“The Word-of-Mouth Program”/“Six Steps” of Bill W.
(Compiled, and with a Commentary, by Dick B. and Ken B.)
By Dick B. and Ken B.
© 2014 Anonymous. All rights reserved
On a number of occasions, Bill W. discussed how his “new version of the program, now the ‘Twelve Steps,’” came into being. In doing so, he usually stated or implied that the Twelve Steps evolved out of six predecessor “practices,” “principles,” elements, or “steps.” For example, in a talk Bill read at the 105th annual meeting of The American Psychiatric Association, in Montreal, Quebec, Canada, on May 23-27, 1949, he identified “the particular practices” which his old schoolmate from Burr and Burton Seminary days, Ebby T., had shared with him and that had been given to Ebby by some “Oxford Group people”:
Two alcoholics [Bill W. and Ebby T.] talk across a kitchen table [in late November 1934]. . . . My friend had arrived to tell how he had been released from alcohol. . . . Having made contact with the Oxford Group, . . . my friend had been specially impressed by an alcoholic he had met [Rowland H.], a former patient of C. G. Jung. Unsuccessfully treating this individual for a year, Dr. Jung had finally advised him to try religious conversion as his last chance. While disagreeing with many tenets of the Oxford Group, my former schoolmate did, however, ascribe his new sobriety to certain ideas that this alcoholic and other Oxford Group people [Shepherd (“Shep”) C. and Cebra G.] had given him. The particular practices my friend had selected for himself were simple:
1. He admitted he was powerless to solve his own problems.
2. He got honest with himself as never before; made an examination of his conscience.
3. He made a rigorous confession of his personal defects.
4. He surveyed his distorted relations with people, visiting them to make restitution.
5. He resolved to devote himself to helping others in need, without the usual demand for personal prestige or material gain.
6. By meditation he sought God’s direction for his life and help to practice these principles at all times.
. . . The spark that was to become Alcoholics Anonymous had been struck. What then did happen across the kitchen table? Perhaps this speculation were better left to medicine and religion. I confess I do not know. Possibly conversion will never be fully understood. Looking outward from such an experience, I can only say with fidelity what seemed to happen. Yet something did happen that instantly changed the current of my life. (emphasis added)
In his talk before The American Psychiatric Association in 1949, Bill asserted: (1) Ebby had shared with him six “practices” that several Oxford Group people had given him (Ebby); and (2) Ebby had used the word God in setting forth the sixth “practice”—with no modifying or qualifying words.
In a talk Bill gave on April 28, 1958, at the New York City Medical Society on Alcoholism, he spoke of six “principles . . . [his old school friend from Burr and Burton Seminary, Ebby T.] had learned from the Oxford Group” and had shared with him in November 1934:
He [Ebby] came to my house one day in November, 1934, and sat across the kitchen table from me while I drank. No thanks, he didn’t want any liquor, he said. Much surprised, I asked what had got into him. Looking straight at me, he said he had “got religion.” . . . As politely as possible, I asked what brand of religion he had.
Then he told me of his conversations with Mr. R., [Rowland H.] and how hopeless alcoholism really was, according to Dr. Carl Jung. . . . Next Ebby enumerated the principles he had learned from the Oxford Group. In substance here they are as my friend applied them to himself in 1934:
1. Ebby admitted that he was powerless to manage his own life.
2. He became honest with himself as never before; made an “examination of conscience.”
3. He made a rigorous confession of his personal defects and thus quit living alone with his problems.
4. He surveyed his distorted relations with other people, visiting them to make what amends he could.
5. He resolved to devote himself to helping others in need, without the usual demands for personal prestige or material gain.
6. By meditation, he sought God’s direction for his life and to help to practice these principles of conduct at all times. (emphasis added)
In language similar to that used in his 1949 talk read at The American Psychiatric Association, Bill told those present at the New York City Medical Society on Alcoholism meeting in 1958: (1) Ebby had “enumerated the principles he had learned from the Oxford Group;” and (2) Ebby had used the word God in setting forth the sixth “practice”—with no modifying or qualifying words.
