Alcoholics Anonymous and
Its Real Oxford Group Connection
22 Years of Research, Investigation, and Reports
By Dick B.
Copyright 2012 Anonymous. All rights reserved
The Oxford Group and Our Other Alcoholics Anonymous Sources
The Oxford Group is not the only source of A.A.’s principles, practices, and language. The Bible is the major source. Quiet Time, the teachings of Reverend Sam Shoemaker, the materials in Anne Smith’s Journal, and the Christian literature A.A. pioneers read are all of major significance. And we have written at length on them elsewhere in books, articles, and seminars. Moreover, one needs to note the difference between A.A.’s Akron root (where A.A. was born) and A.A.’s New York origins (where Bill Wilson received and later incorporated into the Big Book many specific Oxford Group ideas). Both Akron and New York alcoholics were conversant with the Oxford Group, but not all looked at it in the same way. Dr. Bob saw it as a source of ideas. Bill Wilson tended to see it as a program that led to a relationship with God. The real picture, the real connection, and the real facts lie in between.
A.A. is not the Oxford Group. And, most assuredly, the Oxford Group is not A.A. In fact, the development of the Oxford Group since publication of the Big Book has taken Oxford Group activities to a totally different place than it took A.A. in the period about 1938, just before the Big Book was written.
How, then, can you describe the real Oxford Group Connection of Alcoholics Anonymous?
Unfortunately, the heart of the ideas was partially expunged in part by the editorial work of Father John C. Ford and Father Ed Dowling on A.A. Comes of Age and in Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions. It has been clouded by ever-recurring and erroneous statements linking the Oxford Group to the Nazi Party in Germany. It has been clouded through Bill Wilson’s insistent accreditation of Rev. Sam Shoemaker with the mantle of “American Leader of the Oxford” and as the “well-spring” of A.A.’s ideas and steps. Almost no one quotes an early, leading, Oxford Group leader and writer’s statement: “The principles of the Oxford Group are the principles of the Bible” (Day, The Principles of the Group, p. 1). Yet one can, as I have, read the hundreds of Oxford Group books, pamphlets and articles; and he will see the Bible quoted or mentioned at every turn. In fact, Oxford Group founder Dr. Frank Buchman engaged the Bible teacher Mary Angevine to teach Oxford Groupers more of the specifics of the Bible. Finally, the real Oxford Group connection has been virtually discarded in A.A. literature and meetings, along with the Bible, Quiet Time, Sam Shoemaker, Anne Smith’s Journal, and the literature early AAs read.
Fortunately, the last 22 years of research and the accumulation of some 23,900 historical items, including hundreds of Oxford Group and Shoemaker books, has enabled accurate evaluation of what the thousands of Oxford Group-Shoemaker group were really trying to say and do between 1919 and 1939. Now these priceless historical treasures are available for all to see and accessible to those who want to see them. The great bulk of the Oxford Group materials was donated by several of my benefactors to the Griffith Library at the Wilson House in East Dorset, Vermont. Please go there, stay in the charming, family atmosphere of the Wilson House, cross the green to the Griffith Library, and spend all the time you wish studying the facts now reposing in the treasures at East Dorset, Vermont. Also, after my son and I had devoted hours and hours to getting the Reverend Sam Shoemaker role in perspective, we gathered materials from Shoemaker’s daughters, from Shoemaker’s churches in Pittsburgh and New York, from the Hartford Seminary, from the Princeton Alumni records, from dozens of Shoemaker books, sermons, and articles, and from the Shoemaker papers (52 boxes in all) located at the Episcopal Church Archives in Austin, Texas. Then—thanks to the generous expenditure of time by Ray Grumney, archivist at Dr. Bob’s Home in Akron; the long support and effort of Dr. Karen Plavan of Pittsburgh; and the gracious approval of Dr. Harold Lewis, Rector of Calvary Church in Pittsburgh, the relevant Shoemaker—Alcoholics Anonymous books and papers are now located in the Shoemaker Room at Calvary Episcopal Church in Pittsburgh. In short, these two massive collections have made microscopic looks at Oxford Group ideas and Alcoholics Anonymous codifications of those ideas a reality–yet still virtually unknown to most today. Jump on this opportunity. Get facts, not opinions!
