The Oxford Group and Alcoholics Anonymous
Part Two — By Dick B.
The Steps, The Facts, The Oxford Group
People in A.A. who are enthusiasts about the Twelve Steps of recovery are fond of rejecting the “smorgasbord approach.” They rail against those who select for “taking” and/or “practice” those of the twelve which appeal to them and leave the others alone.
I’m not convinced that many do this. Those who are timid about the program are more likely, I believe, to “balk” at the Fourth Step, “lie” in the Fifth Step, misunderstand the idea behind Steps Six and Seven, fail to complete Steps Eight and Nine, and somehow misinterpret the “continuing” requirements of Steps Ten, Eleven, and Twelve. In other words, they probably don’t ignore any of the Steps. The timid ones just don’t do the hard work that is necessary to complete all twelve steps.
The same thing applies as to our spiritual roots. There are at least six major spiritual roots: (1) The Bible. (2) Quiet Time. (3) The teachings of Rev. Sam Shoemaker. (4) The life-changing program of the Oxford Group. (5) The writings of Dr. Bob’s wife Anne Ripley S. (6) The Christian literature they read. Added to these six roots are (7) some of the ideas of Professor William James (whose very words were adopted by Sam Shoemaker in his writings, and whose book The Varieties of Religious Experience was read by A.A.’s founders. (8) Some of the ideas of Dr. Carl Jung about conversion. (9) Some of the new thought phrases of Ralph Waldo Trine, Emmet Fox, and other transcendentalists. And then (10) Some of the fall-out from Dr. William Silkworth on the “disease” and (11) Richard Peabody on some of the regimen of “treatment” as covered in his title The Common Sense of Drinking.
The more you research the more you find that our official, “reported” history has cluttered up the facts. Thus a failure even to explore and detail Dr. Bob’s work in Christian Endeavor as a youngster leaves this root of Akron “old fashioned prayer meetings” ignored as a major Bible root. A failure to understand Lois W’s Swedenborgian Church membership and Bill’s exposure to those ideas leaves this “spiritualist” influence out of the earliest times and ignores Lois’s opposition to “conversion,” to “soul surgery,” and possibly even to the Bible itself
The problem arises with a “smorgasbord” approach to these roots and parts of roots. If you pick at some, pick out some, and push out others, you don’t have the “Program.” By “Program,” we mean whatever Frank Amos meant when he came to Akron and thoroughly investigated Dr. Bob and those features which had produced such astonishing successes. Worse, you don’t attain an understanding of the “Program.” You may overlook the Bible because it is so little mentioned today. You may not appreciate the importance of Quiet Time because it has been so hacked up by later “meditation” and “reflection” and “twenty-four” hour books. You may ignore the immense influence of Rev. Sam Shoemaker because the details of his impact have been lacking until recently. You may decline to look at the Oxford Group principles because of ancient religious and other opposition to Dr. Buchman and his work. You may just plain miss the work of Anne S. because her “journal” has been so long on the shelf–in fact, virtually banned from the history scene at her home in Akron today. And you may omit the Christian literature because it is voluminous and, for some, controversial. You may, as I did, fail to appreciate or study the effect on A.A. theology of the writings of Emmet Fox, Trine, and others; and, in doing so, you may not realize the confusion and conflict fostered by putting some of the sources in your thinking, ignoring others, and believing everything was and is divinely inspired and just hunky dory.
You won’t spend much time digging in our early “Program” without realizing that, at its peak percentage of success period which commenced in 1935, there were no Steps. No steps? No steps!” For that point, let’s look at the record:
“Dr. Bob, noting that there were no Twelve Steps at the time and that ‘our stories didn’t amount to anything to speak of,’ later said they were convinced that the answer to their problems was in the Good Book” (DR BOB and the Good Oldtimers, p. 96).
“As Dr. Bob recalled: ‘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’.” (DR. BOB and the Good Oldtimers, p. 97).
“Dorothy [S. M.] recalled the 1937 meetings when ‘the men would all disappear upstairs. . . After about half an hour or so, down would come the new man, shaking, white, serious, and grim. And all the people who were already in A.A. would come trooping down after him. They were pretty reluctant to talk about what had happened, but after a while, they would tell us they had had a real surrender. I often wonder how many people that come in now would survive an experience like that–a regular old fashioned prayer meeting’.” (DR. BOB and the Good Oldtimers, p. 101).
