Alcoholics Anonymous & History of AA

 Last updated:
April 17, 2010

Alcoholics Anonymous History
A.A.’s Twelve Well-Springs

By Dick B.

All A.A.’s Ideas Were Borrowed, said Bill W.

Early in its founding years, A.A.’s co-founder Bill Wilson put the torch to the idea that A.A. sprang from just one source. He said frankly that nobody invented A.A. He said all its ideas were borrowed. And Dr. Bob broadened the source picture by pointing out that all the basic ideas came from the Pioneers’ study of the Bible.

Unfortunately, neither co-founder put in writing in one place all the well-springs that produced the streams in A.A. Consequently commentators, both favorable to and critical of A.A. have had a field day with discussions of our roots. Most of them have a number of erroneous concepts so embedded in their historical approaches that they just never tell it like it is or like it was. Those who don’t like the Bible say that we left it behind in Akron. Those who don’t like the Oxford Group say that it taught us more about what not to do than what to do. And those who don’t like either the Bible or the Oxford Group have tried to quiet the waters by diverting the stream. They say A.A. is “spiritual, but not religious” even though any well-informed historian, scholar, clergyman, and semanticist would probably ask: “And what’s the difference?” Nobody really knows, but the distinction without a difference leaves many in a peaceful atheistic no man’s land.

The real difference in how we characterize A.A. is that without a knowledge of A.A.’s various sources—mostly religious—people quickly make up their own sources. It’s called “self-made religion.” And A.A.’s co-founder Rev. Sam Shoemaker pointed out that his self-fabricated stuff leads to all kinds of nonsense—including “absurd names for God” and “half-baked prayers” as Sam described them.

So it is. Those who have spurned the facts often say that our Creator can be a tree, or they say that neither the Creator nor the tree is “Conference Approved.” They often go on to say that you really don’t have to believe in anything at all. And most AAs are inclined to say, “Don’t analyze,” or “Don’t think and don’t drink,” or “Look for the similarities and discard the differences.” They may add that the Big Book is A.A.’s basic text and let it go at that. “The Big Book says it, and that settles it” is a common A.A. expression. And that leaves us with what the Big Book says, but mostly what it doesn’t say.

AAs today have seen all mention of the Bible deleted from their basic text. They’ve seen Jesus Christ mentioned only once, and then as a man whose ideas are seldom followed. They’ve seen the Creator turned into a higher power which has been turned into a radiator. At the same time, they hear about prayer and meditation and haven’t the slightest bit of information as to what those ideas meant either in earliest A.A. or even in the Big Book and Steps.

Consequently, they are left with nonsense. Prayer to a rock? Prayer to a chair or a tree? Meditation as a chant? Meditation as listening? Praying to what! Chanting to what! Listening to what—a light bulb? For assistance, they hear there are “helpful books,” but there is no mention of the Good Book which was the major source for their basic ideas.


The Twelve A.A. Well-Springs Are Not the Basic Ideas—Just the Sources


I’ve spent 16 years looking up the basic ideas. I’ve published at least one book and many articles on each of those ideas. And this article will not repeat the materials in those titles. I will point out here though that you can find the basics in the following of my titles: (1) The Bible: The Good Book and The Big Book; Why Early A.A. Succeeded (a Bible Study Primer); The James Club and the Original A.A. Program’s Absolute Essentials; Twelve Steps for You; The Good Book-Big Book Guidebook; (2) The contents of Anne Smiths Journal: Anne Smith’s Journal, 1933-1939; (3) Quiet Time: Good Morning: Quiet Time, Morning Watch, Meditation, and Early A.A.; (4) The Oxford Group’s Life Changing Twenty-Eight Ideas: The Oxford Group and Alcoholics Anonymous; Henrietta Seiberling: Ohio’s Lady with a Cause; (5) The teachings of Rev. Sam Shoemaker: New Light on Alcoholism; By the Power of God; New Light Guide Book (6) The Christian literature they studied and circulated: Dr. Bob and His Library; The Books Early AAs Read for Spiritual Growth; The Akron Genesis of Alcoholics Anonymous; That Amazing Grace; Making Known the Biblical History and Roots of Early A.A. (7) The Akron Elements from United Christian Endeavor Society: When Early AAs Were Cured and Why; The James Club supra; Making Known supra; God and Alcoholism; Cured.

