Chapter 3: The “God Bit”

Chapter 3

The “God” part in the 12 Steps comes from Bill Wilson. The rest of it, “as we understood Him”, was Jim Burwell’s contribution.

But let’s start at the beginning…

AA’s soon-to-be co-founders met on May 12, 1935 (Mother’s Day), with Bill trying to help Dr. Bob sober up at Dr. Bob’s home in Akron, Ohio. Wilson worked away at that for almost a month: it would historically turn out to be one of the most significant recorded examples of one drunk helping another. Dr. Bob took his last drink on June 10, 1935 (a beer to steady his hand for surgery), and this is generally accepted as the founding date of AA.

Burwell

Self-proclaimed atheist, completely against all religion.

In January of 1938, Jim Burwell joined the fellowship.

AA consisted of two groups: one in Akron and the other one in New York. The latter group held one meeting a week, at Bill’s home in Brooklyn, which was attended by six or eight men. Only three men in that group, including Bill, had been sober more than a year. AA was a fledgling organization, to say the least.

Bill and Bob were both members of a Christian revivalist movement, the Oxford Group. “The early meetings were quite religious, in both New York and Akron. There was always a Bible on hand, and the concept of God was all biblical,” Jim reported.

Into that mix came Jim, “their self-proclaimed atheist, completely against all religion”.

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.”

Jim was part of a big battle which took place in 1939 over Alcoholics Anonymous, The Story of How More Than One Hundred Men Have Recovered from Alcoholism (the name of the 1939 edition), commonly known as the Big Book.

Thanks to Jim, two key changes were made: First, the word “God” was changed to “God as we understood Him” in two of the 12 Steps.

Second, and most importantly, the word “suggested” was added to the phrase: “Here are the steps we took, which are ‘suggested’ as a program of recovery.”

It is impossible to even try to explain how important that word has been over the years.

There is no question that Bill came to very much appreciate the contribution of Jim Burwell and the other atheists and agnostics in early AA. As he put it they “had widened our gateway so that all who suffer might pass through, regardless of their belief or lack of belief.”

But was the gateway widened enough? Looking back some eight decades after the humble beginnings of Alcoholics Anonymous, the question has to be asked.

Indeed, the divisions in AA at the time were significant, and they do reflect current problems within the fellowship.

Robert Thomsen’s biography, Bill W., written in 1975, touches on these problems as he describes the late 1930s meetings at Bill Wilson’s home in Brooklyn:

There were agnostics in the Tuesday night group, and several hardcore atheists who objected to any mention of God. On many evenings Bill had to remember his first meeting with Ebby. He’d been told to ask for help from anything he believed in. These men, he could see, believed in each other and in the strength of the group. At some point each of them had been totally unable to stop drinking on his own, yet when two of them had worked at it together, somehow they had become more powerful and they had finally been able to stop. This, then – whatever it was that occurred between them – was what they could accept as a power greater than themselves. (p. 230)

Many of the nonbelievers in this new century are not at all comfortable with the language of the Big Book or of the 12 Steps, language which pre-dates World War II.

And so it is asked, today: What about this “God bit”?

Jim Burwell went on to start AA groups in Philadelphia, Baltimore, and San Diego. Among the first ten members of the fellowship on the East Coast, he is often considered the third founder of AA. Jim is the first agnostic AA member to die sober: His sobriety date was June 15, 1938, and he died on September 8, 1974.


This is by far the shortest chapter in the book and so we take this opportunity to share a few reviews of A History of Agnostics in AA:

What a fine piece of work! You and the dedicated humans who put this together have indelibly furthered the “cause”.
Ken M

I just completed reading A History of Agnostics in AA. I really enjoyed it. The book contains a lot of great information! I particularly liked the “Moving Forward” section and the challenges of getting the conventions off the ground.
Archer Voxx
Author of The Five Keys

It’s a very informative book. I would like to see this book widely circulated in AA.
John S
Webmaster, AA Beyond Belief

In my opinion A History of Agnostics in AA is an important piece of work for AA. Thank you for your service!
Sam E
Chair, International Conference for Secular AA

Roger’s description of our historical and present struggles is excellent and palpable. Reading this book has given me a greater understanding of who we are and where we are going. Thank you, Roger C, for this wonderful book!
Dale K


A History of Agnostics in AAA History of Agnostics in AA is available as a paperback or Kindle eBook at Amazon US and Amazon Canada and also at Amazon United Kingdom.

