Early A.A. History at a Glance
© 2005 by Dick B.
Alcoholics Anonymous and its many 12 Step offshoot groups are in a position today, via the internet, newsletters, chats, press releases, conferences, and trained teachers to let the fellowships know, and the public see just where A.A. came from and why, at the beginning, it had astonishing successes.
First, A.A. had two distinctly different roots, just as it had two distinctly different founders. Dr. Robert H. Smith, one co-founder, was from St. Johnsbury, Vermont. His whole family were church-goers. And his church had a Christian Endeavor Society to whip up the enthusiasm of young people. Its outreach became world-wide. And its format included Confession of Christ, conversion meetings, prayer meetings, Bible study meetings, topical discussions, Quiet Hour, the reading of varied religious literature, social fellowship, support of the local church, and an emphasis on love and service. These were the factors that impacted heavily on the life of Dr. Bob. He refreshed his memory of this material. And ultimately he brought almost every idea and practice into the Christian Fellowship that was the alcoholic squadron of Akron. The program worked. It produced a 75% success rate for cures among those who really tried.
Second, A.A.’s origins on the East Coast were of an entirely different nature. An American businessman, named Rowland Hazard had a serious alcoholism problem, went to Switzerland to be treated by the famous psychiatrist Dr. Carl Gustav Jung. After doing his best, Jung faced the fact that Rowland had (as Jung put it) the mind of a chronic alcoholic and could not be cured without conversion. He suggested a religious association. Rowland joined the Oxford Group, apparently absorbed its principles and practices, and achieved victory over alcoholism. Since one of the Oxford Group principles was sharing for witness, Rowland and two companions sought out a seemingly hopeless alcoholic named Ebby Thacher from Albany, New York. The taught Ebby the Oxford Group principles and practices and placed him in the Calvary Rescue Mission in New York. This Mission was run by Rev. Sam Shoemaker’s Calvary Episcopal Church. It provided food and shelter for thousands each day. It also held services which involved hymns, Bible reading, and altar calls to make a decision for Christ. This Ebby did. He overcame his drinking and invoked sharing for witness in a visit to his old and still suffering alcoholic friend, Bill Wilson. Wilson was a conservative atheist (as he put it). He had never studied the Bible, never belonged to a church, and had done little if any religious reading. He was hostile to Christianity and Christians. Essentially, Ebby ignored Wilson’s prejudices, told Wilson that he had got religion, that God had done for Him what he could not do for himself, and that he had been to the Rescue Mission. There Wilson went, seeking what Ebby had gotten. Wilson made the altar call, made his decision for Christ, and wandered around drunk for several days. Then he checked into Towns Hospital, said he had found something, and was hospitalized. Ebby visited him and took Bill through the Oxford Group practices which later became the Twelve Steps. Wilson, alone, humbly offered himself to God, cried out if there be a God, let him show himself. And immediately he experienced a white flash experience – saying so this is the God of the preachers. He never drank again. But he set out at once to do sharing for witness to other drunks. Either Ebby or Rowland brought Wilson a copy of William James’s Varieties of Religious Experiences; and Wilson concluded he had had such an experience – the very thing Jung had prescribed, that James’s book validated the experience, and that this was the solution to alcoholism. Armed with this information, Wilson began witnessing to drunks at Towns Hospital, the Rescue Mission, and the Oxford Group meetings he and Lois (his wife) were regularly attending. But to no avail. Wilson’s psychiatrist Dr. William Silkworth had explained the disease concept to Bill and suggested he preface his witnessing with the hard medical facts, then witness.
Wilson came to Akron on an ill-fated financial deal. He wanted to drink. He sought out a drunk to help. He phoned Dr Walter Tunks (rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Akron). Tunks put Wilson in touch with Henrietta Seiberling who was desperately trying – with a small group of Oxford Group people and Dr. Bob’s wife – to help Dr. Bob achieve sobriety. God revealed to her that Bob should not touch one drop of liquor – the start of the abstinence solution. She called a meeting where Dr. Bob confessed his alcoholism. At Henrietta’s suggestion, Dr. Bob and those present prayed for his recovery. Though he – as Wilson had done at the beginning – continued to drink, a miracle happened. Henrietta called it manna from heaven. Wilson phoned, said he was from the Oxford Group, was a rum hound from New York, and needed to talk to another drunk
Henrietta arranged a meeting at her home in the Gate Lodge on the famous Seiberling Estate. Bill and Bob talked for six hours. Bill thought he had carried a great medical and spiritual message, but Dr. Bob quietly ruminated that he had heard it all before. What impressed him, he said, was that Wilson knew what he was talking about and was willing to serve. Hearkening to his days of love and service teaching in Christian Endeavor, Bob suggested they work together. Bob had one more brief binge, but he quit drinking on June 10, 1935 – the day A.A. was founded. Bill had moved in to the Smith home and there remained for three months. The Bible was a major topic of study. Bill and Bob sought out a drunken lawyer (Bill Dotson), hospitalized him, and told him what they had done. Dotson gave his life to God’s care and walked from the hospital never to drink again. And A.A. Group Number One was thereby founded. All three men had stated clearly that the Lord had cured them of the curse of alcoholism.
Over the next three years, Bob, Bill, Anne Smith, Henrietta, and a handful of Oxford Group people began working with drunks and using a program resembling that of Christian Endeavor. After two years, some forty men were stone sober – a few for two years. This caused Bill and Bob to realize that God had shown them how to help other alcoholics. And they did – each in his own way.