Historical Magazine Of the Protestantism Episcopal Church, March, 1983
Vol. 52, 153-165, March 1983
Evangelical Protestantism and Alcoholism 1933-1962: Episcopalian Samuel Shoemaker, the Oxford Group and Alcoholics Anonymous
by John F. Woolverton
One of the “most cherished memories” of prominent Episcopalian evangelical minister Samuel Shoemaker (1894-1963) was the comment of a woman in Alcoholics Anonymous, “Dr. Sam, you may not be an alcoholic, but by God you certainly do talk like one.” Among Shoemaker’s many roles in the church – as parish person with a concern for the urban poor , as revivalist on private school and college campuses and as unofficial chaplain to corporation executives – none was more important than his part in the coming together of low church, Episcopalian evangelicalism, the Oxford Group of Frank N.D. Buchman and Alcoholics Anonymous (hereafter A.A.). Here once again evangelical impetus in the history of American Protestantism proved its durability and power. It did so in the 1930s at an inauspicious moment when the American religious depression of the 20s was just coming to an end. Yet what occured in the history here recounted proved prophetic for the revival of religion in our own time.
In the years 1933 to roughly 1939 an evangelical tradition of long standing came together with a new revivalist movement and with a self-help crusade. The three influenced each other and then split apart – so far unaccountably. The split was almost but not quite complete, since Shoemaker reestablished close ties after 1945 with A.A. While Buchman after 1938 severed relations with the religious community in general and with evangelical Protestantism in particular, Shoemaker at the invitation of William Wilson of A.A. was able in the 1950s to cast a religious aura about that organization. Far from producing negligible results, the joint efforts of these two leaders – Shoemaker and Wilson – led many members of A.A. to look upon the Episcopal church as a place of acceptance and even refuge for those suffering from alcoholism. In addition Shoemaker, though not a professional theologian himself, may be remembered as one who at the end of his life prepared the way for a deeper, more biblical and theological approach to alcohol and other addictions. Virginia Theological Semminary’s symposium, The Spiritual Dimensions of Alcoholic Recovery” conducted in March 1982 is itself a case in point. Certainly no one expects A.A. to become explicitly Protestant, Episcopalian or even evangelical. Nevertheless those members of A.A. who fall into either camp – and they must be considerable – will no doubt wish to take advantage of the spiritual resources available in their religious tradition.
It is all very well – and perfectly true as far as it goes – to say that “A.A.’s self-help principles are rooted in common sense and reinforced by group ritual,” but it is historically misleading to suggest , as one anthropologist has done, that A.A. is “as typically American as the vigilante groups that spring up when local law enforcement agencies are unable to control crime.” Such comparison is misleading the roots of A.A. are not so much in vigilante groups as in the religious perfectionism which underlay the earlier temperance movement and which provided A.A. itself its initial “common sense” and “group ritual,” that is, its strategy and its zeal.
The evangelical tradition in American Protestantism has in each of its major periods of revival since the mid-eighteenth century produced a desire for a new moral order, fresh avenues to neighborliness and both divine and self-help agencies to achieve those ends. Along side other voluntary agencies for peace, freedom, Bible reading and mission was that favoring abstinence from the consumption of alcoholic beverages: The temperance movement. On the frontier in the nineteenth-century, as W.A. Clebschhas pointed out:
“Drink wasted money at its simplest. Worse, it wasted money needed for wholesome things. Worse than that inebriation forfeited the alertness that was the pioneer’s necessary weapons against the ravages of fire or flood or animal which constantly threatened to wrest from him his possessions and his meager gains over the ominous wilderness. Worst of all intemperance drove its slaves to the mad house, prison, pauperism, or early death in any case leaving destitute wives and children in misery of mind and body.”
As a result in the Second Great Awakening major denominations launched a massive campaign to save the destitute and the not-so-destitute from the ravages of alcohol. In the post-Civil War era the prominent Social Gospel leader, Frances Willard (1839-1898), made her Women’s Christian Temperance Union part of powerful reform movement which included women’s political and economic rights, the abolition of prostitution, urban reform and the removal of social inequities resulting from the industrialization of America.
