Let’s Go to Early A.A.
Revised and Updated in July, 2012
By Dick B.
Copyright 2012. All rights reserved
Their Society’s Names and Varied Approaches
The phrase “early A.A.”—which I often now call “old school A.A.” — refers to the early fellowships and meetings held by AAs in Akron, Ohio, between 1935 and 1939. They called themselves a Christian Fellowship. They were frequently likened to First Century Christianity because so many of their principles and practices were similar to those of the Apostles as recorded in the Book of Acts.
Some called them the alcoholic squad. Some thought A.A. itself emerged from and was associated with “A First Century Christian Fellowship” (also known as the Oxford Group). Some said they were the “Alcoholic Squad of the Oxford Group.” Most later wanted to call their fellowship “The James Club”–so named for their favored Bible book, the Book of James. On the East Coast a few AAs were regularly attending Oxford Group meetings often led by the Reverend Sam Shoemaker, Rector of Calvary Episcopal Church in New York. Shortly thereafter (in 1939 and the early 1940’s), Cleveland AAs called their Fellowship “Alcoholics Anonymous,” naming it after A.A.’s newly published basic text Alcoholics Anonymous. Their founder Clarence H. Snyder said that they took with them to Cleveland “most of the old program” plus the Big Book, the Twelve Steps, the Oxford Group’s Four Absolutes, and the Holy Bible. The Cleveland AAs quickly became the fastest growing group in America, emerged from one group to thirty in a year, And were actually recording a ninety-three percent success rate with alcoholics who really tried.
The First Three AAs – Christians All
Bill W. could be called A.A. Number One, and he became a Christian when he went to the altar at Calvary Rescue Mission in New York and accepted Jesus Christ as his Lord and Savior. Shortly, still drinking, he went to Towns Hospital deciding along the way that he had better call on Jesus for help (to whom he and many others referred as the “Great Physician”). Upon arrival Bill cried out to God for help, instantly experiencing a blazing and “indescribably white light” that filled his room. He sensed the presence of God. And he said to himself, Bill, you are a free man. This is the God of the Scriptures. And Bill never drank again.
Dr. Bob could be called A.A. Number Two, and he had been a devoted Christian since his boyhood days in St. Johnsbury, Vermont. He met with Bill W. after what he and others believed was an answer to his prayer for deliverance. The two men hit it off. And Bob declared that Bill had been cured by the very means he had been trying to employ, but he had never grasped or used the “service to others” technique which Bill had learned from his Oxford Group meetings in New York. In a short time, Dr. Bob had his last drink, and the two men set out to find another drunk to help.
A.A. Number Three, attorney Bill D., was the man they found. Bill had always believed in God, been a deacon in his church, and a Sunday school teacher. Bill W. and Dr. Bob told him he could be cured if he turned to God for help and then started helping others.
Each of the first three AAs recovered and was cured at a time when there were no Twelve Steps, no Twelve Traditions, no Big Books, no drunkalogs, and no meetings as we know them today. All three declared in writing that they had been cured of their malady. See Alcoholics Anonymous, 4th ed., pp. 179-181 and 191.
The Early A.A. Program the Pioneers Developed
Interestingly, all three of the original AAs believed in God, had accepted Christ, and had studied the Bible. Their own techniques were individually very simple: (1) Decide to quit drinking for good. (2) Turn to God for help. (3) Begin helping others in turn. But all three wanted to be able to pass the recovery idea along to others.
They drew on the early Christian techniques of their Christian forbears—the Great Evangelists like Dwight L. Moody; the Gospel Rescue Missions (where Bill himself had accepted Christ); the conversion meetings of Young Men’s Christian Association lay brethren (who converted a major portion of Dr. Bob’s boyhood village), the Salvation Army’s one-on-one outreach to derelicts with Salvation, a Bible, and a call to join what some called “God’s Army (as vividly portrayed in Harold Begbie’s popular book Twice-Born Men), and the intense meetings of the Young People’s Society of Christian Endeavor (in which Dr. Bob had been active as a youth)
Gradually, they developed their own types of daily meetings. They fellowshipped together daily, studied God’s Word daily, prayed together daily, sought God’s guidance daily, read daily Bible devotionals, led others to Christ, and broke bread together.
By November of 1937, a small group of forty pioneers had attained continuous sobriety, of both short and long duration. Bill and Bob concluded that God had shown them how the message could be passed along to others. And they claimed a 75% rate of success. This, in turn, caused Bill to seek and obtain authority to write a book about the program. And the program was investigated and then summarized by an agent of John D. Rockefeller, Jr.—Frank Amos. You can find that summary on page 131 of A.A.’s own DR. BOB and the Good Oldtimers. In The Dick B. Christian Recovery Guide, 4th ed., 2012, we have laid out some sixteen principles and practices that the pioneers used to implement the summarized program.
