Last updated:
May 06, 2013

Alcoholics Anonymous History
A.A. – The Four Absolutes –The Facts One More Time

Dick B.
© 2009 Anonymous. All rights reserved.



The so-called “Four Absolutes” of A.A. were cherished “yardsticks” in earliest A.A.—standards for determining right behavior as measured through God’s eyes. And A.A.’s Cofounder Dr. Bob made that clear.[1] The Four Absolutes were Honesty, Purity, Unselfishness, and Love.

Robert E. Speer: The time-line for the recovery origins of these principles begins with Presbyterian missionary leader Robert E. Speer. In 1902, Speer published The Principles of Jesus.[2] Chapter 6 was titled “Jesus and Standards.”[3] And Speer there spelled out “some” moral principles that could be applied to determine and practice what was “right or wrong.” Speer said the teachings of Jesus set up absolute principles which didn’t allow men to measure their conduct by what they “thought” was right or wrong. Jesus, he said, enabled men to have absolute standards of conduct by which they were able to “know whether it is right or wrong, drag it into Jesus’ presence, and see how He looks at it, and how it looks to Him.”[4] Some have erroneously stated that Speer fashioned the four standards from the teachings in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5 to 7). But his citations were much more broad. Speer said that Jesus taught in a practical way in order to make people understand, and the illustrations Jesus used were themselves such as to make some principle perfectly clear. The teachings set up standards (Mark 9:33; Matt. 5:34, 37; 6:16; Mark 7:15; Luke 9:60). Perfection was his standard (Matt. 5:48). He had attained it (John 8:29). He demanded it. Right is to be right. Thinking it right or thinking it wrong does not make a thing right or wrong. Jesus, said Speer, set up an absolute standard of truth. He said, if God were your Father, you would love me, for I proceeded forth and came from God; neither came I of myself, but he sent me. Why do ye not understand my speech? Even because ye cannot hear my word. Ye are of your father, the devil, and the lusts of your father ye will do. He was a murderer from the beginning, and abode not in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he speaketh a lie, he speaketh of his own: for he is a liar, and the father of it (John 8:42-44). Jesus set up an absolute standard of unselfishness. Speer pointed to Mark 10:45: “For even the Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but  to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many. Jesus set up an absolute standard or purity. He tolerated no uncleanness whatsoever. . . . A hand or an eye, outer or inner sin, must be sacrificed to the claims of the kingdom of heaven (Matt. 5:29, 30). Jesus set up an absolute standard of love. Jesus said, “A new commandment I give unto you, That you love one another; as I have loved you, that ye also love one another (John 13:34),

Henry B. Wright: Next in line comes Yale’s Professor Henry B. Wright. And in 1909, Wright published The Will of God and a Man’s Lifework.[5] Wright devoted this teaching to the relation of the act of surrender of self in doing God’s will. He contended that willingness to do God’s will is a necessary condition for knowledge of it. He pointed to the Bible and Nature as the parts of God’s will that every one may know.[6] Wright emphasized that God reveals His Universal Will for the world in Jesus, the Living Word, and in the Bible, the Written Word.[7] Then he asked if there were “absolute standards of right and wrong; how Jesus found out the particular will of God for himself, and said Jesus “always did the things which were pleasing to God.” Citing Scripture, Wright pointed to verses in the Bible dealing with purity (Matthew 5:29), unselfishness (Luke 14:33); honesty (Luke 16:11), and love (John 15:2). Wright explained that Jesus was sure of God’s presence and guidance; and Wright reconstructed the “absolute standards of right and wrong” from the teachings of Jesus and the Apostles. Wright quoted Robert E. Speer as follows:

Mr. Robert E. Speer has reconstructed from the teaching of Jesus the four standards in regard to which he never allowed himself an exception and with reference to which his teaching is absolute and unyielding. Jesus gives us no direct teaching in regard to such things as smoking, drinking, card playing, theatre, dancing, etc. He recognized that some men could decide one way and others just the opposite on like questions and yet both sides be true Christians. But in regard to four things there was no such option. A man must be pure, he must be honest, he must be unselfish, he must express himself in deeds of love or else he cannot see the kingdom of God. There is no exception to be made on these four counts.[8]