After Willard’s death the twentieth-century humanitarian impulse did two things. First, special interest reform groups began to organize separately to achieve particular ends. Where Willard’s Prohibition Party, to take one example, expended energy on a variety of social goals, the Anti-Saloon League focused on one. Second, in matters of temperance as in other self-help and self-improvement impulses such as prison reform, care of the insane and so forth, the “experts” replaced the “romantics.” Not until the advent of such “do-gooders” (as they were derisively called) as Frances Perkins, a socially respectable college girl turned factory inspector. Henry A. Wallace, a producer of hybrid seed corn, Reinhold Niebuhr, a professor in a theological school, and later Martin Luther King Jr., a young Baptist preacher, did the Christian faith provide a common center once again. The results are well known: fair labor standards, old age security, equal opportunity, racial equality, the search for peace and for nuclear disarmament, and a higher intellectual respectability for Christian thought and social ethics.
But in all of these efforts from 1934 on toward a more moral and ethical society temperance no longer played a significant role. The spectacular success of the Anti-Saloon League in the passage of the eighteenth amendment to the Constitution and the subsequently shattering set-back of December 1933 when prohibition was repealed , meant that henceforth the consumption of alcohol would be a private matter. As Americans fought “establishments” in the past, so they rejected this one. The freedom – and also the responsibility – to shape one’s life morally did not include the right to dictate to others in a pluralistic society hoe they were to pattern theirs. Only the slaughter of the innocents on the nation’s highways as a result of “drunk driving” as the term has significantly been shortened, together with the connection in the public mind of drug addiction with alcohol addiction have served to raise once again public consciousness of the old issue of temperance. But it is important to recognize that we do not find anything like a temperance crusade accompanying the civil rights movement of the 1960s or the anti-Vietnam drive of the 70s or the present nuclear freeze action. To us, however mistakenly, the idea of temperance is at best inappropriate at worst ludicrous. It would not have seemed so to our nineteenth-century ancestors. And they may just possibly have had a point: Who wants an addict fiddling with the nuclear buttons?
It was the failure of the temperance movement that accounts for the emergence of A.A. Alcohol consumption clearly remained a problem. It was also the failure of the temperance movement nationally together with the break up of the unifying Christian social impulses throughout the 20s and early 30s which accounts for the inability of the A.A.-Oxford Group-Episcopalian evangelical alliance to last. Without a commanding and common ideology each went its separate way before the decade of the 30s was out. Nonetheless it must be said that Protestant evangelicalism contributed significantly to the emergence of a singularly successful humanitarian organization of wide popular appeal. When medicine and psychiatry fell short of providing immediate, sufficient and large scale direction to those suffering from alcoholism, Wilson and other founders of A.A. turned to the Christian community for help. Among those who appear to have played early and significant roles was Samuel Shoemaker.
Shoemaker, who may well emerge as a bridge figure between the older and newer evangelicalism of the Episcopal church, came to maturity during the heyday of Protestant optimism and expansion. During the first two decades of the twentieth century he fell under the influence of the Student Volunteer Movement, John R. Mott and the YMCA. Yet neither has privileged background at St. George’s School, Newport, Rhode Island and at Princeton nor the stimulus of the social gospel and missions seemed to have provided Shoemaker with the “personal” commitment to Christ which he sought. That commitment was supplied by a Lutheran minister from central Pennsylvania, Frank Buchman, when the two met in Peking in 1918. Buchman’s four terrifying and simplistic absolutes – “Absolute Honesty, Absolute Purity, Absolute Unselfishness and Absolute Love” – provided Shoemaker, the young teacher of American insurance techniques to the Chinese, enough “law” to which the Gospel became the “answer.” Thereafter Shoemaker sought a similar “personal” conversion to Christ for others through the ordained ministry of the Episcopal church. At the same time he rejected the social gospel and espoused conservative economics throughout his ministry.
