Frank Buchman and the Oxford Group

Frank Buchman

By bob k

The founder of the Oxford movement – a Christian evangelical movement and the birthplace of AA – Frank Nathaniel Daniel Buchman was born in the small town (pop. 1,200) of Pennsburg, Pennsylvania, on June 4th, 1878, fourteen months earlier than AA’s future co-founder, Bob Smith. Pennsburg’s population was almost exclusively German, morally conservative, “where the only permissible vice was overeating”.  (Frank Buchman – A Life, Garth Lean, p. 3)

Buchman’s mother was a devout Lutheran, with grand ambitions for her son. His father was entrepreneurial, operating first a General Store, and later a railroad inn with a restaurant and bar. Pennsburg had no high school which prompted the family to move to nearby Allentown, which was larger (pop. 18,000) and rapidly growing.

Frank Buchman

Frank Buchman

In Allentown, Frank attended high school and his father became a wholesale liquor distributor. The teenager was no more than an average student. Nonetheless, he moved on to Muhlenberg College and Mount Airy Seminary, and was ordained a Lutheran minister in 1902.  Accurately seen as ambitious by his fellow students, Buchman had aspirations of being called to an important city church. When instead he was offered an unprestigious posting in the Pennsylvania suburb of Overbrook, a new parish lacking even a building, he accepted, possibly to evidence his humility.  With diligent effort, he arranged rental of an old storefront with living quarters for himself above.

“Within three years he had built up the vigor and life of the church, and had established a hospice for young men. Differences (over finances) arose between him and the official board of the hospice, however, and he resigned his position.” (Roots Of Alcoholics Anonymous, Bill Pittman, p. 114)

Exhausted and depressed, Buchman embarked on an extensive holiday abroad. Seething with resentment over his unjust treatment at the hands of bureaucrats, Buchman flitted about Europe for several month’s at his parents’ expense. The elder Buchmans were frustrated by their son’s seeming contentment with this leisurely lifestyle, but relented in furnishing him additional funds to go to the 1908 Keswick Convention.

The Birth of AA’s Steps 4 to 9

The Keswick Convention was an annual gathering of evangelical Christians in Cumbria, England. In a small, half-empty chapel, he was deeply moved by the preaching of Jessie Penn-Lewis.

I thought of those six men back in Philadelphia who I felt had wronged me. They probably had, but I got so mixed in the wrong that I was the seventh wrong man… I can only tell you I sat there and realized how my sin, my pride, my selfishness and my ill-will had eclipsed me from God in Christ. I was the center of my own life. That big “I” had to be crossed out. I saw my resentments against those men standing out like tombstones in my heart.  I asked God to change me, and He told me to put things right with them. It produced in me a vibrant feeling, as though a strong current of life had suddenly been poured into me, and afterwards a dazed sense of a great spiritual shaking up. (Lean, p. 30-31)

In letters of apology to these former “bosses”, he took ownership of his own prideful behavior in holding  resentments. This action brought much relief.  Bill Wilson expanded on the self-analysis, confession, and amends process and incorporated them in Steps 4 through 9.

Religiosity aside, the wisdom of letting go of resentment and moving away from concentration on “self” are age-old, widespread, almost universal, philosophical ideas. Although far from being the exclusive purview of alcoholics, these ideas are prominent in AA. Thus, the Step 3 problem is presented as:  “Selfishness-self-centeredness! That, we think, is the root of our troubles. Driven by a hundred forms of fear, self-delusion, self-seeking, and self-pity, we step on the toes of our fellows and they retaliate. Sometimes they hurt us, seemingly without provocation, but we invariably find that at some time in the past we have made decisions based on self which later placed us in a position to be hurt”.  (Alcoholics Anonymous, 4th Edition, p. 62) Also aligning with Mr. Buchman’s experience: “Resentment is the ‘number one’ offender.  It destroys more alcoholics than anything else”.  (AA Big Book, p. 64)

