Alcoholics Anonymous & History of AA
By Dick B.
Dr. Bob and the Good Book Answer
In 1948, at his last major talk to AAs, Dr. Bob made these important statements about the Bible:
The Akron Genesis of Alcoholics Anonymous and the Bible
Dr. Bob was born and raised in St. Johnsbury, Vermont. His parents were pillars of the North Congregational Church in St. Johnsbury. From childhood through high school, Bob each week attended the Congregational church, its Sunday School, evening service, Monday night Christian Endeavor, and sometimes its Wednesday evening prayer meeting. This was likely at the insistence of his mother. Yet, Bob continued membership in Christian churches most of his life: First, there was St. Johnsbury Congregational in his youth. Then, possibly St. Luke’s Protestant Episcopal Church. Then, probably the Church of Our Saviour in Akron, where his kids attended Sunday School. Then, for sure, Akron’s Westminster Presbyterian Church where Dr. Bob and Anne Smith were charter members from June 3, 1936 to April 3, 1942. Finally, a year before his death, Dr. Bob became a communicant at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Akron.
Dr. Bob told AAs he had nothing to do with writing the Twelve Steps. Nor did he have much to do with the writing of A.A.’s basic text, the “Big Book,” other than to review the draft manuscripts as Bill Wilson passed them to Bob for approval prior to publication in the Spring of 1939. But Dr. Bob did make some very clear statements about the Bible and A.A. And it was in Akron where A.A.’s basic biblical ideas were honed, tried, and then later put into terse and tangible form at Bill Wilson’s hands.
Dr. Bob said A.A.’s basic ideas came from the Bible. Dr. Bob and Bill each stated quite often that Jesus’s sermon on the mount contained the underlying spiritual philosophy of A.A. And Dr. Bob often read to AAs from those Bible passages. He pointed out that the A.A. slogans “First Things First” and “Easy Does It” were taken respectively from Matthew 6:33 and 6:34 in the Sermon. When someone asked Dr. Bob a question about the A.A. program, his usual response was: “What does it say in the Good Book?” He declared that A.A. pioneers were “convinced that the answer to their problems was in the Good Book.” He added: “To some of us older ones, the parts we found absolutely essential were the Sermon on the Mount, the 13th chapter of First Corinthians, and the Book of James.” In fact, Bill Wilson said that James was so popular with the pioneers that many favored calling the A.A. fellowship “The James Club” [Pass It On, p. 147].
The Biblical emphasis in A.A.’s Akron Group Number One involved much more than the points just covered.. Akron meetings opened with prayer. As mentioned, they were called “old fashioned prayer meetings.” Bible devotionals such as The Upper Room, My Utmost for His Highest, and The Runner’s Bible were regular fare at the meetings–-and also in individual Quiet Times, and Quiet Times with Anne Smith each morning at the Smith home. Quiet Time itself had distinct Biblical roots.
Almost invariably, Scripture was regularly read at meetings. In addition, Scripture passages, both from devotionals and from the Good Book itself, were often the fountainhead for topics discussed at pioneer meetings. Bible study was particularly stressed for all. Dr. Bob called every meeting of early A.A. a “Christian Fellowship;” and early A.A. was in fact a constituent part of “A First Century Christian Fellowship.” As has been detailed in my many titles, every single Twelve Step idea can be traced to specific Bible verses and segments read or quoted in early A.A.. Furthermore, early Akron AAs were required to “Surrender.” This meant accepting on one’s knees Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour. Older members then prayed with newcomers in the manner specified in James 5:16.
And how did all such Bible material wind up in A.A.? Certainly not from, nor properly described as traveling through, Bill Wilson. It was the daily grist of the Akron experimental work to deliver drunks. Particularly the work in the summer of 1935 and often thereafter where Bill Wilson actually was in attendance.
There is a final point. One that really marks the beginning of the Akron Genesis. The details were only recently unearthed in my research. My focus has been on Christian Endeavor, the world-wide Christian church movement for youth, to which Dr. Bob belonged as a youngster. That movement, its practices, and principles can be seen as having great impact on many of the basic and unique aspects of Akron A.A.. These special Akron features differed substantially from the Oxford Group approaches and principles with which Bill Wilson had been indoctrinated on the East Coast. They did not involve the Four Absolutes, nor the 5 C’s, nor “Restitution,” nor “Guidance,” nor “sharing for witness,” nor other distinctly Oxford Group ideas with which Bob and Bill were both familiar from their respective Oxford Group connections.
