Alcoholics Anonymous Origins and Early History

What the Searchlights Reveal

Part Three

By Dick B.
© 2011 Anonymous. All rights reserved

Darkness, Be Gone! Let There Be Light

If there is one thing I believe for sure about Alcoholics Anonymous, as I have experienced A.A., for more than 25 years, that one thing is this: It is not Alcoholics Anonymous that needs to go away. It is the darkness about Alcoholics Anonymous History. And the darkness can and will end in the face of solid, complete, accurate, factual knowledge of what has really transpired.

What about A.A. itself? Be sure there is no service to the suffering if the darkness continues. We need not condemn. We need not criticize. We need not leave. We need not look for perfection. We do need to see, hear, and learn the full disclosure of whence A.A. came and what it really did.

In Part One of this series, we posed at least ten questions as to how, why, and what facts of Alcoholics Anonymous History have languished and sat on the shelf for so many years. I raised those questions as a newcomer. They were questions raised by the AAs I sponsored. And the questions inevitably because of the confusion generated. Let the darkness be gone!

In the Part Two article, we pointed to at least twenty-five gaps in Alcoholics Anonymous History accounts. In the face of such a simple, godly, original program, they need never have occurred. But the good news in this Part Three is that we can tell you that (1) the passage of time, (2) an enormous amount of research, and (3) objective digging have substantially answered the cry: Let there be light! Shine it!

Let’s Look First at the Chronology of Events Comprising “Early A.A.”

1926: The Rowland Hazard Story—Obfuscated by Belated Haggling about Dates

The probable date of A.A.’s conception coupled with the events that followed has now been established as 1926, not 1931. This important story has long been clouded and mis-reported due to a pointless debate as to whether and when the New York businessman Rowland Hazard treated with Dr. Carl Gustav Jung in Switzerland. As the years passed, many have attested that the eminent Swiss psychiatrist advised a tortured alcoholic Rowland that he (Jung) could not help him (Rowland) because Rowland had the mind of a chronic alcoholic and therefore was “medically” incurable. On the other hand, Jung held out the hope that Rowland might receive help if he sought and had a “conversion experience.”

The desired recovery was later achieved when Rowland Hazard had returned to the United States, accepted Jesus Christ as his Lord and Savior. and become active in Rev. Sam Shoemaker’s Calvary Episcopal Church and in the Oxford Group in which Shoemaker was a leader. The bottom line? Rowland was relieved of his alcoholism. Few, if any, seemed to ask how and why. The just pointed to the Oxford Group and let it ride.

Until recently, there was nary an accurate report of the critical facts. Rowland placed himself in God’s hand through Jesus Christ.

1931: The Russell Firestone Story: Shelved in Later Disdain for the Oxford Group

The Akron Alcoholics Anonymous History highlight occurred in 1931 for A.A. as the public learned of the seemingly miraculous cure of Russell Firestone’s drunkenness. Russell’s victory occurred on a railroad trip to and from Denver. The passengers were Russell, his father Harvey Firestone, Russell’s friend James Newton, and the Rev. Samuel M. Shoemaker, Jr. Then, on the return trip from Denver to Akron, Rev. Shoemaker took Russell into a train compartment. He led him to accept Jesus Christ as Russell’s Lord and Savior. And the healing of Russell’s drinking was instant and widely acknowledged.

1933: Akron’s Firestone Testimonials, Oxford Group Leaders, and the Message of Hope

All too many writers have linked the founding of A.A. with the Oxford Group, claiming that A.A. emerged from this “First Century Christian Fellowship.” But the claim needs to be tempered by the actual events leading to founding of A.A. in Akron in June, 1935.

As stated in my book, The Akron Genesis of Alcoholics Anonymous, the Russell Firestone healing in 1931 was triggered in part by the zeal of the young Oxford Group activist James Draper Newton. Newton brought Russell’s alcoholism, the Oxford Group’s ideas, and Russell’s acceptance of Jesus Christ to Akron’s doors. And, after the train trip, Newton and the sober Firestone went about the world on behalf of the Oxford Group--serving as witnesses to its life-changing program.

Then, in 1933, the Oxford Group “came to town” (Akron) via the huge testimonial meetings held in pulpits and halls to overflow audiences. The speakers were Oxford Group Founder Dr. Frank Buchman, Russell Firestone, James Newton, and other Oxford Group notables. These widely publicized meetings inspired Dr. Bob’s wife, and later Dr. Bob himself to go to an Oxford Group meeting in Akron, and then to a series of Oxford Group Wednesday meetings at the home of T. Henry Williams in Akron.

1934: The Conglomeration of New York Events that involved Oxford Group people, Rowland Hazard himself, Dr. William D. Silkworth, Ebby Thacher, Calvary Mission,
and Bill Wilson’s acceptance of Jesus Christ at the Mission

Enter Dr. William D. Silkworth and His Advice to Bill about the “Great Physician”

The recent biography of Dr. William D. Silkworth adds a vitally important, and totally
neglected element to the origins, history, and development of early A.A.

Silkworth’s biographer Dale Mitchel goes to great length to stress the advice that Bill received from the little doctor who loved drunks. This event happened on Bill’s third visit to Towns Hospital. The account demonstrates two factors: (a) Bill’s drinking problem had progressed so far and so deeply that Bill was told by Silky that if he didn’t quit, he would die or go insane. (b) Dr. Silkworth then told Bill that the Great Physician Jesus Christ could cure him of his alcoholism.

