The Story of Dick B.’s Travels and Writings About A.A. to Help the A.A. Newcomer, and Alcoholics Anonymous Itself
Dick B.’s “personal story” (his drunkalog) has been delivered in hundreds of 12-Step and recovery meetings and reported in thousands of published books and articles. Also, at some length on his own Alcoholics Anonymous History website—www.dickb.com.
But this is a different story.
It is about Dick B., the real alcoholic and prescription pill addict who entered the rooms of A.A. twenty-eight years ago a very very sick person. A sixty-year old newcomer who knew little of addiction, little about alcoholism, little of Alcoholics Anonymous itself, and very little about the link between his malady and his seemingly mountainous pile of self-created troubles. Disasters that almost inevitably plague the wet drunk or drug addict. He found he had entered a strange and unfamiliar fellowship with no real leaders, no common approach among its old-timers, and virtually no guidance in selecting a mysterious “sponsor” whose qualifications are neither fixed nor evaluated.
This is z brief story of how Dick traveled all over the United States, interviewed hundreds of those with an explicit knowledge of various aspects of A.A. and its roots and beginnings, gathered books and manuscripts that filled in blanks, and realized there was an A.A. that many know little about: An early fellowship in which many determined drunks had recovered in A.A.’s pioneer days. And a program that has enabled many Christians—including the many newcomers Dick sponsored—pursue progress in recovery within the rooms of A.A. itself.
The details Dick unearthed over many years in A.A. were not easily found. Yet the elements were such that suffering affected and afflicted entrants can utilize today without wandering in the muddle of treatment options and criticisms abounding about A.A.
Blessed with God’s help, Dick was delivered from the power of darkness while he was an A.A. newcomer It happened when Dick was soon hospitalized in the Veterans Administration psych ward at Fort Miley in San Francisco. And what a nightmare of physical and mental stress and ill-health, confusion, fear, anxiety, terror, and genuine life-sized financial, legal, criminal, domestic, and other problems common among battered newcomers today! Searchers for a way out that does not have a well-lighted path.
But at six months of sobriety, Dick was—while an expectant member of the A.A. fellowship--able to turn wholly to God for help, return from two-months of hospitalization to Alcoholics Anonymous for fellowship, and embark on the greatest pleasure of his life—giving the great majority of his time to finding, helping, guiding, and leading newcomers to God through Christ. Aiding new found lives among a virtual army of newcomers. Lives where newcomers could be and were released through the process of faith in God, through changed life-patterns mapped out in the Twelve Steps, through study of both the Bible and A.A. literature in the rooms, and through concurrent liberation as Christians from guilt, shame, loneliness, isolation, fear, and a sense of friendlessness.
Here’s how the story began.
Maybe it’s best to show you the “path” and then to go briefly into what Dick found along the way.
After about three years in A.A. since gaining and maintaining continuous sobriety and enjoying the fellowship and the A.A. program, Dick heard about an A.A. he had never seen, never experienced, and never been able to pass along to others. What he had heard had to do with the early A.A. successes and godly features.
And this brings us to the story of John. John was an alcoholic.
It also brings us to the surprising statement John made to me at a Twelve Step study meeting in San Rafael, California. Interestingly, the meeting itself had the name “Steps to Freedom.”
John knew I had been attending a Bible fellowship, had been helped to grow in understanding and knowledge of God’s revelation, promises, healings, and commandments. He also knew I had been puzzled by the absence in A.A. of this deliverance and growth factor which had been tested and utilized by thousands of former alcoholics and addicts in the Bible fellowship itself. Christians who had been healed and had continuously been clean and sober without A.A. Yet whose members had little knowledge of A.A., the Twelve Steps, or the background of A.A. itself.
The incongruity did not drive me away from A.A. It had simply left me unable easily to link what were commonplace practices among the early Christians in the Book of Acts and the activities of those in his Bible fellowship to many of the seemingly Bible-related words and ideas that existed in A.A.’s basic text.
John’s conversation with me at the Step meeting went like this: “Dick, did you know that A.A. came from the Bible?” “John, I have been much involved in A.A. for three years, have probably attended over one thousand meetings, but I have never, ever heard of any connection of A.A. with the Bible.”