The Akron prayer meetings, Bible studies, discussions from devotional literature, confessions of Christ, encouragement as to church affiliation and Christian outreach were a distinct characteristic of the Akron program. They were not emphasized in New York. They seemingly demonstrate a powerful Christian Endeavor influence on Dr. Bob–particularly because he specifically mentioned his Christian Endeavor membership and because that movement began as a unique product of Dr. Bob’s own New England area [See Francis E. Clark, Christian Endeavor in All Lands; Amos R. Wells, Expert Endeavor: A Text-book of Christian Endeavor Methods and Principles].
The Basic Biblical Tools of the Pioneers’ Program
And of what did their basic program consist? They had the Bible, and they had the Oxford Group principles. These they studied and incorporated into their very simple spiritual program of recovery. They usually hospitalized the newcomer, shared their victories with him, left him with only a Bible for reading, and had him surrender to God before he was discharged, after only a few days of hospitalization. They usually handed him a copy of The Upper Room. Then they introduced him to others. He was counseled by Dr. Bob and by Anne. Each morning, he attended Quiet Times led quite early each day by Anne Smith at the Smith Home in Akron where there was regular Bible study, prayer, and requests for God’s guidance. At these extended sessions, Anne Smith shared ideas from her spiritual journal and invited discussion of the topics. The pioneers and their families had other meetings each day. And they had a regular “Oxford Group” meeting twice each week (one as a set-up meeting). They were encouraged to attend church and have religious affiliations. Quiet Time was a “must.” The Bible was stressed for reading. They opened their meetings with prayer, then read Scripture, then had discussions on how to live according to biblical principles, then surrendered to Jesus Christ if they had not already done so, were informed about newcomers still needing help, then closed with the Lord’s Prayer, and fellowshipped with each other. They did observe some of the basic Oxford Group life-changing practices, known as the Five C’s, usually with Dr. Bob. And they often stayed in the homes of Dr. Bob and Anne (and several others in the Akron area) until they were well enough to sally forth.
A Day with the Akron A.A. Pioneers
Most of our information sources have never seen the light of day as far as the average AA is concerned. For the most part, AAs usually don’t know about, and probably have never even seen, Anne Smith’s Journal, or the books of Dr. Bob’s Library, or the transcripts of Akron old-timer tapes that are lodged in GSO archives in New York, or the papers of old-timers like Clarence Snyder and Bob E. Most have little or no knowledge of the four AA of Akron pamphlets that have been on sale for a number of years in Akron and Cleveland. But a few of us have had the opportunity to interview some of the survivors of our earliest days, or their immediate friends or families. And the results enable a picture, albeit reconstructed by this author, of what a single day in the Akron fellowship in the period from 1935 to 1938, and even after, was really like.
Early Morning Quiet Time at Dr. Bob’s Home
Let’s start with Quiet Time at the home of Dr. Bob and Anne Smith. And see Appendix One in the syllabus accompanying this presentation for even more details.
Dr. Bob’s daughter told me in person that the “guys” who came over [to the Smith Home] often said they were coming to Anne Smith’s quiet times for “spiritual pablum.” Let’s start with some of the documented descriptions of Anne’s early morning Quiet Times, and also Quiet Times conducted by other pioneers individually and in groups:
And here’s a tiny segment from Anne’s journal. It’s one of over 100. Now, just picture a reading from the Bible at Anne’s function. Then a prayer. Then a Quiet Time, sharing what was received. Then Anne’s reading the following from her journal and inviting discussion of the remarks:
I’m not sure we can state precisely what happened every moment in the course of a pioneer day, but we do know certain facts for sure.