Down at the YMCA

Young man, there’s no need to feel down.
I said, young man, pick yourself off the ground.
I said, young man, ’cause you’re in a new town
There’s no need to be unhappy.
Young man, there’s a place you can go.
I said, young man, when you’re short on your dough.
You can stay there, and I’m sure you will find
Many ways to have a good time.
It’s fun to stay at the YMCA.
It’s fun to stay at the YMCA.
They have everything for you men to enjoy,
You can hang out with all the boys … (Village People, 1978)

It was a calmer and happier Frank Buchman who returned to the United States, and was hired as Secretary of the Penn State College YMCA. He had grave reservations about the scraps, hazing, and drunkenness at “the most godless university in the country”. (Lean, p. 33) Initially he worked hard and was ridiculed by the students, but eventually he doubled membership and got various groups studying the Bible. However he feared that decisions for Christ were shallow, as “the alcohol consumption had hardly decreased and the general tone of the college had not greatly altered”. (Lean, p. 35)

It was at Penn State that the minister discovered the enormous power in working one-on-one, as he was able to bring “change” to some unlikely candidates. Football coach, ‘Pop’ Golden gave up a life of dissipation under Buchman’s ministration. The conversion of other notables had a great impact on the regular folks. As a young man, much as was the case with Bill Wilson, Buchman “was dazzled by the elegance and wealth” of the social elite. (Lean, P.11) His recruitment system became very organized, and other religious leaders came to study his methods and the conversion movement spread to other colleges. “It really began at Penn State College last year under Frank N.D. Buchman. ‘This new evangelism of the second decade of the twentieth century is transforming our colleges.'”  (Yale Paper, Mar. 3, 1915)

Samuel Shoemaker

In April, 1915, Buchman left Penn State College for India, and then China. His hope to convert a few key players, which was then expected to bring these huge nations to Christianity, was seen as naïve by his critics. A second China mission had an early setback as his colleagues “became critical of each other, and Buchman in particular”. (Lean, p. 52) During this 1917 tour to China, Buchman met recent Princeton grad, Sam Shoemaker, who found the Pennsylvanian to be abrupt, but insightful. The two men would later share common bonds of their work with the Oxford Group, and their influence on the formation and practices of Alcoholics Anonymous.

Sam Shoemaker

Sam Shoemaker

The Asian trips were ultimately failed efforts, but “he remarked one day that it had only been in China that (he had learned) the confession of one’s own shortcomings, privately or publicly, was an important way to help others”. (Lean, P.63)  It was time to go back to the States, where he continued with the “Hartford Theological Seminary” which had supported his forays into the Orient.

Sam Shoemaker, meanwhile, would work with Buchman for twenty years, as the American head of the Oxford Group movement. He was the Episcopalian minister at the Calvary Mission in New York. Encouraged by Ebby Thacher and other Oxford Group members, when Bill Wilson got out of the Towns Hospital after his last drink, “still shaky, he visited Dr. Shoemaker at Calvary Mission and made a decision to become very active in the Missions work and to try and bring other alcoholics from Towns to the (Oxford) Group”. (The Evolution of Alcoholics Anonymous, Jim Burwell)

Bill would later acknowledge that, “The early AA got its ideas of self-examination, acknowledgement of character defects, restitution for harm done, and working with others straight from the Oxford Group and directly from Sam Shoemaker, their former leader in America, and from nowhere else”. (AA Comes of Age, p. 39)

A “Spiritual Adjunct” to the Christian Church

Throughout Buchman’s career, “in each instance, conflicts with institutional authorities prompted his departure.  In 1921, this history of friction culminated in his decision to quit the church proper and create his own organization, which he vowed would be a ‘voice of protest against the organised, committeeised, and lifeless Christian work’ of doctrinal and institution-based religion”. (The Language of the Heart: A Cultural History of the Recovery Movement from Alcoholics Anonymous to Oprah Winfrey, Trysh Travis, 2009, p. 71) These efforts were financed by wealthy “sponsors”.

“His primary focus was on ‘soul sickness’… He saw the contemporary glorification of the physical and the material as a kind of debased Mammonism; what he called ‘materialism’ encompassed sexual acting out, profligacy, vanity, envy, gluttony, and of course excessive drinking.” (Travis, p. 71)  The theme of anti-materialism comports well with Bill Wilson’s later ideas of “self-propulsion in the quest to become a self-made ‘Number One man’”.

