The origin of Alcoholics Anonymous can be
traced to the Oxford Group, a religious movement then popular in the United
States and Europe. A well-to-do Vermonter named Rowland H. had visited the
psychoanalyst Carl Jung in 1932. Rowland was able to admit that he was "powerless over alcohol" and had decided to attend Oxford Group meetings in New York City. The meetings were held at Calvary Church, under the leadership of the Rev. Sam Shoemaker. At these meetings, Rowland met an old friend and fellow Vermonter, Edwin (Ebby) T., also an alcoholic. Through the Oxford Group, they were able to keep from drinking through a formula of self-inventory, admission of wrongs, making amends, using prayer and meditation, and carrying the message to others who suffer. One of Ebby's schoolmate friends was Bill W., a Vermonter. Ebby sought out his old friend at 182 Clinton Street, in Brooklyn, to carry the message of hope.
Bill W. had been a fair-haired boy on Wall Street, but his promise had been ruined by continuous and chronic alcoholism. Bill had sought treatment at Towns Hospital, in Manhattan, under the directorship of Dr. William Silkworth. Bill learned that his problem was hopeless, progressive and irreversible--that alcoholism caused him to drink against his will, and that it took only one drink to activate the illness and set him off on a binge of compulsive drinking. Now Bill heard Ebby's story and once again entered Towns Hospital for treatment. On December 11, 1934, Ebby visited Bill at Towns Hospital and shared his spiritual journey of recovery. After Ebby left, Bill underwent a powerful spiritual experience. Although not a religious man, Bill experienced the miracle of freedom from the obsessive need to drink. When he asked Dr. Silkworth about the experience, the "kindly little doctor who loved drunks" did not scoff, but encouraged Bill to "hang onto it."
After Bill's release from Towns Hospital, he began attending Oxford Group meetings. He was buoyed by his contact with other drunks and set out, with little success, to fix all the drunks in the world.
Eventually, Bill got a toehold in his business. In May of 1935, he found himself in Akron, Ohio. In a crisis that many alcoholics can relate to, he found himself alone on a Saturday night in the lobby of the Mayflower Hotel. He was sorely tempted to join the revelers at the bar, but he realized that he needed to share his plight with another alcoholic in order to save himself and protect his sobriety. In an historic decision for A.A.'s future, Bill turned to the church directory in the hotel lobby and began telephoning to try to find another drunk. He reached the Rev. Walter Tunks who might help. One of these, Henrietta Seiberling, though not an alcoholic, immediately understood Bill's need and told him of Dr. Bob S., a once-brilliant surgeon about to lose his practice entirely because of alcoholism. She arranged for Bill to meet Dr. Bob the next day, Mother's Day, at the gatehouse of the Seiberling estate. Dr. Bob, shaking and with a terrible hangover, reluctantly agreed to give this stranger on longer than 15 minutes. Instead of preaching, as he had done with drunks back in New York, Bill shared his drinking experiences and told Dr. Bob of his own need for communication. He spoke of Dr. Silkworth's insights into the illness of alcoholism.
Dr. Bob, by coincidence, was also from Vermont, and he, too, had already sought help from the Oxford Group. Expecting to hear the rantings of and evangelistic do-gooder, the physician found himself sharing with a fellow alcoholic. They talked for nearly five hours.
Dr. Bob "stopped drinking abruptly."
Dr. Bob was to go on one more drunken spree
a few weeks later, while at a medical convention in Atlantic City. He had his
last d drink on June 10, 1935, which is celebrated today as A.A.'s birthday.
Bill stayed on in Akron to try to salvage his business deal and, strapped for
funds, moved in with Dr. Bob, his wife Annie, and their two children, Bob and
Sue. Almost immediately the two men began to try to help other drunks.
After some failures, they learned that a patient was in Akron City Hospital for the sixth time in four months and was in bad shape with the D. T.'s. They called on him. He was Bill D., a lawyer, who became A.A. Number Three. Soon Dr. Bob began to treat prospective members on a regular basis at St. Thomas Hospital, with the aid of the indefatigable Sister Mary Ignatia.
Bill returned home late that year and began to call on alcoholics at Towns Hospital. His first success was Hank P. (who later drank), and slowly a group began to take shape in New York. The first meeting place was Bill and Lois's house on Clinton Street in Brooklyn. They later met at the old 24th Street Clubhouse. Here Bill would eventually meet Father Ed Dowling, who came as a visitor. Father Dowling became Bill's close friend and adviser and one of A.A.'s staunchest supporters.
