Alcoholics Anonymous & History of AA

 Last updated:
September 06, 2010

Alcoholics Anonymous History
Applying “Old School” A.A. (Original Program Basics) in Today’s Recovery Fellowships

Dick B.

© 2010. Anonymous. All rights reserved

What the “Original,” “Old School,” A.A. Program Was

Take your starting information from today’s A.A. General Service Conference-approved literature—the Big Book, The Co-Founders of Alcoholics Anonymous: Biographical Sketches, Their Last Major Talks (Pamphlet P-53), DR. BOB and the Good Oldtimers, Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age, and The Language of the Heart: Bill W.’s Grapevine Writings. This literature today contains many of A.A.’s own published descriptions of the pioneer program of 1935 A.A.

The Original Seven-Point A.A. Program Described in the Frank Amos Summary

This is the seven-point summary of the original Akron A.A. “Program” written by Frank Amos for John D. Rockefeller, Jr., and published in DR. BOB and the Good Oldtimers, page 131:

  • An alcoholic must realize that he is an alcoholic, incurable from a medical viewpoint, and that he must never drink anything with alcohol in it.
  • He must surrender himself absolutely to God, realizing that in himself there is no hope.
  • Not only must he want to stop drinking permanently, he must remove from his life other sins such as hatred, adultery, and others which frequently accompany alcoholism. Unless he will do this absolutely, Smith and his associates refuse to work with him.
  • He must have devotions every morning—a “quiet time” of prayer and some reading from the Bible and other religious literature. Unless this is faithfully followed, there is grave danger of backsliding
  • He must be willing to help other alcoholics get straightened out. This throws up a protective barrier and strengthens his own willpower and convictions.
  • It is important, but not vital, that he meet frequently with other reformed alcoholics and form both a social and a religious comradeship.
  • Important, but not vital, that he attend some religious service at least once weekly.


A Documented, Highlighted Description of the Specific Practices of the Akron Pioneers

The specific practices of the early A.A. pioneer Christian Fellowship in Akron, as taken from Conference-approved literature, and summarized in more detail in Dick B., A New Way In: Reaching the Heart of a Child of God in Recovery With His Own, Powerful Historical Roots, 2006, ISBN 1-885803-88-5, pages 9-14:

They located a “real” alcoholic who needed help, wanted help, and would do whatever was expected of him: In the case of the first three AAs—Bill Wilson, Dr. Bob Smith, and Bill Dotson—someone had actually gone searching for each of these three as a “pigeon” needing help. Later on, wives and relatives would sometimes bring a new man to Dr. Bob for help. Sometimes drunks appeared on the scene and asked for help. But searching out and “qualifying” the new person as one who was serious and willing to quit for good was a critical part of the new program. The newcomer was interrogated to verify these points. And that very outreach itself contributed mightily to the success of the \l2 "An Overview of What They Did in Akron

They usually hospitalized the newcomer for about seven days: Hospitalization and/or medical help for a brief period was virtually a “must” for almost all the early A.A. members. Then, as now, there was danger of seizures, severe shakes, injury to self, and disorientation. Medical monitoring was considered prudent. During that period, only a Bible was allowed in the hospital room. Medications were administered. There were daily visits and lengthy talks by Dr. Bob with each patient. There were regular visits by recovered pioneers who apprised the newcomer of their own stories and successes. Just prior to discharge, there was a visit to the newcomer by Dr. Bob. He may have covered additional points about alcoholism, such as they were known at that time. But, primarily, he asked the new person to acknowledge his belief in the Creator. If there was an affirmative answer, Dr. Bob required the patient to make a “surrender” to Jesus Christ on his knees and join Dr. Bob in a prayer. And then there was release from the hospital—the newcomer leaving with a Bible in hand.