This latter piece of advice deeply influenced Wilson on the entire subject of acceptance of Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. Bill later referred to Silkworth as a cofounder of A.A. Silkworth was considered a friend to A.A. friends like Dr. Norman Vincent Peale, Rev. Samuel Shoemaker, Charles and Colonel Towns, Frank Amos, and Bill’s brother-in-law Dr. Leonard Strong.

Silkworth himself was a devout Christian. For years he attended Calvary Christian Episcopal Church where Rev. Shoemaker was Rector. Over time, he and Dr. Norman Vincent Peale became very good friends. From the time he worked with his first alcoholic patient at Bellevue, through his last speech before his death in 1951, Silkworth believed a spiritual experience and medical treatment formed the foundation for long-term recovery. And he spoke frequently about the need for a reliance upon God and a firm foundation of spiritual strength in order to handle the obsession to drink.

As stated, Silkworth knew Dr. Normal Vincent Peale and Shoemaker as friends. Peale wrote a detailed account in The Positive Power of Jesus Christ about a seemingly hopeless alcoholic named Chuck who had been advised by Silkworth that he could be cured of alcoholism by the Great Physician Jesus Christ. Chuck accepted Christ, and he was healed—just as Silkworth had promised could happen to both Wilson and Chuck.

Bill was so taken with the Great Physician idea that he mentioned this fact and his reliance on the Great Physician several times in Bill’s own, later, autobiography.

Enter Ebby Thacher: In 1934, in New York, Bill Wilson had been introduced to the Oxford Group by his long-time drinking buddy Ebby Thacher. Ebby had been introduced to the Oxford Group by Rowland Hazard and two others. Ebby told Bill that he had gotten from the three fellows some pretty sensible things out of it, “based on the life of Christ, biblical times” He said he listened carefully and was impressed because they told of things he had been taught as a child, believed, but then tossed aside. Ebby’s biographer also tells us that Ebby was no stranger to religious teaching and church attendance when he was growing up. His family had both Episcopalian and Presbyterian connections. His mother was listed as a member of the First Reformed Church until her death in 1927. And, during one of his school years in Manchester, Vermont, Ebby had lived with Reverend Sidney Perkins family will there. Ebby also said Rowland had had a thorough indoctrination (in the Oxford Group Christian teachings) and “passed as much of this on to me as he could.” The three fellows had related the Oxford Group ideas, their Christian tenets, and the importance of God and prayer to Ebby and then Ebby related them to Bill. The message to Bill appears to have been transmitted to Bill
shortly after Bill had been given the sentence of death or insanity and the option of Jesus Christ as a cure on Bill’s third visit to Towns Hospital. Ebby had accepted Jesus Christ at Calvary Mission and visited Bill to tell Bill of his (Ebby’s) rebirth and deliverance. The details follow:

After what may have been a prior call to Bill’s wife Lois, Bill’s old drinking buddy Ebby Thacher had appeared on the scene—at Bill’s home.

Explaining his new found sobriety, Ebby said to Bill, “I’ve got religion”—an expression Bill later used when he wrote his brother in law about his own new birth at Calvary Mission. Bill asked Ebby: “What kind of religion have you got, Ebby” Ebby replied, “Oh, I don’t think it has got any brand name. I just fell in with a group of people, the Oxford Groups. I don’t go along with all their teachings by any means. But those folks have given me some wonderful ideas: [1] I learned that I had to admit I was licked. [2] I learned that I ought to take stock of myself and confess my defects to another person in confidence. [3] I learned that I needed to make restitution for the harm I had done others. [4] I was told I ought to practice the kind of giving that has no price tag on it, the giving of yourself to somebody. [5] Now I know you are going to gag on this, but they taught me to pray to whatever God I thought there was for the power to carry out these simple precepts. . . This time I felt completely released of the desire, and I have not had
a drink for months.”

Ebby also told Bill he had almost been incarcerated for inebriety. Three Oxford Group men (one of whom was Rowland Hazard) rescued Ebby from the judge. They taught him Christian principles and about the efficacy of prayer. They also indoctrinated Ebby with the Oxford Group’s life-changing principles. Rowland Hazard had told Ebby about Dr. Jung’s advice—advice, said Bill, “consolidated his [Ebby’s] his condition that he would not get over drinking by himself or by any resource of psychology or psychiatry.” Ebby also told Bill “finally how he’d tried prayer just as an experiment and had found to his surprise that it worked.” He further explained that the Oxford Group men had lodged him [Ebby] in Shoemaker’s Calvary Mission. There Ebby accepted Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. In Shoemaker terms, Ebby had—like Rowland Hazard--“found God.” He was “saved.” Ebby was (as Bill observed) born again. He was healed for a time. And he carried this information to Bill shortly after Bill had been told by Dr. Silkworth that he [Bill] could be relieved by the power of Jesus Christ.

Bill’s Acceptance of Jesus Christ at Calvary Mission:

Bill was so influenced by Silkworth’s advice, and then by Ebby’s acceptance of Jesus Christ at the altar, that Bill himself went first to Calvary Church to hear Ebby give his testimony there. Having heard Ebby delivering the message from the pulpit, Bill concluded that perhaps he could get the same help at Calvary Mission that Ebby had received through his salvation. Bill decided that perhaps the Great Physician—of whom Dr. Silkworth had spoken—could help him as well. Bill therefore went to Calvary Mission. In explicit detail, Bill explained what he saw, heard, and did at Calvary Mission. He told the entire A.A. Convention at St. Louis: “There were some hymns and prayers. Then Tex, the leader, exhorted us. Only Jesus could save, he said. . . . Certain men got up and made testimonials. Numb as I was I felt interest and excitement rising. Then came the call [the call to come to the altar, to accept Jesus Christ into one’s life as Savior, and to be saved]. Some men were starting forward to the rail. Unaccountably impelled, I started too. . . . I knelt among the shaking penitents. Maybe then and there for the very first time, I was penitent, too. Something touched me. I guess it was more than that, I was hit. I felt a wild impulse to talk. Jumping to my feet, I began. Afterward I could never remember what I said. I only knew that I was really in earnest and that people seemed to pay attention. . . . Ebby, who at first been embarrassed to death, told me with relief that I had done all right and had “given my life to God.”

