Alcoholics Anonymous History & Early A.A. “Four Absolutes”
A Journey with Jesus
Dr. Robert E. Speer and the Four Absolutes
© 2005 by Dick B. All rights reserved
The Four Absolute Standards of Jesus
The so-called “Four Absolutes”—Absolute Honesty, Absolute Purity, Absolute Unselfishness, and Absolute Love—have long been known and popular in many parts of the Alcoholics Anonymous Community.
Some have attributed their origin to Professor Henry B. Wright and his title The Will of God and a Man’s Lifework. The attribution has some merit in that Wright took the “four standards” of Robert Speer and expanded on them by citing a number of correlative verses from various different church epistles in the New Testament. Some attribute the Four Absolutes to Dr. Frank N. D. Buchman, founder of the Oxford Group; and certainly Buchman mentioned them and wrote about them with great frequency. You can find them in Buchman’s speeches that are recorded in his book Remaking the World. In the Oxford Group itself, they were sometimes known as the “Four Absolutes” and sometimes as the “Four Standards.” Reverend Samuel M. Shoemaker, Jr., whom Bill Wilson dubbed a co-founder of A.A., also wrote about the absolutes in his very first title, Realizing Religion. Though he had an outspoken distaste for them, Bill Wilson often spoke about their commonality in the early A.A. Oxford Group circles in New York.. Dr. Bob Smith, on the other hand, pointed out that early A.A. had no other moral principles, that these four were its “yardsticks” for behavior, and that—to the end of his life—he felt they were of great importance. His remarks are contained in A.A.’s Co-founders pamphlet. Dr. Bob’s wife Anne expressed an even stronger enthusiasm for them as she wrote about them frequently in her 64 page journal that she shared with early AAs and their families. (See Anne Smith’s Journal, 1933-1939). Old-timer Clarence Snyder spoke about them often. (See That Amazing Grace: The Role of Clarence and Grace S. in Alcoholics Anonymous). The Four Absolutes appeared on the masthead of Cleveland A.A.’s Central Bulletin for a number of years. An interpretation of them is still widely circulated out of the Cleveland and Akron A.A. offices. And even out here in Hawaii, Clancy U.—who was sponsored by both Dr. Bob and Clarence—was well-known for concluding his talks by saying, “And don’t forget those Four Absolutes!” In fact, he and his wife traveled all over the United States, and he never stopped mentioning “those Four Absolutes.”
Their Source: The Principles of Jesus by Dr. Robert E. Speer
I personally saw but one of Robert E. Speer’s titles among the books in Dr. Bob’s Library. That was Studies of the Man Christ Jesus (NY: Fleming H. Revell, 1896). It was owned a circulated by Dr. Bob and recommended by Anne Smith in her journal. On the other hand, both Bob and Anne were quite conversant with writings by Sam Shoemaker; and Shoemaker mentioned several times that he felt, “One of the simplest and best rules for self-examination that I know is to use the Four Standards which Dr. Robert E. Speer said represented the summary of the Sermon on the Mount—Absolute Honesty, Absolute Purity, Absolute Unselfishness, and Absolute Love” (Samuel M. Shoemaker, Jr., How to Become a Christian. NY: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1953, p. 57). I cannot say for sure that either Dr. Bob or Anne actually read Speer’s book that spelled out the four absolute standards; but they certainly seemed to understand where they came from.
What Dr. Speer Had to Say about Purpose and Principles
My copy of the well-known Speer title is The Principles of Jesus: Applied To Some Questions of To-day, by Robert E. Speer. NY: Fleming H. Revell Company, 1902. Speer’s writing is clear and easy to understand, always documented with Scriptural references. It deserves actual quotation, and that is what I shall provide below:
“Men are no longer content with the conventional judgments about conduct that satisfied them a few years ago. It is a striking sight to see them turning instinctively to Jesus for light on their difficulties or to claim His authority in support of their solutions of the problems of life (p. 9).