“Dick, you need to read A.A.’s DR. BOB and the Good Oldtimers. It is filled with information about how the Bible was the center-piece of early A.A., how the Bible was studied, and how the Book of James, Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount, and 1 Corinthians 13 were absolutely essential to the early AA successes and program. In fact, the Book of James was so popular that early AAs wanted to call A.A. “The James Club.””
With a mind much clearer after three years of sobriety and having dipped into A.A. literature, I had seen a number of Bible verses like “Faith without works is dead,” “Thy will be done,” and “Love thy neighbor as thyself” quoted in the Big Book. I had seen there biblical descriptions of God such as Creator, Maker, Father, Heavenly Father, and Father of Lights. But within A.A., I had never heard members link these Bible roots in A.A. literature to the Bible and A.A. itself.
I had, however, incessantly in A.A. heard of a “higher power,” that A.A. was “spiritual but not religious,” and that AAs should read nothing but the Big Book the first year of their recovery. Consequently, I was amazed at John’s statement.
But I did read DR. BOB and the Good Oldtimers—a precise account of how early A.A. was founded in 1935. Details about how early Akron members called themselves a “Christian Fellowship,” And about requirements for A.A. newcomers just never heard in Marin County, California meetings.
I read that: (1) Hospitalization was a must in early A.A.—something never even mentioned to me as a newcomer though I was detoxing heavily and soon had three gran mal seizures in A.A. (2) Pioneers were required to “surrender” their lives to a God of their understanding—a practice only vaguely outlined in A.A.’s Step Number Three. (3) Elimination of sinful conduct such as adultery was a must—conduct that was boldly and frequently mentioned in meetings. (4) Each day, early AAs held Quiet Times, prayed together, studied the Bible together, read Christian literature Dr. Bob circulated among them—just never mentioned in A.A. meetings in Marin County. (5) Helping others get straightened out the same way was something every A.A. considered a duty—a concept that was stressed as we moved forward in A.A. (6) Newcomer fellowship with like-minded believers was encouraged—whereas it was never a part of the A.A. I had “joined.” (7) Attendance at a religious service once a week was recommended—though it was common in meetings these days to hear someone say: “My sobriety comes first. Church and family follow.”—hardly an affirmation of “Seek ye first the kingdom of God.” One Irishman used to come to a beginners meeting on Maui and say: “I go to church for my religion. I go to A.A. for my alcoholism.”
Frankly, I wouldn’t go anywhere for my alcoholism—only to a place like A.A. which pointed the way out of this destructive illness.
Even today, 28 years later, an AA is often likely to doubt, reject , or ignore these facts that are plainly stated in some of their “Conference-approved” literature.
But I did not doubt either the facts or the history. I was tired of hearing about a “higher power” that could be a rock, a light bulb, the Big Dipper, or “Ralph.” I was tired of hearing folks in meetings talking about “spirituality,” and ignoring published truth about Bible, prayer, Quiet Time, and Christian books. Yet I was not condemning A.A. And I don’t. But rather the comments of friends who had probably never heard in A.A. about anything but a “higher power” named Ralph, an A.A. which was not “religious,” or even prayer to a God “of their understanding” for healing and cure.
Yet I had also, begun to study A.A.’s Big Book assiduously and spent hours trying to learn about the Twelve Steps. But, after my talk with John, I was challenged to begin a search. And here is what I did.
The Path to the Rest of the A.A. Story
It was to my delight that I picked up a copy of Bill Pittman’s book, AA the Way It Began, at an A.A. Conference in Sacramento, California. At the same Conference, I again met a lady from Manteca who had looked after me when I was at an early meeting in Stockton. I said to her that I would like to go to the International Convention in Seattle; and she advised that I’d better go “now” considering my age.
And so I did. I went with an agenda in mind—finding out what the leaders at the International gathering knew about A.A. and the Bible. Meanwhile, I saw in AA The Way It Began the first glimmerings of some of the major sources of A.A. ideas—the Bible, the Oxford Group, and Reverend Sam Shoemaker.
In Seattle, I went right to the archives meeting at the International Convention with the specific purpose of learning about the Bible roots of A.A.
