Early AAs claimed a spectacular 75%-to-93%
documented success rate in the
Akron and Cleveland, Ohio, areas among
“medically incurable” alcoholics who
“really tried.” Yet today, some scholars
and government experts believe A.A.’s
success rate is as low as 1%-to-5%.
Something has changed!
Early works on the history of Alcoholics
Anonymous, covering its critical developmental
years from 1931-1939, are now more than
twenty years old. My own research of
the last ten years, analyzing that same
period, and my fourteen published titles
about it, have unearthed, pinpointed,
detailed, and documented the six major
spiritual roots of Alcoholics Anonymous
and their impact on A.A.’s early
successes. Other recent writings have
covered some specific historical personalities
that figured in the post-1939 period,
but did not flesh out our early spiritual
picture. This despite the fact that
A.A. is appropriately called a spiritual
program of recovery.
My purpose here is therefore to present,
for all to see, my “agenda” concerning
early A.A. history. And to put in the
hands of AAs, the recovery/treatment
community, and the Christian community,
the facts about the historical role
played by God, His Son Jesus Christ,
and the Bible in the success of early
A.A. Also, how that knowledge may be
used to help carry the message to those
who still suffer today.
Good Question by a Good Writer
Not too long ago, my friend Mel B.,
who is a prolific writer for A.A. and
Hazelden, graciously thanked me for
a copy of one of my historical books.
Then he said: “Dick, I now have a shelf
of your books. Where does it all
end?” That’s a good question. And
the answer lies in how it all began
and what gave rise to my search. Actually,
Mel played a role in that beginning,
along with A.A.’s former archivist Frank
M. (now deceased), Dr. Bob’s son Smitty,
Willard Hunter (an Oxford Group veteran),
a small A.A. group, and myself. We presented
two large conferences on early A.A.
history in Marin County, California,
in the early 1990's. Each event was
called “A Day in Marin.” And each program
went to the heart of A.A.’s spiritual
beginnings, with the foregoing men as
State of Our Spiritual Root History
When the Search Began
Much has been uncovered and discovered
about early A.A. in this last decade.
But let’s start with what we had by
In1954, Bill Wilson and his secretary
Nell Wing began taping their interviews
of our A.A. founders and pioneers. In
1957, after A.A.’s St. Louis Convention
was over, Bill felt it appropriate to
publish a work he called Alcoholics
Anonymous Comes of Age: A Brief History
of A.A. Over a span of twenty-six
years, in more than 150 articles, Bill
also wrote other bits, pieces, and fragments
of history. And these were later published
in 1988 by the AA Grapevine, Inc. in
The Language of the Heart. Dr.
Bob died much earlier, on November 16,
1950; and Bill died on January 24, 1971.
And you’ve just seen the basic spiritual
history we had during that earlier period.
Ernest Kurtz received a Ph.D. in the History
of American Civilization in 1978 and began
to study history. In 1979, he published
Not-God: A History of Alcoholics Anonymous.
With Bill Wilson gone, historical interest
was stirring at A.A.’s General Services.
Bill’s former secretary Nell Wing phoned
Clarence Snyder in Florida and said New
York just didn’t know the oldtimers..
She proposed sending an A.A. staff person
to interview Clarence, because, as she
put it: “You do know them.” And, of course,
Clarence did, having been one of the original
40 pioneers, a sponsee of Dr. Bob’s, and
founder of A.A. in Cleveland where initial
growth and success had been phenomenal.
Out of this and other A.A. efforts came
DR. BOB and the Good Oldtimers
(an A.A. “Conference Approved” book).
It was published in 1980. Its sequel (a
biography of Bill Wilson) was published
by A.A. in 1984 with the title Pass
It On. In June, 1983, Bill Pittman
completed a work which he published in
1988 and called AA The Way It Began
H., the 1990 Seattle Convention, and the
By summer in1990, I had been sober a little
over four years. I had been quite active
in A.A., serving as a secretary, treasurer,
general services representative, and in
other A.A. commitments. I had sponsored
a good many men in their recovery, been
to many area conventions, and soon had
my appetite for A.A.’s history thoroughly
whetted. Here’s how.
Prior to the summer of 1990, John H. (a
young A.A. friend now dead of alcoholism)
said to me: “Dick, did you know that A.A.
came from the Bible?” John knew of my
interest in the Bible, and we both had
the same A.A. sponsor. But I replied that
I did not know anything about the matter.
I had never heard such a story. I told
him I had never heard the statement from
our mutual sponsor or grandsponsor or
in any meetings. So John suggested: “Read
DR. BOB and the Good Oldtimers.”
