When A.A. “Came of Age”
When Bill W. stepped to the podium in Kiel Auditorium, St. Louis, Missouri, at four o’clock Sunday afternoon, July 3, 1955, it was a watershed moment in the history of Alcoholics Anonymous. The three days of the 20th Anniversary International Convention that preceded that Sunday afternoon were themselves full of historic significance.
Many figures important to A.A.’s formative years were present, including: Ebby T., who first brought the message to Bill; the Rev. Sam Shoemaker, whose teachings helped shape the Twelve Steps; Father Ed Dowling, Bill W.’s “spiritual sponsor;” Dr. Harry Tiebout, the first psychiatrist to recognize A.A.; Dr. Kirby Collier, Rochester, N.Y., psychiatrist who fostered acceptance of A.A. among physicians generally; Bernard Smith, architect of the General Service Conference; Leonard V. Harrison, early Chairman of the Alcoholics Anonymous Foundation; Dr. John L. (“Dr. Jack”) Norris, pioneer of A.A. in industry and a trustee; Austin MacCormick, national authority on correctional institutions and also a trustee. With Bill W. and his wife, Lois, and his mother, who had divorced his father and departed when Bill was 11 years old. Nevertheless, her approval was important to Bill all his life, so having her at this epochal convention, to hear him speak and witness the adulation heaped upon him, was for Bill, “the icing on the cake.”
The fifth General Service Conference met during the Convention: 75 delegates from all over the U.S. and Canada, meeting with the trustees and General Service Office and Grapevine staff members. This meeting marked the end of the five-year trial period for the Conference. The members had already adopted the permanent charter when they assembled on the stage in Kiel Auditorium on Sunday.
The second edition of the Big Book, Alcoholics Anonymous, was officially introduced at the St. Louis Convention. Bill spun once again the tale of the Big Book’s precarious – well-nigh miraculous beginnings, and noted that about 300,000 copies of the first edition had now been sold.
“From today’s perspective,” recalls Nell Wing, Bill’s longtime secretary, “it’s hard for people to realize what a momentous decision was made that Sunday morning 30 years ago. It was dramatic and very moving to us who knew what an effort of Bill’s this was, over a lot of opposition.” Bill had pushed through the idea of a Conference largely by campaigning for it vigorously and personally. One of the members who opposed the idea, the influential and controversial Father P., had announced he was going to rise and speak against it. “So after Bill had presented his resolution and Bern Smith asked for the vote of approval,” Nell continues, “we from the office sat with baited breath.” But Father P. remained silent.
Dennis Manders, non-alcoholic bookkeeper in 1955, left the steaming-hot registration area to attend the ceremony. “I remember the hushed silence of the whole auditorium as they invoked the guidance of God. And than a roar of approval went up from the audience. Tears came to my eyes. It was tremendously emotional . . . Bill made it very dramatic, as he physically stepped down from the stage. I like to kid about that: he didn’t finish that last step until twelve years later.”
So astounding were the growth and accomplishments of Alcoholics Anonymous in the first 20 years and so bright the future – as representatives of medicine, religion and the press heaped paeans of praise on the Fellowship during the Convention -that this occasion seemed a pinnacle in A.A. history.
In 1955, there were 7,000 A.A. groups with an estimated membership of 200,000 – and the founders of many of these groups were there in St. Louis to exchange experiences. Akron had been the site of the first group; New York, of the second, at Bill & Lois’ home at 182 Clinton St., in Brooklyn. By 1939, footholds had been established in Cleveland, in the Midwest and in Greenwich, Connecticut, in the east, followed closely by Upper Montclair, New Jersey. As new groups formed in New York City, their members carried the A.A. message to Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. In the same way, recovered drunks from Akron and Cleveland pioneered A.A. in Chicago, Detroit, Minneapolis, Kansas City and other midwestern cities. In the South, the Fellowship spread through travelers; to Charlotte, Atlanta, Jacksonville, Houston, and elsewhere. Little Rock and Los Angeles showed that an A.A. group could be started by the Big Book alone – plus correspondence with the service office in New York. (For detailed history of the spread and growth of A.A. in the U.S., see Chapter 2.)
