A.A. Big Book and 12 Step Sources
Identifying the Roots and the References
Summary of the Identifiable Sources
My materials which have covered in much detail the six major Bible sources will be referenced in this article. Those which cover the other sources will refer to my own limited writings, to other studies, and to the areas where further research and writing are appropriate and very much needed.
The identifiable sources, in substantial totality, are:
The Six Major Bible Roots:
• The Bible (King James Version) which AAs called the “Good Book.”
• Quiet Time – the period of prayer, Bible study, seeking of guidance,
reading from sources such as Anne Smith’s Journal and devotionals such as The Upper Room, and discussing of thoughts and ideas.
• Anne Smith’s Journal – a booklet written between 1933 and 1939 in the hand of Dr. Bob’s wife, with discussions of Bible, Oxford Group, recommended literature, and practical ideas for Christian living. Whose contents Anne Smith shared each morning at the Smith home with AAs and their families.
• Oxford Group Principles and Practices – some twenty-eight ideas that impacted on the A.A. fellowship, were codified into its Big Book and 12 Steps, and are contained primarily in a large number of writings by various Oxford Group activists—beginning with the book Soul Surgery published in 1919.
• The Teachings of Rev. Samuel M. Shoemaker, Jr. – Rector of Calvary Episcopal Church in New York in A.A.’s formative years, a close friend of and teacher of Bill Wilson’s, and the author of over 30 titles, many sermons, and frequently published articles whose language can be found in the Big Book, Steps, and fellowship jargon. Called by Bill Wilson a “co-founder” of A.A.
• Religious literature widely circulated among and read by Pioneer AAs — books, pamphlets, and articles, primarily Christian and Protestant, by such popular authors as Henry Drummond, Oswald Chambers, Glenn Clark, E. Stanley Jones, Charles Sheldon, Harry Emerson Fosdick, Emmet Fox, James Allen, Harold Begbie, Samuel Shoemaker, Victor Kitchen, Stephen Foot, and A. J. Russell. Also, daily devotionals such as The Upper Room, My Utmost for His Highest, The Runner’s Bible, The Meaning of Prayer, Victorious Living, Practicing the Presence of God, and the Imitation of Christ
Other Significant Influences on Bill’s Big Book and Steps:
• William Duncan Silkworth, M.D. — the psychiatrist in charge of Towns Hospital in New York, who frequently treated Bill Wilson for alcoholism, seems to have fostered A.A.’s “obsession and allergy” theories about the so-called “disease” of alcoholism, and who wrote the Doctor’s Opinion contained in each edition of Bill’s Big Book.
• Carl Gustav Jung, M.D. — the world-renowned Swiss psychiatrist who treated Rowland Hazard, recommended affiliation with a religious group, and opined there was no cure for Rowland’s chronic, alcoholic mind, except through a religious conversion experience—the solution thought by Bill Wilson to have been the source of his own cure and to be the foundation for the Twelfth Step “spiritual experience” idea in A.A.
• William James, M.D. –- called by many the father of American psychology, long dead before A.A. was founded, a Harvard Professor whose focus was on psychology, experimental psychology, and philosophy, whose work impacted the writings and beliefs of Rev. Sam Shoemaker, Jr. and whose book The Varieties of Religious Experience was, to Bill Wilson, a validation of his “hot flash” experience and also a foundation of Bill’s First Step idea about “deflation in depth.”
• Richard Peabody – an alcoholism therapist whose title The Common Sense of Drinking was owned by both Bill Wilson and Dr. Bob and who, though he did not teach reliance on God and died drunk, appears to have influenced Bill’s writings and language with such ideas as “powerlessness,” “once an alcoholic always an alcoholic,” “no cure for alcoholism,” “surrender, “half measures availed us nothing,” and a few other therapeutic ideas.
Other significant religious influences on either Akron A.A. or Wilson’s Big Book:
• The United Christian Endeavor Society –a worldwide organization, numbering in the tens of thousands, consisting primarily of young people supporting their particular church. Espoused most of the principles and practices that characterized the unique Akron A.A. Christian Fellowship program—conversion to Christ, reliance on the Creator, Bible study, prayer meetings, Quiet Hour, fellowship, witness, love, and service. Its ideas have simply vanished from A.A. historical discussions yet Dr. Bob’s participation as a youngster seems to have poured into many specifics of the Akron program, items that bore little or no resemblance to Oxford Group practices.
• The New Thought Movement –a unique spinoff from conventional
Christian denominations that includes Christian Science, Unity, Science of Mind, Divine Science, Religious Science, Psychiana, Society for the Study of Metaphysical Religion, and Process New Thought— probably contributing unusual “spiritual” words to A.A. language such as “Higher Power,” “Fourth Dimension,” “Universal Mind,” and other metaphysical terms differing substantially from Biblical words used by A.A. pioneers from their King James Version Biblies, words such as “Creator,” “Maker,” “Father of light,” “God of our Fathers,” and “Our Father.”
