AA Origins and History
The YMCA, Vermont’s “Great Awakening of 1875,” A.A.’s Founders
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The Young Men's Christian Association (YMCA) played an important, but relatively unknown, role in the lives of A.A. cofounders Bill W. and Dr. Bob.
The YMCA history begins in England. In 1836, when George Williams (later, Sir George Williams) was about 16 years old and working as a sales assistant in a London draper’s store, he gave his life to Jesus Christ, and began to pray and to seek God. In 1844, Williams—together with a group of fellow drapers—founded the first Young Men’s Christian Association in London, England, on June 6, 1844. Its purpose was “to substitute Bible study and prayer for life on the streets.”
The American effort began in Boston. The first YMCA in the United States (and the second in North America) was established in Boston, Massachusetts, on December 29, 1851.
Cephas Brainerd, Chairman of the International Committee of Young Men's Christian Associations from 1867 to 1892, identified two “distinctive features” of the YMCA in America:
1. It has been wholly undenominational, and based upon the belief that the average American young man, outside of church influence, was more open to the approaches of such an agency; and,
2. Work has been performed almost wholly by Christian laymen, because these were best fitted to carry it on; and, also, because the ministry could not under the limitations of human strength, as well as denominational exigencies, perform it.
Dr. Bob's exposure to the YMCA began with his parents, Walter P. and Susan H. Smith. Bob's father, Walter P. Smith, moved to St. Johnsbury in the autumn of 1869, and was State's Attorney for Caledonia County (in which St. Johnsbury is located) from 1874 to 1876. Bob's mother, Susan A. Holbrook, graduated from St. Johnsbury Academy in 1874, and was a teacher at the Academy from 1874 to 1876. The two were married on August 15, 1876. And Dr. Bob was born in St. Johnsbury, Vermont on August 8, 1879.
The relevant link of the YMCA to early A.A. begins with the "Great Awakening" of 1875 in St. Johnsbury, in which YMCA lay leaders played a major role.
In 1875 came the notable wave of religious uplift which none who witnessed it will ever forget.
THE GREAT AWAKENING OF 1875
Under auspices of the State Committee of the Y. M. C. A., meetings were held [in St. Johnsbury] February 6, 1875, at the Town Hall Sunday afternoon, and in the evening at the South Church. H. M. Moore of Boston and R. K. Remington of Fall River, laymen, were principal speakers. It was at once apparent that deep interest was awakened, and this continued so manifestly that three weeks later, these brethren, at our request, returned, accompanied by F. O. Winslow of Boston and S. E. Bridgman of Northampton. Sunday meetings were held at the Avenue House Hall, and at the South Church, and at the latter place Monday afternoon and evening; a thousand people were in attendance. On Tuesday forenoon the wheels of the scale factory were stopped, men crowded into the machine shop where the voice of prayer and song superseded the hum of machinery. In the evening there were 1200 people at the South Church and 140 rose to say that they had begun the Christian life. The interest continued, union meetings were held thrice a week in the different churches, usually conducted by laymen, almost every one present taking some brief part. Half-hour noon meetings were begun, which continued several years. On the 27th of March, Moore, Remington, Winslow and Littlefield came again, on invitation; large assemblies met at the Avenue House Hall, at North and South Churches ; also next day at the Universalist Church, which was filled, 'deep interest being manifest.' In the evening of Monday, March 28, there were 1400 people crowding the Academy Hall and passage-ways and 300 more in room No. 10 ; more than 100 rose for prayers. During the next six weeks there was a steady, quiet continuance of the revival spirit, which received a fresh impulse by the return once more, when urgently invited, of the Massachusetts brethren. This was on Sunday, the 8th of May. Neither North nor South Churches could contain the crowds that flocked to the evening meeting, and Academy Hall was again the place of assembly. On Monday, another gospel meeting was held at the Scale factory, and in the evening some 1500 people were together again at the Academy, where, as so often before, large numbers gave expression to their interest or their purpose to live a Christian life. These and similar scenes during the year following will be forever memorable in the history of our town. The whole atmosphere of the place seemed charged with religious feeling; no one questioned the immense reality of spiritual forces that were so distinctly transforming men's lives and lifting the standards of thought and conduct in the community. The religious life stood out as a manly thing to be manfully followed; the dominant note was not so much the old time solemnity, as the joy of opportunity, the cheer of the good news to every man. Everybody was singing the bright "Winnowed Hymns," and repeating cheer-inspiring verses from the Bible. Gospel meetings, so called, with a lay brother in the chair, were a popular attraction; there was no distinction of church or creed; all, as in apostolic times, were "continuing daily with one accord in fellowship together and in prayers, with gladness and singleness of heart, praising God and having favor with all the people." Like the friends from Massachusetts who had left their business to bring messages to us, laymen of this town went out in bands of two to five, holding gospel meetings not only in the school districts but in near or distant towns ; the influence of the religious uplift here was extended for a hundred miles around, and left its permanent mark on this community.