They often offered food, shelter, and support in the home of some pioneer family. The three homes that first come to mind are those of Dr. Bob and his wife Anne Smith, Wally G. and his wife Annabelle, and Tom Lucas and his wife. In a sense, these live-in arrangements represented the first “half-way” houses as they are often called today. Recovery work in Akron did not begin or take place in groups or meetings or treatment centers; nor in rehabs or therapy or imprisonment. It took place primarily in homes, and that, in itself, constituted a very different situation from the program of the Oxford Group where Bill Wilson had previously cut his teeth in the New York area. As stated, Akron pioneer efforts took place primarily in the homes of people like Dr. Bob and Anne Smith. And in these homes, there were: (1) Daily get-togethers. (2) Bible studies and the reading of Christian literature and devotionals circulated by Dr. Bob and his wife. (3) Quiet times held by each individual who prayed, studied the Bible, and sought God’s guidance. (4) Morning quiet time meetings led by Dr. Bob’s wife for AAs and their families who listened to Anne teach from the Bible, prayed together, heard Anne share from her spiritual journal, discussed its contents with those present, and then sought guidance from God for the day. (5) Residents frequently discussed problems and Biblical solutions with Dr. Bob, Henrietta Seiberling, T. Henry Williams, and Anne Smith. And those who stayed over many days and nights in this or that home, broke bread, lived, and fellowshipped together. (6) Once a week the pioneers held a “regular” Wednesday meeting with “real” surrenders upstairs after the manner of James 5:15-16. (7) Pioneers utilized a few of some twenty-eight Oxford Group life-changing practices such as Inventory, Confession, Conviction, and Restitution. (8) They then arranged visits to newcomers at the hospital. (9) They recommended church attendance by most. (10)  They enjoyed social, religious, and family fellowship. (11) And it all began again.

There was one “Regular” meeting on Wednesdays at the home of T. Henry and Clarace Williams in Akron. Though it originally began as an Oxford Group meeting, this Akron meeting was not at all like most Oxford Group meetings. Its members--Oxford Groupers, alcoholics, wives and children—were there to help alcoholics get well by spiritual means. Host T. Henry Williams therefore called the meeting a “clandestine lodge” of the Oxford Group because it differed so much from the movement Frank Buchman and Sam Shoemaker were leading elsewhere. Also, before the Wednesday meeting, leaders such as Dr. Bob, Anne, Henrietta Seiberling, and Mr. and Mrs. Williams would hold a Monday “setup” meeting where God’s guidance was sought as to who should lead the Wednesday meeting and what its topic should be. On Wednesdays, there were none of the conventional Oxford Group testimonials nor were there any of what have today become alcoholic drunkalogs. The regular meeting opened with a prayer. Scripture was read, then group prayer, and then a brief group guidance circle. The meeting discussed a selected topic—whether from the Bible, a devotional, or a subject involving living by Biblical principles. The discussion was led by someone such as Dr. Bob, Henrietta Seiberling, or T. Henry Williams. There was intense focus on the study and discussion of the Bible’s Book of James, Sermon on the Mount, and 1 Corinthians 13. There was a special time for “real” surrenders upstairs for the newcomers. Following those, arrangements were made downstairs for some in the group to visit newcomers at the Akron City Hospital. The meeting closed with the Lord’s Prayer; socializing; and the exchange of Christian literature displayed on tables for the taking. There had been no drunkalogs. No Steps. No Big Book. No texts at all. Just the Bible and devotionals like The Upper Room and the specially valued lessons taught from James, Corinthians, and Matthew.

“Real Surrenders” to Jesus Christ, several Oxford Group practices, counseling with the Smiths and Henrietta Seiberling, study of Christian literature, and church attendance. (1) In order to belong to the Akron fellowship, newcomers had to make a “real surrender.” This was akin to the altar call at rescue missions or confession of Christ with other believers in churches, except that it was a very small, private, action taken upstairs and away from the regular meeting. Four A.A. old-timers (Ed Andy, J. D. Holmes, Clarence Snyder, and Larry Bauer) have all verified orally and in writing that the Akron surrenders required acceptance of Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. The ceremony took place at the regular Wednesday meeting upstairs in the manner described in James 5:15-16. Kneeling, with “elders” at his side, the newcomer accepted Jesus as Lord and Savior and, with the prayer partners, asked God to take alcohol out of his life and to help, guide, and strengthen him to live by cardinal Christian teachings such as those in the Four Absolutes—Honesty, Purity, Unselfishness, and Love. (2) Not so clear as to Akron is just how many of its pioneers completed such of the 28 Oxford Group life-changing practices as Moral Inventory, Confession, Conviction, and Restitution--though there is mention of some. (3) Many men and women received counseling from Bob and Anne Smith, Henrietta Seiberling, and T. Henry Williams. They frequently studied or listened to reading of Scripture, prayed, and discussed practical matters like jobs and family difficulties. Anne Smith worked extensively with new people and their families and formed a Woman’s Group in Akron in A.A.’s second year. (4) A wide variety of Christian literature on the Bible, prayer, healing, love, the life of Christ, Shoemaker’s writings, Oxford Group books, and daily study topics was passed around the fellowship and read by alcoholics and family members alike. (5) Though A.A. literature is devoid of significant mention of church, the Amos reports disclose that attendance at a church of one’s choice was recommended. There is particular evidence that Roman Catholics were in touch with their own priests, and that the leaders—Bob, Anne, Henrietta, and Mr. and Mrs. Williams—all attended church.

