Alcoholics Anonymous History: Where Did the Twelve Steps Come From

Alcoholics Anonymous History: Where the Twelve Steps Came From
Taking, Believing, and Understanding the Twelve Steps

Dick B.
© 2013 Anonymous. All rights reserved.

Why Take The Steps Before You Know What the A.A. Cofounders Said About Their Sources?

Both Bill Wilson and Dr. Bob Smith, the cofounders of A.A., spoke explicitly on where the 12 Steps came from. Considering the statements of each, they stated that the basic ideas came from: (1) the Bible; (2) Dr. William D. Silkworth; (3) Professor William James; and (4) Reverend Samuel M. Shoemaker, Jr.

As we will see in this article, that summary is not the whole story. Here’s what A.A.’s cofounders said:

Dr. Bob on the Basic Source Ideas

In his last major address to AAs, delivered in Detroit in 1948, A.A. cofounder Dr. Bob stated:

When we started in on Bill D., we had no Twelve Steps . . . we had no Traditions. But we were convinced that the answer to our problems was in the Good Book. To some of us older ones, the parts that we found absolutely essential were the Sermon on the Mount, the thirteenth chapter of First Corinthians, and the Book of James. [The Co-Founders of Alcoholics Anonymous: Biographical Sketches: Their Last Major Talks (NY: Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Inc., 1972, 1975), 13.]

It wasn’t until 1938 that the teachings and efforts and studies that had been going on were crystallized in the form of the Twelve Steps. I didn’t write the Twelve Steps. I had nothing to do with the writing of them. But I think I probably had something to do with them indirectly. . . . We already had the basic ideas, though not in terse and tangible form. We got them, as I said, as the result of our study of the Good Book. [The Co-Founders, 14.]

Bill W. on Thee Sources

In The Language of the Heart: Bill W.’s Grapevine Writings (NY: The A.A. Grapevine, Inc., 1988), A.A. cofounder Bill W. stated:

So, then, how did we first learn that alcoholism is such a fearful sickness as this? Who gave us this priceless piece of information on which the effectiveness of Step One of our program so much depends? Well, it came from my own doctor, “the little doctor who loved drunks,” William Duncan Silkworth. [p. 297]

Who, then, first told us about the utter necessity for such an awakening, for an experience that not only expels the alcohol obsession, but which also makes effective and truly real the practice of spiritual principles “in all our affairs”? Well, this life-giving idea came to us of AA through William James, the father of modern psychology. It came through his famous book, Varieties of Religious Experience. . . . William James also heavily emphasized the need for hitting bottom. Thus did he reinforce AA’s Step One, and so did he supply us with the spiritual essence of today’s Step Twelve. [pp. 297-98]

Having now accounted for AA’s Steps One and Twelve, it is natural that we should next ask, “Where did the early AAs find the material for the remaining ten Steps? Where did we learn about moral inventory, amends for harm done, turning our wills and lives over to God? Where did we learn about meditation and prayer and all the rest of it?” The spiritual substance of our remaining ten Steps came straight from Dr. Bob’s and my own earlier association with the Oxford Groups, as they were then led in America by that Episcopal rector, Dr. Samuel Shoemaker. [p. 298]

“The God of the Scriptures” Was the “Power Greater than Ourselves” to Which the Co-founders Turned

What God was Bill Wilson speaking of? In The Language of the Heart, Bill wrote at page 284:

And then the great thought burst upon me: “Bill, you are a free man: This is the God of the Scriptures.”

What God was Dr. Bob Smith speaking of? In Alcoholics Anonymous, 4th ed. (NY: Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Inc., 2001), Dr. Bob wrote at page 181:

Your Heavenly Father will never let you down!

