Alcoholics Anonymous & History of AA

 Last updated:
March 30, 2013

Alcoholics Anonymous History
A.A. Big Book/12 Step/Bible Study Groups:
Which Bible Version Should We Use?

By Dick B.
© 2013 Anonymous. All rights reserved

Part  One

First, Which “Big Book” Should We Use?

Until just recently, if an A.A. group chose to use the first (1939) edition of Alcoholics Anonymous (“the Big Book”), it might encounter several objections: (1) The 1939 edition is not copyrighted and is thus in the public domain; i.e., it is not/no longer “owned” by Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Inc. (2) The 1939 edition was not “A.A. General Service Conference-approved” (as there was no “Conference” in existence in 1939 to approve it!); and therefore, some asserted, neither individuals nor groups should (be allowed to) use it.  (3) Use of the 1939 edition, some asserted, was (somehow) a violation of the Twelve Traditions because that edition was not A.A. General Service Conference-approved literature. (4) Occasionally, groups have been stricken, or barred, from A.A. office group listings if someone decided that a particular piece of literature was not A.A.  General Service Conference-approved, was considered religious, or had not been approved by Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Inc., in New York.

Next, though few seemed to realize it, the personal testimonies in the “Personal Stories” section of the A.A. Big Book--the largest portion of the book in all four of its editions—were intentionally and systematically removed from editions of the Big Book. Specifically, 22 of the original 29 personal testimonies in the first edition’s “Personal Stories” section were not included in the second (1955), third (1976), and fourth (2001) editions. And another four of the first edition’s personal testimonies in that section were not included in the fourth edition. Thus, all but three of the personal testimonies in the “Personal Stories” section of the first edition of the Big Book were removed; and they have seldom been seen or studied by any group or individual. A few years back, the 26 first edition personal testimonies not in the fourth edition were reprinted by A.A. itself—but with apologies and criticisms. In 2003, A.A. published Experience, Strength and Hope: Stories from the First Three Editions of Alcoholics Anonymous (New York, NY: Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Inc., 2003). This book contains the statement: “This is A.A. General Service Conference-approved literature.” This volume also states:

The importance of these personal stories cannot be overstated. [p. ix]

Experience, Strength and Hope then quotes A.A. cofounder Bill W. as follows from a 1954 letter he wrote “when he was immersed in collecting new stories for the second edition . . .”:

“The story section of the Big Book is far more important than most of us think. . . . [I]t is the written equivalent of hearing speakers at an A.A. meeting; it is our show window of results.” [p. ix]

After quoting Bill W. himself as to the importance of the personal testimonies of early AAs, the book begins to bring into question both those A.A. pioneers and their personal testimonies—particularly those stories found in the first edition:

Most of the A.A. writers got sober before the Twelve Traditions had been adopted, many of them in that chaotic period when A.A. was “flying blind” and learning from its many mistakes.” [p. xi]

A little further on, Experience, Strength and Hope goes on to say:

The stories that follow, reprinted from the first edition, take us back to the “trial and error” days, . . . The A.A.s we meet here . . . were still a little unsure and afraid of the “thing” they had found, still groping for clear guidelines, still largely uneducated about their alcoholism. [p. 2]

The book continues:

Some of the rough edges found in the first edition stories (the use of profanity, for example, references to specific religious beliefs, and several rather disorganized stories) would be smoothed out in those chosen for later editions. [pp. 2-3]

We encourage readers carefully to note the following characterizations found spread over the three statements quoted immediately above:

“before the Twelve Traditions had been adopted”;
“that chaotic period”;
“its many mistakes”;
“a little unsure and afraid”;
“still groping”
“largely uneducated about their alcoholism”; and
“rough edges . . . references to specific religious beliefs”

Such characterizations do little but diminish the stature, reliability, and quality of the personal testimonies of those A.A. pioneers for a sick, confused, bewildered newcomer. They tend to discourage the newcomer from reading anything but what today’s authorities deem to be above question. And these editorial characterizations come only many years after Dr. Bob, Bill W., A.A. Number Three Bill D., and the many other successful pioneers were no longer around to respond.

