Alcoholics Anonymous & History of AA
By Dick B.
[[This article is a brief addendum to a very important article written a few months back. We now know why there has been such a growing onrush of Christian recovery leaders, workers, newcomers, and others who want God’s help in recovering from alcoholism, drug addiction, and other life-controlling problems. The answer is that the more we have searched and researched, the more we have learned where A.A. really came from. And that information should buttress the faith, the efforts, and the programs of those who want the primary role of the Creator placed back in front of those who are struggling in recovery programs—struggling with psychiatric solutions, behavioral solutions, pharmaceutical solutions, “medical models,” “spirituality,” “higher powers,” and all the other ineffective methods that have cluttered the original, highly-successful scene.
To encourage others to list themselves—at no cost—as “Participants” in the International Christian Recovery Coalition—and become champions of the roles God, His Son Jesus Christ and the Bible played in recovery—has become a major focus of our last three years of conferences, seminars, workshops, meetings, and networking. Here are three of the Web sites on which you can find the evidence:
· www.DickB.com (my main Web site).
What’s the news?
The successful turning to God by alcoholics began at least as early as the 1850’s. The Great Evangelists like Dwight Moody, Ira Sankey, F.B. Meyer, H. M. Moore, Allen Folger, and others held huge revivals where salvation, the Word of God, and healing were emphasized. And drunks were healed. Rescue Missions began offering the same type of solution to derelicts who came in off the streets. And drunks were healed. The Salvation Army reached out into the streets with salvation, the Word of God, and a helping hand, and developed the idea of one recovered person helping another find God and His help. And drunks were healed. The Young Men’s Christian Association brethren started in England helping young men move from the streets and drunkenness to the word of God and salvation. And drunks were healed. And then came the Young People’s Society of Christian Endeavor—renamed in 1886 the United Society of Christian Endeavor--which was founded in Maine in 1881, attracted the young Bob Smith to its ranks, and soon grew to 4.5 million members around the world. And a program of conversion, prayer meetings, Bible study, Quiet Hour, reading Christian literature, and bringing youngsters back into the church became a frontispiece for the later A.A. program founded in Akron.
Amidst it all was the Christian upbringing of A.A. cofounders Robert Holbrook Smith (Dr. Bob) of St. Johnsbury, Vermont, and William Griffith Wilson (Bill W.) of East Dorset, Vermont. And Vermont Congregational Churches, Vermont Congregational Academies with their daily chapel and Bible studies, the Young Men’s Christian Association, the Evangelists, the growth of the Salvation Army and of Christian Endeavor all made their mark on A.A. founders in their youth and before there was an A.A. or an Oxford Group.
Then came the dark years of drunkenness and dereliction for the founders. But they didn’t forget their youth, salvation, the Bible, healing, and the importance of abstinence. That part of the story has been equally obscured and now been brought to light as Christians have awakened to the fact that God has long done for drunks what they could not do for themselves.
Now, back to the original article which prompted this re-visitation of real Twelve Step History.]]
Many Claims. Many Errors. One Truth.
You'd think by now that everyone knew. Yet I was active in A.A. and its meetings for two or three years before I ever heard mention of the founding. Finally, I learned that the agreed-upon date was June 10, 1935--the date on which Dr. Bob had his last drink. But that didn't satisfy today's historians. They tinkered with dates and concluded: (1) Dr. Bob didn't have his last drink on June 10, 1935; (2) the annual American Medical Association convention to which he went in Atlantic City did not occur when AAs said—or implied--it did; and (3) A.A. was founded on some other date—e.g., perhaps June 17, 1935--which better agreed with the dates of the AMA convention.
If you asked someone when George Washington cut down the cherry tree, just think how many different answers the historians might provide. Does it matter? Today, we don't even seem to celebrate his birthday and prefer lumping all our presidents together.
Well, AAs do care. It matters to them. So I set forth all the arguments and dates long ago in my title, The Akron Genesis of Alcoholics Anonymous. You can study them there if you like. Long after A.A. was founded, Lois Wilson wrote that it had been founded in 1934 when drunks were coming to the Wilson home in Brooklyn. Others wanted to date it when Ebby Thacher first carried the message to Bill Wilson. T. Henry Williams often said that A.A. started right on the carpet of his Palisades home in Akron when Dr. Bob, Henrietta Seiberling, and the others in the Oxford Group knelt and prayed for Dr. Bob's recovery. Still others like to date it as of the publishing of the Big Book in April 1939. Clarence Snyder claimed he was the founder, and that the first meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous was held in Cleveland on May 11, 1939. One would-be expert has now asserted that the "original" program was founded some time after that in the 1940's. And Bill Wilson made the statement that the first A.A. group began when A.A. Number Three was visited by Bill Wilson and Dr. Bob in the hospital, was cured of his alcoholism, and had walked out of the hospital on July 4, 1935, a "free man"--never to drink again. That happened very shortly after Dr. Bob himself got sober.
