Alcoholics Anonymous and The Young Men's Christian Association--A Christian Source
There were five Christian groups and organizations that impacted on the origin, history, founding, original program, and astonishing success of the A.A. Christian Fellowship founded in Akron in 1935. We have discussed each of the five at some length in The Dick B. Christian Recovery Guide: Historical Perspectives and Effective Modern Application, 3rd ed., 2010. You can also find them discussed in terms of the upbringing of Dr. Bob of A.A. See Dr. Bob of Alcoholics Anonymous: His Excellent Training in the Good Book as a Youngster in Vermont.
These are the five influential Christian sources of A.A.: (1) The evangelists and revivalists such as Charles G. Finney, John B. Gough, Dwight L. Moody, Ira B. Sankey, F.B. Meyer, Allen Folger, and Billy Sunday. And many of these Christian evangelists were much involved with the YMCA. (2) The Young Men's Christian Association. (3) The Gospel Rescue Missions. (4) The Salvation Army. (5) The Young People's Society of Christian Endeavor.
But the YMCA had a very special role to play in influencing A.A. Also in the lives of its cofounders Bill Wilson and Dr. Bob Smith. And let's start by sketching the beginnings of the YMCA and of its influence on the cofounders in their younger years.
The YMCA history begins in England. In 1836, when 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 England. The date was 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, 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 bestg fitted to carry it on; and, also, because the ministry could not under the limitations ofhuman strength, as well as denominational exigiences, perform it.
The St. Johnsbury Association of the Young Men's Christian Association was formed on October 1, 1855. In 1885, Professor Henry Fairbanks erected a building on Eastern Avenue, the western section of which was donated to the Association. Dr. Bob was born in St. Johnsbury on August 8, 1879.
And the trail to YMCA impact began shortly before that date with "The Great Awakening of 1875." Under the auspices of the State Committee of the Y.M.C.A., YMCA brethren came to St. Johnsbury. They conducted Sunday revival meetings in Avenue House Hall, at South Church, and even in the machine shop of the local factory. Finally, in one gospel meeting, some 1500 people gathered at the St. Johnsbury Academy. And, in that season, 1500 souls were converted. The village was transformed.
The YMCA continued to be an influential root in St. Johnsbury. Bible studies were held in the YMCA building. YMCA evening activities were conducted at North Congregational Church where the family of Dr. Bob were pillars and attenders. YMCA activities were conducted at St. Johnsbury Academy which Dr. Bob attended and where his mother and father were active. Also, Bob's father, Judge Walter Smith, was President of the local YMCA from 1895 to at least 1897.
Bill Wilson's involvement with the YMCA was even more direct and is fully documented. Bill attended Burr and Burton Academy in Manchester, Vermont from 1909 to 1913. Bill was President of the YMCA, and his girl friend Bertha Bamford was President of the YWCA. Both were active together in school "Y" activities.
To conclude, 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 God through Jesus Christ. (2) Bible study. (3) Prayer meetings. (4) Personal evangelism--often called "personal work"--by lay Christians. (5) A non-denominational approach.
At its founding in 1935, A.A. embraced all five of the foregoing principles. Some of the principles were also embraced by the other four Christian groups and organizations, but the YMCA was at the fore in the lives of both Wilson and Smith.