Other basic ideas came from sources I have researched and which are covered in numerous articles I have published on my websites. They are mentioned below in connection with their sources. And they had a particularly great influence on some of the language Bill used in the Big Book and in his other writings.

But that’s not what’s at issue here. Here we’ll take a cursory look at Twelve Well-Springs of A.A. They don’t fit in a nice timeline. They are not particularly consistent, nor are they congruous. None of them can be found ever-present in each of the various streams of A.A. from Akron, Cleveland, New York, Sister Ignatia, Father Ralph Pfau, Ed Webster, Richmond Walker, Father Ed Dowling, or Rev. Sam Shoemaker. They simply ought to be known as part of our history.

To be brief, our history ought to be known so that recovering people can make intelligent choices and appropriate decisions. Following, then, are the well-springs—some of great importance, some virtually unknown, and many conflicting in meaning and emphasis.


The Twelve Well-Springs as Sources of our Basic Ideas


Number One: The United Christian Endeavor Society. Organized about the time of Dr. Bob’s birth. Focused on the young people in a local Protestant Church which was supported by the Christian Endeavor Group connected with that church. Producing almost all of the major ideas that were carried over into early Akron A.A.’s Christian Fellowship led by Dr. Bob. The ideas? Confession of Christ. Bible study. Prayer meetings. Conversion meetings. Quiet Hours, topical discussions, reading of religious literature, witness, and fellowship—all under the banner of “love and service.” See The James Club and The Early A.A. Program’s Absolute Essentials; The Good Book-Big Book Guidebook; Making Known the Biblical History and Roots of Early A.A..

Number Two: The Salvation Army. Organized under General William Booth not long after Christian Endeavor and introducing ideas about working with drunks and street criminals.Used in missions, observed by Ebby Thacher and Bill Wilson, and exemplified by the practical program of early Akron A.A. The ideas? Abstinence. Resisting Temptation. Confessing Jesus Christ. Relying on the Creator. Elimination of sin. Employing the power of one saved and recovered drunk to bring effectively to another still-suffering drunk the message of salvation, love, and service to another still suffering drunk. Carrying the message of salvation and questing for truth. Perpetuating the fellowship and witnessing among the ranks of those already saved, recovered soldiers. See When Early AAs Were Cured and Why; The First Nationwide A.A. History Conference.

Number Three: New Thought. Also beginning to take wing through the impetus of Christian Science and similar movements that began to flower at almost the same period as the first two sources. But the New Thought focus was on a new kind of god—a higher power—that took descriptive words from the Bible but saw God, good, and evil in non-salvation terms. New Thought words and phrases like higher power, cosmic consciousness, fourth dimension, and Universal Mind filtered in to the A.A. stream. The moving New Thought expositors included Mary Baker Eddy, Waldo Trine, William James, Emmanuel Movement writers, and Emmet Fox. See The Books Early AAs Read for Spiritual Growth, 7th ed; When Early AAs Were Cured and Why; Dr. Bob and His Library; Good Morning: Quiet Time, Morning Watch, Meditation, and Early A.A.; God and Alcoholism.

Number Four: Professor William James and the “spiritual experience.” Just who is the author of Bill’s “spiritual experience” expression is not all that clear. Carl Jung told Rowland Hazard that Rowland needed a “conversion” experience. William James wrote Varieties of Religious Experience, which Wilson believed validated his “hot flash” experience at Towns Hospital. Sam Shoemaker wrote in his first book Realizing Religion that people needed a “vital religious experience.” And Oxford Group writings are surfeited with references to “spiritual experience” and “spiritual awakening.” So are Shoemaker’s later books. Wilson liked to attribute the spiritual experience to James and also claimed that James authored the “deflation-at-depth” idea underlying A.A.’s First Step. Historian Kurtz says he can’t find the latter in James’s book. I certainly can and did and underlined it in my title Turning Point: A History of Early A.A.’s Spiritual Roots and Successes.