Having discussed many relevant verses applicable to the “Universal Will of God,” Wright then explained that God also has a Particular Will for each individual man, He suggested it rested on the “Fourfold Touchstone of Jesus and the Apostles.” He suggested, as to the four touchstones, that there be a test of Purity, Honesty, Unselfishness, and Love. He said that obedience provided the assurance as to one’s duty and power to achieve results. Wright illustrated:

To every problem, great or small, which presents itself in a small matter like one’s bearing in a game of sport, in a large matter like the choice of a life career, the Christian who is absolutely surrendered to God asks himself this question: “Is the step which I had planned to take an absolutely pure one? Is it an absolutely honest one? Is it the most unselfish one? Is it the fullest possible expression of my love? If it fails to measure up to any one of these four standards it cannot be God’s will and I must not take it, no matter what the refusal may cost me in suffering, mental or physical. As he holds his instrument of apprehension, the human will, resolutely to this standard, the Christian is conscious of its becoming strong both to know and to do God’s will and there comes the undoubted, the compelling conviction which guides and impels him forward. . . . The mysterious meeting place in the prepared and willing heart between the human and divine where precisely the will is finally moved into line with God’s of these things knoweth no man, save only the spirit of God.[9]

Discussing each of the four “absolutes” in turn, and using purity as the first, he proposed the following: “Is the step which I had planned to take an absolutely pure one? If it is not, it cannot be God’s will for that life.” And as to each of the four absolute standards, Wright would thus look at the question in terms of purity versus impurity, and then cite applicable Bible verses that provided definitions of God’s will, for example, as to fornication, uncleanness, passion, evil desire, adultery. Furthermore, each absolute—purity, unselfishness, honesty, and love—was to be related to the other three so that if something were deemed pure, it must also be absolutely unselfish, absolutely honest, and absolutely an act of love.

Frank N. D. Buchman and the Oxford Group:

The Oxford Group’s Four Absolutes can be found in the speeches of its founder Frank Buchman.[10] They can also be found in books about Buchman, descriptions of Oxford Group principles, in Rev. Sam Shoemaker’s writings, in A.A. General Services Conference-approved books discussing the Oxford Group, in Anne Smith’s writings, and in some Oxford Groups today.[11] As stated, the historical chain begins with Robert E. Speer. Speer’s discussion and cited verses were expanded by Henry B. Wright. And, according to Oxford Group activist and long-time employee T. Willard Hunter, Henry B. Wright was the most influential force in Frank Buchman’s life, other than Buchman’s mother. Buchman’s biographer Garth Lean explained:

The moral standards which he [Buchman] used as a test of directing thoughts also became central to Buchman’s life and teaching: he took them as measuring rods for daily living. Here again he was indebted to Henry Wright. “The absolutes” had originally been set out, as a summary of Christ’s moral teaching, by Robert E. Speer in his book, The Principles of Jesus. Buchman had several times heard Speer preach at Mount Airy, but it was in Wright’s book that he first found the summarized standards “in regards of which,” Wright maintained, “Christ’s teaching is absolute and unyielding.” Wright defined them as “the four-fold touchstone of Jesus and the apostles” and maintained that an individual could apply them “to every problem, great or small which presents itself . . . if (anything) fails to measure up to any one of these four it cannot be God’s will.”[12]

Samuel M. Shoemaker, Jr. became a colleague of Frank Buchman’s in the earliest 1920’s. He was called in 1925 to be rector of Calvary Episcopal Church in New York. He shortly became the Oxford Group’s most prolific author, Frank Buchman’s chief lieutenant in the United States, and actually provided space in Calvary House (adjacent to the church) for the Oxford Group’s American headquarters where Buchman himself lived when he was in the United States. Shoemaker also became a close friend of Bill Wilson, taught Wilson most of the spiritual principles that were embodied in the Twelve Steps, and was dubbed a “cofounder of A.A.” by Wilson himself.[13] Shoemaker wrote extensively on the importance of the Four Absolutes.[14] And the following is indicative of his view:

We must get to the point of whether the man is “willing to do his will” in all areas. Take the four standards of Christ: absolute honesty, absolute purity, absolute unselfishness, and absolute love. When people’s lives are wrong, they are usually wrong on one or more of these standards. . . . By our own frank honesty about ourselves and our willingness, under God as He guides, to share anything in our own experience that will help the other person, and by the willingness to ask God-inspired questions of them that carry the matter right down to the roots, we shall get deep enough to know the real problems . . . . If the person is honest with himself and with God, he will be honest with us and be ready to take the next step, which is a decision to surrender these sins, with himself, wholly to God.[15]

Early A.A.: In a few words, we can summarize how the Four Absolutes were handled in early Alcoholics Anonymous.

