Alcoholics Anonymous & History of AA
The Purpose of Dick B.’s Alcoholics Anonymous and A.A. History Website
Why this site by Dick B. on the history of A.A., and the people and organizations involved with successful Christian Recovery efforts which preceded and influenced Alcoholics Anonymous? We believe you should hear the whole A.A. history story if you are to receive and pass on the spiritual tools that A.A. offers to those who still suffer. But our primary focus is on “the rest of the story.” The fact is that there are countless untold, ignored, discarded, distorted, or omitted pieces of A.A. history that offer opportunities to still-suffering alcoholics and addicts to be lifted out of the mire, to seek the same cure that early AAs received, and to pursue a transformed life anew. The many resources here will supply what has been missing. They will highlight what AAs in misery, in confusion, and in repeated relapses can do if they learn and know what the original A.A. pioneers did in depending and relying upon the power and love of God. And in finding or rediscovering God through His Son Jesus Christ on the path found in the Bible.
Major Historical Landmarks
In Alcoholics Anonymous (“the Big Book”), the “basic text” of
A.A. (the first edition of which was published in April 1939), A.A. cofounder
Bill W. wrote: “Rarely have we seen a person fail who has thoroughly followed
our path.” [Big Book, 4th ed., 58]. What is usually unfamiliar to the
A.A. Fellowship is Bill W.’s inspiring declaration in the personal story of AA
Number Three (Bill D.) found in the second edition (published in 1955), the
third edition (published in 1976), and the fourth edition (published in 2001) of
the “basic text”:
“. . . [T]he Lord has been so wonderful to me, curing me of this terrible disease, that I just want to keep talking about it and telling people.” [Big Book, 4th ed., 191]
A.A. cofounder Dr. Bob said in his last major talk to AAs:
It wasn’t until 1938 that the teachings and efforts and stories that had been going on were crystallized in the form of the Twelve Steps. I didn’t write the Twelve Steps. I had nothing to do with the writing of them. . . We already had the basic ideas, though not in terse and tangible form. We got them, as I said, as a result of our study of the Good Book [i.e., the Bible]. [The Co-Founders of Alcoholics Anonymous: Biographical Sketches: Their Last Major Talks (Item # P-53), 14]
An effort that began with the founding of A.A. in June 1935 in
Akron, Ohio. And Dr. Bob concluded his own personal story in the Big Book by
voicing the same emphasis that Bill W. gave when he spoke of his having been
cured of alcoholism by the Lord. Dr. Bob stated:
Your Heavenly Father will never let you down! [Big Book, 4th ed., 181]
The problem is that neither I nor most AAs nor most other people in the recovery arena know or even seem to want to know exactly what occurred that put A.A. on the map. Or that generated sales of over 40 million Big Books. Or that brought the worldwide Society of Alcoholics Anonymous to a membership level of about 2 million people. Yet A.A. had produced a wide variety of solid, reliable, spiritual tools between its founding in June 1935 and the publication of the first edition of Alcoholics Anonymous (“the Big Book”) in April 1939. And we want to be sure that desperate, “seemingly-hopeless,” “medically-incurable” alcoholics hear the whole story. Better stated, that they know “the rest of the story” about their cherished Fellowship. And the option of placing their recovery in God’s hands today.
A Brief Outline of Key Points about A.A.’s Earliest Years
First Century Christianity. Many early observers of Alcoholics Anonymous likened early Akron
A.A. to First Century Christianity. As Mr. Albert Scott, chairman of the
trustees of Riverside Church, put it at a meeting with a number of early AAs and
some supporters in New York:
“Why, this is first-century Christianity!” Then he asked, “What can we do to help?” [‘PASS IT ON,’ 184]
And a careful study of what the Apostles did in the First Century, as reported in the Book of Acts in the Bible and as mirrored in early A.A. (particularly in Akron), is very rewarding.
A.A.’s Christian Predecessors. Centuries later, beginning around the mid-1800s, Christian individuals, churches, and movements began looking at alcoholics, addicts, homeless people, and derelicts in a new light. Instead of condemning them as downtrodden wretches, many Christian people and entities set about bringing to them the Bible, salvation, and some very real help. One such Christian organization was the Salvation Army. The distinguished scholar and theology professor Howard J. Clinebell wrote, for example:
The long history of the Salvation Army . . . has demonstrated persistent concern with the practical application of religious resources to help victims of social chaos, oppression, and addictions. From the beginning, there has been an ongoing commitment to help “the least, the last, and the lost” with “soup, soap, and salvation.” This down-to-earth orientation led the Army from its inception into the field of alcoholism. Firsthand experiences in the squalor of London slums made the founders, William and Evangeline Booth, and their fellow Salvationists keenly sensitive to the problem. Booth agonized over the tragic plight of England’s half million alcoholics. [Howard Clinebell, Understanding and Counseling Persons with Alcohol, Drug, and Behavioral Addictions, rev. and enl. ed. (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1998), 184].