So—if you think the date of A.A.’s “founding” matters in the battle to overcome alcoholism--you'll have to make up your own mind. FDR changed the date of Thanksgiving. We now call Armistice Day Veterans Day. And on and on. Which leads to the conclusion that "founding" dates are perhaps less important than the founding facts.
Personally, I'm convinced that A.A. began. I am convinced it began at Dr. Bob's home in Akron. I am convinced that Bill W. and Dr. Bob agreed that it began when Dr. Bob took his last drink. I'm convinced that fairly soon after AA began, Bill and Bob agreed that the founding date was June 10, 1935. And thereafter, Bill Wilson attended and actually spoke at "Founders Day" each year in Akron where the "founding of A.A." on June 10, 1935, is celebrated.
Do you know when A.A. was founded? I don't. But I'm very sure it was founded, because I took my last drink forever and was cured as a result of attending A.A. meetings. The date was April 21, 1986.
Where did the original program come from?
I know what the original Akron A.A. program was, where it began, when it began, and how it was practiced. But you'd have a heck of a time convincing a lot of AAs today. People who have never met or even read much about Bill Wilson, Dr. Bob, or A.A.’s early days in Akron.
In the first place, people have chosen to call the early days the "flying blind" period. Yet there never was more light shining on the cure for alcoholism. Many “real” alcoholics--who were "medically-incurable," who were willing to go to any lengths to get well, and who really tried--were cured. By November 1937, some 40 of them--called the "pioneers"--were maintaining sobriety, half or more for two years. Richard K. has produced three books now detailing who these folks were, when they got sober, and what happened to them. Their names can be found on a dozen rosters. The pictures of many are on the walls at Dr. Bob's home in Akron. 50 percent got sober and stayed sober, despite the fact that many a creative A.A. amateur historian insists that the original gang all died drunk. Nonsense!
In the second place, the program came from the Bible. Maybe that's why doubters and unbelievers want to call it the "flying blind" period. The Bible was read to Bill and Bob and studied by them throughout their youth in Vermont. It was read to them at at the Smith home each day over the summer of 1935 by Dr. Bob's wife Anne Smith. Bob had studied the Bible throughout his youth, and he began refreshing his memory of the Bible after he became associated with A First Century Christian Fellowship—also known as the Oxford Group—in 1933. He read the Bible straight through three times. Bob and Bill stayed up and talked until the wee hours of the morning every day that Bill stayed at the Smith home in Akron in the summer of 1935. They discussed the biblical basis for recovery which their experience had then revealed to them.
Later, when asked a question about the program, Dr. Bob usual reply was: "What does it say in the Good Book?" He often commented that the old-timers felt that the answer to their problems could be found in the Good Book. Over and over, Bob emphasized that the Book of James, Jesus’s “Sermon on the Mount” (Matthew 5-7), and 1 Corinthians 13 were absolutely essential. I've written much about the specifics AAs borrowed from these three books in a number of my titles. See, for example: (1) The Good Book and the Big Book; (2) Why Early A.A. Succeeded; (3) The Oxford Group and Alcoholics Anonymous; (4) Turning Point; (5) New Light on Alcoholism: God, Sam Shoemaker, and A.A.; and (6) When Early AAs Were Cured and Why. And see my article, “A.A., the James Club, and the Book of James.”
Bob and Bill both said that the Sermon on the Mount contained the underlying spiritual philosophy of A.A., that 1 Corinthians 13 was favored reading, and that AAs thought so much of the Book of James that they wanted to call their Society the "James Club." The Bible was read at every A.A. meeting in Akron for years--not Oxford Group books, not Shoemaker books, and not popular Christian literature. Even devotionals like The Upper Room were not read much at the early A.A. meetings.
The Bible was stressed, and AAs said so. You can read it in DR. BOB and the Good Oldtimers, the A.A. General Service Conference-approved book published in 1980. In fact, in his last major talk to AAs--which was recorded, and which has been edited and reprinted in the A.A. General Service Conference-approved pamphlet titled “The Co-Founders of Alcoholics Anonymous: Biographical Sketches; Their Last Major Talks” (Item #P-53)--Dr. Bob said the basic ideas of the Twelve Steps came from the Bible.
When was the original program developed and completed?
