Alcoholics Anonymous & History of AA
Part One: The Oxford Group and Jesus Christ
The Three Factors Explored in this Series
This is an exploratory article on the relevance of three different subjects to each other. And also on the relevance of each subject to the cure of alcoholism. The three subjects are: (1) Alcoholics Anonymous. (2) A.A. cofounder Bill Wilson's decision for Jesus Christ at Calvary Rescue Mission in New York in late 1934. (3) The position of the Oxford Group on conversion to God through Jesus Christ and its relationship to the cure of alcoholism.
Varieties of Views about the Oxford Group and “Christianity”
The Foreword to the Second Edition of Alcoholics Anonymous speaks of Bill Wilson’s having “been in contact with the Oxford Groups of that day.” It continues, “Though he could not accept all the tenets of the Oxford Groups, he was convinced of the need for moral inventory, confession of personality defects, restitution to those harmed, helpfulness to others, and the necessity of belief in and dependence upon God” (Alcoholics Anonymous, 4th ed., page xvi).
Bill Wilson’s wife Lois made these comments: “Alcoholics Anonymous (yet to be formed at that time) owes a great debt to the Oxford Group. We learned from them what to do, but perhaps even more important, what not to do. The Oxford Group was an international evangelical movement started by an American, Frank Buchman, a Lutheran minister. . . . The Oxford Group precepts were in substance: surrender your life to God, take a moral inventory; confess your sins to God and another human being; make restitution; give of yourself to others with no demand for return; pray to God for help to carry out these principles” (Lois Remembers, 1979, page 92)
Ernest Kurtz, who did his “history of Alcoholics Anonymous” before any of the recent research on A.A. and the Oxford Group made these comments: “Ebby [who brought the Oxford Group to Bill Wilson’s attention] did go on to explain quietly some things about the Oxford Group, its non-denominational nature, the importance of taking stock of oneself, confessing one’s defects, and the willingness to make restitution; that one could choose one’s on concept of “God”—after using the term once, Bill noted. Ebby spoke instead of ‘another power’ or a ‘higher power.” (Not-God, 1979, page 17).
Serenity: A Companion for Twelve Step Recovery (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1990) made these comments at pages 16-17: “Alcoholics Anonymous was adapted from a Christian revival organization referred to as the Oxford Group. . . . Dr. Frank Buchman, a Lutheran minister of Pennsylvania Dutch stock, was the founder of the Oxford Group. This was the parent group of Alcoholics Anonymous, which, in turn, is the source of the Twelve Step recovery process.” [Speaking of Buchman’s experience in a little church in England] “Spiritually transformed, he was filled with an intense feeling of life as he surrendered his will and willfulness to God. The Oxford Group principles of surrender, restitution, and sharing were founded on his personal experience of spiritual conversion.”
Recovery Devotional Bible: New International Version
(Michigan: Zondervan, 1993) added some new comments: (1) “. . . the Twelve Steps
are based on biblical principles and were written at a time when AA’s primary
spiritual source materials were the Bible and the teachings of a Christian
organization known as the Oxford Group,” page x. (2) “While the Oxford Group
(later renamed Moral Rearmament would ultimately drift away from a solidly
grounded faith, they began with a strong evangelical identity. They tried to
reach up-and-outers by avoiding church buildings and traditional Christian
language,” page xiv. (3) “The spiritual roots of the
Some Thoughts about the Oxford Group and Jesus Christ
Was Dr. Frank Buchman, the Oxford Group Founder, Himself a Christian?
The only reliable answer to that must come from God. But there are some pieces of evidence that indicate much about Buchman’s upbringing, religious beliefs, ordination as a clergyman, and the remarks he made:
(1) Frank Buchman’s biographer Garth Lean devoted a crisp 96 pages at the beginning of his work to describing Buchman’s religious training and activities. See Garth Lean, Frank Buchman: a Life (London: Constable, 1985).