Meanwhile, in the early 1940’s, A.A. had crossed the border into Canada. From Toronto, it spread to the Ontario towns, and from Vancouver, B.C., it spread eastward to prairie provinces of Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba. During World War II the movement took root in Montreal. The first French-speaking A.A.s met in 1947, after which groups spread like wildfire through Quebec. (For detailed history of spread and growth of A.A. in Canada, see Chapter 3.)
Bill was able to state proudly at the St. Louis convention that “A.A. had established beachheads in 70 foreign lands.” In World War II, Captain Jack S., skipper of a Socony Vacuum oil tanker, had found sobriety and planted the A.A. seed in foreign parts throughout the world for many years thereafter. In other countries, the message was carried by traveling members, or by a sober member in the U.S. trying to share his sobriety with a relative abroad, or by magazine articles, notably a 1946 Readers Digest article that was translated in the foreign editions of the Digest. Most of the “beachheads” were lone members or struggling groups. However, on a trip to Europe in 1950, Bill and Lois had seen at first hand, that A.A. was firmly established and growing in Norway and Finland, Holland and the British Isles. It was also well established in South Africa, Mexico, El Salvador, Brazil, New Zealand and Australia. The Service Structure adopted in St. Louis was to prove the key to A.A.’s growth and health overseas as well. (For detailed history of the spread and growth in other countries around the world, see Chapter 20.)
An important feature of the St. Louis Convention was the get-together of lone members from remote outposts and ships at sea. Accustomed to relying heavily on the Big Book and on letters from “Headquarters” and fellow loners, they were overjoyed to share in the big celebration. In other workshops, there was a lively swapping of experience on how best to help the still—suffering alcoholics in hospitals and prisons—a work well under way in many parts of the U.S. and Canada, with help from the New York Office. Intergroup offices which were providing vital services in many cities, were represented by workers who gathered in St. Louis to discuss their mutual problems.
The Convention afforded an opportunity for membership at large to get to know their trustees, as well as “Headquarters” and A.A. Grapevine staff. Repeatedly in his talks over the three days, Bill acknowledged the enormous debt the struggling Fellowship owed to the non—alcoholic trustees of the Alcoholic Foundation. Formed in 1938, the Foundation had helped guide A.A. through its critical early years, and only the year before had been renamed the General Service Board, to reflect better its true function. Among non—alcoholic trustees, who constituted a majority, those present in St. Louis included Leonard Harrison, “long-time Chairman of the Alcoholic Foundation during the uncertain period of our adolescence;” Archibald Roosevelt, that “exuberant and genial man,” Treasurer of the Board; and as mentioned earlier, “Dr. Jack” Norris and Bernard Smith, Chairman. Other non-alcoholic Trustees, who did not make it to St. Louis were Jack Alexander, author of the famous Saturday Evening Post article; Frank Amos, whose 1938 report on the early Fellowship, had caught the eye of John D. Rockefeller; Frank Gulden, of the Gulden’s Mustard Family; Trustee Emeritus LeRoy Chipman, retired treasurer of the Board, who was ill.
In a session called “Presenting the Headquarters Staff,” the convention-goers met the manager, Hank G. and five staff “secretaries,” (as they were then called): Marian F., Ann M., Eve M., Hazel fl., and Lib S. Similarly, an A.A. Grapevine session showed the monthly magazine enjoyed a circulation of 40,000. Editor Don C. was present along with three editorial assistants: Louise S., Katharine S., and Sarah T.
Contributing to the feeling of enthusiasm and accomplishment that pervaded the Convention was the flood of favorable press attention A.A. had received for the past 15 years and continued to receive in St. Louis. Ralph B. was in charge of the pressroom, surrounded by phones, typewriters, piles of releases, clippings and telegrams. The 1955 Convention generated far more coverage in the press than any other previous A.A. event. Bill was quick to emphasize that far from being “ballyhoo” or “promotion” contrary to our Traditions, this was the same kind of help we had given Jack Alexander. “Good communications,” said Bill, “were the arteries through which A.A.’s life-giving blood circulated to brother and sister sufferers everywhere. . . Not much Twelfth Step work ever could have been done until the sick ones and their families had been reached and persuaded A.A. might offer hope for them. The press . . . had drawn thousands of alcoholics into our membership and were still doing so.”
