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TODAY, July 22, 1991
HIDDEN GOSPEL of The TWELVE STEPS
the origins of the recovery movement can help
Christians know how to relate to it today.
Scott Peck calls it the greatest event of the
twentieth century: the "founding" of Alcoholics
Akron, Ohio, on June 10, 1935. It did not seem auspicious
time. Two apparently hopeless alcoholics, one jobless for
the other a surgeon who had needed a drink that day to steady
scalpel, had found each other.
the 56 years since A.A.'s membership has grown from two
to nearly two million. A.A.'s 12 Steps which owe virtually
nothing to modern psychology or medicine, are unreservedly
embraced by courts, hospitals, and a large number of counselors
and psychologists. Beyond A.A., the 12 Steps have become
treatment of choice for a large catalogue of disorders,
sexual addiction to overeating. Author Keith Miller calls
Steps "a way of spiritual healing and growth that may
well be the
most important spiritual model of any age for many contemporary
many Christians have an ambivalent view towards
Alcoholics Anonymous. A.A.'s 12 Steps recognize not God,
"Higher Power" who is "God as we understand
Him." This sounds
like slippery, New Age language. The "disease concept":
alcoholism - not invented, but certainly popularized by
seems to remove any moral dimension from drinking.
spiritual roots of the 12 Steps are complex, tangled
between experience-oriented evangelical Christianity and
secularizing, psychologizing tendencies of American religious
pluralism. Understanding how these sources produced the
can help Christians know how to interact with them today.
W.'s hot flash
Wilson (Bill W. in A.A. lore, because of A.A.'s
principle of anonymity) was unquestionably the most influential
person in the development of Alcoholics Anonymous. In 1934
a grandiose, loud talking New York City alcoholic. Nearly
was feeding his habit by stealing grocery money from his
purse. and sometimes by panhandling. Several times he had
hospitalized, but he always started drinking again, no matter
what resolutions he made.
November day an old alcoholic friend, Ebby Thatcher,
paid him a visit. Thatcher was sober and had come to tell
why. He had had a religious experience. Members of an
organization called the Oxford Group had visited him in
where he had been incarcerated for drunkenness, and he had
yielded his life to God. The desire to drink was gone, he
His life was changed.
several visits, Thatcher convinced Wilson - who was
quite averse to religion - to attend a meeting at a Manhattan
rescue mission sponsored by Calvary Episcopal Church, local
headquarters of the Oxford Group. Wilson stopped at several
on the way and was quite drunk when he arrived. He was,
sufficiently moved by the testimonies to go forward, and
at length to his own changed heart. This change lasted less
a day: Wilson went on a three-day binge and was hospitalized
visited the hospital, and at Wilson's request
repeated his formula for conversion: "Realize you are
admit it, and get willing to turn your life over to the
fell into a deep depression after Thatcher left. As
he was later to describe it:
still gagged badly on the notion of a Power greater than
myself, but finally, just for the moment, the last vestige
proud obstinacy was crushed. All at once I found myself
out, 'If there is a God, let Him show Himself! I am ready
the room lit up with a great white light. I was
caught up into an ecstasy which there are no words to describe.
seemed to me, in the mind's eye, that I was on a mountain
a wind not of air but of spirit was blowing. And then it
upon me that I was a free man. Slowly the ecstasy subsided.
on a bed, but now for a time I was in another world, a new
of consciousness. All about me and through me there was
wonderful feeling of Presence, and I thought to myself,
is the God of the preachers.' A great peace stole over me
thought, 'No matter how wrong things seem to be, they are
right. Things are all right with God and His world.'"
never took another drink.
this new convert joined the Oxford Group, attending
Sunday night meetings at Calvary Church, pastored by the
Episcopalian Sam Shoemaker. Shoemaker was the best-known
Group leader in America. Though he left the movement in
would continue for decades as a prominent evangelical leader,
known for his books, his radio program, and his role in
the Faith at Work movement. But he made have made his greatest
contribution through Wilson.
