christian minister should.
woman’s talk got through to him, giving him a vision of
the gulf between him and Christ that had been created
by his anger toward the trustees. He then had a
transforming spiritual experience which completely changed
his life. He stopped blaming the trustees and wrote
each of them a letter of amends. This so altered
his thinking that he became convinced that such an experience,
if multiplied, was the answer to the world’s ills.
the next few years, Buchman served as a YMCA secretary
at Penn State, where he worked with students in developing
his life changing methods. One of the persons who
was changed by Buchman’s message was Bill Pickle, the
campus bootlegger who was also an alcoholic. But
the Buchman disciple who was to be so important to AA’s
early origins was Sam Shoemaker, whose life was
changed as a result of a meeting with Frank Buchman in
China in 1918. Dr. Sam was to become a spiritual
counselor to Bill W. and one of AA’s strongest supporters
in the ministry. (After breaking with Buchman in
1941, Sam carried on the mutual assistance idea in his
own “Faith at Work” movement.)
1919, Buchman had formed a society called the First Century
Christian Fellowship, which soon became known as The Groups.
The fellowship sponsored house parties, and practiced
a program which included prayers, confession of wrongs,
seeking guidance, and making restitution, and a life changing
outreach to others. The Oxford Group name was adopted
in 1928, because students at Oxford University were fanning
out with the idea through the world.
1923, Buchman and the fellowship were described in a book
titled Life Changers, by Harold Begbie. Oddly
enough, Frank stipulated that his name not be mentioned
in the book, and he was described only as “F.B.” or “F.”
Seven other chapters were devoted to young college people---Sam
Shoemaker being one---who had experienced change and were
working to help others, but nobody was named in the book.
This practice, certainly an example of what Bill W. viewed
as spiritual anonymity, was later dropped by the Oxford
Group in favor of a “key person” strategy; i.e., using
illustrious names and prominent people who had been helped
in order to attract others into the fellowship.
the book that put it all together for the Oxford Group
was a 1932 publication titled For Sinners Only,
written by A.J. Russell and published by Harper’s..
The book focused on the Oxford Group when it was enjoying
its greatest success as a mutual assistance movement.
Russell, himself a beneficiary of Oxford Group teachings,
also edited many of the spiritual messages reprinted in
the meditation book, Twenty-Four Hours a Day, which
is used by many recovering alcoholics. For Sinners
Only was indeed the “Big Book” of the Oxford Group,
and may well have served as a model for the text, Alcoholics
Anonymous. (Those who are interested in knowing more
of Buchman’s background may wish to read his most recent
biography, On the Tail of a Comet by Garth Lean,
published by Helmers & Howard, Colorado Springs.)
The Jung Connection
that same period, a problem drinker named Rowland H. learned
from the distinguished psychiatrist, Dr. Carl Jung in
Switzerland, that cases like his were hopeless except
when a vital spiritual experience took charge. Rowland
found his experience in the Oxford Group, and passed it
along to Ebby T., who then carried it to Bill W. at his
kitchen table in Brooklyn. At Towns Hospital in
1934 Bill had the same kind of spiritual experience that
had come to Frank Buchman in England in 1908. And
just as Frank had viewed his experience as an answer to
the world’s ills, so did Bill W. see it as the way out
for thousands of other alcoholics. Thus, the stage
was set for the Akron encounter which brought AA into
being. At first, however, the alcoholic recovery
program was all part of the Oxford Group activity.
Seiberling, the gracious lady who brought Bill and Bob
together at her Akron home, recalled that Bill introduced
himself to her over the phone as “a member of the Oxford
Group from New York and a rum hound.” It was a providential
call, because Henrietta was herself a member of the Akron
Oxford Group which had been trying to help Dr. Bob.
Only two weeks earlier, in an emotion-charged meeting
at the home of T. Henry and Clarace Williams, Dr. Bob,
who had been attending the weekly meetings for over two
years, finally admitted to the others that he had a drinking
problem. Bob then and there led the group in prayer
for his recovery. Now he was to meet the man whom
he would later describe as the first living human being
with whom he had ever spoken, who knew what he was talking
about in regard to alcoholism from actual experience.
The Akron Connection
astonishing thing about this historic meeting was that
earlier events had made the Akron Oxford Group unusually
strong and active at the very time an unrelated business
venture brought Bill to Akron. A few years before,
Jim Newton, an Oxford Group person who was closely associated
with a prominent tire manufacturer was able to help one
of the industrialist’s sons overcome his drinking problem.
The son in turn aided an alcoholic lawyer who was winning
most of his court battles and losing his bottle battles.
Because the tire scion’s escapades had been the talk of
the town, his recovery gripped the city’s attention.
