AA History: The Original AA Program

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Many Claims. Many Errors. One Truth

When was A.A. Founded?

You’d think by now that everyone knew. Yet I was active in A.A. and its meetings for two or three years before I ever heard mention of the founding. Finally, I learned that the date was June 10, 1935 – the date that Dr. Bob had his last drink. But that didn’t satisfy today’s historians. They tinkered with dates and concluded that Dr. Bob didn’t have his last drink on June 10th, that the medical convention to which he went in Atlantic City never occurred when AAs said it did, and that A.A. was founded on some other date thereabouts.

If you asked someone when George Washington cut down the cherry tree, just think how many different answers the historians might provide. Does it matter? Today, we don’t even seem to celebrate his birthday and prefer lumping all our presidents together.

Well, AAs do care. It matters to them. So I set forth all the arguments and dates long ago in my title, The Akron Genesis of Alcoholics Anonymous (http://www.dickb.com/Akron.shtml). You can study them there if you like. Long after A.A. was founded, Lois Wilson wrote that it had been founded in 1934 when drunks were coming to the Wilson home in Brooklyn. Others wanted to date it when Ebby Thacher first carried the message to Bill Wilson. T. Henry Williams often said that A.A. started right on the carpet of his Palisades home in Akron when Dr. Bob, Henrietta Seiberling, and the others in the Oxford Group knelt and prayed for Dr. Bob’s recovery. Still others like to date it as of the publishing of the Big Book in the Spring of 1939. Clarence Snyder claimed he was the founder, and that the first meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous was held in Cleveland on May 11, 1939. One would-be expert has now asserted that the “original” program occurred some time after that in the 1940’s. And, Bill Wilson made the statement that the first A.A. group began when A.A. Number Three was cured of alcoholism, was visited by Bill Wilson and Dr. Bob in the hospital, and walked from there a “free man” – never to drink again. That happened very shortly after Dr. Bob himself got sober.

So you’ll have to make up your own mind. FDR changed Thanksgiving. We call Armistice Day veterans Day. And on and on. Which leads to the conclusion that “founding” days are perhaps less important than the founding. Personally, I’m convinced that A.A. began. I am convinced it began at Dr. Bob’s Home in Akron. I am convinced that Bob and Bill agreed that it began when he took his last drink. I’m convinced that fairly soon, Bill and Bob agreed that the founding date was June 10, 1935. And thereafter, Bill Wilson attended and actually spoke at “Founders Day” each year in Akron where the “founding of A.A.” on June 10, 1935 is celebrated.

Do you know when A.A. was founded? I don’t. But I’m very sure it was founded because that’s where I took my last drink forever and was cured.

Where did the original program come from?

I know what it was, where it began, when it began, and how it was practiced. But you’d have a heck of a time convincing a lot of AAs today. People who have never met or even read much about Bill Wilson, Dr. Bob, or the original days in Akron.

In the first place, people have chosen to call this the “flying blind” period. Yet there never was more light shining on the cure for alcoholism. Real alcoholics who really tried, who were “medically incurable,” who were willing to go to any lengths, were cured in astonishing percentages. By 1938, some forty of them-called the “pioneers”-were maintaining sobriety, half or more for two years. Richard K. has produced three books now detailing who these folks were, when they got sober, and what happened to them. Their names can be found on a dozen rosters. The pictures of many are on the walls at Dr. Bob’s Home in Akron. Fifty per cent got sober and stayed sober, despite the fact that many a creative A.A. amateur historian insists that the original gang all died drunk. Nonsense!

In the second place, the program came from the Bible. Maybe that’s why doubters and unbelievers want to call it the “flying blind” period. The Bible was read to Bill and Bob at the Smith Home each day in the summer of 1935 by Dr. Bob’s wife Anne Smith. Bob had studied the Bible all his life and began refreshing his memory as a youngster. He read the Bible straight through three times. Bob and Bill stayed up until the wee hours of the morning every day that Bill stayed at the Smith home in Akron in the summer of 1935.

Later, when asked a question about the program, Dr. Bob said: “What does the Good Book say.” He often commented that the old timers felt that the answer to all their problems could be found in the Good Book. Over and over, Bob emphasized that the Book of James, the sermon on the mount (Matthew 5, 6, 7), and 1 Corinthians 13 were absolutely essential. I’ve written much about the specifics AAs borrowed from these three books. See The Good Book and The Big Book (http://www.dickb.com/goodbook.shtml), Why Early A.A. Succeeded (http://www.dickb.com/aabiblestudy.shtml), The Oxford Group and Alcoholics Anonymous http://www.dickb.com/, Turning Point (http://www.dickb.com/turning.shtml), When Early AAs Were Cured and Why, and my new article, “A.A., The James Club, and the Book of James” (http://www.dickb.com/AAsJamesClub.shtml). And Bob and Bill both said that the sermon on the mount contained the underlying philosophy of A.A., that 1 Corinthians 13 was favored reading, and the A.A. thought so much of the Book of James that they wanted to call their Society the “James Club.” The Bible was read at every A.A. meeting in Akron for years-not Oxford Group books, not Shoemaker books, not popular Christian literature, not even much from devotionals like The Upper Room. The Bible was stressed, and AAs said so. You can read it in DR. BOB and the Good Oldtimers, the A.A. Conference Approved book published in 1980. In fact, in his last major talk to AAs-which is on tape, which has been edited and reprinted, and which can be found in A.A.’s own literature-Dr. Bob said A.A. basic ideas came from the Bible.