would write, "Dr. Silkworth (a physician who
introduced the disease concept of alcoholism to Wilson)
the needed knowledge of our illness, but Sam Shoemaker had
us the concrete knowledge of what we could do about it.
us the mysteries of the lock that held us in prison; the
passed on the spiritual keys by which we were liberated....
early A.A. got its ideas of self-examination, acknowledgment
character defects, restitution for harm done, and working
others straight from the Oxford Groups and directly from
Shoemaker, their former leader in America, and from nowhere
spring, Wilson went to Akron, Ohio, on a would-be
business deal. The deal fell flat. Broke and lonely, Wilson
sorely tempted to drink. Desperatly, he looked in his hotel's
directory and called a clergyman, asking for contacts with
Oxford Group. After a long series of unproductive calls
Henrietta Seiberling, a Vassar graduate and daughter-in-law
founder of the Goodyear Rubber Company. Wilson's first words
her were, "I'm from the Oxford Group and I'm a rum
hound from New
York." He poured out his fear of falling, and she invited
had a project in mind. For two years she had been working
on a surgeon, Bob Smith, through the Oxford Group. Smith
Wilson's opposite in personality: a silent drinker, stern
distant. The group has confessed with him and prayed with
his drinking had remained as uncontrollable as ever. Seiberling
might have brought Wilson and Smith together that night
that Smith had come home with a potted plant for Mother's
fallen into a drunken sleep under the dining room table.
day the two men met, and they hit it off remarkably.
would be nearly a month before Smith took his last drink
and A.A. was "founded." Wilson stayed on for months
at the Smith's
home, and the two men had many late night philosophic
conversations. Their hopes, of course, were all in the context
regular meetings of the Oxford Group, which had brought
men together and constituted their only spiritual moorings.
the two men had convinced other alcoholics in Akron to join
Oxford Group meetings, just as Wilson had previously done
Oxford Group (emphatically not the Anglo-Catholic Oxford
Movement associated with John Henry Newman) was the child
American Lutheran clergyman, Frank Buchman. Beginning in
spearheaded an informal evangelistic movement dedicated
reclaiming "first-century Christianity." While
the Oxford Group
(later renamed Moral Rearmament) would ultimately drift
a solidly grounded faith, they began with a strong evangelical
Oxford Group tried particularly to reach up-and-outers by
avoiding church buildings and traditional Christian language.
According to writer Charles Knippel, Sam Shoemaker would
those who did not yet believe in Christ to "accept
they might conceive of him, or even to pray 'as if' there
God." The group's beliefs were orthodox, but they were
interested in doctrine. Their emphasis was on experience,
primarily the experience of conversion.
group meetings were small and informal, emphasizing
prayer, mutual confession, the importance of making restitution
where you have wronged someone, and "guidance"
a Quakerish process
where members sat quietly and expressed what they believed
might be saying to them. Guidance was always "checked"
members. The group emphasized the importance of personal
of these emphases found their way into A.A. Yet within
five years, both the New York and the Akron alcoholics split
the Oxford Group. The basic reason is clear. For the alcoholics,
the Oxford Group was too religious, too sure that they knew
alcoholics needed, and most unwilling to let alcoholism
main subject. They wanted alcoholics to listen, not just
to focus on Christ.
Wilson was developing a very different vision: a
fellowship of alcoholics dedicated to helping one another
sober through a spiritual program - a program that recognized
dogma, no absolutes, and was open to all religious persuasions,
including atheism. For the Oxford Group, the goal was Jesus
Christ. For Bill Wilson the goal was simple sobriety.