For all these reasons, we recommend the following publication:

Alcoholics Anonymous: “The Big Book”: The Original 1939 Edition, with a New Introduction by Dick B. (Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, Inc., 2011)

The A.A. General Service Conference-approved book Experience, Strength and Hope has now essentially given “Conference-approved literature” status “retroactively” to the personal testimonies in the “Personal Stories” section of the first edition. And the 23-page Introduction in the Dover Publications reprint of the first edition provides the best historical backdrop for those who want to know what early AAs did before there was a Big Book, before there were any “Steps” or “Traditions,” and before there were any “drunkalogs” or meetings of the kinds we know today. More and more AAs, members of other 12 Step Fellowships and groups, and other students of A.A. history are using this Dover Publications reprint of the first edition for their study sessions. The book is available on for under $15.00:

“The Big Book Has Never Been Changed!”--???

By the way, have you ever heard the following claim?

“The Big Book has never changed!”

The assertion above is another one of the major, destructive “myths” that have circulated within the rooms of Alcoholics Anonymous because so few have done the “careful reading” spoken of on page 567 of “Appendix II: Spiritual Experience” in the fourth edition. Please note the following phrases used in the Preface of the fourth edition:

“strong sentiment against any radical changes” [p. xi];
“the first portion of this volume, . . . has been left largely untouched” [p. xi];
“revisions made for the second, third, and fourth editions” [p. xi]’
“The second edition added . . .” [p. xi];

“Upon careful reading”—to use again the language of the Big Book—wouldn’t you agree that most reasonable people would already conclude that the Big Book hand been “changed?”

And there is much more.

“But the chief change [in the second edition] was in the section of personal stories, which was expanded to reflect the Fellowship’s growth. “Bill’s Story,” “Doctor Bob’s Nightmare,” and one other personal history from the first edition were retained intact; three were edited and one of these was retitled; new versions of two stories were written, with new titles; thirty completely new stories were added; and the story section was divided into three parts, under the same headings that are used now. [pp. xi-xii; bolding added]

There is a significant inaccuracy in the section of text quoted immediately above: “Bill’s Story” was not included in “the section of personal stories” in any of the four editions of the Alcoholics Anonymous. “Bill’s Story” is found on pages 10-26 of the first edition; and is found on pages 1-16 of the second, third, and fourth editions. The “Personal Stories” section begins on unnumbered page 181 of the first edition; and it begins on unnumbered page 165 of the second, third, and fourth editions.

In addition--and very significant to our discussion of “changes” in the Big Book—there is what might be generously described as a “misimpression” left by the section of text quoted above from pages xi-xii of the fourth edition. What is not stated clearly in the section of text just quoted is that 22 of the original 29 personal testimonies found in the “Personal Stories” section of the first edition were not included in the second edition. (See page ix of Experience, Strength and Hope; and note that Experience, Strength and Hope states on page 221 that the story titled “The Car Smasher” in the first edition was retitled as “He Had to Be Shown” and was completely rewritten for the second edition.) Those 22 personal stories were also not included in the third and fourth editions.

At least the discussion in the fourth edition’s Preface of changes made in the fourth edition —including the exclusion of personal testimonies found in the “Personal Stories” section of earlier editions--is clearer:

This fourth edition . . . revises the three sections of personal stories as follows. . . .
Part I . . . six stories have been deleted. . . .
Part II . . . eleven [stories have been] . . . taken out. . .
Part III . . . eight [stories] . . . were removed . . .

Among those 25 personal stories from earlier editions that were “deleted”/”taken out”/”removed” from the fourth edition, four were from the first edition:

1.      “He Had to Be Shown” (which was titled “The Car Smasher” in the first edition, and was retitled and completely rewritten for the second edition—see Experience, Strength and Hope, 221 note);

2.      “The European Drinker”;

3.      “The News Hawk” (which was titled “Traveler, Editor, Scholar” in the first edition, and was retitled and edited for the second edition—see Experience, Strength and Hope, 268 note); and

4.      “Home Brewmeister.”

In other words, A.A.’s today who read the current (2001) edition of Alcoholics Anonymous are only seeing three of the original 29 personal testimonies found in the “Personal Stories” section of the first (1939) edition of the Big Book. That is, in part, why the fourth edition’s Preface speaks of:

All changes made over the years in the Big Book . . .

Hopefully, from now on, you will reject the “myth” that “the Big Book has never changed.”