But seated on the stage were some A.A. old-timers who never mentioned the Bible. One, however, had a stack of Oxford Group books in front of him and said he’d send them to me after the convention. Then I had heard panelists frequently mention “Frank.” And I asked one who this “Frank” was that all the panelists referred to. He replied, “Frank Mauser, the A.A. General Services Archivist from New York.” I introduced myself to Frank and asked if he had material on Sam Shoemaker, and A.A. Frank replied, “No.” But he promised to and did in fact send me what little he had.
The upshot of this first research adventure was this: The Oxford Group books arrived at my home. Frank merely sent a Xerox copy of a page from Bill Pittman’s book that listed some Shoemaker books. And I had learned nothing about A.A. and the Bible. However, as I began to read the Oxford Group books, I could see the remarkable similarity between words and phrases in the Big Book and those in the Oxford Group. I could also see that most of the Oxford Group writers talked about their “principles” almost always citing the Bible as authority for the ideas.
I felt I was on the Bible trail at last. I went to the small A.A. group that my sponsees and I had formed. I proposed that the group hold a meeting in the large parish hall in Mill Valley, California where Frank Mauser could speak, where films and recordings of Bill and Bob could be presented, and where I could introduce the audience to the Oxford Group roots.
The meeting was a smash. Frank came from New York. He brought a Bill Wilson film with him, and spoke at some length on A.A. and on its history as he knew it. 400 members from A.A. were in attendance. Women brought in lunch materials. The audience partook, and not a one left the conference. We called it “A Day in Marin.” And Frank’s talk was so inspiring that I asked if they would like to hear him tell more in the afternoon. The answer was, “yes.” He did. And then I presented what I had learned about the Oxford Group and A.A. thus far. Frank turned to me and said, “Dick, it looks like you’ve got a book in you.” And I sure did.
I boned up on as many A.A., Oxford Group, and Shoemaker books as I could find. I wrote some lengthy material on the Oxford Group. I went to nearby seminary libraries to find more. And then I proposed once again to our little A.A. group (“Steps to the Solution”) that we hold a second “A Day in Marin” Program, invite some knowledgeable speakers on the history, and broaden the subject to fit the speakers’ areas of expertise. Frank Mauser was invited to return, but could not come. But he did label it the “Son of Day in Marin” program.
So we invited as speakers: (1) Mel B., who was a substantial contributor to “PASS IT ON” and who had just published his book New Wine: The Spiritual Roots of the Twelve Step Miracle. (2) T. Willard Hunter, who had been employed by the Oxford Group for many years, who knew Frank Buchman and Sam Shoemaker personally, as well as many of its surviving members, and who had written extensively for the Oxford Group. (3) Robert R. Smith (Dr. Bob’s son and his wife Betty) who came all the way from Nocona, Texas.
Mel B. was the first speaker. And his opening remark was “A.A. came from the Bible.”
And this second conference was also a smash. 800 AAs attended. They were provided with lunch. And not a one left the scene until the conference was over. Mel told about early A.A. Willard told about the Oxford Group. Smitty told about his father Dr. Bob and the founding of A.A. And I read from the Book of James to let the audience hear what the early AAs had regularly studied.
In the interval between the first and second Marin County events, I had continued my search for A.A. historical roots—a search broadened with much additional information about early A.A., the Oxford Group, Dr. Bob and Akron A.A., and the Bible segments early AAs read—the Book of James, Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount, and 1 Corinthians 13. And I went to my first Founders Day Conference in Akron—loaded to the gunnels with questions to be asked and people to be interviewed. And a whole new arena of facts began to open.
My first Akron visit was with Dr. Bob’s daughter Sue Smith Windows. She answered many questions and she wrote and signed several statements about Akron. Then I asked her if she had ever heard her father use the phrase “born again.” Immediately she trudged up the stairs to her attic, using an inhaler to breathe properly. She returned with a book called “Born Again.” It was by Emmet Fox. Her father had dated it, written “Please return,” and signed it also adding his address 855 Ardmore, Akron. I asked her if her father was “born again.” She replied, “yes.”
Then I asked Sue if she had other books her father owned and read. She went to the attic and brought several more downstairs. She said the attic was full of her dad’s books. I asked if I could go up and look at them. She replied that it was too messy, but she would clean it up and let me look at the collection if I returned to Founders Day the next year. I asked her if she would make a list of the books and send it to me. And she did. She also commented that her brother “Smitty” had an equal number of Dr. Bob’s books in his home in Nocona, Texas.