Bill Wilson: Wilson was actively involved in Oxford Group activities from late 1934 through August, 1937. He and his wife attended many meetings, attended Oxford Group house parties, and met Frank Buchman and Rev. Shoemaker and other leaders such as Rev. W. Irving Harris and his wife Julia. Bill himself was much involved in an Oxford Group team in late 1935 and early 1936. Bill said he had heard plenty about the Four Absolutes. However, his wife Lois claimed, the “Oxford Group kind of kicked us out [because] she and Bill were not considered ‘maximum’ by the groupers.”[16] By October 30, 1940, Bill said: “I am always glad to say privately that some of the Oxford Group presentation and emphasis upon the Christian message saved my life. Yet it is equally true that other attitudes of the O.G. nearly got me drunk again, and we long since discovered that if we were to approach alcoholics successfully, these [attitudes] would have to be abandoned.” [17] He wrote a laundry list of 8 criticisms of the Oxford Group, including a condemnation of the four absolutes, saying “when the word ‘absolute’ was put in front of these attributes, they either turned people away by the hundreds or gave a temporary spiritual inflation resulting in collapse.”[18] Despite these remarks, Wilson did another turnabout. According to one historian, Wilson wrote in 1960:

In the old days of the Oxford Groups, they were forever talking about the Four Absolutes—Honesty, Purity, Unselfishness, and Love—trying to get too good by Thursday. . . . Absolutes in themselves are not necessarily destructive. Every sound theological system contains them. When we say that our destiny is to grow in the likeness and image of God, we are stating a healthy relation between a relative and an absolute state of affairs. Therefore when writing the Twelve Steps, it was necessary to include some sort of absolute value or else they wouldn’t have been theologically sound. . . . That could have been unfortunate and as misleading as we found them in the Oxford Group emphasis. So in Steps Six and Seven, and in the use of the word God, we did include them.[19]

Dr. Bob Smith: His position was and remained the opposite of Bill’s. In his last major address to AAs, Dr. Bob said:

The four absolutes, as we called them, were the only yardsticks we had in the early days, before the Steps. I think the absolutes still hold good and can be extremely helpful. I have found at times that a question arises, and I want to do the right thing, but the answer is not obvious. Almost always, if I measure my decision carefully by the yardsticks of absolute honesty, absolute unselfishness, absolute purity, and absolute love, and it checks up pretty well with those four, then my answer can’t be very far out of the way.[20]

Dr. Bob’s wife Anne Ripley Smith: In her journal from which she shared with early AAs and their families, Anne spoke repeatedly about how to apply the four standards. She said:

Test your thoughts. It is possible to receive suggestions from your subconscious mind. Check your thoughts by the four standards. . . . Make the moral test. 4 standards. . . . Basis of an interview. Is a challenge on the four standards. . . .  Why I had been absolutely honest but not living. . . . Follow Christ’s absolute commandment. . . .  Absolute honesty demands that we no longer wear a mask. . . . Sharing. . . It is being honest even after it hurts. . . . Every time we register aloud the new attitude and change of heart with absolute honesty, another bridge is burned behind us and another stake is driven in to mark our progress. . . . Check your life constantly by the four absolutes.[21]

Clarence H. Snyder who founded Cleveland A.A.: Many might conclude that when Clarence Snyder (who got sober in February, 1938, and remained sober until his death years later) founded Alcoholics Anonymous in Cleveland, Ohio, he took the best of A.A. there. The best at that time! He embraced the Bible, the Four Absolutes, the Big Book, and the Twelve Steps. AAs achieved a 93% success rate.[22] Clarence said:

New people were told they had to read the Bible—The King James Version of the Bible. They were instructed to do this on a daily basis. Clarence said that newcomers were also told to read The Upper Room and to read the Sermon on the Mount by Emmet Fox. Clarence said the new people were then instructed on the Four Standards. These were the Biblical principles the Oxford Group people had taken from the teachings of Jesus Christ found in the Bible. These “Four Standards” were also called the “Four Absolutes”—Absolute Honesty, Unselfishness, Love and Purity.[23]

Clarence frequently took newcomers through the newly written Twelve Steps in two days time. He wrote a pamphlet on going through the Steps to guide them.[24]

What Happened to the Four Absolutes?