Frank Buchman’s Oxford Group which was formed after his early association with Shoemaker, was cut from the same pietistic , revivalist cloth. Both were as well ecumenical or at least anti-sectarian. The peripatetic Buchman, who toured the British Empire and other exotic places, found in Shoemaker’s Calvary Church in the 1930s a suitable headquarters for his burgeoning American campaign. Like Shoemaker, Buchman relied on the wealthy as well as on the famous for both conversions and contributions. A dexterous spiritual director, he encouraged the confession of sins (often of a sexual nature) in small groups or “house parties.” Buchman was consistently reductionistic, jingoistic, and generally a stranger to subtlety: “Sorry is a magic little word.” A showman himself, he made extremely able use first of radio and film, then television; he showed extraordinary administrative ability and dominated his movement autocratically. The question at Calvary Church was whether the winsome Shoemaker would put the Episcopalian Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval on the Oxford Group or whether Buchman would capture the minds of Shoemaker’s bewildered and in some cases not-so-bewildered parishioners. In the end neither happened. Buchman continued to be the dominant and demanding leader while Shoemaker never lost sight of the larger weight and tradition of the church as opposed to the group. The rector of Calvary Church was forced finally to choose between his loyalty to the Christian gospel and his appreciation for the undoubtedly effective means by which Buchman won followers. Shoemaker chose the former. After 1938 when Buchman repudiated the specifically Christian character of the Oxford Group and renamed his now anti-communist movement “Moral Re-Armament,” Shoemaker got out and turned to pick up pieces of his spiritually devastated parish. “I got completely out of the old group in 1941,” he wrote a friend, “and have seen nothing of any of them since.” No doubt it was Buchnan’s support of Adolph Hitler which prompted Shoemaker to declare that Buchmanism was “a religious counterpart of the totalitarian movements.” Still, he went on, “I don’t want you to think by this that I didn’t get a great deal from the old group in its better days.” What Shoemaker recognized was that “group guidance,” a technique learned by the founders of A.A. from the Oxford Group, became in the hands of Frank Buchman not a “guided democracy” but “an engine of self-will.”
Group Giudance: In its early days the Oxford Group was known as the “First Century Christian Fellowship.” As in the cases of those two other Anglican “Oxford Movements,” the one of John Wesley, the other of John Henry Newman, so here criticism of existing religion made in the name of primitive Christianity brought to the frustrated, the bored and the thoughtless a measure of commitment they had not known before. Shoemaker might have been speaking for both Wesley and Newman when he declared “all spiritual experience must begin decisively if it is going to begin at all.” Decisively involved, as he put it, the deflation of personal “pride in some form, often unrecognizable, usually masquerading under the guise of some virtue.” Then came confession and, classically for Protestants, God’s forgiveness and the expectation of a “new kind of future.” Buchman, Shoemaker and others went on to implement their new found faith in administrative forms of which Wesley would have heartily approved. Shoemaker spoke of “the crucible of laymen working it out among themselves, sharing experiences with one another.” That was the key to success, the “group guidance” which the founders of A.A. learned from the church. When Shoemaker later remarked, no doubt for political reasons, that “A.A. indirectly derived much of its inspiration from the Church,” he was less than forthright. The influence was direct, and he knew it.
While a precise, detailed account of the initial connection between the founders of A.A., Shoemaker and the Oxford Group must await freedom to research thoroughly the Buchman and Shoemaker papers, it is possible on the evidence available to offer the following hypothesis: William Wilson, or in the anonymity of A.A. “Bill W.,” together with Dr. “Bob” Smith and “Ebby T.” sought a method of cure for the disease they themselves knew only too well. That method of cure – as well as a central location – they found in the Oxford Group’s “First Century Christian Fellowship” at Calvary Church in New York. The Vrucible of laymen working it out among themselves” – Buchnan’s “group guidance” – provided the common sense – and the ritual – for an on-going fellowship of concern and discipline. As the Buchnanites sought changed lives by means of passing through progressive stages, so too did A.A., and the latter, as is well-known, clearly learned from the former. The five “C’s” of the Oxford Group – confidence, conviction, confession, conversion and continuance – were subsequently enlarged upon by Wilson to become the famous “Twelve Steps.” “Giving in to God,” listening for God’s direction, checking for guidance, experiencing restitution of one’s true self and the sharing of one’s sins and victories were all points held in common by Shoemaker, Buchman and Wilson. Anonymous alcoholics learned from the Oxford Group at Calvary Church. Here a revived, primitive church flourished for a while. Here, apparently, was created an atmosphere in which the obligation to work with and for others was so strong that many worked without pay.
