Dick B. © 2005
I am an active, recovered, cured AA. And I am a devotee and fan of all four editions of A.A.'s Big Book, Alcoholics Anonymous. I look at the Big Book as the standard for truth about the A.A. program of recovery as it is today. I commend the reading of the First, Third, and Fourth Edition basic texts but not particularly the personal stories which have been the subject of endless editorial tinkering by A.A. service people.
The basic text stands as a bulwark against the meat-market, relationships, psychobabble, nonsense gods, and whining that characterize so many meetings today. But the proposal I make is that you consider what the Big Book was originally intended to do and what it is apparently purposed to do today. I believe it is quite fair to say that all editions were intended to provide an explicit guide to A.A.'s program of recovery.
They were not intended as a source of revenue for Bill Wilson, his wife and her foundation, Lois's relatives, or even Wilson's girl friend. And that raises the question as to why so many millions of copies have been printed, revised, edited, and fed into the marketplace, instead of becoming a free source of information for AAs of all times. Part of the burgeoning sales program can be attributed to treatment programs and their need to show affiliation with A.A. Part too to government purchases for the same or similar reasons. Part has been to produce more and more revenue for an organization that was supposed to be non-profit and self-supporting but certainly isn't at the national level.
But let's go to the Big Book and all its editions. It's not the muck-raking that will help alcoholics; it's the merit or intended merit of the program of recovery. One starting place is the beginning of the Book project in 1938. The original A.A. program was developed, tested, and proven by the fellowship in Akron as led by Dr. Bob. It was a program that was described by Frank T. Amos to John D. Rockefeller, Jr. as having seven points that are listed in DR. BOB and the Good Oldtimers. It very much resembled the program of the world-wide United Christian Endeavor Society in which Dr. Bob was actively involved as a youngster in the St. Johnsbury North Congregational Church. The facets of that program were Confession of Christ, Bible study, prayer meetings, Quiet Hour, reading of religious literature, fellowship, witness, and support of your own church based on the foundational and declared purpose of love and service. And a fair-minded look at the Christian Endeavor program and the Akron program will disclose that the two were very very similar in principles and practices. The Akron program was described by Dr. Bob as a Christian Fellowship. It embodied all the elements and purpose of the Christian Endeavor Society. And its meetings were described, by those who were there, as old fashioned prayer meetings and old fashioned revival meetings. The Akron program produced a 75% success rate by 1938 B Wilson sometimes claimed 80% or even 100% among non-psychotic alcoholics. The qualifying requirement, however, labeled as successes only those real alcoholics who really tried. And these numbered 40 when Wilson and Smith felt they had a program. The success and number have been well documented by my fellow researcher and colleague Richard K. in several of his works including The First Forty. These were not people whose stories were or were not in the First Edition of the Big Book. Some recent critics of the early program have asserted that most of those people died drunk or lost their sobriety. The fact, even if true, is irrelevant. For the original Akron program was certainly not left in the hands of a group of failures. The names and data on the 40 successes were known. By contrast, the choice of the people for the stories was based largely on Wilson's desire to have diversity the butcher, the baker, and the candlestick maker that would establish A.A. was for those of various creeds, races, religions, vocations, etc.
It was the work and cures achieved by the 40, largely from Akron, that marked the basis for the decision to report the program via a guiding text. And Bill Wilson was authorized by a split-vote at an Akron meeting to write such a text. However, the text did not proceed as contemplated. Before long, all the Akron references to the Bible, Jesus Christ, and the essential verses in the Book of James, the Sermon on the Mount, and 1 Corinthians, were simply deleted. Wilson then proceeded to fashion his own program of recovery. His text proceeded from his own experience, not the experiences of Dr. Bob or the Akron people. He alleged the program was founded on six word-of-mouth steps that were, though varied, being used in the fellowship. However, there is no evidence that there were any such agreed six steps or even that the Oxford Group from which the steps came had six steps or any steps at all. Nonetheless, several of Wilson's six points did cover ideas taken from the Oxford Group, of which A.A. was an offshoot at the beginning.
As Wilson proceeded with his text, he chose on his own to expand his alleged six steps to Twelve Steps. He then asserted in his text that these (twelve) were the steps we took. But there were no steps, and nobody had taken twelve or any specifically identified steps when Bill wrote them. Then where did they come from? Dr. Bob said he didn't write the steps and had nothing to do with the writing of them. He said the basic ideas came from their studies and efforts in the Bible, though not in terse and tangible form. Others thought they came from the Oxford Group and, to a certain extent, that is accurate. See my title The Oxford Group and Alcoholics Anonymous.