Number Five: The Oxford Group—A First Century Christian Fellowship. Not really “organized” until about 1919 when the book Soul Surgery was first published. Primarily a movement which drew its ideas from the life-changing Biblical concepts of Lutheran Minister Frank N. D. Buchman. Each one of the aforementioned well-springs influenced the ideas that were borrowed and adapted by the Akron program. And to these were added catch-words and ideas that Buchman picked up along the way toward the group’s actual existence. There were twenty-eight ideas in all that impacted upon A.A.’s Big Book and Twelve Steps and existed in greater or lesser degree in some of the practices in the earlier Akron Fellowship. The 28 ideas can be summarized in eight groupings of the ideas Buchman adopted: (1) God—descriptions, His plan, man’s duty, believing. (2) Sin—the blocks to God and others. (3) Surrenders—the decision to surrender self and self-will to God’s will. (4) Life-changing art—the Five C’s of the process moving from Confidence to Confession to Conviction to Conversion to Continuance. (5) Jesus Christ—His power and the Four Absolute Standards. Sin was the problem. Jesus Christ was the cure. And the result was a miracle, they said. (6) Growth in fellowship through Quiet Time, Bible study, prayer, and seeking Guidance. (7) Restitution—for the harms caused by sin. (8) Fellowship and witness—working in teams loyal to Jesus Christ to change the lives of others. See The Oxford Group and Alcoholics Anonymous: A Design for Living That Works; The Akron Genesis of Alcoholics Anonymous; Turning Point: A History of the Spiritual Roots and Successes of Alcoholics Anonymous.

Number Six: The teachings of Episcopalian priest Rev. Samuel M. Shoemaker, Jr. Sam teamed up with Frank Buchman about 1919, then began writing a series of many books on the OG ideas and Sam’s Bible concepts, and headquartered his efforts at Calvary Church in New York, of which he became Rector in 1925. It is fair to say that the most quoted, the most copied, and the most persuasive influence on Bill Wilson and his Big Book approach came directly from Shoemaker. To the point where Wilson actually asked Sam to write the Twelve Steps, as to which Sam declined in favor of their being written by an alcoholic, namely, Bill. See New Light on Alcoholism: God, Sam Shoemaker, and A.A.; The First Nationwide History Conference; When Early AAs Were Cured and Why; By the Power of God

Number Seven: The conversion ideas of Dr. Carl Gustav Jung. Two or three historians who have not really done their homework now claim that Jung had no connection with A.A.’s beginnings. They assert that Jung never saw Rowland Hazard as a patient and therefore the “conversion” solution so dominant in Bill Wilson’s Big Book program did not come from Jung. But the skimpy research done will not support the conclusion that Jung, Rowland Hazard, Ebby Thacher, Bill Wilson, and Sam Shoemaker all lied in order to conjure up a solution. The real point is how badly Wilson missed the point of Jung’s idea of conversion. Conversion, he said, was the solution for Rowland’s chronic alcoholism. But conversion, to Jung, did not mean what the Bible describes as a new birth and which Shoemaker and the Akronites were later espousing. The altar call at Shoemaker’s Calvary Mission was not the conversion idea Jung had in mind. See New Light on Alcoholism: God, Sam Shoemaker, and A.A.; Twelve Steps for You; The Good Book-Big Book Guidebook.