I did just that. And I became excited.
I saw Dr. Bob quoted as saying A.A.’s
basic ideas had come from Bible study.
That DR. BOB book also said Scripture
reading was stressed by the pioneers,
and that early A.A. was known as a “Christian
Fellowship.” The A.A. book said early
Akron meetings had been described as “old
fashioned prayer meetings.”
After reading that A.A. history, I rushed
to read Pass It On. I saw that
early AAs had wanted to call their society
“The James Club” because they favored
the Book of James in the Bible. I then
picked up Bill Wilson’s A.A. Comes
of Age, but was surprised and disappointed
to see no references to the Bible and
very little about the Oxford Group ( from
which a number of A.A.’s Bible ideas had
actually come). There was a reason, Bill
implied: The Roman Catholic Church was,
at that time, much opposed the Oxford
Group’s ideas, practices, and fellowship.
Bill did not state why he had omitted
the Bible from his accounts.
With that, I went to A.A.’s 1990 International
Convention in Seattle. I expected to find
specifics there. But alas, there were
none. I wound up at an archives meeting
where the Bible was not mentioned; the
Oxford Group was alluded to; and a panel
member had a book on the Oxford Group
which he showed me after the panel discussion
was over. I kept hearing them talk of
“Frank.” And I discovered that “Frank”
was A.A.’s General Services archivist
from New York. I asked Frank what he had
on Sam Shoemaker, a leader of the Oxford
Group. And Frank said he had very little
but would send me a list of Shoemaker’s
titles. Interestingly, he sent me this
material, and it simply quoted from Bill
Pittman’s AA The Way It Began.
He also sent me a short pamphlet by the
Oxford Group’s Willard Hunter and A.A.’s
The bottom line, however, was this: At
an international convention of A.A., held
55 years after A.A. began, I could find
no specifics on: (1) A.A. and the Bible,
(2) The beliefs of the Oxford Group, (3)
The relationship of either source to A.A.,
or (4) How or why A.A. had codified Oxford
Group practices in its Twelve Steps. I
could find nothing on Shoemaker’s role
either, except for laudatory statements
by Bill Wilson that Shoemaker should be
listed as an A.A. “co-founder” and was
a wellspring of its spiritual ideas. The
literature early AAs read was scarcely
mentioned, but there was nothing on what
that literature contained or indicating
that it was primarily Christian. There
was nothing at all on what Anne Smith
had contributed, or on the journal she
shared with AAs and their families. And
there was nothing specific about “Quiet
Time,” except the statement in a 1938
report that Quiet Time was a “must” in
the program and that it was observed in
the early meetings and homes and also
by individual AAs..
“Agenda” Began to Crystalize
I am sure my almost immediate interest
in our spiritual roots proceeded from
First, at eight months of sobriety, I
had been in the VA psychiatric ward in
San Francisco and was stone sober, but
going nowhere, except to A.A. meetings
and group therapy. I was filled with fear,
shook like a leaf, and was so brain damaged
that I often couldn’t control what I was
saying aloud. I was a very sick
man. So, at the urging of my older son
and his wife, I began studying the Bible.
Things on the love of God, healing power
of God, forgiveness of God, and
the deliverance available through what
Jesus Christ had accomplished for those
who chose to accept him as Lord and believe
that God had raised Jesus from the dead
(Romans 10:9). The result was almost instantaneous.
I believed what the Bible said. Fear left.
I began seeking God’s guidance for events
that lay ahead. Peace arrived at last.
Reading the Bible and believing what it
said had resulted in my deliverance, just
as it did among early AAs.
Also, I had been an attorney, a very good
one, trained at Stanford, Case Editor
of its Law Review, a practitioner for
35 years, and an experienced researcher.
But I had become a drunk and had resigned
from the State Bar under fire after also
having seizures in A.A. and being hospitalized
at a treatment center. Nonetheless, my
former zeal for research and discovery
had apparently survived.
Further, I couldn’t figure out why AAs
were talking about some weird “higher
power” instead of our Creator, God, like
their basic text and Twelve Steps did.
I had seen Bible words and phrases quoted
verbatim (but without acknowledgment)
in A.A.’s Big Book. I saw Bible words
like Creator, Maker, Father, Father of
Lights, Spirit. Bible phrases like “love
thy neighbor as thyself,” “faith without
works is dead,” and “Thy will be done.”
And my interest in their route to A.A.
was much aroused.
Also, as my mind began returning, I wanted
to escape the nonsense that was common
fare in the daily meetings I attended:
Absurd names for God, like “Ralph.” and
“doorknob.” Half-baked prayers like “Here
I am.” Self-made religion where some said
they didn’t like their church, didn’t
like to hear the Bible mentioned, wanted
no sharing about Jesus Christ, or
claimed that A.A. was their religion.