We’ve covered most specific details in our titles The Oxford Group and Alcoholics Anonymous: A Design for Living That Works (http://www.dickb.com/Oxford.shtml),; New Light on Alcoholism: God, Sam Shoemaker, and A.A. (http://www.dickb.com/newlight.shtml),; and Turning Point: A History of the Spiritual Roots of Alcoholics Anonymous (http://www.dickb.com/Turning.shtml); and in other works such as By the Power of God. See (http://www.dickb.com/titles.shtml).
The Important Oxford Group In-put Time Line
There was no “Oxford Group” prior to 1919. Shortly thereafter, it adopted the name “A First Century Christian Fellowship”—a name that appears frequently in the literature from about 1933 to 1938. There was no “Oxford Group” prior to the time the press gave a tiny group of travelers in Africa the Oxford “group” name in 1928. And basically, there was no “Oxford Group” in America, at least, after 1938 when the idea and name “Moral Re-Armament” were embraced by Oxford Group founder Dr. Frank N.D. Buchman, just prior to the beginning of World War II. Finally, the name in America has now been changed to “Initiatives for Change.” And you will look long and hard to find any resemblance between today’s activities (which often involve a Roman Catholic Cardinal, the Jewish Rabbi of London, the Dalai Lama, and a supportive Japanese business executive, who has no connection with Christianity whatever). Many of the ideas which formed the heart of the Oxford Group’s life-changing program came from Young Men’s Christian Association leaders, from evangelists like Dwight L. Moody, from Professors like Henry Drummond and Henry B. Wright, and fromChristian evangelism, revivalism, and writings which achieved wide-spread importance and acceptance in the late 1800’s. They are seldom mentioned among activists in today’s Moral Re-Armament program. Perhaps the one remnant is an occasional reference to one or all of the “Four Absolutes” or “Four Standards”–honesty, purity, unselfishness, and love. These “standards” were framed in the late 1800’s by Dr. Robert E. Speer in his book The Principles of Jesus. They were renamed the “absolutes” by Professor Henry B. Wright–embraced and expanded by Frank Buchman’s major mentor, Dr. Henry Wright, in the early 1900’s in his book The Will of God and a Man’s Life Work.
It probably would be quite accurate to say this of the “Real Oxford Group Connection” to Alcoholics Anonymous and Alcoholics Anonymous History. Nobody invented it. The real Oxford Group connection was spawned and borrowed from many sources. It developed over a period of some twenty years. It is embodied in a number of titles, with different subjects, different approaches, and different authors. In fact, this is what Bill Wilson often said of A.A. itself. Nobody invented it. It was borrowed from many sources. And–what should be said of the Oxford Group and Alcoholics Anonymous–is that the basic ideas came from the Bible. Oxford Group Founder Dr. Frank Buchman was described as being “soaked in the Bible.” American Oxford Group chief lieutenant Rev. Samuel Shoemaker, Jr., was called by his associates a “Bible Christian. And, just as Dr. Bob frequently stated, the basic ideas of Alcoholics Anonymous and its Twelve Steps came from the studies and efforts with the Bible between 1935 and 1938. A fact that Bill Wilson never disputed or rejected.
Major Published Oxford Group Works
We have covered these before. They are listed at great length in The Books Early AAs Read for Spiritual Growth, 7th. ed. (http://www.dickb.com/bks_early.shtml), and Making Known the Biblical Roots of Alcoholics Anonymous (http://www.dickb.com/makingknown.shtml). We assembled many more than 500 important Oxford Group titles here in Maui at our Resource Center. And, then, as stated, they were sent in large part to the Griffith Library. But in this piece we will just summarize those which will provide the reader with some solid chewing, information, and documentation! And by the way, that’s the reason for all the footnotes, bibliographies, and appendices in my books. So you can look and find out for yourself.
