Twentieth Century Influences on AA

By bob k

It is fairly common knowledge that there are religious roots to AA. Much has been written about our earliest existence as part of the Christian revivalist Oxford Group. From Carl Jung comes the need in the chronic alcoholic for some form of “spiritual awakening.” These awakenings are also described as “huge emotional displacements and rearrangements,” “personality changes,” “a profound alteration in his reaction to life,” and the like. One man’s miracle is another’s psychology.

Our great medical benefactor, Dr. William Silkworth also was more convinced of the power of belief, than belief in the Power. “We doctors have known for a long time that some form of ‘moral psychology’ was of urgent importance to alcoholics.” Silkworth’s first letter to the fledgling Alcoholics Anonymous refers to Bill Wilson’s new plan of treatment for alcoholics. the core being presenting “his conceptions to other alcoholics, impressing upon them that they must do likewise with still others.”

The Common Sense of DrinkingHelping others in order to stay sober oneself was not unprecedented. The Baltimore Washingtonian Society, in the previous century, had had tremendous short term success, as had Richard R. Peabody in the 1920s and 1930s. Peabody used his firsthand experience as an alcoholic to create a program for sobriety that was deliciously secular, kept himself sober for years, helped many others, and produced a book, “The Common Sense of Drinking.” (1930)

“Alcoholism is a disease of immaturity,” “The conviction that abstinence from alcohol is of SUPREME IMPORTANCE is an absolute necessity,” “The alcoholic has already found out that he cannot learn to drink normally, and he is convinced that his habit is progressive,” “A man who is on the wagon may be sober physically, but mentally he may be almost as alcohol-minded as if he were drunk.” These quotations could have easily come from an early draft of the Big Book, but in fact, they are from Peabody’s book.

Any doubt regarding Bill Wilson’s familiarity with “The Common Sense of Drinking” is removed by the following, “A man must do everything in his power to cooperate in such work as there is to be done. Halfway measures are of no avail.” Sound familiar?

Richard Rogers Peabody

Richard R. Peabody was born in January, 1892, and grew up as a member of the upper class in Boston. Great-great-grandfather Joseph, a Salem shipowner and privateer, had amassed a mammoth fortune by importing pepper from Sumatra and opium from Eastern Asia. At the time of his death in 1844, he was one of America’s wealthiest men. Succeeding generations of Peabodys ranked with the Cabots and the Lodges among the region’s most prominent families.

Richard Peabody

Richard Peabody
“The Common Sense of Drinking”

A young Dick Peabody attended Groton School, a small and elite prep school (2011 tuition: $40K to $50K) founded, in 1884, by his uncle, the Reverend Endicott Peabody. Moving on to Harvard, he failed to graduate, at least in part owing to a burgeoning fondness for liquor. After courting and then marrying, in 1915, fellow “blue-blood” Polly Jacobs, Peabody started a shipping business. The onset of World War I brought prosperity to many American entrepreneurs, but Peabody lost money.

In April of 1916, the young husband’s excessive drinking was being scrutinized by his in-laws. This precipitated a rather hasty flight from Massachusetts to Mexico, where Peabody enlisted in Battery “A,” Boston’s crack militia, a unit engaged in defending against border raids by Pancho Villa. By 1917, American troops were readying to join the European conflict, and summer found the young officer in the very same town of Plattsburgh, where “war fever ran high” for a young lieutenant, William Griffith Wilson. In the homes of New England’s “first citizens,” the future founder of Alcoholics Anonymous made the life-changing discovery that his shyness and social awkwardness vanished amidst the clinking of cocktail glasses. Dick Peabody, some four years older, and among his peers, would have been much more at ease at these soirees. He was, after all, a Peabody. It is not overly far-fetched to speculate that the two men may have raised glasses, and wished each other well.

Armistice did not immediately return Captain Peabody to America. Instead he basked in revelry and French gratitude in post-war Paris. When he did get back home, the young man, still in his twenties, brought with him a full-blown and debilitating alcohol problem. His wife Polly, who in his absence had become involved in a long-term, and not-so-secret affair, made efforts to rebuild her marriage. Unfortunately, she found her husband to be “a well-educated but undirected man, and a reluctant father.” Large promise and poor performance, perhaps. For his own part, Peabody found domestic tranquility to be stultifyingly dull in comparison to his recent grand adventures.