Quiet Times: (held by individuals, by the group, and by the early birds in the morning with Anne Smith). The first condition of receiving revelation is not “listening” to God. The first condition of effective communication with the Creator is the establishment of one’s standing as a child of God by accepting Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. With that accomplished, the new Christian becomes a member of the body of Christ, able to communicate with God and His son, and endowed with the ability to understand spiritual matters the “natural man” cannot comprehend. Hence, this was a vital part of the Akron program evidenced by the “surrender” at the hospital and certainly the “real surrender” in the homes. Then, for born-again believers, quiet time consisted of reading the Bible, prayer to and seeking revelation from God, use of devotionals like The Upper Room, utilizing Anne Smith’s Journal for teaching and instruction, and reading Christian literature such as Henry Drummond’s The Greatest Thing in the World, Nora Smith Holm’s The Runner’s Bible, The Upper Room, and various studies of the Sermon on the Mount by Oswald Chambers, Glenn Clark, Emmet Fox, and E. Stanley Jones..

Intensive personal work with newcomers: Dr. Bob was called the “Prince of Twelfth Steppers” and worked personally with over 5000 alcoholics. Visits with newcomers by those who had already made the grade were a regular occurrence in Akron. And, though Bill’s personal outreach efforts yielded little fruit when compared to the results in Akron, Bill Wilson was the original, vigorous hustler—seeking out new people at Oxford Group meetings, Towns Hospital, Calvary Rescue Mission, and the streets. However, the unquestioned, liveliest individual Twelfth-stepper was probably young Clarence H. Snyder. Before he formed the Cleveland group, Clarence was bringing alcoholics down to Akron on a regular basis. In Cleveland, Clarence was a dynamo seeking out drunks, taking them through Step classes, and getting new groups going. Cleveland groups grew from one to thirty in a year. They achieved a documented 93% success rate. And Clarence sponsored hundreds through the years—finally becoming the AA with the longest period of sobriety.

Self-government, self-decisions, and self-support within membership groups: Both Dr. Bob and Bill were raised in the tradition of the New England Congregational denominations. This meant that each church was governed by its own members. It was supported by its own members. And it was accountable to no higher power, official, office, or administration than the rule and vote of its own congregation. Whatever the way by which these concepts reached A.A., this system became the rule for local A.A. groups though Dr. Bob was undeniably the “leader” in Akron in the early pioneer days. Shortly, however, in the 1940’s, Bob was always opposed to transferring control of the A.A. fellowship to a New York headquarters.

Helping wives and families. Early AAs were male. Yet the earliest A. A. meetings in Akron were family affairs. Alkies, their wives, and their children would attend the meetings at the home of T. Henry and Clarence Williams. Oxford Group activists did the same. Henrietta Seiberling made sure all her children attended some of the meetings. The Smith kids attended many. Wives of members worked shoulder-to-shoulder with their husbands. Thus the work of T. Henry had the help of his wife Clarace. The work of Dr. Bob, that of Anne. The work of Wally G., that of his wife Annabelle. The work of Tom Lucas, that of his wife. And the work of Clarence Snyder, that of his wife Dorothy. But there were special needs of wives of alcoholics that began to be recognized right away. Anne Smith was at the head of the pack in meeting them. Throughout early A.A. stories, you find remarks that Anne was legendary with newcomers, that she was especially kind to wives, that as early as 1936, she formed a women’s group, and that she was particularly helpful to Lois Wilson time and time again. Her crown jewel, of course, is Anne Smith’s Journal, 1933-1939, which she wrote and used for teaching during all of A.A.’s formative years. It is filled with materials as suitable for dealing with the problems of family as with the alcoholic himself. Yet it’s rarely mentioned even by A.A. historians, and never in A.A. literature itself. It’s not my purpose to deal with women’s issues or rights, or the absence of women as members of the earliest A.A. But it is quite clear that Anne Smith, Bob, Bill to some extent, and Lois later realized that the special problems of what some now call “the family disease” of alcoholism needed to be addressed, both for the sake of individuals, of those who suffer, and for A.A. itself. Even Lois Wilson huddled in New York with her little “kitchen group” for quite some time before the seeds of Al-Anon and its Family Groups began to appear and take root. And Lois called on Anne Smith for help.