Buchman travelled a great deal. His right hand man, Sam Shoemaker, held the fort in United States.

A regular meeting held a Corpus Christi College grew so popular that, by 1928, the group moved to the ballroom of the Randolph Hotel, and then to the library of the Oxford University Church, St. Mary’s. The movement got its name when, in the same year, six Oxford students on a mission to South Africa, were branded the “Oxford Group” by the press.

Russel “Bud” Firestone and Dr. Bob

A few years later, Oxford Groupers assisted Russell “Bud” Firestone in conquering a severe drinking problem by turning to God. Bud’s father, Harvey, had four things the Oxford Group liked, wealth, fame, generosity, and gratitude. The rubber magnate in his appreciation hosted a ten day gala, in January, 1933, that brought the religious group to the forefront of Akron society. This set the table for Oxford Group members to arrange the famous Mother’s Day meeting, two and one half years later, of Bill Wilson and Dr. Bob Smith.

It is worth noting that at about this time, Buchman had an even more notable candidate in mind for religious conversion, Adolph Hitler. At least two approaches were made, in 1932 and 1933, to get a Buchman audience with the German leader. The extraordinarily optimistic thinking was that the Fuhrer could be led to a “decision for Christ”, millions would follow, and the world would be changed.  Some Buchman critics, former colleagues among them have levelled the charge of megalomania.  Not without grounds.

Reinhold Niebuhr – author of the Serenity Prayer – was a prominent, contemporary critic of Buchman and the Oxford Group. “We can see how unbelievably naïve this movement is in its efforts to save the world. If it would content itself with preaching repentance to drunkards and adulterers one might be willing to respect it as a religious revival method which knows how to confront the sinner with God,” Niebuhr wrote. “But when it runs to…  Hitler, or to any seat of power, always with the idea that it is on the verge of saving the world by bringing the people who control the world under God-control, it is difficult to restrain the contempt which one feels for this dangerous childishness.”

Nevertheless, the Russell Firestone conversion brought about a rapid ascension in Akron, Ohio, and the group came to the attention of Anne Smith, desperate wife of the drunken and deteriorating physician, Dr. Bob.

Initially in merely an attempt to appease his spouse, Dr. Bob began to attend the Christian gatherings, no doubt remembering the mandatory, unpleasant forced Church attendance of his childhood. Despite his original antipathy, Smith was somewhat drawn to the Oxford folks, “…because of their seeming poise, health, and happiness. They spoke with great freedom from embarrassment, which I could never do, and they seemed more at ease on all occasions… I was self-conscious and ill at ease most of the time, my health was at the breaking point, and I was thoroughly miserable… I gave the matter much time and study for the next two and one half years, but I still got tight every night nevertheless”. (Nightmare, p. 178)

“My wife became deeply interested and it was her interest that had sustained mine, though I at no time thought it might be the answer to my liquor problem.”  (Nightmare, p. 178)

Oxford Group Practices

Remaking the World

“The Oxford Group is a Christian revolution for remaking the world.” From the 1947 book of speeches by its founder Frank Nathaniel Daniel Buchman.

The Oxford Group was “a non-denominational Christian fellowship… devoted to ‘world-changing through life-changing'”.  (Travis, P.30)  It profoundly influenced AA and our 12 Steps, but the statement that the Oxford Group had a six Step program is incorrect. They had no Steps. They were guided by “The Four Absolutes” (or Standards) – Honesty, Unselfishness, Purity and Love. Any behavior could be judged by how well it adhered to these principles.

Action was also directed by the 5 C’s – Conviction, Confession, Contrition, Conversion, and Continuance.  Much of this continued for years as AA practices, in some areas, most especially in Ohio.

“The 5 Procedures” represented another formalized Oxford “plan of action”.

  1. Give in to God;
  2. Listen to God’s direction;
  3. Check guidance;
  4. Restitution;
  5. Sharing – for witness and for confession.

