As Bill Wilson Saw Them: The Shoemaker Difference

Bill Wilson frequently shifted attention from A.A.’s Oxford Group principles and practices by applauding a major role that Bill attributed to Oxford Group leader Reverend Samuel Moor Shoemaker, Jr. Bill claimed that the material for almost every one of A.A.’s Steps came straight from Shoemaker and that Sam was the wellspring in the development of the A.A. program, Steps, and Big Book.

And the Reverend Samuel Moor Shoemaker, Jr., was a close associate of Oxford Group Founder Dr. Frank N. D. Buchman from at least 1919 to 1941. However these two men had quite different parts to play in the making of A.A. Moreover, their missions were quite different.

Dr. Frank Buchman was older than Shoemaker. Buchman began to assemble his life-changing ideas in the first decade of the 1900’s, long before Sam began writing about them in the 1920’s. Sam actually made his own life-long and life-changing “decision” in January of 1919 in China while in the company, and with the prodding, of Dr. Buchman. And Sam then went on for twenty years or so to become the most prolific writer on Oxford Group ideas and, at times, Buchman’s greatest apologist. But Frank Buchman was definitely unlike Sam Shoemaker in the church arena, in the clergy arena, and with respect to the life-changing focus that was originally the heart of the Oxford Group mission. Buchman was the “soul surgeon” who developed some twenty-eight ideas that were to have great impact on A.A. (See Dick B., The Oxford Group and Alcoholics Anonymous).

Buchman’s “soul surgery” techniques for cutting sin out of one’s life to make way for a solid relationship with God became the heart of the A.A. path to a relationship with our Creator. But Frank Buchman very soon became focused on “world changing through life changing” and on contacts with world leaders that would enable this to occur.

Shoemaker was a churchman. Buchman was not. Shoemaker sought high posts in the Episcopal hierarchy. Buchman was scarcely noticed in his own Lutheran denomination. Shoemaker spent most of his religious life as an Episcopal rector–first in Calvary Church in New York, and then at Calvary Church in Pittsburgh. Buchman had only a brief year in the pulpit itself. Shoemaker wrote prolifically about a host of religious ideas and subjects. Buchman did not. Shoemaker’s life ultimately became focused on parishioners, Bible studies, prayer circles, small fellowship groups, and “staying near the door” which Shoemaker believed would lead people to God. Buchman was scarcely involved in any of these activities. He was followed by a host of admirers who called themselves “activists” rather than a church flock.

All this is not to say that the two men did not share strong common convictions. They did! They both spoke frequently about the power of God Almighty. They both stressed the importance of the Bible. They both, at the beginning, insisted on “surrender” to Jesus Christ. They both incorporated the Holy Spirit in their language and ideas. They both adopted a similar definition of “sin” (that which blocks one from God and from others) and believed it had to be eliminated from one’s life. And they both certainly espoused God-guided lives based on yielding to “God control”–God-controlled individuals in God-controlled nations in a God-controlled world

But their actual influence on Alcoholics Anonymous varied in a hundred ways almost as soon as it began. The actual involvement of A.A. as a whole in the Oxford Group itself only lasted from perhaps November of 1934 to August of 1937. For one thing, Bill Wilson had virtually no personal contact with Buchman except in the Fall of 1935 and at an Oxford Group house-party or two. By contrast, Bill was exposed (via Shoemaker’s meetings, church, conversations, and power-house friends) to Shoemaker’s religious influences from Bill’s first days of sobriety in 1934 to his writing of the Big Book in 1938. Moreover, religious influences on Bill in this critical period in A.A. ‘s development were almost exclusively through Sam Shoemaker and Sam’s circle of Protestant clergy and lay helpers at Calvary House in New York–primarily Episcopalian and Presbyterian adherents.

It was Sam Shoemaker who said he had the closest contact with Bill from the very beginning of Bill’s sobriety. It was Sam Shoemaker who wrote Bill a letter in Bill’s first sixty days of sobriety asking Bill’s help with an alcoholic in Sam’s parish. It was Sam who was in communication with Dr. Bob’s Presbyterian pastor in Akron over the results of Bill’s work with Dr. Bob in the summer of 1935. It was Sam who was frequently closeted with Bill in the book-lined study at Calvary House, discussing Christian principles, in the years before the Big Book was penned. It was Sam who said he had reviewed the manuscript of the Big Book before its publication. It was Sam who was asked by Bill to write the Twelve Steps, but declined in favor of Bill’s own authorship. It was Sam’s own language which seemed to permeate the ideas and even the very words Bill used in the Steps and Big Book. It was Sam with whom Bill corresponded from Bill’s earliest A.A. days to Sam’s death. And it was Sam whom Bill called a “co-founder” of Alcoholics Anonymous–saying on the occasion of Shoemaker’s death–to Sam’s daughter Nicki that without Sam there would have been nothing, “nothing at all.” And neither Frank Buchman nor the Oxford Group itself nor the clergy of any other major denomination (other than the Episcopalians and Presbyterians) had any significant direct influence or contact with Bill Wilson–and certainly not with Dr. Bob–during the pioneer days of Alcoholics Anonymous.

