12 Step A.A. History Review

Research in the last twenty years has made available lots of new information about where each of the Twelve Steps came from, so far as its language and ideas are concerned.

Therefore, if you put these and other thoughts together, you may find why the rapidly disappearing spiritual roots of A.A. are important. The reflections in this article, however, are just designed to remind us all of some principal historical roots of the 12 Steps. And to show how they can help you, as they did me, to see what the Twelve Steps are really about–or at least were, when Bill Wilson first penned them.

Where They Did Not Come From
For sure, the Twelve Steps did not come from Akron or the early A.A. program there as the specifics of the Akron Christian fellowship program were summarized for John D. Rockefeller by Frank Amos in 1938. Amos said there were seven basic points, and they bear no resemblance to the Steps Bill Wilson formulated and published in the Big Book in 1939 (See Dick B., God and Alcoholism and Twelve Steps for You). Nor did the Twelve Steps arise from any earlier steps of any kind at all. How do we know that? We know it because there were no Steps in Akron Number One’s program (See Dick B., The Akron Genesis of Alcoholics Anonymous). There were no Steps in the Oxford Group in 1935 (See Dick B., The Oxford Group and Alcoholics Anonymous). Contrary to some statements that have been made, neither the Oxford Group nor the early A.A. program had six steps or any steps at all. And there never have been any steps in the Oxford Group at all, though there are twenty-eight Oxford Group principles that impacted on the Steps as Bill finally wrote them in a brief period of meditation in late 1938 (See Dick B., The Oxford Group and Alcoholics Anonymous).

What the Original Akron Program Consisted Of
Let’s reiterate the Akron picture: Dr. Bob said he didn’t write the Twelve Steps or have anything to do with the writing of them. He said the basic ideas came from the pioneers’ study of the Bible. He specifically pointed to three Bible segments he said old timers considered absolutely essential (See DR. BOB and the Good Oldtimers; and Dick B., The Good Book and The Big Book; Why Early A.A. Succeeded: The Good Book in A.A. Yesterday and Today). The three essential Bible segments were Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (Matthew, Chapters Five to Seven), the entire Book of James, and 1 Corinthians 13. There were many other Akron features that were not included in the Twelve Steps—belief in God, coming to Him through Jesus Christ, elimination of sinful conduct, Bible study, old fashioned prayer meetings, use of the Upper Room, The Runner’s Bible, My Utmost for His Highest, and similar daily devotionals, together with suggested religious comradeship and attendance at a religious service each week.

Where, then, did the Twelve Steps really come from?
Bill Wilson said many times in many ways that nobody invented A.A. He often added that everything in the program was borrowed–from medicine, religion, and experience. Many years later, Bill Pittman put his finger on the button when he wrote AA The Way It Began. Pittman concluded (and he was correct) that the Twelve Step program came from Rev. Sam Shoemaker and from the Oxford Group writings. Over the years, Wilson himself began conceding this point little by little, but not detailing it.

Remember, however, that there were no Steps in Calvary Church, in the Oxford Group, or in pioneer A.A. But the major Oxford Group life-changing ideas were made known to Rowland Hazard, Ebby Thacher, and Bill Wilson in 1934. If you will read my title Turning Point, you will see that Ebby Thacher (Bill’s sponsor) passed along to Bill in much detail the basic ideas of the Twelve Steps. They came from Ebby’s Oxford Group discussions with Rowland Hazard and F. Shepard Cornell. Most don’t know that, but you can see, in pages 12 to 15 of the Big Book, 4th Edition, that Oxford Group ideas that Bill was pondering with Ebby at Towns Hospital in 1934.

Then there’s the matter of Reverend Sam Shoemaker, rector of Calvary Episcopal Church in New York, chief lieutenant of Oxford Group founder Dr. Frank Buchman, and prolific Oxford Group writer. You’ll find Shoemaker ideas and language sprinkled throughout the Big Book and the Steps. You’ll find corresponding words, language, and ideas in Shoemaker’s writings. And you’ll find them in Bill’s acknowledgments in letters and talks about Shoemaker’s importance. In my nineteen years of reading Shoemaker’s books, examining the Stepping Stones archives, seeing Shoemaker’s personal journals and his papers at the Episcopal Church Archives in Texas, I have had the Shoemaker teachings and influence made have made those points quite clear to me. Strikingly also, I learned that Bill had actually asked Shoemaker to write the Twelve Steps, and Shoemaker declined. It’s all in my title, Dick B., New Light on Alcoholism: God, Sam Shoemaker, and A.A., 2d ed.