It is quite obvious that the bulk of what is in our Steps, is present here.

The 5 Procedures are clearly seen in AA’s process of transformation.  “The two other AA practices present in the Oxford Group were the insistence that its workers–and especially its founder–never be paid for the ‘soul surgery’ of aiding others to attain the ‘changed life’; and an emphasis on the obligation to engage in personal work with others in order to change the helpers’ lives.”  (Not-God, P.49)

The Oxford Group “operated under “six basic assumptions”:

  1. Men are sinners;
  2. men can be changed;
  3. confession is prerequisite to change;
  4. the changed soul has direct access to God;
  5. the ‘Age of Miracles’ has returned;
  6. those who have been “changed” must “change others.”  (Not-God, p. 49)

Positives and negatives

The alcoholics used the Oxford Group methods as a way to solve their own specific issues (see Pass It On, p. 197), including the vital, “We admitted we were licked, that we were powerless over alcohol”.  And yet AA broke away, New York in 1937, Cleveland next in May of 1939, and Akron last, and most reluctantly, at the end of 1939.

The best analysis of the positives and negatives of the Oxford/AA relationship can be found in Ernie Kurtz’ masterful AA history, Not-God: A History of Alcoholics Anonymous (Hazelden, 1979). Some of the most pressing reasons for the separation were that AA steadfastly and consistently:

  1. avoided absolutes;
  2. avoided aggressive evangelism;
  3. embraced anonymity;
  4. strove to avoid offending anyone who might need the programme.

Of these and others, the most cogent reason for the split was likely Bill Wilson’s vision of the future. In the history of mankind, it may be that there was no one who understood alcoholics better than our founder. The earliest years convinced him that for AA to have a religious attachment would be a mistake. Bill’s unexpected ally in separating AA from the Christian Protestant Oxfords was Clarence Snyder of Cleveland, who was concerned that Cleveland’s many Catholics would be prevented from seeking sobriety through a group with a Protestant affiliation. In 2013, it is hard to imagine the power held over citizens by organized religion in the 1930s, nor will younger people easily grasp the one-time impassable chasm dividing these two Christian groups.

It is abundantly clear that a great debt is owed to these Oxford folks. Self-examination, acknowledgement of character defects, restitution for harms done, working with others, quiet time (meditation), and the quest for change are all practices alive and well in AA. The use of slogans was an Oxford custom; “Study men, not books”, “Give news, not views”. At its peak just prior to World War II, the group had a membership of 50,000, but Mr. Buchman made a major misstep in endorsing Hitler’s anti-Communism, making some statements in a press interview that were seen as pro-Nazi. That  AA  distanced itself from its Oxford  roots may have had much to do with the negative publicity that became attached  the group.  Alcoholics had their own significant PR issues with which to be concerned.

 AA World Services

In 1938, the Oxford Group was renamed “Moral Rearmament” and continues today as “Initiatives of Change,” but its heyday is long past. In 1978, a 100th birthday memorial was organized for founder Frank Buchman, who had died on August 7, 1961.

According to Mel B. (New Wine: The Spriritual Roots of the Twelve Step Miracle, p. 27), this “drew cooperation from a number of prominent individuals who had benefitted from Buchman’s work.  But an invitation to Alcoholics Anonymous – perhaps the greatest beneficiary of all – was politely declined… there were two problems: (1) the anonymity principle ruled out anyone speaking for AA;  and (2) Bob P. put it (then GM of AA World Services) ‘I think some of our members would say that we got out of bed with those people – why should we now get back in?’”

A good question.

Perhaps a better (if more complicated) question today is: Having decided to climb out of bed with those fellows, had our pioneers already borrowed too much from Frank Buchman and the Oxford Group as part the program of Alcoholics Anonymous?


25 Responses

  1. Erik N says:

    I have been a unbeliever in AA for quite a few years. I had not seen the fruits if you will. Many folks go in and out, in and out and just don’t get it. I thought it would be something measurable? Isn’t that important? Too many meetings and not enough and too slow on the step taking? So, I did my own study and the first thing I did, is what I find most don’t do, go back and learn from the past.

