Cultivating Mindfulness & Meditation In 12 Step Recovery
A Parting of the Ways
This site is not intended as a scholarly presentation of the origins of A.A. I am quite sure that certain details I have presented here are probably inaccurate and that I may have overlooked some contributing factors. My intention however, is to demonstrate that the origins of Alcoholics Anonymous are generally Christian and biblical, and specifically Episcopal and Evangelical through the influence of Oxford Groups and their US Director, Sam Shoemaker.
“Early AA got its ideas of self-examination, acknowledgement of character defects, restitution for harm done, and working with others, straight from the Oxford Group and directly from Sam Shoemaker, their former leader in America, and nowhere else,” Bill Wilson wrote in recognition of this early influence.
But almost immediately, there was a parting of the ways with the Oxford Groups. To start with, the inclinations toward organized religion were not exactly strong in either Bill or Bob. Though both were born and raised in Vermont, they had quite different religious upbringings. Raised by his grandparents after his parent’s marriage ended in divorce when Bill was only 10, he rarely if ever attended church growing up and had no formal religious training. On the other hand, Dr. Bob’s experience with religion was quite formal with regular attendance at services and Sunday school at a Congregationalist church in his hometown and membership in a religious youth organization called Christian Endeavor. Dr. Bob attended an elite private Christian academy (St. Johnsberry) for secondary school. As a matter of fact, Dr. Bob had so much exposure to religion in his youth that upon leaving home for college, he swore he would never step inside a church again if he could help it. Likewise, Bill W., who had very little church attendance in his youth, continued that same practice in his adult life. The truth be told, the other members of the Oxford Group at the Calvary Episcopal Church in NYC weren't crazy about Bill and his buddies either. "Heck, all they ever talk about in the meetings is booze," they'd grumble to each other.
Another interesting religious point is that Frank Buchman, founder of the Oxford Groups, preached what he referred to as “First Century Christianity.” Christian Restorationists, as Reverend Buchman and those believing in this concept were called, proposed that the 1st century Apostolic Age represents a purer form of Christianity that relies more heavily on the Old Testament and the teachings of Jesus as expressed in the four Gospels of the New Testament, and should be adopted in the church as it exists today, that is America circa 1935 (Wikipedia). Although this is a very limited description of what Restorationists believe, it is an indication of the oppositional nature of the type of Christianity practiced by the Oxford Groups to the rest of “traditional” Christianity.
One such belief of the Oxford Groups that flew in the face of traditional Christianity was the concept of praying to a God of “your understanding.” So we start to see within AA’s earliest stages a certain flexibility regarding the concept of God and the definition of spirituality. Traditional Christians have a very specific and inarguable understanding of God as omnipotent, omniscient and transcendent; and actually a Godhead – a father, a son and a holy ghost. But don’t get me started on this one for there are as many specific understandings of God as there are belief systems and denominations within those systems. The Oxford Groups just cut to the chase and said “pick your own,” whereas AA would take this one step further and imply that you could make up your own, or you could even have a conception of no god at all and still be a member.
The first two AA groups, one in Akron, OH and the second in New York City, for all intents and purposes, were Oxford Groups focusing on alcoholism. The third AA group was started in Cleveland, OH by Clarence S., a cantankerous fellow who his friends described as the sort of person you either loved or hated right off the bat. As for Clarence, he never much cared for Bill W., Dr. Bob or the Oxford Group people and claimed himself, not Bill W. and Dr. Bob, as the founder of A.A. He hated the traditions when they came along and, it turns out, established the tradition for starting new groups – all you need to start a new group is a resentment and a coffee pot. One of the things Clarence resented the most was all the “God Stuff and praying” in the NYC and Akron, OH meetings. He blamed the Oxford Groups for that, stopped going to the Akron meetings and started his own meeting in Cleveland. Legend has it that his group in Cleveland even frowned on using the Lord’s Prayer to close their meetings.
Again, I’m not sure how accurate this description of the original Cleveland group may be, since I have depended on the Internet and Google searches for most of my information. But even though some of my information may be inaccurate, it is obvious to me, and I hope to the reader, that adherence to any particular religious tradition is definitely not required to be a member of AA. Rather, it appears to me that you don’t need any religiosity at all. As someone’s Jewish grandmother is often credited with saying, “It can’t hoit,” but it’s not a requirement. As a matter of fact according to AA’s 3rd Tradition, "The only requirement for membership is a desire to stop drinking."