The Anne Smith Journal Source (1933-1939)
There is one additional, principal source that I have stressed for many years. I do so because no one has been told much about it in A.A. or in Twelve Step groups. Scholars and other historians either ignore it or fail to discuss it. I stress this source because it either covered or actually taught most of A.A.’s Oxford Group, Shoemaker, and Bible ideas in detail in the 1930's, long before the Big Book was published. And I do so because it had a direct daily impact on Bill Wilson, Dr. Bob, and the A.A. pioneers. You can see many Shoemaker and Oxford Group ideas in it. You can also see the Bible ideas, Christian literature, and role of Jesus Christ that Dr. Bob stressed.

That source is found in the 64 page journal I was able to obtain from A.A. General Services in New York, with the help of Dr. Bob’s daughter Sue Smith Windows and Bill Wilson’s secretary Nell Wing. It is laid out in some detail in my book, Anne Smith’s Journal, 1933-1939. And if you want to see A.A. history in the making, see it as it was shared with AAs and their families in the earliest days, and see it as a bona fide and detailed discussion of A.A.’s Twelve Step ideas before the Steps were written, you should get a copy of Dick B., Anne Smith’s Journal, 1933-1939. You sure won’t find it in any A.A. literature, meeting, or conference itself!

Some Helpful Step Root Specifics
Following are some basic ideas that fed directly into the Twelve Steps from their three major sources (Shoemaker, Oxford Group, Anne Smith, Dr. Bob’s wife):
Powerlessness seems to have little to do with our beginnings. It was just an expression that fit in with Wilson’s later talk about lack of power, and the need to find a power (which Wilson declared was God, and which was most assuredly that of the Creator Yahweh). In the beginning, the First Step idea was just: We admitted we were licked. And that still does it for me. Then the pioneers often said this prayer: O God, manage me because I can’t manage myself. In several forms, this prayer is mentioned or discussed in Anne Smith’s Journal, Shoemaker’s books, and the Oxford Group’s stories about Victor and the “manage me” prayer.

Came to believe was originally phrased: Believe that God can restore you to sanity. That “came to believe God” originated with Shoemaker’s emphasis on John 7:17–If any man will do his will, he shall know of the doctrine, whether it be or God, or whether I [Jesus] speak of myself. Shoemaker’s thesis: Do God’s will, and then you’ll know what God can do, said he. Good examples can be found in Shoemaker’s Religion That Works and Twice Born Ministers.

The Third Step called for a decision to entrust your life to God’s care. It was primarily based on “Thy will be done” from the Lord ’s Prayer (Matthew 6:10). And you can see these points in the Anne Smith, Shoemaker, and Oxford Group writings. The addition of God “as we understood Him” was compromise language substituted for “God” in the fervent arguments at Works Publishing Company offices. But this “as you understand Him” came from many of Shoemaker’s writings about surrendering as much of yourself as you understand to as much of God as you understand. Good examples can be found in Children of the Second Birth by Shoemaker. They can be found in Bill Wilson’s talks in the Big Book itself.

The Fourth Step originated with on the Oxford Group’s Four Absolutes–honesty, purity, unselfishness, and love. Dr. Bob called them the yardsticks. Anne Smith called them the moral standards. Also with Matthew 7:1-5 of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. You wrote the four absolutes down. You also wrote down where your life was astray. And you looked for your part in the wrongdoing. These ideas can clearly be seen in Anne’s, Shoemaker’s, and the Oxford Group’s writings.

Our Fifth Step language can be found in the same three sources. But all state that the basic idea came from James 5:16. The pity is that, by ignoring the Bible, our historians have missed the point that you not only confess your faults one to another, but you call in the elders to pray for the sick person, and the Lord shall raise him up and his sins shall be forgiven (James 5:15). It continues that you will be healed because the effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much. That’s something Wilson and A.A. Number Three (Bill Dotson) specifically claimed for themselves in the early years before 1939. See Big Book, page 191.

The Sixth and Seventh Step language leaves many bewildered today. The two paragraphs in the Big Book explains very little and omit very much. They mix up various theological ideas, and they weren’t part of Akron thinking except for acceptance Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour (something totally removed from today’s A.A.). The best understanding of these two Steps and two paragraphs would probably come to those who learn and apply the 5 C’s that were mentioned by Anne, by Sam, and by the Oxford Group. These two Step ideas really come from the Five C’s. They rest primarily on Conviction (Step 6) and Conversion (Step 7). You can see these explained in detail in the early Oxford Group book Soul Surgery by Walter. But the roots got lost in Bill’s shuffle from the six word-of-mouth steps to the twelve he wrote in late 1938 and were supposed to leave no wiggle room as he and Lois put it. The problem is that they left little understanding either. Many somehow think they lose all faults in those two Steps and then wonder why the remainder are necessary. They leave many puzzled as to how man continues in his wrongdoing and “sin” after they have mouthed the language of the Big Book. My sponsor thought all of his “character defects” were gone when he “took” the Seventh Step. His sponsor explained to me that the step was merely about “hungry, angry, lonely, and tired.” Such remarks left me puzzled and challenged to learn more about these two steps.