It is available as an eBook – Kindle or any ePub version – at the BookBaby BookShop. After you log in or sign up and pay via credit card or PayPal you can get the eBook as an ePub or Mobi and download it immediately.

It is also available as an iBook (for a Mac or iPad).

Want to help us get the word out about we agnostics in AA? Just click here:

We want to send copies of the book to trustees, members of the GSO and area delegates and chairpersons and each book, with shipping, costs about $25. The more we share the merrier! (Here is a letter from Michelle Mirza, the Chief Archivist at the General Service Office.) We will let you know by email which AA members have received your complimentary copy of A History of Agnostics in AA. This project – and your help – is an important part of “moving forward” as a secular movement within the fellowship of AA.


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Chapter 3: The “God Bit” — 5 Comments

  1. “There were agnostics in the Tuesday night group, and several hardcore atheists who objected to any mention of God. On many evenings Bill had to remember his first meeting with Ebby. He’d been told to ask for help from anything he believed in. These men, he could see, believed in each other and in the strength of the group. At some point each of them had been totally unable to stop drinking on his own, yet when two of them had worked at it together, somehow they had become more powerful and they had finally been able to stop. This, then – whatever it was that occurred between them – was what they could accept as a power greater than themselves.” (p. 230)

    The Thomsen quote is one of my all time favorites. The atheist/agnostic element in the 1930s was a significant one, albeit not the majority. We hear of Jim B., and Hank, but there were others.

    Robert Thomsen had tremendous direct access to Bill Wilson, more than any other of the biographers. His book was vetted by the powers that be including Lois, so he could not have slipped through any outrageous claims, especially if they ran counter to the party line narrative.

    We must take Thomsen’s numbers, as reported to him by the founder, to be true and accurate.

  2. One other interesting bit of information from this talk given by Jim B in 1957: Jim Burwell from San Diego, CA – History of A.A. (06-15-1957)

    When the big book was published there were only 8 people dry over 6 months.

    So much for “more than one hundred men and women”, many of whom didn’t stay sober anyway. And this got to determine how two million people subsequently worked their recovery.

  3. I came into AA the year before Jim Burwell died and I remember the respect accorded to him especially by a lot of the oldtimers I met. Burwell to me is at least as important a figure as either Bob or Bill and that will become more apparent in the coming years. Suggested Steps!!! Damn right they were suggested and one suggestion I heard a lot was it would be a good idea to get rid of at least half of them. Oh wait though, how will any of us stay sober if we don’t have all that guilt shame and recrimination to get through. Easy. Skip the dumb steps. There’s a bunch of them and they’re not hard to find.

  4. Roger, thanks for this. Yes it is short. I guess this chapter in particular could have been expanded with some talk of all the dishonesty that went into writing of the AA literature.

    There is the story of Ed in Tradition 3 of the 12×12 who one night finds himself in a hotel room with a copy of gideon’s bible, and finally realizes he has become a believer, and this story is really a complete fabrication by Bill, and it is supposedly about Jim Burwell.

    And, (repeating myself, since I just wrote this, more or less, on AA Beyond Belief last week) so far as we know Jim B remained a staunch non-believer for the rest of his life, and a sober member – when you read his story “The Vicious Cycle” there is all this god talk anyway:

    …and I saw for the first time that those who really believed, or at least tried to find a Power greater than themselves were much more composed and contented than I had ever been, and they seemed to have a degree of happiness which I had never known.

    This could of course just be a humble observation which I can even subscribe to myself, except that my agnosticism hasn’t vanished, and I don’t think Jim’s did either.

    The story even ends with “… by the grace of God as I understand Him, I will retain a happy sobriety.”

    This story was not part of the first edition,and since the second edition was published in 1955 by which time it seems everyone would have jockeyed for position, and so, since I’m not a real AA historian, but I went and read in Bob K’s book, it seems to indicate that Jim remained a staunch non-believer – the puzzling thing is that Jim’s story would appear in the big book with all that god stuff in there.

    By 1955 it seems to me Bill Wilson had not yet softened his stance on the religiosity a whole lot yet, so how much browbeating did he do to Jim in order for Jim to get his story in there? It’s hard to believe that he really would have written all that god stuff without some coercion or how did it get in there? Does anyone know of a place where this stuff was discussed with Jim B?

    Just seems like we don’t have the whole story here.

  5. Great to have so much put down in a book. Working together w/another long time AA member to start another (secular, freethinkers) meeting in Monterey area. The book is a valuable tool & encouragement to do so.
    Grateful! Teresa