need to warn each other about becoming too confident. Overconfidence
can have sorry consequences. Individual A.A.s need to take the warning
to heart; A.A. as an organization of individuals can also profit from
of us, attending meetings of our various groups, have heard, and taken
part in, conversations like this: "D'ja see that story about A.A.
in this week's Squint?" "Not yet, but Joe was talkin' about
it. Any good?" "Yeah, a pretty good piece. You know, those
editors must think we got somethin'." Sure, they wouldn't be giving
us space, what with the war and all, if they didn't think a lot of their
readers wanted to know about us."
contentment settles over speakers and listeners.
many of the readers of The Grapevine have heard about the Washington
Temperance Society? It was quite an organization in its time - in the
1840's. Its organizers called themselves "reformed drunkards"
and they set about "reforming" other drunkards. Does the idea
100,000 IN 3 YEARS
They did all right, too, they got going in the spring of 1840, in Baltimore.
In early 1843, they were claiming that they had persuaded 100,000 habitual
drunkards to sign the pledge.
Older temperance organizations had to stand aside - or climb onto the
bandwagon. The new society was getting the headlines. It organized a
mass meeting in City Hall Park in New York City in 1841 that attracted
more than 4,000 listeners - the speakers stood on upturned rum kegs
- and it had 1,800 new members when it closed its campaign in that city.
were triumphal parades in Boston - where historic Faneuil Hall was jammed
to the doors to hear the speaker - and in other eastern cities, Speakers
toured the West and South.
Press of the day gave the society uncounted columns of publicity. The
society petered out.
"why" contains a lesson - and a moral - for A.A.
was no ONE reason, of course. A reason was that older temperance organizations
hired some of the society's better speakers. That reason couldn't have
wrecked the society if it had had its feet solidly on the ground.
reason was that politicians looked hungrily at its swelling membership.
Some of them climbed aboard the wagon (there is inference that in those
times, at least, some politicians could qualify for membership) and
they helped to wreck local groups through their efforts to line up votes.
Abolition movement was gaining strength and there was division within
groups as men took their stand on the issue of slavery.
Washingtonians were confident. They rebuffed overtures of older temperance
organizations, they scorned old methods. Local groups went their separate
ways, made their own mistakes, and learned their own lessons. Some,
with larger membership, dipped into their treasuries to finance their
own publications. There was no overall direction of educational policy.
Editors of local society publications got into squabbles with editors
of other temperance papers.
There was division, in those times, among the older organizations. Some
of them plumped for total abstinence as a rule of conduct; others hedged
and wanted to direct their efforts against use of spirituous liquors,
accepting use of wines and beers as normal conduct. Some of the more
hardy souls already were clamoring for legislation that would outlaw
the traffic in beverage alcohol. All of these factions pulled and hauled
on the society's members.
temperance organizations were finding it increasingly difficult to interest
the public in their aims. The Washingtonians with their unique methods
- their missionary work among drunkards, their open-air parades and
mass meetings, their "experience" programs that afforded a
thrill-seeking public the opportunity of enjoying vicariously the degenerate
experiences of sodden sinners - were stealing the show. The older organizations
borrowed Washingtonian speakers and methods to draw larger audiences
to their meetings.
the Washingtonian movement, in its beginnings, was concerned only with
the reclaiming of drunkards and held that it was none of its affair
if others used alcohol who seemed to be little harmed by it, the makers
and sellers of alcoholic beverages looked upon the new movement with
a tolerant, even approving eye. The habitual drunk was no more welcome
in the nineteenth century grog-shop than he is in the present day cocktail
But in its zeal to increase its membership as rapidly as possible, the
society pledged many persons to total abstinence who were intemperate
drinkers, probably, but who were not alcoholic in the present-day definition
of the term.
Washingtonian movement might have survived, however, might have triumphed
over its mistakes, and its enemies (and well wishers), except for one
organizers believed they could get along without a Higher Power.
wasn't a particularly religious time. And inebriates, then as now, had
generally lost touch with Him. Many of them, in fact, were outspoken
in their denunciations of all of His works, especially as demonstrated
in the activities and attitudes of so-called Christian folk. The meetings
of the society's groups were conducted usually without reference to
were not atheists; it just hadn't occurred to them that God as we understand
Him could help them to stay sober. In fact, some of them believed that
if they invited God into their councils, sectarianism also would push
its way in, and their movement would be taken over by one or another
of the churches.
society wasn't on God's side and, consequently it disintegrated.
An editor of that day wrote:
the exclusion of all religious forms and the entire abstraction of religion
from temperance were necessary for the reclamation of the drunkard,
we have never believed.... The drunkard may have felt hostile to religion
while in the bar-room and amid the fumes of liquor, and he may feel
so after he has reformed and been taught to believe that he is better
than a Christian, but never did a poor drunkard go up in sincerity to
sign the pledge, without feeling himself a prodigal, commencing a work
of return to his Heavenly Father, and needing that Father's help: and
who would not have gratefully knelt and listened to a prayer for that
help on his new endeavors. And we believe that if the hundreds of thousands
of signatures in our country had been accompanied with prayer and some
religious enforcement, their power and efficiency would have been incomparably
it necessarily true that there's nothing new under the sun," or
that "history repeats itself?"
is new, a new partnership with God in a useful endeavor. History NEED
NOT repeat, in the case of A.A., the sorry story of the Washingtonians,
rise and fall.
are, however, lessons to be learned from history.