Most important of all, I wanted to help
the people I sponsored. Provide them with
whatever truth there was in A.A. about
our Creator. Show them the rock on which
I felt recovery and A.A. itself must have
been founded. But I had to learn facts.
the “Agenda” was . . .
I wanted to know if A.A. really had taken
its basic ideas from the Bible. And if
it had, I needed to know what those ideas
were. I could see that the facts were
not to be found in A.A.. I had read Nan
Robertson’s Inside AA, which taught
me there were archives to be seen, founding
families to be interviewed, and significant
historical places to be visited. That
too became a part of my agenda. Without
interviews, no facts; and I had interviewed
dozens of witnesses as a lawyer. But there
was more. Early A.A. writings and talks
had to be found and studied for references
to the Bible, Christian literature, the
Oxford Group, Sam Shoemaker, Anne Smith,
and Quiet Time. That meant travel and
research. More important, I realized from
Bill Pittman’s book and from a reference
or two in Kurtz’s Not-God that
there was plenty of Oxford Group, Shoemaker,
and other early A.A. Christian literature
that had never been examined, analyzed,
or made available, even to AAs. So, reading
many thousands of pages became part of
the agenda as well.
Again, the main agenda? To see if A.A.’s
ideas came from the Bible; and, if they
had, then specifically what those ideas
were and how they impacted on the Steps,
the Big Book, and the Fellowship. And
if the facts could be documented, then
to make sure that they were made available
to AAs themselves, to Al-Anons, to clergy,
to the treatment community, to the government,
and to non-profits. But the dissemination
part had to wait on the research, travel,
and writing. And, as a lawyer often finds
when he begins to unearth evidence, the
whole and truthful picture is often surprising
and has often been badly distorted by
prior investigations and prejudices..
I found, from many years of law practice,
that if the truth is diligently sought,
it usually can be found. Lots of new truths
often emerge. That’s the case whether
one is looking at raw evidence, interviewing
witnesses, or searching collateral leads.
It’s also true when one is searching for
the “purple cow” precedent that will show
what the law actually is, or should be,
in a given case. Many many times, I have
had a hunch that turned into a lead that
turned into a case or fact that won the
day. Anyway, my quest for A.A. history
and Bible sources had all the same ingredients
as preparation for a major legal case,
and there would be no disappointment.
For example, I had read in DR. BOB
that our co-founder had given away
all of his religious books (very large
in number). But I went to Akron, visited
Dr. Bob’s daughter Sue Smith Windows,
and was surprised by her many trips to
the attic to bring down Dr. Bob’s books.
Later, she was to let me see all she had.
Dr. Bob had inscribed his name in many,
along with the date he had obtained them.
Dr. Bob’s son and daughter-in-law came
up with an equal number of books they
owned. I could see clearly that Dr. Bob
had read the Bible extensively, as well
as books about the Bible, Jesus Christ,
prayer, healing, love, and so on.
I read those books. And Charlie Bishop
published my first history: Dr. Bob’s
Library. Ernie Kurtz wrote the Foreword.
Then, from Kurtz’s own book, I found a
reference to a notebook Dr. Bob’s wife
had kept. I contacted Dr. Bob’s daughter
Sue and also my friends, Bill Pittman,
Frank M., and Bill W.’s secretary Nell
Wing. I wanted to see and study Anne Smith’s
notebook for myself. I submitted a letter
to the Trustees of A.A. through Frank
M., with a supporting letter from Dr.
Bob’s daughter Sue. And I was given a
copy of Anne’s journal. I was absolutely
amazed. Anne had written this journal
between 1933 and 1939. Sue had typed part
of it for her mother. Anne had recorded
many Bible verses and ideas, Oxford Group
and Shoemaker ideas, Quiet Time practices,
and even the literature early AAs were
reading. Step language, though not so
labeled, was present. Later, from Dennis
C., an A.A. historian, I was to learn
that Anne had shared from her journal
with AAs and their families in the morning
at the Smith home. Sue Smith Windows said
people came there each morning for what
they jokingly called “spiritual pablum.”
I discovered Anne Smith had been
called “Mother of A.A.” and for good reason.
Her journal contained the heart of the
program before it was committed to writing.
Next, I tackled the Oxford Group. I read
and read. I was put in touch with all
the early Oxford Group people who were
active when Bill and Bob were in the Oxford
Group and even long before. I put together
twenty-eight ideas that came from the
Oxford Group and could be found in A.A.
