Was or Is A.A. a Unique Treasure?
© 2010 Anonymous. All rights reserved
As I have been traveling, interviewing, reading, speaking, and writing, I’ve seen and heard many things recently that I never heard when I entered the rooms of A.A. almost 24 years ago. One thing is clear: The A.A. that was founded in 1935 very little resembles the A.A. so many have been involved in today. More importantly, A.A. Lately has faced critics of all sizes and shapes that it did not face before. And we will talk about the facts in the well-known A.A. fashion: “What we were like. What happened. And what we are like now.”
First, however, let’s look at the myriad changes: Many churches today are denouncing A.A. because it no longer talks about Jesus Christ and the Bible. A few religious writers claim it was heretical from the beginning. The more poetic of its critics say it is “spiritual, but not religious.” A large number of writers claim you don’t have to believe in anything at all to belong to A.A. And then there are the government, scientific, academic, medical, clinical, and treatment folks who have done a complete turnabout: They talk less about the “Minnesota Model.” They talk more about the “Medical Model.” They even talk about the “Spiritual Model.” A few claim a new therapeutic approach is needed. There are more variations. However, none has yet produced much in terms of documented success with its particular approach. Pharmaceuticals, vitamins, meditation, “spirituality,” psycho-therapy, intervention, and other ideas haven’t made a dent in the growing problem. Not even the war on drugs.
But that’s not what I saw when I came in. It’s not even what I listened to as I roamed the rooms in search of hope, healing, and a new life. I saw victory, and I pursued it. Successfully! I achieved victory by diving into the program; learning its “recovery” aspects in the Big Book and Twelve Steps; and side-stepping the naysayers who told me I’d get drunk if I read the Bible, who told most of us that we’d drive newcomers out of the rooms if we mentioned God, and who prattled on about their various higher powers—ranging from Ralph to the Big Dipper to a doorknob to a chair. None of the negative approaches appealed to me at all. I didn’t follow them. They didn’t drive me out. And, if anything, they strengthened my conviction that God could do for me what I had not been able to do for myself. And He did!
Let’s now look at the A.A. that was, that changed, that isn’t, and that is.
What We Were Like
Here are five major things familiar to AA's today that were not part of the original Akron A.A. “Christian fellowship” program reported on page 131 of DR. BOB and the Good Oldtimers:
1. Early A.A. had no Twelve Steps;
2. Early A.A. had no Big Book;
3. Early A.A. had no Traditions;
4. Early A.A. had no “drunkalogs” to speak of; and
5. Early A.A. had no meetings of the kind(s) we know today.
(For the documentation concerning the absence of the five items listed above from the the original Akron A.A. “Christian fellowship” program, please see: Dick B. and Ken B., The Dick B. Christian Recovery Guide, available through my main web site: www.DickB.com.)
Frank Amos investigated the original Akron A.A. “Christian fellowship” program for John D. Rockefeller, Jr., in February 1938 and confirmed its success. Following his visit to Akron, Amos summarized the original Akron A.A. “Program” in seven points. Here are those points, as quoted on page 131 in Dr. Bob and the Good Oldtimers:
• 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.
• Important, but not vital, that he attend some religious service at least once weekly.
In addition to the seven elements of the original Akron A.A. program which Amos documented in his report, I have also identified and documented 14 key practices of the early A.A. pioneers in Akron in several of my titles, including: (1) Dick B., Real Twelve Step Fellowship History: The Old School A.A. You May Not Know (Kihei, HI: Paradise Research Publications, Inc., 2006), 85-92; http://dickb.com/realhistory.shtml; (2) Dick B., A New Way In: Reaching the Heart of a Child of God in Recovery With His Own, Powerful Historical Roots (Kihei, HI: Paradise Research Publications, Inc., 2006), 9-14; http://dickb.com/anewwayin.shtml; and (3) When Early AAs Were Cured and Why, 3rd ed. (Kihei, HI: Paradise Research Publications, Inc., 3rd ed., 2006), 31-26; http://dickb.com/alcoholismcured.shtml.
