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Dick B on the Christian History of AA and the 12 Step Movement and It’s UCC Roots – An Interview

September 22nd, 2008 · No Comments

Today we’re interviewing “Dick B” of DickB.com who is a historian of the Alcoholics Anonymous movement. What sets his work apart is that he has specialized in documenting the Christian origins and roots of the original AA which described itself as a “Christian Fellowship”. This is “news” for many today who are familiar with “12 Step Programs” . They have frequently heard that “A.A. is a ‘spiritual program’ and not a ‘religious program’” and some 12 Step groups are actually known for their hatred of Christianity and the Church. Despite these modern misconceptions, the early program of the AA Christian Fellowship had over a 75% “cure” rate and they frequently used the term “cure” to describe the transformation that occurred through the ministry of A.A.

Of importance to the UCC these days is our role in forming what became the “12 Step Movement” – what a legacy! The 12 Step movement and the UCC have fallen on hard times spiritually speaking. Perhaps in returning to this story of God’s blessing which flowed from our past, we will regain a vision for our future?

Without further delay, let’s get to our discussion with Dick B, AA Historian.

Dick, thank you for your insight. Our readership is composed of “Mainline” Christians and, in particular, members of the United Church of Christ who came from a merger of the Congregationalists and another
Reformed body, the Evangelical and Reformed Church.

1. Dick what caused you to start looking into the Christian origins of Alcoholics Anonymous?

I came into A.A. on April 23, 1986, having had my last drink two days before. I was a very very sick alcoholic with lots and lots of troubles. I had been the president of the Mill Valley California Community Church, which had become part of UCC. I was also a born-again Christian and a Bible student and one who had attended Bible fellowships. I talked in A.A. meetings and to friends a great deal about God and the Bible. Not without flack! I certainly relied on our Heavenly Father, His son Jesus Christ, and the Bible for help. But I never heard a word in all the meetings I went to about the biblical roots, the Bible, or Jesus Christ. Then, when I was about three years sober, a young man named John (now dead of alcoholism), who had been in Bible fellowships, asked me if I knew that A.A. had come from the Bible. I said I had never heard of such a thing. He suggested I read A.A.’s own DR. BOB and the Good Oldtimers, which I did. He pointed out that early AAs had wanted to call their society the James Club because the Book of James was their favorite. I found his information and suggestions to be catalysts for research. And all of that started me on a 19 year quest which continues to this day. And see my title, The James Club and the Original A.A. Program’s “Absolute Essentials” (http://dickb.com/Jamesclub.shtml).

2. You have many books already on the influence of the Bible (“Good Book”) on AA, the Oxford Group’s influence on AA, and leaders like Rev. Samuel Shoemaker on AA. Now at last you have written on the roots of AA as traceable to St. Johnsbury, VT. Specifically the North Congregational Church and the YMCA and Christian Endeavor movements of the time. What lead you down that research path?

Just as AAs seldom today talk about the Bible, they talk even less about Dr. Bob’s Bible training and church affiliations—particularly as a youngster. But their literature and Dr. Bob’s talks make mention of his excellent training in the Bible as a youngster in Vermont. He mentioned the number of times he and his family went to church each week. He also mentioned his activity in Christian Endeavor—a society which was born in the Williston Congregational Church in Portland, Maine, in February 1881; had come to Vermont that same year; and spread like wildfire to an eventual world-wide membership of four million.