Number Eight: The medical ideas of Dr. William D. Silkworth. Once again, historians who have not really done their homework now sometimes claim that Dr. Silkworth did not originate the ideas about alcoholism as a disease. And there is evidence that the disease concept may well not have originated with Silkworth. But there is equally strong evidence that it was Silkworth who spelled out for Bill Wilson the idea that Wilson was suffering from a mental obsession and a physical allergy—however the details were or would be characterized in the disease arena. Virtually unmentioned is Silkworth’s belief—explained to Bill Wilson and other patients—that Jesus Christ, the “Great Physician,” could cure them of alcoholism. See The Good Book-Big Book Guidebook; The Positive Power of Jesus Christ; The Little Doctor Who Loved Drunks: William D. Silkworth Biography.

Number Nine: The lay therapy ideas of Richard Peabody. Dr. Bob and Bill Wilson both owned and studied The Common Sense of Drinking—a book by lay therapist Richard Peabody. And though Peabody died drunk, Wilson somehow saw fit to adopt almost verbatim certain words and phrases from the Peabody book. Among the two most unfortunate derivates were: (1) There is no cure for alcoholism. (2) Once an alcoholic always an alcoholic. Both concepts flew in the face of a decade of declarations by the early AAs and their observers that they had found a cure for alcoholism that rested on the power of Jesus Christ. This was not something Peabody embraced. And how Wilson got switched from God to incurable illness on the basis of the writings of a lay therapist who died drunk is currently a mystery to me. See Richard Peabody. The Common Sense of Drinking; Cured: Proven Help for Alcoholics and Addicts; When Early AAs Were Cured and Why.

Number Ten: The Biblical Emphasis from Dr. Bob’s youth and Christian Endeavor. A.A. detractors and doctrinaire Christians who dislike the Oxford Group seem impelled to claim that A.A. came from the Oxford Group, that the Oxford Group was an heretical cult, and that its very existence was an example of what A.A. wasn’t, rather than what it was. And these canards are so heavily entrenched in religious and recovery thinking and writing they may never be dispelled. But they are fallacious and utterly misleading. It is quite true that Bill Wilson’s Big Book and Twelve Step program embraced almost every Oxford Group idea, while Bill Wilson was busy denying the fact. But the early Akron program, which produced the 75 to 93% success rates, really had very little to do with Oxford Group missions, principles, and practices. The Akron focus was on abstinence—not an Oxford Group idea; hospitalization—not an Oxford Group idea; resisting temptation—not an Oxford Group idea; accepting Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour—not an Oxford Group idea; relying on the Creator for strength and guidance—a universal idea undoubtedly embraced by the Oxford Group; Bible study meetings—not an Oxford Group emphasis; old-fashioned prayer meetings—not an Oxford Group idea; Quiet Time—a universal idea which pre-dated the Oxford Group and was a big item in Christian Endeavor; religious comradeship—not an Oxford Group idea; favored church attendance—not an Oxford Group idea; love and service as a banner—not an Oxford Group expression, but a Christian Endeavor word of art; working with others—not an Oxford Group emphasis when it came to alcoholism, nor was it particularly a Christian Endeavor idea except as to witnessing and conversion. By contrast, the simple Christian Endeavor program appears to represent the heart of what Akron did and what it was reported in official A.A. literature to have done. That program was not incorporated in the Big Book, but it is reported fully by Frank Amos reports to John D. Rockefeller, Jr. that are part of A.A.’s conference approved literature. See my titles The First Nationwide A.A. History Conference; The Good Book and The Big Book: A.A.’s Roots in the Bible; Why Early A.A. Succeeded (A Bible study primer); The Good Book-Big Book Guidebook; and The James Club and The Early A.A. Program’s Absolute Essentials.