(2) In brief, the story covers these points: Buchman was born in Pennsburg, Pennsylvania of Pennsylvania Dutch parents. His parents sent him to Perkiomen Seminary when he was eight. At 16, he and his parents moved to Allentown; and Buchman entered Muhlenberg College—a liberal arts institution run by the Lutheran Ministerium. At age 21, he graduated from Muhlenberg. He entered the Lutheran theological seminary at Mount Airy in Germantown. He graduated from Mount Airy in 1902. In 1904, Buchman formally founded a Hospiz for young men, run by the Church’s Home Missions Board. In 1906, he founded a settlement amongst immigrant families in Philadelphia. He got in a dispute with the Board over what he felt were inadequate funding problems and, resentfully, resigned. His family financed a trip abroad. Buchman attended a little chapel where the evangelist Jessie Penn-Lewis spoke about the Cross of Christ. Buchman sensed that he had wounded Christ and remembered his resentment against the church board, realizing that his own pride and ill-will had “eclipsed” him from “God in Christ.” He said that “I was the centre of my own life. That big “I” had to be crossed out. . . I asked God to change me and He told me to put things right with [the Board].” Buchman had a powerful spiritual experience that, he said, caused a wave of strong emotion that “seemed to lift my soul of selfishness, bearing it across the great surrendering abyss to the foot of the Cross. And Buchman then wrote a powerful letter of amends asking those he had hated to forgive him for the way he had behaved. Buchman returned to the United States and became much involved in YMCA work at “Penn State.” The membership of the Y doubled, and entire fraternities were signing up to study the Bible. In 1915, Buchman left Penn State, and did YMCA personal service work abroad, particularly in China where he met Sam Shoemaker, but then was forced to leave China. He served at Hartford Theological Seminary, and later felt compelled to resign. In these years, Buchman developed his potpourri of ideas for life-changing. They were developed piece by piece. And they are discussed at length in my title, The Oxford Group and Alcoholics Anonymous: A Design for Living That Works. www.dickb.com/Oxford.shtml.
(3) But did all this Christian seminary training, ordination by the Lutheran Church, seminary teaching, and evangelistic personal work with the YMCA and others in bringing people to God and Bible study and Christian service establish that Buchman was a Christian? That is for the reader to decide.
Was Rev. Samuel M. Shoemaker, an American Oxford Group Leader, a Christian?
There is so much information about Sam Shoemaker, his association with the YMCA, with Princeton, with Frank Buchman, with the Oxford Group, with the Episcopal Church, with the Calvary Rescue Mission, with Bill Wilson, and with Alcoholics Anonymous that I have published two voluminous editions on these subjects—the second edition being titled New Light on Alcoholism: God, Sam Shoemaker, and A.A. www.dickb.com/newlight.shtml. Suffice it to say here that Shoemaker attended seminary, headed three churches, was rector of two that were called Calvary Church, and led many a person to confess Jesus Christ on that person’s knees—not to mention conducting baptisms and confirmations according to Episcopalian liturgy. Shoemaker wrote over 30 Christian books, gave hundreds of sermons, and wrote hundreds of articles. And I have placed a great body of them in the Shoemaker Room of the Calvary Episcopal Church in Pittsburgh. Also, even more of these materials in the Griffith Library at the Wilson House in East Dorset, Vermont where I gave seminars for eight years. In these two repositories and certainly at the Episcopal Church Archives in Austin, Texas, there is amply evidence about Shoemaker and his Christian service.
But was the Oxford Group Itself Christian?
Even though AAs themselves, many Protestant leaders, and certainly a host of Roman Catholic critics have labeled Buchman as a cult leader, and the Oxford Group as cult; and have pronounced both heretics, there is much more to the story.
The two most prominent Oxford Group leaders, from the American viewpoint, were ordained Christian ministers. So were many of their associates. Buchman was said to have been “soaked in the Bible.” Shoemaker was called by his colleagues “a Bible Christian.” The Young Men’s Christian Association, with which both Buchman and Shoemaker were much involved, sprang from Christian roots with its revivals, conversion meetings, and Bible studies. And the two Oxford Group leaders must have regarded themselves as Christians; and, no doubt, so did their congregations and most of their followers.
But the Oxford Group itself was a different cut. I personally have met, befriended, interviewed, corresponded with, and seen the libraries of a host of the early Oxford Group leaders and activists. Some were ordained Christian ministers. Some were distinguished Christian scholars, particularly those connected with Oxford University. Most spoke openly to me and in their writings and talks of their Bibles, of Jesus Christ, and of the frequency of their attendance at Christian churches.
But the Oxford Group itself was a different cut. And, like A.A. itself, the Oxford Group of the founding years changed dramatically as the years progressed. The Oxford Group from its 1919 roots to Buchman’s death, and A.A. in the short period between its Akron founding and the Big Book publication in 1939. The various names that were used provide an example of the progression away from Christianity.