Peabody’s alcoholism, which had earlier led to disinheritance, now brought divorce, depression, and institutionalization. The summer of 1922 found him committed to a sanitarium, and subsequently he sought sobriety with some desperation at the Emmanuel Church, where some enlightened clerics were achieving some substantial victories against the age-old opponent.

The Emmanuel Movement

In 1906, Elwood Worcester, pastor of Boston’s Emmanuel Church began a free clinic providing medical, and mental health care for the disadvantaged. Both Worcester and his younger associate, Samuel McComb were clergymen, but with doctorates in psychology and a belief that methods beyond mere religion could be brought to bear in solving some very human problems. Influenced by the rise of psychiatry in Europe, the principles of Christian Science, Darwin’s anthropologic work, and the American psychologist William James, these men tested their theory that psychological principles could be usefully applied in the fields of religion and health. At their clinic, physical medicine, psychological suggestion, and the resources of religion were integrated and the efficacy of a therapeutic approach merging body, mind, and spirit was tested.

“Religion and Medicine” (1908), written in conjunction with Isodor Coriat, the clinic’s physician documents their work “on behalf of nervous sufferers.” Of course, these patients included a significant sub-set of alcoholics. Enough of these drunkards were getting sober through this new methodology, that the day soon came for them to have their own group and their own gatherings.

The Jacoby Club

In 1908, rubber merchant and Emmanuel Episcopal Church member, Ernest Jacoby began sponsoring a Saturday night get-together, “a meeting place for Boston citizens recovering from alcoholism.” His “men meeting men” idea was not a new one, and had been effective elsewhere. Newcomers were welcome, of course, and were given very “sponsor-like” assistance from those further along on the recovery path.

Several Jacoby features were later replicated in Alcoholics Anonymous, including an emphasis on sober leisure and “fellowship,” an aversion to dogma, and special support for the new members. Their formula was successful and the club grew, eventually separating from the Emmanuels in 1913. The group’s motto, “A Club for Men to Help Themselves by Helping Others,” is evocative of AA’s twelfth step and core principle – “Practical experience shows that nothing will so much insure immunity from drinking as intensive work with other alcoholics.”

The rapid expansion of the Jacoby Club faltered at about five hundred plus, with some disagreements over “primary purpose,” some for concentrating on the alcohol issue, and others in favor of expanding the mission to include bringing succour to ALL indigent old men. Nonetheless, the organization continued, and Boston AA founder, Paddy K. got sober in the club around 1940. The Jacoby Club and early Boston AA were closely affiliated until AA’s rapid growth in the city took it to a position of dominance.

Courtenay Baylor

In 1912, possibly 1913, reformed drunkard Courtenay Baylor began working under the Emmanuel Movement umbrella as a “lay therapist,” a specialist in the treatment of alcoholism. In so doing, he earned a place in addiction treatment history as the likely first paid alcoholism therapist. At the time, psychiatry had yet to come to view alcoholism as something which fell within its province, and thus a door was open for the notion of lay therapy.

Courtenay Baylor

Courtenay Baylor
“Remaking A Man”

Although neither clergyman nor medically trained professional, Baylor did bring the unique perspective of an intimate, “insider’s knowledge” of the malady. Additionally, clients could readily acknowledge his unique credibility as a living example – “proof positive” of his own solution. This was not a mere theory. Real results were being attained, and Baylor’s therapeutic ideas and practices were given a broader audience with the publication, in 1919, of “Remaking a Man.” Both physicians, and some of those who had been “cured,” picked up on his techniques, and increased numbers were reached.

Baylor’s claimed “cure rate” of 65 per cent is given much credibility by the fact that his critics assailed not his numbers, but the possibility that his remarkable degree of his successes was due in large part to his tremendous personal charisma, moreso than his methodology. However, similar numbers were achieved by his followers. One reason for the strength of the percentages came as a result of the procedure of strictly “pre-qualifying” potential clients for motivation, wasting little time with the “wishy-washy.” Earliest AAs did much the same.