I phoned Smitty. He and his wife Betty both got on the phone and told me they had a large number of books, would make a list, and send it to me. And after collecting some books from seminaries and bookstores as well as individuals who had them for sale, I was ready to and did write and publish my first book, Dr. Bob’s Library.
The next year I returned to Akron and Founders Day for more visits. Sue invited me to attend a meeting of the Board at Dr. Bob’s Home. I went to her attic, examined the books carefully, compared them to the list she had sent, and verified that many were signed, dated, in Dr. Bob’s own handwriting, and had the “Please return” with 855 Ardmore written in them. At the Akron University Library, and at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, I poured over the newspaper articles and pictures of the town-wide Oxford Group events of 1933.
Sue had another surprise for me. On the plane to Akron, I had read in a footnote in a Hazelden book that its author had visited GSO archives in New York and seen some scribbled notes said to have been written by Anne Smith. I asked Sue what these were. She told me that her mother had kept a journal from 1933 to 1939 and shared it with AAs and their families in morning quiet times at the Smith home. She also said she had typed some of the material for her mother while she was at business school. Lois and Bill Wilson had taken the journal at the time of her father’s death.
She agreed to write requesting her mother’s journal and sign a letter to the A.A. Trustees requesting that they make that journal available to me and to her. Frank Mauser expedited it at GSO; and I soon had almost all the pages—some with handwritten annotations, and some simply typewritten. I could see quite plainly that over the period from 1933 to 1939, Anne had written down most of the materials shared with early AAs and their families—biblical, Oxford Group, and life-changing subjects. The material contained much discussion of the Bible, prayer, Quiet Time, recommended books, Oxford Group ideas, and practical suggestions for AAs and their families. And Anne had written: “Of course, the Bible ought to be the main Source. Not a day should pass without reading it.” And I wrote and published my second book, Anne Smith’s Workbook, It contained the contents of Anne’s journal as well as footnotes and my annotations sourcing many of the materials Anne had covered.
On the same visit, I made a date to see Congressman John Seiberling at the University of Akron where he was teaching. His mother Henrietta Seiberling had introduced Bill W. to Dr. Bob and had led many of the early meetings. She and her children attended them.
I read Congressman John about 12 of the 28 Oxford Group, A.A. related ideas I had found in their books. I asked him if he had ever heard any of the material in the early meetings he, his mother, and his sisters attended. He said: “I never heard anything else. My mother talked about all of these ideas repeatedly; and my mother, I am sure, read all of the Oxford Group literature of the 1930’s.”
I asked John for the names of his two sisters. I arranged a visit with Dorothy at her huge condo in New York, reviewed her mother’s Bible and its notes with her, and corresponded with her about her mother’s views. I could not arrange to see her sister Mary Seiberling Huhn in Pennsylvania. But, when I wrote Mary, I received quite a bundle of information about her mother, the meetings, and the Seiberlings.
By this time, I had begun to map out 10 books I wanted to write about A.A. One had been Dr. Bob’s Library. One had been the Anne Smith book. One was “The Books That Early AAs Read.” One was “The Oxford Group and Alcoholics Anonymous.” And one was “The Akron Genesis of Alcoholics Anonymous.” I also had in mind writing about Rev. Samuel Shoemaker’s role and also a book on the often mentioned “Quiet Time.” For sure, I knew I would soon be writing one or more books about the Big Book and what Dr. Bob called “The Good Book.” And that book was to dig deeply into A.A.’s roots in the Bible. I also planned write a book about the Women Pioneers of A.A.—Anne Smith, Henrietta Seiberling, Clarace Williams, Lois Wilson, Geraldine O. Delaney, and Mrs. Shoemaker (It never got written because Bill Pittman had joined Hazelden, arranged for such a book, and paid me “for hire” to write the Seiberling portion.) I supplied the material on Mrs. Geraldine O. Delaney, founder and president of Alina Lodge.