Though Bill was unable to recall the details of his surrender at the altar, there is ample proof that he there accepted Jesus Christ as his Lord and Savior. For one thing, Mrs. Samuel M. Shoemaker, Jr. told me [Dick B.] that she was present when Bill “made his decision for Jesus Christ.” For another, Bill’s wife Lois stated in a recorded speech she gave in Dallas, Texas: “And he [her husband Bill Wilson] went up, and really, in very great sincerity, did hand over his life to Christ.” Shoemaker’s assistant minister Rev. W. Irving Harris confirmed the rebirth that Bill had experienced: “It was at a meeting at Calvary Mission that Bill himself was moved to declare that he had decided to launch out as a follower of Jesus Christ.”

As you will see in a moment, Bill himself wrote in his autobiography that he had been born again; and, then, after getting drunk and despondent once again, Bill decided he should go to Towns Hospital. He said he believed that the Great Physician could heal him-just as Ebby had been healed.

Bill emphatically confirmed this new status. Twice he wrote, “For sure I’d been born again. Speaking to his wife of the events at the Mission, Bill told Lois he” had found
the answer.” Speaking sarcastically about the fact that Bill got drunk after the Mission, one biographer said: “Salvation did not take hold for a few more besotted days.” I [Dick B.] found a manuscript at Stepping Stones Archives. In it, Bill had written, in language almost identical to that of Ebby’s, after Ebby had told Bill he got religion at the Mission, Bill wrote, “I’ve found religion.”

Bill’s Last Trip to Towns Hospital, and His Experience Sensing God’s Presence

Bill apparently stayed drunk for two or three days. These followed his born again experience at Calvary Mission. But he kept pondering his own mission experience. Bill set out drunk and in despair for Towns Hospital. On the way, he decided he had better call on the Great Physician, of whom Dr. Silkworth had spoken and to whom, Bill had “surrendered” his life. Remembering that Silkworth had told him that he could be cured by that Great Physician, Bill twice proclaimed, “I was on my way to be cured.” Appearing also to have recalled that, at the Mission, he had “found religion” and “found” Jesus Christ at the altar call, Bill arrived at the hospital. He said “I waved the bottle and shouted, ‘At last, Doc, I’ve found something!’

At the hospital, Bill decided to call on the Great Physician. He then cried out to God for help; and instantly he had the experience in which he sensed the presence of the “God of the Scriptures” (“God of the Scriptures” was the specific language Bill used). Bill never drank again. These events are virtually unknown to most AAs today. But they were frequently repeated to early AAs at their request. Bill’s message of cure by the “Lord” was finally and plainly described on page 191 of the most recent edition of Alcoholics Anonymous. There, Bill’s exact words to A.A. Number Three’s wife were: “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.”

Thus, Bill had made his way to Towns Hospital for the last time. There Bill cried out to God for help. He had his much-described experience, sensing the presence of “the God of the Scriptures,” and he was cured—never again touching a drop of liquor. Bill and his wife Lois, accompanied by Ebby and Ebby’s Oxford Group friend Shep Cornell, began “constantly” attending Oxford Group meetings in New York—primarily those led by Rev. Sam Shoemaker.

Bill’s Futile Efforts to Convert Others Once He Was Discharged from Towns:

Bill’s immediate cure hastened his release from Towns Hospital for the last time. The date was December 18, 1934. And at Towns, Bill had concluded that he had a mission to carry his message to alcoholics all over the world. He became a fervent message carrier. He rushed to the streets, to the hospital, to the mission, to fleabag hotels, to Oxford Group meetings. He had a Bible under his arm. He told drunks to give their lives to God. And he even joined a processional from Calvary Church led by Shoemaker in full vestment. The procession carried a sign “Jesus Christ changes lives.” And Bill mounted a platform at Madison Square and delivered his testimony.

Bill’s feverish message-carrying racing and “sharing for witness” produced absolutely no lasting results. As Dr. Bob’s last major address explained: “He hadn’t created a single convert, not one. As we express it, no one had jelled.”

Did Bill spend six hours witnessing to any of these street people, as he later did with Dr. Bob? Did he tell them about his new birth at Calvary Mission? Did he, like the Salvation Army and other forbears, offer to lead the penitent drunks to God through Jesus Christ? Did he explain to them Silkworth’s advice that the Great Physician could cure them? Did he tell them about his dramatic experience at Towns Hospital where he actually experienced the presence of the God of the Scriptures when he called out to God for help?

I don’t know, but he did ask Dr. Silkworth about the reason for his complete failure.

A word or two about what Dr. Bob called the Oxford Group “association” by Dr. Bob and Bill. The important thing to remember about these Oxford Group associations by Bob (in Akron starting in 1933), and by Bill (in New York starting in late 1934) is that they did not produce the fruit of sobriety for either Dr. Bob or Bill. Beginning in late December. 1934 and the spring of 1935, Wilson attended Oxford Group meetings and chased drunks trying to get them sober. But Bill had no success at all. As to Dr. Bob, he went to Oxford Group meetings in Akron for two and a half years. But he did not want to get sober, nor did he get sober in any of those meetings.