The Minutes of the annual meeting of the General Convention of Congregational Ministers and Churches of Vermont for 1875 reported a related event which impacted the St. Johnsbury Academy during the time Dr. Bob's mother was teaching there:
About the middle of February  Russell Sturgis Jr., President of the Young Men's Christian Association of Boston, visited St. Johnsbury and conducted meetings for two or three days. He addressed himself chiefly to Christians and incited them. . . . A few words from him to the students of the academy were very effective.
The impact of this series of YMCA meetings in St. Johnsbury during 1875 was so large that M. B. Critchett singled out the town by name in his report at the May 1875 YMCA Annual Convention for the United States and British Provinces, stating:
A brother from St. Johnsbury, Vermont, tells me that, since the first visit made to that place this season [in early February of 1875], 1,500 souls have been converted.
To get some perspective on the magnitude of this number of conversions, according to the 1870 U.S. Census, the Town of St. Johnsbury had a population of 4,665 people. And according to the 1880 U.S. Census, the town's population was 5,800.
Following the "Great Awakening" of 1875 in St. Johnsbury and its aftermath—in which lay members of the YMCA played such an important part—we find that Walter P. and Susan H. Smith are listed for the first time in North Congregational Church, St. Johnsbury, church records in the church's Year Book for 1878. The year after Bob's birth in 1879, we find Bob listed for the first time in the church's records in the Church's Year Book for 1880. And one year after Bob began attending the St. Johnsbury Academy in 1894, his father became President of the St. Johnsbury YMCA in 1895, serving as President until at least 1897. (The massive YMCA building, erected on Eastern Avenue by Henry Fairbanks in 1885, was only about one block from where Bob was attending school at the Academy, and there were many events held at the YMCA building for students at the Academy during the time Bob attended.)
Bill Wilson's involvement with the YMCA is even more specifically documented. During at least part of the time he attended Burr and Burton Academy in Manchester, Vermont, from 1909 to 1913, he was President of the YMCA. In addition, when Bill was 16, his girlfriend at Burr and Burton Academy, Bertha Bamford, the daughter of the rector of Manchester's Zion Episcopal Church, was President of the YWCA.
Briefly stated, the Young Men’s Christian Association (as it existed at the time of Dr. Bob’s youth) was emphasizing the following ideas which can be found in the earliest days of A.A. development:
1. Conversion to Christ;
2. Bible study;
3. Prayer meetings;
4. Personal evangelism—often called “personal work”—by lay Christians; and
5. A non-denominational approach.
Points to Remember about the Young Men’s Christian Association and its impact on A.A.
• In Dr. Bob’s younger days in St. Johnsbury, Vermont, the YMCA and its influence were everywhere to be seen: The YMCA had been instrumental in bringing about The Great Awakening of 1875 that transformed the village of St. Johnsbury, catalyzed hundreds of conversions to Christ, counted Dr. Bob’s father as one of its presidents, and directly impacted North Congregational Church, St. Johnsbury, and St. Johnsbury Academy in which Dr. Bob and his family were so much involved.
• In Bill Wilson’s days at Burr and Burton Academy in Manchester, Vermont, the YMCA, its activities, and its Bible study groups were a big part of Academy life; and Bill Wilson was president of the school YMCA, as his girl friend Bertha Bamford was president of the YWCA.
• The inescapable YMCA ideas that can be seen in the younger days and in the later sober days of both Dr. Bob and Bill W. were: (1) the necessity for conversion to Christ; (2) study of the Bible; (3) prayer; (4) personal evangelism by lay Christians; and (5) work that was non-denominational in nature.
Three of our titles will be excellent resources for your study of this subject: The Golden Text of A.A.—dealing with the early A.A. requirement of accepting Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior; Dr. Bob of Alcoholics Anonymous: His Excellent Training in the Good Book as a Youngster in Vermont—providing the most comprehensive account of Dr. Bob’s early St. Johnsbury days and the thorough Christian training and Bible study which he received; The Conversion of Bill W.—dealing with Bill W.’s own extensive Christian training and Bible study as a youngster in East Dorset, Vermont, and Manchester, Vermont; and also with Bill’s long exposure to the idea of conversion to Christ as a cure for alcoholism.