“One of the brightest highlights of the Convention,” Bill recalled, was a telegram of congratulations and good wishes, datelined “The White House” and signed by Dwight D. Eisenhower, President of the United States. “When this telegram was read to the Convention,” related Bill, “we experienced great elation mixed with deep humility. A.A. had indeed come of age.”
All was not harmony within the Fellowship, however, which accounted for a smaller-than-expected attendance at the St. Louis Convention. A.A. had grown up in two places simultaneously – Akron and New York, each with its own co-founder. So it is not surprising that there was a feeling of separateness – some would say a schism – between the Akron/Cleveland axis and the New York axis. The Akronites had clung longer to the Oxford Groups and were more conservative generally; Bill, the visionary, on the other hand pushed ahead with the writing and publishing of the Big Book, the establishing of a “Headquarters” office and, in the late 1940s, a plan for a General Service Conference.
Dissent against this idea was led by Clarence S., of Cleveland. With the help of Henrietta Seiberling (who now lived in New York), an “Orthodox Group” was formed to mobilize opposition to the Conference plan among A.A. groups nationwide. They took pride in the fact they would have nothing to do with Bill W, the “Headquarters” office or any form of organization of A.A. Their most vigorous efforts took place after the first trial conference was held in 1951. The groups and members with the “Orthodox Group” view chose, not surprisingly, to boycott the St. Louis gathering where the Conference idea was to be ratified.
Although this dissent was not referred to in the proceedings, it was felt in the attendance. Dennis Manders recalls, “The figure in the press releases and later in Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age is 5,000, but actually there were only 3,800 paid registrations. Still, it was a huge audience in Kiel Auditorium that historic Sunday afternoon.”
Alcoholics Anonymous, by the time of the 1955 Convention, had weathered many other storms that might have torn it apart, but had not. Out of the mistakes of the early groups which had caused so much conflict and disunity, the Twelve Traditions had been forged. Said Bill W, on Saturday, “The great question in the early days was this: would we blow up or could we stay together? Today we have the answers. This anniversary meeting in St. Louis is a vast testament to the fact we have held together.” The principles of non-endorsement and non-affiliation, of self-support, and of personal anonymity of the public level were already firmly established. So was the need for individual and collective humility. Receipt of the Lasker Award from the American Public Health Association (1951), and fulsome praise in the press tempted the new society to think it could be all things to all people. This led Bill to warn, from the stage of Kiel Auditorium, “This could well prove to be a heady drink for most of us. . . Let us resist the proud assumption that since God enabled us to do well in one area we are destined to be a channel of saving grace for everybody.” Now he offered the Fellowship an example of personal and organizational humility: relinquishing his own leadership in favor of an absolute democracy. In light of all these moves toward maturity and responsibility, Bill was justified in declaring A.A. was about to “Come of Age.”
So, as Bill sat on the stage in Kiel Auditorium that Sunday afternoon, he later recalled, “I looked out upon the sea of faces gathered there, and I was powerfully stirred by the wonder of all that happened in the incredible twenty years now coming to a climax. Had this meeting place been a hundred times larger, it still could not have held all of the A.A. members and their families and friends. Who could render an account of all the miseries that had once been ours, and who could estimate the release and joy that these years had brought to us?”
At the invitation of Bernard Smith, chairman, Bill made a few minutes’ introductory remarks and presented his resolution, the heart of which were the words:
BE IT THEREFORE RESOLVED: That the General Service Conference of Alcoholics Anonymous should become, as of this date, July 3, 1955, the guardian of the Traditions of Alcoholics Anonymous, the perpetuator of the World Services of our Society, the voice of the group conscience of our entire Fellowship, and the sole successors to its co-founders, Dr. Bob and Bill.
The resolution ended with the provision that “neither the Twelve Traditions nor the Warrantees of Article XII of the Conference Charter shall ever be changed or amended” except by consent of three-fourths of the groups in the world – and the Warrantees themselves were included in the resolution, as well.
As Bill sat down, the roar of approval went up from the assembled throng. As it died away, Bern Smith turned to the members of the Conference, seated on the stage, and said, “Members of the Conference . . . I will now ask for a motion that the resolution as read by Bill and as approved by this Convention, be adopted by this Conference.” The motion was made and seconded and carried unanimously by a show of hands.
Interestingly, the first person called upon to speak at this dramatic and emotion-filled time was Lois W., expressing her gratitude and that of other members of the Al-Anon Family Groups for the A.A. program.
