By Thomas B.
Recently at an AA meeting I became aware of something which in my previous 40 plus years of continuous recovery, I had missed. On page 164 of the Big Book, AA is described by Bill as a Fellowship of the Spirit, capital F & capital S!
A Fellowship of the Spirit resonates deeply with me, since early on, as described in First AA Meetings, I have considered my higher power to be: G-O-D — Group Of Drunk/Druggies. During the last couple of years, however, I’ve experienced AA to be morphing into something other than a Fellowship of the Spirit. Increasingly, it is becoming a Fellowship of the Religious — rigidly and dogmatically reflecting the Christian religion.
Two former Chairpersons of the General Service Board agree with this assessment. Bob Pearson in 1986 warned that, “If you were to ask me what is the greatest danger facing AA today, I would have to answer: the growing rigidity.” Last year, shortly after he left as Chairperson, the Reverend Ward Ewing, an Episcopalian priest, in an extended interview with Joe C. (mentioned again in last week’s article) had this to say about ending the 2010 AA World Conference in San Antonio with the Lord’s Prayer: “I was surprised and frankly I was a little shocked. Again, I consider myself reasonably religious and I want you to be religious but don’t try to make A.A. religious.”
The dynamic between the Christian religious orientation of AA in Akron, reflecting the evangelical, pietistic Oxford Group ideology and a more open-ended and non-dogmatic spirituality has been a consistent theme in the evolution of AA’s history since its earliest days, when Jim Burwell and Hank Parkhurst in the fledging New York group were instrumental in widening the door of AA, so that any alcoholic with or without belief could find recovery within AA. During the past 25 or so years, however, there has been a resurgence of reverting back to the a more religiously oriented AA as it existed in the Oxford Group meetings of AA in Akron between 1935 and 1939.
A couple of weeks ago, I was speaking with a guy in my home group, our GSR, whose long-term recovery I deeply admire. He asked me what I thought about Wally P. and the “Back to Basics” movement. I told him I didn’t know specifically about Wally P., but that I would look into it.
When I got home, I googled Wally P. Yup, just as I suspected, Wally Paton, the creator of “Back to Basics” is part of what I designate as “The Working the Steps Cottage Industry,” which has been an integral part of AA from its earliest history. The focus of this article is to examine this history and the recent exponential resurgence of a more religious approach within the fellowship of Alcoholics Anonymous.
AA’s First Evangelist, Clarence Snyder
Clarence Snyder, an AA pioneer whose last drink was February 11, 1938, was sponsored by Dr. Bob and the originator of Cleveland’s Group No. 3. Mitchell K, one of many avocational AA historians, myself included, became acquainted with Clarence after several years of being sober, although mostly very alone, isolated and alienated. Through a fellow contact in the AA Loners Program, he connected with Clarence in 1980 and asked him to be his sponsor. After several requests, Clarence eventually discerned that Mitchell was “ready” and agreed to sponsor him. Here’s how he describes what happened, when Clarence took him through the steps:
When I got up off of my knees in that hotel room on April 4, 1981, I was a new man. The old had been washed away and I had been reborn . . . He told me that my ministry was to “fix rummies.” I was told that if a rummy wanted what I had, I was to tell them about, and introduce them to that Power greater than myself. The same power Dr. Bob had introduced him to. The same Great Physician, Dr. Silkworth had told those alcoholics who were declared hopeless could “cure” them. That Power, that Great Physician, was the Christ — Jesus. (Preface, How It Worked)
In 1983, Clarence asked Mitchell to write his biography to correct what he thought were misconceptions published by GSO in Dr. Bob and the Good Oldtimers. Entitled How It Worked, cited above, it was self-published by Mitchell in 1991.
Mitchell K. presents Clarence’s AA program as first and foremost being rooted in what Harvard-trained AA historian Ernest Kurtz, PhD, describes in his doctoral dissertation, Not-God: A History of Alcoholics Anonymous, as “Akron-style AA,” which closely follows the methodology of the Oxford Group movement during the 1930s. Clarence’s recovery is based almost exclusively on the first 164 pages of the Big Book, which is superseded in importance only by the Bible. He claimed that he was the true founder of AA, because the first meeting called “Alcoholics Anonymous” took place under his leadership during May of 1939 in Cleveland, shortly after the publication of the first edition of the Big Book.