Two of Baylor’s clients are of a particular historical interest. The story of “a certain American businessman” appears in Chapter 2 of AA’s Big Book. This man of “ability, good sense, and high character” travels to Switzerland on a “money is no object” quest for treatment for his alcoholism at the hands of pre-eminent psychiatrist, Carl Jung. Extensive therapy is followed by almost immediate relapse. Memorialized in the Big Book, this story is iconic in AA lore as the great allegory demonstrating the inefficacy of “human power.” Jung, the embodiment of psychiatry and medicine, even science as a whole, fails and thus “proves” the need for “something more.” Human foibles are sometimes revealed when, in the retelling of the parable, Dr. Jung is described as “the world’s foremost expert in alcoholism,” a claim with no basis in reality.

Rowland Hazard

Rowland Hazard

Rowland Hazard, although unnamed in the Big Book, is well-known to most AA’s as “the American businessman” who later got sober in the Oxford Group, and assisted Ebby Thacher in doing the same. The untold portion of the story is that Hazard was being treated by lay therapist, Courtenay Baylor in late 1933 and well into 1934. It seems that sobriety was achieved at a time when both resources were being applied!

Baylor’s other very notable client was Richard Peabody, successfully treated in 1922.

Emmanuel Movement Methodology

Worcester and McComb are particularly interesting in that they ventured away from conventional ‘ministering’ by merging scientific, psychological methods to the more traditional approaches of their clerical colleagues. Along with their medical associate, Isador H. Coriat M.D., they authored, in 1908, “Religion and Medicine,” in which they describe their work with “nervous sufferers.” Their original goal of a clinic serving tuberculosis victims rapidly altered to a primary focus on mental health issues, including many alcoholics.

In their clinic, “physical medicine, psychological suggestion, and the resources of religion were integrated, stressing the interrelatedness of body, mind and spirit.” Physical checkups were followed by a course in relaxation and suggestion with hypnosis sometimes employed. The Emmanuels stressed the power of the mind, medicine, nutrition, good physical health, and a wholesome, well-regulated life. In their own words, “most religious workers in this field have made the mistake of supposing that God can cure in only one way, and that the employment of physical means indicates a lack of faith.” Over a hundred years later, it is apparent that many AA fundamentalists have reverted to a ‘God-Only’ policy, denigrating any sobering techniques evincing the faintest tinge of “human power.”

Of course, the Emmanuel Movement was hardly secular, and encouraged “the return to the Gospels of Christ and the acceptance of His words in a more literal sense.” Their ideas that revisiting first century Christianity would be more helpful than “ritual and dogmatic ceremonies” clearly influenced the subsequent formulae of the Oxford Group. The movement away from dogma doubtlessly was critical in their more far-reaching accomplishments with alcoholics. Fully believing in both the therapeutic benefit of prayer, and value “in man’s dependence on a Higher Power,” they nonetheless opted for a “soft-sell” approach.

Robert MacDonald, a New York minister and admirer of the movement contributed “Mind, Religion and Health,” in 1909, in which he reviews the phases of the “cure.” Confession, wherein the patient unburdened himself of his worries, and opened up about his follies and indulgences that went back for years. Freeing one’s mind to a “sympathetic listener” and the releasing of secrets is seen as beneficial in many philosophies. Next, the imparting of religious faith was hoped to bring both allies, and optimism, and to serve the very practical purpose of “quieting the mind.” Remoralising one’s life was to bring a new “positivity.” Finally, hypnosis and auto-suggestion have modern equivalents in meditation and positive affirmations.

“Remaking A Man”

Courtenay Baylor may have been the first recovering alcoholic to present a workable, concise treatment program for alcoholics. Wasting no efforts with those who were too far gone, he also saw no great hope for the psychotic, and did not work with them. AA later on followed a similar tack – “There are those who do not recover… usually men and women who are constitutionally incapable of being honest with themselves. They are not at fault. They seem to have been born that way.” Dr. Silkworth’s frustration in trying to help alcoholic “psychopaths” was evident: “They are always ‘going on the wagon for keeps.’ They are over-remorseful and make many resolutions, but never a decision.” Baylor viewed the bulk of alcoholics as suffering from an “alcoholic neurosis,” and that the craving for a drink was the result of a state of “mental tension that was akin to physical tension.”