Important Early Sources for Principal Oxford Group Ideas–acknowledged its Leaders
I like Streams, which was published by Mark O. Guldseth in 1982. The book has a real feel for the flow of sources from people like Horace Bushnell, Henry Drummond, F.B. Meyer, Dwight L. Moody, Robert E.. Speer, and Henry B. Wright into the thinking of Frank Buchman and the writings of Oxford Group people. To mention just a part of their contribution, these sources from the 1800’s contributed a widely known flow of ideas, including (1) The Will of God. (2) The inspired Word in the Bible. (3) The guidance of God. (4) The principles of Jesus, as summarized in the “Four Standards.” (5) The major importance of “sin” as a barrier to a relationship with our Creator. (6) The “art” of life-changing involved in the well-known principles of “Confidence,” “Confession,” “Conviction,” “Conversion,” and “Continuance.” You can still hear all these biblical principles discussed, in one form or another, on any Billy Graham Crusade, in A.A.’s last three steps, in the Books of Acts and Romans, and in the law respecting confidential communications, etc.
You can also find extensive discussion of the Oxford Group-Alcoholics Anonymous writing about (7) Witnessing. (8) Fellowship. (9) Amends and restitution. You can find these ideas in Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount and the Old Testament, in other teachings of Jesus, and certainly in the Book of Acts. You can find them discussed in a court of equity. You can find them in the criminal justice system. (10) The Ten Commandments. (11) The love of God and of others, including our enemies. (12) Searching the Scriptures, praying, meditating on the Word, and setting aside a “Quiet Time” or “Morning Watch.” (13) Accepting Jesus Christ as one’s Lord and Savior–a much discarded, but primary and required element in early Alcoholics Anonymous Christian Fellowship practices See John 3:1-8; John 3:16; Romans 10:9.
In sum, Frank Buchman and Sam Shoemaker and Bill Wilson never claimed to have invented the foregoing principles that found their way to early A.A. As Wilson said, they were the common property of mankind. And they sure weren’t something that was “distorted” or “poisoned” by the Oxford Group. Just read the Bible. Read any of the non-Oxford Group books Dr. Bob read and recommended. See Dr. Bob and His Library (http://www.dickb.com/drbob.shtml).
Read the pamphlets published by early Akron A.A. And read the speeches of Dr. Bob and Bill Wilson when they were on the same platform at the Shrine Auditorium not long before Dr. Bob died.
Opponents of this or that religion, church, religious idea, or religious book so often try to place their target in a box. Then they label it. Then they condemn it. Often just because it doesn’t fit their “box.” But they frequently have never mastered the facts about the target—Alcoholics Anonymous and its historical connection to the Oxford Group. Half truths, biased summaries, and basic prejudices lead away from God, the Bible, and the truth, rather than toward it–when it comes to so much “history,” including that about early A.A.’s biblical roots, and those of the Oxford Group.
Some Major Contributing Oxford Group Literature in its AA Input Era (1919 to 1939)
Soul Surgery: In my judgment, the first “real” Oxford Group book was Soul-Surgery, published in 1919. It was intended to be the collaborative work of H.A. Walter, of Buchman’s mentor Henry B. Wright, and of Frank Buchman himself. It set forth a life-changing program–the so-called Five C’s–that Frank Buchman called “God’s art” for cutting out sin and “opening the way” to a relationship with God. The practice meant working in Confidence, Confessing sins, and becoming Convicted of them. Then, getting rid of them throug Conversion–an experience of God. And finally Continuing to practice the changed life. All of these ideas directly influenced Bill Wilson’s Twelve Steps.
Rev. Sam Shoemaker’s Writings: Often ignored are the powerful, articulate, and simple early writings of Rev. Samuel M. Shoemaker, Jr., There are many, and they are covered in my various bibliographies. They are virtually reviewed in my title New Light on Alcoholism. They include Realizing Religion, Religion That Works, Confident Faith, How to Find God, If I Be Lifted Up, The Conversion of the Church, National Awakening, The Church Can Save the World, and A First Century Christian Fellowship. Those who focus too much on the “Oxford Group” tend to ignore the immense personal influence that Shoemaker had as a member of the Oxford Group, as a personal friend of Bill Wilson, and as one that Bill called a “Co-founder” of A.A. and actually asked (at first) to write the Twelve Steps themselves–steps in which Dr. Bob played no part at all as to the writing stage.
The Life-changing books Anne Smith and Dr. Bob recommended: Begbie’s Twice-Born Men and Life-Changers; Foot’s Life Began Yesterday; Shoemaker’s Twice-Born Ministers; and Russell’s For Sinners Only. There were others of less popularity: Kitchen’s I Was a Pagan; Charles Clapp’s The Big Bender; and Amelia Reynold’s New Lives for Old..
