by Chaz Bufe, author of Alcoholics Anonymous: Cult or Cure?
AA’s Religious Origins
One of the most widespread myths about Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) is that it has existed as an independent organization from day one, from the day in 1935 that Bill Wilson met AA’s other co-founder, Bob Smith, in Akron, Ohio. When they met, Smith and Wilson were both members of a Protestant evangelical group called the Oxford Group Movement (OGM).
The Oxford Groups–which had nothing to do with Oxford University, nor the city of Oxford; they merely traded on the name–were founded in the 1920s by the Reverend Frank N. D. Buchman, notable for his lavish lifestyle, entirely financed by his followers; his right-wing views (in 1936 he described Heinrich Himmler as “a great lad”); his virulent prudery and homophobia; and his targeting of the rich, powerful, and prominent for recruitment. Smith and Wilson evidently found all this attractive, as they were both enthusiastic OGM members.
Convinced that Oxford Group principles were the key to overcoming alcohol abuse (and all other problems in life), they devoted themselves to carrying the Oxford Group message to other alcoholics. What they called the “alcoholic squadron of the Akron Oxford Group” remained as part of the Oxford Group Movement until 1939, and the group Bill Wilson founded in New York remained part of the Oxford Group Movement until late 1937.
The reasons that AA parted ways with the Oxford Group Movement had nothing to do with differences over ideology; rather, they had to do with personality conflicts, the fear that Catholics would be forbidden to join what was to become AA as long as it was part of a Protestant organization, and, quite possibly, embarrassment over OGM founder Frank Buchman’s statements in an August 26, 1936 New York World Telegram interview, in which he said, “Thank heaven for a man like Adolf Hitler,” and in which he pined for “a God-controlled Fascist dictatorship,” though it was over a year before the New York group severed formal ties to the OGM, and approximately three years until the Akron group did so. (It’s worth mentioning as an aside that the manner in which AA treats this interview in its “conference approved” Wilson biography, Pass It On, is blatantly dishonest.)
One reason that this link between AA and the Oxford Group Movement is not more widely known is that during the years following the adoption of the name Alcoholics Anonymous, AA never credited the Oxford Group Movement for anything–even though AA took its central beliefs, program, and practices almost unaltered from the OGM. For instance, there is not a single acknowledgment of the Oxford Groups in Alcoholics Anonymous, AA’s “Big Book.” It wasn’t until the late 1950s, in Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age, that Bill Wilson and AA (partially) acknowledged AA’s debt to the Oxford Groups. Even today, most AA members know little if anything about the AA/OGM connection.
The Origin of the 12 Steps
A common myth–even within AA–is that AA co-founder Bill Wilson wrote the 12 steps entirely independently, that they were completely his own invention. A closely related myth common in AA is that Bill Wilson wrote the 12 steps directly under divine guidance. Neither myth has any but the scantiest relation to reality.
The author of AA’s 12 steps and the text portion of AA’s bible, the “Big Book” (though not the personal stories in it), Bill Wilson, was a dedicated Oxford Group member who was convinced that the principles of the Oxford Group Movement were the only route to recovery for alcoholics, and the 12 steps he included in the “Big Book” are a direct codification of those principles. Indeed, in Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age, Wilson directly credits the OGM as being the source of the teachings codified in the 12 steps (pp. 58-63, 160-167). Further, in a letter to former OGM American leader Rev. Sam Shoemaker, Wilson stated:
The Twelve Steps of A.A. simply represented an attempt to state in more detail, breath, and depth, what we had been taught–primarily by you [Rev. Shoemaker]. Without this, there could have been nothing–nothing at all. (quoted by Dick B. in Design for Living: The Oxford Groups contribution to Early A.A., p. 10)
Wilson also stated publicly:
Where did early A.A.’s … 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? … [S]traight from Dr. Bob’s and my own early association with the Oxford Groups … (quoted in the AA publication, The Language of the Heart: Bill W.’s Grapevine Writings, p. 198)
To be more specific, the Oxford Group principles of personal powerlessness and the necessity of divine guidance are codified in steps 1, 2, 3, 6, 7, and 11. the principle of confession is embodied in steps 4, 5, and 10. The principle of restitution to those one has harmed is embodied in steps 8 and 9. And the principle of continuance is embodied in steps 10 and 12.
There is not a single original concept in the 12 steps. They all came directly from the Protestant evangelical Oxford Group Movement. (see Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, pp. 48 & 97)
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- Alternatives to AA — and Why They’re Needed
- Alcoholics Anonymous is Religious, not Spiritual (part 2)
- Why is Alcoholics Anonymous Sacroscanct?