Patients were taught techniques of relaxation, in the short-term, with the goal of making permanent the state of relaxation, in the long term. The alcoholic, for his part, was to re-outfit his life and acquire an entirely new set of values. Jung’s talk of “huge emotional displacements and rearrangements,” comes to mind. “Ideas, emotions, and attitudes which were once the guiding forces of the lives of these men are suddenly cast aside, and a completely new set of conceptions and motives begin to dominate them.” In a similar vein, Dr. Silkworth recognized the transformative power of “moral psychology.”

An underlying brain condition of “tenseness” is postulated which produces “new and imaginary values.” Baylor writes, “I have found that with a release of this ‘tenseness,’ a normal coordination does come about, bringing impulses and rational thinking.” (Restoration to sanity?) The mental state preceding drinking – “fear, depression, and irritability,” is much like the unbearable state of the sober alcoholic, as later described by Silkworth. “They are restless, irritable and discontented unless they can again experience the sense of ease and comfort which comes at once by taking a few drinks… drinks which they see others take with impunity.” The alcoholic transitions back and forth between “normal” and “tense” states. Illogical and irrational thinking, easily scorned or unnoticed at normal times, become “insistent and controlling” under tenseness.

As Silkworth would later write, “…they cannot after a time differentiate the true from the false.” Monday’s sincere and firm resolve to never again take another drop, vanishes completely under Thursday’s emotional tenseness. Mental confusion and distorted values then succumb to some unlikely proposition of “having one drink.” As AAs are sometimes heard to say, “Willpower works until it doesn’t.”

Although he did not use the specific term “denial,” Baylor understood, and gave credence to, the concept. In his words, “The patient wishes to have the acute symptoms allayed, but there is an unconscious tendency to secretly hold on to his difficulties while making believe that he is trying to surmount them.”

Baylor’s core solution of relaxation, he sees as “a combination of suppleness, vitality, strength and force – a certain intentional elasticity.” The therapist attempted to inspire his client to develop “an entirely new outlook on life – a new scale of values.” These ideas are entirely compatible with AA’s conceptions of “spiritual awakening” or, more broadly “psychic change.”

The therapist or “instructor” is cautioned that he must first gain the patient’s confidence and cooperation and, at all costs, “to avoid any air of superiority or dogmatic statements.”  AA’s Big Book promises the reader that there should be “no Holier Than Thou attitude… no lectures to be endured.” Sponsors” are advised to “never talk down from any moral or spiritual hilltop.” A marvelous theory, but in many AA quarters, the spiritual hilltops are sadly overflowing with the “enlightened.”

By the time patients came for treatment, they were in such a state of mind that they were aware of their inability to make “a consistent and persistent effort in any one direction.” Guilt and anxiety over these failings contributed to the alcoholic’s general nervousness, and needed to be eliminated. Thus, for the first week Baylor insisted that clients attempt to DO NOTHING, a sort of precursor of AA’s “letting go.” “There is a great mental and moral relief to the patient in the fact that he is told definitely that he must not even try to do anything about his drinking. Now for the first time since his illness, he is making his mind and body do what he tells them to do.” Meditation techniques were then taught “to slow the patient’s racing thoughts.”

To “incorporate new thoughts,” readings were assigned and patients were given daily writing tasks, urged to record innermost notions and reflections. These the therapist used to familiarize himself with the patient’s “mental process.” In the long-term, Baylor hoped that the physical and mental relaxation processes would become an involuntary action. The patient also came “to distinguish almost unconsciously between true and false thinking. The patient’s new ‘self-confidence’… the glorious certainty that he need never fail again brings perfect freedom and happiness.”

Baylor’s methods were used extensively by others during the 1920s. Several alcoholics sobered and became lay therapists themselves. Treated and then trained by Baylor, Richard R. Peabody became the best known of these, and with Baylor’s encouragement, produced his own volume, “The Common Sense of Drinking” in 1931. AA members will instantly recognize that the work of these men had an ancillary, but vital side effect – it helped to keep themselves sober!


Following his own recovery, Peabody studied abnormal psychology, and thus augmented what he had learned from Courtenay Baylor. Peabody developed a system of re-education incorporating modern psychological principles into the treatment of alcoholism. He professionalized the lay therapist position to the point of not telling clients of his own alcoholic history, and totally secularized the therapeutic process. His nine step treatment process sought three reactions from his patients — surrender, relaxation, and catharsis.