See my title, Dr. Bob of Alcoholics Anonymous (http://dickb.com/drbobofaa.shtml). For a number of years, I had been conducting seminars on early A.A.’s roots—and for eight years at the Wilson House in East Dorset, Vermont. I had tried to get several people to go to St. Johnsbury and dig out the facts. Finally, my son Ken and I made two extended trips in October 2007 and June 2008, and encountered a gold mine of unreported information. We found records of: (1) the Fairbanks family of St. Johnsbury, and of their strong Congregational and YMCA ties; (2) Dr. Bob’s family and their involvement in North Congregational Church, St. Johnsbury; (3) what North Congregational Church did—as shown in their Sunday school teachings and records, Christian Endeavor records, and YMCA records; and (4) the “Great Awakening” of 1875 in St. Johnsbury. During that “Great Awakening,” the whole community was transformed by revivals and conversions; and, out of a population of about 5,000, some 1,700 made decisions for Christ under the impetus of the Vermont State YMCA Executive Committee, YMCA laymen from Massachusetts, the six local churches (which had been holding “union meetings” in anticipation of such a revival). Also, I had earlier acquired a great deal of Christian Endeavor literature and could see the direct relevance of their principles and practices to those that were incorporated into the early Akron A.A. program. In fact, Tim Eldred, the Executive Director of Christian Endeavor International invited me to speak in Washington, D.C. at the 125th Anniversary of Christian Endeavor, and this furthered my interest and enthusiasm.

3. One of our concerns is how the “Mainline” church helped shape the AA Christian Fellowship. Could we say that between Buchman of the Oxford Group, Shoemaker of Calvary Church, and St. Johnsbury, we have some Lutheran, Episcopal, and Congregationalist influences at the beginning of AA. One early resource you found was the Methodist devotional publication The Upper Room. What did these “streams” share in their contribution to AA, and how did they differ? Most importantly – which “won” out in the final form of the AA program in Akron?

As to the influence of the “Mainline” church, you can and should consider the following:

a. New England Congregationalism dominated every aspect of Bill W.’s training in East Dorset and Manchester, and of Dr. Bob’s training in St. Johnsbury. It was Congregational to the core. And conversions were a major focus of the Congregational Church, of the YMCA, and of the revivals in those days.

b. The Oxford Group had much less influence than most historians would have you believe. The reason is that A.A. began in Akron, not New York. And the Akron Christian Fellowship was having old-fashioned prayer meetings, Bible studies, conversions to Christ, hospitalizations, and outreach to drunks which simply was not characteristic of the Oxford Group. See my titles The Akron Genesis of Alcoholics Anonymous (http://dickb.com/Akron.shtml) and The Oxford Group and Alcoholics Anonymous (http://dickb.com/Oxford.shtml). In fact, the Akron group was called a “clandestine” lodge of the Oxford Group because of its particular thrust and methods.

c. Nonetheless, when Bill W. wrote his Big Book (Alcoholics Anonymous) three-to-four years later and published it in 1939, the tables turned. Bill knew far less about the Bible than Dr. Bob. He was much more deeply involved in the Oxford Group–with Buchman, business teams, house parties, Calvary House, Irving Harris, Victor Kitchen, Rowland Hazard, and Sam Shoemaker–than Dr. Bob was. See my title New Light on Alcoholism: God, Sam Shoemaker, and A.A. (http://dickb.com/newlight.shtml). The people clustered around Frank Buchman and Sam Shoemaker were “Mainline” in roots though seemingly unconventional in their “life-changing” emphasis. The leaders of the Oxford Group were Episcopalian, Anglican, Dutch Reformed, Presbyterian, and in Buchman’s case Lutheran.

d. One cannot understand A.A. then or now without understanding the varied and diverse sources—16 in all as I count them today. See my title A New Way Out (http://dickb.com/anewwayout.shtml). The diverse roots are: the Bible, Quiet Time, Anne Smith’s journal, Dr. Bob’s reading and library, the Oxford Group, Sam Shoemaker, William James, Carl Jung, William D. Silkworth, the Salvation Army, the YMCA, Gospel Rescue Missions, conversions, Christian Endeavor, New Thought writings, and Richard Peabody.