That Shoemaker was a major influence on the initial founding of A.A. has been attested by Wilson himself. It was from the rector of Calvary Church, wrote Wilson, that in the beginning he (Wilson) – “had absorbed most of the principles that were afterward embodied in the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, steps that express the heart of A.A.’s way of life. Dr. Silkworth (William Duncan Silkworth, chief physician of the Charles B. Towns Hospital in New York) gave us the needed knowledge of our illness, but Shoemaker had given us the concrete knowledge of what we could do about it. One showed us the mysteries of the lock that held us in prison; the other passed on the spiritual keys by which we were liberated.”
Whatever his own weaknesses and contradictions, Shoemaker was able in Wilson’s estimation to speak realistically, vigorously and thoughtfully to those alcoholics who came to Calvary Church for his help. “Here was a man,” wrote Wilson, “quite as willing to talk about his sins as about anybody else’s.” Shoemaker “made himself a witness of God’s power and love just as any A.A. might have done.” Together with Jesuit Father Edward Dowling in St. Louis Shoemaker pioneered in giving A.A. a religious and spiritual foundation. In doing so Shoemaker undoubtedly placed his own stamp on A.A., for he had been exposed to the problem of alcoholism at the Calvary Mission on the lower east side of New York since 1926. It was, however, the subsequent advent of the Oxford Group at Calvary Church which enabled Shoemaker to become the catalytic agent for the dissemination of Buchmanite ideals to William Wilson. These ideals were of course Shoemaker’s as well.
Yet the “initial spiritual answer” to Wilson’s problem of alcoholism did not stick. Exposure to the First Century Christian Fellowship was, by Shoemaker’s own candid admission, a matter of “temporary inspiration” with Wilson. For his part the founder of A.A. spoke reminiscingly of his early “aversion” to the church which antipathy he nevertheless admitted he outgrew. Something less, however, than full integration of faith and practice seems to have occurred. Public, retrospective memory was one thing for Wilson in 1957 when he paid tribute to Shoemaker; private correspondence a decade earlier reveals a somewhat, though perhaps not an entirely, different picture. There was even a slight note of condescension when Wilson wrote, “After all, Sam, A.A. is a rough School of Life where we alcoholic children are apt to knock each other about a bit. And, like other spoiled brats, we are often rude to our elders.”
What went wrong? What made Wilson declare in 1945 that aside from Catholic members of A.A. “and a few others, we are as a group pretty deficient on the prayer and meditation side.” Certainly the Oxford Group and A.A. along with Shoemaker’s Episcopalian evangelicalism shared a common outlook. That outlook was made up of a number of elements: experiential religion, individual reform in an informal, that is, non-clerical setting, leaders as “enablers” in a ministry of the laity, and a combination of self-help and divine help toward specific goals and altered lives. For Shoemaker the end was to “inflate flat tires” with the words and thoughts of Jesus, for Buchman it was moral re-armament, for Wilson the cure of the disease of alcoholism. Certainly the fact that all of them came from the same urban, educated, well-to-do social and economic class should have counted for something and for a time did. But neither the drawing room conversations nor the pleasant fellowship nor the non-confessional “comprehensiveness” of Anglicanism sufficed to hold the three movements together.
First there were the obvious differences, those of a practical nature. Where Buchman wanted notoriety for his moral crusade, alcoholics sought, for obvious reasons, its opposite: Anonymity. Buchmanism was forever attempting to entice a few comments about MRA from the likes of the prestigious from Eisenhower to Adenauer and them claim them as converts. A.A. withheld last names. Where the Oxford Group tightened its organization, affirmed the four absolutes, and increasingly filled that technical term “guidance” with the will of Frank Buchman, A.A. again did almost the opposite. Wilson and others sought an ever-widening, even decentralized, organization where no one person’s will ever could or ever should predominate. As Wilson declared to Shoemaker, when he – Wilson – tried to impose his own will on A.A., “I seldom succeeded in correcting anything – just raised barriers of resentment which were complete bars to any suggestion, example, understanding or love.” Group democracy was the very essence of A.A. In addition the Buchmanite demand for absolute honesty, purity, unselfishness and love proved for alcoholics not to be an activator of the will so much as a crushing and impossible exaction. The four absolutes were part of the problem not the cure, for the alcoholics knew well enough in his or her better moments that intention was one thing, action quite another.
