Alcoholics Anonymous & History of AA
A Welcome, Needed, Haven of Love, Service, and General Tolerance
When I First Entered the Rooms on April 23, 1986
When I first entered the rooms of Alcoholics Anonymous on April 23, 1986, I was a very sick man—about to get sicker. Years of sleeping pill dependence; a lesser number of years of excessive drinking; and the attendant departures from acceptable behavior had left me a depressed, defeated, ashamed, confused, and frightened person.
Here are the folks who greeted me in my first few days of sobriety—a Big Book-thumping Roman Catholic; a Twelve Step-advocating Episcopalian; a vociferous and loving Jew; a newbee entrant who became my sponsor; and his unbelieving, newcomer-chasing sponsor, who became my grandsponsor. There were others who gave me their phone numbers, phoned me, invited me to follow them wherever they went, and almost uniformly insisted that I should not drink, no matter what. And I didn’t. Without their persisting friendship and help, I doubt that I would have stayed sober or stayed in Alcoholics Anonymous. But I did both—I’ve done both ever since--to this very date.
The Folks I Met in Meetings
I went to meetings every day. I was told to do so. Some invited me to watch football. Some wanted me to join them in playing baseball. Some invited me to study the Big Book. Some urged me to get a “commitment” of service—greeter, chair procurer, cleanup person, birthday person, and later secretary, treasurer, and General Service Representative.
There were lots of women who gave me hugs, offered their suggested experience, and showed up with regularity. One lady “trained” me to take over her position as treasurer of my Sunday night meeting. She encouraged me to come to group picnics. She was a Roman Catholic, but I never once heard her question me about my religion, my reading of the Bible, or my mention of God.
There were the indispensable life-savers who soon appeared. A former nurse who saw me have a grand-mal seizure at a large meeting and insisted that I need an ambulance. A Buddhist chanter who invited me to come to a regular A.A. outing in Yosemite Valley, then to a regular A.A. outing at the Russian River, and then to speak at an A.A. Christmas meeting of which he was chair. A Jewish man my age who gave me rides; called every morning on the phone to say, “God loves you;” talked frequently about God and his prayers to God; and handed out little inspirational cards. Later he gave me a gold plated emblem for an A.A. birthday. An African American named Willie who appeared regularly to tell us that he no longer got drunk, or got in fights, or went to jail—and was celebrating his 5 year sobriety birthday. A young contractor who asked me to call him any time when I was frightened or having difficulty; and who answered the phone cheerfully as I desperately reached him about 3 A.M. He was responsible for my regular, semi-annual attendance at an A.A. inspirational retreat called “Westminster Woods.” Though I shared a great deal about my reliance on God and study of the Bible, not a one of these people ever rebuked me privately or publically, or tried to suppress what I did.
Hospitals and Institutions
After I had my seizures, I spent a month in a rehab program. I was still very sick. But I made friends with these fellow-patients--a whore, several addicts, a lesbian, a former neighbor whom I had disliked, and a substantial group of older men who met weekly and constantly encouraged me. It was only several years later, after I had chaired a meeting at the hospital and had led a Step study for patients, that a newly hired program director called me on the phone and insisted that I could not talk about God in front of patients—after which I quit as a volunteer.
Then there was the Veterans Administration Psychiatric Ward in San Francisco where I spent two months as a patient filled with hypomania and fear. I asked if I could take patients from the alcohol and mental wards to A.A. meetings in San Francisco; and permission was not only granted, but I was given street-car tokens to pay for transporting the guys to A.A. There was also an old codger who showed up every Wednesday to conduct a Big Book meeting for patients and awarded a free book to someone attending and who wanted one. No discussion of Bible, religion, church, or “spirituality.” Just service and concern.
Finally, there was the California (Correctional) Medical Facility in Vacaville. There, as a prisoner, I was in the company of a Chinese prisoner, a Jew, an African American, and a couple of others seeking to change. I led most of them to Christ, conducted Bible studies on my bed, and held A.A. meetings for the group. Three of them came to see me some time later after they had been released. I had picked up the Chinese fellow on his release, and he became active in the East Bay A.A. fellowship. After his release, I flew another man from Ohio to California to meet with my A.A. sponsees who were in our Bible fellowship; and he had become a Christian and had recovered from alcoholism and addiction. In prison—after I had worked with him there. A third man showed up at an A.A beginner’s meeting in Marin County, and he was sober. Before his release, he had written me a letter detailing his surrender to God and telling me he would look me up.
