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A.A. History Articles

Let's Go to Early A.A.

    The phrase "early A.A." refers to the early fellowships and meetings those held in Akron, Ohio, between 1935 and 1939 when A.A. was an integral part of "A First Century Christian Fellowship" (also known as the Oxford Group). When A.A. pioneers called themselves the "Alcoholic Squad of the Oxford Group." When some later wanted to call their fellowship "The James Club"--so named for their favored Bible book, the Book of James. When East Coast AAs were regularly attending Oxford Group meetings often led by the Reverend Sam Shoemaker, Rector of Calvary Episcopal Church in New York. And shortly thereafter (in 1939 and the early 1940's). When Cleveland AAs called their Fellowship "Alcoholics Anonymous," naming it after A.A.'s newly published basic text Alcoholics Anonymous. And when the Cleveland pioneers were actually recording a ninety-three percent success rate with alcoholics who really tried.

pull quote    Unlike the circumstances today, recovery often began when a distraught wife would seek out A.A.'s co-founder Dr. Bob Smith in Akron with the desperate hope that he and what he called the "Christian Fellowship" could "fix" the seemingly errant alcoholic spouse.

    As implied in A.A.'s textbook, there often followed a preliminary investigation with the alcoholic's family of his behavior, background, religious leanings, and degree of alcoholic sickness. And the "pigeon" (as he was frequently called) was then usually hospitalized in Akron City Hospital in the earliest days. He was "defogged" in a process which involved tapering him off with paraldehyde and whiskey. He was allowed only the Holy Bible as reading matter in his hospital room.

    Very soon, he was visited by a veritable army of recovered alcoholics who told him of their own drinking history and recovery. They told him that Dr. Bob had the answer to his problem, but the visiting drunks did not disclose this "answer." Dr. Bob himself usually visited the newcomer daily, explaining to him the medical aspects of his alcoholism problem. Finally, after several days, Dr. Bob gave the man the "solution." The patient was asked if he believed in God. And only one answer was acceptable if the man wished to get well. If the man responded that he did believe in God, he was told to get out of bed, get down on his knees, and surrender to God. This was accompanied by a prayer led by Dr. Bob. And, having done this, the "pigeon" was discharged from the hospital, often given a Bible, and then told to find drunks to "fix."

    In the Midwest, the newcomer's next move was frequently to a home the home of Dr. Bob, Wally G., Tom L., and later, Clarence S. and others. In the East, drunks were housed in Bill Wilson's home, but (as Bill and his wife said) not one ever got sober there through the year 1939. In the Midwest, the alcoholics lived Christian fellowship in a very spiritual atmosphere. Each morning, there was Quiet Time an Oxford Group practice involving Bible study, prayer to God, listening for messages from God, and the use of helpful meditation literature such as The Upper Room a Methodist Bible study quarterly. There was frequent discussion of every-day living problems in terms of the Bible's applicability to their solution. There was frequently counseling with Dr. Bob and his wife, Anne Ripley Smith. Daily reading of the Scriptures was stressed. Daily reading of devotionals such as The Upper Room and The Runner's Bible and many other Christian books of the day was much encouraged. One A.A. historian commented he felt the lives of A.A. pioneers and their families seemed to be one continuous meeting.

    Meetings themselves were regular, but not daily. Quiet Time was. Meetings were not considered essential, but Quiet Time was. Regular meetings were Oxford Group meetings, in form and in substance. One day each week, a "setup" meeting was held. God's guidance was sought through prayer and listening; and a leader for the regular meeting was chosen as was a topic for that meeting. The regular meetings were, in Akron, held on Wednesdays at the home of Oxford Group leaders T. Henry and Clarace Williams. The Williams couple had dedicated their home to God and, with their Oxford Group friends such as Henrietta Seiberling, were also dedicated to helping alcoholics recover. The meetings rarely if ever involved discussion of drinking or alcoholism. But they invariably involved surrenders for those new people who had not already surrendered to God at the hospital or at Dr. Bob's home. There were frequent social gatherings, particularly on Saturday nights, providing support and comfort for the alcoholic and family members. Oxford Group literature was widely distributed in the Fellowship, and T. Henry had tables in his furnace room where Oxford Group and other Christian literature was available for the taking. Dr. Bob himself frequently loaned out Christian literature to the alcoholics and their families. He kept a journal of books he circulated; and he often questioned a borrower (when a book was returned) as to what that person had read and learned.