• New Age Ideas – though identification of “New Age” as a “Movement” is difficult and controversial, the movement is said to focus on “One World Government” and “One World Religion” substituting its apparent new definitions for words that have long established meaning—words changing “Jesus” and “Yahweh” to “the Christ,” “the Lord,” and “the One” and then defining a new theology that tells us we all have Christ in us, that there is “a new god,” and that man can be “saved” by a “message” in which he “believes” rather than believing on Jesus Christ (John 3:16). Just read certain Big Book language that implies that “faith” in the “idea of God” can be found deep within us; or the contemporary writing that fashions “spirituality” out of a “not-god”thesis, and that “Something” saves but not Jesus Christ.
The Bill Wilson Legacy
Bill Wilson was the author of the basic text of Alcoholics Anonymous and of the Twelve Steps of recovery suggested therein. Questions have been raised about the authorship of the chapters “To Wives” and “To Employers” in the Big Book; but Wilson said he had asked Dr. Bob’s wife to write the chapter to the wives, that Anne Smith declined, that Lois Wilson (his wife) was angry about the slight, and that he wrote the chapter. As to the “To Employers” chapter, I leave that authorship quandary to someone else’s research and conclusions.
Some A.A.-related shibboleths to be discarded.
• First, that there were “Oxford Group Steps.” No! Non-existent. Both Bill Wilson and his wife Lois suggested that the Oxford Group (an A.A. source) had six steps (. But the Oxford Group did not have “six steps.”. They had no steps at all, no six steps, and no twelve steps, whatever you may have heard.
• Second, that the Twelve Steps were derived from the Exercises of St. Ignatius Exercises or John Wesley’s Principles of Holiness. No. Not involved. Father Ed Dowling met Bill Wilson after the Twelve Steps were written. According to one writer, Dowling “was interested in the parallels he had intuited between the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous and the Exercises of St. Ignatius. . . . That . . . Wilson wearily confessed ignorance of the Exercises at once endeared the diminutive cleric to Bill” (Kurtz, Not-God, p. 88). Parallels, not product. And the same may possibly be said of some of Wesley’s ideas on works on grace and mercy. But I have found nothing in the accounts of A.A. or its Biblical progenitors that suggests any significant relationship at all between early A.A. and either Ignatius or Wesley. In fact, as we will point out, the Steps bear an unmistakable Oxford Group imprint and more precisely the imprint and language of Rev. Sam Shoemaker, who, Bill said, had taught Bill almost every step idea.
• Third, that A.A. originally had an alleged six “word –of-mouth” steps. Bill suggested that there were six word-of-mouth steps being used before the Twelve Steps were written (Pass It On, p. 197). That’s possible, but these steps, if there were any, were certainly not well defined or consistently described. Lois likened them to a supposed six Oxford Group steps (Lois Remembers, pp. 113, 92). Today, it’s quite clear that the Oxford Group had no such six steps (Pass It On, pp. 197, 206 n. 2). Moreover, there is no convincing evidence to support Bill’s assertion of a supposed six steps. Sometimes, they were referred to as the Oxford Groups six steps—which, as we have said—did not exist. On other occasions, Bill described these “word-of-mouth” steps in varying and inconsistent ways (See Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age, p. 160; The Language of the Heart, p. 200; Lois Remembers, p. 113; and my review in Dick B., The Akron Genesis of Alcoholics Anonymous, 3rd ed., pp. 256-260). And he added his own disclaimer that the six were subject to considerable variation—which they were (The Akron Genesis, supra, p. 256). In fact, long after Bill’s death, his secretary and long-time aid Nell Wing personally handed me one of the versions in Bill’s own handwriting. But this version in no way resembled Bill’s other descriptions. The final myth about the “six steps” seems to stem from a personal story in the Big Book’s later edition which purportedly was the story of Earl Treat of Chicago. There is a description there of a supposed six steps used by Dr. Bob (Alcoholics Anonymous 3rd ed., p. 292; Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age, pp. 22-23). However, Dr. Bob was then dead and the procedure attributed to him uses words like “Complete deflation” and “Higher Power” that were simply not characteristic of the descriptive words such as “God” and “Heavenly Father;” the need for abstinence; and the references to “sins” accurately attributed to Dr. Bob and his technique by Frank Amos (See DR. BOB and the Good Oldtimers, p. 131). I therefore strongly believe, that the descriptive words were not those of Dr. Bob and that that portion was most probably written or edited and changed by someone other than Earl Treat. Even a cursory glance shows that Treat himself spoke of a number of other “Oxford Group” procedures that Dr. Bob used in Bob’s session with Earl in Dr. Bob’s office. And the first two of the supposed Bob Smith six steps employ language that I have never found in any records of what Dr. Bob said in those days—deflation in depth and “higher power.” These were phrases and ideas that came from Bill Wilson, and they were used by Wilson long after the early Akron days in which Dr. Bob and Bill formulated the seven-point program reported to John D. Rockefeller by Frank Amos and specifically set forth in A.A.’s Conference Approved biography of Dr. Bob. In describing his actual writing of the Twelve Steps, Bill spoke of six ideas then in use, and he and Lois both indicated he expanded the six to twelve so that there would be no “wiggle room” for those taking the steps. The problem is that all of the major ideas that Bill incorporated into the twelve steps were in Bill’s reservoir from what his own sponsor Ebby Thacher had taught him in 1934—at least four years before the steps were written. (See Alcoholics Anonymous 4th ed., pp. 13-16; also my extended treatment and review of the Stepping Stones manuscripts and what Bill originally wrote about the Oxford Group teachings from Ebby and others, as found in my title, Dick B., Turning Point: A History of the Spiritual Roots and Successes of Early A.A. They were also in Bill’s reservoir of what the Oxford Group had been teaching since 1919—the five C’s of “Soul Surgery,” the “Four Absolutes” borrowed from Dr. Robert E. Speer, the moral inventory ideas that came from the Oxford Group and Matthew 7:1-5 of the sermon on the mount, the confession ideas that came from James 5:16, the restitution ideas that came from many parts of the Bible, particularly the Sermon on the Mount, the Quiet Time ideas that began in the previous century with the “morning watch” and writings of F. B. Meyer, as well as the materials in the first chapter of the Book of James, the “spiritual experience,” “pass it on,” and practice of spiritual principles that came at the very least from 1 Corinthians 13, the Ten Commandments, and portions of the Sermon on the Mount.