Bill Wilson framed the “moral inventory” items in Step Four. In that Step and in Steps Ten and Eleven, he proposed testing conduct for resentment, fears, selfishness, and harms done to others. He also claimed that the A.A. program called for grasping and developing a manner of living which demands rigorous honesty.[25] The Absolutes, as such, simply vanished from the Big Book program of recovery. What can be said is that those, like myself, who have visited A.A. meetings and members all over the United States and reviewed thousands of pieces of A.A. literature, frequently encounter mention of the Four Absolutes, especially among those who have great respect and affection for Dr. Bob or Clarence Snyder. However, the idea of relating each of the standards to a teaching of Jesus has usually been replaced by pamphlets or discussions of what, in the opinion of the particular writer, constitutes conduct consistent with this or that absolute. Also, the writers and speakers often omit the critical part of the Four Absolute tests. Those applying them were also to look to God and His Word for illustration and understanding and also ask God for the wisdom in applying them to proposed action (James 1:5-8).

Gloria Deo

[1] The Co-Founders of Alcoholics Anonymous: Biographical Sketches Their Last Major Talks (New York: Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Inc., 1972, 1975), 17.

[2] Robert E. Speer, The Principals of Jesus: Applied to Some Questions of To-Day (New York: Association Press, 1902).

[3] Speer, The Principles of Jesus, 33-36.

[4] Speer, The Principles of Jesus, 33.

[5] Henry B. Wright, The Will of God and a Man’s Lifework (NY:  Association Press, 1924). Copyrighted in 1909 by The International Committee of Young Men’s Christian Associations.

[6] Wright, The Will of God, 135.

[7] Wright, The Will of God, 138.

[8] Wright, The Will of God, 169.

[9] Wright, The Will of God, 173-74.

[10] Frank N. D. Buchman, Remaking the World (London: Blandford Press, 1961), 36, 40, 96, 131.

[11] For a thorough review of these statements, the supporting bibliography, and a discussion of the Oxford Group and the Four Absolutes, see Dick B., The Oxford Group and Alcoholics Anonymous: A Design for Living That Works New Rev. ed. (Kihei, HI: Paradise Research Publications, Inc., 1998), 237-46.

[12] Garth Lean, Frank Buchman: A Life (London: Constable, 1985), 76

[13] These statements are documented and thoroughly discussed in Dick B., New Light on Alcoholism: God, Sam Shoemaker, and A.A. Pittsburgh ed. (Kihei, HI: Paradise Research Publications, Inc., 1999).

[14] Dick B., New Light on Alcoholism, 55, 56, 97, 98, 101, 107-09, 117, 142-43, 159, 167, 234-35, 239, 241-42, 312, 314, 393, 414, 419-20, 432-33, 455, 462, 523,

[15] Samuel M. Shoemaker, Jr., The Church Can Save The World (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1938), 110-14; Dick B., New Light on Alcoholism, 56-57.

[16] Pass It On, 174.

[17] Pass It On, 171.

[18] Pass It On, 172-73.

[19] Ernest Kurtz, Not-God: A History of Alcoholics Anonymous.(Center City, MN: Hazelden, 1979), 242-43.

[20] The Co-Founders of Alcoholics Anonymous: Biographical Sketches: Their Last Major Talks (New York: Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Inc., 1972, 1975), 17.

[21] Dick B., Anne Smith’s Journal 1933-1939:A.A.’s Principles of Success.3rd ed, (Kihei, HI: Paradise Research Publications, Inc., 1998), 32-33.

[22] Mitchell K., How It Worked: The Story of Clarence H. Snyder and The Early Days of Alcoholics Anonymous in Cleveland, Ohio (Washingtonville, NY: AA Big Book Study Group, 1997), 108.

[23] Mitchell K., How It Worked,, 69.

[24] Mitchell K., How It Worked, 240-44.

[25] Alcoholics Anonymous, 4th ed. (NY: Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Inc., 2001), 28.


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