Number Eleven: The practical records and teachings of Dr. Bob’s Wife. How A.A. could have buried Anne Smith’s role, her importance, and her spiritual journal is a complete mystery. The facts about Anne’s importance would stand by themselves if she had never even written her 9 year journal. Bill Wilson and many pioneers called Anne the “Mother of A.A.”AAs were housed in her home from the beginning, and those AAs got well. AAs were fed in her home, and it became the first real “half-way” house after hospitalization. Anne read the Bible to A.A.’s founders and to the many who followed them. Anne conducted a morning quiet time each morning at the Dr. Bob’s Home where she led a group of AAs and their families in Bible study, prayer, listening, and topical discussions. Anne counseled and nursed and taught alcoholics; and her work with newcomers in meetings was legendary. They were her special focus. Her journal records every principle and concept that is part of the A.A. picture—Biblical emphasis, prayer, Quiet Time, Guidance, Literature recommended, Oxford Group principles and practices, and practical guides to working with alcoholics. It seems likely that she not only shared the contents of this journal—written between 1933 and 1939—with Bill Wilson, but also that Bill took many of his Oxford Group and other expressions directly from Anne’s Journal. If so, the fact has never been mentioned. See Anne Smith’s Journal, 1933-1939; The Akron Genesis of Alcoholics Anonymous.

Number Twelve: The Devotionals and Christian Literature Read and Circulated. We know that A.A.’s basic ideas came from the Bible. The Book of James, Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount, and 1 Corinthians 13 were frequently read aloud and studied and were considered absolutely essential. And AAs studied literature that underlined these roots—books on the Sermon by Oswald Chambers, Glenn Clark, Harry Emerson Fosdick, Emmet Fox, and E. Stanley Jones. Devotionals discussing concepts from the Book of James—The Runner’s Bible, The Upper Room, My Utmost for His Highest, Daily Strength for Daily Needs. Commentaries on 1 Corinthians 13 by Henry Drummond and Toyohiko Kagawa. And various other concepts were fleshed out through the literature of Shoemaker on all aspects of the Bible, prayer, guidance, Quiet Time, and so on. So also in the many Oxford Group books on these subjects—Soul Surgery (and the Five C’s), Quiet Time, The Guidance of God, Realizing Religion, For Sinners Only, When Man Listens, and so on. In addition, there were prayer guides and Bible study guides and healing guides galore—in Dr. Bob’s Library and circulated by him to others. The whole picture can be found in my titles: The Books Early AAs Read for Spiritual Growth, 7th edition; Making Known the Biblical History and Roots of A.A.; Anne Smith’s Journal; The Akron Genesis of Alcoholics Anonymous; Dr. Bob and His Library.


The Whole Picture


As Father Paul Blaes, Ph.D., the Roman Catholic theologian who endorsed my Turning Point book wrote so well, there was a lacuna in A.A. history when I began 16 years ago. A lacuna is a gap, a hole. And Father Blaes had observed for himself the gaping vacuum in accounts of our history. He therefore welcomed and endorsed my comprehensive history.

When I began, I thought the only missing elements were descriptions of how the Bible was used and what the Oxford Group program really was. And there were plenty of gaps there. But this was just the tip of the iceberg. A.A. literature said Dr. Bob’s library had been given away. Yet I discovered about half of it in his daughter’s attic and tracked down the other half to his son’s home in Nocona, Texas. And without these books, you just couldn’t know what early AAs were reading and concluding. Next, I discovered that Anne Smith’s Journal had simply never been mentioned in A.A. history accounts; yet you could find the whole program there. And, thanks to Dr. Bob’s daughter and A.A.’s archivist Frank Mauser, I was permitted to get a complete copy and publish my book. Then, when I began with the Oxford Group, it was at the suggestion of Frank Mauser, that I wrote my Oxford Group book; and over the years I found hundreds of their books, encountered an intense interest among its leaders in my work, and then realized the whole Big Book program was essentially Oxford Group—something broadly suggested in Joe and Charlie Big Book Seminars. From there I went to the Akron story and realized the importance and differences regarding the early Christian Fellowship there. I tracked down the history and wrote the Akron story. Learning there the importance of the Bible, I tackled the Biblical roots and am only now getting the entire picture together—the words in A.A. from the Bible, the prayers in A.A. from the Bible, the slogans in A.A. from the Bible, and then the immense study of the Bible that AAs did in the Book of James, Sermon on the Mount, and 1 Corinthians 13. Even that, however, was not the end. I stumbled upon Christian Endeavor and began to realize that the whole Akron program was far more founded on Christian Endeavor principles and practices than on those of the Oxford Group. Piece by piece, other details emerged. There was the whole Shoemaker story and my discovery that the words in the Big Book and even the Steps were largely Shoemaker words and that Sam had been asked to write the Twelve Steps, but declined. More? Yes. More on Carl Jung. More on William James. More on Richard Peabody. More on William D. Silkworth. More on Henrietta Seiberling. More on Clarence Snyder. More on the Wilson manuscripts. More on the deleted materials. More. More. More.