Hospital visits with newcomers: Teams of AAs (many called themselves the “alcoholic squad of the Oxford Group”) visited newcomers who had been hospitalized at the Akron City Hospital. The visitors told their stories. They told the newcomer that Dr. Bob had the answer to their problems. Sometimes they even gobbled up the food the hospitalized “pigeon” was unable to stomach. Dr. Bob also visited the patient each day. By his own account: “I used to go to the hospital and stand there and talk. I talked many a time to a chap in the bed for five or six hours.” On the final day, Dr. Bob would make sure the newcomer believed in God and then would have him get out of bed, get down on his knees, and “make surrender.” That meant accepting Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour [The Co-Founders of Alcoholics Anonymous, p. 12; Dick B., That Amazing Grace, pp. 25-27; The Akron Genesis of Alcoholics Anonymous, 2d ed., pp 188-89, 192-97; The Golden Text of A.A.: God, the Pioneers, and Real Spirituality, pp. 31-32]. Warren C., who came to A.A. in Cleveland in July, 1939, said of hospitalization: This was so much a part of the treatment that “there was considerable debate about whether he [Warren C.] should be admitted to the Fellowship since he had not been hospitalized” [DR. BOB and the Good Oldtimers, pp. 102, 109-10].
Daily meetings: [Dr.] Bob said, “We used to have daily meetings at a friend’s house [the home of T. Henry Williams in Akron]. All this happened at a time when everybody was broke, awfully broke. It was probably much easier for us to be successful when broke that it would have been if we’d had a checking account apiece. We were, every one of us, so painfully broke. . . I think now that it was providentially arranged. Until 1940, or maybe early 1941, we held the Akron meetings at the residence of that good friend, who allowed us to bang up the plaster and the doorjambs, carting chairs upstairs and downstairs. Then we outgrew that [The Co-Founders, pp. 13-14]. Since many lived at the Smith home itself as well as at several other A.A. homes, and since none was prospering, historian Ernest Kurtz opined that, in hindsight, most of their waking lives was a continuous A.A. meeting [Kurtz, Not-God, p. 56]. Focused as he was on his own not-God thesis, Kurtz seemingly missed the more insightful observations as to the nature of these meetings by Dr. Bob, by early AAs, and by other observers at that day. But Dr. Bob specifically characterized every meeting as a “Christian Fellowship.” [DR. BOB, p. 118; Dick B., The Akron Genesis of A.A., pp. 219-20]. Akron old-timer Bob E., both in a letter to Wilson’s secretary Nell Wing and in a memo to Bill’s wife Lois, said Dr. Bob referred to A.A. as a “Christian Fellowship” [Dick B., The Akron Genesis of Alcoholics Anonymous, p. 220, fn 4] The Oxford Group itself was “A First Century Christian Fellowship” [Dick B., The Oxford Group & Alcoholics Anonymous]. AAs themselves perceived this Christian fellowship emphasis where Bible study, prayer, use of Christian devotionals, and reading of Christian literature were stressed, along with breaking bread together [See Acts 1:13-14; 2:41-47; 4:32-37; 10:34-48; 12:26-49; DR. BOB and the Good Oldtimers, pp. 135-36]. For Sam Shoemaker had often written of the importance of Christian fellowship, quoting in many cases from the Book of Acts [See Dick B., New Light on Alcoholism: God, Sam Shoemaker and A.A., pp. 59-60]. Early AAs such as Bob E. were speaking of living “Christian fellowship” [See Kurtz, Not-God, p. 55]. And outside observers commented on the similarity between Akron’s old-fashioned prayer fellowship and First Century Christianity [See DR. BOB, pp. 129, 131, 135-36; Pass It On, p. 184; Thomsen, Bill W., p. 282].
Other Daily Happenings in Early Akron A.A.
Input from Anne and Henrietta: In addition to the quiet times, hospital visits, and frequent meetings, the pioneers were beneficiaries of the efforts of Anne Smith and Henrietta Seiberling personally. Anne was legendary in her work with new people. She acted as counselor, nurse, evangelist, and teacher; and the pioneers had great confidence in her love and advice. She often shared important Bible passages with them. She used the phone much to keep in touch with those who were not actually present at the Smith home. Henrietta Seiberling paid daily visits to the Smith home, kept in touch by phone, and shared many important Bible and Oxford Group ideas with the early people and their families [See chapter by Dick B. on Henrietta Seiberling, Women Pioneers in 12 Step Recovery (MN: Hazelden, 1999), pp. 25-41].