Oxford Group ideas, then, certainly found their way into Bill’s version of A.A.’s spiritual path to recovery. But they appear, in Bill’s case, to have been largely the result of what Sam directly or indirectly taught Bill. This important point is best illustrated by a look at Sam Shoemaker’s first significant book–almost the first Oxford Group book–that was circulated from the early 1920’s to the date of A.A.’s significant beginnings in late 1934.

A Study of Sam Shoemaker’s First Significant Writing

It has become very difficult to purchase or acquire any of Sam’s earliest books–written during the period from 1921 to 1939. More are surfacing as interest in Sam’s A.A. role grows. But there is one book which I found very prominent among the collections held by Oxford Group activists of the earliest days. That book was Realizing Religion (New York: Association Press, 1923). It was written about 1921, published in 1923, and printed by the YMCA. I found copies in the libraries of Jim and Ellie Newton in Florida–Oxford Groupers who went back in their association with Sam and Buchman to the early 1920’s. I found copies in the hands of George Vondermuhll, Jr. of Connecticut–who was associated with the Oxford Group and Moral Re-Armament for many years. I found copies in the hands of Mrs. W. Irving Harris–widow of Rev. Irving Harris who was an assistant of Sam’s and lived in Calvary House with Mrs. Harris–both of whom were mentioned by Bill Wilson (along with Sam himself) as the major contributors to A.A.’s ideas. I found copies in the hands of Rev. T. Willard Hunter; author and friend of A.A.; worker with Frank Buchman and Sam Shoemaker; and frequent spokesman for the Oxford Group. I found copies in Moral Re-Armament headquarters in Washington, D.C.; in several old seminary library collections; and listed among the books recommended in the 1930’s for reading by Oxford Group people. I’ve covered many of the Realizing Religion ideas in my title, New Light on Alcoholism: God, Sam Shoemaker, and A.A. (2d ed.); but I consider it important to highlight the major Shoemaker ideas that filtered directly into A.A. language from that in Sam’s first significant book. You probably have to be a frequent visitor to A.A. meetings and a student of its Big Book and Steps to see how closely Sam’s ideas in Realizing Religion match those of the A.A. program as Bill Wilson saw it in 1938.

Chapter One: “Spiritual longing” was an ever-present Shoemaker topic. It arises, he said, in the modern mind which is restless, easily bored, intensely individualist, prone to inventing one’s “own religion,” and spurred by “unblushing selfishness” that kick at the restraints of religion. The result, said Shoemaker, is spiritual misery. And–said Sam–rest cures, exercise, and motor drives will not help because the “only thing that will help is religion.” Why, Sam asked? “The root of the malady is estrangement from God–estrangement from Him in people that were made to be His companions. Self-made religion, insisted Sam, does not satisfy because it is contrary to the ways of God. Using words which set the theme for A.A.’s preface to the Twelve Steps. He said: “What you want is simply a vital religious experience. You need to find God. You need Jesus Christ.” And there you have it: (1) A.A.’s “problem”–the “spiritual malady”–was defined by Wilson as self, self-centeredness, lack of power, and the resultant being blocked from a relationship with the Creator. (2) A.A.’s “solution”–achieved by letting go and letting God–meant “finding God.” (3) A.A.’s “path” in that quest would, said Wilson, result in a “spiritual experience” that placed one in the relationship with God that would end the spiritual misery and replace it with “God-consciousness.”

Chapter Two: Whatever AAs may think or do about “sin” today, “The Fact of Sin” was the subject of Sam Shoemaker’s second chapter and the target of the Oxford Group’s surgical process of cutting out sin. Quoting William James, as he often did in this book, Shoemaker said: “Evil at large is none of your business until your business with your private, particular evils is liquidated and settled up.” Shoemaker continued (and his language is virtually the framework of A.A.’s Steps): “For most men the world is centered in self, which is misery.” Sin is that forbidden thing which comes knocking at your heart for admission, which your inner self rejects. All that your best self vetoes is sin for you, said Sam. And how do you deal with it? We must take a good look at our outer self and report to our inner self exactly what we have found. And then repent. It is natural, said Sam, to set things right when the heart is moved with a sense of its own sin. Recognize sin! When sin is recognized, in fact known, the sick soul can return to spiritual health. And here Sam sets the stage for the life-changing path of the Oxford Group and A.A. itself–the inventory, the confession, the conviction, and the change!