Silkworth’s Advice, Bill’s Change of Strategy, and the Last Link in the Chain

Bill told the entire St. Louis A.A. Convention:”Just before leaving for Akron, Dr. Silkworth gave me a great piece of advice. . . .”Look Bill, you’re having nothing but failure because you are preaching at those alcoholics. You are talking to them about the Oxford Group precepts of being absolutely honest, absolutely pure, absolutely unselfish, and absolutely loving. This is a very big order. No wonder they point their finger to their heads and go out and get drunk. Why don’t you turn your strategy the other way around. . . . [William James says] ‘that deflation in depth is the foundation of most spiritual experiences?. . . [Dr. Carl Jung in Zurich told a certain alcoholic, the one who later helped sober up your friend Ebby, that his only hope of salvation was a spiritual experience. . . . No, Bill, you’ve got the cart before the horse. You’ve got to deflate these people first. So give them the medical business, and give it to them hard. . . . [Tell them about the allergy and obsession] that condemns them to go mad or die if they keep on drinking. Coming from another alcoholic, one alcoholic talking to another, maybe that will crack those tough egos down. Only then can you begin to try out your other medicine, the ethical principles you have picked up from the Oxford Group.”

Now (said Bill to the Convention)—talking with Dr. Bob—I remembered all that Dr. Silkworth had said. So I went very slowly on the fireworks of religious experience. I just talked away about my own case until he got a good identification with me, until he began to say, ‘Yes, that’s me, I’m like that. . . . In our first conversation I bore down heavily on the medical hopelessness of Dr. Bob’s case, freely using Dr. Silkworth’s words describing the alcoholic’s dilemma, the “obsession plus the allergy” . . . . What really did hit him hard was the medical business, the verdict of inevitable annihilation. And the fact that I was an alcoholic and knew what I was talking about from personal experience made the blow a shattering one. . . . You see our talk was completely a mutual thing. I had quit preaching. I knew that I needed this alcoholic as much as he needed me. This was it. And this mutual give and take is at the very heart of the A.A.’s Twelfth Step work today. This is how to carry the message. The final missing link was located right there in my first talk with Dr. Bob.”

1935: Bill was put in touch with Dr. Bob in Akron. The two men clicked, and the Akron A.A. Christian Fellowship was founded in June, 1935; and its first group, Akron Number One, was founded in July of 1935

The Akron Christian Fellowship program founded by Dr. Bob and Bill in June of 1935 was Bible based. It was not Oxford Group based.

Right or wrong, one history writer said that the wife of A.A. oldtimer Earl Treat (who got sober about August of 1937) said: “Right after Earl joined, the Oxford Group threw them out and said they didn’t want them any more.” The wife of Treat was also recorded as saying: “There was no name for the group. It was not Alcoholics Anonymous; it was nothing. But the Oxford Group. . . helped in many, many ways: in marital affairs, in finances, anything you could think of. However, they had never coped with alcoholism. But they did welcome these 13 men (in 1935 and ’37, in Akron, Ohio), and took them into their group where they stayed for a short time, and then I think the Oxford Group figured they couldn’t help very much in alcoholism. So they suggested that they get out and form their own group. Which they did.”

Its prime Bible emphasis in the Akron Christian Fellowship was on these words which came from Dr. Bob: “But we were convinced that the answer to our problems was in the Good Book. To some of us older ones, the parts we found absolutely essential were the Sermon on the Mount, the thirteenth chapter of First Corinthians, and the Book of James.”

Akron’s Christian program included qualification of newcomers, hospitalization, required belief in God, required acceptance of Jesus Christ as Lord, required Bible study, required reading of non-Oxford Group devotionals and Christian literature, required old fashioned prayer meetings, recommended Christian fellowship and attendance at a religious service of choice.

But, as Dr. Bob stated, Akron A.A. had no Twelve Steps, no Twelve Traditions, no Big Book, no life-changing program, no drunkalogs, and no meetings like the Oxford Group’s meetings on the East Coast. Instead, the alcoholic squadron in Akron had regular, daily Christian fellowship meetings and daily attendance at Anne Smith’s Quiet Time where the Bible was read, prayers were uttered, guidance was sought, and discussion of items largely from Anne Smith’s journal were regular fare.

Returning to the important meeting between Bill and Dr. Bob, the following Akron events preceded it: Bill set out to Akron on a business deal that failed. Just before Bill arrived, Dr. Bob had been persuaded by the little Oxford Group led by Henrietta Shoemaker to confess that he was a “secret drinker.” He had read an immense amount of Oxford Group literature. He had “refreshed [his] memory of the Good Book” by reading the Bible from cover to cover three times. He had attended church. But he told Henrietta he was probably just one of the “wanna wanna” guys. He didn’t want to quit, and he didn’t. But, after he admitted to the tiny group that he had his drinking problem, he was asked if he would like to pray for his deliverance. He replied, “Yes.” He dropped to the floor on his knees with the others present and prayed—prayers that were soon to be answered.

Next came the seemingly miraculous phone call from Wilson to Henrietta Seiberling.
Bill told Henrietta he was a rum hound from New York, was a member of the Oxford Group, and needed to talk to a drunk. Being an Oxford Group activist herself, Henrietta readily understood Bill’s “sharing for witness” idea. She was sure the prayers had been answered. She thought to herself: “This is manna from heaven.” And she arranged the talk.