During the earlier years of my research (beginning in 1990), the major roots seemed to me to be just: (1) the Bible; (2) Quiet Time; (3) Anne Smith’s journal, (4) the reading of devotionals and other Christian literature; (5) the Oxford Group; and (6) Sam Shoemaker. See my title Turning Point (http://dickb.com/Turning.shtml). But then it became more and more clear that there were at least five major epochs and that each involved different or varied root sources:

a. The youthful training of Dr. Bob (born in 1879) and Bill W. (born in 1895) in Vermont which encompassed Bible study, prayer meetings, conversions to Christ, Quiet Hour, and love and service—these were primarily from New England Congregationalism, the YMCA, Salvation Army techniques, and Rescue Mission work. See my title The Conversion of Bill W. (http://dickb.com/conversion.shtml).

b. Next came the melding into the simple program at Akron where Bill W. brought to the table his own conviction about conversion as a solution (see my title The Golden Text of A.A., http://dickb.com/goldentext.shtml); his hospitalization experiences with Dr. Silkworth and the “Great Physician”; and his own conversion at Calvary Rescue Mission. [See my title A New Way In (http://dickb.com/anewayin.shtml)]. This program arose in the cradle of the Oxford Group events of the early 1930’s but quickly turned into the five-point Akron Christian Fellowship program: (1) abstinence; (2) reliance on the Creator and coming to Him through His son Jesus Christ; (3) obedience to God’s will; (4) growth in fellowship with God through Bible study, prayer, Quiet Time, the reading of devotionals and other Christian literature; and (5) working with others. Anne Smith’s journal, with a strong Bible bent and a clear understanding of Oxford Group life-changing ideas, had a great impact. See my title Anne Smith’s Journal, 1933-1939 (http://dickb.com/annesm.shtml). Henrietta Seiberling’s beliefs and teachings were important in emphasizing the power of God. See my title Henrietta B. Seiberling (http://dickb.com/HenriettaSeiberling.shtml). The program achieved astonishing, documented, 75% and 93% success rates (in Akron and in Cleveland, respectively) among “seemingly-hopeless,” “medically-incurable,” alcoholics who really tried. See my titles Cured! (http://dick.com/cured.shtml) and When Early AAs Were Cured and Why (http://dickb.com/alcoholismcured.shtml). It placed enormous emphasis on the Bible (which Dr. Bob often called “the Good Book”); [see my titles The Good Book and the Big Book: A.A.’s Roots in the Bible (http://dickb.com/goodbook.shtml) and The Good Book-Big Book Guidebook (http://dickb.com/guidebook.shtml)]; on old-fashioned prayer meetings; on conversions; on Quiet Hour and meditation; on the reading of devotionals and other Christian literature; and on intense work with others.

c. Oddly, the use of devotionals–such as The Upper Room, The Runner’s Bible, The Greatest Thing in the World, Daily Strength for Daily Needs, Abundant Living, The Meaning of Prayer, My Utmost for His Highest–seems to have come from a number of influences. For example: (1) “Mother Galbraith” used to bring The Upper Room to Akron meetings, and it became a standby. (2) The use of The Runner’s Bible–and the use of books by Drummond, Glenn Clark, and E. Stanley Jones–was largely the product of Dr. Bob’s own reading, spurred perhaps by the Christian Endeavor practice of choosing topics and reading literature. (3) Sam Shoemaker and several other Oxford Group members were prolific writers, and the Oxford Group pieces early AAs in Akron used very probably came from T. Henry Williams’ home where the meetings were held. The meetings at his home were at first “clandestine” Oxford Group meetings; though Williams had been a Sunday school teacher at two churches, and his wife had studied to be a Baptist missionary.” Meditation” was a “must” and was called “Quiet Time.” But it faded away as Bill’s Eleventh Step approach took precedence. See my title Good Morning: Quiet Time, Morning Watch, Meditation, and Early A.A. (http://dickb.com/goodmorn.shtml). (4) Oswald Chambers, Glenn Clark, Harry Emerson Fosdick, and E. Stanley Jones were popular writers of the day.

4. If the early AA program worked so well… why do you think it was changed? Was it for the sake of secular respectability? to incorporate Roman Catholics? Both? Or other reasons? It seems hard to believe that when Lois said that the changes were made to accommodate people who were not Christians that there really were that many non-Christians they were coming into contact with…

The changing tides of AA are mapped out in these titles I have written: (a) Introduction to the Sources and Founding of Alcoholics Anonymous (http://dickb.com/introduction-sources); (b) Real Twelve Step Fellowship History (http://dickb.com/realhistory.shtml); (c) The First Nationwide Alcoholics Anonymous History Conference (http://dickb.com1stAAHistConf.shtml); and (d) Making Known the Biblical History and Roots of Alcoholics Anonymous (http://dickb.com/making.known.shtml). The early program worked well for believers because they believed and tried to stick with God, His Word, resisting temptation, fellowshipping together, and focusing on new people. But the influence of a few atheists, (and later) treatment people, historians, psychiatrists, and New Thought took their toll. The five resultant phases or epochs, I believe, were these:

1) The New England training of Dr. Bob and Bill W., and of Bill’s conversion to Christ.