Some Key Features in the Old School A.A. Program
Unlike the circumstances today, recovery often began when a distraught wife would seek out A.A.’s co-founder Dr. Bob Smith in Akron with the desperate hope that he and what he called the “Christian Fellowship” could “fix” the seemingly errant alcoholic spouse.
As implied in A.A.’s textbook, there often followed a preliminary investigation with the alcoholic’s family of his behavior, background, religious leanings, and degree of alcoholic sickness. And the “pigeon” (as he was frequently called) was then usually hospitalized in Akron City Hospital in the earliest days. He was “defogged” in a process which involved tapering him off with paraldehyde and whiskey. He was allowed only the Holy Bible as reading matter in his hospital room. And Dr. Bob would visit the patient daily and also read the Bible with him.
Very soon, he was visited by a veritable army of recovered alcoholics who told him of their own drinking history and recovery. They told him that Dr. Bob had the answer to his problem, but the visiting drunks did not disclose this “answer.” Dr. Bob himself usually visited the newcomer daily, explaining to him the medical aspects of his alcoholism problem. Finally, after several days, Dr. Bob gave the man the “solution.” The patient was asked if he believed in God. And only one answer was acceptable if the man wished to get well. If the man responded that he did believe in God, he was told to get out of bed, get down on his knees, and surrender to God. This meant accepting Jesus Christ as his Lord and Savior. This was accompanied by a prayer led by Dr. Bob. And, having done this, the “pigeon” was discharged from the hospital, often given a Bible, and then told to find drunks to “fix.”
In the Midwest, the newcomer’s next move was frequently to a home–the home of Dr. Bob, Wally G., Tom L., and later, Clarence S. and others. In the East, drunks were housed in Bill Wilson’s home, but (as Bill and his wife said) not one ever got sober there through the year 1939. In fact, both Bill and his wife acknowledged that they had not succeeded in getting anyone to “stay sober” in Bill’s first six months of witnessing.
In the Midwest, the alcoholics lived Christian fellowship in a very spiritual atmosphere. If you look at what the Apostles are recorded as doing in the First Century, you will see the parallels between their principles and practices and those of the A.A. Akron Christian Fellowship. And more than one independent observer remarked, “Why this is First Century Christianity!”
Each morning, there was Quiet Time. And it was conducted by Dr. Bob’s wife, Anne Ripley Smith. It was attended by AAs and their families. Anne would begin the meeting with prayer, read from the Bible, lead the group in prayer, and then have the assemblage get quiet and seek God’s guidance. Anne also often shared from the journal she began in 1933 and continued to build through 1929. The groups and individuals also frequently used daily devotionals such as The Upper Room a Methodist Bible study quarterly. They also used The Runner’s Bible, by Nora Smith Holm; My Utmost for His Highest, by Oswald Chambers; Victorious Living, by E. Stanley Jones; and Daily Strength for Daily Needs. There was frequent discussion of every-day living problems in terms of the Bible’s applicability to their solution.
There was frequently counseling with Dr. Bob and his wife, Anne Ripley Smith. Daily reading of the Scriptures was stressed. Daily individual reading of devotionals such as The Upper Room and The Runner’s Bible, and many other Christian books of the day was much encouraged. One A.A. historian commented he felt the lives of A.A. pioneers and their families seemed to be one continuous meeting.
There were daily meetings, just as the First Century Christians fellowshipped together daily. Meetings themselves were not considered essential, but not daily. Quiet Time was. Once a week there was a “regular meeting.” Not actually like a typical Oxford Group meeting, it was even called a “clandestine lodge’ of the Oxford Group. Regular meetings were Oxford Group meetings, but not particularly in form and in substance because often the drunks would meet in one room, and the Oxford Group people in another. One day each week, a “setup” meeting was held. God’s guidance was sought through prayer and listening; and a leader for the regular meeting was chosen as was a topic for that meeting. The regular meetings were, in Akron, held on Wednesdays at the home of Oxford Group leaders T. Henry and Clarace Williams. The Williams couple had dedicated their home to God and, with their Oxford Group friends such as Henrietta Seiberling, were also dedicated to helping alcoholics recover. The meetings rarely if ever involved discussion of drinking or alcoholism. But they invariably involved surrenders for those new people who had not already surrendered to God at the hospital or at Dr. Bob’s home.
The “real surrender” was a must for newcomers. They were taken upstairs with two “elders” praying over them. They accepted Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior, asked God to take alcohol out of their lives, and strengthen them to live according to cardinal Christian principles.
There were frequent social gatherings, particularly on Saturday nights, providing support and comfort for the alcoholic and family members. Oxford Group literature was widely distributed in the Fellowship, and T. Henry had tables in his furnace room where Oxford Group and other Christian literature was available for the taking. Dr. Bob himself frequently loaned out Christian literature to the alcoholics and their families. He kept a journal of books he circulated; and he often questioned a borrower (when a book was returned) as to what that person had read and learned.