The meeting between Wilson and Dr. Bob was at her home. It lasted six hours. Dr. Bob remarked in his personal story written at a later time that Bill had been cured by the very spiritual means he had been using. But Bob believed Wilson talked his language. And though he said he had heard it all before, he saw that Bill was demonstrating his own effective witnessing—service aimed at someone who needed help. And it was this “service” aspect that Dr. Bob felt he had not been using.

1937: The Year of Documented Success and of the Wilsons’ Oxford Group Departure.

The Wilsons were (to use the words of Bill W.’s wife) “kicked out” of the Oxford Group in 1937. The Oxford Group influence in Akron stemmed, as T. Henry put it, from a “clandestine lodge”--focused on helping drunks. It did not focus on Oxford Group founder Frank Buchman’s major effort of and world changing through life-changing. The Oxford Group movement itself was busy saving a “drunken world,” as its founder put it.

By November, 1937, the Akron 7 point program was well positioned (as illuminated by and in the Frank Amos reports). Bill and Dr. Bob had “counted noses” and found at least a 50% success rate among about 40 of the serious fellowship alkies,

1937-1938: Work Began on the New Oxford-Group Oriented Program Bill Developed.

Bill had asked permission to write a book telling others about the program. Bill received permission by a split vote in Akron. Bill returned to New York and began a flurry of activity on the book. It meant: (1) Partnering with Henry Parkhurst in promoting the book as a cure for alcoholism. (2) Forming an ill-fated pseudo corporation to publish the book. (3) Working with Rev. Sam Shoemaker on Twelve Step and Big Book language. (4) Preparing many manuscripts—the principal one now lost; and. (5) Preparing the final printer’s manuscript for publication.

He attributed the language of at least Steps 2 through 11 to the Oxford Group as led in America by Rev. Shoemaker. The other two—Steps One and Twelve—Bill attributed to Dr. Silkworth and Professor William James.

The Seldom Discussed or Learned Picture of the Founding in Akron and Events Thereafter

One need only read Dr. Bob’s last major address in Detroit in 1948 to see a Bible-based program that is very different from the Oxford-Group based ideas in Bill W.’s Big Book.

The Akron A.A. Christian Fellowship Program: First, Dr. Bob pointed out that when he and Bill Wilson led A.A. Number Three to sobriety, they had no Steps. No Traditions. No drunkalogs. And they had no Big Book and no meetings as we know them today. Then Dr. Bob pointed out that he and Bill had spent many hours and much effort until the wee time in the morning discussing the basic ideas from the Bible that “must have” formed the basis of the Twelve Steps, as he put it. Dr. Bob also stated that the oldtimers believed the answer to their problems was in the Bible. He said they considered the Book of James, Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, and 1 Corinthians in the Bible to be “absolutely essential” to the early program.

Here are the additional factual statements that confirm the importance of the Book of James, Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, and 1 Corinthians 13: (1) Bill Wilson himself and others pointed out how the Book of James was their favorite. (2) Both Bill and Bob stated that Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount contained the underlying spiritual philosophy of A.A. (3) A pamphlet that came out of Akron in the 1940’s contained a “lead” given by Dr. Bob in Youngstown, Ohio. Dr. Bob’s words were summarized by A.D. Le Minte of the Youngstown, Ohio Vindicator. [Dr. Bob said:] “Members of Alcoholics Anonymous begin the day with a prayer for strength and a short period of Bible reading. They find the basic messages they need in the Sermon on the Mount, in Corinthians and the Book of James.” (4) In an interview, an Akron oldtimer Duke P. said this about the Akron King School A.A. meeting: “No one read from the Big Book. Once in a while, the Chairperson would read something from a Bible if the passage related directly to his story.” Duke remembers the Chairperson reading from the Book of James and Dr. Bob reading Corinthians 1:13.

It takes only a moment to see that these Bible specific ideas were neither mentioned by nor incorporated by Bill Wilson in his Big Book and Twelve Steps. The early A.A. program was succinctly summarized by Frank Amos in the seven points summarized in DR. BOB and the Good Oldtimers. See page 131. That summary clearly states that the Akron program did not embody the Oxford Group program. Moreover, there is no significant evidence that the early AAs embraced the Oxford Group’s twenty-eight life-changing ideas.

The Akron program embodied many special techniques peculiar to the Akron alcoholic squadron and its Christian Fellowship. Qualification of a newcomer was required, and no alcoholic was admitted until he made clear he wanted to abstain from drink permanently. Drunks were hospitalized. The Bible was read to them in the hospital. All were required to declare their belief in God. All were required to accept Jesus as Lord in a special ceremony resembling that in James 5:16. All were required to study the Bible and participate in old fashioned prayer meetings. All were required to observe Quiet Time. All were given Christian literature and devotionals to read and use. All fellowshipped together in much the same way as the Apostles as described in the Book of Acts. And these practices caused many to agree with Albert Scott who chaired a meeting on behalf of Rockefeller and declared: “Why this is first century Christianity. What can we do to help?” And all were required to go out and help other drunks get well. Many tried to conform to the “Four Absolutes” of the Oxford Group—standards developed long before there was an Oxford Group. But almost all the Bible-study, prayer meetings, reading of Christian literature, Quiet Time observances, and acceptance of Jesus Christ could be traced to several origins that existed during Dr. Bob’s youth and were practiced long before there was either an A.A. or an Oxford Group.

