The New “Conference-Approved” Face on A.A. Big Book 1st Ed. Personal Stories

A.A. General Service Conference-Approved Literature
That Frequently Mentions the Bible and God
(Yep! You Read That Correctly!)

A Four-Part Discussion of the Long-Overlooked Big Book Personal Stories

Part One

Experience, Strength and Hope:
Stories from the First Three Editions of Alcoholics Anonymous
(New York, NY: Alcoholics Anonymous World, Inc., 2003)
[http://goo.gl/IPy87]

By Dick B.
© 2012 Anonymous. All rights reserved

Protests by the Hundreds and Hundreds

“You can’t talk about Jesus or the Bible in A.A. meetings!” “You can’t read from The Good Book and the Big Book: A.A.’s Roots in the Bible by Dick B. here!” “You can’t put Alcoholics Anonymous: The Original 1939 Edition with an Introduction by Dick B. (Dover Publications, 2011) on the table in this meeting!” “You can’t read or sell here Stick with the Winners! How to Conduct More Effective 12-Step Meetings Using Conference-Approved Literature by Dick B. and Ken B. (2012) because it’s not ‘Conference-approved!’” “Furthermore, it’s a ‘violation’ of the Twelve Traditions!”

For many years in meetings, this or that AA has winced and sometimes shouted reproof when someone mentioned the Bible, talked about Jesus Christ, or read from some literature that early AAs read. Sometimes it was about verses from the Bible. That happened to me when I read from the Book of James to an audience of at least 800 AAs at a meeting in which Dr. Bob’s son, the principal author of ‘Pass It On,’ and an Oxford Grouper were also speakers. Nobody left the meeting. But secretive, indirect phone calls from my grand-sponsor and sponsor started arriving as soon as that conference was over. Secretive, but clearly intended to intimidate. However, they failed.

Then there was the claim that anything in A.A. before Alcoholics Anonymous (the Big Book) was published on April 10, 1939, was not really A.A. Also the claim that the original Akron A.A. “Christian fellowship” founded by Bill W. and Dr. Bob in 1935 was “pre-A.A.” You can still find that distortion floating around on websites today. And, since the first edition of the Big Book had not been copyrighted properly by the A.A. hierarchy, it too fell under the condemnation of being “not ‘Conference-approved.’” So for many years the view had been heard and passed along that, if Bill W. hadn’t said it and copyrighted it and received royalties from it, it somehow should not be touched, used, or approved in an A.A. meeting.

This attempted suppression—the early A.A. program blackout—was often excused by calling the early A.A. practices and principles the “flying blind” period or the “trial and error” period. Or through the use of other denigrating labels even though the practices were launched and used by A.A.’s cofounders, Bill W. and Dr. Bob, themselves. And sadly, labels like “flying blind” and similar phrases can still be found in A.A. General Service Conference-approved literature today.

Finally!

As I began my research into the biblical origins of Alcoholics Anonymous shortly before A.A.’s International Convention in Seattle in 1990, and began to publish my work beginning in 1991, the shackles began to fall. The doors began to open. Particularly with the publication of my title The Good Book and the Big Book: A.A.’s Roots in the Bible. Then other literature began to appear—much of it not published by Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Inc. Finally A.A. itself stepped in with its publication of Experience, Strength and Hope: Stories from the First Three Editions of Alcoholics Anonymous (New York, NY: Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Inc., 2003). And the copyright page states: “This is A.A. General Service Conference-approved literature.”

There were caveats—warnings—in the introductory portions of Experience, Strength and Hope. But pages ix-x did say:

The importance of these personal stories cannot be overstated. Co-founder Bill W. articulated it in a 1954 letter: “The story section of the Big Book is far more important than most of us think. . . . [I]t is the written equivalent of hearing speakers at an A.A. meeting; it is our show window of results. . . . Thus in the pages that follow, you will meet a large number and variety of A.A.’s from earlier times, whose stories are no longer part of our basic text, but are most emphatically part of our common experience.

However!