There's a very simple set of facts. Yet many don't want to acknowledge them because they are busy saying that Dr. Bob could never get sober studying the Bible or being a member of the Oxford Group, that there were "six" Oxford Group Steps (which there weren't), that there were "six" word-of-mouth A.A. steps (which Wilson characterized in half a dozen ways), and that the "twelve" steps somehow represented the "steps" that early AAs took (even though there were no Steps at all, not six, not twelve, not any), and even though there was no “basic text” containing any steps until the spring of 1939 (shortly after Bill had asked Rev. Sam Shoemaker to write the Steps), and even though the actual vote authorizing Bill to write a textbook was controversial, was taken in Akron, and occurred in late in 1937 before Bill ever began writing the Big Book.
Dr. Bob also pointed out that, in the development years, "there were no steps" and that "our stories didn't amount to anything." So, in November 1937, when Bill and Bob had counted noses, found that some 40 men were maintaining sobriety—some continuously for as long as two years--and concluded that God had shown them how to pass along their program, the program could certainly be said to have been completed.
What was the original A.A. program?
The program in Akron had, under the leadership of Dr. Bob, worked so well that Bill managed to persuade John D. Rockefeller, Jr., to take a careful look at it.
Rockefeller dispatched his representative, Frank Amos, to Akron to investigate. And Amos did just that. He interviewed doctors, judges, AAs, family members, and Dr. Bob himself. He concluded the program bore close resemblance to First Century Christianity as described in the Book of Acts.
He was astonished at its success and at the simple elements that comprised "the" program. He submitted a report to Rockefeller in February 1938 detailing the results of his investigation of the Akron program. And Amos was later to become an A.A. trustee--presumably in recognition of his vital role in encouraging the growth of the real, original, A.A. program.
Frank Amos’ February 1938 report to Rockefeller, and another report he did in August 1938, can be found in DR. BOB and the Good Oldtimers: (New York: Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Inc., 1980). But I wanted to see the originals. So I went to A.A. General Services in New York and to the archives at the Bill Wilson home called "Stepping Stones" at Bedford Hills in New York. I saw the reports and verified the basic accuracy of the A.A. excerpts.
Amos did not discuss the hospitalizations at Akron City Hospital which were "musts" in the early program. Possibly because a newcomer's program did not really begin until he had detoxed, been relieved of some of his fuzzy thinking, and become a real candidate. Nor did Amos discuss the surrender with Dr. Bob at the conclusion of the brief hospitalization. For it was then that the newcomer dealt with three issues: (1) Did he believe in God. (2) Would he get down on his knees with Dr. Bob and pray. (3) Would he "surrender" his life by accepting Jesus Christ as his Lord and Savior? And if he "passed" that surrender test, out of the hospital he went--to begin all the activities I have described at such length in my published titles.
You can find an excellent and concise description of the whole process on pages 2-12 of my title God and Alcoholism: Our Growing Opportunity in the 21st Century. Following his visit to Akron in February 1938, Frank Amos, John D. Rockefeller, Jr.'s agent, summarized the original Akron A.A. “Program” in seven points. Here are those points, as quoted on page 131 of Dr. Bob and the Good Oldtimers: (New York, N.Y.: Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Inc., 1980):
· An alcoholic must realize that he is an alcoholic, incurable from a medical viewpoint, and that he must never drink anything with alcohol in it.
· He must surrender himself absolutely to God, realizing that in himself there is no hope.
· Not only must he want to stop drinking permanently, he must remove from his life other sins such as hatred, adultery, and others which frequently accompany alcoholism. Unless he will do this absolutely, Smith and his associates refuse to work with him.
· He must have devotions every morning—a “quiet time” of prayer and some reading from the Bible and other religious literature. Unless this is faithfully followed, there is grave danger of backsliding
· He must be willing to help other alcoholics get straightened out. This throws up a protective barrier and strengthens his own willpower and convictions.
· It is important, but not vital, that he meet frequently with other reformed alcoholics and form both a social and a religious comradeship.
There is much more in terms of activity:-Morning “Quiet Time” with Anne Smith at the Smith home; individual Quiet Time; the Wednesday Oxford Group meeting; regular informal meetings at the Smith Home; Bible study and prayer and the reading of Christian literature being circulated; talks with Dr. Bob and Anne and Henrietta Seiberling; and visits to newcomers at the hospital. But the "cure"--the permanent solution to their problems--was described as above in the Frank Amos report.
There were no drunkalogs. There were no Step or Traditions. There was no Big Book. There was no service structure. There were no offices. And there was no money! Just the Creator, His Son Jesus Christ, obedience to God's will, the Bible, prayer, fellowship, and witness.
It worked! A.A. claimed a 75% success rate in the days prior to the Rockefeller Dinner held on February 8, 1940. And early Cleveland A.A. had a documented 93% success rate with no relapses. Documented by carefully-kept rosters, names, dates, addresses, and phone numbers—the Akron roster was kept by Dr. Bob himself, in his own handwriting and on his own office stationary, and is now lodged in the Rockefeller Archives in New York.