Where Did A.A. Come From?

Dick B.
© 2010 Anonymous. All rights reserved.

The Variety of Stories

I’ll venture a guess: When most of us come into the rooms of A.A., we probably don’t hear, or learn, or even care where A.A. came from. Lots of us are sick, confused, frightened, and more worried about our problems than we are about how A.A. began.

There are some other hindrances. Some like to say that A.A. has no teachers. In general, this is true today though there are notable exceptions like those found in well-presented Big Book Seminars. But origins usually take a back seat because the “teachers” haven’t researched or learned the facts. There certainly were good teachers when A.A. first began—Dr. Bob, his wife Anne Smith, Henrietta Seiberling, T. Henry Williams, Reverend Samuel M. Shoemaker, and the Bible! But these vanished with the passage of time. They were replaced with “opinions.” But the most opinionated of the talkers often had more prejudices, misinformation, and lack of knowledge than the people they were talking to. And then there were the historians. A.A. has no official historians. And the great majority of those who venture into this misty scene are historians who have belonged to A.A. but frequently have never painstakingly taken the time to learn or present or cover the complete picture. Finally, as AAs, most of us are strongly urged never to talk beyond our own experience. The problem is that we seldom have had any experience as far as A.A.’s roots go. Further, we are urged to say “I”, instead of “We” and “You” when we hold forth, and the uninformed “Ayes” often win the day despite their inexperience.

Enough of the variety. Let’s talk about the question.

What Most Don’t Know

I had gone to perhaps a thousand meetings, mostly in Marin County, California, by the time I was three years sober. Here’s what little I learned about A.A.’s roots: My sponsor showed me a painting of Bill and Bob, and I had no idea who Bob was. In my 28 day treatment program, we were told to say, “I’m a friend of Bill W.,” if we were asking a stranger for help. One evening, an active AA named Nick softly murmured in our Sunday night meeting that he had a bit of “A.A. trivia” to share. He said it was “Founders Day.” And that’s the last I heard of that for a long time. Finally, a young man who knew I was interested in the Bible (his name was John) came up to me at a Step meeting in San Rafael, after I had been sober about three years. He asked if I knew that A.A. had come from the Bible. I responded that I had never heard such a thing though I had attended over a thousand meetings. He suggested I read DR. BOB and the Good Oldtimers. And I did. And I there got my first glimpse of an A.A. I had never ever heard discussed at my treatment center, my A.A. meetings, or by the many speakers I had heard. Sure enough, A.A. did come from the Bible! Dr. Bob said so in a major speech he gave to AAs in 1948. So I went to A.A.’s International Convention in Seattle to learn more. But I didn’t. I began hearing about the Oxford Group—and not in particularly appealing language. So I started my 20 year quest focusing on the Oxford Group, interviews, travel, and as many useful written materials as I could find. But it was like pulling teeth to attempt extracting accurate details from existing oldtimers, literature, and archives. The best sources were Dr. Bob’s son, his daughter-in-law, his daughter; Congressman John Seiberling and his two sisters; the daughter of T. Henry Williams; and the remaining family of Rev. Samuel M. Shoemaker—his wife and two daughters. Also the two General Service archivists, Nell Wing and Frank Mauser. And a host of Oxford Group activists and leaders I searched out. Yet everywhere I spoke, it was clear to me that the listeners had frequently heard little or nothing about A.A. and the Bible, Dr. Shoemaker, the Oxford Group, or a host of other important elements of the A.A. picture.

The First Part of the Answer

After twenty years of research, I could start here at a number of different places. But, in many ways, our recent findings have been the most important in defining early A.A.’s beginnings. You’d find most of these recent answers in our titles, The Conversion of Bill W. and Dr. Bob of Alcoholics Anonymous. Since publication of those books, we have published The Dick B. Christian Recovery Guide, 2d ed., 2009, and are about to release the third edition. We have also prepared for editing and publication a long-awaited biography of Dr. Bob—The Prince of All Twelfth-Steppers.

As time and this discussion progress, we will detail further what we here present in outline. And the facts are these: There were probably seven major Christian people or organizations whose ideas and practices impacted heavily on where and how A.A. started. The backdrop for all is the Bible; and we’ll discuss that soon.

The seven influences were:

The rescue missions (one of which is where Bill Wilson himself made his decision for Christ in 1934). Jestingly, these missions have been said to provide “soup, soap, and salvation.” But they were highly effective in helping the destitute and the drunk. They did emphasize the Bible. They did invite people to accept Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. And, in the case of A.A. itself, the Calvary Rescue Mission brought both Bill Wilson and his “sponsor” Ebby Thacher to Christ before the earliest recovery days began in New York in 1934. And this conversion involved a practice that was a “must” in early A.A.

The evangelists and revivalists (whose preaching was either heard by Bill and Bob, and or had certainly been impacting on their churches, communities, and families where they were youngsters in Vermont.)

The YMCA had a different focus in its early days from that so often seen today. It was non-denominational in its witnessing; and it was peopled with lay workers who organized Gospel meetings, union meetings, and conversions in the New England of the founders’ youth. It was particularly successful in St. Johnsbury, Vermont, where Dr. Bob was born and raised.

The Salvation Army may not have played directly at the Vermont scene. But its record of helping bums in the slums set a high standard for ideas that permeated early A.A. Harold Begbie’s book, Twice Born Men, was immensely popular among the pioneers. And it told the story of how sometimes burly ex-drunks would approach drunks and criminals in the slums of London, offer them salvation, and (when successful) enlist them in God’s Army—helping others just as they had been helped.

The least known organization, and yet the largest at its peak (about 4.5 million members world-wide) was the Young People’s Christian Endeavor Society. This organization was founded in Portland, Maine in 1881—two years after Dr. Bob was born. Its stated mission was “For Christ and Church.” Its aim was to bring young people back to the church fold; and Dr. Bob’s church, family, and Christian Endeavor activity brought much to the early A.A. Christian techniques—confession of Christ, conversion meetings, prayer meetings, Bible study meetings, Quiet Hour, reading of Christian literature, and “love and service” to others—a slogan A.A. later adopted.

Two other influences have been given too much stress by writers as far as pioneer Akron A.A. is concerned. But they are important because both Dr. Bob and Bill W. started on the road back to sobriety through the efforts of a limited group of Oxford Group people in Akron and in New York. And Bill himself later modified the A.A. program of 1935 so that it incorporated the life-changing ideas of the Oxford Group via the teachings, primarily of an American leader—Reverend Samuel M. Shoemaker, Jr., rector of Calvary Episcopal Church of New York. It was Shoemaker who taught Bill the principles; it was Shoemaker who conferred with Wilson over the Big Book and Twelve Step ideas; and it was Shoemaker whom Bill finally dubbed a “cofounder of A.A.”

These seven influences provided the framework for what first became the Original A.A. program founded in Akron in 1935 as a Christian Fellowship; and for what Bill Wilson later modified to constitute the A.A. “program of recovery” he set forth in A.A.’s basic text Alcoholics Anonymous.

You may find our title Real Twelve Step Fellowship History to be a good overview of the development of A.A.’s earliest days. But what we have said here marks the first of many short discussions about where A.A. really came from.

dickb@dickb.com; www.dickb.com

Gloria Deo

Author's Bio: 

Writer, Historian, Retired attorney, Bible student, CDAAC, and an active and recovered member of the fellowship of Alcoholics Anonymous. Author of 39 published titles on AA History