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Alcoholics Anonymous history in your area
The Third Tradition Group of Northfield, Minnesota

The foundations that underpin the Third Tradition Group have their basis in a combination of events, people, and societies not often spoken about in our meetings. To truly do justice to the history of this group, a recounting of those forces is warranted.

We must start on a Thursday evening in Baltimore, Maryland. The date is April 2nd, 1840 and the place is Chases' Tavern on Liberty Street. In the tavern that evening were six friends who drank there almost every evening. They were William Mitchell - a tailor, John Hoss - a carpenter, David Anderson and George Steers - blacksmiths, James McCurly - a coach maker, and Archibald Campbell - a silversmith.

As entertainment, these six decided to go to a temperance meeting being held that night. As the result oftheir attendance, on the following Sunday, April 5, 1840, these six began the Washingtonian Society. This society was, in their own words, "a society for our mutual benefit, and to guard against a pernicious practice which is injurious to our health, standing, and families, do pledge ourselves as gentlemen that we will not drink any spirituous or malt liquors, wine or cider." It was a society, like Alcoholics Anonymous who followed it many years later, based on total abstinence from alcohol.

The experience of these alcoholics, and the society they began, has a significant bearing on both the beginning and survival of the Third Tradition Group of Alcoholics Anonymous. Their society lasted only a little more than 8 years. In their first year they sobered up about 1000 drunks. At their peak, they counted at least 100,000 drunks and 300,000 hard drinking potential alcoholics among their members. And yet, in only 8 short years their society died, and we can assume that most, if not all, of their members eventually returned to the living hell we call alcoholism.

They are important to us because of both their similarities to Alcoholics Anonymous and their differences.

They were similar in 7 ways:

» They were alcoholics helping each other.
» The needs and interests of alcoholics were kept central.
» They held weekly meetings.
» In the meetings they shared their experiences.
» Fellowship of the group or its members was constantly available.
» They relied on the power of God.
» They practiced total abstinence from alcohol.

They were different in 5 ways:

» They allowed non-alcoholics, or those with other problems to become members.
» They had no single purpose. They also attempted to house & employee alcoholics. They also engaged in developing opinions outside their society.
» They had no clear-cut program of recovery. Each member could develop his or her own program.
» They did not believe in anonymity. Their people were constantly having their names put in the paper.
» They had no Traditions that guided them in how to preserve unity, and failed to develop any.

To understand the basis of what we have in common, and what they lost, we need only review two stanzas of one of their songs:

This worlds not all a fleeting show,
For man's illusion given;
He that hath sooth'd a drunkards woe,
And led him to reform, doth know;
There's something here of heaven.

The Washingtonian that hath run,
The path of kindness even;
Who's measr'd out life's little span,
In deeds of love to God and man;
On earth hath tasted heaven.

Some 99 years later another fellowship, Alcoholics Anonymous, was to include this sentiment in the pre-publication manuscript of their basic text.

We now move ahead to the year 1931 and see a young financial wizard who has tried several methods to recover from alcoholism. Finally, in desperation he places himself under the care of a Swiss psychiatrist by the name of Carl Jung. In the year that followed he learned all the workings of his mind and its quirks. Yet upon release from the clinic - he got drunk. He returned to Zurick and asked the noted man what else could be done. The doctor pronounced him hopeless.

After making this deathly pronouncement, he told Rowland H. that his only hope was to be found in the following prescription: "Spiritus contra Spiritum" - a phrase that meant that a spiritual life was the only remedy for a life of the spirits. Rowland returned to the U.S. and began to attend Oxford Group meetings to improve his spiritual life. He also began active work with other alcoholics, namely one called Ebby T.

At this point in the narration you may be wondering what all this has to do with the simple task of starting an A.A. group. These events, people, and principles were what guided the Third Tradition Group in the early years and if you listen closely to the start of each of the groups' meetings, you will be able to identify where those practices originated and why.

Jumping forward 2 years, to 1933, and the city of Akron, Ohio, the Oxford Group there has a new person by the name of Dr. Robert S. He has begun to attend these meetings in an effort to recover from alcoholism. Although he is thorough in his practice of their way of life, he is unable to recover from his alcoholism - but he continues to attend their meetings.

The following year, 1934, a young stockbroker, named Bill W, is hospitalized again for his alcoholism in Towns Hospital in New York City. Although he had been there many times, this was his last journey there. In his previous hospitalization, Dr. Silkworth has also pronounced him a hopeless case. He was told that he would have to be institutionalized or his drinking would result in madness and death within the year.

During his brief time at home, before this last hospital stay, he had been visited by an old friend, Ebby T. Ebby shared his experience at finding a way to live sober through the Oxford Groups and Rowland H. Although Bill thought he could not accept the religious approach proposed by Ebby, during this hospital stay he became willing to try anything. While at this low point in his life, Bill had his spiritual experience. This began his permanent sobriety, and he began to attend Oxford Group meetings.

Six months later Bill was in Akron, Ohio to engage in a proxy fight. This being a difficult task as well as distasteful, Bill became concerned about his relatively new sobriety. He called a member of the clergy who put him in touch with another drunk. Bill was absolutely sure he needed this drunk to talk to much more than the drunk needed him. Although Dr. Bob stopped drinking at this time, he was to have one slip before the first month was over. June 10, 1935 was Dr. Bob's last drink and the beginning of the A.A. fellowship.