    You wrote and article on Buchman and the movement and then skipped right over the 1st edition of the Big Book which I think you would find that it is the qualifier for something that worked quite well back when Buchman was running the movement. Just think Bill Bob and the other 100 or so all went through the Oxford Movement. If you would tell folks to read the stories of the 1st edition, which is the way we are to help others out of their addiction. Stories, stories and stories then they would know they are not hopeless.

    Tell the story, you would find why in fact Buchman being a little strange, yes; aren’t we all started something that we need applaud, not discount. Bob didn’t and even Bill said without them the program would have NEVER been! (look it up) AA has nothing to be proud of now? They have gone down, fell hard like bingeing on your pride, they rested on their laurels? Mouth pieces distort and abuse their (interpretation) not by any means real God guidance to fix it the way they want to taste it. Read the Big Book, find out why they said God of your understanding, don’t take their word for it look it up folks!

    I was sick to my stomach over the grossness of another going down without Hope! What about you? When do you see or say enough is enough?

    Bill found the Hope. Bob found the Hope! And it was all found in The God of the Bible. The God of the preachers; I think were Bill’s exact words. Give people the right Hope, not the garbage kind. Without God, it’s not AA.

    What did Bill say?

    Perhaps there is a better way – we think so. For we are now on a different basis; the basis of trusting and relying upon God. We trust infinite God rather than our finite selves. We are in the world to play the role He assigns. Just to the extent that we do as we think He would have us, and humbly rely on Him, does He enable us to match calamity with serenity.

    We never apologize to anyone for depending upon our Creator. We can laugh at those who think spirituality the way of weakness. Paradoxically, it is the way of strength. The verdict of the ages is that faith means courage. All men of faith have courage. They trust their God. We never apologize for God. Instead we let Him demonstrate, through us, what He can do. (Big Book, p. 68)

    As you can see there are no gods mentioned, all God, singular. Go back, buy a 1st edition and read the stories when it worked, really worked!

    There are no partial stories in any addition of the Big Books? Why do you think you can change the BOOK, I mean without GOD? Hello, I’m sorry it don’t work. Write you own (Don’t call it AA)and move on.

    I pray for you, God help these folks that are so lost; God enlighten your will with guidance to them that they would lose their self and find You and not be deceived no more.

    Because of one condition that is found when a society/group perishes, they don’t forget, they are taught not to look back at what gave them such great success.

    Most likely will get rid of this comment?

    • Duncan says:

      Hi Erik K, I am pleased you have told a part of your story. That is what AA is all about and someone will take it as an example and it may help them. You see you said you had been sober a few years before you came to your conclusion. A lot of people don’t have a few years. How did you stay sober in that period?

      Many don’t believe in your God and it is because of those people that changes must be made in AA. Agnostica is a good start.

      Duncan .

      • Roger says:

        Eric quotes Bill Wilson. Let me quote him too. The first quote is from The Dilemma of No Faith in 1961:

        In AA’s first years I all but ruined the whole undertaking… God as I understood Him had to be for everybody. Sometimes my aggression was subtle and sometimes it was crude. But either way it was damaging – perhaps fatally so – to numbers of non-believers.

        And the second quote is from page 81 of AA Comes of Age:

        To some of us, the idea of substituting “good” for “God” in the Twelve Steps may seem like a watering down of AA’s message. But here 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.

        Peoples’ ideas evolve, grow and mature, Eric. That’s true at least for some people. That’s why, for example, there are further editions of the Big Book. To insist upon there being only one way to get sober and maintain sobriety – the way I did it – is a form of self-obsession. It is childish and dangerous and risks killing people, as Bill so thoughtfully admitted after several years of his own evolution and growth in sobriety.

    • bob k. says:

      I think Erik’s objections go somewhat beyond my little essay on Mr. Buchman. There are, however, some historical points that I will address.

      Christian writer Dick B., Back 2 Basics founder Wally P., Erik, and others bemoan the historical FACT that AA decided to separate itself from Christianity. This decision was made in late 1938 and early 1939, as the Big Book was published in April of 1939, WITHOUT biblical quotations and reference to JC as a higher power, as was favored by a significant minority.