2) The formulation and development of the Akron program, based primarily on Christian Endeavor principles and practices, hospitalization, conversions to Christ (resembling a James 5:16 ceremony), outreach to drunks, reading of devotionals and other Christian literature, and fellowship with like-minded believers.

3) Bill’s attempt to write a book that would “sell” and would eliminate all specific traces of the Bible, Quiet Time, Oxford Group, Sam Shoemaker, prayer meetings, and Christian literature. Yet his ideas codified Oxford Group life-changing ideas; drew on William James and his “higher power”; drew on Carl Jung and his discussion with Rowland Hazard of the need for “conversion”; drew on William D. Silkworth and his “disease” concept (yet leaving Silkworth’s solid convictions about Jesus Christ unmentioned); drew on Richard Peabody and his “no cure” thesis; picked up New Thought language about “Czar of the Universe,” and so forth; and changed conversion to “spiritual experience.” Bill and his partner Hank had their eye on book sales and profits. Bill took his “theology” largely from Sam Shoemaker and, in fact, asked Sam to write the Twelve Steps (which Sam did not do).

4) The period immediately following the publication of the Big Book in 1939 and lasting until Dr. Bob’s death in 1950. A.A. was much altered while Bill W. was, for the most part, “missing in action,” due to his deep depression of 12 years. Dr. Bob—based in Akron–focused on helping alcoholics recover. And new writers, writings, and workers emerged to fill the gap. The new alterations came from sources such as: (1) Clarence Snyder; (2) Sister Ignatia; (3) Father Ed Dowling, S.J.; (4) Father Ralph Pfau; (5) Richmond Walker; (6) Ed Webster; and, finally (7) Dr. Bob himself, who made his own “last stand” of sorts through his approval of the publishing of the four AA of Akron pamphlets (which are still in available today through the Akron and Cleveland Intergroup offices).

5) The period that began after Dr. Bob’s death in 1950. A.A. was heavily influenced by the activity and writing of the two Jesuit priests (Father John C. Ford, S.J., and Father Ed Dowling, S.J.); and the tide turned toward “spiritual,” and left “religion” outside of A.A. from their perspective and by their seeming design.