“Doctrinal” Descriptions of Various Principles: Almond’s Foundations for Faith; Sherwood Day’s The Principles of the Group; Julian Thornton-Duesbury’s Sharing; Philip Marshall Brown’s The Venture of Belief; the anonymous What is the Oxford Group; Harris’s The Breeze of the Spirit; Weatherhead’s Discipleship; Benson’s The Eight Points of the Oxford Group; Leon’s The Philosophy of Courage; Phillimore’s Just for Today; and Winslow’s Why I Believe in the Oxford Group.
The Bible study, Prayer, and Guidance literature: Donald Carruthers’s How to Find Reality in Your Morning Devotions; Oswald Chambers’s My Utmost for His Highest; Harry Emerson Fosdick’s The Meaning of Prayer; Nora Smith Holm’s The Runner’s Bible; E. Stanley Jones’s Victorious Living; Eleanor Forde’s The Guidance of God; H. Rose’s The Quiet Time; Cecil Rose’s When Man Listens; Sangster’s God Does Guide Us; Streeter’s The God Who Speaks; The Upper Room; Hadden’s Christ’s Program for World-Reconstruction: Studies in the Sermon on the Mount; Harris’s An Outline of the Life of Christ; Hicks’s How to Read the Bible; Viney’s How Do I Begin?; and Winslow’s Vital Touch with God and When I Awake; and Tileston’s Daily Strength for Daily Needs
Biographical: Bunny Austin’s Frank Buchman as I Knew Him; Frank Buchman’s Remaking the World; Peter Howard’s Frank Buchman’s Secret and That Man Frank Buchman; Willard Hunter’s World Changing through Life-changing; Garth Lean’s On the Tail of a Comet; Theophil Spoerri’s Dynamic out of Silence; and Thornhill’s The Significance of the Life of Frank Buchman.
Recent accounts by oldtimers: Belden’s Beyond the Satellites: Is God Speaking–Are we Listening; Blake’s Way to Go; Harriman’s Matched Pair; Lean’s Cast out your Nets; Martin’s Always a Little Further; Mowat’s Modern Prophetic Voices; and Twitchell’s Frank Buchman: Twentieth Century Catalyst. These and all the foregoing are carefully cited with full publishing details in my book, Making Known the Biblical Roots of Alcoholics Anonymous.
Some criticisms: Brown’s The Oxford Movement: Is it of God or of Satan; Dinger’s Moral Re-Armament: A Study of Its Technical and Religious Nature in the Light of Catholic Teaching; Hensley’s The Oxford Groups; Niebuhr’s Christianity and Power Politics; Van Baalen’s The Chaos of Cults; and Williamson’s Inside Buchmanism.
You don’t have to like the Oxford Group to learn about it. You don’t have to condemn it to disagree with it. And you don’t have to block it out of A.A.’s past to prevent people from believing in its ideas. But, if you want to understand A.A.’s Big Book, Steps, Slogans, and Fellowship, and history; and if you don’t want to make up your own understanding of the spiritual program early AAs developed, you’ll want to know the full, the fairly reported, and real facts about A.A.’s “real” Oxford Group connection. For our introduction, see http://www.dickb.com/index.shtml. If you are one of those folks, you’ll have to do a lot of reading and learning. You know what they say in A.A. about “opinions.” In fact, they used to say in the Oxford Group and in early A.A.: “Give me news, not views.” And I hope I have.
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- A.A.’s Christian Predecessors
- Recovery News Release for 2015
- Bill W.’s mention of “Christ” and “the Master” in a letter he wrote in 1940, quoted on page 114 of “As Bill Sees It”
- The Resurgent Applications in Recovery Today of Book of James, Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount, 1 Corinthians 13
- “The Word-of-Mouth Program”/”Six Steps” of Bill W.
Dick B.'s son Ken on The Resurgent Applications in… mywordlikefire on The Resurgent Applications in… mauihistorian on The Resurgent Applications in… mywordlikefire on The Resurgent Applications in… mauihistorian on A.A., A.A. History, the Oxford…
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