    Descriptions of the content of weekly fellowship meetings has varied. Variations seem based upon who was providing the account, who had led a particular meeting, and what particular time period in the early days was involved. But there were some common ingredients. Bill V. H. (who got sober in early 1937) estimated the proportion of Oxford Group to non- Oxford Group people in Akron at about 50-50. He recalled that Oxford Group literature was passed out. And he specifically remembered: "How we all challenged ourselves on the Four Absolutes of the Oxford Movement [sic]." Clarence S. (who got sober in early 1938) said the pioneers' whole recovery program was based on the Bible and the Oxford Group. Wally G. (who got sober in late 1938) said: "T. Henry's meetings ran more or less along Oxford Group lines. . . . Early meetings used Oxford Group terminology witnessing, stories, restitutions, shared confessions." Dr. Bob's children said the little group of recovering people formally met at the Oxford Group meetings but kept in constant communication with each other at get- togethers in their homes. Dr. Bob's and Anne's home was the hub. And there was also much colloquy by telephone.

pull quote    Meetings opened with prayer and with reading from the Bible (or Scriptures mentioned in the Bible devotionals such as The Upper Room and My Utmost for His Highest). Sometimes discussion topics would be on a Bible subject, sometimes on a topic in the devotional, and occasionally on some other topic vital to the lives of those present. There was Quiet Time with prayer and listening for divine guidance. Frequently there was prayer in the meeting itself or during a surrender upstairs to meet a particular person's needs. Dr. Bob kept the meeting focused on the newcomer, usually making an announcement on that topic. Arrangements were made to take a team to the hospital to see the newcomers still hospitalized. Meetings closed with the Lord's Prayer the Sermon on the Mount (of which it was a part) being considered the basic philosophy of the Fellowship. Names, phone numbers, and addresses were exchanged. Social time followed. And, in the later days in Akron, members went to Kistler's Donut Shop for sociality.

    Whether done at the hospital, at Dr. Bob's home, or at T. Henry's, surrender was a requirement for every newcomer. This "surrender" meant surrender on your knees to Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior. Particularly at T. Henry's, a new man was taken upstairs, was told to get on his knees, was prayed for by Dr. Bob and others, and then became born again through confession of Jesus Christ (See Romans 10:9). The man asked God to take alcohol out of his life; and there is evidence that this surrender process came from James 5:13-16.

    Usually overlooked by A.A. histories has been the vital role played by Dr. Bob's wife Anne Ripley Smith. Anne had been a teacher and was well-versed in the Bible. She was legendary in her kindness to, and work with, newcomers and their families. They often confided in her when they did not feel free to do so with Dr. Bob or others. Many regularly participated with Anne in Quiet Times lasting more than an hour early each morning at the Smith home. Anne often communicated with people by phone, and she always attended meetings. Possibly the most important single part of her work, however, involved the material she recorded in, and taught from, the spiritual journal she compiled between 1933 and 1939. In it, she had many comments on the Bible, Oxford Group principles, Christian literature to read, and most of the specific principles that wound up in the Twelve Steps. She staunchly recommended the Bible as the source book for daily reading. She also recommended reading on the life of Jesus Christ, Oxford Group life-changing stories, and other relevant Christian literature of the day. She and Dr. Bob were fervent Bible students. So much so that when he was asked a question about the program, Dr. Bob would often ask the person, "What does the Good Book say?" Dr. Bob's and Anne's son said that in the early days the "God's Big Book [the Bible]" was the reference book in the Smith home.

    Bill Wilson called Anne Smith the "Mother of A.A." and a "Founder." And he dubbed Dr. Bob the "Prince of Twelfth Steppers" the AA who personally helped over 5,000 alcoholics without pay. The Akron A.A. team of Dr. Bob and Anne has never been equalled in personal, spiritual recovery outreach. It was truly the heart of A.A.'s spiritual beginnings.

    Sources: Alcoholics Anonymous, 3rd ed., DR.BOB and the Good Oldtimers, The Co-Founders of Alcoholics Anonymous, The Akron Genesis of Alcoholics Anonymous, Anne Smith's Spiritual Journal, That Amazing Grace, The Good Book and The Big Book, and Turning Point: A History of Early A.A.'s Spiritual Roots and Successes, Children of the Healer.

Copyright by Dick B., 1997


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