Page xi said,

As a collection, therefore, they greatly enrich our knowledge of “what we used to be like” as a Fellowship. Most of the A.A. writers got sober before the Twelve Traditions had been adopted, many of them in that chaotic period when A.A. was flying blind and learning from its many mistakes. (emphasis added)

Do you, as an intelligent reader, think the personal stories in the first edition were merely a “collection” of writings from bygone days in a period when early AAs nonetheless called themselves a “Christian fellowship;” were likened to First Century Christianity; were—for much of the time before Alcoholics Anonymous was published in April 1939—part of “A First Century Christian Fellowship” (also known as “The Oxford Group”); were studying the Bible daily; were having old-fashioned prayer meetings daily; were observing Quiet Time daily; were using Christian devotionals daily; were reading Christian literature daily; were witnessing daily; and were insisting that newcomers believe in God and come to Him through His Son Jesus Christ by accepting Jesus as their Lord and Savior?

If so, then how does a reader explain the fact that the fourth edition of the Big Book states on page 29:

Each individual, in the personal stories, describes in his own language and from his own point of view the way he established his relationship with God.

Was that just an antiquated explanation or a collection of “flying blind” or “trial and error” thoughts about “[t]he central fact of our lives today,” which was “that our Creator has entered into our hearts and lives in a way which is indeed miraculous.” (fourth edition, p. 25). Were that the case, both the book and the stories would be useless. Not!

Was this just what “we used to be like?”

Did the Twelve Traditions somehow trump or supersede God, His Son Jesus Christ, the Bible, prayer, and Quiet Time?

Were the daily Akron fellowship meetings in Dr. Bob’s home and other homes, and those at T. Henry‘s Wednesday night meetings nothing more than pointlessly “chaotic?”

Did the sober teachers of AAs individually and at the meetings—e.g., Anne Ripley Smith, Henrietta Buckler Seiberling, T. Henry Williams, Clarace Williams, Rev. Samuel M. Shoemaker, Jr., Rev. W. Irving Harris, and Dr. Frank N.D. Buchman—merely “fly blind” and make “many mistakes?”

That’s not how Bill Wilson explained the God-given results surveyed in November 1937. In an article written as a memorial tribute to Dr. Bob in January 1951, and published in The Language of the Heart, Bill is quoted at page 359 as follows:

In that fall of 1937 Bob and I counted forty cases who had significant dry time—maybe forty years for the whole lot of them! Our eyes glistened. Enough time had elapsed on enough cases to spell out something quite new, perhaps something great indeed. Suddenly the ceiling went up. We no longer flew blind. A beacon had been lighted. God had shown alcoholics how it might be passed from hand to hand. Never shall I forget that great and humbling hour of realization shared with Dr. Bob. (emphasis added).

Later, in Alcoholics Comes of Age, age page 26, Bill discussed the same event and illustrated to Whom thanks were given for the successes. Bill wrote:

There had been failures galore, but now we could see some startling successes too. A hard core of very grim, last gasp cases had by then been sober a couple of years, an unheard of development. There twenty or more such people. All told we figured that upwards of forty alcoholics were staying bone dry. As we carefully rechecked this score, it suddenly burst upon us that a new light was shining into the dark world of the alcoholic. . . . What a tremendous realization that was. At last we were sure. There would be no more flying totally blind. We actually wept for joy, and Bob and Anne and I bowed our heads in silent thanks. (emphasis added).

Were Bill and Bob and Bob’s wife Anne bowing their heads in thanks for mistakes, for errors, for blindness? No! Was it a humbling time because of their alleged blindness or were they humbly attributing the success to God and His guidance!

A few verses from the Book of James—the favorite of all three (Bill, Bob, and Anne)—suggest quite clearly the reason for the humility and the thanks to God for deliverance. They were attributing the light, the guidance, and the victory to God! The verses say:

Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.
Draw nigh to God, and he will draw nigh to you. . . .
Humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord, and he shall lift you up. (Jam 4:7, 8, 10)

Do you really believe that, collectively, the teachers and students who were at it daily–reading the Bible, praying, and asking God for guidance–were frittering away their hard service to God and to others in a riotous “chaotic” program of far less importance and value than the often vulgar, “relationship-questing,” and mindless chatter of uninstructed, diverse “meeting makers” today?