5. Were the effects of this change positive in helping alcoholics?

If herding alcoholics into support groups, emphasizing the changing of old habits and friends, stressing abstinence, catalyzing outreach to others, and talking about “spirituality” can be deemed “positive,” the answer is yes. But Jim Houck of the Oxford Group and A.A. endorsed one of my books, saying: “Take God out of A.A., and you have nothing.” Today, there are still tens of thousands in A.A. who believe in God. Roman Catholics comprise a large chunk. Their stance seems to call for going to church for religion and to A.A. for alcoholism. Christian critics in and out of A.A. are claiming A.A. is not “of the Lord” and should not be attended. There are now thousands of AAs who never heard anything about their history, the Bible’s role, Dr. Bob’s emphasis on the Good Book, or the original Akron “Program” set forth in Frank Amos’ report to John D. Rockefeller in 1938; and the best of these are “Big Book Thumpers.” My 19 years of research have shown that God, Jesus Christ, and the Bible had major roles in the highly-successful Akron “Program” led by Dr. Bob. And I believe that Christians involved in A.A.—as well as Christians trying to help other Christians involved with A.A.—can benefit greatly from learning about those important roles. The Big Book, in many ways, had its roots in the Bible. See my title The Good Book and the Big Book (http://dickb.com/goodbook.shtml). But the Big Book incorporated fuzzy New Thought words, un-credited biblical language, no-cure thinking, and Oxford Group practices. And the proliferation of “higher powers,” criticism of religion, inadequately-answered intimidation of Christians in A.A., growth of New Thought and New Age as well as atheism and idolatry provide a tough challenge for a newcomer. In a very real sense, the newcomer to A.A. has these choices: (a) Leave A.A. because it is too “religious.” (b) Leave A.A. because it is not Christian enough; (c) Don’t leave A.A., and don’t talk about God or Jesus Christ or the Bible (in order to avoid having one’s beliefs challenged publicly); (d) Change A.A.’s Steps so they are or look “Christian”; (e) Join outside Christian groups comprised of former alcoholics and addicts focused on learning about the Creator’s role in early A.A. and on sharing that role with other Christians in A.A. and other Twelve-Step Fellowships; or (f) Get drunk. The current facts are that A.A.’s original, documented, 75% and 93% success rates in Akron and Cleveland have dropped to a disputed, one-to-five percent success rate today–or at least to no more than 25%. A.A. has stopped growing. There are still 1 million American AAs and perhaps 18 million American drunks. A.A. cannot come to terms with the fact that, although most of its members today have used both drugs and alcohol, its members are urged not to mention anything but alcohol. A.A. is diverse in belief and population today, not monolithic. A.A. is compulsory for many, not voluntary. A.A. suffers increasingly from “leadership” rigidity and enforcement thinking. A.A. in a sense competes with therapy, treatment programs, religious programs, and support groups of other types. But it is still vibrant, supportive, enthusiastic, and almost ever-present. My view is that I got sober in A.A. I loved its support and activities. I loved helping others. I have found no appealing alternative. At least not one that offers day-in-day-out, continuous, hands-on help and outreach to the suffering newcomer. I believe it’s possible to be a Christian, a Bible student, and an AA—and to enjoy sobriety in the comfort of my heavenly Father’s Everlasting Arms. I believe that is what I am–22 years to the good at age 83.

6. One common Lutheran, Reformed, and Anglican (Episcopalian) emphasis in doctrine historically was the doctrine called “Justification by faith”. How does that doctrine find expression in the early AA movement?

Justification by faith. I will leave the answer to that question, for the most part, to others. Your question did send me scurrying to the Bible; and, in particular, to the Rom 1:17 of Martin Luther and the Reformation, to John 3:16, to Romans 10:9, and to the first chapter of 1 John. But it also turned me to some of my reading in Schaff, in Harnack, in the New Bible Dictionary, and about the disputes with Universalists in Dr. Bob’s days. The theology is not something I am qualified to discuss. I just go by the Bible and the justification, righteousness, sanctification, and redemption that are covered, for example, in Galatians 2:20; 3:11-14, 26. The newcomer to A.A. is filled with guilt, fear, shame, anxiety, confusion, and worldly problems. For me, these need to be filled with standing as a child of the living Creator and with a renewed mind walk. The facts of the early program seem to be these: (1) A person would voluntarily confess Jesus as Lord and Savior, believing in his or her heart that God had raised Jesus from the dead (John 3:16; Rom 10:9, 10). Dr. Bob very likely had done that in North Congregational Church, St. Johnsbury. Bill W. very likely did that at Calvary Rescue Mission in New York; and he had probably also done that earlier at the Congregational churches in East Dorset, in Rutland, and/or in Manchester, Vermont (at Burr and Burton Academy, at which he was president of the YMCA). And early AAs did it upstairs at T. Henry’s house. (2) That person was then born again of the spirit of God; and, by God’s grace, that person was at that moment saved from the wrath to come, acquitted of his or her past sins, and enabled to ask forgiveness for deeds thereafter. (3) What that person then reaped from that point on was another matter which depended on his or her fellowship with the Father and with His son Jesus Christ—i.e., on walking by the spirit, not by the flesh. And that choice is tough. But to attempt an injection of theological justification into the early program is not for me except to say that Dr. Bob Smith, his wife Anne, and the Akron folk read and studied the Bible daily, they led newcomers to acceptance of Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior, and they endeavored to stay in fellowship with God and with like-minded believers. Probably none of these precepts could be declared universal in today’s recovery groups.

