The Origins of the 12 Steps

Man on Bed III

By Roger C.

One alcoholic talking to another (Step 12)

It all began in the waning months of 1934.

Bill W, an incorrigible inebriate nearing the end of his rope, was visited at his home by Ebby T, a former school mate and friend. Ebby was no stranger to alcohol and had done time in jail and mental hospitals to prove it.

Bill expected to spend the day drinking and reliving old times with his friend but Ebby would have none of it. He had found sobriety and wanted instead to share his “experience, strength and hope” with Bill. “On a chill November afternoon in 1934 it was Ebby who had brought me the message that saved my life,” Bill would later say in his eulogy to his old friend.

But that salvation was not quite immediate. Waving a bottle of beer, Bill staggered up the steps of the Towns Hospital for Alcohol and Drug Addiction for his fourth and last time on the afternoon of December 11, 1934. Ebby visited him there on December 14 and once again carried his message of sobriety to his friend. Bill never drank again after Towns Hospital and understood that the experience of “one alcoholic talking to another” had been the key to his sobriety.

Indeed, four months later Bill would carry the message to another alcoholic. On a business trip to Akron, Ohio, afraid he might relapse, Bill arranged a meeting with Dr Bob S. It certainly was an experience of one alcoholic talking to another: Dr Bob had insisted the meeting be limited to 15 minutes but was so moved by Bill’s understanding and the fact that he shared from his own personal experience that the discussion lasted six hours.

Bill stayed at Dr Bob’s home working with him from May 12 to June 10, 1935, when Dr Bob took his last drink.

Bill and Dr Bob, of course, are recognized as the co-founders of Alcoholics Anonymous. And June 10, 1935, is generally considered the founding date of AA – an acknowledgment that “in the kinship of common suffering, one alcoholic talking to another” would forever be the fundamental principle of the fellowship of AA.

This principle is given prominence as the last step of the 12 Steps. “Carrying the message” in AA is the foundation of a life of sobriety. AA meetings are most often organized around a speaker or a discussion where alcoholics are provided with an opportunity to share with each other. There are no lectures in AA; the need for them is obviated by the “sharing circle” and the insights derived therefrom. The centrality of this principle was understood and acknowledged by all in early AA, well before the fellowship was called “AA” and before the “Big Book,” Alcoholics Anonymous, was published.

Transformation (The Middle Steps)

The difference between an alcoholic who needs help and an alcoholic who might be able to provide it is transformation.

Recovery from alcoholism is more often than not about change. That change involves a shift in the way the alcoholic understands the world around her or him as well as how the other people in that world are understood and treated.

Steps 2 through 11 are meant to be the means to bring about that change.

Most 12 Steppers would agree with the above. However, how this transformation is understood varies from one person to the next.

In AA, there were from the very beginning two different ways of understanding this transformation; one of them was religious and the other psychological.

The Oxford Group

The religious interpretation comes from the Oxford Group, a Christian evangelical movement that had its heyday in the 1930s.

Ebby T had been bailed out, literally, by members of an Oxford Group. Facing incarceration in a mental institution for public drunkenness, Ebby was placed in the care of three members of an Oxford Group and was then residing at the Group’s base in the Calvary Rescue Mission in New York, not too far from where Bill lived.

It was the Oxford Group message that Ebby brought to Bill in 1934. Bill would later report that “early AA got its ideas of self-examination, acknowledgment of character defects, restitution for harm done, and working with others straight from the Oxford Groups.” (Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age, p. 39)

And God. The idea of God comes from the Oxford Group.

In the Steps as they were published in 1939, half of the Steps contain a reference to God. The first is a reference to “a Power greater than ourselves” (Step 2), two refer to “God, as we understood Him” (Steps 3 and 11), another two simply say “God” (Steps 5 and 6) and one refers to God as “Him” (Step 7).

That’s a lot of God for a few short sentences.

Moreover, this is a specific, theistic, conception of God. Theism conceives of God as personal and active in the governance of the world. In the Steps, one can have “conscious contact with God” (Step 11) and God can do things such as remove our defects of character and our shortcomings (Steps 6 and 7). This interventionist God (the Big Book says that “God could and would if He were sought”), derived from the Oxford Group, is a Christian conception of God.