Dr. Bob—one of A.A.'s two cofounders, and the man whom Bill W. called “the prince of all twelfth steppers”—told AAs what the program was really like in the early days during his last major speech in 1948. This talk was reproduced in The Co-Founders of Alcoholics Anonymous (Item P-53). Dr. Bob said:
. . . [W]e were convinced that the answer to our problems was in the Good Book. [p. 13]
To some of us older ones, the parts that we found absolutely essential were the Sermon on the Mount, the thirteenth chapter of First Corinthians, and the Book of James. [p. 13]
I didn’t write the Twelve Steps. I had nothing to do with the writing of them. [p. 14]
We got them [i.e., the basic ideas] . . . as a result of our study of the Good Book. [p. 14]
In November 1937, Bill W. met with Dr. Bob in Akron, and they counted recoveries. DR. BOB and the Good Oldtimers reports on page 123 concerning that meeting:
“A hard core of very grim, last-gasp cases had by then been sober a couple of years,” he [Bill W.] said. “All told, we figured that upwards of 40 alcoholics were staying bone dry.”
DR. BOB and the Good Oldtimers continues on page 123:
Dr. Bob and Bill realized a “chain reaction” had started, and “Conceivably it could one day circle the whole world. . . . We actually wept for joy,” Bill [W.] said, “and Bob and Anne and I bowed our heads in silent thanks.”
. . .
This was when Bill began to think of . . . writing a book of experiences that would carry the message of recovery to other cities and other countries.
The November 1937 meeting during which Bill W. and Dr. Bob counted recoveries demonstrated the success of early A.A., especially in Akron. Not long thereafter, Dr. Bob prepared a hand-written list of the members. It gave names, length of drinking period, length of sobriety, and relapse if any. Dr. Bob's list ended up in the Rockefeller Archives in New York, and it is still there (as of late 2009). It corresponded to several other rosters I personally have seen and compared, and provides authoritative evidence of the many early successes and of the failures.
When asked to write his own personal story, which is still the first of the personal stories in A.A.’s basic text, Alcoholics Anonymous, 4th ed., 2001, Dr. Bob concluded: “Your Heavenly Father will never let you down!” [p. 181]
That’s what we were like!
Previously, medicine had regarded “last-gasp” alcoholics as “medically-incurable” and said so. Yet across the nation, early A.A.’s unique success was proclaimed in hundreds of newspaper and magazine articles. They said, in large part, that AAs had been cured by the power of God—when neither they themselves nor anyone else had been successful in helping them up to that time.
That record was unique. It was a treasure. It put A.A. on the map. And it offered hope to those really willing to go to any length to get well.
I leave to others the mechanics and logistics as to how the Big Book was written. In fact, as of this writing, we eagerly await a new book which will contain a heavily-annotated manuscript of one phase of the Big Book publication.
As for the period from 1938 to 1939, the following outline will suffice: (1) The original Akron A.A. “Christian fellowship” continued to pump out successful, recovered converts. (2) Bill Wilson sought and obtained a vote authorizing his preparation of a book which was supposed to describe, figuratively, “how it worked.” But this he did not do. (3) Instead, Bill drew on what he had learned of the Oxford Group life-changing program. He claimed that some six “word of mouth” ideas were being used. But he described them in at least four different ways, and he said there was disagreement among AAs as to how they were being applied. (4) He closeted himself with his friend, Rev. Samuel M. Shoemaker, Jr., and worked out Twelve Steps which were to be the heart of the Big Book program. At first, he asked Shoemaker to write them, but Shoemaker declined. (5) Bill claimed there were three main fountains from which his Steps flowed—Dr. William D. Silkworth, Professor William James (long dead), and Reverend Sam Shoemaker. He conceded that ten of the twelve steps came from Shoemaker’s teachings. (6) In fact, however, Bill drew on some 16 different sources for the ideas, language, and ideas he laid out in the Big Book. [See Dick B., A New Way Out: New Path – Familiar Road Signs – Our Creator’s Guidance (Kihei, HI: Paradise Research Publications, Inc., 2006), 14-21; http://dickb.com/anewwayout.shtml.] The Big Book, then, was not at all a report of how the original Akron A.A. “Christian fellowship” had gone about its successful program. In fact, it intentionally discarded all significant references to the Bible, Jesus Christ, and the Akron program.