And the Salvation Army efforts coincided with those of:
The group founded in the autumn of 1922 by Lutheran minister Dr. Frank N. D. Buchman and a couple of his associates called “A First Century Christian Fellowship”—better known after 1928 as “the Oxford Group”—also contributed its share of life-changing ideas to early Alcoholics Anonymous, though Buchman’s group focused primarily on saving “drunken nations” rather than on saving drunks. But its emphasis of God, His Son Jesus Christ, and the Bible, brought rescue to a number of alcoholics in its ranks.
The Christian Upbringings of A.A. Cofounders in Vermont. As A.A.’s cofounders-to-be were receiving their Christian upbringing in Vermont, they absorbed the news about the organizations and people just mentioned. But they also attended Congregational Sunday schools, churches, and Congregationalist-dominated academies. There they studied the Bible and attended daily chapel (with its sermons, reading of Scripture, hymns, and prayers). And they were necessarily put in touch with a substantial amount of the Young Men’s Christian Association’s salvation and Bible emphasis.
How the First Three AAs Got Sober. The story of how the first three AAs got sober is not a story about an A.A. program. It is an account of how three down-and-out Christian alcoholics—who believed in God, had been Bible students, and had been active in churches at a one or more points in their lives—admitted their alcoholism, determined to quit for good, turned to God for help, were cured, and actively helped others for the rest of their days.
The Original Akron A.A. “Christian Fellowship” Program. This first actual A.A. program founded in Akron in June 1935 was Bible-based. It had no Twelve Steps or Twelve Traditions. It had no Big Book. And it had no “war stories” or meetings like those seen today. The pioneers believed the answers to their problems were in the Bible. The AAs in Akron called themselves a “Christian fellowship.” And their seven-point program as it looked in February 1938 is summarized on page 131 of DR. BOB and the Good Oldtimers. Its principles and practices incorporated ideas both Bill W. and Dr. Bob had learned growing up in Vermont. And do you know what that program really was?
Bill W.’s “New Version of the Program, . . . the ‘Twelve Steps.’” Then came Bill Wilson’s “new version of the program, . . . the ‘Twelve Steps.’” [See Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age, 162]. Bill prepared his Big Book and the content of his “Steps” from the things he borrowed from Dr. William D. Silkworth, Professor William James, and Reverend Samuel M. Shoemaker, Jr.—a chief lieutenant of the Oxford Group in America and rector of Calvary Episcopal Church in New York. [See The Language of the Heart , 195-98, 297-98].
A Major Compromise by a “Committee of Four.” Shortly
before Bill W.’s Big Book was published in April 1939, a dramatic change in A.A.
occurred. Bill described in considerable detail how the Big Book was written on
pages 153-73 of Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age. On page 166, Bill
described what he said “[a]t the time . . . looked like just another battle over
the book.” On pages 17 and 162-64, he had given the background of an ongoing
“debate” among the “conservative, liberal, and radical viewpoints,” out of which
“came the spiritual form and substance of the document.” And on page 166, Bill
We [i.e., a “committee of four” comprised of Fitz, Henry, Henry’s secretary Ruth, and Bill W.] were still arguing about the Twelve Steps. All this time I had refused to budge on these steps. I would not change a word of the original draft, in which, you will remember, I had consistently used the word “God,” . . .
From the quote immediately above, together with other language in
the same paragraph, we learn from the Big Book’s (primary) author, Bill W., that
he had written the (unmodified) word “God” in his “original draft” of the Twelve
Steps and had firmly stuck with that language up to the point of this “battle
over the book.” But then the “contentions” of the “radical”
viewpoint—represented by Bill’s partner Henry (“Hank P.”) and Jimmy B.—won out.
Bill spoke of “compromise” and “compromise words,” stating:
. . . In Step Two we decided to describe God as a “Power greater than ourselves.” In Steps Three and Eleven we inserted the words “God as we understood Him.” . . .
Such were the final concessions to those of little or no faith; this was the great contribution of our atheists and agnostics. . . .