A.A. in short wanted understanding, tolerance, inclusiveness and a degree of namelessness, not publicity and certainly not absolutes or infallibility. Wilson himself rejected Roman Catholicism precisely on that last ground. Thus despite the experiential character of both A.A. and the Oxford Group, despite common adherence to group support and a belief in God as a transcendent and reviving power (which the Oxford Group and Shoemaker offered A.A.), a permanent alliance was not possible.
But there was, I believe, a deeper reason for the failure to stay together. It had to do with theology. Neither group sought firm grounding for community life in classical Christian doctrine or for that matter in scripture itself. “Primitive Christianity” or the “First Century Christian Fellowship” remained an idea simply stated not closely pursued. Think what the Epistle to Diognetus might have provided in terms of group support! Or Augustine’s Confessions, or Edwards’s Religious Affections. They went unread. Shoemaker, though well-read himself, remained consistently anti-intellectual. How, he asked rhetorically, does one come to believe in God’s power to restore broken lives? “By reading long books of philosophy or theology? No!” “Theological students,” he said elsewhere, “have heard lectures on ‘surgery,'” but they have never “seen or taken part in an ‘operation'” (interior quotes added). As for students’ professors, they “are too busy digging out matters of research to care anything about evangelism.” Buchnan for his part needs little comment: The fact that he could throw over Christian faith entirely in the late 30s proves sufficiently the Oxford Group’s lack of grounding in any vital theological current. As for A.A., it never had a chance to develop a resonant theology because it was never offered one. That it did not wholly lose a sense of the transcendent power of God or fold it entirely into an Immanence which would become simply the communal mind of the group is to its credit. Indeed something of a miracle.
Then there is the larger matter of the period in American religious history in which these three came together. That time, as we have seen, was not marked by a deep, organic faith or by the theological consensus. In addition the very class to which all three movements appealed, that is the educated and well-to-do, found personal evangelism discredited by the fiasco of the Scopes Trial (1925) and by the theatrics and banalities of Billy Sunday. Temperance was no longer a rallying point for reform, while to many fascism seemed more of a threat than the Marxist cabal so feared by Buchman.
Thus in the end there was no consensus. A.A. went on to become enormously successful essentially as a reform and rescue movement providing the widest and most helpful structures anywhere for those suffering from alcoholism. Shoemaker’s personalistic, evangelistic revival continued to win adherents by a number of innovative means: the Pittsburgh Experiment in lay ministry (now the Guidepost Experiment), the Calvary Clergy School, an evangelical “Clinical Pastoral Training” program, Campus Ministry and the creation of lay groups for conversion, fellowship, prayer and witness. Shoemaker himself became for many a Moses in the liberal and neo-orthodox wilderness of the 50s and early 6Os, one who anticipated in his increasing attention to the action (through perhaps not the doctrine) of the Holy Spirit the growing evangelical revival in the late 1970s. The Oxford Group, as we have seen, became MRA. In making such a move when he did, Buchman presaged by a decade at least that anti-communist movement spearheaded by Senator Joseph McCarthy and now undeniably resurgent in the national administration of President Ronald Regan. Buchman’s MRA thus for its part bridges the gap along with other groups between the older “red scare” of the 192Os, McCarthyism and the present anti-Russian thermonuclear build up in the United States. As was said in 1961 by the leaders of MRA, “The man who does not choose Moral Re-Armament for himself, chooses communism for his country.”
If Shoemaker’s expression of Christian faith failed to stop the defection of the Oxford Group from the church, in the 1950s he performed the function of restoring, partially to be sure, the religious caste to the now huge reclaiming operation which was and is A.A. Shoemaker was able to do this at a price: Acceptance of the non-sectarian, even non-Christian but not anti-Christian attitude of A.A. It was a wise decision unusual in his brand of evangelicalism where group identity is often maintained exclusively on the basis of “come-outer” tendencies. Perhaps it was sentiment for a movement in which he had initially played a prominent role that moved him once again to support A.A. Perhaps it was simply a desire for notoriety on Shoemaker’s part that led him to accept an invitation to speak before the twentieth anniversary convention of A.A. in St. Louis in July 1955. It is worth noting that two years earlier he had turned down an invitation to serve in the far less glamorous post of member of the executive committee of the Alcoholic Information Center and Clinic in Pittsburgh with the “sheer want of time” excuse. But there was something more. Shoemaker recognized in A.A. the “evidence of spiritual power,” that A.A. had maintained its essential unity, that when Wilson and others “entered fully into the experiment” it worked: People who suffered were helped. For that goal people in A.A. took risks, and Shoemaker quoted with approval the passage in William James’s Varieties of Religious Experiences where the American philosopher spoke of the “crisis of self-surrender . ..the throwing of our conscious selves on the mercy of powers which, whatever they may be, are more ideal than we are actually… the vital turning point of the religious life.”