And Bill added later in his 1949 speech at the New York Medical Society on Alcoholism meeting:
By the spring of 1939, our Society had produced a book which was called “Alcoholics Anonymous.” In this volume, our methods were carefully described. For the sake of greater clarity and thoroughness, the word-of-mouth program which my friend Ebby had given to me was enlarged into what we now call A.A.’s “Twelve Suggested Steps for recovery.” . . . This was the backbone of our book. To substantiate A.A. methods, our book included twenty-eight case histories. (emphasis added)
Note that Bill stated in Ebby’s sixth “principle” listed above that Ebby had “sought God’s direction”—not the direction of “a Power greater than ourselves;” not the direction of “God as we understood Him;” and not the direction of “a Higher Power.” And Bill claimed that “. . . the word-of-mouth program which my friend Ebby had given to me was enlarged into . . . A.A.’s ‘Twelve Suggested Steps for recovery.’”
In September 1954, Bill had made a series of audio recordings about his life. Transcripts made of those recordings were later published as his “autobiography.” In the audio recordings, Bill stated that Ebby had also come to see him during his (Bill’s) fourth and final stay for alcoholism at Towns Hospital December 11-18, 1934. And Bill said that during Ebby’s visit:
. . . [Ebby] began to repeat his pat little formula for getting over drinking. Briefly and without ado he did so. Again he told
 how he found he couldn’t run his own life,
 how he got honest with himself as never before.
 How he’d been making amends to the people he’d damaged.
 How he’d been trying to give of himself without putting a price tag on his efforts, and finally
 how he’d tried prayer just as an experiment and had found to his surprise that it worked. (emphasis added)
In both his talk before The American Psychiatric Association in 1949 and his talk before the New York City Medical Society on Alcoholism in 1958, Bill had listed six “practices” or “principles” which he said Ebby “had learned from the Oxford Group” and had shared with him in November 1934 at Bill’s home on 182 Clinton Street in New York. Yet when Bill made the audio recordings in 1954 which eventually became his “autobiography,” he listed only five elements which Ebby had shared with him when he (Ebby) repeated his “pat little formula for getting over drinking” during Ebby’s visit to Towns Hospital to see Bill in December 1934. And the wording of the five elements in Ebby’s “pat little formula” varied significantly from the wording of the six “practices” or “principles” Bill had listed in his 1949 and 1958 talks. In particular, as we focus in this series of videos on the cure for alcoholism through the power and love of God that A.A.’s cofounders Bill W. and Dr. Bob found, let’s be sure to observe differences in wording such as the complete omission of the word God from the five-element “pat little formula” Ebby shared with Bill at Towns Hospital in December 1934. The closest Bill got to the word God in the five-element “pat little formula” list was his comment that Ebby had “tried prayer . . . and . . . it worked.” That statement certainly seems weak in comparison with the following assertion by Bill in his own personal story in the Big Book:
. . . [M]y friend [Ebby] sat before me, and he made the point-blank declaration that God had done for him what he could not do for himself. His human will had failed. Doctors had pronounced him incurable. (emphasis added)
As we will see again and again as we continue to examine various lists of five(!) or six “practices”/”principles”/elements/”steps” which Bill claimed over the years were the direct antecedents of the “Twelve Steps” in the Big Book, the wording of the five or six items did not agree from one list to another—particularly when it came to mentions of the word God.
In Bill W.’s 1949 presentation before The American Psychiatric Association, in his 1958 presentation before the New York City Medical Society on Alcoholism, and his personal story in the Big Book, Bill indicated that Ebby had used the unmodified word God in identifying the source of his (Ebby’s) deliverance from alcoholism. As Bill put it in his (Bill’s) story in the Big Book as he reviewed Ebby’s visit to Bill’s home:
Thus was I convinced that God is concerned with us humans when we want Him enough. At long last I saw, I felt, I believed. Scales of pride and prejudice fell from my eyes. A new world came into view. (emphasis added)
In other discussions of the six “practices,” “principles,” elements, or “steps” that Bill claimed were in use before he wrote the Twelve Steps in 1938, Bill spoke of a gradual evolution of a “word-of-mouth program” involving “six steps,” rather than stating or implying that Ebby had given Bill the “practices,” “principles,” or elements in late-November 1934 that led directly to the Twelve Steps Bill wrote in 1938. For example, Bill stated:
Since Ebby’s visit to me in the fall of 1934 we had gradually evolved what we called “the word-of-mouth program.” Most of the basic ideas had come from the Oxford Groups, William James, and Dr. Silkworth. Though subject to considerable variation, it all boiled down into a pretty consistent procedure which comprised six steps. These were approximately as follows:
1. We admitted that we were licked, that we were powerless over alcohol.
2. We made a moral inventory of our defects or sins.
3. We confessed or shared our shortcomings with another person in confidence.
4. We made restitution to all those we had harmed by our drinking.
5. We tried to help other alcoholics, with no thought of reward in money or prestige.
6. We prayed to whatever God we thought there was for power to practice these precepts. (emphasis added)
After listing “six steps” which varied in wording from the six “practices” or “principles” Bill had said Ebby had given Bill at the late-November 1934 meeting at 182 Clinton Street, Bill said: “This was the substance of what, by the fall of 1938, we were telling newcomers.”
Note carefully in Bill W.’s recitation of “the word-of-mouth program” and its “six steps” in Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age the following two phrases: (1) “[s]ince Ebby’s visit to me in the fall of 1934;” and (2) “we had gradually evolved.” Note also the sentence: “Most of the basic ideas had come from the Oxford Groups, William James, and Dr. Silkworth.” Bill seems here to have moved away from directly attributing to Ebby and his late November 1934 visit “the word-of-mouth program” and its six [or five!] “practices,” “principles,” or elements. Rather he speaks of a gradual evolution that occurred since Ebby’s first visit to see Bill at 182 Clinton Street. In addition, rather than attributing the six “steps” solely to Ebby and Ebby’s three Oxford Group mentors (Rowland H., Shep C., and Cebra G.), Bill expands the sources beyond just “the Oxford Groups” to include also: (a) William James (by way of James’s book The Varieties of Religious Experience); and (b) Dr. William D. Silkworth (with whom Ebby had had no connection of which we are aware).
In a 1963 letter to Rev. Sam Shoemaker, Bill W. put even more distance between Ebby’s discussions with him (Bill) in late 1934 and “the word-of-mouth program” comprised of “six steps.” Bill wrote to Sam on April 23, 1963:
After the alcoholics parted company with the O.G. [= Oxford Group] here in New York [Bill and Lois W. had left the Oxford Group in about August 1937], we developed a word-of-mouth program of six steps which was simply a paraphrase of what we had heard and felt at your meetings. The Twelve Steps of A.A. simply represented an attempt to state in more detail, breadth and depth, what we had been taught—primarily by you. (emphasis added)
Bill’s statement in his letter to Rev. Sam Shoemaker quoted above echoes an earlier comment Bill made relating to Sam’s speech at A.A.’s International Convention in St. Louis in 1955:
There came next to the lectern a figure that not many A.A.’s had seen before, the Episcopal clergyman Sam Shoemaker. It was from him that Dr. Bob and I in the beginning had absorbed most of the principles that were afterward embodied in the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, . . .
. . . [T]he important things is this: the early A.A. got its ideas of self-examination, acknowledgment of character defects, restitution for harm done, and working with others straight from the Oxford Groups and directly from Sam Shoemaker, their former leader in America, and from nowhere else.
The statement: “. . . [S]traight from the Oxford Groups and directly from Sam Shoemaker, their former leader in America, and from nowhere else” does not seem to leave much room for Ebby, does it?