God was certainly there in our Steps, but . . . [Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age, 167; italics in original]
When 400 copies of the typed “prepublication copy of the text and some of the stories,” which Bill said he had labeled “the mimeograph issue ‘Alcoholics Anonymous,’ were circulated to “everyone we could think of who might be concerned with the problem of alcoholism,” the wording of Steps Two and Three had already been changed to reflect the “compromise.” But Step Eleven still contained the unmodified word “God”:
11. Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our contact with God, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out. [“Chapter Five: How It Works” in The Original Manuscript of Alcoholics Anonymous available on Silkworth.net: http://mcaf.ee/siokx]
It was not until Hazelden published high-resolution scans of the printer’s manuscript of Alcoholics Anonymous in 2010 under the title, The Book That Started It All: The Original Working Manuscript of Alcoholics Anonymous, that it became possible for the first time for the public to see both the unmodified word “God” in Step Eleven and the handwritten circle added around the word “God,” accompanied by the handwritten words “as we understood” stretching into the right-hand margin. The scanned copy of the printer’s manuscript, reprinted on pages 21-190 in The Book That Started It All, is filled with scribbled notes, changes, deletions, and initials of those who fiddled with it. And a considerable number of the markings reflect an effort to remove Christian and Bible traces, as well as references to God. And they surely altered the whole tenor of Bill’s codified Oxford Group “new version of the program.”
What This Website Offers Alcoholics and Addicts Still Suffering Today
The history, origins, and development of A.A. are certainly covered by the many dissemination categories covered by the many sources referred to in this website. But “the rest of the story” is what we emphasize. “The rest of the story” documents the early successes based on, and the later shift away from, the Bible roots, Christian fellowship, and original and concise Akron A.A. program
The major and previously-obscured points are found in the books, articles, blogs, audios, videos, radio shows, YouTube presentations, and other materials you will find through this website. You will note how A.A. moved from its original quest for a Bible-based cure of alcoholism by the power of God to self-made Twelve Steps drawn from a philosopher, a psychiatrist, and an Episcopalian Rector. You will see that there has been a decided drift in recovery tools from reliance on God to literature that describes “gods” with weird names like “light bulb, Big Dipper, tree, and door knob.” It shifted descriptions of God, His Son Jesus Christ, and the Bible to “higher powers,” “spirituality,” and the newly-proclaimed dictum that you may now, if you wish, believe in nothing at all as you enter the rooms of A.A.
And it is the result of 25 years of research, and 28 years of continuous sobriety, as well as the hands-on work “in the trenches” by Dick B. and his son Ken B., that almost demand of the newcomer admission of some kind of total defeat, a determination not to drink, reliance on God, reference to the Bible, and the helping of and service to others. These are the simple ingredients of “old-school” A.A.—particularly as it was seen in A.A.’s early days in Akron and to some extent in Cleveland as well. We believe that Christians will—when fully informed—consider their options in recovery today. The “old-school” ideas can and should be applied in the 12-Step Fellowships as an option that placed A.A. on the map and fostered the sale of millions of A.A. books in the ensuing decades.
The All-But-Ignored-or-Forgotten Precepts of “Old School” A.A.
As a taste of “the rest of the story” that you will find here, the following pieces of evidence speak more loudly than any research, lectures, history books, opinions, and statistical surveys.
Around the beginning of December 1934, Bill Wilson went to Calvary Mission in New York City where his friend Ebby was living and made a decision to accept Jesus Christ as his Lord and Savior. On December 11, 1934, he checked into Towns Hospital as a patient needing care for alcoholism for the fourth and final time. About three days into that stay, Bill cried out to God for help. He had his famous vital religious experience in which he said his hospital room “blazed with an indescribably white light.” And Bill wrote that he believed “the God of the Scriptures” was present in his room and that this was the source of Bill’s being cured of alcoholism. [See, for example, The Language of the Heart, 284]. Bill W.’s story still rests on his statement quoted by AA Number Three, Bill D., in Bill D.’s personal story in the Big Book: “Henrietta, the Lord has been so wonderful to me, curing me of this terrible disease that I just want to keep talking about it and telling people.” [Alcoholics Anonymous, 4th ed., 191]
Dr. Bob was persuaded by a tiny group of friends meeting at T. Henry and Clarace Williams’ home in Akron, Ohio, to confess publically to them that he was a “secret drinker.” He dropped to the floor on his knees with them and prayed for his deliverance. The miracle of the appearance of Bill Wilson, a total stranger, in Akron in May 1935, followed and constituted what the group and Dr. Bob believed was the answer to the prayer. Soon, after one last binge in early June, Dr. Bob said in Bill W.’s presence that he was leaving the surgery he was about to perform and his determination to quit drinking in God’s hands. And June 1935 marked A.A. cofounder Dr. Bob’s last drink and the founding of Alcoholics Anonymous.
There is much much more to give present-day alcoholics and addicts a reliable picture of how they can, even today, learn and apply the history, the belief, and the actions that buttressed the successful efforts of 40 “seemingly-hopeless,” “medically-incurable,” “last-gasp-case,” “real” alcoholics who were staying sober as of November 1937 to get well and stay well. And we suggest that the principles and practices required in the highly-successful, early Akron A.A. “Christian fellowship” program are still an option today, based on current A.A. General Service Conference-approved literature.
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St. Johnsbury, Vermont; and help us acquire the books and documents for the
Wilson House and Dr. Bob’s Core Library; and to publish our findings as well as
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