Throughout his life, Clarence continued to espouse the Four Absolutes of the Oxford Group Movement — Absolute Honesty, Purity, Unselfishness and Love. He was openly skeptical about the need for the Twelve Traditions, often breaking his anonymity in public at the level of press, radio and TV.
Mitchell K. devotes a whole chapter to what he calls “The Orthodox Movement,” which evolved during the 1950s after Dr. Bob died. The chapter includes a section titled “Back to the Basics.” Original Akron AA members Clarence, Bill D., AA #3, the man on the bed, and others along with Henrietta Seiberling formed the loose-knit movement. They were gravely concerned that AA was evolving away from Oxford Group Christian ideology. Here’s how Mitchell K. describes their purpose:
The Orthodox Movement’s goals were to keep the AA movement true to its original intent and purpose. Orthodox members felt that the new direction which AA was beginning to take would water down or dilute the effectiveness and success which the movement to that date had achieved.
Henrietta Seiberling was especially critical of Bill Wilson remarking, “A lot of people up here are buffaloed into being “WWs” (Wilson Worshipers) instead of AAs… Bill will stand exposed for the show-off that he is.”
Clarence summarized the method of how Akron AA worked as, “Trust God, Clean House, Help Others.” On the other hand, he derisively described New York AA as, “Don’t drink and go to meetings.” Actually, that’s not an accurate assessment of New York AA — it’s don’t drink, go to meetings and help others!
From the 1960s until he died in March of 1984, Clarence traveled throughout the United States, giving numerous talks and formal retreats. He related how Dr. Bob sponsored him, and how AA, first in Akron and then in Cleveland, was actively involved in “carrying the message of recovery and leading people to his Lord, Jesus Christ,” as Mitchell K. describes it.
Further, Clarence thought the Twelve Concepts of Service and the organization of GSO was complicating the simple message of recovery Dr. Bob taught him. When Bill Wilson died in January of 1971, he graciously offered his assistance to the General Service Office, presumably to help them revert back to the “Keep it simple” program he fervently believed his sponsor, Dr. Bob, had rightly promoted. GSO politely declined his assistance.
Proselytizing in the 60s and 70s
Tom Powers was another notable AA pioneer. Sponsored by Bill W, he became permanently clean and sober on October 10, 1946. He helped Bill edit the second edition of the Big Book, as well as write Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions. However, he and Bill W. had a falling out over Bill’s infidelities and inability to stop smoking.
Powers went on to found a treatment center in East Ridge, New York during the early 1960s, which utilized a methodology akin to the Akron AA way of working the steps, called All Addictions Recovery. Powers and his son, Tom P., Jr. wrote an article, Gresham’s Law & Alcoholics Anonymous, in which they contend that just as bad currency drives out good currency, weak and medium recovery dilute and drive out strong recovery. Strong recovery, in their opinion, is the original Christian-oriented Oxford Group methodology.
The Powers followed the beliefs of another early Oxford Group member, who was also most influential in Wally P’s “Back to Basics” program, James Houck. Houck proclaims that by working the original four steps of the Oxford Group — Surrender, Sharing, Restitution and Guidance — one could be cured of all addictions, to include “smoking, womanizing and drug addiction!”
Another extremely popular and widely spread method of studying the Big Book is the Joe and Charlie Big Book Seminars. Begun in 1973, these seminars have been supplemented by an extensive network of alcoholism and drug treatment programs under the aegis of the Kelly Foundation. They also publish extensive “Recovery Dynamics” materials that are based on the original “Akron AA” methodology of working the steps. Google, Bing or Yahoo “Joe and Charlie Big Book Seminars” — most of the entries on the first five pages connect you to venues, where one can view, buy and/or obtain materials used by Joe and Charlie in what has become a thriving business empire.