Or are drunks, drunks? Were drunks, drunks? Are addicts, addicts? Were addicts, addicts? Were and are they just suffering people who have acknowledged their unmanageable lives and cannot help themselves or be helped by other human beings? Were they merely sick people blindly trying this and that as God watched them fail even as they sought Him and believed He could and would help? No they weren’t! All were Christians with a knowledge of God’s Word who thoroughly followed a path of prayer, Bible study, Quiet time, and service. And the ones who thoroughly followed that path “rarely failed.”

What do the first, the second, the third, or the fourth editions of Alcoholics Anonymous tell us. They show—particularly the personal stories of the first edition—that he who turns to God for help, who prays effectively as a righteous person, and who endeavors to learn and obey God’s will as laid out in the Bible is someone who rarely will fail. Human “mistakes” and the shortcomings of the afflicted can scarcely be compared in effectiveness with the truth of the Bible that early AAs studied daily and which “made” them free!

Yet the Opinions Continued

Page 2 of Experience, Strength and Hope says:

The stories that follow, reprinted from the first edition, take us back to the “trial and error” days, . . . They were still a little unsure and afraid of this “thing” they had found [God is not a “thing” to be “found.” He is the creator of the heavens and the earth who is to be sought and obeyed], still groping for clear guidelines, still largely “uneducated about their alcoholism.” (emphasis added)

[Note the “trial and error,” “thing,” “groping,” “guidelines,” and “uneducated” words. These, while the subsequently-published Big Book spoke—not of trial and error, not of finding a “thing”—but of finding God. The Big Book did not use such mischaracterizing words as “groping,” unclear “guidelines,” and “uneducated.” The first edition personal stories were not talking about uneducated groping or fuzzy “guidelines.” They talked of a program where guidance was sought directly from God and also from His Word, the Bible.]

Much of the terminology is strange to us: they wrote of “former alcoholics,” described their recovery as a “cure,” and referred to alcohol in such terms as “John Barleycorn.”

[Once again, the language of the Big Book itself, on page 191 of its latest edition, still carries the statement of A.A. cofounder Bill Wilson himself (reiterated and commented upon by “A.A. Number Three,” Bill D.):

“Henrietta, the Lord has been so wonderful to me, curing me of this terrible disease, that I just want to keep talking about it and telling people.”

And did not that “cure”—so plainly and simply described—truly make all three of the first alcoholics “former alcoholics?”]

Just the Facts, Please!

Page 3 of Experience, Strength and Hope recants slightly. It says:

. . . [T]he differences between the stories we hear today and those written in 1939 are not important. These writers were alcoholics, and their experience rings true to any A.A. member of any time or place.

Who, among the Pioneers, Was Doing the Investigating, Teaching, and Writing?

Dr. Bob and Bill W.’s Many Mentors Deserve the First Mention

Dr. Bob was teacher, learner, and leader! He had graduated from St. Johnsbury Academy; graduated from Dartmouth; and attended the following medical schools—University of Michigan; Rush Medical College; Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota; and Jefferson Medical School in Philadelphia> He had also been awarded a highly coveted internship at City Hospital in Akron. Moreover, he was thoroughly trained in the Bible by his father, a judge and Academy examiner; by his mother, a state library commissioner, Academy teacher, and writer; by YMCA workers and Academy teachers; and by Congregational pastors, teachers, and deacons. He was hardly an “uneducated” groper!

Dr. Bob was educated in his Christian home, church, Sunday school, and prayer meetings. He was active in the very demanding and serious Young People’s Society of Christian Endeavor. He attended the required daily chapel at St. Johnsbury Academy with its sermons, prayers, hymns, and Scripture reading. He also attended the required weekly Bible studies and church services while in St. Johnsbury Academy.

Dr. Bob said plainly and boldly in his last major talk quoted in the A.A. General Service Conference-approved pamphlet, The Co-Founders of Alcoholics Anonymous (P-53):

I had refreshed my memory of the Good Book, and I had had excellent training in that as a youngster. (pp. 11-12)

And his ready and constant references to the Bible in early A.A. bespeak that training—something that Bill W. applauded more than once. And then, in preparation for sobriety sought first with Oxford Group friends, he read the Bible from cover to cover three times. (See DR. BOB and the Good Oldtimers, 310.) He also made of a habit of reading a wide variety of books. He estimated that he had read on average an hour a day for many years.