Many of the Steps also recommend behaviours that have historically been part of religious practice. These include self-surrender (Step 3: “Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God”); confession of sins (Step 5: “Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being”); atonement or restitution (Steps 8 and 9: “Made a list… (and) made direct amends… wherever possible”); and spreading the gospel (Step 12: “we tried to carry this message”).

“The substantive faith set forth in especially the first three Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous,” Ernest Kurtz wrote in his classic and authoritative work on the history of AA, “was in salvation attained through a conversion, the pre-condition of which was the act of surrender.” (Not God: A History of Alcoholics Anonymous, p. 182)

The relationship between the Oxford Group and AA is described in Chapter VIII (The Context of the History of Religious Ideas), of Kurtz’s book, a must-read for those interested in the religiosity of AA.

He describes the “Evangelical Pietism” of the Oxforders. The “evangelical” part involves a fervour for carrying the message of the gift of an omnipotent God. The “pietist” part expresses an aversion to the idea that humans are sufficient unto themselves.  These ideas blossomed in the mid-1930s and were present in the Oxford Group and influenced a nascent AA. 

From an Oxfordian point of view, real sobriety – not one of the “dry drunk” variety - was in essence salvation, the result of a religious conversion.

Rowland H. was one of the Oxford Groupers who had rescued Ebby from being committed to a mental institution. Rowland had been told by Carl Jung that he was an incurable alcoholic. The only thing that could save him was conversion; alcoholics of his kind could only be saved by vital spiritual experiences: “huge emotional displacements and rearrangements. Ideas, emotions and attitudes which were once the guiding forces of the lives of these men are suddenly cast to one side, and a completely new set of conceptions and motives begin to dominate them.” (Alcoholics Anonymous, p. 27)

A few days after Ebby visited him at his home, Bill showed up in a drunken state at the Calvary Rescue Mission in search of his friend. It was his first Oxford Group meeting. “Something touched me. I guess it was more than that. I was hit.” Not long afterward he was at the Towns Hospital, where he had his own “white light” conversion experience, the kind of vital spiritual experience that Jung had described to Rowland H. “After that experience, he never again doubted the existence of God.” (Pass It On, p. 121) Coming out of the Towns Hospital, Bill was a committed member of the Oxford Groups.

Listening to audio tapes of Bill W today, it often seems that when he talks about God what he is saying more than anything else is that he, Bill, is not in charge, that it’s not him deciding to take one breath after another, it’s not him deciding that his heart will beat or continue to beat, or won’t. In a sense when Bill talks about the “grace of God” what he seems to be suggesting is that there is a certain gratuitousness to existence and we ought to be thankful even though we are not in control for the chance to experience it, life, as we know it.

Still, the word “God” (or “Power” or “Him”) appears six times in the Steps and the practices described have historically been designed to win redemption, that is, to satisfy the demands of a judgmental and interventionist deity. That they might also help to allay the cravings of an incorrigible alcoholic seems something of an accident, an idea that falls into the category of an afterthought.

The Steps, as inherited from the Oxford Group, are religious. They may also be “spiritual” but they are definitely religious (that is, affiliated with a certain group and creed). To suggest otherwise demonstrates a poor understanding of history and of the facts and is disingenuous at best.

This is certainly the opinion of the high courts in the United States. They have repeatedly reviewed the evidence at hand and concluded that “a fair reading of the fundamental A.A. doctrinal writings discloses that their dominant theme is unequivocally religious.” (New York Court of Appeals, 1996) You can read more about these court rulings, and their implications, at AA Agnostica: The Courts, AA and Religion.

But does that mean an alcoholic has to “get religion” to use the 12 Steps to bring about a transformation that will nurture and protect a life of sobriety?

Not on your life.

Agnostics and Atheists

From Bill’s earliest attempts to articulate – and enumerate – a path of recovery from alcoholism, there have been many restatements and qualifications of the Steps, and of their meaning and intent.