The Working the Steps Cottage Industry Exponentially Expands
For the past 25 years, so-called “Primary Purpose” and “Back to Basic” methods of intensely studying the Big Book have expanded massively, resulting in a widespread cottage industry of publishing and treatment ventures throughout North America. What failed to gain traction during the 1950s, “The Orthodox Movement,” lately has exponentially expanded. In addition to Wally P’s Back to Basics they include:
- Big Book Study Groups
- The Jaywalker Site
- All Addictions 12 Step Study Workshops
- Step Study Teams
- The Big Book Muckers
Big Book Muckers are an interesting group started in Toronto in 1995. They intensely study the Big Book, parsing each phrase of each sentence to discover the inherent meaning to discern if one is a “real alcoholic.” Muckers and other Oxford Group oriented believers hold that a “real alcoholic” can only be “recovered,” or cured, by the grace of the heavenly Father as mediated by his son, Jesus Christ.
Another prolific writer dealing with AA origins in the Oxford Group is a retired lawyer and member of AA, based in Hawaii, who extensively publishes under the pen name of Dick B. Another self-proclaimed AA historian, Dick B. has published 46 books and some 1600 articles, which support and reflect the Christian roots of AA that led to the publication of the first edition of Alcoholics Anonymous with its striking red, yellow, black & white book jacket. In addition to his writing, Dick B. has evolved a veritable empire of interrelated corporations. These include the following endeavors:
- Christian Recovery Radio
- Freedom Ranch Maui Incorporated
- A dual-armed publishing venture, Paradise Publications, Inc. and the Good Book Publishing Company
- and last, but certainly not least, Dick B.’s Banners.
In my small seacoast town on the Oregon coast every year a good number of men and women do a Step Study Team year after year after year. They vigorously examine themselves in minute detail as diligently as Rabbis down through the ages have parsed the oral and written Torah or with the rigorous precision that Medieval monks discussed the numbers of angels on the head of a pin. They derive much benefit from this yearly ritual, and I am most grateful that it works for them.
For myself, however, my recovery practice is not so much to “work the Steps” — rather, I daily strive to practice the principles, or virtues, that are derived from the Steps such as, forgiveness, mindfulness, gratitude, honesty, open-mindedness and willingness, etc.
The AA Speaker Circuit
Since AA’s earliest days, multitudes of speakers, including both Bill and Bob, as well as many pioneers in the evolution of AA, have spoken on the so-called AA speaker circuit. As AA expanded, so did statewide and regional AA conferences, sometimes called Round-ups, even national and international conferences. Notable AA speakers were invited to address these various forums. Today, vast reservoirs exist of tapes and CDs, DVDs, even down-loadable MP3s and YouTube videos from the Internet, of numerous AA speakers, as well as speakers from Alanon, NA, CODA, ACA and many other 12-step programs. Here’s just one extensive compendium of AA and other 12-step recovery speakers, 12Step.org.
An infamous example of AA circuit speakers is Charles Dederich, an AA member in Los Angeles, who founded Synanon, a most successful “Tough Love” drug-rehab program. However, it devolved into a paranoid, destructive entity, which faced a multitude of legal charges, and closed its doors in 1991.
Currently, a notable AA elder statesman, Clancy I. has been alleged to have possibly created a widespread cult of personality within mainstream AA. Sober since October 31, 1958, and Managing Director since 1974 of the Midnight Mission on LA’s skid row, Clancy is invited to speak at AA gatherings all over the US and Canada. In addition to the article linked above about Synanon, Clancy and his home group, the Pacific Group, is also a major focus of another FIX article, AA Cults I Have Known.
Since 2009, recovering alcoholics in Alcoholics Anonymous (Great Britain) Ltd, have written a blog called aacultwatch, which traces the intrusion of the “Back to Basics” movement throughout AA in England. They conducted an extensive analysis of the rise of this phenomena, An Enquiry Into Primary Purpose and Back to Basics AA Groups, both in the US and in Great Britain. It covers the same general content of this article, but in exquisite detail, with footnoted references to a cornucopia of materials available online. Here is their conclusion:
A loosely connected international network of websites has created a “virtual” Primary Purpose intergroup, facilitating the global communication of an ideology and a cause which comes from literature and website sources outside of AA. This website network has enabled the formation of affiliated AA groups in at least eleven countries, by like minded AA members who share this ideology and cause. This cause appears to be the introduction of Oxford Group principles and methods, which were criticized by Bill W. as not being inclusive to all alcoholics, and to teach an interpretation of the AA programme, sourced from outside of the group conscience of AA.