And that is why we recommend, for your study and recovery, that you select Alcoholics Anonymous: “The Big Book”: The Original 1939 Edition, Dover Publications’ reprint of the first edition, the Big Book whose contents were printed before the many changes that were made in “the Basic Text”—i.e., the whole book Alcoholics Anonymous (see page ix of the fourth edition’s Preface: “. . . this book has become the basic text for our Society.”)--and before so many of the first edition’s personal testimonies were removed from sight for dozens of years.

Part Two
Now, Which Bible Should We Use?

Two Suggested Biblical Pieces Used by Early AAs in Their “Christian Fellowship” Program

Which Bible should we use? The most appropriate answer is “the Holy Bible”—in this case, the King James Version--which was the English Bible Version used, studied, and quoted by the early A.A. pioneers, and which provided the basic ideas for their program of recovery.

The next answer can properly be: The Runner’s Bible: Spiritual Guidance for People on the Run, compiled and annotated by Nora Holm, with an Introduction by Polly Berrien Berends (Lakewood, CO: I Level, Acropolis Books, 1998). This book is a reprint of The Runner’s Bible prepared in 1910 by Nora Holm. I found a copy of the earlier book among the books of Dr. Bob that were shown to me by Dr. Bob’s son and daughter. And Dr. Bob’s son, Robert R. Smith, told me that this was a favorite devotional his father used. And a statement of the Table of Contents may well show why:

            “In the Morning Will I Order My Prayer to Thee”
            The Godhead
            God the Father
            The Christ of God
            Him That Filleth All in All
            His Image and Likeness
            Walk in Love
            Rejoice Always
            In Everything Give Thanks
            Fear Not, Only Believe
            Get Wisdom, Get Understanding
            Ask and Ye Shall Receive
            He That is The Greatest Among You Shall Be Your Servant
            Forgive and Ye Shall Be Forgiven
            Be of Good Cheer, Thy Sins Be Forgiven Thee
            I Will Help Thee
            Behold, I Will Heal Thee
            For Thine Is The Power
            The Lord Shall Guide Thee Continually
            Thou Shalt Walk In Thy Way Safely
            All Things Are Yours
            Peace Be Unto You
            Happy Shalt Thou Be
            The Lord Will Lighten My Darkness             

Those familiar with the Bible will quickly recognize the biblical references in the subjects. They will also see biblical expressions applied in early A.A. And they will be seeing, in the many verses under each subject, just what “basic ideas” Dr. Bob stated the early AAs began studying, exerting themselves to learn, and teaching.

Four Well-Known, Relatively-New “Recovery” Bibles

The next four choices of a Bible for study are those that arose long, long after A.A. was founded in 1935. And here are they are:

1.      Serenity: A Companion for Twelve Step Recovery. Complete with New Testament, Psalms & Proverbs by Dr. Robert Hemfelt and Dr. Bernard Fowler (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1990). Hemfelt is a psychologist who is said to have specialties in the treatment of codependency, addictions, and adult-children-of-abuse issues. Fowler is said to have a background in education, counseling, and administration; and, at the time Serenity was published, he was serving as the director of a Christian counseling clinic in Dallas, Texas. The New Testament, Psalms, and Proverbs used in Serenity come from the New King James Version.


Neither A.A.’s founders nor its other pioneers limited their Bible study in the way Serenity does. The authors state that the Twelve Steps are printed but adapted for use with all dependencies. There is extensive psychological talk about addictions and the like. The authors err in emphasizing the significance of the Oxford Group; while, at the same time, omitting: (a) the Christian predecessors of A.A., (b) the Christian upbringing of A.A.’s cofounders—which included intensive Bible study by both Bill W. and Dr. Bob as young men, (c) the fact that early A.A. in Akron called itself a “Christian fellowship,” and (d) the important statements by Dr. Bob that the earlier AAs felt the answer to their problems was in the Bible, and that the parts they considered absolutely essential were Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, the Book of James, and 1 Corinthians 13. Missing too is the original Akron A.A. program which is stated in summary form in DR. BOB and the Good Oldtimers at page 131; and missing in addition are the 16 practices of the early A.A. Christians which implemented the seven-point program as summarized.


