Alcoholics Anonymous & History of AA
Present-day AAs—members of the fellowship of Alcoholics Anonymous—certainly can’t be divided into two A.A.’s or ten A.A.’s. At least not the AAs that I met in April of 1986 when I entered the rooms. Nor the AAs I have fellowshipped with over the past 23 years. Nor the AAs I have met at International Conventions, regional conventions, gatherings like the “Spring Fling,” Big Book Seminars, Dr. Bob’s Home in Akron, the Wilson House in Vermont, the Snyder retreats in many states, the Roman Catholic retreat for AAs that I led in a monastery several years back, or just the plain old “meetings” that go on continually in communities wherever I go. The people differ. The behavior differs. The groups differ. But the doors are open to all who want to stop drinking.
Is all this just naïveté? Not on your life. A.A. and its eager AAs fit my needs just fine as I came in, got a sponsor, had my seizures, spent time in treatment, spent time in the V.A. psych ward, even spent time in prison, learned about the Big Book, learned how to take and take others through the Twelve Steps, and finally discovered that—in the early days of A.A.—it was all about God. And, for me, it still is. No matter what others may do or say or think. I have found plenty of support for this position in the history of A.A., the contents of A.A.'s Big Book, and the astonishing successes of the 1930’s that put A.A. on the map. I thank God in the name of Jesus Christ that He played a role in the whole founding and course of A.A.’s program, and enabled me to find a new life that rested on the truths I found in the Bible. Nobody, just nobody, can drive a wedge that separates us drunks merely because of intolerance or variety or diversity. Not even those who claim we are heretics, cult members, on the path to destruction, or lacking according to their doctrinal viewpoints.
The truth that I have observed is that there are not two, but dozens, of different types of A.A. gatherings; but all would probably deny that they belong to some separate organization from the gathering next door. Today, the A.A. Traditions still declare that any two AAs meeting for purposes of sobriety constitute an A.A. meeting. And today there are so many different shapes and sizes of these meetings than one can hardly simmer them down to two in number. Or 20. Or 100.
Let’s take a quick look at some of the types of programs that have claimed A.A. affiliation through the years since A.A.'s founding in June 1935. First, there was the original Akron A.A. “Christian Fellowship” program which Bill W. and Dr. Bob began developing during the summer of 1935. A.A. cofounder Dr. Bob said concerning the “basic ideas” of the early A.A. Program:
We got them, as I said, as a result of our study of the Good Book.
(See the A.A. General Service Conference-approved pamphlet, The Co-founders of Alcoholics Anonymous, 14.) Here are the seven points of the highly-successful, early Akron A.A. program summarized by Frank Amos and published on page 131 of the A.A. General Service Conference-approved book, DR. BOB and the Good Oldtimers:
· An alcoholic must realize that he is an alcoholic, incurable from a medical viewpoint, and that he must never drink anything with alcohol in it.
· He must surrender himself absolutely to God, realizing that in himself there is no hope.
· Not only must he want to stop drinking permanently, he must remove from his life other sins such as hatred, adultery, and others which frequently accompany alcoholism. Unless he will do this absolutely, Smith and his associates refuse to work with him.
· He must have devotions every morning—a “quiet time” of prayer and some reading from the Bible and other religious literature. Unless this is faithfully followed, there is grave danger of backsliding
· He must be willing to help other alcoholics get straightened out. This throws up a protective barrier and strengthens his own willpower and convictions.
· It is important, but not vital, that he meet frequently with other reformed alcoholics and form both a social and a religious comradeship. Important, but not vital, that he attend some religious service at least once weekly.
Second, there was the program Bill W. incorporated into the First Edition of Alcoholics Anonymous (the “Big Book”) published in April 1939. According to Bill W., God was in the principles. By 1939, Bill had fashioned his own program primarily from his conferences with Rev. Samuel M. Shoemaker, Jr., and hence mainly from the Oxford Group’s 28 life-changing principles. Then, just before the Big Book was published in April 1939, there was a controversy and a compromise that resulted in a program's being codified in the Big Book that no longer required a belief in “the Lord” who had “been so wonderful to” Bill W. “curing” him of “this terrible disease.” (See page 191 of Alcoholics Anonymous, 4th ed., for Bill W.'s statement; and see pages 166-67 of the A.A. General Service Conference-approved book, Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age: A Brief History of A.A., for a detailed discussion of the controversy and the compromise.)