Big Book and the 12 Steps
the early years of A.A., converts were few, backslidings
many. But the recovering alcoholics, and Bill Wilson in
particular, were dogged in their efforts, and their meager
seemed remarkable to them. Gradually they gained insight
worked and what didn't.
of the alcoholics knew much about publishing, but they
thought a book would be a good way of raising money and
their ideals. Wilson began to write in 1938. His drafts
and argued over by the alcoholics. So was the title: Alcoholics
Anonymous. Published in 1939, and soon known as the Big
because the first edition was printed on such thick paper,
book was to ultimately to make A.A.'s fortune and pay its
to the present. It has sold over 10 million copies and currently
sells over 1 million each year. It gave the organization
Most important it codified the 12 Steps.
Big Book reads like a man-to-man advice column from an
ancient Field and Stream. Its folksy persuasion contains
shred of sophistication, whether sociological, medical,
psychological, or religious. Yet, as A.A. people say, it
Alcoholics treasure it and are apt to quote it like the
using page numbers instead of chapter and verse.
its core are the 12 Steps, which are usually displayed
prominently at A.A. meetings. Father Ed Dowling, a Jesuit
who became a close friend to Wilson, thought he saw parallels
the exercises of Saint Ignatius. As a matter of fact, the
draw so broadly from Christian tradition that one could
parallels sprinkled throughout Christian history. The steps
directly, however, through the evangelical practice of the
Group. For simplicity, I have paired some of the steps together.
We admitted we vere powerless over alcohol - that our lives
version, when witnessing to Wilson, was, "Realize
you are licked." Alcoholics have a hundred excuses
why they drink,
and a thousand resolutions to quit. Their first step toward
recovery is realizing that their schemes for reform are
that they cannot just make up their minds to do better.
caught in something more powerful than themselves.
is what A.A. has usually meant by the disease concept of
alcohol. They have always been cautious about staking out
medical claim, such as that alcoholism is genetic. The disease
concept of alcoholism is more a metaphor than a physiological
explanation. To some, the metaphor suggests a claim that
alcoholics are victims of circumstance and not responsible
their behavior. That apprehension is misplaced, as least
as far as
the A.A. founders were concerned. They were saying, in fact,
something very close to what the theologians express in
language of sin.
person who sins does so because he is caught in a web of
sin. How he got there he may not know, but he cannot escape
own power, and his attempt to do so only catches him deeper
web. So the conviction of sin - not sins, but Sin, the underlying
inescapable power that leads to sins - is necessary for
would accept the grace of God.
an alcoholic cannot escape her addiction. Until
she recognizes her helplessness, she will be unwilling or
to turn outside herself for the help she needs. She may
why she is an alcoholic, but she remains responsible - responsible
to recognize her helplessness. This is a recognizably Christian
Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could
us to sanity.
Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the
of God as we understood Him.
spiritual roots of the second and third steps are simply
conversion. Sinners who have recognized their own hopelessness
come to believe that God can rescue them and so turn their
over to this God. The prayer of surrender-on your knees,
inevitably-was heavily stressed in the Oxford Group, and
earliest A.A. meetings.
root is twisted a bit, however, with the introduction of
"God as we understand Him." This language was
not invented by Bill
Wilson; it came from the Oxford Group. Shoemaker used it
indicate an openness to people in process. He encouraged
seekers to "surrender as much of ourselves as we can
to as much of
Christ as we understand." He believed that God would
himself more fully to them if they were willing to experiment
way. For A.A., however, the term became more accurately
statement of religious pluralism. As the historian Ernest
writes, "The briefest statement of the fundamental,
Christian message runs: 'Jesus saves.' The fundamental first
message of Alcoholics Anonymous, proclaimed by the very
of a former compulsive drunk standing sober, ran: 'Something
saves.'" This Higher Power is often, for the irreligious,
the A.A. group.
later, Shoemaker said that "A.A. has been supremely
wise...in emphasizing the reality of the experience, and
acknowledging that it came from a higher Power than human,
leaving the interpretation part pretty much at that".
A.A. would have been wrecked by any attempt at doctrinal
uniformity. This is the explanation that Wilson often gave,
Alcoholics came from so many religious persuasions and were
cantankerous, they simply would not assent to any statement
orthodoxy. If you wanted to help them, you simply had to
room for their independence.
there is ample reason to think that Bill Wilson
himself was the leading independent and cantankerous alcoholic.