Chapter Three: The change that liberates is the change that results from conversion. This was what Dr. Carl Jung had told Bill’s mentor Rowland Hazard. No change; no freedom. And, said Sam, “the ability to change people is the unique possession of religion. Compared with the amount of regeneration achieved by merely human effort and influence, it is infinite.” “Christianity,” said Sam, “insists that something beautiful will bloom in the sunshine of God… God has a great spiritual experience and destiny to which He calls you.” In this chapter, Sam lays out his view of A.A.’s solution in conversion–a spiritual experience. He says: “We are told that conversion is “gradual or sudden.’… We must open ourselves to Him [God], and be prepared to accept all that it will mean to be a child of God. … Surrender of the whole self to God means the complete dedication, by deliberate act of the will, of one’s entire personality to doing the will of God so far as one can discover it.” And here Sam points to the “Thy will be done” idea that still permeates the language in A.A.’s Big Book. This can only be done, believed Sam, by breaking finally with sin, cleansing ourselves through the grace of God from top to bottom, and surrendering ourselves to God. “You and God are reconciled the moment you surrender. You know it. The shackles fall away. Self recedes, God looms up. Self-will seems the blackest sin of all, rebellion against God the only hell… By power from above, you are “unified, consciously right, superior, and happy’ [quoting William James].” This conversion is the necessity. Sam wrote that “the real witness of the Spirit to the second birth is to be found only in the disposition of the genuine child of God, the permanently patient heart, the love of self eradicated.” And you can hear the A.A. words: “Selfishness, self-centeredness… the root of our problems.”

Chapter Four: Brace yourself for Jesus. He was not missing from Bill Wilson’ s teaching at the hands of Shoemaker. This chapter is titled “The Way Jesus Christ Helps.” And I am reminded of the reminiscences of Parks Shipley, an early Oxford Group worker and friend of Sam Shoemaker’s.” Parks was present when Shoemaker in full vestment marched with members of the Calvary Church congregation to Madison Square to give witness. Sam, Parks, and William Griffith Wilson were in the march. And there was the sign in the procession of which procession and sign I have a photo. It read “Jesus Christ changes lives.” And I’ll leave the contents of that chapter to you! But Jesus Christ was as essential to Sam’s “program” as acceptance of Jesus Christ as Savior was in the early A.A. program!

Chapter Five: In this chapter, Sam points to the “continuance” ideas that became codified in A.A.’s last three Steps. What do you do after conversion! To use Dr. Bob’s terminology, you adopt and try to live “love and service.” Sam concludes this chapter: “Do we look for the day–would we welcome it–when the Golden Rule shall be taken for granted as to common honesty is now, and we shall find our happiness incomplete without the happiness of all mankind?” Recall that both Bill and Dr. Bob stated often that the Sermon on the Mount (which, of course, includes the “Golden Rule”) contained the underlying philosophy of A.A.

Chapter Six: Sam doesn’t leave the change with a rebirth and good works. He talks, in this chapter, of the same spiritual growth that was necessarily involved in A.A.’s early 11th Step practices–Bible study, prayer, seeking God’s voice, confessing and forgiving, and observing the “Morning Watch.” And, as early AAs themselves did, Sam puts in a plug for the Church as part of the growth process.

Chapter Seven: “Wanted-Witnesses” is the subject of the last chapter. And here comes the ever-recurring theme of First Century Christianity, of the Oxford Group, of Sam, and of A.A. itself–Pass it on! “You have to give it away to keep it,” was a common statement by Sam. You must help others to find Christ and do it by talking to people. Here’s what Sam said: “Christianity is running at second speed when it is not a positive evangelizing force, in a land or in a life.” Sam mentions the “Five C’s” of “Soul Surgery” which were the trademark of Frank Buchman’s life-changing program and became the heart of A.A.’s life-changing practices–Confidence, Confession, Conviction, Conversion, Continuance. And Sam defines them all–a lesson to be learned by those who try to create their own version of what A.A. was about in its pioneer days. Sam ends with a plea from 1 Thessalonians 2:8: We should give “not the gospel of God only, but also our own souls.” A challenge for every Twelve-Stepper today!