As a result of such recoveries, the Akron Oxford Group
was locally regarded as being effective in dealing with
tire manufacturer, grateful for his son’s recovery, then
invited an Oxford Group team of 60 people to Akron in
1933 to conduct night and morning meetings throughout
the city, activity that went on for ten days. Henrietta
Seiberling and T. Henry and Clarace Williams joined the
Group during this ten-day session, and started the Wednesday
night meetings in the Williams home that were soon joined
by Dr. Bob and Anne Smith. The meetings were joyous
and friendly, and Dr. Bob said the Oxford Group members
attracted him because of their seeming poise, health,
and happiness. “They spoke with great freedom from
embarrassment, which I could never do, and they seemed
very much at ease on all occasions and appeared very healthy.
More than these attributes, they seemed to be happy,”
he wrote in his personal story. He and Anne attended
the meetings for 2-1/2 years, but he still drank every
night nevertheless. He later acknowledged, however,
that the Oxford Group led him to vital spiritual principles
which were to be important in his AA work. Beyond
that, of course, it was the Group connection and Mrs.
Seiberling’s inspiration that helped bring him into touch
with Bill W.
back in New York City, the Oxford Group was also
highly active at its national headquarters in Dr.
Sam Shoemaker’s Calvary Church , where Bill W. received
much valuable help. Dr. Sam was a prominent U.S.
leader of the Oxford Group fellowship, and was the ideal
person to become Bill W.’s spiritual mentor. As
Bill later said, “…the early A.A. got its ideas of self-examination,
acknowledgement of character defects, restitution for
harm done, and working with others straight from the Oxford
Groups and directly from Sam Shoemaker…, and from nowhere
else. Sam’s teaching did most to show us how to
create the spiritual climate in which we alcoholics may
survive and then to grow.”
1978 Lois W. told an interviewer that for two and one
half years, 1934-1937, she and Bill attended two Oxford
Group meetings in Manhattan every week for most of the
year. Thursday evenings were for personal sharing
and planning. Sunday afternoons were the more public
meetings where people brought new friends. In the
video tape “Bill’s Own Story,” Bill rounds out this wonderful
chain of events, saying, ”We began to go to Oxford Group
meetings…. Dr.Shoemaker’s impact on us in those
early days certainly registered, and the principles emphasized
by the Oxford Group later lent themselves very readily
to the formation of AA’s 12 Steps and publication of our
book Alcoholics Anonymous.”
this important linkage, Bill and the small band of alcoholics
around him did not long remain associated with the Oxford
Group. Bill began holding separate meetings for
alcoholics soon after returning from Akron. In 1937,
his fledgling group in New York City withdrew completely
from the Oxford Group fellowship. Nevertheless,
Bill always acknowledged that the important spiritual
and working principles of AA came from the Group.
in Akron, it was a slightly different story. Deeply
loyal to non-alcoholic friends such as Henrietta Seiberling
and the T. Henry Williamses, the recovered alcoholics
in Akron maintained their Oxford Group ties until 1939.
They, too, eventually decided to follow a separate path
in order to be more effective in aiding alcoholics.
By this time, the book Alcoholics Anonymous had
been published and the fellowship of recovered alcoholics
had its own name. AA groups had been started in
Cleveland, and AA was now well on its way as a separate
society, grateful to the Oxford Group but no longer dependent
Differences in Methodology
were other reasons why AA and the Oxford Group followed
separate paths after 1939. Frank Buchman apparently knew
that this program had been effective in helping alcoholics
and, according to AA old timer Clarence S., Buchman
addressed the Akron group in 1938. But Buchman did
not view helping alcoholics as a major activity of his
fellowship. “I’m all for the alcoholics getting
changed,” he was quoted as saying, “but we have drunken
nations on our hands as well.” Much of his work
after 1938 was devoted to bringing world leaders together
in an effort to promote reconciliation and understanding
without war and violence. Buchman had little confidence
in a special interest program exclusively for alcoholics,
and except for an appearance at the Akron Group he never
showed interest in personal involvement in AA activities.
addition, Bill W. and other AA pioneers also felt that
the assertive evangelism of the Oxford Group would not
work with alcoholics. Chastened by failure, Bill
had already been forced to tone down his own evangelistic
fervor just before meeting Dr.Bob. Another difference
was that the early AA‘s became committed to the practice
of anonymity, whereas the Oxford Group sought to work
with and publicize prominent individuals in their fellowship.