Anne Ripley Smith, Bob’s wife, was a graduate of Wellesley and had been a teacher.

Henrietta Buckler Seiberling was a graduate of Vassar, and was an avid Bible student and reader.

T. Henry Williams was a brilliant and successful inventor, and a former Sunday school teacher.

Clarace Williams had extensive Baptist training to prepare her to be a missionary.

Dr. William D. Silkworth was considered the leading authority on alcoholism in the United States at that time.

The long-dead Professor William James and the Swiss psychiatrist Dr. Carl Jung were considered tops in the areas where their work and studies had contributed ideas.

Rev. Samuel M. Shoemaker, Jr., was a graduate of Princeton; a YMCA leader; and an author of more than 30 books, and countless articles and sermons. He also held many prestigious positions in the Episcopal Church.

Frank Amos, who investigated the Akron program for the Rockefeller group, was hardly “flying blind” when he visited Akron, spent several days interviewing participants in and observers of the Akron “Christian fellowship,” specifically summarized their program in seven points, and specifically described their successes. And the Rockefeller people—top executives and religious leaders–who met with the early AAs were elated to find that theirs was “First Century Christianity at work.” All the Rockefellers were devoted Christian readers and spokespeople—not just “uneducated,” “trial and error” bystanders.

Bill Wilson Himself

Somehow, in 2003–with Bill W., Dr. Bob, and most if not all of the other early AAs, dead and gone—the writer(s) of the A.A. General Service Conference-approved publication Experience, Strength and Hope felt it appropriate to assert on page two that A.A.’s cofounders and other early pioneers

were still a little unsure and afraid of this “thing” they had found, still groping for clear guidelines, still largely uneducated about their alcoholism.

In a sense, the Johnny-come-lately editors in 2003 were rejecting and disparaging the very education and religious training that had characterized the leadership of Bill Wilson, and of Dr. Bob before him.

Bill W. was trained in East Dorset, Vermont, by his well-educated and successful paternal grandfather Fayette Griffith; and by the pastor and people at East Dorset Congregational Church. In Manchester, Vermont, he was trained by the ministers, teachers, and lay Congregationalists at Burr and Burton Seminary. In Northfield, Vermont, he was trained by a similar group at Norwich Military Academy. And in New York, he was trained by his Oxford Group friends—Ebby Thacher, Rowland Hazard, Shep Cornell, and Cebra Graves, all of whom had Christian upbringings and/or training.

Bill’s writing capability and written words alone marked him as a man who was hardly “flying blind,” tinkering with “trial and error” methods, and “uneducated” as to the medical and religious aspects of the program that he heard and learned about frequently from his friends and mentors, Dr. William D. Silkworth, Rev. Samuel M. Shoemaker, Jr., Rev. W. Irving Harris, Dr. Frank Buchman, and Dr. Norman Vincent Peale.

The Explanatory First Edition Tool Just Published by Dover Publications

Shortly, we will review the specifics of the first edition of Alcoholics Anonymous. We will discuss how the personal stories in the first edition actually explain the original Akron “Christian fellowship” program, and boldly talk of God, His Son Jesus Christ, and the Bible. Ironically, because there was not a Big Book and were no Twelve Steps until Alcoholics Anonymous was published in April 1939, the writers of the personal stories were not even talking about the program Bill had just extracted largely from Rev. Sam Shoemaker and embodied in the language that preceded the personal stories.

More important, perhaps, in Part Two of this four-part series of articles, we will review the purpose, contents, and conclusions found in the Introduction to the recently-published book by Dover Publications: Alcoholics Anonymous: The Original 1939 Edition, with a new Introduction by Dick B. (Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 2011).

Gloria Deo

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About mauihistorian

Uses pen name Dick B.: Writer, Historian, Retired attorney, Bible student, CDAAC, and active and recovered A.A. member with over 25 years of continuous sobriety. Published 42 titles and over 650 articles on the history of Alcoholics Anonymous and the Christian Recovery Movement. www.dickb.com
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