Lets Ask Bill W.
Question & Answer # 7
What did A.A. learn from the Oxford Group and why did they leave them?
AA’s first step was derived largely from my own physician, Dr. Silkworth, and my sponsor Ebby and his friend, from Dr. Jung of Zurich. I refer to the medical hopelessness of alcoholism – our ‘powerlessness’ over alcohol.
The rest of the Twelve Steps stem directly from those Oxford Group teachings that applied specifically to us. Of course these teachings were nothing new; we might have obtained them from your own Church. They were, in effect, an examination of conscience, confession, restitution, helpfulness to others, and prayer.
I should acknowledge our great debt to the Oxford Group people. It was fortunate that they laid particular emphasis on spiritual principles that we needed. But in fairness it should also be said that many of their attitudes and practices did not work well at all for us alcoholics. These were rejected one by one and they caused our later withdrawal from this society to a fellowship of our own – today’s Alcoholics Anonymous.
Perhaps I should specifically outline why we felt it necessary to part company with them. To begin with, the climate of their undertaking was not well suited to us alcoholics. They were aggressively evangelical. They sought to re-vitalize the Christian message in such a way as to “change the world.” Most of us alcoholics had been subjected to pressure of evangelism and we never liked it. The object of saving the world – when it was still very much in doubt if we could save ourselves – seemed better left to other people. By reason of some of its terminology and by exertion of huge pressure, the Oxford Group set a moral stride that was too fast, particularly for our newer alcoholics. They constantly talked of Absolute Purity, Absolute Unselfishness, Absolute Honesty, and Absolute Love. While sound theology must always have its absolute values, the Oxford Groups created the feeling that one should arrive at these destinations in short order, maybe by next Thursday! Perhaps they didn’t mean to create such an impression but that was the effect. Sometimes their public “witnessing” was of such a character to cause us to be shy. They also believed that by “converting” prominent people to their beliefs, they would hasten the salvation of many who were less prominent. This attitude could scarcely appeal to the average drunk since he was anything but distinguished.
The Oxford Group also had attitudes and practices which added up to a highly coercive authority. This was exercised by “teams” of older members. They would gather in meditation and receive specific guidance for the life conduct of newcomers. This guidance could cover all possible situations from the most trivial to the most serious. If the directions so obtained were not followed, the enforcement machinery began to operate. It consisted of a sort of coldness and aloofness which made recalcitrants feel they weren’t wanted. At one time, for example, a “team” got guidance for me to the effect that I was no longer to work with alcoholics. This I could not accept.
Another example: When I first contacted the Oxford Groups, Catholics were permitted to attend their meetings because they were strictly non-denominational. But after a time the Catholic Church forbade its members to attend and the reason for this seemed a good one. Through the Oxford Group “teams”, Catholic Church members were actually receiving specific guidance for their lives; they were often infused with the idea that their Church had become rather horse-and-buggy, and needed to be “changed.” Guidance was frequently given that contributions should be made to the Oxford Groups. In a way this amounted to putting Catholics under a separate ecclesiastical jurisdiction. At this time there were few Catholics in our alcoholic groups. Obviously we could not approach any more Catholics under Oxford Group auspices. Therefore this was another, and the basic reason for the withdrawal of our alcoholic crowd from the Oxford Groups notwithstanding our great debt to them. (N.C.C.A. ‘Blue Book’, Vol. 12, 1960) .
The first A.A. group had come into being but we still had no name. Those were the years of flying blind, those ensuing two or three years. A slip in those days was a dreadful calamity. We would look at each other and wonder who might be next. Failure! Failure! Failure was our constant companion.