By this time, thanks to Willard Hunter, I had met and interviewed at length, Willard himself, James D. Newton, Eleanor Forde Newton, Garth Lean, Charles Haines, Harry Almond, Parks Shipley, Mrs. W. Irving Harris, Kenneth Belden, Michael Hutchinson, Jim Houck, George Vondermuhll, Jr., Richard Ruffin, and Dr. Morris Martin. All of these were Oxford Group activists and leaders for years. When the breakup with Rev. Sam Shoemaker occurred, almost all remained attached to Oxford Group ideas and objectives. And we could see we had by then very much mastered the Oxford Group ideas that filtered into Bill Wilson.
This meant turning my attention to Rev. Samuel M. Shoemaker and his little spoken of influence on Bill Wilson and the new version of the program the Twelve Steps. To me this meant the acquisition and careful review of all Sam’s books. It meant visiting his Calvary Churches in New York and Pittsburgh. It meant meeting with his two daughters, reviewing Sam’s personal journals, and talking to the many in Pittsburgh who were familiar with Sam’s vibrant witnessing, sermons and speeches, and Sam’s growing belief in small groups.
Finally, with a letter of introduction from Sam’s younger daughter enabling us to have complete access to all Shoemaker papers (58 boxes of them), we spent a week going through them with the help of the archivist at the Episcopal Church Archives in Austin, Texas. Through this all, we could see that Bill Wilson, like the Oxford Group people he had left, had fully credited Shoemaker with almost all the Step ideas. And we wrote New Light on Alcoholism: God, Sam Shoemaker, and A.A., 2d edition.
After which, Bill Pittman apprised me of the fact that Fleming Revell (publisher of many of the earlier Christian, Oxford Group, and Shoemaker books) wanted a book about Shoemaker’s writings and their relation to the Twelve Steps. The publisher wanted a foundational book that would buttress their planned reprint of many of Shoemaker’s books (all of which I had read) Pittman said he didn’t feel qualified to write the book; and we partnered in writing the book for Baker Books. It is titled Courage to Change: The Christian Roots of the Twelve Step Miracle. Hazelden bought the rights from Baker and still publishes this Pittman-Dick B. book.
We reached a turning point. And I keep mentioning “we.” The fact is that over most of my sobriety and in practically all of my research and publishing years, my son Ken—a talented graduate of University of California in Rhetoric and graduate of San Francisco State in Fundamentals of Oral Communication—assisted me, edited my work, and made endless research contacts. Ken was also a businessman and later an ordained Christian minister and Bible scholar. And we felt it was appropriate to write a magnum opus work on the spiritual history of Alcoholics Anonymous. It was to incorporate the various elements that we had discovered and published. And it was filled with as much as we had then learned—all 771 pages of it. The title is Turning Point: A History of Early A.A.’s Spiritual Roots and Successes. Paul Wood, Ph.D., President of the National Council on Alcoholism, wrote the Foreword. Those who endorsed the book were Bob and Betty Smith, Ozzie and Bonnie Lepper of the Wilson House, John Seiberling, and Karen A. Plavan, Ph.D., Assistant Professor, Counseling, Education, and Chemical Dependency at The Pennsylvania State University.
However, the recovery world was changing rapidly. A.A. had stopped growing. Religious publishers like Zondervan, Abingdon, Thomas Nelson, and Harper Collins were pumping out “recovery Bibles” and Christian-related recovery materials that incorporated the Steps. Treatment programs were closing by the dozens. A.A.’s history writers had reached a dividing point where some were emphasizing A.A. as open to all, “spiritual” in nature, based on a “higher power” and “not-god-ness” and therefore much distanced from religion, Christianity, and the Big Book-Bible study guides. Also from the formation of study groups that would incorporate old school A.A., the merits of the earlier program and practices, and the Conference-approved literature of A.A. today.
Meanwhile, we were receiving voluminous numbers of phone calls, emails, letters, and visits from at least two groups of people: (1) Christians who were being rebuffed within the walls of A.A. if they mentioned God, the Bible, Jesus Christ, or religion; and being intimidated and stricken from “official” meeting lists if their group did. (2) Christian relatives of prisoners and addicted people in trouble who recognized their family members wouldn’t quit using their drug of choice, were recidivists in the extreme, and needed Christian help—trying to find an effective Christian recovery program.