Here is what Buchman’s biographer said of the Oxford Group’s first name—A First Century Christian Fellowship:
In the autumn of 1922, perhaps in an attempt to secure a broader base as well as to define his aims, Buchman and a few friends formed what they called ‘A First Century Christian Fellowship.’ ‘It is,’ declared Buchman in a note to a supporter, ‘a voice of protest against the organized committeeised and lifeless Christian work’ and ‘an attempt to get back to the beliefs and methods of the Apostles.’
“The First Century Christian Fellowship was never much more than a name, since it was composed mainly of supporters rather than people with a commitment equal to Buchman’s. Within a few years it had faded away.” See Lean, Frank Buchman: a Life, 97.
Soon, the activists referred to themselves as “the Groups.” Later in the 1920’s, the press called a group of their people “the Oxford Group” as they were riding together in a train compartment on “team” business the “Oxford Group.” However, this occurred merely because most of the small group consisted of people connected with Oxford University. However, Buchman and his followers grabbed the title and called themselves the “Oxford Group.”
But by 1937, with war clouds looming, pacifism threatening, and Oxford students vowing not to fight for country or King, Buchman chose a new name—“Moral Re-Armament.” Then, in 1941, Shoemaker broke with Buchman. And in later years, a varied and diverse group of folks who have held all kinds of religious and non-religious convictions; and the organization, such as it is, is now called “Initiatives of Change.”
Therefore, today one would be hard put to claim that the “Oxford Group” of yesteryear can still, if ever, be called either “Christian” or a “Christian Fellowship”—just as A.A. itself, in just four short years, moved swiftly away from its 1935 Akron “Christian Fellowship” program and abandoned all claim of affiliation with Christianity as early as 1939.
And Now, Briefly, How the Oxford Group Clearly Distanced Itself from Church and Jesus Christ in its Evangelism
I believe the best sources for dealing with this point are the Frank Buchman biography by Garth Lean (mentioned above) and the writings of T. Willard Hunter—who knew Buchman and Shoemaker, was an Oxford Group activist and employee, and who spent many years looking into the relationship of the Oxford Group to A.A. Willard (recently deceased) is mentioned in Alcoholics Anonymous General Service Conference-approved literature.
The Oxford Group People deliberately chose to distance themselves from “conversions,” from church doctrines, and from the “decisions for Jesus Christ” made by the earliest AAs—in Christian churches, Christian missions, and Christian “surrenders”-- whereas the Oxford Group simply sought to bring “Change.”
(1) Let us examine first a new title: T. Willard Hunter, World Changing Through Life Changing: The Frank Buchman Revolution The Record and the Promise (Claremont, California: Regina Press, n.d.). At page 99 appears the following explanation: “The core of this book began as a thesis for a Master’s Degree at Andover Newton Theological School in 1977. The original is on file in the School’s library. The work has undergone many revisions since that time.” And the following are pertinent quotes:
“The Oxford Group was the name of Buchman’s program of World Changing through Life Changing: 1928-1938,” p.8, n.1.
“During this period, the Rev. Samuel M. Shoemaker (1893-1963), a Buchman lieutenant, was the leading spiritual mentor of Alcoholics Anonymous. It was around Shoemaker’s Calvary Church at Fourth Avenue and 21st Street that the New York Oxford Group gathered and nurtured the alcoholics,” pp.9-10.
“Hitler or any Facist Leader Controlled by God Could Cure All Ills of World, Buchman Believes. . . . Dr. Buchman is unmarried, a graduate of Muhlenberg College, which awarded him a doctorate of divinity in 1925. He said he was ‘changed’—Oxfordites use the word to mean the complete surrender to God-control—by a gradual process,” pp. 27-18 (from a New York World Telegram interview by investigative reporter William A.H... Birnie, in 1936).
“His [Buchman’s] key words were ‘Christian revolution’ and a ‘new social order.’ . . . In one sense Buchman did not care what a person believed, except for atheism, as long as he listened to God, aimed at adherence to moral standards, and thought his work was a good thing. The movement has always been quite sincere in asking people to believe more intensely in whatever religious convictions they already have and to be more faithful in whatever religious duties their own traditions urged,” p. 46.
“Conversion—decision to let go and let God transform one’s life,” p. 62.
“The Holy Spirit is the most intelligent source of information in the world today. . . Divine guidance must become the normal experience of ordinary men and women. Anyone can pick up the divine messages if he will put his receiving set in order. Definite, accurate, adequate information can come from the mind of God to the minds of men. This is normal prayer,” p. 64.