Later, I found dozens of actual phrases
in A.A. that paralleled those in the Oxford
Group. I got the lead to those phrases
from Pass In On. I got the phrases
from the Oxford Group people I interviewed.
And I documented them from Oxford Group
books I studied. Bill Pittman published
my first Oxford Group/AA book and also
my first Anne Smith book. Endorsements
from Dr. Bob’s kids, the Seiberlings,
the Shoemaker family, and the Oxford Group
pioneers were easy to come by because
all wanted the facts known. In fact, they
wanted to know them for themselves!
I’ll not go into all of the rest of the
search. My findings will come in future
articles; and AnonymousOne.com has already
presented one on Rev. Sam Shoemaker’s
role in A.A.. But my original quest in
1990 to learn if A.A. had come from the
Bible turned into a major, ten-year project
that unearthed spiritual sources, ideas,
practices, and literature AAs hadn’t heard
or seen for years and years. Yet many
of the materials had been codified in
our A.A. program. And, because they were
not remembered, different expressions
and complete distortions emanated from
them: God had become a “tree.” Religious
had become “spiritual.” Bible became “books.”
Quiet Time became “meditation.” Revelation
became “intuition.” And the Serenity Prayer
(which begins with the word “God”) became
There are many A.A. searchers today. Some
collect books. Some start groups. Some
write books. And I’d like to mention several
of the book-writers. Mel B. wrote New
Wine which has a summary of some spiritual
sources. Mary Darrah wrote Sister Ignatia
which chronicles work of the tireless
nun who helped Dr. Bob at St. Thomas Hospital
after the Big Book was written and A.A.’s
Oxford Group tie was broken. Mitch K.
wrote How It Worked, a book about
Clarence Snyder and Cleveland A.A. It
focused on what began there in 1939 just
after the Big Book was written. It helps
confirm the astonishing early Cleveland
93% success rate.There are books now on
(1) Father Dowling (who met Bill after
the program was developed and became Bill’s
Roman Catholic “sponsor”). (2) Bill’s
own “sponsor” Ebby Thacher, (3) Bill himself,
(4) Sam Shoemaker, and (5) On every aspect
of the Oxford Group. But the heart of
the early A.A. spiritual program as reported
by trustee-to-be Frank Amos in 1938, and
the details about it, have unfortunately
and consistently been given a back seat
or completely ignored until my work began.
Does It End?
For the first time in perhaps 50 years,
the spiritual history of A.A. made an
appearance at an International Convention
2000. Not on the Minneapolis Convention
grounds. But as near to them as one could
get. A group of dedicated AAs rented a
church next door to the Convention.. They
exhibited a historical video, many of
our early religious books, and many historical
books (including all of mine). They presented
a panel of speakers. But why not at the
Convention? Why not at all Conferences?
Why not in A.A. meetings? Why not in A.A.
Conference Approved Literature? Why not
a complete uncovering of A.A.’s connection
with the Bible, Quiet Time, the Oxford
Group, Sam Shoemaker, Anne Smith (the
Mother of A.A.), and the religious literature
that fed our program?
My agenda was to get the facts about A.A.’s
biblical roots. And the facts have largely
been unearthed. Then, I wanted to know
what that had to do with early A.A.’s
success rates. Early A.A. claimed a 75%
success rate among “medically incurable”
alcoholics who really tried. We know the
names of most of these people because
their pictures are on the wall at Dr.
Bob’s home and their names are written
in rosters. Bill Wilson claimed an 80%
success rate. Early Cleveland A.A., which
grew from one group to thirty in a year,
documented a 93% success rate and has
the names and addresses to confirm the
fact. And Jack Alexander wrote in his
1941 Saturday Evening Post article
that there was a 100% success rate among
Today’s TV and radio shows are filled
with talk of the drug and alcohol problem.
They seldom speak of the early A.A. solution:
the power of God as recorded in the Bible
and utilized in the early fellowship.
The dissemination of truth about
early A.A. and its reliance on God is
now probably the greatest “agenda” item
on my plate. Progress is being made. There
is growing interest among AAs themselves,
where the present failure rate of perhaps
90 to 95% is a matter of common knowledge
and grave concern. Also interest among
the churches, therapy community, and non-profits.
A.A.’s former archivist Frank M. often
said: “Whenever a civilization or society
perishes, there is always one condition
present. They forgot where they came from.”
We now know for sure that A.A. came from
the Bible, just as Dr. Bob said it did.
We now know many of the specifics. And
there’s lots of history concerning the
details. Day by day, the gap is being
filled by those searching and researching
for more of the truth. Making the documentable
facts known is my “agenda.”