What really happened is that Bill compromised on the word “God.” Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age reports on pages 166-67 that, after a heated battle among a “committee” of four people on the East Coast—one of whom was Bill W.—the committee made the following decisions, among others:
• To change Bill W.'s use of the unqualified word "God" in his “original draft” of Step Two into "a Power greater than ourselves."
• To change his use of the unqualified word "God" in his “original draft” of Step Three into "God as we understood Him."
• To change his use of the unqualified word "God" in his “original draft” of Step Eleven into "God as we understood Him."
As Bill W. stated frankly on page 167 of Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age: “. . . [W]e finally began to talk about compromise. . . . Such [i.e., the three critically-important changes discussed above and two others of less significance] were the final concessions to those of little or no faith; this was the great contribution of our atheists and agnostics.” These changes to the highly-successful, original Akron A.A. “Christian fellowship” program—which had no Twelve Steps, required surrender to God, and required acceptance of Jesus Christ as one's Lord and Savior—were incorporated into the First Edition of Alcoholics Anonymous published in April 1939. And thus these compromises became part of the new, “official” program propounded in the Big Book to this day. And the aftershocks are still being felt.
What We Are Like Today
A.A. today is no longer a “Christian fellowship” as it was in the 1930’s in Akron. There are, nonetheless tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of Christians in A.A. And A.A. itself has in recent years laid down some specific rules far different from those in effect when it claimed a 75% success rate overall and had a documented 93% success rate in Cleveland. For example: (1) The only requirement for membership today is a desire to stop drinking—whereas belief in God, decisions for Jesus Christ, and study of the Bible were required in the original Akron A.A. fellowship. (2) A.A. General Service Conference-approved literature today states that a person does not have to believe in anything at all to be in A.A. today—whereas its Big Book and Twelve Steps are specifically pointed at “establishing a relationship with God,” “finding God,” and adhering to “the abc’s” which end with item (c): “That God could and would if He were sought”—relieve a member of his or her alcoholism. (3) A.A.'s “leadership” today keeps insisting that A.A. is not a religion; is not “religious”; and that it may be “spiritual, but not religious”—whereas the courts called upon to rule on the issue have largely found the obvious—“A.A. is a religion.”
As stated at the beginning of this article, some Christian writers claim you are hell-bent for destruction if you set your foot in A.A.’s doors or keep company with the many unbelievers in today's A.A. Far more Christian leaders and churches are becoming inclined to disavow the A.A. program—not because they know where it came from, but because they see what it has become. Some groups try to provide a bridge between A.A. and the churches. AAs have, to a great extent, developed a rigid attitude about the mention of God, His Son Jesus Christ, or the Bible; about saying the Lord’s Prayer at the close of meetings; and about even reading any literature in or out of meetings that is not (A.A. General Service) “Conference-approved.” When their approach is ignored, the “bleeding deacons” (to use a Bill Wilson phrase) claim a violation of the “Traditions”—“Traditions” which are, in fact, neither mandatory nor enforceable. They claim that any literature that even appears in an A.A. meeting must be banned if it is not “Conference-approved,” even though the Bible and Christian literature were common fare in early A.A. At times, they send intimidating letters or threatening representatives to squash “violations” and intimidate members into ceasing their activities, their convictions, and their sharing.