“But Bill did get to see John D. Rockefeller, Jr., who dispatched Frank Amos out to Akron to investigate what was going on. Mr. Amos, who was soon to become one of A.A.’s first non-alcoholic trustees, did a thorough job of investigating what he referred to as the ‘self-styled Alcoholic Group of Akron, Ohio.’ He called on Dr. Bob and attended meetings. He questioned members and nonmembers, including professional associates of Dr. Bob. . . . In his report to MR. Rockefeller in February, 1938, Mr. Amos said. . . . ‘they [the stories of the men, their wives, and in some cases there mothers]. . . were all remarkably alike in ‘the technique used and the system followed.’ He described the ‘Program’ as follows: ‘1. An alcoholic must realize that he is an alcoholic, incurable from a medical standpoint, and that he must never again drink anything with alcohol in it. 2. He must surrender himself absolutely to God, realizing that in himself there is no hope. 3. Not only must he want to stop drinking permanently, he must remove from his life other sins such as hatred, adultery, and others which frequently accompany alcoholism. Unless he will do this absolutely, Dr. Bob and his associates refuse to work with him. 4. He must have devotions every morning–a ‘quiet time’ of prayer and some reading from the Bible and other religious literature. Unless this is faithfully followed, there is grave danger of backsliding. 5. He must be willing to help other alcoholics get straightened out. This throws up a protective barrier and strengthens his own willpower and convictions. 6. It is important, but not vital, that he meet frequently with other reformed alcoholics and form both a social and religious comradeship. 7. Important, but not vital, that he attend some religious service at least once weekly’.” (DR. BOB and the Good Oldtimers, pp. 128-31).
I remember sitting in the home of an experienced AA in Wisconsin several years ago. We listened to the interrogation of Ed A., an A.A. oldtimer from Lorain, Ohio. Ed A. is dead now. But at the time, he was questioned again and again as to how he “took the Steps.” Most of the time, he simply talked about other things they did in the old days. But he often said, “There were no Steps.” I really don’t think his interrogators understood him because they were not that conversant with the “Program” that Frank Amos and Dr. Bob explained as set forth above, and they seemed not to believe that this old duffer had been sober so many years without taking “the Steps.”
There were no steps! The “Program” was described by Frank Amos. And that’s what they did. They renounced alcohol. They surrendered absolutely to their Creator for help. They worked at removing “sins” from their lives. They had devotions in the form of prayer, Bible study, use of religious literature such as The Upper Room, and sought revelation from God in what was commonly called a “Quiet Time.” They helped alcoholics get straightened out. They fellowshipped with other believers. And they often attended a weekly religious service. No steps! No Oxford Group program. Just the simple acts described above. All influenced to a greater and greater degree by what was in the Bible, in Oxford Group writings, in Anne S’s journal, and in the religious literature. And they followed much the same prayer, Bible study, quiet time, and witnessing ideas Dr. Bob had learned in his youth in Christian Endeavor in St. Johnsbury, Vermont.
The Steps Appear
Some–unduly impressed, or disturbed by the Oxford Group influence–have asserted that the Oxford Group had six steps. It didn’t. I have talked with, corresponded with, and studied the literature read by almost every significant Oxford Group survivor in the United States and also several abroad. Most have seen and in fact helped critique my title The Oxford Group and Alcoholics Anonymous. That title documents my finding that there really were about twenty-eight Oxford Group ideas that impacted on A.A.
You will see from my title Anne S’s Journal, 1933-1939, that Dr. Bob’s wife covered all of the twelve step ideas Bill eventually put in A.A.’s basic text, the Big Book You’ll see from my title The Good Book and The Big Book that all of the twelve step ideas stem from Bible principles, just as Dr. Bob said they did. And you’ll see from New Light on Alcoholism that the same type of parallels can be found in the writings and speeches of Rev. Sam Shoemaker, just as Bill W. suggested.
If you look at one of earliest Oxford Group pamphlets–written by Sam Shoemaker’s good friend Rev. Sherwood Sunderland Day about 1922–the statement on page one “The principles of ‘The Oxford Group’ are the principles of the Bible. And whether you are reading Sam Shoemaker’s work, Oxford Group writings, Anne S’s Journal, The Upper Room, or even the new thought ideas of Emmet Fox, you’ll find the Bible cited and at the core of the thinking.
From all this, you will see that neither the Bible, nor the Oxford Group, nor the writings of Rev. Sam Shoemaker, nor the Quiet Time literature, nor Anne S’s Journal, nor the other religious writings studied by A.A. pioneers said anything about “six steps” or “twelve steps” or any formalized step program at all. As A.A.’s Conference Approved Pass It On correctly observes:
In later years, some A.A. members referred to this procedure an alleged six word-of-mouth steps Bill said had been employed] as the six steps of the Oxford Group. Reverend T. Willard Hunter, who spent 18 years in full-time staff positions for the Oxford Group and M.R.A., said, “I never once saw or heard anything like the Six Tenets. It would be impossible to find them in any Oxford Group-M.R.A. literature. I think they must have been written by someone else under some sort of misapprehension (Pass It On, page 197 and footnote 2 on page 206).
The fact is that Bill W. himself described his word-of-mouth “six steps” in several different ways (See Dick B., The Akron Genesis of Alcoholics Anonymous, pp. 256). How he referred to our Creator seemed to depend upon the time and the circumstances and the audience. The description I believe is most accurate can be found in The Language of the Heart at page 200, where Bill describes 6 as “We prayed to God to help us to do these things as best we could.” If Bill felt there were six steps (not Oxford Group steps, certainly), referring to “God” as “God” is consistent with the wording of the very first draft of the Twelve Steps where “God” is also referred to as “God”–not some “power” or “higher power” or “God as we understood Him.” See Pass It On, p. 198).