In 1940, John D. Rockefeller, Jr. hosted a dinner "in the interest of Alcoholics Anonymous." The dinner was held at the Union Club in New York City, and was attended by many of the rich and famous. Bill dreamed of a well-financed global network of drying out stations, with himself as the humble head. He told the story of the low-bottom drunks as only Bill could do. His hopes were dashed when Nelson Rockefeller, pinch-hitting for his ill father, assured the millionaire guests that A.A. was a spiritual program that might be spoiled by money. After the penniless founders recovered from their disappointment, they realized that Mr. Rockefeller had helped them discover that spiritual recovery was more important than money--thus, the principle of self-support had been born!
The Rockefeller dinner also resulted in a much needed wave of newspaper stories. "The effect," said Bill, "was to give A.A. a public status of dignity and worth." It was followed in 1941 by the momentous Jack Alexander article in The Saturday Evening Post, which brought Alcoholics Anonymous to national attention and brought about a new wave of "converts."
In 1938, Bill W. had begun work on the text that was to become Alcoholics Anonymous. He attempted to describe "How It Works," and he also included the recovery stories of the early members from New York and Akron. During this process six steps were written, based on the ideas of the Oxford Group. Bill felt that the six steps were essential, but that they had to be expanded in order to "broaden and deepen the spiritual implications of our presentation." In Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age, Bill tells the story of his hard work and inspiration in writing the Twelve Steps. "There must not be a single loophole through which the rationalizing alcoholic could wriggle out. Maybe our six chunks of truth should be broken up into smaller pieces." In a burst of late-night energy, Bill wrote out the Steps, noting almost by coincidence that the number came to twelve--the same as the twelve apostles. The Steps were included in Chapter 5 of the Big Book after the usual heated debate.
In Bill's words, "There were conservative, liberal, and radical viewpoints."
The second cornerstone of our Fellowship, the Twelve Traditions, also written by Bill W., were formally introduced at the International Convention in Cleveland in 1950, when the membership voted unanimously to adopt them. Bill and Dr. Bob conceived the need for the Twelve Traditions as a means of guarding A.A. against itself, and preserving the principles of A.A. for the future. As Bill wrote in A.A. Comes of Age: "They represent the distilled experience of our past, and we rely on them to carry us in unity through the challenges and dangers which the future may bring."
AA Everywhere--Anywhere©: pages 10-17
SERVICE - THE THIRD LEGACY
Our Fellowship was very poor in the early
days; sobriety was often a fragile and scarce commodity. In 1938, a nonprofit
Alcoholic Foundation was formed through the efforts of Dr. Leonard Strong,
Bill's brother-in-law. The first Foundation consisted of three nonalcoholic
members (Willard Richardson, Frank Amos and John Wood) and two alcoholics, (Dr.
Bob and a New York member who later drank). Such was the fragile nature of the
Soon after Alcoholics Anonymous, which came to be known as the Big Book, was published, the Foundation assumed ownership of Works Publishing Co. The first Foundation office was cubbyhole at 30 Vesey Street, New York City, staffed by Bill and a nonalcoholic secretary, Ruth Hock, who typed the first manuscript of the Big Book. Ruth also answered many of the thousands of letters for help that began to arrive as A.A. became known.
During the 1940's, Alcoholics Anonymous grew at an almost geometric rate. The Foundation office and the trustees were at the center of the growth, as requests for help flooded the tiny office. The wide use of the Big Book, the expansion of pamphlet literature, pleas for help, and the response to requests for guidance on group problems all constituted a growing service to the world of A.A.
In 1944, the office moved from Vesey Street to 415 Lexington Avenue, opposite Grand Central Station, where it became a mecca for thousands of A.A. travelers and visitors. As the decade waned, Bill and Dr. Bob saw that the Alcoholic Foundation had no tie to the A.A. membership except through the co-founders. Who would take their place when they passed on? The idea they came up with--selfless and brilliant--was to turn responsibility for the Fellowship over to the Fellowship, to form a service structure through which the A.A. groups would govern their own affairs.
It was proposed that the groups exercise this responsibility by electing delegates who, along with the trustees and office staff, would meet annually. This would be called the General Service Conference.