Descriptions of the content of the weekly fellowship meetings has varied. Variations seem based upon who was providing the account, who had led a particular meeting, and what particular time period in the early days was involved. But there were some common ingredients. Bill V. H. (who got sober in early 1937) estimated the proportion of Oxford Group to non-Oxford Group people in Akron at about 50-50. He recalled that Oxford Group literature was passed out. And he specifically remembered: “How we all challenged ourselves on the Four Absolutes of the Oxford Movement [sic].” Clarence S. (who got sober in early 1938) said the pioneers’ whole recovery program was based on the Bible and the Oxford Group. Wally G. (who got sober in late 1938) said: “T. Henry’s meetings ran more or less along Oxford Group lines. . . . Early meetings used Oxford Group terminology witnessing, stories, restitutions, shared confessions.” Dr. Bob’s children said the little group of recovering people formally met at the Oxford Group meetings but kept in constant communication with each other at get-togethers in their homes. Dr. Bob’s and Anne’s home was the hub. And there was also much colloquy by telephone.
Meetings opened with prayer and with reading from the Bible (or Scriptures mentioned in the Bible devotionals such as The Upper Room and My Utmost for His Highest). Sometimes discussion topics would be on a Bible subject, sometimes on a topic in the devotional, and occasionally on some other topic vital to the lives of those present. There was Quiet Time with prayer and listening for divine guidance. Frequently there was prayer in the meeting itself or during a surrender upstairs to meet a particular person’s needs. Dr. Bob kept the meeting focused on the newcomer, usually making an announcement on that topic. Arrangements were made to take a team to the hospital to see the newcomers still hospitalized. Meetings closed with the Lord’s Prayer in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (of which it was a part)—the Sermon itself being considered the basic spiritual philosophy of the Fellowship. Names, phone numbers, and addresses were exchanged. Social time followed. And, in the later days in Akron, members went to Kistler’s Donut Shop for sociality. They often broke bread together in the homes.
Whether done at the hospital, at Dr. Bob’s home, or at T. Henry’s, surrender was a requirement for every newcomer. This “surrender” meant surrender on your knees to Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior. Particularly at T. Henry’s, a new man was taken upstairs, was told to get on his knees, was prayed for by Dr. Bob and others, and then became born again through confession of Jesus Christ (See Romans 10:9). The man asked God to take alcohol out of his life; and there is evidence that this surrender process came from James 5:13-16.
Usually overlooked by A.A. histories has been the vital role played by Dr. Bob’s wife Anne Ripley Smith. Anne had been a teacher and was well-versed in the Bible. She was legendary in her kindness to, and work with, newcomers and their families. They often confided in her when they did not feel free to do so with Dr. Bob or others. Many regularly participated with Anne in Quiet Times lasting more than an hour early each morning at the Smith home. Anne often communicated with people by phone, and she always attended meetings. Possibly the most important single part of her work, however, involved the material she recorded in, and taught from, the spiritual journal she compiled between 1933 and 1939. In it, she had many comments on the Bible, Oxford Group principles, Christian literature to read, and most of the specific principles that wound up in the Twelve Steps. She staunchly recommended the Bible as the source book for daily reading. She also recommended reading on the life of Jesus Christ, Oxford Group life-changing stories, and other relevant Christian literature of the day. See Dick B., Anne Smith’s Journal 1933-1939 (www.dickb.com/annesm.shtml.)
Anne and Dr. Bob were fervent Bible students. So much so that when he was asked a question about the program, Dr. Bob would often ask the person, “What does the Good Book say?” Dr. Bob’s and Anne’s son said that in the early days the “God’s Big Book [the Bible]” was the reference book in the Smith home.
Bill Wilson called Anne Smith the “Mother of A.A.” and a “Founder.” And he dubbed Dr. Bob the “Prince of all Twelfth-steppers”–the AA cofounder who personally helped over 5,000 alcoholics without pay. The Akron A.A. team of Dr. Bob and Anne has never been equaled in personal, spiritual recovery outreach. It was truly the heart of A.A.’s spiritual beginnings.
Sources: Alcoholics Anonymous, 3rd ed., DR.BOB and the Good Oldtimers, The Co-Founders of Alcoholics Anonymous, The Akron Genesis of Alcoholics Anonymous, Anne Smith’s Spiritual Journal, That Amazing Grace, The Good Book and The Big Book, Turning Point: A History of Early A.A.’s Spiritual Roots and Successes, Children of the Healer; and two important resources by Dick B. and Ken B.. The Dick B. Christian Recovery Guide, 4th ed.; and “Stick with the Winners,” a 27 video class that can be accessed online.