It didn’t add up to the whole picture, or even part of the picture. And the gap had left alkies to their own devices in fashioning substitutes. When Bill dumped the Oxford Group in the East, the Oxford Group details were omitted. When Bob and Anne died, the Bible in A.A. died with them. When Clarence Snyder got on the wrong side of Bill Wilson, the Snyder legacy disappeared until recently. When Henrietta Seiberling was put on the shelf, the reprimands about phony spirituality, séances, substitute psychology, and sick thinking were shelved along with her futile protests. People began denying the date of Dr. Bob’s sobriety; and they’re doing it even more. People began denying that Jung saw Rowland Hazard; and they’re doing it even more. People just never even seemed to want to know about Anne Smith nor the early books nor the Bible verses nor the Sam Shoemaker story nor the devotionals.

Too much religion seemed to be the cry. That from those studying a program so obviously religious at its beginnings and so obviously religious today that one court after another has ruled that way and rejected the “spirituality” ruse.

There’s a lot more. But cheer up. I’ve been able to field 27 published titles, 120 articles, 30 audio talks, seminars at the Wilson House, a talk “near” the Minneapolis convention, several large history conferences and cruises, and three websites where freedom of speech abounds and frequent visits have added up to over 440,000 these days. Others interested in history are beginning to let the cats out of the bags. Plural. Plural cats. Plural bags. Good stuff has just begun to come out of Silkworth. Good stuff has already come out about Clarence Snyder. Interesting facts are emerging from the Lois Wilson stories. Some have dared to mention Bill Wilson’s LSD experiments with his wife, Nell Wing, Father Dowling, and others. Also his spiritualism sessions at Stepping Stones. Also his womanizing and squabbles over his estate. Also his obsession with psychic phenomena, Niacin, and book sales. Also the deadening effect his years of severe depressions had on A.A. ideas and historical accuracy. And more.

For a long time, I felt the foregoing didn’t belong in the picture. They had to do with Bill rather than A.A. I thought. In fact, at Stepping Stones, I was asked to bypass the files on drugs and spooks; and I did. Yet I found that others had trod that route and even published on it in A.A.’s Pass It On. Then I discovered the missing records on Shoemaker at the Episcopal Archives in Texas. And that was a real loss because several had tried to research them, couldn’t find them, and were astonished at the gap. Some assumed they didn’t exist. But they did and do, I believe. And are these things part of the whole picture?

I certainly think so, but not the picture I’m interested in. I was and am focused on helping the newcomer through our great A.A. Fellowship. I was and am focused on discovering every aspect of the recovery program that was used in Akron, and then in Cleveland, and then in the Big Book, and then by the host of writers who emerged during Bill’s 1943-1955 depression period. It’s what worked that counts. It’s accuracy that counts. It’s the complete picture that counts. And it’s the relevance to our getting sober, getting well, getting delivered from the power of darkness, and loving and serving our Heavenly Father that count.

I think the last 16 years have not only unplugged twelve well-springs; they’ve started the streams running. And I don’t think the flood will stop.




Dick’s titles and the foregoing bibliography items can all be found in the title pages of his website: His titles can all be purchased through our new A.A. bookstore: And they can be purchased in bulk and at discounts.


Dick B.'s son Ken
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