A Look at “Meditation” in Early A.A.

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The Names They Gave It

Practically none of the names for early A.A. “meditation” was a Biblical name although “prayer and meditation” (as Bill Wilson called them in the Big Book) certainly had Biblical roots–particularly as prayer and meditation were practiced by A.A.’s pioneers.

One of the earliest names was “The Morning Watch.” The expression was often used in prior years by the YMCA, by Harry Emerson Fosdick, by Rev. Sam Shoemaker, and by many others from whom AAs took their ideas. Sam Shoemaker was to write later that he preferred the expression “Quiet Time” because the principles often needed to be practiced throughout the day and also had a way of slipping from the morning to a later part of the day. “Quiet Time” was an expression widely used by Sam Shoemaker, by Oxford Group people, by early AAs, and in many religious circles. I first heard the expression at an A.A. meeting in Marin County, California, and didn’t have the slightest idea what it meant–though it seemed to involved a “quiet period” before the day’s affairs were started.

“Two-way prayer” became an Oxford Group term for describing prayer as “speaking” to God and “meditation” or “quiet time” as “listening” to God. Then came the word “Guidance.” You sought “guidance.” You asked for “guidance.” You “got guidance.” And you consulted other believers for “guidance” if you couldn’t understand the meaning of the thoughts that came. “Guidance” was a term used by Christian pro-genitors like F. B. Meyer and his The Secret of Guidance. Meyer’s influence extended to the Student Christian Movement, Christian Endeavor, and Oxford Group members. Hence directly and indirectly to A.A. and its founders.

The real emphasis was on “listening” for “luminous thoughts.” Then on the necessity for writing them down, preferably in a journal. I have in my possession copies of personal notations from Rev. Sam Shoemaker’s journal in 1931 and in 1934 to 1936. They mention the Firestone family members and their trip to Denver in 1931; and the journal entries later mention “Bill Wilson” and other Oxford Group team members by name. The stress on listening gave rise to Oxford Group expressions like “God gave man one mouth and two ears. That should tell you something!” Writing thoughts down gave rise to the expression that the ancient Chinese believed the strongest memory is paler than the weakest ink.

Oddly, though the words “prayer” and “meditation” are both used in the Bible and easily understood in the Bible and in English, they were shunned by the Oxford Group and some of the A.A. pioneers in favor of the catch phrases above. There was a growing failure to continue mention of the Bible sources. There was a new stress on non-Biblical substitute language, and the added intrusion of “New Age” and Eastern concepts. And all contributed to the kind of self-made religion, self-made meditation ideas, and self-made interpretations of what had been three very simple and clearly comprehended expressions from the Bible: (1) Prayer. (2) Meditation. (3) Revelation.

Our early believers prayed to our Creator. Believers meditated on (pondered) God’s Word–the Bible. And, if God chose to make such guidance available, they received revelation–particularly Word of Knowledge and Word of Wisdom (See 1 Corinthians 12:7-11). The Bible is filled with examples. And, in his title, The God Who Speaks, the great theologian (later an Oxford Group supporter) B. H. Streeter cited many examples of these and another revelation manifestation.

What Did “Meditation” Really Involve?

Some of our forbears had the gift of describing with simplicity the desired period they set aside for reading, praying, and communicating with God.

The Reverend Howard C. Blake, a Presbyterian, had much of the same background that Dr. Bob had as a youngster. He often went to church four times a week, belonged to Christian Endeavor, and committed himself to doing the will of God. He also was involved in Student Christian Movement activities, worked with Sam Shoemaker, and kept a close association with Oxford Group founder Dr. Frank Buchman for 32 years. In Way to Go: Adventures in Search of God’s Will, Blake wrote this about searching for the will of God:

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