      2) Erik asserts that the of vaunted “First 100” ALL were under the sway of Mr. Buchman and his Christian group. This is not correct as the New York alcoholics separated themselves from Oxford Group involvement in 1937. Some who were sober at the time of the writing of the book had NEVER been to an Oxford Group meeting.

      3) Erik cites the First Edition stories, which I have, in fact read as all the stories that have been excised from the various editions were assembled in “Experience, Strength, and Hope,” about thirteen years ago. On a personal note, it was not ME who made the decision to replace several of the stories for the 1955 Second Edition – I was only 5 ;))

      Shortly after the publication of the book, back in the much touted days of “Rarely have we seen a person fail…” it quite quickly became an embarrassment that several of the “recovered” story authors – Florence R., Hank P., Ernie G., and others had returned to drinking. In 1955, the MAIN reason for replacing stories, was the relapse of the authors.

      4) Finally (although I could easily address other issues), it was BEFORE the writing of the book that the AA program was “diluted.” There are no instructions in the book to take bibles on 12 Step calls, etc. although some undoubtedly did. AA was de-Christianized very early in the process.

      AA might well not exist today, or might exist as some minute sect, had the separation from Mr. Buchman and his associates not been realized.

      For those seeking more Christianity in recovery, there are two excellent options – “Celebrate Recovery” and “Alcoholics Victorious” where the idea of Jesus at the CENTER of the healing has been… I’m sorry… I have to do it… RESURRECTED!

    • realneal says:

      A lot of people whose stories are in the first edition did not stay sober. Six of them committed suicide, one before the book was even published. There were only 8 people that were dry for longer than 6 months in New York when the book was finished. More will be revealed… Keep me safe in the company of those that seek truth and safe from the company of those who claimed to have found it. Keep coming back!

      • Duncan says:

        Neal, I don’t think it helps anyone if you show how many of the founders committed suicide before the Big Book was published. So far as I am concerned the Big Book was an advert for the early AA. In that it succeeded.

        My problem with the Big Book is that it is seen by AA as untouchable, a Holy Book. Bill W when he wrote the Big Book was only a few years sober. We would laugh today at anyone who only had a few years sobriety writing such a book.

        That I believe is the problem- Duncan

      • realneal says:

        Duncan, I made the comment after reading where Erik N. said, “Go back, buy a 1st edition and read the stories when it worked, really worked!”
        I totally agree with your statement, “My problem with the Big Book is that it is seen by AA as untouchable, a Holy Book. Bill W when he wrote the Big Book was only a few years sober. We would laugh today at anyone who only had a few years sobriety writing such a book.”
        Other than I would not say that Bill W. wrote the BB. It was a group effort, I think much more than most people know.

      • Duncan says:

        Neal, After about a years sobriety I was fed up with people telling me “it will come”. At the time I was bursting with happiness, but I had had enough.

        I told people I had a HP. When I came to speak I told them that my higher power was the devil and I could be really evil when I was sober. I could commit robberies successfully and could de-flower any maiden in the rooms, etc etc.

        In the UK we are not so religious as you seem to be in the States so for many people they could see I was joking.

        However many did object and told me that this was a lower power. Some left the room.

        You can’t win them all – Duncan

      • Mitchell K says:

        As to the number of people whose stories in the 1st edition relapsed and or killed themselves – please cite documentation.

        Passing along bogus disinformation as fact tells a story about a level of resentment and willingness to drink the kool aid beyond what some accuse AA members of.

        As far as documentation, I don’t mean anti-AA authors with a bias and agenda against AA.