“The Scripture was assumed to be authoritative. Everyone was expected to read from scripture daily during one’s own individual Quiet Time. The Bible was regarded as the inspired word of God. . . . On the whole, the kind of salvation that interested the Pennsylvanian was the kind that could happen in the present world. He said his work produced ‘a quality of life that issues in personal, social, racial, national, and supernatural salvation.’ What he was after for individuals was salvation from whatever was holding them back—things that might be in the way of happiness, freedom, and effectiveness. . . . The only kind of salvation that drove him was his divine commission to remake the world in his own lifetime,” pp. 68-9.
“His was not a theology but an ideology which he hurled into the global war of ideas. . . . His conviction was that alone needed was the experience. . . . Buchman’s whole message began and ended with the life experience,” p. 71.
Willard Hunter’s ideas were certainly his own. But Willard was intimately acquainted with the key Oxford Group leaders. His library was filled with Oxford Group books. And he himself was an actual employee. His writings may help readers to decide whether or not Frank Buchman’s Oxford Group itself embraced the biblical commandments that Christianity required belief that Jesus Christ was one’s Lord and Savior. And some of the following key Bible verses may help the reader to decide: John 3:1-36, 14:6; Acts 4:12; Romans 10:9-10; 1 Corinthians 2:1-16; 15:1-58; 1 Timothy 2:3-6; 1 Peter 1:10-25; 1 John 4:12-16.
(2) Willard Hunter wrote a pamphlet aimed at linking A.A. to Moral Re-Armament. The title was: It Started Right There: Behind the Twelve Steps and the Self-help movement. Rev ed. (Claremont: CA: Ives Community Office, 2006). And the following illustrate some facts seldom heard by AAs:
“The New York plot begins with Rowland Hazard. . . . Hazard then found the Oxford Group, active at the time in Switzerland as well as the United States. In that fellowship he found an experience that transformed his life. He never took another drink. Anxious to spread the good news, he reached an old drinking buddy, Ebby Thatcher [properly spelled “Thacher”]. Ebby also found sobriety through this new approach. He made a decision for Christ at a mission connected with Calvary Church in Manhattan, and surrendered his life to God,” p. 6. (bold face added)
“The AAs picked up from Frank Buchman the emphasis that it was a ‘spiritual’ not a ‘religious’ program. During the 1920’s the thrust of his work was carried forward in hotel-based house parties, in order better to reach a secular consistency. . . . He avoided religious language when he could. . . . The 12th Step’s ‘spiritual awakening, another term for conversion was in Buchman’s terminology simply being ‘changed.’” p. 18 (bold face added)
Shunning the well-known facts about conversions to God through decisions for Jesus Christ at almost every rescue mission (including Calvary Rescue Mission), as well as Ebby’s own actual decision for Christ at the Calvary Rescue Mission, A.A. historian Mel B. fixed the event and date as follows:
“Ebby, likeable as usual during his sober periods, fitted in well at the mission and took part in their services and work. It appears that he was part of “the brotherhood,” twelve men who ran the mission and helped other indigents who came in for short stays. Men who came there also made their personal surrender. Ebby’s surrender date was given as November 1, 1944, about a month before he called on Bill” See Mel B., Ebby: The Man Who Sponsored Bill W. (Center City, MN: Hazelden, 1998), 65 (bold face added).
(3) There is a newcomer to the A.A. history—Oxford Group scene. He is Jay Stinnett who has met with me several times, spoken on this subject in a number of areas, and eventually aligned himself with the present-day Oxford Group offshoot called “Initiatives of Change.” On March 11, 2007, Stinnett conducted a workshop in Reykjavik, Iceland, and titled it AA Spiritual History Workshop: Why Our Lives Were Saved. The material appeared on the web, dated 10/26/07, and stated the following:
“1932 New York
Rowland [Hazard] returns and joins the Calvary Church, studies with. . .
Rev. Sam Shoemaker, and gives his life to Christ. His obsession to drink is
“September 1934 New York
Ebby Thacher makes a decision for Christ at Calvary Mission and his
drink obsession is removed.” (bold face added)
At long last, those who have studied the Oxford Group-A.A. relationship quite frequently, people like Willard Hunter and Jay Stinnett, are beginning to make clear that the two pillars of A.A. beginnings in New York—Rowland Hazard and Ebby Thacher—were not merely “changed” by affiliation with the Oxford Groups, but became born again Christians by giving their lives to Jesus Christ, and having their “obsession to drink removed.” And this was the aim of the Christian rescue missions—not the Oxford Group.