In his July 1953 A.A. Grapevine article titled “A Fragment of History: Origin of the Twelve Steps,” Bill W. presented what he called the “principles” of “the so-called word-of-mouth program of our pioneering time”:
During the next three years after Dr. Bob’s recovery [Dr. Bob took his last drink in June 1935], our growing groups at Akron, New York, and Cleveland evolved the so-called word-of-mouth program of our pioneering time. As we commenced to form a Society separate from the Oxford Group, we began to state our principles something like this:
1. We admitted we were powerless over alcohol.
2. We got honest with ourselves.
3. We got honest with another person, in confidence.
4. We made amends for harms done others.
5. We worked with other alcoholics without demand for prestige or money.
6. We prayed to God to help us do these things as best we could.”
Though these principles were advocated according to the whim or liking of each of us, and though in Akron and Cleveland they still stuck by the O. G. absolutes of honesty, purity, unselfishness, and love, this was the gist of our message to incoming alcoholics up to 1939, when our present Twelve Steps were put to paper. (emphasis added)
In his A.A. Grapevine article quoted above, Bill did not even mention Ebby’s late November 1934 visit or Ebby’s recitation of his “pat little formula” at Towns Hospital during Bill’s final stay in December 1934 in relation to “the so-called word-of-mouth program of our pioneering time.” Bill even seems to have distanced the “word-of-mouth program” from both the Oxford Group and Rev. Sam Shoemaker by saying: “As we commenced to form a Society separate from the Oxford Group, we began to state our principles something like this:” At least here, Bill sets forth the sixth “principle” using the unmodified word God.
At least two other challenges arise at this point when one studies Bill’s “six steps” of “the so-called word-of-mouth program of our pioneering time” which Bill said evolved into “the new version of the program, now the ‘Twelve Steps.’” First, Bill stated:
. . . [T]hese principles were advocated according to the whim or liking of each of us, . . .
And along those lines, he also said: (1) “‘the word-of-mouth program’” was “subject to considerable variation;” and (2) the “six steps . . . were approximately as follows: . . .” So, based on A.A. cofounder Bill W.’s own words, the idea that was a group of “six Steps” with consistent wording from the time Ebby first came to see Bill in late November 1934 would seem to require some further scrutiny.
In fact, Jim B.—who became involved with the Fellowship of Alcoholics Anonymous in early January 1938—stated that when he came in A.A., “we had no real formula”:
At that time [around the middle-to-end of January 1938] the group in New York was composed of about twelve men who were working on the principle of every drunk for himself; we had no real formula and no name. We would follow one man’s ideas for a while, decide he was wrong, and switch to another’s method. (emphasis added)
It was not until Jim had “crawled back to New York” after “wandering around New England half drunk” for a few days in early June 1938, that Jim said:
Around this time our big A.A. book was being written, and it all became much simpler; we had a definite formula that some sixty of us agreed was the middle course for all alcoholics who wanted sobriety, and that formula has not been changed one iota down through the years.
Bill W.’s wife Lois—who at least in 1936 was keeping a diary —stated explicitly that Bill had begun “to write the book in May 1938 . . .”
Then there is a copy of a handwritten note currently floating around the Internet for which the original supposedly is—or at least was—in the files of A.A.’s archives in New York. This note contains a presentation of six “Original AA steps.” It reads:
For Ed –
1. Admitted hopeless
2. Got Honest with self
3. Got honest with another
4. Made Amends
5. Helped other with demands
6. Prayed to God as you understand Him
Original AA steps (emphasis added)
Since the provenance of this note is sketchy, it is included here for the sake of completeness of presentation.
And now we turn to the personal story of one of Dr. Bob’s sponsees, Earl T. of Chicago, a man who got sober in April 1937. Earl’s personal story, titled “He Sold Himself Short,” first appeared in the Big Book’s second edition published in 1955. The writer of the story titled “He Sold Himself Short” claims that he and Dr. Bob “spent three or four hours formally going through the Six-Step program as it was at that time.” And the writer then gives the following list of “the six steps”:
1. Complete deflation.
2. Dependence and guidance from a Higher Power.
3. Moral inventory.
6. Continued work with other alcoholics. (emphasis added)
This assertion that Dr. Bob took Earl T. through “the Six-Step program as it was at that time,” and the wording and the order of these supposed “six steps,” raise questions. First, some of the language is simply not that usually employed by Dr. Bob. For example, the alleged first “Step” reads: “Complete deflation.” It was Bill W., rather than Dr. Bob, who often used the word “deflation.” In contrast, DR. BOB and the Good Oldtimers says of Dr. Bob: “Another thing Dr. Bob put quite simply: ‘The first one will get you.’ According to John R., he kept repeating that.” More significantly for our discussion here, I (Dick B.) have not found a single example of Dr. Bob’s ever referring to a “higher power” (as in the second “Step” above) other than this supposed use of the term in this personal story. Actually, his usual language in referring to God was “Heavenly Father” or “God” or “the Lord.” Whether Earl T. actually made the statement about “the Six-Step program” or gave the list of “the six steps” as found in the “He Sold Himself Short” personal story, we do not know.