Though he was close to Christians for the rest of his life,
once took a year of instruction in the Catholic faith from
Fulton Sheen, he never could reconcile himself to any orthodox
expression of faith. His continuing religious search led
LSD and spiritualist experiments. "God as we understand
allows room for seekers - but it also leaves room for those
prefer to define God, rather than to allow him to define
is a profoundly ambivalent expression.
Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being
exact nature of our wrongs.
the forth step, the Big Book suggests a detailed and
probing process of written self-evaluation. It includes
all people, institutions, and principles that are the object
anger or resentment, and writing down our contribution to
all broken relationships. It includes an inventory of sexual
fifth step, according to Wilson, is the most difficult of
all, because it requires humiliation. In A.A. one may confess
"sponsor," another alcoholic chosen as a guide
because of his or
her greater experience and personal affinity. Or one may
to a pastor or some respected person. Self-evaluation and
particularly confession were significant parts of the Oxford
Group's "first-century Christianity." The Oxford
an atmosphere where people could spontaneously say what
thinking and feeling - an atmosphere much like that of an
Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects
Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.
six and seven carry on the "surrender to God"
step 3, applying it to specific flaws discovered in the
taking personal inventory. Wilson stressed that it was not
to know oneself, even to confess one's shortcomings. One
humbly ask God for help.
Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing
make amends to them all.
Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except
to do so would injure them or others.
8 and 9 carry on with the list made in step 4, but now
call for outward confession and restitution toward those
was standard Oxford Group practice. Shoemaker taught
that concrete acts of restitution should follow immediately
conversion. That is why on the "founding day"
of A.A., Bob Smith
disappeared for several hours, to the alarm of his new friend
Wilson. As the Oxford Group had taught him, Smith had gone
the rounds of people he had harmed, to ask their forgiveness
make amends whenever possible.
Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong
promptly admitted it.
speaking, A.A. members never "graduate." Rather,
they consider themselves alcoholic for life, even if they
taken a drink in 30 years. In this sense, A.A. is like a
It cannot, by definition, be outgrown. It is a lifelong
The application of this principle may sometimes put A.A.
competition with the church, and thus is unlike a short-term
Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious
contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for
of His will for us and the power to carry that out.
Christian roots of the 12 Steps are perhaps the clearest
in step 11. The focus is on relationship with God himself,
simply on sobriety. While Wilson often stressed the practical
benefits of prayer, the eleventh step urges alcoholics to
beyond their own problems and develop a life of conscious
with God. (Those whose Higher Power was simply the A.A.
acknowledged, might find this step difficult.) Wilson suggested
that alcoholics begin and end every day with personal prayer
recommended that A.A. members use the resources of their
church, if they had one.
suggested the prayer of Saint
Francis. In times of
stress, he recommended praying repeatedly, "Thy will,
not mine, be
done." More common in A.A., though, is the "Serenity
adapted from Reinhold
Niebuhr and often used to close meetings:
"God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot
courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the
difference." A.A. made it famous.
Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these
we tried to carry this message to alcoholics, and to practice
principles in all our affairs.
A.A. parlance, "Twelfth-stepping" is witnessing,
always by giving personal testimony. In the early days,
members paid calls on the alcoholic wards of local hospitals,
looking for the worst drunks they could find. They would
their stories, and if interest was aroused, go on to explain
12 Steps. Today, witnessing is generally less aggressive.
Nevertheless, A.A. maintains Wilson's belief that sharing
message is a means of maintaining sobriety. Wilson observed,
"Practical experience shows that nothing will so much
immunity from drinking as intensive work with other alcoholics.
works when other activities fail." In other words,
share their testimony not simply out of concern for others,
also out of concern for themselves.
emphasis on witness came directly from the Oxford Group,
which reflected historic evangelical belief that individual
witness is an essential part of Christian living. By "witness"
Oxford Group members meant primarily sharing their own stories
conversion. Shoemaker spoke of such witness as "one
experiences that keeps our own conversion living and burning."