Individual reading and study: Individual AAs did a great deal of reading on their own. The Upper Room was a major guide. So was The Runner’s Bible. And daily Bible study, prayer and Quiet Time were important aspects of their spiritual growth and understanding. The number of Christian books in wide circulation and use is quite astounding compared to the situation in A.A. today (See Dick B., Dr. Bob and His Library, and The Books Early AAs Read for Spiritual Growth, 7th ed.).
Religious comradeship: There most assuredly was socialization and socializing, but such words has been used in confusing ways by recent commentators as a substitute for what A.A. Trustee-to-be Frank Amos more appropriately called religious comradeship. For it appears that fellowship and comradeship with believers was far more important in those earliest days than mere social activity. The pioneers and their families were deadly serious, and they took their reliance on our Creator very seriously and shared it in religious fellowship.
The “Regular” Meetings
The Unique Focus in Akron: Simplicity was the watch word. And prayer was the focus.
If you do as I did, and examine the kind of meetings Dr. Bob attended as a youth in Christian Endeavor, you can see how much Akron A.A. resembled the Christian Endeavor program of Dr. Bob’s youth (See Dick B., Dr. Bob and His Library, Appendix 1, “Dr. Bob’s Biblical and Christian Background,” pp. 111-19; Clark, Christian Endeavor in All Lands, supra). In an apparent effort to stigmatize the Oxford Group’s acknowledged and very clear influence on A.A. and then to develop excuses for A.A.’s departure from the Oxford Group, commentators (including Bill Wilson himself) have ignored the startling difference between Akron A.A., New York A.A., and regular Oxford Group meetings of the 1930's. Akron was just plain different! In Akron, there was no Calvary Church where either Frank Buchman or Sam Shoemaker called the shots. There were no Calvary House meetings adjacent to the church of the dynamic Sam Shoemaker. In fact, there was no Sam Shoemaker doing the mentoring. There were no “teams” or “houseparties” or even the kind of “sharing” that was so typical of the Oxford Group activity.
The “old fashioned prayer meeting”: A typical Akron meeting began with prayer. And the prayer was not the Serenity Prayer so widely used at the beginning of today’s A.A. meetings. Akron’s meetings ended with the Lord’s Prayer. There was usually an open Bible present, with the meeting’s leader reading Scripture to the group. There were prayers during the meetings. There were announcements about newcomers in the hospital who needed visitation by the “alcoholic squadron.”. There often was reading from a devotional such as The Upper Room. There were brief group Quiet Times, but these were hardly peculiar to the Oxford Group. For such “Quiet Time” has been observed in the morning, in one form or another, from the earliest Bible days (See Dick B., Good Morning!: Quiet Time, Morning Watch, Meditation, and Early A.A.). Quiet Time was widely prevalent in the world-wide Student Christian Movement, the YMCA, Christian Endeavor, and the teachings of F. B. Meyer–-who influenced all the foregoing movements. It was observed in the Christian Endeavor meetings Dr. Bob attended as a youth and in the practices Sam Shoemaker advocated in his books. Sam, along with other religious leaders, first called the practice The Morning Watch, and later, Quiet Time. It meant prayer, Bible study, quiet time for receiving God’s guidance, confession of Jesus Christ, and focus on fellowship. It did not mean “sharing” of experience, strength, and hope–as the Oxford Group generally so often did, and as New York meetings began to emphasize. Particularly significant is the fact that early Akron A.A. meetings did not have “drunkalogs.” The focus was on God, the Bible, and communicating with our Creator as His children.
Bible reading: Picture Dr. Bob’s tall, stern figure opening up his Bible and then reading one of the following passages to the group–from portions that Dr. Bob and the old-timers considered “absolutely essential”:
No talk of drinking, or of ninety meetings in ninety days. No
psychobabble, chatter about relationships, or deadly fatalism. Just reading what
God has said on the important subjects of love, service to God, walking in the
love of God, and resisting temptation. What a day that would have been! What a
day it could be in our time!