The Twelve Steps “appeared” in 1934
If you read pages 12 to 15 of the Third Edition, you may be puzzled at seeing all of the Twelve Step ideas on those pages and seemingly propounded by Ebby T. to Bill W. at Towns Hospital in 1934. This situation prompted me, during my visit to Stepping Stones, to give special attention to three different early manuscripts written by Bill W. And the startling fact is that Bill relates in detail almost all of the Twelve Step ideas and the explanation of those Steps in specific terms of what Ebby taught him in 1934 that you can assume that the ideas of the Twelve Steps–biblical in nature as Dr. Bob and Rev. Sherwood Day said–were floating around in rather concrete form in 1934. In fact, they could well have been passed to Ebby by either Rowland H. or Rev. Sam Shoemaker himself. You can see the remarkable detail in the early pages of my title, Turning Point: A History of Early A.A.’s Spiritual Roots and Successes.
And where might the alleged “six steps” that preceded the Twelve have come from if they weren’t in the Bible, Quiet Time, Shoemaker, the Oxford Group, Anne S’s Journal, or the Christian literature AAs read? Floating around the various analyses of Oxford Group ideas were an alleged “six basic assumptions” of the Group: (1) Men are sinners. (2) Men can be changed. (3) Confession is prerequisite to change. (4) The changed soul has direct access to God. (5) The Age of Miracles has returned. (6) Those who have been “changed” must “change” others. See Kurtz, Not-God: A History of Alcoholics Anonymous, 1979, p. 49). Also, Lois W. had described “the Oxford Group precepts” as: (1) Surrender your life to God. (2) Take a moral inventory. (3) Confess your sins to God and another human being. (4) Make restitution. (5) Give of yourself to others with no demand for return. (6) Pray to God for help to carry out these principles. Unfortunately, neither approach adequately reflect complete Oxford Group thinking.
The “assumptions” are, in no sense, biblical; yet the Oxford Group principles were. Lois’s “precepts” were also not biblical; yet Dr. Bob said A.A.’s basic step ideas were.
In sum, it is very doubtful that Dr. Bob would have subscribed to the idea that the original A.A. “Program” had four steps, six steps, eight steps, or twelve. His own Christian Endeavor background and deep study of the Bible led him to the simple program Frank Amos described; and there is no particular evidence to indicate he did not use it on the 5000 alcoholics he personally helped in Akron.
And What of the Oxford Group and OUR Steps
I believe it might be fair to say that A.A. had three approaches to recovery in its earliest days: (1) An approach directly related to recovery and based primarily on the Bible and reliance on our Creator–applied by Dr. Bob and the Akron pioneers (See The Good Book and The Big Book: A.A.’s Roots in the Bible). (2) An approach that was not directly related to recovery but involved a “life-changing” program whose principles were biblical and were applied for recovery–applied primarily in the East, prior to, and then in, early A.A. (See The Oxford Group and Alcoholics Anonymous: A Design for Living That Works). (3) An experiment by Bill W. and Dr. Bob utilizing both approaches and culminating in the Big Book text whose (a) “Steps” were based primarily on the Oxford Group’s aim at attaining a life-changing experience of God and continuing in that experience, and whose (b) Big Book “text” was possibly much more influenced than the Steps by the Bible and yet propounded several inconsistent and even conflicting theories on alcoholism as an “incurable” mental, physical, and spiritual malady; required a “conversion” that was more “change” than a “born again” rebirth;” and “action” seemingly focused more on doing things than on believing that simply stood on what the Bible promised (See Turning Point: A History of Early A.A.’s Spiritual Roots and Successes).
As to the Steps, however, and even as to many explicit phrases in the Big Book, you can’t ignore the Oxford Group’s immense influence on A.A.–coming from the Oxford Group’s twenty-eight principles such as: (a) God; (b) His Plan; (c) Our Obedience, (d) Initial belief that God is; (e) Surrender of your “will” to God; (f) A “turning point”–leading to “steps” embodied in the OG’s 5 C’s, (g) Confidence, (h) Confession, (i) Conviction, (j) Conversion, (k) Continuance)–”steps” that would eliminate “sin” “blocking” one from God and others; (l) Making restitution for harms caused by sins; (m) Making “daily” surrender that continued to apply the “steps;” (n) “Growing” spiritually through Bible study, prayer, and Quiet Time observances enabling receipt of God’s revelation; (o) Becoming “God conscious” as the result of such obedience; (p) Witnessing to what God had done that the person could not do for himself; (q) Fellowshipping; (r) Serving. (s) Practicing Christian principles, enabled by the new-found power of God in Christ mentioned in 2 Corinthians 5:17.
This article is simply a synopsis of what I believe is the practical result of A.A.’s Oxford Group exposure from 1934 through approximately 1941.