Alcoholics Anonymous & History of AA
This article was originally published in 2010. But many new facts about AA basics, the source of A.A. basic ideas, and the contributing elements have been unearthed and published since then. Hence this presentation updates my view of the roots. The view comes from 24 years of travel, interviews, books, articles, manuscripts, library visits, and archive records among other resources.
Alcoholics Anonymous History is not a story book about the vagaries of this or that like who has imbibed too much, paid a heavy price for his foibles, and then become a poster boy for the religious solution which enabled him to choose God’s way and become well. Do alkies err? Do Christians err? Did the Bible err in its statement that all men have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (Romans 4: “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God”)?
Some today have condemned an alcoholic or an alcoholic leader who has quit drinking for good, “recovered” in Alcoholics Anonymous, and overcome condemnation by being spiritually minded instead of carnally minded (Romans 8:7-9: “Because the carnal mind is enmity against God; for it is not subject to the law of God, nor indeed can be; So then, those who are in the flesh cannot please God. But you are not in the flesh, but in the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God dwells in you”). Romans 8:1 (“There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus who do not walk according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit”).
But great will be the unattainable day when someone has presented himself as without sin and as the perfect man. That day will not come until the gathering together of the children of God on Christ’s return. Meanwhile, some—like the Apostle Paul—continue in their efforts to walk by the spirit of God and put off the old man who offers temptation and disobedience. The comedian Flip Wilson used to describe man’s plight while awaiting the return: “The devil made me do it.” The Book of James—a favorite in early A.A.—provided a choice in the words of James 4:7—“Therefore submit to God. Resist the devil and he will flee from you.” James 1:16, 22 enjoin us: “Do not be deceived, my beloved brethren. . . . But be doers of the word, and not hearers only deceiving yourselves.”
Why this preface to the Christian origins of A.A.?
Sinners today abound. AAs who sin abound. But there are those who become Christians and obey the injunction of Ephesians 5:18: “And do not be drunk with wine, in which is dissipation; but be filled with the Spirit.” They may or may not continue to err in other respects, but they have been able to walk in the light because they heeded the drink command and did so in reliance on the power, love, forgiveness, and healing of God.
Such were the cofounders of A.A. in the earliest days—whatever accusations of sin may be hurled against them today by those who literally spew hatred at A.A., its founders, and those who attend it.
A.A. Cofounders Dr. Bob and Bill W. both were born and raised in Vermont. And one of the latest books my son Ken and I just published is Bill W. and Dr. Bob, the Green Mountain Men of Vermont: The Roots of Early A.A.’s Original Program. It is the product of extensive travel and investigation in almost every Vermont town and village that impacted on the lives of our co-founders. Two slightly earlier and heavily documented books approach the facts from the standpoint of each founder separately. They will serve you well if you want ample evidence,
citations and bibliographical material. They are Dr. Bob of Alcoholics Anonymous: His Excellent Training in the Good Book as a Youngster in Vermont and The Conversion of Bill W.: More on the Creator’s Role in Early A.A.
A few have written opposing A.A. and AAs. They kick and scream when they see and learn that both Bill and Bob were Christians; both were Bible students; and, of course, both believed in God. Moreover, each had a Congregational upbringing. Congregational family training. Each was much involved in the Bible. Each knew of conversions, revivals, and temperance meetings. Each attended church weekly or more. Each attended daily chapel at his Academy. Each had connections with the Young Men’s Christian Association. And. each was steeped in the basic Christian roots of early A.A.
They could hardly have escaped such immersion. From at least 1850 forward, the great evangelists, the Young Men’s Christian Association, the Gospel Rescue Missions, the Salvation Army, Congregationalism, and the Young People’s Society of Christian Endeavor held forth on the East Coast and very frequently in Vermont.
Dr. Bob Smith and Bill Wilson both were or became Christians, followed the path of Jesus Christ during their youth, and ultimately reaped the benefit of Proverbs 22:6: “Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it.”
But then each erred! Big time. They surged into the web of strong drink. Each became an alcoholic and did all the disastrous deeds recounted almost daily in meetings of 12 Step fellowships round the world. They and many who followed them may well have continued in their murky paths. But that straying did not result in their abandonment by a loving and forgiving God. It did still provide them with the opportunity to remember where they came from, repent, receive God’s pardon, and go on serving God and others. And whatever shortcomings others have pointed to, they could rightly claim to be one of God’s kids and assured of eternal life.
Here then are the basic Christian roots upon which the foundations of Alcoholics Anonymous rested. Powerful roots that inspired A.A. cofounders both when they were you were young men afloat in Christian upbringing and later when they emerged from darkness and sought to quit drinking, give their lives to God, and help others. In these particulars, they became winners!