They can be traced to the Young People’s Christian Endeavor Society—founded in 1881. They can be traced to the YMCA, Salvation Army, and Rescue Missions founded in the mid-1800’s. They can be traced to the famed evangelists of the later 1800’s who were widely at work and widely known at the time Bill Wilson and Dr. Bob were youngsters. These included Dwight Moody, Ira Sankey, F. B. Meyer, and Allen Folger. And even the Four Absolutes were the product of Dr. Robert E. Speer and his book The Principles of Jesus. Those Four “Standards,” as they were often called, were taught and expanded by Professor Henry B. Wright at the beginning of the next century –again before either A.A. or the Oxford Group existed. The Principles of Jesus was published in 1902 before A.A. and Oxford Group existed. Wright’s book, The Will of God and a Man’s Lifework was published in 1909--again before either A.A. or the Oxford Group existed.

The Proclaimed Successes of the Akron Program: The early A.A. practices were defined and then tested by November of 1937. At that time, Dr. Bob and Bill met at Bob’s home in Akron. They “counted noses” of those real alcoholics who had gone to any lengths as the program required. There about forty. Twenty had never had a drink. Another ten had apparently gotten drunk but returned and were showing improvement. This electrified the founders. And they said so.

The Rockefeller leaders convened a meeting in their offices in New York. Present were Dr. Bob and Akronites; Bill Wilson and New Yorkers; Bill’s brother-in-law; Dr. William Silkworth; and four Rockefeller representatives. They listened to the stories of the alcoholics. They had read the Amos reports. And they saw the handwritten memo by Dr. Bob on his office stationary detailing the names and sobriety achievements of members up to that date. These showed about a seventy-five percent success rate. And Dr. Silkworth then pointed out that he knew the program, had treated several, and that—in his opinion—all were permanently cured.

In the first decade of A.A.’s existence, articles and columns appeared in magazines and newspapers across America. Today those materials are available in a scrap book on sale at A.A.’s New York headquarters. They tell of dozens of alcoholics who claimed cure by the power of God. And each of the first three AAs had declared that they had been cured. In fact, one proposed cover for the Big Book of 1939 was green. It was simple. It depicted an alcoholic and a cocktail glass. And it said of the book “Their Pathway to a Cure.”

In the period before he completed the Big Book, Bill claimed that the program had been Oxford Group in nature and involved six “word-of-mouth” ideas.

However, the Oxford Group never had any “Steps.” Not one. Not six. Not Twelve. And Bill said “Though these principles were advocated according to the whim or liking of each of us, and though in Akron and Cleveland they still stuck to the O.G. absolutes of honesty, purity, unselfishness, and love, this was the gist of our message.” There was much disagreement about the nature of these six ideas. More important, he penned at least three different versions of the six ideas, as he recalled them. One talked about God. One talked about God as we understood Him. And one talked about “whatever God you thought there was.” These variations have seldom, if ever, been made known to the A.A. fellowship in any organized way.

Next, on the face of it, Bill certainly fashioned a far different recovery program for his proposed Big Book than the Akron Christian Fellowship program of 1935 so succinctly summarized on page 131 of A.A.’s own DR.BOB and the Good Oldtimers. Ultimately, Bill claimed the new program derived from Professor William James (long dead), from Dr. William D. Silkworth, and primarily from the Oxford Group teachings of Rev. Sam Shoemaker. He did not mention the Bible. He did not mention the Akron program and its seven points. He did not mention Bible studies, conversions to God through Jesus Christ, Quiet Times, belief in God, acceptance of Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, the Christian Fellowship, or even Richard Peabody—a lay therapist who died drunk but whose language about no cure for alcoholism was borrowed by Bill and interjected into instructions for one of the Steps.

Even though Bill omitted such much from the Original Akron program, we now know that Bill said, “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,” and in one place the expression “on our knees” was used. Praying to God on one’s knees was still a big affront to Henry [Parkhurst].” But Bill had jettisoned many pages containing biblical and Christian materials.

The Great Compromise with the Atheists in April 1939

The Book That Started It All, coupled with extensive remarks in Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age, dramatically shows all elements of the Great Compromise. The proof in the very expensive publication of scans of the “original” printer’s manuscript. These contain hundreds of hand-written changes in the manuscript. In Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age, Bill had written at page 169: “Nothing now remained except to prepare the printer’s copy of the book. We selected one of the mimeographs, and in Henry’s clear handwriting all the corrections were transferred to it. There were few large changes but the small ones were very numerous. The copy was hardly legible and we wondered if the printer would take it, heavily marked up as it was.”

What Transpired Before the Compromise: Bill had hardly emphasized the activities that preceded the changes.

Bill’s Word-Of-Mouth “Six” Steps: First of all, Bill had written about his so-called word-of-mouth program. He said: “Since Ebby’s visit to me in the fall of 1934 we had gradually evolved what we called “the word-of-mouth program.” (But we have seen no mention of this by Dr. Bob or the Akron people.) Bill went on: “Most of the basic ideas had come from the Oxford Groups, William James, and Dr. Silkworth. Though subject to considerable variation, it all boiled down into a pretty consistent procedure which comprised six steps.” It is very clear from A.A.’s own “Pass It On” and from the writings of Oxford Group employee, writer, and activist T. Willard Hunter that the Oxford Group had no steps at all. Not Twelve. Not six. Not one! However, Bill’s wife—who perhaps had the clearest mind in the Wilson family—did plainly claim that there were six “Oxford Group precepts.” She said they were in substance: (1) surrender your life to God. (2) take a moral inventory. (3) confess your sins to God and another human being. (4) Make restitution. (5) give of yourself to others with no demand for return. (6) pray to God for help to carry out these principles. She added mention of the four “Absolutes” – “moral standards by which every thought and action should be tested.”