I had worked with dozens and dozens of newcomers and had taught them the Big Book and taken them through the Steps. I had introduced them to the biblical approaches that were used and applied both before and at the time of early A.A. And it was apparent to me that young men and women (as well as one 90 year old sponsee, one 65 year old sponsee, one 50 year old sponsee) were willing to emulate the actions of the early AAs.
These wanted to quit drinking and using. They recognized their seeming helplessness and hopelessness. And they were very very receptive to learning about God, His Son, the Bible, prayer, healing, salvation, and other subjects that could able them to become more than just “in recovery” or “recovered” or even “cured.”
At the same time they were lacking the tools, principles and practices that had dominated early A.A.—the fruits and techniques of the pre-AA organizations like the YMCA, rescue missions, Salvation Army, and Christian Endeavor. They had rejected many recovery-related biblical ideas primarily because of lack of knowledge of the Christian upbringing and Bible studies of A.A.’s founders and their earliest successes in growing in understanding God, Christ, and the Bible. They were enjoined to apply their own principle that “God could and would if He were sought.” Without the background, they were ill-equipped to establish a relationship with God, come to Him through Jesus Christ, understand the elements of prayer, define the sinful conduct that had been blocking them from God, and then turn to God for help in their own case and in the lives of those they wanted to help.
But there was also a flight factor that had intervened in A.A.’s simple early program. Objections fostered by atheists, agnostics, humanists, and unbelievers; and the utter lack of information about the biblical roots of A.A. were driving Christians out of A.A. and into the arms of diverse religious programs like Alcoholics Victorious, Teen Challenge, Overcomers Outreach, Inc., Celebrate Recovery, Alcoholics for Christ and others. Many of these new resources just couldn’t or didn’t invest in the 24/7 love and service that had made A.A. so much needed, popular, and welcome to those in deep trouble and propelled toward recognizing alcohol and drugs as the enemy to be licked.
This further caused us to dig deep into the real history of the highly successful Christian organizations and leaders who helped alcoholics long before A.A. was even thought of. That meant investigating the virtually unreported Vermont Christian upbringing and Bible training of the two cofounders and the third AA who got sober before the A.A. and before it had a recovery program other than that obtainable from the Bible. Their strong faith without a structured program nonetheless produced reliance on God, help for others, and continuous sobriety for the rest of their lives. This meant for us instructive writing, teaching, and speaking on these topics.
Furthermore, a new and strong Christian Recovery Movement was springing up to deal with the factors mentioned here. A host of Christians in A.A. and Christian leaders in treatment programs, sober-living homes, counseling, fellowships, and churches began to unite in their desire to support the A.A. which had enabled them to get sober and to learn and apply the old school A.A. which firmly planted the pioneers in the God-centered recovery fellowship and groups.
That is where we are today. That is how my son Ken and I view our task as servants of our Heavenly Father, heralds of the Word of God, and practical utilizers and appliers of the biblical A.A. of yesteryear.
But this cannot be accomplished without the uniquely lonely solid information we have unearthed and published and without a persistent eye on the need to “seek first the Kingdom of God” and then reap the harvest that awaits those who decide to abandon deadly alcoholism and drug abuse, and become the individuals described in 2 Corinthians 5:17—a favorite in early A.A.
If the sharing of experience, strength, and hope is truly to inform people of the readiness of God to help, of the fruits of a God-centered life, and of the merits of combining A.A.’s motto of love and service as a guide to helping others is imparted to trainers, then this effort can prosper. It can certainly be far more powerful today than the efforts of the alcoholic himself, the senses-knowledge fashioned, self-made religion, and self-made human efforts of others. The solution is responding with God’s love and power to the calls of those who are still seemingly hopeless, medically incurable, last gasp sufferers who can and do get healed and restored by renouncing their poison, establishing a solid relationship with God, and helping others get well.
The A.A. story as presently told and limited in presentation today leaves out these factors. It is therefore the “rest of the story” that needs to be discovered, reported, documented, and disseminated as an option to all who seek something more than their own strength, the weaknesses in man’s efforts, and the manufacture in the rooms and by theorists of false gods, unbelief, and “evidence based” failures when help from God was the very thing early AAs needed and present-day AAs need the option of seeking and receiving by whatever truthful means have been discovered and revealed as to A.A.’s origins, roots, success factors, and programs.