In 1975, Harper & Row published Robert Thomsen’s biography of A.A. cofounder Bill Wilson under the title Bill W. – 50th Anniversary Edition – Commemorating the 1935 Meeting Between Bill W. and Dr. Bob that Launched Alcoholics Anonymous (NY: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1975). In that biography of Bill W., author Thomsen wrote:

Ever since he [Bill W.] and [Dr.] Bob had tried to shape a program, their ideas had been based on Oxford Group principles: first admitting they were powerless over alcohol, then making a moral inventory, confessing their shortcomings to another, making amends whenever possible, and finally praying for the power to carry out these concepts and to help other drunks. [p. 282]

The Additional Sources Upon Which Bill and Bob Drew

The difficulty with all these somewhat-conflicting statements is that the Twelve Steps themselves came from a much broader group of resources than any of the writers reported
Therefore, why categorize the four main Big Book-Step roots (Bible, Silkworth, James, and Shoemaker) without learning, understanding, and comparing the details about and influences of all the additional contributing sources of those roots?

There are three different types of roots of the sources of the 12 Steps.

As announced by the cofounders, the first (the main) roots of the Steps are the Bible, Silkworth, James, and Shoemaker. The additional contributing influences and sources are discussed in recent titles my son Ken and I wrote. See Dick B. and Ken B., The Dick B. Christian Recovery Guide: Historical Perspectives and Effective Modern Application, 3rd ed. (Kihei, HI: Paradise Research Publications, Inc., 2010); Stick with the Winners! How to Conduct More Effective 12-Step Recovery Meetings Using Conference-Approved Literature: A Dick B. Guide for Christian Leaders and Workers in the Recovery Arena (Kihei, HI: Paradise Research Publications, Inc., 2012. The latter two contributing sources are:

1. The Seven-Point Summary of the Original Akron A.A. “Christian Fellowship” Program: Page 54 of The Dick B. Christian Recovery Guide, 3rd ed., quotes verbatim the seven-point summary of the original A.A. “Christian fellowship” program in Akron developed by Bill W. and Dr. Bob beginning during the summer of 1935. This original A.A. program, documented in late February, 1938, by Rockefeller agent Frank Amos, is recorded on page 131 of the A.A. General Service Conference-approved book DR. BOB and the Good Oldtimers (NY: Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Inc., 1980).

2. The 16 Specific Practices of the Akron A.A. Christian Pioneers: Pages 27-37 of Stick with the Winners! discuss in some detail the 16 actual practices employed by the Akron pioneers in their implementation of their original seven-point A.A. Program documented by Frank Amos. With my son Ken’s help, I unearthed and reported on these 16 practices in conjunction with our 24 years of research on the origins of Alcoholics Anonymous.

In Total, What are the Roots and Sources Which Define the Origins of the 12 Steps?

So what are these 27 wellsprings or sources of the 12 Steps upon which Bill Wilson drew when he put together the Big Book published in 1939? These 27 wellsprings include Bill and Bob’s stated four—Bible, Silkworth, James, Shoemaker. They include the very specific seven points laid out in the Frank Amos summary of the original Akron A.A. program. And, in three of my recent titles, I listed and explained what are at least16 different sources of the ideas Bill Wilson finally incorporated into the Twelve Step program—the “new version of the program”—as Bill called his 1939 work-piece (fashioned and presented by him the first edition of Alcoholics Anonymous.

Yet the more one searches for specifics, and the more one researches the historical documents, the more the fullness of the wellspring details becomes.

In brief, there are 27 wellspring ideas incorporated into the Twelve Steps as presented in the text of the first edition of Alcoholics Anonymous, published by Works Publishing Company in 1939. These sources include:

1. The King James Version of the Bible (affectionately called “The Good Book.”).
2. William D. Silkworth, M.D. (Bill Wilson’s psychiatrist who treated him at Towns Hospital.).
3. Professor William James of Harvard, whose book on “vital religious experiences” that Bill Wilson and Dr. Bob had both read.
4. Dr. Carl Gustav Jung of Switzerland, who told Bill’s Oxford Group mentor, Rowland Hazard, that—because Rowland had the “mind of a chronic alcoholic”—a religious conversion might help him overcome drinking.
5. The Oxford Group, to which Bill Wilson and his wife Lois belonged and with which Dr. Bob and his wife Anne were associated in Akron. Its 28 life-changing ideas influenced all four people—Dr. Bob and his wife Anne, and Bill W. and his wife Lois.
6. The teachings of Rev. Samuel M. Shoemaker, Jr., with whom Bill had worked on his proposed “new version” of the program—the preacher whom Bill called a “co-founder” of A.A. Shoemaker’s prolific writings certainly covered and paralleled those of the Oxford Group.
7. The “no-cure” ideas and language of the lay therapist Richard Peabody, whose book, The Common Sense of Drinking, both Bill and Bob read.
8. The teachings of Dr. Bob’s wife, Anne Ripley Smith, who compiled and shared with early AAs and their families her personal journal which she wrote between 1933 and 1939 (Dick B., Anne Smith’s Journal 1933-1939).
9. The Christian books, other religious literature, and devotionals, circulated by Dr. Bob among early AAs. (Dick B., Dr. Bob and His Library, 3rd ed. and The Books Early AAs Read for Spiritual Growth, 7th ed.
10. “Quiet Time” and the guidance of God (Dick B., Good Morning!: Quiet Time, Morning Watch, Meditation, and Early A.A.).
11. Belief in, and conversion to, God through Jesus Christ (Dick B., The Conversion of Bill W.) .
12. Qualification of newcomers as to their decision to quit permanently, and as to their willingness to go to any lengths in order to get and stay sober.
13. Medical help for, or hospitalization of, newcomers—literally to save their lives in withdrawal..
14. New Thought writings and ideas—as evidenced by a sprinkling of “new thought” words like “higher power” that came from William James and Emmet Fox, among others.
15. Intensive work helping newcomers get straightened out.
16. Recommended social and religious comradeship.
17. Recommended weekly attendance at a religious service.
18. Evangelists like Dwight Moody, Ira Sankey, Allen Folger, Francis Clark, F.B. Meyer (Dick B., Dr. Bob of Alcoholics Anonymous: His Excellent Training in the Good Book as a Youngster in Vermont).
19. Lay workers of the Young Men’s Christian Association (the YMCA). See Dr. Bob of Alcoholics Anonymous.
20. The Salvation Army. See the popular book by Harold Begbie, Twice Born Men.
21. Gospel or rescue missions. See The Conversion of Bill W.
22. The Young People’s Society of Christian Endeavor. See Dr. Bob of Alcoholics Anonymous.
23. Dr. Bob’s extensive Christian upbringing and Bible study as a youngster in Vermont. See Dr. Bob of Alcoholics Anonymous.
24. Bill Wilson’s extensive Christian upbringing, Congregational church attendance, YMCA participation, and Bible study as a youngster in Vermont and Burr and Burton Seminary. See The Conversion of Bill W.
25. The “Farther Out” ideas manifested in Big Book language, and in the practices and experiments of Bill Wilson, and seemingly emanating from Bill’s extensive exposure to Lois Wilson’ Swedenborgian sect, in psychic experiments, in Richard Maurice Bucke’s Cosmic Consciousness book, in spiritualism, and in mysticism. See the writings of Mel B. and in “Pass It On.”
26. The idea of self-made religion, a self-made deity, absurd names for a god, and choosing one’s own conception of an “higher power.” See Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age.

Through the years of my research and writing, all of the foregoing 26 ideas have been discussed. Today, our research, travels, interviews, studies, visits to archives and libraries, and acquisition of pertinent literature provide the substantial documentation that can be found in several of my titles, including: (1) Dick B. and Ken B., Dr. Bob of Alcoholics Anonymous: His Excellent Training in the Good Book As a Youngster in Vermont (Kihei, HI: Paradise Research Publications, Inc., 2008), 275-99; (2) Dick B., A New Way Out: New Path—Familiar Road Signs—Our Creator’s Guidance (Kihei, HI: Paradise Research Publications, Inc., 2006), 14-32; and (3) Dick B. and Ken B., The Dick B. Christian Recovery Guide, 3rd ed.

Materials on several of our more recent findings are discussed, from various viewpoints, in the following titles (among others): (1) Mel B., My Search for Bill W. (Center City, MN: Hazelden, 2000); (2) Mel B., New Wine: The Spiritual Roots of the Twelve Step Miracle (Center City, MN: Hazelden, 1991); (3) Mel B., Ebby. (4) Mel B., New Wine; (5) Susan Cheever, My Name is Bill: Bill Wilson—His Life and the Creation of Alcoholics Anonymous (NY: Washington Square Press, 2004); (6) Silkworth: The Little Doctor Who Loved Drunks; (7) Bill W. My First Forty Years. (8) William G. Borchert, The Lois Wilson Story When Love is Not Enough: A Biography of the Cofounder of Al-Anon (Center City, MN: Hazelden, 2005). (9) Bill Pittman and Dick B., Courage to Change: The Christian Roots of the Twelve-Step Movement (Center City, MN: Hazelden, 1994).

