While on a trip to Akron , Ohio , Bill is hit by the desire to drink. He makes some phone calls and sets up an appointment to meet with Dr. Robert Holbrook Smith, a member of the Oxford Group in Akron who is also an active alcoholic. The encounter results in Dr. Bob’s sobriety and is considered the founding moment of Alcoholics Anonymous. Dr. Bob’s work in Akron and Bill’s work in New York City lead to the growth of two fellowships of recovered alcoholics. Though the fellowships consider themselves to be two halves of a whole program, in practice Akron is far more religious and New York more social.

One of the strongest features of Akron ’s program is the requirement that each member surrender themselves to God before attending any meetings. Wally G., whose story appears in the first edition of the Big Book, says this in an interview with Bill Wilson:

On the business of surrender which I think was probably the most important part of this whole thing, Dr. Smith took my surrender the morning I left the hospital. At that time it was the only way you became a member—you became a member by a definite act or prayer and surrender, just as they did it in the [Oxford] Group.

Quoted in The Akron Genesis of Alcoholics Anonymous
By Dick B.

According to another member of the Akron fellowship, Bob E.:

The act of surrender…was very important at the time. There were no exceptions. You couldn’t attend a meeting unless you had gone through that.

From an interview by Bill Wilson
Quoted in The Akron Genesis of Alcoholics Anonymous
By Dick B.

The Akron fellowship stays very close to Oxford Group practices. They read from the Bible at their meetings. They use the Four Absolutes. They hold morning prayer meetings where they seek Guidance. It comes as hard news to the Akron fellowship when, in 1937, they hear that the New York fellowship is separating from the Oxford Group. The Akronites do not follow suit until two years later, in October of 1939, after the publication of the Big Book. In Akron today, AA still circulates a pamphlet describing the 4 Absolutes and their importance to recovery.

The New York fellowship has no requirement that members surrender their lives to God before attending meetings. Bill’s policy seems to be that it is best to get people into a meeting, regardless of their spiritual inclinations or lack thereof. This results in a fellowship whose membership expresses a mix of attitudes toward spirituality. There is a conservative-religious wing, which believes that the program should be explicitly Christian; a moderate-liberal wing, which believes in God but thinks that each person should be free to interpret their own experiences; and a radically liberal wing of atheists and agnostics who come to meetings but do not engage in any spiritual practices.

When the New York fellowship breaks with the Oxford Group, they leave many of its practices behind. In particular, New Yorkers are not comfortable with the practices of Guidance and the Four Absolutes. Bill describes the feelings of the New York fellowship this way:

They would not stand for the rather aggressive evangelism of the Oxford Groups. And they would not accept the principle of “team guidance” for their own personal lives…When first contacted, most alcoholics just wanted to find sobriety, nothing else. They clung to their other defects, letting go only little by little…The Oxford Groups’ absolute concepts—absolute purity, absolute honesty, absolute unselfishness, and absolute love—were frequently too much for the drunks.

Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age

When Bill writes the first draft of the Twelve Steps, the Steps make several unqualified references to God, and suggest that alcoholics should get down on their knees in order to ask God to remove their defects of character. There is much resistance to these Steps from some of the New Yorkers. They complained to Bill that:

“You’ve got too much God in these Steps; you will scare people away.” And, “What do you mean by getting those drunks “on their knees” when they ask to have all their shortcomings removed?” And, “Who wants all their shortcomings removed, anyhow?”

Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age

After much debate, it is the moderate-liberals who win the day and set the spiritual tone of the Twelve Steps. The Steps will remain spiritual, but with some important amendments.

In Step Two we decided to describe God as a “Power greater than ourselves.” In Steps Three and Eleven we inserted the words “God as we understood Him.” From Step Seven we deleted the expression “on our knees.” And, as a lead-in sentence to all the steps we wrote these words: “Here are the steps we took which are suggested as a Program of Recovery.” A.A.’s Twelve Steps were to be suggestions only.

Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age

The New York fellowship is clearly moving toward a Re-Socialization view of recovery. People with different ideas about the relationship between spirituality and recovery exist side-by-side in the same fellowship, and the opinions of each member are treated with equal respect. While the majority feel that a conversion experience is important to successful recovery, people who do not share this view are welcomed into the fellowship. In the future, as AA grows in New York , this policy will lead to a population that is increasingly agnostic.

5 Comments so far
Leave a comment

Thank God for the liberals…

Comment by Kieron

The moderate ones that is..

Comment by Kieron

Thank WHO for the liberals!?
Thank God for Dr. Bob and the Good Old Timers, without whom there would be no AA period!

Comment by Vaughn Trott

Recovery rates in the toilet and suicide rates soaring in sobriety…. Well done Liberals!

Comment by John

Don’t keep coming back. STAY! … and work the Steps.

Comment by Ken C. of SAA

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