Then Bern Smith introduced Bill once again, most movingly, for the final summing-up. Likening Lois and himself to parents letting loose of their offspring so they may “come of age,” he offered some fatherly words of admonition:
I have great faith that we shall never embrace and persist in a fatal error; and yet we still might do so, fallible human being that we are. This is the area in the future life of A.A. where we can never be too prudent or too vigilant. Let us not suppose, just because A.A. as a whole has never had a grievous problem, that it never can have one. If such a difficulty ever comes, I feel sure that it will center about false pride and anger, the two most destructive defects that we alcoholics have.
As a society we must never become so vain as to suppose that we have been the authors and inventors of a new religion. We will humbly reflect that each of A.A.’s principles, every one of them, has been borrowed from ancient sources. We shall remember that we are laymen, holding ourselves in readiness to co-operate with all men of good will, whatever their creed or nationality.
Then, too, it would be a product of false pride to believe that Alcoholics Anonymous is a cure all, even for alcoholism Here we must remember our debt to the men of medicine. Here we must be friendly and, above all, open-minded toward every new development in the medical or psychiatric art that promises to be helpful to sick people.
We should always be friendly to those in the fields of alcoholic research, rehabilitation, and education. We should endorse none especially but hold ourselves in readiness to co-operate so far as we can with them all. Let us constantly remind ourselves that the experts in religion are the clergymen; that the practice of medicine is for physicians; and that we, the recovered alcoholics, are their assistants.
Let us never be a closed corporation; let us never deny our experience for whatever it may be worth to the world around us. Let our individual members heed the call to every field of human endeavor. Let them carry the experience and spirit of A.A. into all these affairs, for whatever good they may accomplish. For not only has God saved us from alcoholism; the world has received us back into its citizenship. Yet believing in paradoxes as we do, we must still realize that the more the society of Alcoholics Anonymous as such tends to its own affairs and minds its own business, the greater will be our general influence, the less will be any opposition to us, and the wider will be the circle in which our fellowship will be likely to enjoy the confidence and respect of men.
There are certain areas where anger and contention could prove to be our undoing. We know this because stronger societies than our own have been undone. The whole modern world is in fact coming apart as never before because of political and religious strife; because men blindly pursue wealth, fame, and personal power regardless of the consequences to anyone, even to themselves. These are the destructive drives that are inevitably spurred by self-justification, and in all their disastrous collisions they are powered by righteous indignation, then by unreasoning anger, and finally by blind fury.
With the most heartfelt gratitude I can report that we have never yet had to endure any such trials by fire in A.A. In all these twenty marvelous years no such thing as religious or political dissention has touched us. Very few have tried to exploit A.A. for wealth or fame or personal power. We have had great problems, but they have always been resolved. Never has a grave issue cut across and scarred the face of this far-flung fellowship. But, again, this is no earned virtue of ours. Too many of us in our drinking days have suffered the terrible penalties of proud and angry pursuits to forget them now. These very pains have been the beginning of whatever wisdom we have since incorporated in A.A.’s Twelve Traditions. Hence, I feel confident that these forces of destruction will never rule among us. We are prepared to pay the price of peace. We will make every personal sacrifice necessary to insure the unity of Alcoholics Anonymous. We will do this because we have learned to love God and one another.
Then, rising to heights of inspiration and eloquence, Bill concluded with these words which would be so often quoted in the decades that followed:
We give thanks to our Heavenly Father who, through so many friends and through so many means and channels, has allowed us to construct this wonderful edifice of the Spirit in which we are now dwelling. It seems as though He has directed us to construct this cathedral whose foundations already rest upon the corners of the earth. On its great floor 200,000 of us are now sustained in peace, and long since we have inscribed thereon our Twelve Steps of Recovery. The older ones among us have seen the side walls of this cathedral going up, and one by one they have seen the buttresses of A.A. Tradition set in place to contain us in unity for so long as God may will it so. And now eager hearts and hands have lifted the spire of our cathedral into its place. That spire bears the name of Service. May it ever point straight upward toward God.
But Bill’s evaluation afterward of that watershed moment was on a less eloquent but more pragmatic – and even prophetic – note: “…Alcoholics Anonymous was at last safe – even from me.”