But these points seem clear from the “He Sold Himself Short” story and from what Earl T.’s wife Katie disclosed in a lengthy interview in 1985. The Big Book indicated that Dr. Bob had covered a good many A.A. ideas with Earl, in addition to the quoted six specifics. The interview with Earl’s wife had these things to say:
• The men were desperate and took the program as presented.
• She said: “There was no book, no pamphlets, no nothing, and the only way you could get it was through passing it on verbally to the next fellow.”
• She said she felt the Oxford Group people had the same ideas and principles as AA now has—they helped others. However they never coped with alcoholism.
• Earl was a nervous wreck and didn’t know what to do or talk about. He said they had better pattern themselves after the Oxford Group, and they had used the Bible. When they met, they picked out a chapter, and it was read. Then they discussed it.
• The next thing they decided upon was a quiet time.
• The alcoholic was asked to offer a prayer, ask for guidance, and at night when he came home to review what had happened to him, and also to offer a prayer of thankfulness
• The alcoholic was to rise an hour before his usual time and get things straightened out and in order before he started out.
• Both Dr. Bob and Anne were frequently seen by Earl and his wife; and Bill W. often stayed in the home of Earl and his wife.
• Neither Earl nor his wife is quoted as making mention of any Steps; and Earl did not die until he had a stroke in his 90’s.
Finally, we want to mention here what Bill’s wife Lois called “the Oxford Group precepts . . . in substance”—which happened to be six in number:
[1.] [S]urrender your life to God;
[2.] [T]ake a moral inventory;
[3.] [C]onfess your sins to God and another human being;
[4.] [M]ake a restitution;
[5.] [G]ive of yourself to others with no demand for return; [and]
[6.] [P]ray to God for help to carry out these principles. (emphasis added)
Two quick points about the preceding list of six so-called “Oxford Group precepts”: (a) Footnote 2 on 197 of ‘PASS IT ON’ (given near the bottom of page 206) points out that there were no “six steps of the Oxford Group.” (b) Note the use of the word “God” without modifying words in “precepts” one, three, and six.
In addition, and more importantly for our presentation of “the rest of the story,” Bill seemingly treated the word “God” in the supposed “sixth step” of “the word-of-mouth program” differently according to the view he was advocating or sanctioning at a particular time. For example, in July 1953, Bill stated the “sixth step” as follows:
“6. We prayed to God to help us do these things as best we could.” (emphasis added)
This use of the word “God” without any modifying words is similar to use of the word “God” in one of the seven points of Frank Amos’s summary of the Akron program as of February 1938.
When, however, Bill was penning the Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age story in 1957, he wrote:
“6. We prayed to whatever God we thought there was for power to practice these precepts.” (emphasis added)
In this second example, rather than stating simply that “We prayed to God for power . . .”—i.e., using the word “God” without modifying words, as in the first example above—Bill added the words “. . . whatever . . . we thought there was.” That was a significant change in wording.
When Bill wrote out the “six steps” for a man named Ed in April 1953, he worded the “six step” in yet a different way:
“6. Prayed to God as you understand him.” (emphasis added)
In this third example, Bill chose to add the modifying words “as you understand him” after the word “God,” using in this version of the “sixth step” language that closely resembled how Steps Three and Eleven read in the Big Book; i.e., “. . . God as we understood Him.”
Well, those are the five or six “practices,” “principles,” elements, or “steps” in the “word-of-mouth program” that Bill W. claims evolved into “the new version of the program, now the ‘Twelve Steps.’” Food for thought.