Serenity’s commentaries do not cover the important early A.A. requirements of belief in the Creator of the heavens and the earth (Hebrews 11:6); conversion to God through His Son Jesus Christ (Romans 10:9); the significance in James 4:7 of submitting to God; the many phrases, verses, and concepts in Matthew 5, 6, and 7 from which Step ideas come; and the high regard in which early AAs held 1 Corinthians 13 and the importance of love.


2.      Recovery Devotional Bible New International Version: With 365 Daily Readings (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1993). Verne Becker is the General Editor. This Bible contains a great many tools to aid study. The Bible’s front matter, for example, includes the following items: (a) Alphabetical Order of the Books of the Bible; (b) Acknowledgements; (c) Introduction to the Recovery Devotional Bible; (d) The Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous; (e) The Bible Step by Step; (f) Spiritual Roots of the Twelve Steps; (g) Working Together – The Bible and the Twelve Steps; (h) The Recovery Family; and (i) Preface to the New International Version.

In one sense, this version attempts to be all things to all studies. It takes on the role of a daily devotional. It covers a bit of A.A. history. It is filled with opinions as to how this or that verse can be applied to some Step or A.A. language.

And, except for a well-known article by Tim Stafford, there is no adequate presentation of early A.A., or of the all-important Sermon on the Mount, Book of James, and 1 Corinthians 13.

As an NIV, the book is perhaps more easily understood, yet open to private interpretation that may or may not square with the idea that the Word of God is God-inspired. The more one attempts to mix the secular with the biblical, the more the biblical end suffers from man-made reasoning instead of being the product of a renewed mind, coming from the transformation discussed in Romans 10:9, 12:1-3, and 2 Corinthian 5:7. There is no adequate recognition of the healing or cure that Bill Wilson claimed when he wrote “The Lord has cured me of this terrible disease.”

3.      The Life Recovery Bible: The Living Bible (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 1992). The Executive Editors are David Stoop and Stephen Arterburn. This Bible is filled with footnotes explaining verses. It is filled with “The Big Picture” and “The Bottom Line” statements for each book of the Bible. It contains “Reflections” and “Insights.” Sprinkled through the various books of the Bible are large column references to a Step, and then to the authors’ attempt to relate the Step idea to a particular part of a particular book of the Bible. There is an Index to Twelve Step Devotionals, an Index to Recovery Principle Devotionals, an Index to Serenity Prayer Devotionals, and an Index to Recovery Reflections.

As my son Ken and I have traveled all over the United States speaking at conferences; meeting with Christian treatment leaders, counselors, recovery pastors, doctors, and clergy;  researching with teams of AAs and other 12 Step people; and attending Christian recovery fellowships, we have seen this Bible in wide use.

As with the other three “recovery” Bibles, there are several problems that make them difficult for both the newcomer and/or the sponsor to master and utilize. First, they don’t discuss “old-school” A.A. adequately or accurately. Second, their histories are skewed to Bill Wilson’s “new version of the program” represented by the Twelve Steps. Third, they tend to excuse or try to explain how A.A. is “spiritual but not religious;” and how it is open to all, including atheists. Fourth, they strive and strain to make Bible verses fit into and with twelve little “Steps.” Finally, they use the Bible in a way that neither early AAs nor most present-day AAs can find focused on their own life-problems, disasters, and legal and other difficulties—all events common in the alcoholic’s life and as to which God can provide guidance, forgiveness, and deliverance. In that respect, they also fail to emphasize “cure” and “healing,” though early AAs spoke repeatedly of this. They fail to point much to the role that God, His Son Jesus Christ, and the Bible played in the the Christian Recovery Movement. And they certainly fail to report adequately or accurately the real Christian origins of A.A. ideas from about 1850 forward—efforts or people and organizations that helped rather than condemned alcoholics. These included the Young Men’s Christian Association, the Salvation Army, Gospel Rescue Missions, Congregationalists, the great evangelists, and the United Society of Christian Endeavor.

If simplicity of presentation and simplicity of spiritual understanding are essential to an AAs’ being lifted out of the hole by the power, love, forgiveness, healing, and guidance of Almighty God, then this simplicity is missing in every one of the Bibles that try to present something other than God’s Word alone.