I returned home from Akron now endowed with a more becoming humility and less preaching and a few people began to come to us, a few in Cleveland and Akron. I had got back into business briefly and again Wall Street collapsed and took me with it as usual. So I set out West to see if there was something I could do in that country. Dr. Bob and I of course had been corresponding but it wasn’t until one late fall afternoon in 1937 that I reached his house and sat in his living room. I can recall the scene as though it were yesterday and we got out a pencil and paper and we began to put down the names of those people in Akron, New York and that little sprinkling in Cleveland who had been dry a while and despite the large number of failures it finally burst upon us that forty people had got a real release and had significant dry time behind them. I shall never forget that great and humbling hour of realization. Bob and I saw for the first time that a new light had begun to shine down upon us alcoholics, had begun to shine upon the children of the night.
That realization brought an immense responsibility. Naturally, we thought at once, how shall what we forty know be carried to the millions who don’t know? Within gunshot of this house there must be others like us who are thoroughly bothered by this obsession. How shall they know? How is this going to be transmitted?
Up to this time as you must be aware, A.A. was utterly simple. It filled the full measure of simplicity as is since demanded by a lot of people. I guess we old timers all have a nostalgia about those halcyon days of simplicity when thank God there were no founders and no money and there were no meeting places, just parlors. Annie and Lois baking cakes and making coffee for those drunks in the living room. We didn’t even have a name! We just called ourselves a bunch of drunks trying to get sober. We were more anonymous than we are now. Yes, it was all very simple. But, here was a new realization, what was the responsibility of the forty men to those who did not know?
Well, I have been in the world of business, a rather hectic world of business, the world of Wall Street. I suspect that I was a good deal of a promoter and a bit of a salesman, rather better than I am here today. So I began to think in business man’s terms. We had discovered that the hospitals did not want us drinkers because, we were poor payers and never got well. So, why shouldn’t we have our own hospitals and I envisioned a great chain of drunk tanks and hospitals spreading across the land. Probably, I could sell stocks in those and we could damn well eat as well as save drunks.
Then too, Dr. Bob and I recalled that it had been a very tedious and slow business to sober up forty people, it had taken about three years and in those days we old timers had the vainglory to suppose that nobody else could really do this job but us. So we naturally thought in terms of having alcoholic missionaries, no disparagement to missionaries to be sure. In other words, people would be grubstaked for a year or two, moved to Chicago, St. Louis, Frisco and so on and start little centers and meanwhile we would be financing this string of drunk tanks and began to suck them into these places. Yes, we would need missionaries and hospitals! Then came one reflection that did make some sense.
It seemed very clear that what we had already found out should be put on paper. We needed a book, so Dr. Bob called a meeting for the very next night and in that little meeting of a dozen and a half, a historic decision was taken which deeply affected our destiny. It was in the living room of a nonalcoholic friend who let us come there because his living room was bigger than the Smith’s parlor and he loved us. I too, remember that day as if it were yesterday.
So, Smithy and I explained this new obligation which depended on us forty. How are we to carry this message to the ones who do not know? I began to wind up my promotion talk about the hospitals and the missionaries and the book and I saw their faces fall and straight away that meeting divided into three significant parts. There was the promoter section of which I was definitely one. There was the section that was indifferent and there was what you might call the orthodox section.
The orthodox section was very vocal and it said with good reason, “Look! Put us into business and we are lost. This works because it is simple, because everybody works at it, because nobody makes anything out of it and because no one has any axe to grind except his sobriety and the other guy’s. If you publish a book we will have infinite quarrels about the damn thing. It will get us into business and the clinker of the orthodox section was that our Lord, Himself, had no book.
Well, it was impressive and events proved that the orthodox people were practically right, but, thank God, not fully right. Then there were the indifferent ones who thought, well, if Smitty and Bill think we ought to do these things, well, its all right with us. So the indifferent ones, plus the promoters out voted the orthodoxy and said “If you want to do these things Bill, you go back to New York where there is a lot of dough and you get the money and then we’ll see.”
Well, by this time I’m higher than a kite you know. Promoters can stay high on something besides alcohol. I was already taking about the greatest medical development, greatest spiritual development, greatest social development of all time. Think of it, forty drunks. (Chicago, Ill., February 1951)