The Folks I Sponsored
After 23 years of sobriety, I am sure I have approached more than one hundred people at A.A. meetings, asked them to tell me their stories, agreed to be their sponsor, studied the Big Book with them, taken them through the Twelve Steps, urged their participation in all of A.A., often led them to Christ, and also brought them to our weekly Bible fellowship.
On joining A.A., I had quickly caught the “newcomer fever.” The Golden Rule and the Sermon on the Mount were almost doctrinal in early A.A., and I had no difficulty recognizing that I was to do for others what had been done for me. Later, I was to learn how deep was the commitment of early AAs to God, His Son Jesus Christ, the Bible, prayer, and witnessing to others. It’s the most exciting and rewarding activity anyone can seek and apply in A.A.—even today.
Who were some of these folks I sponsored? A Jew, three African Americans, two Native Americans, a person of oriental descent, a Hawaiian, two men of Mexican descent, two gays—one with AIDS, several Roman Catholics, a Lutheran, an Episcopalian, a Methodist, a couple of Baptists, a Christian Science student, some Assembly of God adherents, two or three women, a young man of 16, an older man of 90, and a large number of others who simply told me, when asked, that they believed in God and wanted His help. And were willing to go to any lengths to get it.
My Belated Discovery of A.A. History
I was not long a member of A.A. before I realized how few of the people I had met were really conversant with their own basic text, Alcoholics Anonymous. Worse, they certainly seemed sadly lacking in information as to how to “take” someone through the Twelve Steps. For me, this therefore called for some reading, some asking, and finally some frequent attendance at the Big Book Seminars conducted by Joe and Charlie in Sacramento. I also had the good fortune to befriend Frank Mauser, the A.A. General Service archivist, and later A.A.’s first archivist Nell Wing. I met the archivist for Founders Day in Akron, the archivist for Dr. Bob’s Home in Akron, and Ozzie and Bonnie Lepper who had renovated the Wilson House in East Dorset, Vermont. All of this helped lead me to the question (and answer): Did our Heavenly Father, His Son Jesus Christ, and the Bible play a vital role in the origins, history, beliefs, program, and successes of the early A.A. Christian Fellowship founded in Akron in 1935? The answer was, “Yes.”
I began traveling, interviewing, researching, collecting, and writing on the subject of A.A. history and found so many erroneous ideas floating around that I realized it was not going to be a one-shot endeavor. The origins of A.A. ideas through the evangelists, the rescue missions, the YMCA, the Salvation Army, and the United Christian Endeavor Society seemed unknown or at least unmentioned. A.A.’s connection with the Bible had all but vanished from mention. It is still only a silent relic among many. The contributions of religious literature, Christian devotionals, the teachings of Dr. Bob’s wife, and even the important role of Rev. Sam Shoemaker in the writing of the Twelve Steps lacked accurate reporting and definition. And the supposed relationship of A.A. to the “Washingtonians,” the “Emanuel Movement,” Emmet Fox, and the Oxford Group had been misreported, misunderstood, or distorted. Hence this has all engaged my writing over the past 19 years. And to my joy, I have found a hunger among thousands of AAs, NAs, Al-Anons, members of the clergy, counselors, therapists, physicians, treatment program directors, and historians to get the facts straight.
What’s the Point!
More than it ever was at its founding, A.A. has been under fire from some Christian writers, from several Bill W. critics, from “psychoheresy” folks, from the Orange papers, from atheists, from cult-chasers, from scientists, and from offshoot organizations.
And that’s to be expected. A.A.’s cofounders were hardly perfect. Despite what some writers have said, A.A.’s cofounders were Christians, but their behavior after sobriety was not always what some would like to have seen—in the areas of spiritualism, LSD, adultery, money matters, and the like. But the program they spawned did not formally endorse, embrace, or espouse these activities. Their Christian beliefs and practices speak loudly as proof of the approach they took initially to recovery and to their fellowship.
I have tried to explain what that program did for me many decades after its founding, and to urge the public to learn what the highly-successful, early A.A. really was like, how “the God of the Scriptures” (as A.A. cofounder Bill W. identified Him) figured so strongly in its early success, and how God’s power and love are still available today for those who want God’s help.
And now about tolerance. A.A. today is not a Christian Fellowship. It numbers tens of thousands of members throughout the world who hold a variety of beliefs and unbeliefs. To plaster A.A. with the label of “cult,” “heresy,” destructive, and/or non-Christian does not do justice to those of us—tens of thousands of us—who hold Christian beliefs and want to adhere to the practices of the founders when A.A. was truly a highly-successful, Christian fellowship that promulgated love, service, tolerance, and success for the down-trodden and defeated. I can’t think of any message from the Bible they studied that didn’t offer them and all of the afflicted a way out.