The Emphasis of Bob and Bill together: I have several times quoted or summarized the statements of Bob and Bill together on the platform of the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles in 1948. Their remarks were reported in the March 26, 1948 issue of the Roman Catholic newspaper The Tidings. The article stated that about 4500 AAs and their families were present. Bill spoke about the importance of Divine Aid, the religious element in A.A., and prayer. Dr. Bob spoke about the importance of cultivating the habit of prayer and reading the Bible. Both men were warmly received--a testimony to their harmonious accord, consistency, and simplicity of presentation when appearing together. The event highlighted the unanimity of intent, if not of experience and knowledge, of Bill and Bob.

The “Absolutely Essential” Book of James, Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, and 1 Corinthians 13

The “absolutely essential” heart of the Original program, as specified by Dr. Bob in his last major address to AAs in 1948, is found in the Co-Founders Pamphlet P-53, at page 13:

Pamphlet P-53 establishes the descriptive statements about early A.A.’s three major Bible segments--comments made by both Dr. Bob and Bill that tell the story of the Bible’s importance in A.A.: (1) The Bible’s Book of James—was the favorite to the point that AAs wanted to name their book and society The James Club—with many actual quotes without attribution still retained in today’s Big Book. (2) Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (found in the Gospel of Matthew, Chapters 5, 6, and 7)—which both Bill Wilson and Dr. Bob said contained the underlying spiritual philosophy of A.A.—and from which actual Big Book language and Twelve Step ideas have easily been identified. (3) The thirteenth chapter of First Corinthians in the Bible that sets forth the importance of “love” and contains nine ingredients which are sprinkled through the Big Book. For details, see Dick B., The James Club and the Original A.A. Program’s Absolute Essentials

Next, as Pamphlet P-53 makes clear, Dr. Bob pointed out that, in the early days, there were no Steps, no Traditions, no “drunkalogs,” no meetings as we know them today; and no Big Book since the Big Book was not published until 1939. There were, he said, daily fellowship meetings in the homes—particularly Dr. Bob’s home. He said that members believed the answers to their problems were in the Bible, which they appropriately and consistently called the “Good Book.”

Finally, as the pamphlet shows, Dr. Bob declared that he did not write the Twelve Steps or have anything to do with the writing of them. He said, however, that their basic ideas came from the study and effort in the Bible that the early AAs carried on in Akron.

Reviewing Three Basic Elements of the Akron Practices

Let’s review three basic emphases of the Original, “Old School” Akron Christian Fellowship founded on June 10, 1935—(1) Three Bible segments—James, Jesus’ Sermon the Mount, and 1 Corinthians 13--which were absolutely essential. (2) The daily meetings in the homes involved Bible study, prayer, quiet times, reading of Christian literature, and the use of devotionals. (3) The basic Bible ideas later (incorporated in the Twelve Steps from the effort and studies of the Bible) arose out of the original requirement of belief in Almighty God—the Creator—and coming to Him through His Son Jesus Christ.

To These Should Be Added the Biblical Ideas Bill was taught by Rev. Samuel M. Shoemaker, Jr., a “co-founder of A.A.”

There is scarcely a word even in the modified step language Bill published in 1939 that did not come from Biblical ideas which Bill acknowledged were taught to him by Rev. Shoemaker. See Dick B., New Light on Alcoholism: God, Sam Shoemaker, and A.A., 2d ed.