Some have objected to my specific footnotes and citations, but they are the foundation of my writings. When I find something, I identify its source if I can. Then I identify its link to A.A. if I can. And then I specify my sources so that others can check them out and discuss or dispute them if they wish. The end result during the past fourteen years has been heart-warming. This despite occasional sarcastic remarks now and then about my supposed “preaching,” “agenda,” my being a “hobbyist.” That keeps me out of the hair of some revisionists and bleeding deacons. But the perpetrators seldom if ever offer documentation of any kind whatever that discusses, disputes, or analyzes the sources. Therefore I stick to the evidence and let the nay sayers throw stones if they care to. And a few do.
Now let’s get down to cases. Let’s see what Bill Wilson, Dr. Bob Smith, and Dr. Bob’s wife Anne Ripley Smith had to say about the sources embodied in the Big Book and Twelve Steps. Then we can get specific about those sources, the documentation, and the references. And the references to those specifics are described here only in limited and in outline form.
Some enlightening statements by A.A.’s “founders” as to sources:
• Bill Wilson wrote the following:
[I’ve compacted them into the following, though they were written at different points in time:] (1) A. A. was not invented. (2) Nobody invented Alcoholics Anonymous. (3) Each of A.A.’s principles, every one of them, has been borrowed from ancient sources. (4) Having now accounted for AA’s Steps One and Twelve. . . . Where did the early AAs find this material for the remaining ten Steps. . . . The spiritual substance of the remaining ten Steps came straight from Dr. Bob’s and my own association with the Oxford Groups, as they were then led in America by that Episcopal rector, Dr. Samuel Shoemaker. (5) The early A.A. got its ideas of self-examination, acknowledgment of character defects, restitution for harm done, and working with others straight from the Oxford Groups and directly from Sam Shoemaker, their former leader in America, and from nowhere else. (6) [As to] the “co-founder” tag [Bill wrote Shoemaker] . . . I have no hesitancy in adding your name to the list. (7) I’m always glad to say privately that some of the Oxford Group presentation and emphasis on the Christian message saved my life. (8) Now that Frank Buchman [founder of the Oxford Group] is gone and I realize more than ever what we owe to him, I wish I had sought him out in recent years to tell him of our appreciation” (See Dick B. Turning Point, pp. 12-13).
• Lois Wilson wrote the following:
[Here again compacted:] (1) Alcoholics Anonymous owes a great debt to the Oxford Group. (2) Bob already understood the great opportunity for regeneration through practicing the principles of the Oxford Group. He stopped drinking. (3) God, through the Oxford Group, had accomplished in a twinkling what I had failed to do in seventeen years. One minute I would get down on my knees and thank God. . . and the next moment I would throw things about and cuss the Oxford Group. (4) Finally it was agreed that the book [Big Book] should present a universal spiritual program, not a specific religious one, since all drunks were not Christian” (Lois Remembers, pp. 92, 96, 99, 113).
• Dr. Bob Smith said the following:
[Again compacted] (1) When we [Bob and Bill] started in on Bill D. [A.A. # 3], we had no Twelve Steps, either; we had no Traditions. But we were convinced that the answer to our problems was in the Good Book. To some of us older ones, the parts we found absolutely essential were the Sermon on the Mount, the thirteenth chapter of First Corinthians, and the Book of James. (2) It wasn’t until 1938 that the teachings and efforts and s studies that had been going on were crystallized in the form of the Twelve Steps. (3) If someone asked him a question about the program, his usual response was “What does it say in the Good Book?” (4) I didn’t write the Twelve Steps. I had nothing to do with the writing of them. . . . We already had the basic ideas, though not in terse and tangible form. We got them. . . as a result of our study of the Good Book. (5) Members of Alcoholics Anonymous begin the day with a prayer for strength and a short period of Bible reading. They find the basic messages they need in the Sermon on the Mount, 1 Corinthians, and the Book of James.