A.A. today is watching either a “no growth” or a declining center of membership. It still seems to hover at around 2 million members worldwide; but the statistics as to how long these members stay, how often they come and go, and how successful they are cannot be firmed up. Many “scientific” studies simply reject A.A. success stories today as “anecdotal,” and as lacking when it comes to the use of “accepted” scientific procedures in gathering and analyzing them. Many courts are refusing any longer to compel A.A. attendance as they were doing when I entered A.A. in 1986. Many treatment programs—which used to bus patients to A.A. as a compulsory attendance matter—have closed. And many treatment centers today are more inclined to modify their original Twelve Step emphasis, and talk in terms of the “Medical Model” or some “spiritual” model.
My own experience has been that, the more the old timers learn what early A.A. was really like, the more they want to know; and the more they tend to return to the precepts of the original Akron A.A. “Christian fellowship” program. The timid succumb to intimidation. But many with substantial sobriety and accurate knowledge of early A.A.'s astonishing successes in Akron and Cleveland just resist leaving, continue sharing, and welcome facts.
What the Outcome Can Be
I believe the story of many “social movements,” at least in the United States—like the YMCA, the Salvation Army, rescue missions, homeless shelters, sober houses, half-way houses, recovery fellowships, and even church-related recovery efforts—is one of adaptation and change, rather than demise. Once established, and once able to seek the aid of the United Way or similar community charities, government grants, private or institutional charitable donations, insurance support, and sheer-entrenched “leadership,” they adapt, change, and survive. But that does not mean their principles are unyielding. A.A. probably already has followed and undoubtedly will follow this course.
But there are two underlying and compelling challenges: (1) Is it important to rely upon, serve, obey, and glorify God and His Son Jesus Christ—and the answer in much of early A.A. originally was an unqualified “yes.” (2) Is the primary purpose of Alcoholics Anonymous to carry the message to the newcomer who still suffers—and the answer should be an unqualified “yes.” Most AAs would, I think, agree.
In other words: Consider these factors: Early A.A. claimed a 75% success rate overall and a documented 93% success rate in Cleveland. This amazing success took place among the worst-of-the-worst—the “seemingly-hopeless,” “medically-incurable,” “last gasp” alcoholics who really tried to follow thoroughly the original Akron A.A. “Christian fellowship” program. Early A.A. relied upon God. Early A.A. produced cures. Early A.A. focused on helping the next person get well. Early A.A. boldly picked up the Bible, read whatever literature it could find, used whatever Bible devotionals were handy, conducted “old-fashioned prayer meetings,” unabashedly sought the guidance and help of Almighty God, tried to obey God’s commandments, insistently refused to drink—no matter what—and surged forward to help the next suffering soul who entered the doors.
What can happen today is this: If alcoholics and addicts think God can be their refuge, He can. If alcoholics and addicts realize they have a lot to learn about God, they will. If alcoholics and addicts subscribe to the biblical precepts of love, kindness, patience, tolerance, and serving the Creator, they’ll have no difficulty with others who think or believe otherwise. If alcoholics and addicts flee from the Fellowship, they may find little help elsewhere. If alcoholics and addicts fight within the Fellowship or fight the Fellowship itself, they are repudiating the very precept that AA. laid down about avoiding controversy. If alcoholics and addicts really abhor God, His Son Jesus Christ, the Bible, church, religion, freedom of speech, tolerance, love, and service, they certainly can find a place in the Fellowship today. In fact, Bill W. underlined that choice when he said, “God either is, or He isn’t.” But God-rejectors and God-deniers have little assurance that their position and choice will help them, help others, or help the Fellowship. Certainly not in the “God-centered” way the Big Book bespeaks.
Christian AA's today can choose to “stick with the winners,” such as Dr. Bob and his sponsee, Clarence S. They can follow the original Akron A.A. “Christian fellowship” program documented on page 131 of DR. BOB and the Good Oldtimers. And they can apply the 14 practices of the highly-successful early Akron and Cleveland fellowships that I have discussed and document elsewhere. I'm rooting for you!
Dick B.'s main web site: www.DickB.com
Dick B.'s email address: DickB@DickB.com