The Eighth and Ninth Step ideas of restitution have their roots in four segments of the Bible (See Dick B., The Akron Genesis of Alcoholics Anonymous; The Oxford Group and Alcoholics Anonymous; By the Power of God; and The Good Book and The Big Book). This concept of life-change that involves restoring, making restitution, making amends, confessing one’s own part, and taking corrective action can be seen most vividly in the Oxford Group book For Sinners Only by A. J. Russell. Whatever one may think of the Oxford Group, restitution, or the Bible, this aspect of A.A. Step work is well covered by Bill in his Big Book.

The Tenth Step derives from the “Continuance” principle of the Oxford Group’s Five C’s. You continue the surrender, the life change, the self-examination, the confession, the conviction, (but not necessarily the “conversion”)–as well as the restitution–you learned in and undertook in the first nine Steps. To know the roots and the purpose is to understand better why there was a Step Ten. And Shoemaker wrote eloquently about continued surrender as did Anne Smith. Shoemaker said that “sins” had a way of building up and needed continuing efforts at eradicating them.

The Eleventh Step is a big deal. And the best references I can give are to the exhaustive treatment of Quiet Time, Guidance, Bible study, Prayer, Listening, Checking, Journaling, and use of devotionals and other literature that I have covered in my books Good Morning!: Quiet Time, Morning Watch, Meditation, and Early A.A.; The Akron Genesis of Alcoholics Anonymous, New Light on Alcoholism; The Oxford Group and Alcoholics Anonymous; The Good Book and The Big Book; and By the Power of God. In fact, the richness of the Eleventh Step roots can best be understood by having, as a reference set, my twenty-nine volumes which are sold as a group at a substantial discount. That way, you have the history when you want to study it, when you want to refer to it, and when you want to look at the tremendous amount of bibliography that is available in those books.

Now the Twelfth Step. The language “spiritual awakening” is from the Oxford Group (See Buchman, Remaking the World). And Shoemaker wrote a whole chapter in one of his books, explaining what a spiritual awakening was. He further elaborated at an A.A. Convention when he said it had four elements: (prayer, conversion, fellowship, and witness); but you sure won’t find those Shoemaker expressions in A.A. literature pertaining to Step Twelve. The topic “spiritual experience” is likewise from the Oxford Group.

The problem is that neither Professor William James, nor Dr. Carl Jung, nor even Bill Wilson, were originally talking about either a spiritual awakening or a spiritual experience as the Oxford Group defined them. They were talking about religious experiences and conversion. But the distaste for such ideas in the Oxford Group, the Roman Catholic Church, the universalists, the revisionists, and the non-Christians has slowly but surely buried the conversion which was a sine qua non of early A.A.

What was the message that 12 Steppers were to carry? You won’t find Bill describing it. But the real message was carried by Ebby to Bill and found its way into the Big Book in terms of “God has done for me what I could not do for myself.” To that was added the Oxford Group/Shoemaker idea of passing it on and giving it away to keep it–both of which derived from Biblical witnessing. And what were the principles 12 Steppers were to practice? That was left un-discussed by Wilson. Once he and his A.A. editors buried the Four Absolutes, they also quickly buried the simplest, earliest, clearest statements of the principles. Those principles–honesty, purity, unselfishness, and love–were the yardsticks, as Dr. Bob called them. They were the standards as many Oxford Group people called them. And, since they were based on the teachings of Jesus, they can also be said to incorporate all the principles of the Ten Commandments, the two Great Commandments of Jesus, other commandments in the Bible, the Sermon on the Mount, and 1 Corinthians 13. And you will find that many pieces of literature in early A.A. central offices so stated.

~ * ~
Copyright by Richard G. Burns, J.D.
All rights reserved. Used by permission.
Dick B. was a writer, historian, retired attorney, Bible student,
CDAAC, and an active and recovered member of the A.A. fellowship.
He had more than 29 years of continuous sober and clean time in
Alcoholics Anonymous; having sponsored more than 100 men in their
sobriety; and published 46 books, more than 1,750 articles, audios,
and videos on the roles God, His Son Jesus Christ, and the Bible
played in early A.A.'s astonishing success of AA and on the Christian recovery movement
Contact his son Ken
PO Box 837, Kihei, HI 96753-0837

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