Examples are:

Step One – The words “powerless” and “unmanageable life.”

Step Two – The phrase “Power greater than ourselves.”

Step Three – The language “turning point,” “decision,” and placing our lives in God’s care.

Step Four – The idea of making a “moral inventory” based on the Four Absolutes

Step Five – Admitting faults to God, to one’s self, and to another human being.

Step Six – The idea of being “convicted” of those faults and being willing to ask God’s help in   removing them.

Step Seven – A real crisis of self-surrender in which one’s whole life is given to God.

Step Eight – Listing specific harms done, the needed restitution, and asking God’s help in starting the process.

Step Nine – The need for making amends as spelled out in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount.

Step Ten -- Applying the first ten step ideas and continuing action to “clean house” as suggested in Matthew 7:1-5, and James 4; 7-10.

Step Eleven – The Quiet Time ideas involving Bible study, prayer, devotionals and seeking God’s guidance.

Step Twelve – The idea of a spiritual awakening, giving it away to keep it, practicing the             Christian principles embodied in the Ten Commandments, Gospels, and 4 Absolutes

Some Major Ideas in Today’s Big Book that Confirm the Importance of Knowing and Using Original Program Ideas in Fellowships Today—at least for Christians

There is undefined Bible language that needs to be understood:

Words specifically describing Almighty God—as Creator, Maker, God, Father, Spirit, Father of lights, and Heavenly Father. See Dick B., The Good Book and The Big Book

Phrases taken directly from the Bible but not identified as to source—Thy will be done, Love thy neighbor as thyself, Faith without works is dead, finding God, trusting in the LORD, being cured by the Lord, cleansing your hands of sin, making restitution, and restoring things wrongfully taken. See The Good Book and The Big Book. Most of these came from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, the Book of James, the Gospels of Luke and Mark, Job, Psalms, Proverbs, and Acts.

Original seven-point program ideas incorporated in today’s Alcoholics Anonymous text:

Never touching liquor again, and refraining from ever touching the first drink (30-43)   

Giving your life to God (13, 25, 57, 63, 68, 76, 80, 85, 120, 158, 164)

Eliminating sinful conduct such as anger, jealousy, envy, pride, lying, stealing, selfishness (62, 67, 69. 84, 86-87, 145)

Reading helpful books such as the Bible, devotionals, religious literature (87).

Praying to God each day among and for themselves and for others (85-88)

Observing a Quiet Time for and with God each day (85-88)

Witnessing to others and helping them realize that God has done for the old-timer what he could not do for himself, and can do for those who diligently seek Him (11, 20, 57, 62, 67, 77, 83-85, 191).

Religious and social comradeship with those who believe in God, have accepted Jesus Christ as Lord an Savior; believe that God can cure them; have sought Him for that purpose; and have received miraculous removal of their alcohol problem (19, 28-29, 57, 63, 158, 164, 191).

Attending a religious service at least once a week (28, 80, 87, 158).

A Simple Way for a Christian in Recovery or a Newcomer to Apply Original Practices Today

Qualifying the newcomer—making sure he knows he is licked and wants permanent help.

Hospitalizing him if there is evidence or danger of detoxing.

Stressing that your newcomer must believe in God, accept Jesus Christ, and seek Divine Help.

Making clear that obeying God’s will is a condition of receiving His help.

Urging growth in spiritual understanding and practice through studying the Bible, reading Christian literature, using Christian devotionals, praying individually and together, seeking God’s guidance individually and together.

Serving God and your fellow man by loving Him and your neighbor, and combining your Christian “faith” with practical “works” that “do the word,” and don’t just “hear” it.

Recognize that fellowshipping with like-minded believers not only conforms to the practices in the Book of Acts but can make prayer more effective, a renewed mind and guarded tongue more

likely, and assure the better serving and glorifying of God as a regular part of your life.

Two Quotes to Keep in Mind

“Burn the idea into the consciousness of every man that he can get well regardless of anyone. The only condition is that he trust in God and clean house” (Alcoholics Anonymous, 4th ed., 2001, p. 98)

“Trust in the LORD with all thine heart; and lean not unto thine own understanding. In all thy ways acknowledge him, and he shall direct thy paths.” (Proverbs 3:5-6)

Gloria Deo


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