      • realneal says:

        Mitchell, I don’t have any references handy. I first got into AA history in the early 90’s at a Joe and Charlie BB seminar. Charlie P. would give a history lesson, but not as part of the official seminar. Just for a few of us that were interested. At the time, anybody could go to New York and go through the archives. That is not allowed anymore. Most of what I learned about the history, I learned before there was internet. There was a large inventory of books about AA at the University of Florida library in Gainesville where I used to spend a lot of time and I read them all. None of them were anti AA. I have listened to recordings of the folks who were around at the very beginning and I’ve known folks that had sponsors that were there at the very beginning. I have not tried to find any of these recording in years, but I am told that you can listen to Jim B. give a talk about the history of the BB on line. I have listened to two of his talks, but the recordings did not belong to me and it has been years…
        I am not anti AA at all. I chaired my first meeting in about 1985 and my most recent meeting this morning. I am not sure when I started turning into an atheist, but it has been in the last 10 years or so. I feel that a lot has been learned about alcoholism in the last 75 years. Most of the people where I live now (in the rural bible belt) do not share that same view. When I first got sober in the early 80’s it was in Washington DC and at the time, AA (at least up there) was very liberal.

  2. Mitchell K. says:

    There is a huge difference between the Oxford Movement and the Oxford Group.

    Alcoholics Anonymous and its origins are part of what makes it work so well for many people. Of course, AA is not a one-size-fits-all approach. The basic premise of AA’s spiritual philosophy is God as the member understands God (or god, goddess, higher power, creator of the universe, group of drunks, good orderly direction, the guy/gal upstairs, harold or whatever the member chooses to call that power greater than themselves.)

    Over the years many people have tried to change AA and its design for living to fit their own particular agenda and/or bias. A well known author recently opined that AA should remove anonymity as the time has come to do so. This individual seems to have lost track of the fact that anonymity is more about equalizing AA members regardless of their economic, legal, employment etc status. If this individual got her way she would be ______, author, famous at meetings and others might be _______, unemployed, homeless at the same meeting. I personally prefer the anonymity that keeps people’s professions, status away from each of us at meetings being just another member of the fellowship – nothing more and nothing less.

    Still others want to open AA up to all addictions and to revoke the primary purpose and singleness of purpose. These people seem to keep forgetting that there are hundreds of other groups, organizations, fellowships (12 step or not) already in existence. There is even an All Addicts Anonymous to cover any and all “addictions.”

    There are those who want and even demand that AA lose its spiritual roots. Get rid of God or Higher Power and make everything in AA nebulous and without roots.

    Let’s see, take away anonymity, singleness or purpose for alcoholics, spirituality. What is left? People decry loss of choice by crying that the mention of God, so-called “prayers,” holding of hands takes away their choice to not believe. Of course these people seem to be forgetting that when one takes away choice and the power to choose takes away the choice of all the others who choose to believe or recite words or talk about their own interpretation of a power greater than themselves or spiritual entity.

    Removal of choice, demanding removal of choice still removes choice.

    I really like Diet Pepsi Cola. I also sometimes like a Diet Coca Cola. Who among us will join me in demanding that Pepsi add 2 cans of Coca Cola in each and every 6 pack. After all, I like both and why can’t I have both in the same package?

    AA is what it is.

    I don’t like certain television shows and certain movies. Do I demand my cable provider remove these shows or my local movie theater not play what I don’t like? Do I get rid of my cable provider or just stop watching the shows I don’t like? Do I avoid supermarkets because they carry beer or wine?

    Do I go into a Kosher restaurant and demand they make a bacon cheeseburger for me or go into a Women’s AA meeting and as a man demand I be allowed to attend?

    If it weren’t for non-believers, atheists, agnostics and others during AA’s founding era there would be no AA. Without Jews, Roman Catholics, Presbyterians, Practitioners of Wicca, Protestants, people with no religious affiliation but strong spiritual beliefs and others there would be no AA or AA would have become just another footnote in history books. AA would have gone the way of the Oxford Group, The Order of the Sons of Temperance, The Washingtonians, the Emmanuel Movement and others.

    Rather than demand that AA become what you want it to be with total disregard for those who like it the way it is takes away choice for all those others who choose to believe in a spiritual approach as they understand that approach. Rather than demand AA change to fit your desires, why not go to any of the other multitudes of secular humanist programs already out there? Why not start a fellowship comprised of those who think as you do? By saying you are a freethinker you state that those who believe in something other than you are not free thinkers. Say you believe in choice and want others to have choice just as long it is the same choice you espouse or define.