When was the original program developed and completed?

There’s a very simple set of facts. Yet many don’t want to acknowledge them because they are busy saying that Dr. Bob could never get sober studying the Bible or being a member of the Oxford Group, that there were “six” Oxford Group Steps (which there weren’t), that there were “six” word-of-mouth A.A. steps (which Wilson characterized in half a dozen ways), and that the “twelve” steps somehow represented the “steps” that early AAs took (even though there were no steps at all, not six, not twelve, not any) and even though there was no basic text containing any steps until the Spring of 1939 (shortly after Bill had asked Rev. Sam Shoemaker to write the Steps), and even though the actual vote authorizing Bill to write a textbook was controversial, was taken in Akron, and occurred in 1937 or 1938 before Bill ever began writing the Big Book. Dr. Bob also pointed out that “there were no steps” and that “our stories didn’t amount to anything.”

So, by 1938, when Bill and Bob had counted noses, found that some 40 men were maintaining continuous sobriety-some for as long as two years, and concluded that God had shown them how to pass along their program, the program could certainly be said to have been completed.

What Was The Original A.A. Program?

The program in Akron had, under the leadership of Dr. Bob, worked so well that Bill managed to persuade John D. Rockefeller, Jr. to take a careful look at it.

Rockefeller dispatched his representative, Frank Amos, to Akron to investigate. And Amos did just that. He interviewed doctors, judges, AAs, family members, and Dr. Bob himself. He concluded the program bore close resemblance to First Century Christianity as described in the Book of Acts. He was astonished at its success and at the simple elements that comprised “the” program. He submitted two reports to Rockefeller, and Amos was later to become an A.A. trustee-presumably in recognition of his vital role in the founding of the real, original, A.A. program.

Some of the Amos Reports can be found in DR. BOB and the Good Oldtimers: New York: Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Inc., 1980). But I wanted to see the originals. So I went to A.A. General Services in New York and to the archives at the Bill Wilson home called “Stepping Stones” at Bedford Hills in New York. I saw the reports and verified the basic accuracy of the A.A. excerpts.

Amos did not discuss the hospitalizations at Akron City Hospital which were “musts” in the early program. Possibly because a newcomer’s program did not really begin until he had detoxed, been relieved of some of his fuzzy thinking, and become a real candidate. Nor did Amos discuss the surrender with Dr. Bob at the conclusion of the brief hospitalization. For it was then that the newcomer dealt with three issues: (1) Did he believe in God. (2) Would he get down on his knees with Dr. Bob and pray. (3) Would he “surrender” his life by accepting Jesus Christ as his Lord and Saviour. And if he “passed” that surrender test, out of the hospital he went-to begin all the activities I have described at such length in my published titles.

You can find an excellent and concise description of the whole process in my title “God and Alcoholism: Our Growing Opportunity in the 21st Century (http://www.dickb.com/Godandalcoholism.shtml), pp. 2 -12.

A short description of the original program as Frank Amos described it, would be:

  1. Abstinence-the alcoholic shall realize he must never again drink.
  2. Absolute surrender of himself to God.
  3. He must remove from his life the sins which frequently accompany alcoholism.
  4. He must have devotions every morning-a Quiet Time of prayer and Bible reading.
  5. He must be willing to help other alcoholics get straightened out.
  6. Important, but not vital, he must frequently meet with other “reformed” alcoholics and form both a social and religious comradeship.
  7. Important, but not vital, he must attend some religious service at least once weekly.

There is much more in terms of activity-Morning quiet time with Anne Smith at the Smith home, individual quiet time, the Wednesday Oxford Group meeting, regular informal meetings at the Wilson Home, Bible study and prayer and the reading of Christian literature being circulated, talks with Dr. Bob and Anne and Henrietta Seiberling, and visits to newcomers at the hospital. But the “cure”-the permanent solution to their problems was described as above in the Frank Amos report.

No drunkalogs. No steps. No Big Book. No service structure. No offices. And no money! Just the Creator, Jesus Christ, obedience to God’s will, the Bible, prayer, fellowship, and witness.

It worked! Seventy-five percent documented success rate in those days; and, shortly thereafter, at the beginning of the 1940’s, a ninety-three percent documented success rate. Documented by carefully kept rosters, names, dates, addresses, and phone numbers.

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