7. As you also note in your books, the Book of James (along with the Sermon on the Mount and 1 Corinthians 13) holds a place of preeminence in early AA Bible reading. James 2:20 says “faith without works is dead”. Why were such passages so compelling do you think to early AA’s?

E. Stanley Jones and Oswald Chambers expressed the relationship between the gift of the Holy Spirit and the precepts of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount in different ways. One said the Sermon without the Holy Spirit is “spiritual powwow.” The other said that the Holy Spirit without the Sermon leaves work to be done and hence something missing. One might equate that with 1 Cor. 13. “Faith without works” is used in the Big Book out of context. James is deep into other matters such as overcoming temptation, asking wisdom of God, being a doer of the Word and not just a hearer, loving one’s neighbor, submitting to God and resisting the devil, seeking help when sick, confessing faults one to another, and the efficacy of prayer. I truly believe that the pioneers STUDIED the three segments (i.e., Matthew 5-7, 1 Cor. 13, and the Book of James) lots and did not merely hang on such ideas as “faith without works.” The emphasis on the three segments was very very substantial, and it explains the loose references to each that are embodied in the Big Book.

8. Are there 12 step groups that are recovering this early vision? How can people find these AA groups that foster this early vision? Do you consider the ministry “Celebrate Recovery” to be walking in the steps of early AA?

There are many 12 Step study groups that are returning to the early A.A. emphasis on Bible study, prayer, asking God for guidance, Quiet Time, reading the Book of James and the other segments, reading Christian literature, using Christian devotionals, and looking for the roots of the Steps. See my titles By the Power of God (http://dickb.com/powerofgod.shtml); The Books Early AAs Read (http://dickb.com/bks-read.shtml); Utilizing Early A.A.’s Spiritual Roots (http://dickb.com/earlyaaroots.shtml); and Twelve Steps for You (http://dickb.com/12StepsforYou.shtml). There is emerging recognition that the phony, nonsense gods of recovery talk are detours from truth, recovery, and cure. See my titles God and Alcoholism (http://dickb.com/Godandalcoholism) and Why Early A.A. Succeeded (http://dckb.com/aabiblestudy.shtml). There are many groups today in A.A. who are conducting Bible/Big Book study groups. Not a day goes by that I don’t receive several phone calls or emails from people wanting to know where to begin. In the years past, I have: (a) conducted eight A.A. history weekend seminars at the Wilson House in Vermont; (b) conducted six A.A. history conferences; (c) spoken by invitation at annual conferences of Alcoholics Victorious, Celebrate Recovery founders, Overcomers Outreach, Inc., The Net Ministries in Florida, the Tampa Bay Clean and Sober Conference, YWAM, City Team Ministries, Roman Catholic and A.A. spiritual retreats, and many Clarence Snyder spiritual retreats for AAs and their families. I believe there is an immense hunger for books, for articles, for talks, for teachers, for leadership, for support, for guidance, and for encouragement WITHIN 12 Step Groups. My 33 published titles and four websites endeavor to help feed the hungry (http://www.dickb.com/index.shtml; http://www.dickb-blog.com; http://DrBob.info; and http://freedomranchmaui.org.) These contain articles, archives, links, resources, audio talks, radio talks, tributes, and recommendations.

Conclusion. In many ways the mainline churches in the US parallel this story. Our historic faith was the foundation for the AA ministry and the Risen Lord described in our confessions is the One who brought these wonderful cures.

But somewhere along the line, the mainline and the 12 Step movement has become secularized and lost it’s connection to this historic faith.

I pray your work will restore the Christian faith to it’s proper place in the AA movement and that the same faith in the living Christ will predominate again in the Mainline churches. Thank you Dick.

Note: Those interested in providing donations so that Dick B’s works may be circulated free of charge to those in need of them may contact Dick B directly through the links above or here: dickb@dickb.com; 808 874 4876; PO Box 837, Kihei, HI 96753-0837

Tags: Bible · History · Ministry and Outreach