One of several articles on the website is a data-packed analysis of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) Recovery Rates initially published by the Grapevine in 2008 for AA members and academics. The authors describe its purpose in the Foreword, thusly:
“Nothing is more responsible for the good old days than a bad memory”
Franklin P Adams (1881-1960)
This paper addresses an erroneous myth that AA is experiencing a 5% (or less) “success rate” today as opposed to either a 50%, 70%, 75%, 80% or 93% (take your pick) “success rate” it once reputedly enjoyed in the 1940s and 1950s. The term “myth” is used to emphasize that the low “success rates” promulgated are a product of imagination, invention and inattention to detail rather than fact-based research.
The Back to Basics crowd fervently believe that formerly in “the good old days” the Oxford Group methodology of AA yielded between 50% and 93% success rates, whereas currently AA experiences a mere 5% or less.
Is propaganda generated by Primary Purpose and Back To Basics ideology overtly influencing Intergroup Offices and the General Service Conference in North America?
We all know too much about the sad history of Intergroup Associations delisting agnostic groups. I recently became aware that Clancy I. spoke at a Toronto Roundup shortly before the Toronto Intergroup Office first delisted the Toronto groups, Beyond Belief and We Agnostics.
No doubt, another factor was the distribution among Toronto Intergroup representatives of “The White Paper,” written by an anonymous member with some 40 years of recovery from Florida, who parrots much of the “Back to Basics” ideology. One of the most incendiary comments he makes in his 28-page screed against AA meetings for agnostics and atheists is, “I would rather hear about serving beer at meetings than diminishing God’s central role.” (The White Paper)
In another place he proclaims:
However, as we all know, the spiritual path continuously gets narrower and narrower, thereby becoming less inclusive of our old ideas. To make progress, we have to move away from our will (ideas) and towards God’s. The entrance door to AA may be infinitely wide, but the entrance to the 4th dimension of existence is a very narrow beam… Sobriety is not the name of the game, God is.
His recommendation for us groups of non-believers is to form a separate organization to advocate and announce our meetings, just like Alcoholics Victorious does for fervently devout fundamentalist Christians.
When I approached the Portland, Oregon Intergroup Office manager, last month about listing our Sunday Beyond Belief meeting, we had a “debate,” as he termed it, as to whether we are really an AA group. He seemed to reflect the same rationale of “The White Paper,” and it is his opinion, which he says reflects the group conscience of the Intergroup representatives, that we are not an AA group. Therefore, our meeting won’t be listed in print or online by the Portland Area Intergroup Office.
Can AA continue as a “Fellowship of the Spirit,” noted in the second to last paragraph of the first 164 of Alcoholics Anonymous? Traditionally, I believe this is how AA has functioned for most of it’s 79 year history. Further, from my reading of AA literature, other than the Big Book, and my knowledge of the history of AA, I also firmly believe that this was the intention of both AA cofounders, Dr. Bob and Bill, as well as the wish of a significant portion of AA’s current worldwide membership.
Or, shall AA become increasingly fundamentalist and evangelical Christian only, which the original members of the Akron Oxford Group mostly were?
I certainly hope not. However, when I read again the rest of page 164, as well the theistic language throughout the preceding pages of the Big Book, there certainly seems to be a pervasive emphasis on the necessity to find and acknowledge God as the one and only source of one’s recovery. For example, on page 162 alone “God, He or Him” is mentioned a total of 10 times. Further, it is proclaimed, “This is the Great Fact for us.”
I’m dismayed by how much AA appears to be reverting “back to the basics” of its evangelical Christian origins in the Oxford Group movement. Nevertheless, following the suggestion of our Responsibility Declaration, I shall continue to speak my non-religious truth and share my 41 years of experience of godless recovery through the grace of the AA Fellowship of the Spirit.