But there was more. Now the tables had turned. If A.A. had once gotten its spiritual and administrative inspiration from the Oxford Group in the 1930s, Shoemaker in the 1950s recognized that the church could, indeed must, learn from A.A. As he wrote to a friend after the St. Louis convention, “I want to do a sermon on what the Church needs to learn from A.A.” What had worked for one, should work for another. Why not? God worked in many ways. In his sermon, “What the Church Has to Learn About Alcoholics Anonymous,” preached in the same year as the St. Louis convention, the rector of Calvary Church (now Pittsburgh) found that the fellowship of A.A. was “tougher, closer, more highly structured and demanding than the church’s.” One could not “be a nominal member of A.A.” Shoemaker’s essential functionalism about the church helped him set aside prejudices against Roman Catholics and, for good or ill depending on one’s theological viewpoint, some of his Christocentrism. There was the “vast power” outside us, primarily, though now not exclusively evident in “the vivid personal Christ,” that “enchanting Person.” But now the Spirit came first, and Shoemaker was led to some less Christocentric though not unreasonable judgments as “We do not find the Holy Spirit where the Church is; rather we find the Church where the Holy Spirit is.” In his new, less Christologically anchored theology Shoemaker must have found the Spirit at work in the affectionate letters he received after the St. Louis convention. Certainly closer ties had been established between him and A.A. which were to last for the remainder of his life. He had discovered in A.A. that missionary zeal , among other things, which “was surely the secret of the Twelve Apostles and all the early Christian disciplines.” The success of A.A., he wrote, lay “in the readiness of its members to go to any trouble to help other alcoholics, and that when this readiness cools, it is a danger signal.” Shoemaker thought that spiritual wisdom and health lay in the dictum,”‘Out of Self into God and Others.”‘ He was probably right. In the end he was able to relate alcoholism to the church in general. For Shoemaker, low churchman and evangelical, problems tended to be “clear-cut.” There was little difference basically between such a problem as “alcohol – or fear, or resentment, or pride.” What was needed was “a great, over-all purpose and motivation upon which to center our growth. This should now be the over-arching will of God.” That will would be “different for different people, but to learn God’s will and to get it done through the medium of our home and job and community and nation must now occupy us all the time.” Men and women should have the grace to ask God what he wants them to do. To a later, culturally psychologically oriented generation of educated, urban and well-to-do people such a seemingly pat formula would appear to lack sophistication. One could after all – and should – take more time to analyze (or have it done for you) one’s nature not one’s will. For their children Shoemaker might just possibly prove invigorating and freeing. In the meantime there was the indisputable fact that A.A. worked for a very large number of people and that an exchange of ideas between it and the church might prove to be not unprofitable for both sides.
A.A., the Oxford Group and Episcopalian evangelicalism all had roots in an older American revivalism and in the progressive era at the turn of the century with its “anything can be done” spirit. But between 1913 and 1933 reformers had undergone discouraging, wilderness years in which “the progressive impulse was redirected toward immigration restriction, prohibition and similar defensive mechanisms…” Problems of leadership, cohesion among reformers and other inadequacies in progressivism helped defeat the crusade, as Arthur Link has shown, for national – and religious – reform. When once again in the days of the Roosevelt New Deal reform in society began once more the three groups here discussed fell largely outside of the spirit of the new era. Shoemaker and Buchman were very cool indeed toward Roosevelt’s governmental amendments while A.A. appeared to some to show what, as one recent historian has put it, the “‘independent sector’ could do.” A.A. was a private concern, not a governmental agency, and it accomplished substantial good. Yet one must be careful not to place either A.A., MRA or Episcopalian evangelicalism over against the New peal: The 1930s after Roosevelt’s first inaugural were a time of many, haphazard, colliding movements, an era of excitment in which later lines of division were not yet clearly drawn.