Christian are the 12 Steps?
the 12 Steps originated in Christian traditions,
transmitted directly through an evangelical movement. Conviction
of sin, conversion, yielding to God, self-assessment, confession,
restitution, prayer, witness: these are all classic elements
as Walther Eichrodt wrote long ago. "The same thing
practiced by different people is not the same thing."
The 12 Steps
are Christian, but A.A. is not. Under Sam Shoemakers leadership,
these 12 Steps would have created a Christian group; under
Wilson's they made a group that has a wider appeal, for
on the pluralistic religious coloration of our culture.
A.A. may be unprecedented in this: it converted not Christian
institutions for secular purposes, it converted a Christian
program of discipleship. The conversion of universities
hospitals from religious to secular purposes is an old and
known story. As the leadership of Christian institutions
to those who lacked personal faith, the institutions were
transformed. Their goals-medicine, education-remained the
but their moorings in a Christian vision were lost.
Wilson detached the discipleship process from its
Christian vision and applied it to a lesser goal: sobriety.
Oxford Group's lack of interest in doctrine opened the way
this. They were more concerned with Wilson's experience
salvation than with its doctrinal content. More than tolerant,
A.A. is pluralistic, recognizing as many gods as there may
religions, any of which can "work."
number of Christians have attempted to re-Christianize the
12 Steps, by rewriting them, by using them in a Christian
and by making clear that the Higher Power is Jesus Christ.
can be no objection to doing this. The 12 Steps are a package
Christian practices, and nothing is comprised by using them.
is more difficult to know how to respond to the 12 Steps
as they are actually practiced in secular society. Few Christians
have found this difficult, partly because in many parts
U.S. the majority of people in 12 Step groups recognize
the Higher Power. Even where this is not so - where feminist
groups emphasize goddess worship, for example - one can
find An A.A. group more to one's liking. And most groups
genuinely tolerant. Christians can express their convictions
without any sense of intimidation, unless they undermine
pluralistic assumptions of the group by suggesting that
view of God is misguided. There is always the possibility
in some university settings, the reigning tolerance might
intolerant toward Christians. But this seems rarely the
can and do use A.A. or other 12 Step groups much
as they use formerly Christian schools and hospitals. We
interest in recovering from addictions, and there is no
getting help where it is available. In fact, there is
opportunities for evangelism. The 12 Steps penetrate every
of American society, including some where Christian practices
unheard of. At least one church cultivates an image in 12
circles as a "place where you can go to learn more
problem comes when recovery from addiction becomes
salvation in some final sense, and the therapy group becomes
church substitute. A commission of the Lutheran Church-Missouri
Synod, making a positive assessment of A.A., wrote that
'spiritual awakening' to which frequent reference is made
literature does not refer to 'conversion' but to a personality
change sufficient to bring about recovery from alcoholism,
that change may take place." But that is not always
the view of
people in 12 Step groups. A life-changing experience with
Power may lead them to believe they have found God, and
people, and can center their salvation in the 12 Step group.
Wilson's story, after all, sounds like an authentic
Christian conversion - until you realize that he never pledged
loyalty to Christ, never was baptized, never joined a Christian
church, and that the rest of his life was morally erratic.
Salvation is more than sobriety. Wilson's life's work has
transformed millions of men and women. But there seems little
doubt that, in the final analysis, God's analysis, his life
unredeemed. He might stand for many others if Christians
alert to the tangled roots of the 12 Steps.
ought to use them gladly. They belong to us originally.
They are doing tremendous good. But we should be careful
not to be
content when troubled people are helped through 12 Step
They may be awakening spiritually, and certainly they are
powerfully helped, but they cannot experience the full awakening
proclaimed by the twelfth step until they give the Higher
name. And how will they know, if they are not told?