No sooner was the Big Book published in April 1939 than Dr. Bob's sponsee, Clarence S., fashioned a highly-successful program in Cleveland. Concerning the Cleveland program, DR. BOB and the Good Oldtimers quotes Clarence S. on page 261 as follows:
“. . . I think A.A. was more effective in those days. Records in Cleveland show that 93 percent of those who came to us never had a drink again. . . .”
Clarence's biographer, Mitchell K., makes the following comment about the Cleveland program on page 108 of How It Worked: The Story of Clarence H. Snyder and the Early Days of Alcoholics Anonymous in Cleveland, Ohio:
Two years after the publication of the book [i.e., of Alcoholics Anonymous in April 1939], Clarence made a survey of all the members in Cleveland. He concluded that, by keeping most of the “old program,” including the Four Absolutes and the Bible, ninety-three percent of those surveyed had maintained uninterrupted sobriety.
The early Cleveland A.A. program was certainly about God, as an examination of the Cleveland Central Bulletin issues for the period quickly disclose. Again, nobody was claiming this was a non-A.A. program. In fact, as the A.A. General Service Conference-approved book Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age states on pages 21-22:
. . . [B]y then [i.e., mid-to-late 1940] Cleveland had about thirty groups and several hundred members. . . . Yes, Cleveland's results were of the best. Their results were in fact so good, and A.A.'s membership elsewhere was so small, that many a Clevelander really thought A.A. had started there in the first place.
Beginning around January 1940, Dr. Bob and Sister Ignatia worked together on some new and very brief procedures for alcoholic patients during the short patient stays at St. Thomas Hospital; and reportedly some 5,000 patients were led through those procedures. But nobody has claimed the St. Thomas five-to-seven-day hospital stay produced a new or different A.A.
Then—during Bill’s long years of tremendous depression—all sorts of approaches sprang into view. There was the work of Richmond Walker. There was the work of Father Ralph Pfau. There was the work of Ed Webster. There were the four pamphlets that Dr. Bob encouraged AA of Akron to publish. There was finally—after Dr. Bob and his wife Anne were dead—the turning over of the Society to its membership and the publication of Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions. But nobody claimed that any of these constituted the first, second, tenth, or unnumbered A.A. Fellowship. A.A. changed. The fellowship changed in composition. But AAs were still AAs. And they still are. One can attend meetings anywhere in the United States and Canada, and believe he is in an A.A. meeting. And many Aas that I have communicated with have made it clear that A.A. is still A.A. in England, Sweden, Australia, Japan, and Canada. In fact, the only two A.A.’s that I know of seem to exist in Mexico, but I’ll leave that to other reporters.
What’s the point?
The point is that as A.A. grew from the original, highly-successful group of 40 pioneers as of November 1937, hordes thereafter poured into and out of A.A. At the national/international level, A.A.’s corporate structure itself became protective of its copyrights, trademarks, symbols, and “Traditions.” This “protection” has been preserved by an international structure that is not even directly answerable to the garden variety of drunk who attends meetings in jails, hospitals, rehabs, treatment centers, and A.A. meetings. But A.A. is still A.A., no matter how much rigidity human beings try to impose.
The more commentators try to divide A.A. into this or that category, the more they distort the composition of this basically unorganized group of drunks who come into the rooms in unbelievably bad shape. A group of drunks who—if they really try, and, if they really seek God’s help—can achieve a victory of sobriety and new life that they never believed possible. Some critics say that if AAs mention the Bible or God, they will get drunk. Others say alcoholics should find help elsewhere because they can’t find Jesus in A.A. Some say A.A. is religious. Others say it is not religious. And still others say it is “spiritual but not religious.” But it’s still A.A., whatever they choose to label it.
No, there are not two A.A.’s. But today there are tens of thousands in A.A. who have differing criticisms, differing viewpoints, even different types of “programs.” But most of us don’t even know about these when we first climb on board. We just welcome the love, friendship, and service that surround us; and we pay very little attention to those who are climbing the ladders of authority, but not really governing anybody.
I suppose you could say that “Give me liberty, or give me death” does not describe A.A. as such. But I also think you can say, “I didn’t want to die; so perhaps I’ll give A.A. a try.” I did! I have no regrets. It gave me an opportunity to help people who would never have crossed my path nor received even a nod if I hadn’t met them in A.A. and hadn’t known from my own experience just how much they were hurting and willing to grab on to an outstretched hand.
 DR. BOB and the Good Oldtimers (New York, N.Y.: Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Inc, 1980), 128-36—especially 131.