Between the first printing of the first edition of Alcoholics Anonymous: The Story of How More Than One Hundred Men Have Recovered From Alcoholism (the original title of the book) in April, 1939, and the second printing two years later in March, 1941, it became evident that a restatement of the principles of the AA program of recovery was essential. That objective was achieved with the addition of Appendix II: Spiritual Experience.

The appendix clarifies the nature of the transformation necessary for recovery from alcoholism: “Though it was not our intention to create such an impression, many alcoholics have nevertheless concluded that in order to recover they must acquire an immediate and overwhelming ‘God-consciousness’ followed at once by a vast change in feeling and outlook.” The correction comes next: “Most of our experiences are what the psychologist William James calls the ‘educational variety’ because they develop slowly over a period of time.”

Let’s skip back a few years: Before Bill left Towns Hospital for the last time, Ebby brought him a copy of William James’ book, The Varieties of Religious Experience. For James, religious experience was valuable because of what it said about our human nature and psychology. James was very popular among the earliest AAers, in large part because his Varieties was in many ways the bridge between those who viewed the changes necessary for recovery as religious and those who saw them as purely psychological, or “spiritual,” if you will, certainly devoid of religious creed or affiliation.

The appendix makes this link as well; spiritual experience or awakening is equated with a personality change. This change need be neither sudden nor religious, nor does it of necessity involve a God.

In sum, and in line with a purely psychological understanding, the salvation of an alcoholic depends upon a “personality change sufficient to bring about recovery from alcoholism.”

Anybody can work with that.

Let’s back up a bit now to the early days of AA…

In the first few years of AA, before this appendix was added and before the publication and printing of the 12 Steps, the fellowship – then one group in each of New York, Akron and Cleveland –  shared a “word-of-mouth” recovery program.

As Bill put it (Where Did The Twelve Steps Come From, AA Grapevine, 1953):

As we commenced to form a society separate from the Oxford Group, we began to state our principles something like this:

  1. We admitted that we were powerless over alcohol.
  2. We got honest with ourselves.
  3. We got honest with another person, in confidence.
  4. We made amends for harms done others.
  5. We worked with other alcoholics without demand for prestige or money.
  6. We prayed to God to help us to do these things as best we could.

This was the gist of our message to incoming alcoholics up to 1939, when our present Twelve Steps were put to paper.

Six steps! And this word-of-mouth program is more secular than religious – “God” is mentioned only in the last step.

Looking back, these “Steps” must have worked very well for those men then in the fellowship. Those with a religious inclination had their God in the last step. And the radical atheists and agnostics and the liberals in the middle would have had a perfectly workable psychological program of recovery. Moreover, “these principles were advocated according to the whim or liking of each of us,” Bill added.

So why mess with perfection and draft a new 12 Step program?

The fellowship was working on the book that would come to be called Alcoholics Anonymous (although at the time the more popular title was The Way Out), and they had arrived at Chapter Five, which would be named “How it Works” and would include the program of recovery.

Bill remembers: “I split the word-of-mouth program up into smaller pieces… I was surprised that in a short time, perhaps half an hour, I had set down certain principles which, on being, counted, turned out to be twelve in number.” So that’s where the 12 Steps come from. Bill continues, “For some unaccountable reason, I had moved the idea of God into the Second Step, right up front. Besides I had named God very liberally throughout the other steps. In one of the steps I had even suggested that the newcomer get down on his knees.”

Just goes to show: the Steps you end up with depend upon the guy or gal who sits down to write them. 

The result was predictable and well-deserved.

When the document was shown to our New York meeting the protests were many and loud. Our agnostic friends didn’t go at all for the idea of kneeling. Others said we were talking all too much about God. And anyhow, why should there be twelve steps when we had done fine on six? Let’s keep it simple, they said. This sort of heated discussion went on for days and nights.

Eventually, a compromise was reached. Kneeling was removed from Step 7. In Step 2 “God” was changed to “a Power greater than ourselves.” In Steps 3 and 11, and directly attributed to the agnostics Hank P and Jim B (you can read Jim’s story on the AA Agnostica website: Jim Burwell), “God” was changed to “God as we understood Him.” Finally, and this was perhaps the clincher, “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 AACA, p. 167)

Bill called the compromise a “ten-strike,” which presumably has something to do with bowling, and added:

Such were the final concessions to those of little or no faith; this was the great contribution of our atheists and agnostics. They had widened our gateway so that all who suffer might pass through, regardless of their belief or lack of belief.