From the outset, the patient was shown that his problem was thoroughly understood, and that he would not be scolded or preached at. It was made very clear that the process would require “a sustained effort.” Surrender (though not in any religious sense), must be made to the idea of “total abstinence,” and to the difficulty of the alcoholic’s situation. The “misplaced pride” that insisted on trying to use alcohol ran far into the unconscious. “Halfway measures are of no avail.” As willpower was seen as relatively impotent against misdirected thinking, changes were to be effected in the “thought process itself.” A believer in the merits of discipline and order, Peabody imposed rigid daily schedules preventing idleness. Adherence to these schedules gave clients a sense that they were taking concrete action affecting their conditions.

Self-esteem and self-confidence grew with each new day, week, and month of sobriety. The enforced schedule served the purpose of reintegrating a demoralized person, and “absolute honesty” was insisted upon regarding the rationalizations for any changes in to the schedule. This honesty with self became habitual and became automatic in other decision making as well, including temptations to drink.

More interesting than the specifics of Peabody’s treatment modalities, were his insights into the nature of the illness itself, the peculiarities of an alcoholic’s mental twists, and the quite obvious but unacknowledged (in any major way), influence on the ideas which took form in the book, Alcoholics Anonymous. Apart from the manifest similarity of AA’s iconic “Half measures availed us nothing” to a line from Peabody’s book, other subtler likenesses permeate AA’s basic text. Bill Wilson and other AA’s WERE familiar with Peabodyism.

“Once a drunkard, always a drunkard.” Peabody was possibly the first to express the idea that there was no “cure.” (Notwithstanding CNN infomercials to the contrary.) As much as anyone, he was responsible for introducing into the popular vocabulary the terms “alcoholism” and substituting “alcoholic” for the more emotionally charged “inebriate.” He also introduced the idea of a “dry drunk:” “A man who is on the wagon may be sober physically, but mentally he may be almost as alcohol-minded as if he were drunk.” Modern AA much ballyhoos the need to “do it for yourself.” Peabody: “The minute a man seeks to reform for somebody else, no matter how deeply he may care for the other person, he is headed for failure in the long run.”

Here are a few more of many possible other quotations from “The Common Sense of Drinking:” “Alcohol for inebriates acts as a mental nerve poison in a manner that it does not for the normal drinker.” “Alcoholism is a disease of immaturity…” “The conviction that abstinence for the alcoholic is of supreme importance (First Things First?) is an absolute necessity.” “The alcoholic has already found out that he cannot learn to drink normally, and he is convinced that his habit is progressive.” “The patient cannot afford to become ‘cocky’ about his temperance.” “Warnings as to future disasters seldom do any good.”

Some words about Peabody appear in the exceptional AA history, “Not God” by Ernest Kurtz. “Alcoholics Anonymous was not the only therapy for alcoholism that flourished in its time. Other approaches to treating alcoholism, although they derived from sources very different from the influences that impinged upon AA, used similar methods and even incorporated some of the same ideas that a forgetfulness of history leads later thinkers to associate exclusively with Alcoholics Anonymous. In particular, the approach of Richard R. Peabody… not only preceded in time Wilson’s own sobriety but was well into the fifties accepted and endorsed by many doctors and clergy much more enthusiastically than was Alcoholics Anonymous.”


AA did not in fact originate in the absence of other effective treatments for alcoholism. “The Varieties of Religious Experience” by William James, the failure of Carl Jung to rehabilitate “a certain American businessman,” and Rowland Hazard’s regeneration through a “spiritual experience” as a result of his involvement with the Oxford Group – all of these are used to sell a story of the complete uselessness of “human power” in the battle against alcoholism. In order to promote the absolute need of a supernatural answer, science, reason, psychiatry, psychology, medicine, fellowship, and all other “human” solutions are denigrated as totally ineffectual in relieving the “real” alcoholic.

A review of history reveals something quite different. Churches have always had some successes in redeeming “ones and twos” of alcoholics through conversion. Worcester and McComb went well beyond the norm of occasional church driven “redemptions” by moving away from the typical religious approach, even “augmenting” the power of “god” with science, psychology, psychiatry, reason and medicine. One can speculate on the sharp criticisms from the majority of their fellow clergymen. The Jacoby Club’s impressive growth within a small geographical area can well be attributed to the wonderful effects which often result through fellowship, and the “collective human power” arising when one alcoholic helps another. Almost hidden among the extolling of the “One who has all power” are Bill Wilson’s view of what is THE most important ingredient in maintaining sobriety – “…when all other measures fail, work with another alcoholic would save the day.”