“Jesus Christ is the revelation of right in life. Whatever he approves is right. Whatever he condemns is wrong. But what would He approve if He were here to-day, and what would He condemn? It is possible to err in either of two ways in answering this question. (1) Some attempt to apply with rigid literalness the exact sayings of Christ to present conditions. “Sell all that you have.” “Lay not up treasure on the earth.”. . . But this view is impossible. None of its advocates sells all that he has. . . . It is un-Christlike. . . . He came to displace legalism by the spirit of a true life, to supplant prescription by principle. . . . “The Spirit will come,” He said. “He will guide you.” (2) On the other side men err in so refining away the teaching of Jesus in ethical sublimates that nothing sold and stable is left. Jesus established no organization, they say. He laid no hard constraints upon men. He broke up the enslavements of the past whether of opinion or ritual. . . . But Jesus was not just this. He came to give men power to live a new and eternal life, it is true. But the new life was to be eternal life lived in time before entering upon eternity. And He revealed in Himself the objective standards and principles of the eternal life thus abiding in time (pp. 10-11).
“Following in Jesus’ steps accordingly is not wearing the sort of clothes which He wore. Neither is it merely the possession of sweet feeling towards all men irrespective of the moral life. It is the application of conduct to-day under its changed conditions of the principles which found expression in the life and teaching of Jesus nineteen hundred years ago, but which, because they are principles, are not local, transient, and personal, but universal and abiding (p. 11).
“The purpose of these studies will be to seek in the life of Christ for some of those principles which should guide our lives. These principles found one application in His life. He lived in His own age and country, and He fitted Himself to His time and the people among whom He moved. We live in another age, and the methods and problems of our life are different; but the same principles which guided Him are to guide us (pp. 11-12).
“That study is most directly helpful which leads us to look straight at Him whom Luther called “the Proper Man,” who was the revelation of the Father’s will for every man. What Jesus was, the Father would have each of us be. What Jesus did, the Father would have each of us do” (p. 12).
Speer’s writing makes me think a good deal about the United Christian Endeavor Society, in which Dr. Bob participated so actively as a youngster. That Society asked so many times, “What would Jesus do?” And a good deal of its inspiration came from the famous book by United Christian Endeavor writer and leader (Charles M. Sheldon. In His Steps. Nashville, Broadman Press, 1935). This book was owned and circulated by Dr. Bob!
In Chaper III, after writing about “Jesus and the Father” (Chapter I) and “Jesus and Prayer” (Chapter II), Speer wrote about “Jesus and the Will of God.” He began:
“The ruling principle in the life of Jesus, both in its prayer and in its service, was the will of God. He conditioned His prayers upon the Father’s will (Luke 22:42), and He declared that He never did anything but the will of His Father (John 5:30). He found the truest relationships in life, not in the mere ties of flesh and blood, but in common devotion to God’s will (Mark 3:35). In doing that will was His meat and drink, so that He could even forego other nourishment while some noble ministry sustained Him (John 4:34). He taught His disciples to love it. They were to pray not so much for a million details, as simply that the will of God might be done on earth as in heaven (Matt. 6:10). Those were to enter into His kingdom who did the will of His Father (Matt. 7:21) [p. 22]
“Whoever wills to do God’s will, he shall be able to understand Jesus’ teaching, to “behold” Him as the open way to the Father, and the peace and strength of His noble will (John 7:17). This was the preaching and practice of Jesus about the will of God. 1. It delivered Him from all fear. Nothing can intimidate God’s will of the man who is set in it. “Fear not,” said Jesus (Luke 12:7, 32). 2. It brought Him perfect steadiness of life and composure of heart. There is no fitfulness or vacillation in God’s will. . . . 3. It gave Him the power of God. God does His will through the man who does God’s will . . . . As Jesus did the will of God, we are to do it. 1. And it is to be with us, not only submission to power above our own, but also partnership in power greater than our own. . . . 2. It will be with us a deliverance from sin. . . . 3. It will glorify life into personal partnership with the living God. . . . 4. It will open to us the secret of accomplishing prayer (1 John 5:24). 5. And make us sharers in the abiding eternity of God (1 John 2:17)” [pp. 22-24].