Akron A.A.’s specific focus on overcoming alcoholism: There is no evidence I have seen that New York meetings or East Coast Oxford Group meetings, as such, involved announcements about, or actual visitation of, the newcomer in the hospital–visitation in groups as the “alcoholic squad” did in Akron. (However Bill W.’s earlier months of sobriety in New York certainly did involve visits to Towns Hospital, Calvary Mission, etc.). There is no evidence of any focus in Akron on “team” life-changing such as that in which Bill Wilson participated in New York in late 1935 when he was handling the business-men contacts in the huge Oxford Group meetings for League of Nations President Hambro, whom Frank Buchman had brought to the United States (See Dick B., Turning Point: A History of the Spiritual Roots of Alcoholics Anonymous; New Light on Alcoholism: God, Sam Shoemaker, and A.A., 2d ed. I am not one of those who claims, believes, or has found any evidence that either Frank Buchman or Sam Shoemaker turned his back on drunks. I’ve heard otherwise in person from long-time Oxford Group activists such as James Newton, Eleanor Forde Newton, James Houck, and T. Willard Hunter. Moreover, some of the most famous Oxford Group books were those by Victor Kitchen (I Was a Pagan) and Charles Clapp, Jr. (The Big Bender)–-two problem-drinkers who were delivered from alcoholism in the Oxford Group. Well known to A.A. historians also are the stories of Rowland Hazard, F. Shepard Cornell, Ebby Thacher, and Bill Wilson–-drunks who were ministered to within the ranks of East Coast Oxford Group people before A.A. began. However, the Oxford Group of the mid and late 1930's had its focus on world-changing, on world teams, and on changing the lives of world leaders and nations. By contrast, the “clandestine lodge of the Oxford Group” in Akron was for helping drunks (DR. BOB and the Good Oldtimers, p. 121). And its precursor became famous for helping Bud Firestone overcome his drinking problem in Akron (See Dick B., The Akron Genesis of Alcoholics Anonymous, 2d ed.).
Fellowship socializing: There does not appear to be much evidence of fellowship socializing on the New York scene. Yet this was regular fare at the home of T. Henry Williams and others in Akron on Saturday nights. No evidence on the New York path of recreational activities observed in Cleveland, not long after A.A. began–with bowling and baseball and huge picnics and lots of food and coffee (See Dick B., That Amazing Grace: The Role of Clarence and Grace S. in Alcoholics Anonymous, pp. 78-80).
The Frank Amos Reports to John D. Rockefeller, Jr.
Bill Wilson wanted to raise money for hospital chains, paid-workers, and literature (Pass It On, pp 184-85). Bill was able to see John D. Rockefeller, Jr. Rockefeller sent Frank Amos to Akron to see what Dr. Bob and his associates were accomplishing. Amos thoroughly investigated, interviewing many in Akron, including doctors, a judge, A.A.’s non-alcoholic teachers such as Henrietta Seiberling and T. Henry and Clarace Williams, and a number of the men, their wives, and “in some cases, their mothers.” Some details are reported in DR. BOB and the Good Oldtimers at pages 128 to 136. And I made it a point to look at the original Amos reports during research trips to New York. As we will reiterate in a later session, if you want to see the highly successful pioneer program in action, there are two basic places to look: (1) The personal stories of Ohio people in the First Edition of A.A.’s Big Book. (2) The summary of the “Program” by Frank Amos. It should be underlined that Amos would soon one of A.A.’s first non-alcoholic trustees.
Amos said of the 110 members surveyed in the Akron-Cleveland area a year after his first report, “in many respects, their meetings have taken on the form of the meetings described in the Gospels [sic] of the early Christians during the first century” (DR. BOB, pp. 135-136). During an earlier meeting in Rockefeller’s private boardroom with Rockefeller’s associates, including Amos, Albert Scott (chairman of the trustees of Riverside Church) said: “Why, this is first-century Christianity! . . . What can we do to help?” [Pass It On, p. 184].
The Amos report described the Akron “Program.” Amos said it was being carried out faithfully by the Akron group. The men in the group, he said, all looked to Dr. Bob for leadership. And these were the specifics Amos set forth about the program (DR. BOB, p. 131):
See also The Good Book and The Big Book.