Lois Wilson’s Summary: In a moment’s time, a reader can see from Lois’s comments that her version of the “six” precepts very much resemble the starting point for Bill’s Twelve Steps. They unequivocally mention God. They mention a moral inventory. They mention confession of sins to God. They mention restitution and working with others. And they specifically mention prayer to God!

Anne Smith’s Summary: It is remarkable how closely Lois Wilson’s understanding of the six Oxford Group precepts resemble almost identical language and approach as expressed by Dr. Bob’s wife in her journal she shared with alcoholics and their families. I have devoted a whole chapter in Anne Smith’s Journal to the Twelve Steps—one by one—and what Anne had to say that resembled each of those Big Book Steps.

In brief, you can see that Dr. Bob’s wife Anne covered Lois’s enumerated six ideas with (1) “Surrender is a simple act of will. What do we surrender? Our life. When? At a certain definite moment. How? O God, manage me because I can’t manage myself.” (page 20, italics added). (2) “Test your thoughts. It is possible to receive suggestions from your subconscious mind. Check your thoughts by the four standards of Christ , , , , Make the moral test, 4 Standards.” (p.32). (3) “Sharing in relationship to the Gospel: 1. Matthew 3:6 Sins Confessed. . . . I must share to be honest with God, myself & others.” (pp. 38-39). (4) “Any restitution I won’t make. . . Resentments to be faced and set right. . . Restitution to be made.” (p. 48). (5) “Start the person on a new life with simple, concrete and definite suggestions, regarding Bible study, prayer, overcoming temptation and service to others.” (p.78). (6) “Claim from God humility, patience, courage, faith and love. . . . The strength of a man’s decision is his willingness to be held to it. Stretched as God wants me to be stretched—consistent living, discipline, no letting down, no retiring age, a life spent in action. The proportion—thinking and living for other people.” (p. 78).

Back now to Bill’s renditions of his so-called six “word of mouth” ideas.

The problem is that Bill had many ways of phrasing them. He said there was no common agreement on their content. And they do not, in any significant way, resemble the 7 points of the Akron program or the 16 practices of the Akron pioneers. But here are several versions, as Bill expressed them, of his alleged six ideas.

(1) Bill listed one version in Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age writing. He mentioned a moral inventory “of our defects or sins.” His sixth idea said: “We prayed to whatever God we thought there was.” He then says, on page 160: “This was the substance of what, by the fall of 1938, we were telling newcomers.” 1938! But there are two other versions written by Bill himself.

(2) In July of 1953, Bill wrote a Grapevine Article now embodied in The Language of the Heart. There he spoke of what he claimed was “the gist of our message to incoming alcoholics up to 1939, when our present Twelve Steps were put to paper.” 1939! And these “six” ideas were much different in language and intent. Bill made no mention of a “moral inventory of sins.” He changed “we were licked” to “we were powerless over alcohol.” Most important, he changed the language “We prayed to whatever God we thought there was” to “We prayed to God to help us to do these things.” This language is quite consistent with Bill’s claim that when he wrote the manuscript of the Big Book, he had always used the unqualified word “God.”

(3) In New York Bill’s former secretary and A.A.’s first archivist Nell Wing handed me a handwritten memo in Bill’s own hand. Bill had told Nell that he had written a memo on the six “steps.” The hand-written memo said, “For Ed.” It was signed, “Ever, Bill W.” It was dated “Apr/1953.” And it was titled, “Original A.A. Steps.” And I have set it out in full in my New Light on Alcoholism title on pages 551 and 552. Bill used the word “hopeless” instead of “licked” or “powerless.” He wrote “honest with self” inse\tead of “moral inventory.” He wrote “honest with another” instead of mentioning one’s self and God or confession of “sins.” He wrote “Made amends” instead of restitution. He wrote helped others without demand. And then he used the phrase “Prayed to God as you understand Him.”

(4) And then there is a highly suspect list of an alleged “six steps” attributed to Dr. Bob. The list uses language far more resembling Bill’s Step language than any language of Dr. Bob’s. It is contained in a personal story of Earl Treat of Chicago. It appears in the Second Edition of the Big Book (published in 1955) at page 292—some years after Dr. Bob’s death. And it uses the following ideas, all typical of Bill Wilson language. Here it is: (1) “Complete deflation.” (2) Dependence and guidance from a Higher Power.” (3) “Moral Inventory.” (4) “Confession.” (5) “Restitution.” (6) “Continued work with other alcoholics.” We have concluded from Dr. Bob’s handwritten roster lodged in the Rockefeller Archives that Treat got sober in July or August of 1937.

One lady who moderated her own posts on the internet and excluded those she didn’t like posted two interviews in 2002 that purported to be of Treat’s wife. Treat’s wife made no mention of the language or practice of any steps because there were none. And the Oxford Group had none. The wife said Dr. Bob took her husband “through the steps in one afternoon.” She mentions none of the language whatever about the “steps” and no language resembling that inserted in the Big Book in 1955. She said that
Earl had a small group, was a nervous wreck not knowing what they could do or talk about. Earl finally said “Well we better pattern ourselves after the Oxford Group.” The wife said: “And they had used the Bible. Of course a lot of these people had not read a Bible forever. But we got down the old Bible and brushed it off, and when they came, they picked out a chapter and it was read. Then they discussed it. That was the first meeting. . . The next thing they decided upon was a quiet time. . . . He was also to offer a prayer, ask for guidance, and at night when he came home, to review what had happened to him, and also to offer a prayer of thankfulness” An earlier post quoted the wife.
“There was no Big Book yet and no literature except various religious pamphlets. The meeting lasted an hour and closed with the Lord’s Prayer.”