At this point, many who have studied my books and research will begin to see just how much this approach by Speer impacted on the teachings of Rev. Sam Shoemaker, the life of Dr. Bob, and the writings of Anne Smith. And we need not go further into the many succinct chapters in Speer’s book, but we do recommend their reading by those who want to see more. Here, however, our objective is simply to lay the foundation for Speer’s approach to the Four Absolutes which have meant so much to so many founders and other AAs.
Speer’s Chapter on Jesus and Standards
Would that we could quote every word in Speer’s Chapter VI. Those words would put some solid truth about A.A.’s real history before every reader. Those words might also put an end to so much of the speculative and opinionated jabber among AAs and the recovery community about the “principles” of the Big Book, the Steps, and the Traditions. Thus AAs are often in a dither as to the real meaning of “practice these principles,” “the Twelve Principles of the Steps,” the expression “principles before personalities,” and the welcomed declaration that “we are not saints.” By contrast, let’s put the magnifying glass on what Speer actually wrote about the “principles”—the principles of the Bible—on which A.A. was founded:
“1. Jesus did not attempt to issue a code of laws to guide human conduct. He put men in possession of great moral principles which they would have to apply themselves. . . . 2. It might seem from Jesus’ teaching that He was not doing this, but rather dealing with points of application of principle to practice, He was so practical and illustrative (Matt. 5:39-42), But he taught in this way in order to make people understand, and the illustrations He used were themselves such as to make some principle perfectly clear. They set up standards. . . . 3. And those standards were absolute, the more boldly absolute because Jesus intentionally framed His teaching in direct opposition to the casuistical method of the scribes. . . . He cut off escapes and pretexts, and taught that standards were standards (pp. 33-34).
“4. Men say: “I think this course is right. My conscience does not reprove me. Therefore it is right for me.” Nonsense. Jesus told His disciples that some day men would kill them conscientiously and for God’s sake (John 16:2). He pointed out that there is such a thing as moral color-blindness (Matt. 6:23) [p. 34].
“5. Jesus was, then, the teacher of absolute principles. He made no comparisons, no abatements for human lust or weakness. Perfection was His standard (Matt. 5:48). He had attained it (John 8:29). He demanded it. We are to be His disciples in this. Right is to be right. Thinking it right or thinking it wrong does not make a thing right or wrong. It is right or wrong irrespective of our thought about it. To know whether it is right or wrong, drag it into Jesus’ presence, and see how He looks at it and how it looks before Him. . . .” (pp. 34-35).
And Now for the 4 Standards!
[Truth – the standard of Absolute Honesty]
“6. Jesus set up an absolute standard of truth. Find all His allusions to lies. If Satan is the father of lies, how can any lie be justifiable? Jesus did not make truthfulness depend upon its profitableness or its loss. Men must be true and speak the truth regardless of consequences (p. 35).”
[Unselfishness – the standard of Absolute Unselfishness]
“7. Jesus set up an absolute standard of unselfishness. This was His own spirit. . . . The kingdom with its service of God and man was to be above home, friends, comfort, life (Matt. 19:29).” [p. 35]
[Purity – the standard of Absolute Purity]
“8. Jesus set up an absolute standard of purity. He tolerated no uncleanness whatsoever. The inner chambers of imagery and desire must be pure (Mark 7:15). A hand or an eye, outer or inner sin, must be sacrificed to the claims of the kingdom of heaven (Matt. 5:29, 30).” [p. 35]
[Love – the standard of Absolute Love]
“Jesus set up an absolute standard of love (John 23:34). Neither dirt (Luke 16:20), nor poverty (Luke 14:13), nor social inferiority (Luke 7:39) were annulments of the law of love. He Himself loved to the limit (John 13:1), and with no abatements. The law of love makes it impossible to say: “I don’t like those people. I can’t love them.” (pp. 35-36).
Jesus Himself Was the Standard, Said Speer
“Jesus Himself was the standard He set up. He was unchangeable. He had been before Abraham (John 8:58). He would be forever (Heb. 13:8). The absolute Teacher was the absolute lesson. It is a great thing in this day of wavering, of quibbling by moral evasions and straddles, to have a faith and a faithful Master who cannot be moved” (p. 36).