(4) As will be seen in our subsequent second and third articles in this series, the dust is finally clearing away. It was not the Oxford Group or its program that “removed” the drinking problem for the series of men who found the solution—conversion to God through Jesus Christ. The long history of the deliverance of people from alcoholism took place at revivals, conversion meetings, evangelist meetings, rescue missions, Salvation Army outreach, and YMCA conversion meetings long before either the Oxford Group or A.A. existed.
The recently documented decisions for Christ now can be affirmed as to Rowland Hazard who made a decision for Christ and was cured. They can be affirmed as to Ebby Thacher who made a decision for Christ and was cured for a time—time enough to witness to Bill Wilson. They can be affirmed as to Bill Wilson who made a decision for Christ at the Calvary Mission where Ebby had been converted. And now we have ample affirmation of the requirement in the Akron A.A. program that newcomers make a decision for Jesus Christ and become born again Christians. See Dick B., The Golden Text of A.A., www.dickb.com/goldentext.shtml; and The Akron Genesis of Alcoholics Anonymous, www.dickb.com/Akron.shtml.
Again, readers can note the difference between Oxford Group “life changing” (See Dick B., The Oxford Group & Alcoholics Anonymous) and the decision for Christ that Ebby Thacher made at Calvary Mission just before he carried the good news to A.A. cofounder-to-be, Bill Wilson (See Dick B., The Conversion of Bill W., www.dickb.com/conversion.shtml. And none of the conversion commentators like Professor William James and Dr. Carl G. Jung and Dr. William D. Silkworth were simply talking about a “life change” or a “personality change.” They were studying and reporting upon the decisions for Jesus Christ that Rowland Hazard, Ebby Thacher, and Bill Wilson all made.
The Conclusive Report of Oxford Group Secularism by Frank Buchman’s biographer Garth Lean in “Frank Buchman: A Life”
“Six of Buchman’s party decided to stay on in South Africa. His team had not pleased everyone; and even some of those who had initially been helped broke away. Buchman, they declared, had not mentioned the Cross or the Blood of Jesus Christ often enough, and they were going to correct the error. . . . Buchman’s response was to do nothing. He had no intention of trying to enforce uniformity,” p. 143.
“Late in life, T. Henry Williams was asked by a researcher where Alcoholics Anonymous had started. ‘His eyes lit up. Pointing to a spot on his carpet, he said, ‘It started right there!”’ Newton quotes the agreement worked out in those years with the Oxford Group in Akron. ‘You look after drunken men. We’ll try to look after a drunken world,’ Williams had said to Wilson and Smith. . .,” p. 152.
“They had also heard from the Mitsuis and Sohmas that there was a division in the ranks of Moral Re-Armament in Tokyo. Some were determined to confine Moral Re-Armament to a narrow Christian practice which stressed moral standards and the need for the guidance of God, but only as they applied to personal matters. Others, like the Mitsuis, Sohmas and Horinouchis, saw it as a moral and spiritual force to reshape Japan into a united, democratic, responsible nation. The travelers realized they were entering a non-Christian nation, and one whose conception of Christianity was shaped by the long-experienced superiority and doctrinaire theology of some Christians in Japan, as well as by what many felt were hostile policies of the ‘Christian’ countries of the West. Buchman had said from the beginning that ‘the outstretched arms of Christ are for everyone’, Christian and non-Christian alike. Thus he had taught his team to talk about moral and spiritual change in terms which the non—or anti-Christian—the communists in the British coalfields and the Ruhr, for example—could understand, and not to place any doctrinal obstacle in their way,” p. 387.
“[Buchman] himself held to the attitude he had expressed to a leading English Jesuit as early as 1933, when he wrote, ‘Our principle has always been to send all Roman Catholics back to their Fathers for confession. . . .’ As for those non-believers who had come to an experience of God through his work, he had added in the same letter, ‘Our whole policy is to let each individual decide to what church he is guided to go. Many have become convinced Roman Catholics.’ He felt that any renewal of faith which God used him to bring to anyone should enhance, not weaken, their primary loyalties,” p. 441.
For a thorough review of the Oxford Group and Alcoholics Anonymous, the reader is invited to utilize my book, The Oxford Group & Alcoholics Anonymous (www.dickb.com/Oxford.shtml). The book contains a foreword by T. Willard Hunter and endorsements by Garth Lean and other Oxford Group activists. In addition, it contains an extensive bibliography of writings relevant to the subject.