In hindsight, it was certainly not a “ten-strike.” The ball didn’t end up in the gutter but it turned out to be more of a “split,” with pins on both sides and far apart, rather than a “ten-strike.”

God as we understood Him. Certainly the expressions “God as we understood Him” and “a Power greater than ourselves” are an invitation to interpret the meaning of the Steps. In fact, interpretation is not an option, but a matter of necessity.

For the non-believer, this power or God is generally understood as the internal or external resource or resources accessed and relied upon to get sober and maintain sobriety.

Along these lines, a cultural anthropologist – not even discussing the 12 Steps of AA - once observed:

We always rely on something that transcends us, some system of ideas and powers in which we are embedded and which support us. This power is not always obvious. It need not be overtly a god…It can be the power of an all-absorbing activity, a passion, a dedication to a game, a way of life… (Ernest Becker, The Denial of Death, p. 55)

This is a psychological understanding of a higher power writ large.

And so agnostic and atheist AAers have been known to talk about GOD as “Good Orderly Direction” or a “Group of Drunks.”

That’s arduous though. It’s awkward, to say the least, given the explicit religiosity of the Steps. 

One can with rigorous honesty write a personal version of the Steps or share a group’s alternative Steps. One agnostic version represents the God of Step 3 like this, for example: “Made a decision to entrust our will and our lives to the care of the collective wisdom and resources of those who have searched before us.” That, or something very similar to that, has worked for many a recovering alcoholic in AA.

A suggested program of recovery.  There are no requirements for membership in AA. The Steps are not mandatory. A person makes a personal choice to “work the Steps,” or not.

And if a newcomer or an old-timer chooses to do the Steps and the God part is an obstacle to recovery, then it should be removed or replaced. As the author of the Steps said:

We must remember that AA’s Steps are suggestions only. A belief in them as they stand is not at all a requirement for membership among us. This liberty has made AA available to thousands who never would have tried at all, had we insisted on the Twelve Steps just as written. (AACA, p. 81)

AA is first and foremost a fellowship, “one alcoholic talking to another;” it is not a program. It has a program, a “suggested” program, and doesn’t claim privileged insights into recovery from alcoholism.

The important thing in getting sober and maintaining sobriety is the “personality change sufficient to bring about recovery from alcoholism.”

How that change is achieved varies from one person to the next.

Powerlessness over alcohol does not mean that an alcoholic is powerless over the decisions that are key to her or his recovery and life.

However, we’re jumping ahead: “powerlessness” is the topic of the final section of this essay, a section devoted to the first of the twelve Steps…

Meanwhile, the agnostics and atheists in AA back in the late 30s and 40s got on with their lives, their lives in sobriety and in AA, after the publication of the 12 Steps. And they did it – of course – according to their own “whim and liking.”

One of the better known atheists of the day was Jim B. He is credited with the “as we understood Him” in both Steps 3 and 11 and with Tradition Three: “The only requirement for AA membership is a desire to stop drinking.”

Jim presented quite a challenge to the group, as he later wrote in Sober for Thirty Years. “I started fighting nearly all the things Bill and the others stood for, especially religion, the ‘God bit.’ But I did want to stay sober, and I did love the understanding Fellowship.”

At one point, his group held a prayer meeting to decide what to do with him. “The consensus seems to have been that they hoped I would either leave town or get drunk.”

Over time though there was a change in Jim. A transformation, if you will. It could hardly be called a conversion. Soon he took a kinder attitude towards the other members of the Group who believed in a God. Perhaps their belief did help them stay sober, he mused: “Who am I to say?” And that became his new approach to those with views contrary to his own.

An exemplary, if not essential, attitude in the rooms of AA.