The Compromise Changes Apparent in the Printer’s Manuscript: They show the attempts to delete the word “God.” They show the insertion of “as we understood Him” in italics after the word “God.” They show that the idea of “choose your own conception” of “a” god was a last minute handwritten insertion that had never been attributed to Ebby in the many manuscripts I found at Stepping Stones or even in the working manuscript in April.

In his belated history of early A.A., Bill explained the compromise with the atheists in very specific terms. He pointed out that four people only—Bill Wilson, his partner Henry Parkhurst, his Christian “southern friend” John Henry Fitzhugh Mayo, and the office secretary Ruth Hock—had agreed to the changes to placate the atheists. They deleted the word “God” from Step Two. The changed the word “God” in Step Three to “God as we understood Him.” They deleted the word “on our knees.” And they substituted “God as we understood Him” for “God” in Step Eleven. Bill hailed these changes as a great contribution for the atheists and agnostics. Bill asserted that “God” was still there, but in terms that anyone could understand.

The compromise, he said, was the result of vigorous pleas, threats, and arguments from his partner Henry Parkhurst. And Bill’s wife Lois said there had been an agreement on a “universal” program since not all drunks were Christians.

The Importance of Learning, Disseminating, and Applying the Previously Missed Facts

This three-part discussion of darkness and light was not undertaken to change Alcoholics Anonymous. Nor undertaken to change the Twelve Steps. Nor to alter the history of A.A. Nor to insert unsupported facts. Nor to encourage in A.A. a battle over the views of those who argue with atheists or agnostics or those in present-day AAs who don’t believe and don’t want to believe in anything at all. Nor to return A.A. to the Christian Fellowship and Bible-based program it founded in 1935. Nor to disavow or change a word of the present language of the Twelve Steps or of the Big Book itself.

Those bridges have long been crossed. A.A. today is what it is. It no longer requires belief in God. It no longer talks about the Bible. It no longer holds old fashioned prayer meetings. It no longer observes Quiet Time. It no longer distributes Christian literature. It no longer asks that members of one sect, denomination, or religion agree with A.A. itself or with another sect, denomination, or religion. Or with atheists, agnostics, humanists, and unbelievers. You may believe what you wish, belong to what you will, read what you like, and worship and pray where you choose, whatever outbursts in meetings may cause you to believe otherwise.

A.A. is open to anyone—anyone at all—who desires to quit drinking. It is not a church. It is not a denomination. It is not a Christian fellowship. It claims that any two alcoholics who meet together for purposes of sobriety can call themselves an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting.

Its Twelve Traditions, the changes in its Twelve Steps and Big Book, and the ever-increasing “Conference-approved literature” flowing out of its headquarters have, however, made it very restrictive and even punitive in word and deed when confronted with statements by members about their own experiences and beliefs as to religion, church, Christianity, God, Jesus Christ, the Bible, or the Holy Spirit. Such behavior is not appropriate though some of the letters, phone calls, and visits from “trusted servants” and various offices may do so anyway. But drunks don’t “enlist” in A.A. Nor were the “drafted” into A.A. And, from my experience, though they are sometimes intimidated by fear, they don’t take “orders” from anyone.

It is now common knowledge among A.A. members that the restrictive techniques have been voiced, utilized, and abused by some (probably only a small overreaching few) to prevent AAs from mentioning God, Jesus Christ, and the Bible. To prevent them from reading or bringing to a meeting any non-Conference-approved literature including the Bible. They have been used by sponsors, group representatives, A.A. offices, and A.A. “trusted servants” to suppress actions, expressions, meeting chatter, and heart-felt talk about one’s own belief and religion. And they have been used by members, sponsors, and A.A. offices to censor and censure materials with which some “leader” or “trusted servant” or member believes to be unsuitable. These actions also are inappropriate. They have not ever been authorized by the fellowship members at large. And they clearly fly in the face of the actions, practices, and words of A.A.’s cofounders during the early years.

These three articles will not, could not, and would not prevent the disruptive and wrongful acts of those who seemingly do evil. Nor do they encourage controversy, abandonment, criticism, or flight.

These articles do add, in all sincerity that, with all its warts and unjustifiable actions, A.A. is highly regarded by most of its fellowship members, as well as by many other folks and organizations connected with recovery. Moreover, if AAs today are supplied with the missing historical facts, they can stand on their own convictions. They can read A.A.’s Steps and Big Book carefully. They can consult and utilize A.A. and its Conference-approved literature. They can become familiar with Alcoholics Anonymous History. And, without contrary mandates, litigation and controversy, achieve the same benign results that Dr. Bob and the pioneers achieved during the fifteen years form A.A.’s founding to Dr. Bob’s death.

Dr. Bob has never been dethroned. His remarks and writings have never been thrown out. His partner Bill and he never crossed swords. And if one reads the talks the two made together and the writings the two produced alongside each other, that person need not conclude that A.A. is against God or Jesus Christ or the Bible or the gift of the Holy Spirit, or any sect, or any denomination, or any church, or any religion.

As Alcoholics Anonymous History and Alcoholics Anonymous itself demonstrate: A.A.’s primary purpose was, has been, and is today, to help the alcoholic who still suffers. And the facts in these articles should make that help for a newcomer much more effective for those who want or offer God’s help; for those who lean on the tried and true techniques of “old school A.A.” And also for those who freely choose to serve the fellowship and those it helps.

Author's Bio: 

Writer, Historian, Retired attorney, Bible student, CDAAC, and an active recovered AA member with over 25 years of continuous sobriety. Published 42 titles and over 800 articles.