Courtenay Baylor moved further from the religious solution, and surpassed the successes of the Emmanuel Movement. Richard Peabody and his followers reached even more significant numbers of recoveries with an entirely secular approach. The lay therapists inevitably limited the spread of their recoveries for a variety of reasons. That they were not free, thus limiting the potential market for one-on-one therapy. Peabody’s $20. per hour fee in the midst of the Great Depression restricted access to his services to the very “well-heeled.” Peabody also moved entirely away from the multiple benefits of fellowship. AA had fellowship, and it was and is free – the perfect price for most alcoholics.

The success of these predecessors shows not that their systems were superior to AA, but that there exists a history of human solutions and that these human solutions profoundly influenced Bill Wilson and his authorship of the Big Book. Some of us, of course, think that all solutions including AA are understandable at a human level.

Vive la différence!


9 Responses

  1. Bill G. says:

    Thanks for the articles they were refreshing and informative. With 36 years of active AA participation and sobriety. I’ve been hoping for some revisionist thought. I find critical thought to be very healthy. Also very supportive of ones sobriety. Northwest Michigan hard core BB country. Bill G.

  2. garth1010 says:

    I do not see any citations, references or footnotes or bibliography.

  3. Heidi C says:

    Very, very interesting article! I am very excited to have just stumbled upon this website! I am also pleased that agnostic meetings can be registered with AA! I had assumed that the would be regarded as some sort of off shoot of AA, that could not be officially recognized. Pamela L, I am just down the freeway from you in Redlands. I have been trying to find a near me of agnostics. Please let me know when your meeting will open. I would love to help you get it off the ground! Thanks everyone for helping me stay sober today!

    • Roger says:

      Thanks, Heidi. Any group can register with the General Service Office in New York (See “How to Start an AA Group”). However a few local Service Centres/Intergroups are belligerent towards agnostic groups, especially if they dare remove “God” from the 12 Steps. I will make sure Pamela gets your message!

  4. John L. says:

    Thanks to Bob K for an important contribution to AA history. I think it illustrates the need for revisionist histories of Alcoholics Anonymous in general, and the Big Book and Steps in particular. Bob K makes it clear that AA was by no means the only game in town in the thirties, forties, or even fifties, and that the approaches of Peabody, Baylor and Jacoby were in some ways superior to those of AA. Bob K wrote: “these human solutions profoundly influenced Bill Wilson and his authorship of the Big Book.” It would seem so. However, outside of the Kurtz book, which was published by Hazelden, I don’t recall any acknowledgments of this influence by either Bill W. or AA.

  5. Pamela L. says:

    Thanks for making sobriety available for all. We are going to try to start a new “We Agnostics” group here in Chino, California in January. I would love any suggestions you may have! This is like the Bible belt of California when it comes to AA…so we are towing uphill! Wish us luck!

    • Chuck D says:

      Congratulations on your undertaking, Pamela. I am currently attempting to launch a new agnostic meeting here in Toronto. My load was lightened significantly by the courageous trailblazers here who started the first agnostic meeting three years ago (another has since been added). offers invaluable information on how to start a meeting – including how to register the meeting with the AA central office in New York. In order to ensure success for the new meeting, I have asked a number of people to commit to attending weekly for 90 days. I am hoping that word-of-mouth and our web presence will be helpful in new member attraction. The meeting commences on the thirtieth of this month – I will keep you posted.

  6. Denis K. says:


    This is a terrific article that is equally well written and researched.

    I plan to use your piece as a discussion topic at our fledgling Agnostica men’s group here in Vancouver.

    In addition, have passed this along to several AA member friends of mine who have a tendency to “not allow the facts to get in the way” of their beliefs.

    I’m certain lively discussions with them will follow!

    Regards, Denis K.

  7. Don S says:

    Outstanding contribution, Bob. Peabody and Baylor are new to me. Sincere thanks. I can’t wait to quote Peabody to my BB thumpin’ colleagues. If it is helpful, of course.

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