But that does not mean he “got religion.” Jim B went on to start AA groups in Philadelphia, Baltimore and San Diego. As Clarence Snyder, a founder of the first AA group in Cleveland reported: “Jimmy remained steadfast, throughout his life and ‘preached’ his particular brand of AA wherever he went.” (How It Worked: The Story of Clarence H. Snyder and the Early Days of Alcoholics Anonymous in Cleveland, Ohio, p. 107)

Another agnostic member of the New York AA group was Ray W. On a business trip to San Francisco, he also planned to meet with some alcoholics to get them started in AA. Bill got him to bring the new book, Alcoholics Anonymous, with him and when he gave copies to the alcoholics, he told them: “Now boys, this AA is great stuff. It really saved my life. But there’s one feature of it I don’t like. I mean this God business. So when you read the book, you can skip that part of it.” (AACA, p. 88)

Hitting Bottom (Step 1)

Before the first meeting, no one ever thinks it would be lovely to spend a lot evenings in the rooms of AA with a bunch of alcoholics.

But that’s what a good number of women and men do.

The cause of this affinity for AA meetings is described as “hitting bottom.” The alcoholic – often after years of denial – comes to the end of the rope, and this can be both a psychological and physical cul de sac from which there is only one way out: the rooms of AA.

This idea of hitting bottom was given credence in William James book, The Varieties of Religious Experience. Reading it in the Town’s Hospital after it had been passed on to him by Ebby, Bill was especially struck by this: “In most of the cases described (in the book), those who had been transformed were hopeless people. In some controlling area of their lives they had met absolute defeat.” (The Language of the Heart, p. 197)

Bill described this as “deflation at depth,” a term he thought, erroneously, that he had got from James.

While at Towns Hospital, Bill was under the care of a rather remarkable physician, a specialist in addiction and the Medical Director of the hospital, Dr. William Silkworth.

Silkworth, watching Bill flounder in his efforts to help other alcoholics, urged him to emphasize “hitting bottom” and to talk about the medical and other catastrophes related to drinking, as a first step in helping other alcoholics to deal with their affliction.

Bill, you’ve got the cart before the horse. You’ve got to deflate these people first. So give them the medical business, and give it to them hard. Pour it right into them about the obsession that condemns them to drink and the physical sensitivity or allergy of the body that condemns them to go mad or die if they keep on drinking. Coming from an alcoholic, one alcoholic talking to another, maybe that will crack those tough egos deep down. (AACA, p. 68)

Silkworth was the first 20th century medical doctor to hold that alcoholism was a physical illness, rather than the result of some form of moral failure. In the thirties, shortly after the end of the temperance movement, this was a revolutionary idea. “Physically, a man has developed an illness,” he wrote of the alcoholic. “He cannot use alcohol in moderation, at least not for a period of enduring length. If the alcoholic starts to drink, he sooner or later develops the phenomenon of craving.”

This will sound eerily familiar to a person with some experience in the rooms of AA. It was the doctor’s first publication and appeared on March 17, 1937, in the Medical Record under the title Alcoholism as a Manifestation of Allergy.

In arguing that it is the direct result of a physical and medical problem, Silkworth asserted that true alcoholism is “the result of gradually increasing sensitization by alcohol over a more or less extended period of time” until the condition is fully established.   

Silkworth wrote that the alcoholic can go for years without a drink, but she is not free: “a single drink will develop the full symptomatology again.”

His opinion is rather well summarized here: “The patient cannot use alcohol at all for physiological reasons. He must understand and accept the situation as a law of nature operating inexorably.”

Dr. Silkworth also wrote The Doctor’s Opinion in The Big Book.

There it is then, Step 1: “We admitted that we were powerless over alcohol – that our lives had become unmanageable.” It comes directly from William James and the Medical Director of the Towns Hospital, William Silkworth.

This piece on The Origins of the 12 Steps began at the Towns Hospital, and will now end back at the Towns Hospital.

Let us briefly summarize our findings. We have in AA a program of recovery based on the simple principle of one alcoholic talking to another. And we have Steps –  understood in a variety of ways – that can result in a personality change sufficient to bring about and support a life free from alcohol. That’s if – and this was our final point – if the alcoholic remembers that alcoholism is a physical affliction that simply will not allow her or him to pick up that first drink.

We move on now from these beginnings, these origins. We go forward, one simple step at a time

This essay is included in The Little Book: A Collection of Alternative 12 Steps which is available here: Recovery 101.

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