Bernard Smith, a nonalcoholic lawyer who was to serve as the first chairman of the Conference, helped Bill to formulate the Conference Charter. Since several of the trustees and many of the groups had expressed grave doubts about the new Conference plan, Bill embarked on a personal crusade to see the idea. In the midst of this effort, Dr. Bob, who had fallen ill with cancer, died on November 16, 1950.
The following year, the first A.A. General Service Conference was held in New York. It was agreed to try the Conference idea for five years to see if it could function as the collective voice and conscience of A.A., yet have absolutely no governing power over any individual A.A. member or group. In spite of obvious problems, the General Service Board was named as the replacement for the Alcoholic Foundation at the Second International Convention in St. Louis
Bill felt that the final step in the shift of responsibility should be to change the ration between nonalcoholic and alcoholic trustees on the General Service Board, and he pressed hard for this change for many years. Finally, in 1966, the Conference recommended that the ratio be changed to seven nonalcoholic trustees and 14 alcoholic trustees (eight regional trustees, four general service trustees and two trustees-at-large). This is the composition of the board today. (1995) Meanwhile, the General Service office continued to grow. It was to move four more times; it is now (1995) located on Riverside Drive and 120 St. Early nonalcoholic secretaries were replaced by A.A. staff members, and a paid general manager replaced the volunteers. Although he had stepped down from active leadership, Bill continued to come to the office one day a week and attend board meetings and Conferences.
His health began to fail in the late 1960's; Bill died on January 24, 1971.
AA Everywhere--Anywhere©: pages 18-21
THE BIG BOOK
The Big Book, Alcoholics Anonymous, is
probably the most important single factor in the recovery of most alcoholics who
seek sobriety in A.A. It is also one of the nonfiction bestsellers of all
time. And yet, it was almost not written.
In 1937, Bill and Dr. Bob met in Akron and tallied the results of their two years' work. They counted together some 40 sober alcoholics, and "saw that wholesale recovery was possible." They agreed that they needed a book that would explain the program to alcoholics and therefore prevent distortion of their word-of-mouth message. Meeting with 18 members of the Akron Group, they proposed the book. The idea was met with substantial opposition; many were against any publicity, turned thumbs down on any printed material, and argued that "the apostles hadn't needed books." But Bill and Dr. Bob persisted and, "by the barest majority," the Akronites agreed that they should proceed.
By the summer of 1938 Bill had drafted the first two chapters. Harper and Brothers offered to publish the book. But, after much consideration by the trustees of the Alcoholic Foundation and much discussion in the group, it was decided that A.A. should control and publish its own literature--a decision, as it turned out, of tremendous importance for the future of Alcoholics Anonymous.
In her memoir, Lois Remembers, Bill's wife, Lois, describes the great tension that Bill went through as he wrote the Big Book.
"As Bill finished each chapter, he read it to the group that met at Clinton Street. After these members had discussed it, going over every detail and making suggestions, Bill sent it to Akron for the opinions of members there.
"The pros and cons were mostly about the tone of the book. Some wanted it slanted more toward the Christian religion; others, less. Many alcoholics were agnostics or atheists. Then there were those of the Jewish faith and, around the world, of other religions. Shouldn't the book be written so it would appeal to them also? Finally it was agreed that the book should present a universal spiritual program, not a specific religious one, since all drunks were not Christian....
"When he finished writing and reread what he had put down, he was quite pleased. Twelve principles had developed--the Twelve Steps.
"But when he showed them to the group, the old discussion was resumed.
There was `too much God,' it was said; and
`For Pete's sake, take out that bit in Step Seven about getting on your knees.'
They thrashed it out this way and that with Bill as umpire. Finally they hit
upon the phrases `God as we understood Him' and `a Power greater than
ourselves.' These expressions were ten-strikes; they could be used by anyone
"Then the question of the title arose. By that time 100 or so members had been sober for two or three years, so the name `One Hundred Men' seemed appropriate until one woman, Florence, joined the group and objected, `The Way Out' was very popular for a while, but Bill thought it trite and had Fitz, who was often in Washington, look it up in the Library of Congress. There were already twelve books registered under that name.
"At one time Bill was tempted to call the book `The W--Movement' (using his last name and to sign it as author. This natural but egoistical impulse was soon overcome by more mature reasoning."
Finally, the Big Book rolled off the press in 1939, published under the imprint of Works Publishing. Today (1995), the Big Book--which they could hardly give away in 1939--is available in 30 languages, as well as in Braille and in video in American Sign Language, and is fast approaching a distribution (in English of 15,000,000 copies.
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