When asked, years later, why he had not been able to stay sober in the Oxford Groups, and Bill had, he explained that Bill brought him the idea of service to another alcoholic. This, he felt, was the reason he was now able to stay sober. (It may be important to note, at this point, that at this time in history the recovery rate for alcoholics, who sought help with their problem, was 2%.)

By the year 1939 AA had grown to 4 groups with about 100 members. This was the year our Big Book was first published. It was also the year that a permanent break was made with the Oxford Groups. Although the Oxford Groups had a definite program to follow-they lacked the other four points that separates A.A. from the Washingtonians.

A.A. grew slowly at first and then it expanded in leaps and bounds. In 1939 and 1941 there were several articles in the newspapers and magazines that turned the tide. These articles served to show us the need for, and success of, sponsorship. Before this the entire group had worked with each new recruit. Now, this was no longer possible. It was found that one or two sponsors could be just as effective at conveying our message as the group was. That message was the same as it is, here in the Third Tradition Group, today-AA is not the power that will solve your problems, it is simply the method by which you can find the power of a loving God who can give you the courage to live!

Now we finally come to Northfield. It is Sunday morning, August 15, 1982. Over 400 AA's and their spouses have gathered at the 34th Annual Southern Minnesota Conference to hear Paul M., from Riverside, Ill speak. On this day, Paul is celebrating his 35th AA birthday. During his sharing, he relates his own experience at trying other forms of self-help and therapies. He also relates the failure he found with them. He shares his perspective on AA and the necessity of keeping it simple and not diluting our program with other things.

In the audience sit six men who had been talking with one another about the very same things Paul is mentioning. Since most of the AA groups they had come in contact with were becoming less structured and more treatment oriented, they were somewhat reluctant to challenge this turn of events in their own groups. Perhaps, they thought, this new trend was the right way to go. However, somewhere deep inside them they sensed that something was not as it should be. Paul's' talk gave them the necessary understanding and courage to undertake the formation of a new AA group. Now they knew they weren't alone. There were others who understood AA as they did. What was described in the Big Book could and would happen in the right environment and with a sincere effort.

The following Thursday, August 18, 1982 these six men sat around a table in the rear of an old bank building, which was being remodeled, to discuss the formation of a new group. They included a businessman, carpenter, salesman, draftsman, and 2 truck drivers. Unknown to them at the time, they wanted a group that avoided the five points that differentiated the Washingtonians from A.A. They wanted a group that dealt with alcoholism and alcoholics only, one which had the single purpose of helping alcoholics find freedom from alcohol, one that discussed and attempted to convey the message of Alcoholics Anonymous only-leaving out any other therapy or the theory of any institution. They wanted anonymity in the sense that only those at the meeting would know who was at the meeting. Foremost in their minds was a return to the Twelve Traditions, as written, in order that they might survive.

During the meeting they agreed on several points they felt were of primary importance for the group. Among them were:

» Non-alcoholic drug addicts would be referred to another fellowship better qualified to be of help with this problem.
» This group, for their meetings, would use only literature published by Alcoholics Anonymous.
» That the "language of the heart" would be spoken rather that the language of any institution or form of therapy.
» In agreement with the General Service Conference of that year, the group would not hold hands during the opening or closing of the meetings.
» The group would work hard to establish a group conscience and maintain it properly so that it could be an active part of AA worldwide.

The beginning of a new group is often difficult in a small community such as Northfield. The early days of the Third Tradition Group were no exception. Some, in the other groups, disagreed with the beliefs of the group, and others took exception to the method of beginning the group. Tempers flared and accusations were made.

However, through studying the Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, the group was able to understand that their fellow AA's were simply concerned about how this new group would affect their own group. This, of course, is only natural. The group stuck to its "primary purpose", which it had clearly defined before starting. It was careful not to engage in competition or controversy with other groups. It simply minded its own business, careful to consider the affect on the other groups before arriving at any decision or course of action.

God has been kind to the Third Tradition Group, as time has gone by. It outgrew the first meeting place about the same time the rent agreement ran out. The present home, below Village Drug, was found at the last minute. The members struggled with finding a new home, but had to often remind themselves that God would provide the location if they did the footwork-and so He did. The owner of this building has been a great friend of the group and a wonderful landlord.

Over time, the group has had its difficulties. Sometimes this has resulted in other new groups in Northfield, and at still other times members have had to struggle to find the right approach to tough problems. The number of core members has always remained about the same, even though many have moved away from Northfield or started other groups. Today, the group maintains three meetings per week, provides trusted servants for local, state and national services, accepts and meets its financial responsibilities to its landlord and AA's service entities, and remains an active voice in the society of Alcoholics Anonymous. This has been accomplished, not by the "sacred six" (as one member, perhaps hearing the history one too many times, refers to them), but by a loving God. Each and every person who has been a member has in some way found the courage to listen to the God of his or her understanding. In doing so, he or she has become active in chairing meetings, sponsorship, actively participated in the group conscience, and volunteered for the other duties AA requires from time to time. Through this, the members of this group ought to be able to identify with the experience of Dr. Bob and Bill W on that morning in Akron when they sat counting up the number of sober AA's. When they had finished the count, they felt somewhat in awe of the scene before them. Their comment was, as ours should be, "What has God wrought in our lives?"

Copyright © 2006 The Third Tradition Group of Alcoholics Anonymous
Reprinted with permission

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