4.      Celebrate Recovery Bible: New International Version (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2007). Pastor John Baker is the founder of Celebrate Recovery, a ministry of Saddleback Church in California. The book is huge. It grew out of a resentment which Baker expressed as follows:

Finally convinced my life had to change, I began to attend AA meetings without Cheryl’s knowledge. . . . However, at my AA meetings I was mocked when I talked about my Higher Power—the only true Higher Power, Jesus Christ. [Celebrate Recovery Bible, “Celebrate Recovery: A Brief History,” page ix]

And Baker changed the course of recovery for thousands of people and churches across the country.

As Baker explains in an introductory section called “About the Celebrate Recovery Bible”:

The Celebrate Recovery Bible provides special features highlighting aspects of Scripture that speak directly to our need to break free from life’s hurts, hang-ups and habits. [unnumbered page xi]

Baker goes on to list a number of features present in the Celebrate Recovery Bible, introducing them by stating:

. . . [T]he familiar twelve steps remain intact under the Celebrate Recovery model, except that the vague language about a Higher Power gets specific, focusing on the one and only true Higher Power, our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

            Celebrate Recovery is built on the eight proven Biblical principles based on the well-loved Beatitudes from Jesus’ famous Sermon on the Mount . . . The Christ-centered twelve steps fit neatly and naturally underneath the umbrella of the eight principles . . . [unnumbered page xi].

He then lists the following features of the Celebrate Recovery Bible: (a) Book Introductions; (b) Character Studies; (c) Recovery Stories; (d) Lesson Studies; (e) Recovery-related Scripture Ties; (f) Thirty Days of Devotions; (g) Index to Subjects; (h) Index to Features; and (i) Indexes to Character Sketches and Recovery Stories.

I will let this Bible speak for itself and be explained at a Celebrate Recovery meeting to those who have chosen to go the Celebrate Recovery route. And there are many! Once again, the sheer volume of Bible, explanations, mixture of Beatitudes and Steps, along with devotionals and the like, would seem to challenge a newcomer, a sponsor, and/or a group leader in a way that A.A. does not do—at least not in voluminous writing.

But it is fair to say that this is the newest, and possibly the most-widely-used, “recovery Bible” today. And omitting a discussion here would be wrong.

Consider This Simple, Christian Choice That Is Available

Most A.A. newcomers are sick, bewildered, confused, in endless troubles, frightened, and timid in their approach to recovery.

“Keep it simple” is a common piece of wisdom of the rooms that is frequently suggested; and, if of value, is tailored to moving the alcoholic out of acute and delayed withdrawal, brain damage, confusion, and fear.

In the early days, A.A. had qualified teachers. Among the lay teachers were:

·         Dr. Bob’s wife—an ardent Bible student and former teacher;

·         Henrietta Seiberling—a devoted Christian and Vassar graduate; and

·         T. Henry Williams—a famous inventor and former Sunday school teacher.

Then there were the clergy on the East Coast—led by Rev. Samuel M. Shoemaker, Jr. And there was the highly-respected physician William D. Silkworth, M.D.—specialist in treating thousands of alcoholics.

Each, in his own way, spoon-fed newcomers. With prayer. With Quiet Time. With three rather-brief segments of the Bible—Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, the Book of James, and 1 Corinthians 13. With surrender to God. With Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. With much-needed hospitalization. With living or meeting in the homes as the early First Century Christians did. And with simply helping others not so far along in recovery—all the while fellowshipping, witnessing, and converting.

How about the following choice when it comes to the Bible, the Big Book, and Study Groups?

1.      Select a Bible version of choice--used if desired, from a thrift shop.

2.      Think about the King James Version since that was used by A.A. pioneers and quoted in later A.A. literature.

3.      Read and teach from the Book of James, Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7), and 1 Corinthians 13.

4.      Bring in a pastor or Bible teacher to conduct study of those three books.

5.      Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.

6.      Discuss. Discuss. Discuss.

7.      Accompany all this with prayer, use of a devotional like The Runner’s Bible, and simple literature like Henry Drummond’s The Greatest Thing in the World (about 1 Cor 13).

8.      Graduate into the books early AAs read for spiritual growth.

9.      Have a Christian A.A. teach simple A.A. history.

10.  Have a Christian A.A. who is Big Book-oriented teach how the historical approach and the Bible can be applied in A.A. today.

11.  Witness!


Dick B.'s son Ken
P.O. Box 837
Kihei, Hawaii
Tel.: (808) 276-4945
Fax: (808) 874-4876

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