The Oxford Group also emphasized the Four Standards, or
Absolutes, which were not formally adopted by AA but are
still displayed by some local AA groups. Bill W
believed that these standards were expressed or implied
in the Twelve Steps.
was yet another compelling reason for A.A.’s separation
from the Oxford Group. Frank Buchman had been remarkably
successful in building bridges to various religious faiths
during his early career. Indeed, he was probably
a herald of the modern ecumenical movement. But in the
late 1930s, for whatever reasons, the Oxford Group was
misunderstood by a few denominational spokesmen, and negatives
appeared in the press. Bill W., who was already
well along with the idea of avoiding public controversies,
did not feel that AA could afford to be linked with
the Oxford Group any longer in the public mind.
Subsequently, prominent prelates in the same denominations
reversed those positions and publicly supported Buchman’s
work. Nevertheless, in Bill’s mind, controversy
diverted attention and energy from A.A.‘s singleness
of purpose. There was even the fear that the use
of the Four Standards and other Oxford Group terminology
could arouse prejudice against AA. Finally the Oxford
Group itself, as it was transformed into Moral Re-Armament
(MRA) in 1938, placed less emphasis on the small group,
mutual assistance concept that was so useful to recovering
alcoholics. In 1939, when AA had only 100 members,
Frank Buchman was introducing MRA to the nation in huge
mass meetings at Madison Square Garden, Constitution Hall,
and the Hollywood Bowl.
the rest of his life, Buchman sought to make MRA an instrument
of world peace. The society operated conference
centers at Mackinac Island, Michigan, and at Caux, Switzerland,
on Lake Geneva. Buchman was nominated for the Nobel
Peace Prize in 1951 and 1952, and during the latter years
he also addressed a joint session of both houses of the
Indian Parliament in New Delhi. In addition, he
received decorations from eight governments for his peacemaking
efforts. MRA aso promoted its philosophy in newspaper
advertisements and through stage and screen presentations.
Although MRA activity and membership in the United States
went into some decline following Frank Buchman’s death
in 1961, significant work today is seen in India, England,
Switzerland, and some cities in the U.S. (In 2002,
MRA became known as Initiatives of Change.)
America, substantial MRA financial resources and energy
went into a young people’s traveling, inspirational program,
“Up With People.” In later years, the Moral Re-Armament
program was steadily rebuilding in the United States,
with centers in the East, Midwest, and West Coast.
International conferences have been held in Washington
and Atlanta. The world assembly center at Caux,
Switzerland, attracts each summer several thousand representatives
from all continents.
AA received much of its spiritual program from the Oxford
Group, there are many other AA practices and ideas which
were developed independently or came from other sources.
On the medical side, for example, Dr. William D. Silkworth,
a physician specializing in alcoholism, gave AA its clear
understanding of alcoholism as a disease. The Traditions
which have guided many AA activities were developed independently,
mostly through trial-and-error. The Twelve Steps
were written by Bill W. and reflected the six principles
that were used when the early AA’s still attended Oxford
Group meetings. The Serenity Prayer and the AA slogans
also came from sources other than the Oxford Group.
On the other hand, the Lord’s Prayer was said at, or near,
the close of most Group weekly meetings.
W. was justly proud of his correspondence with Dr. C.G.
Jung, the Swiss psychiatrist, whom he thanked in 1961
for telling Rowland H. that the only hope for overcoming
his alcoholism was a transforming spiritual experience.
Bill regretted that he had not also expressed appreciation
to Frank Buchman for providing Rowland with experience
Jung called for. A month after Frank’s death in
1961, Bill wrote to a friend: “Now that Frank Buchman
is gone and I realize more than ever what we owe to him,
I wish I had sought him out in recent years to tell him
of our appreciation.”
inspirational, mutual assistance portion of AA and its
concept of a Higher Power---all of that came from the
Oxford Group and the early inspiration of Frank Buchman.
Is that important? Many AA’s would say that it was
all God-ordained and God-directed anyhow, so who cares
if everybody is properly credited for a role in the development
of our fellowship?
AA member who did care was Al L., a retired rubber engineer
from Akron who lived in Pompano Beach, Florida, until
his death. He attended his first meeting in 1937
at the Williams home and finally established continuous
sobriety in 1941. Dr. Bob was his sponsor.
carried a small stack of wallet-size pictures which were
a sort of pictorial history of AA. There were shots
of T. Henry and Clarace Williams, Dr. Bob and Anne S.,
Ebby T., Bill and Lois W., and others.
the very first picture in the stack was a portrait of
Frank Buchman. Al had a stock answer for anybody
who asked, “Why do you keep Frank’s picture on top?”
was this: “Because that’s where it all began.
None of this would have happened without Frank.”
not the whole story, of course. Many AA members
feel that God could have used hundreds of different channels
and people to bring AA into existence. But He apparently
chose Frank Buchman and the Oxford Group. If that
bothers you, take comfort in the fact that it bothered
Bill W. when the Group message was first presented to
him by Ebby. But didn’t it all work out in a wonderful