One: Evangelists and Revivalists: These strong Christian message carriers included Dwight L. Moody, Ira Sankey, Allen Folger, F. B. Meyer, YMCA laymen, and many others less well known.. They fostered The Great Awakening of 1875 in St. Johnsbury, Vermont and preached salvation and God’s Word—leading thousands to accept Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior and blessing them with healing and the Word of God.
Two: Young Men’s Christian Association lay folks. These brethren were nondenominational in approach, but much involved with church and academy activities and revivals. They conducted Gospel and revival meetings in St. Johnsbury, galvanized the Great Awakening of 1875 in St. Johnsbury, Vermont, and stressed conversion to Christ and attention to the Word of God. Dr. Bob’s father was President of the St. Johnsbury YMCA, and Bill Wilson was President of his Seminary’s YMCA. Bill’s high school sweetheart Bertha Bamford was president of the YWCA.
Three: Rescue Missions: These served derelicts and drunks, gave them “soup, soap, and Salvation,” opened their religious services with “Jesus Saves,” hymns, Bible reading, and the altar call. They invited the very decisions for Christ that Bill Wilson and his friend Ebby Thacher experienced at Calvary Rescue Mission in New York. Bill certainly went to the altar there and made a decision for Jesus Christ that was seen and attested by many who were there; and he soon wrote, “For sure I’d been born again.”
Four: Salvation Army: The fundamental outreach was by one recovered alcoholic helping another. Suffering alcoholics, addicts, and derelicts were brought to Christ, heard the good news of the Bible, and then were recruited to serve others in “God’s Army.”
Fifth: Young People’s Christian Endeavor Society (“For Christ and For Church”): Dr. Bob was active in this in his St. Johnsbury North Congregational Church. The program was almost identical to that practiced by early Christian A.A. in Akron. It involved Confession of Christ, Conversion meetings. Prayer meetings, Bible study meetings, Quiet Hour, reading and discussion of Christian literature, and the slogan “love and service”—which popped up in Dr. Bob’s A.A. talks.
Sixth: New England Congregationalism dominated the scene in our founders’ younger days. Church leaders worked alongside Young Men’s Christian Association personal workers. The seminaries and academies attended by Bill and Bob were founded, dominated, and run by Congregational leaders. Young People’s Society of Christian Endeavor began in a Maine Congregational church and rapidly spread to Vermont and hundreds of other Congregational and Christian churches. A.A. founders were participants in North Congregational Church of St. Johnsbury in the village of Dr. Bob’s younger days; East Dorset Congregational Church in the town of Bill Wilson’s birth and upbringing; and Manchester Congregational Church in the seminary of Bill’s high school years in Manchester, Vermont.
Seventh:: The Oxford Group—long known as “A First Century Christian Fellowship”—was formed much later (about 1919) and espoused a Christian life-changing program with twenty-eight principles that impacted upon A.A. and were incorporated in Bill Wilson’s 1939 Big Book and Twelve Step program. See The Oxford Group & Alcoholics Anonymous, by Dick B. This “A First Century Christian Fellowship Oxford Group was founded by Lutheran Minister Frank N. D. Buchman. Buchman and many of his followers were not only clergy from many Protestant churches, but wrote and spoke incessantly about God, Christ, the Bible, and salvation.
Eighth: Rev. Samuel M. Shoemaker, Jr., Rector of Calvary Episcopal Church in New York. An American Oxford Group leader, prolific writer, and teacher to Bill Wilson of the ideas behind all the Twelve Steps, particularly Steps Two through Eleven. See New Light on Alcoholism: God, Sam Shoemaker, and A.A., by Dick B.
Ninth: Several men and women, most of them Christian leaders, had much to do with peripheral ideas that found their way into A.A.: (1) Dr. William D. Silkworth, a psychiatrist and devout Christian who told Bill that Jesus Christ could cure him. (2) Rowland Hazard, Shepard Cornell, Cebra Graves, Ebby Thacher, Garrett Stearly, Victor Kitchen, Sherwood Day, Professor Henry B. Wright, W. Irving Harris, and other leaders shared and/or wrote from their Christian convictions. (3) A prominent teacher, writer, and Christian leader-friend of Dwight Moody actually wrote the “Four Absolute” standards that were so important in the Christian Fellowship in Akron. The many was Dr. Robert E. Speer. (4) Others such as Dr. Carl G. Jung and Professor William James—while probably not Christians—recognized and passed along to Oxford Groupers, Shoemaker, and AAs the fact that many alcoholics had overcome their problem by Christian vital religious experiences.
Resources: Dick B., Dr. Bob of Alcoholics Anonymous; The Conversion of Bill W; The Oxford Group & Alcoholics Anonymous; New Light on Alcoholism: God, Sam Shoemaker, and A.A.; a and Real Twelve Step Fellowship History. See www.dickb.com/titles.shtml