Alcoholism and Drug Addiction are life and death conditions–illnesses. Neither the afflicted, nor another human being,, nor medicine can cure these conditions (or so claims Alcoholics Anonymous). That said, why concoct and urge reliance on self-made religion, spurious “spirituality,” “absurd names for God, and “half-baked prayers” (as Shoemaker called all four)? Why adopt such makeshift bandaids when historians, A.A. Society literature, researchers, writers, and psychologists, talk about “Taking the 12 Steps,” but leave “God” out, and avoid the documented and prime sources of instruction that produced the early results that put A.A. on the map!

It would appear that today’s AAs and A.A. critics are frequently discussing fashioned ideas and approaches which seem to appeal to their individual beliefs, unbelief, or creeds—but which sadly do not point them to the multitude of sources where the initial instructions for taking the Twelve Steps can be found.

We will suggest an approach, particularly for Christians, in later writings. But it would be well to point here to several inconsistent approaches today that leave much to be desired—by all concerned.

1. Following the varied instructions in four different editions of Alcoholics Anonymous.

2. Studying or minimizing the “Personal Stories” in the Big Book—including the original stories in the first edition (1939), when all but three of the original First Edition stories are omitted from the fourth edition (2001).

3 Using one of the many secular “Step guides” that have all sorts of subjective interpretations of what the step language means and how to “take” those steps—even those stalwart presentations published by Joe and Charlie from the Big Book Seminars through Hazelden (in a variety of forms), and accompanied by a host of other variant guides by other individuals.

4. Using one of the so-called “Recovery Bibles”: Life Recovery Bible, Serenity: A Companion for Twelve Step Recovery, Recovery Devotional Bible, and the Celebrate Recovery Bible. Yet most of these four commonly read books are filled with page after page of attempted, edited, subjective correlation of the Steps to some verse or section of scripture being read at any given time—a privilege for the clergy perhaps, but not one that gives a bona fide picture of the original 12 Step program or its sources as outlined here..

5. Using one of the innumerable “Christian Step Guides” now in print, most of which append a writer’s personal, subjective view of one or more Bible verses deemed to be relevant to the Step under study—but not based on historical fact or practice in A.A..

How to Utilize All These Sources in Today’s Recovery Arena and Diverse Participants

Can any or all of the foregoing and other approaches be reconciled with the Bible and the Big Book? Can the Big Book and the Bible be reconciled at all? Can the Steps be used as life-changing guides emanating from biblical basics? Can the accuracy and integrity of the Word of God be preserved by a Big Book-Bible student who would like to utilize the Steps, the A.A. Fellowship, and the Bible in recovery? Can one study the Bible in conjunction the Big Book presentation of the Twelve Steps and meet the “requirement” of the Book of James—“But be ye doers of the word and not hearers only, deceiving your own selves” (James 1:22)

When we address these issues at a later point and certainly in the forthcoming First International Alcoholics Anonymous History Conference in Portland Maine in September, 2013, we will begin with the way in which Bill W. and Dr. Bob—though differing in theological viewpoints and religious backgrounds—were able to collaborate in the use of the Steps, build on the Bible basics, discuss A.A. history, and retain their own convictions as to how these elements could be used by their particular followers to help drunks. The best proof of how the co-founders dealt with the problem can be found in the talks, interviews, and accounts of Dr. Bob’s words—particularly as they are paraphrased in the four AA of Akron pamphlets which, though substantially edited, cover the biblical approaches of the original program. As to the diversity of subjective alterations of ideas by Bill W., one can learn much from Bill’s Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions and the printer’s manuscript of the Big Book first edition just published by Hazelden and showing how God was edited out of the Steps the last minute before the basic text went to press in 1939.

For more information, contact Dick B. at dickb@dickb.com

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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