But Wilson himself eventually gave the most accurate description of their source. He said they came primarily and directly from the teachings of Rev. Samuel M. Shoemaker, Jr., Rector of Calvary Episcopal Church in New York. Now the Akronites knew little if anything about Shoemaker personally, though they did read some of his books. On the other hand, Shoemaker was the principal lieutenant in the United States of Oxford Group founder Frank Buchman. Wilson and his wife knew many of the Oxford Group crowd and attended many of their meetings. And Shoemaker was in close touch with Bill Wilson, his proposed step ideas, and his Big Book manuscript from the fellowship's earliest point in 1934 to the date its text was published in 1939. This seems well supported by the fact that Wilson first asked Shoemaker to write the Twelve Steps, but Shoemaker declined in Wilson's favor.
And I have documented how much of the Big Book and Step language comes from Shoemaker in my New Light on Alcoholism title. But Shoemaker was not the only source of Wilson's creative text. Dr. Carl Jung of Switzerland was the source of the conversion experience as the solution to alcoholism. Professor William James of Harvard, though long dead, was the source that validated Wilson's own unique hot flash conversion experience and also the source of the idea that self surrender was the turning point in any religious life with Shoemaker being James's actual spokesperson. Dr. William D. Silkworth largely in his Doctor's Opinion contributed the disease theory ideas in the program with respect to Wilson's first step. And Wilson himself then salted his text with some New Thought and New Age ideas that he apparently had seen or heard in the literature or talks of Ralph Waldo Trine, William James, Emanuel Swedenborg, Emmet Fox, Charles Fillmore, and even Mary Baker Eddy. These included mystic references to the fourth dimension, Spirit of the Universe, Great Reality, Universal Mind, cosmic consciousness, etc. Finally, Wilson curiously borrowed some of his language from the unsuccessful lay therapist Richard Peabody, as set forth in The Common Sense of Drinking. Peabody had alleged that there was no cure for alcoholism, that once an alcoholic always an alcoholic, and that half measures avail you nothing. Ironically, Peabody proved his own points, as Wilson observed, since Peabody died drunk. But his ideas were not reflective of the contemporaneous decade in which A.A. pioneers did claim they were cured and were cured, by their own definition. Peabody simply left his condemnation as a legacy adopted by Bill in his Tenth Step language. Note, however, that the rest of the Steps and much of the Big Book language is undeniably Shoemaker in imprint and appearance. You can reflect on this in my title Twelve Steps for You.
And now let's return to the Big Book and its four editions. It is not reflective of the Akron program that gave rise to A.A. It is largely the product of Bill's steps that came from Shoemaker's teachings about the Oxford Group's life-changing techniques. Its virtue is that it gives, as to most of the steps, very explicit instructions as to how to take them and thereby recover subject to a daily reprieve contingent on the maintenance of one's spiritual condition. As I said, it has given purpose to those in Twelve Fellowships who want something other than bonding in meetings and a vehicle for complaint and expression of misery. I am a strong advocate of the A.A. support system. I feel it is without equal. I feel that it would be difficult to replicate in any other fellowship. But as the Big Book says, if taken by itself, it would never produce recovery. The Big Book inculcates the idea that recovery comes from taking a group of life-changing steps, experiencing a change, carrying a message, and practicing principles learned.
Unfortunately, therein lies some of its weakness in that it has strayed far from the power of the Creator as the real source of healing, left that explicit message in the dust, and lost the principles that were originally spelled out in the unmentioned Bible. The personal stories are a different item. Unfortunately, as they have been repeatedly edited, deleted, augmented, and modified, they represent little more than the diversity of views in a fellowship that does not unite behind the steps of recovery. My recommendation, then, goes to the basic text. If study of that text is combined with active participation in the A.A. fellowship to the end that recovery is the objective, support is a vital component, discipline is needed and imparted, sponsorship is used and enjoyed, and love for and service to the fellowship are incorporated, you have a very valuable program. Personally, I find nothing in the Big Book text that drives me away from God, the Bible, Jesus Christ, or my own religious affiliation. Those things come from raucous and ill-informed meeting talk. It's tough to hear, but it perhaps reflects the secularism is today's society.
And he who knows the Big Book knows that Almighty God is referred to explicitly over 400 times in the Big Book. He who knows our history knows that God as we understood Him is not a license to hunt for rainbows, radiators, or doorknobs, but a challenge to gain understanding of God Almighty, our Creator. How do we know that? Because the phrase came, not surprisingly, from the frequent teaching of Sam Shoemaker in books, articles, sermons, and conversation that you should surrender as much of yourself as you understand to as much of God as you understand. Shoemaker's challenge echoed in the language of the Big Book--was to find God, know God, and gain an understanding of God by revelation and primarily from His Word. That was Shoemaker's view, and it was not lost to Wilson although the understood Him phrase has given rise to much of the idolatrous philosophizing about goofy gods that you hear manufactured in meetings. In sum, then, if you want to dive into A.A. and recover from alcoholism, you'll get your hugs and embraces through the meetings. I can almost guarantee that, but you'll get the intended thrust of the recovery program only by reading the basic text found in the Big Book. You'll find it lots more helpful if you also learn A.A.'s early history and Bible roots. That's what I did; and with God's help and the continuing avoidance of temptation, I've had a wonderful new life at eighty years in age and almost twenty years in sobriety.