    I want the Pepsi Cola company to include at least one can/bottle of Coca Cola product in each of their offerings.

    One of the most beautiful things about anonymity is the fact that people talk about their recovery from alcoholism in AA. I could care less if they are an Atheist, orthodox Jew, Evangelical Christian, hearing impaired, in a wheelchair, taking a rolls royce or a vespa or a bicycle to a meeting or whatever. We need to embrace our diversity as proof that recovery is possible to all and allowing all to be and believe who and what they are and what they do or do not believe.

    Taking an Agnostic group out of a directory is JUST AS BAD as removing God from AA. Either removal takes away opportunity, choice and inclusion from Alcoholics Anonymous and turns it into a future footnote in obscure and hardly read history books and college papers.

    I won’t shove what I may believe down your throat. Please don’t shove what you don’t believe down mine. If you don’t like the channel, find another show you do like on another channel or switch cable providers. I understand SOS or Secular Sobriety welcomes freethinkers. I wonder how they would feel about me talking about a God of my understanding at one of their meetings? Would they be spiritual or take away my choice?

    • bob k says:


      Many thanks for your book on Clarence S., one of AA’s fascinating early characters, and definitely underappreciated due to his volatile relationship with Bill W. I thought you biography was well done.

      Your criticism of the opening line of my essay would have more sting had I written “Oxford Movement” with a capital “M.” As we all can see, I did not. The text of the piece makes it quite clear that the Oxford Group has not been mistaken with something else.

      The rest of your commentary has nothing to do with my essay.

      Thanks again.

    • Duncan says:

      Hi Mitchell, If, as you say, AA is full of people with different beliefs then why does it not reflect that? I am sure you agree that honesty is the best policy. To an atheist like myself the word god has no meaning whatsoever. I cannot hand over to something I just don’t believe in. Of course I do know what god means to Christians etc., as I was brought up in a Christian country. However as it stands the 12 Steps etc. to me are nonsense.

      I quote you:

      There are those who want and even demand that AA lose its spiritual roots. Get rid of God or Higher Power and make everything in AA nebulous and without roots.

      You see there you quote spirituality in the religious sense. I am an atheist and I am as spiritual as any other human being. In fact I cannot not be spiritual even when I think or act badly. Spirituality is part of being human.

      I have been sober almost 36 years now and I have gained from AA. However I don’t want it to be taken over by Christians or anyone else. I want it to be for all alcoholics.

      I think one of the problems AA has is that it has turned the Big Book into a sort of Bible. Although that was successful in the early days it is no longer needed in that way. Duncan.

      • Roger says:

        I found my favourite quote about spirituality on page 17 of The Spirituality of Imperfection, by Ernie Kurtz:

        Spirituality is a lot like health. We all have health; we may have good health or poor health, but it’s something we can’t avoid having. The same is true of spirituality: every human being is a spiritual being. The question is not whether we “have spirituality” but whether the spirituality we have is a negative one that leads to isolation and self-destruction or one that is more positive and life-giving.

        Ernie is quoting Jerome Dollard from an article in the mid-eighties called “Alcohol, Spirituality and Recovery.”

  3. Glenna R. says:

    Thanks Bob for a good essay on the Oxford Movement as it pertained/pertains to AA. I appreciate all the work you have put into this piece. Now, how to react? My most instinctive response is to suggest that what we have in AA has become a mish/mash of help for alcoholics along with religious precepts from many sources.
    The problem is that we have so many AA’s told to believe that alcoholism is a disease, but not really believing it is a disease as there are so many moral precepts to follow in AA Literature that the entire argument for it as a disease loses its strength and we are back dealing with a moral issue. I remember a friend from years ago who could not get sober and subsequently died from our disease: when I asked if she was upset and still drinking because she was troubled that her religion was not getting her sober, she exclaimed, “Yes.” Enough said! Thanks again, Bob.

  4. Joe C says:

    It is never missed on me the weeks of work it takes to create 20 minutes of great reading. Thanks Bob.

    As you noted from Ernie Kurtz’s Not God, there were four reasons why the world needed Alcoholics Anonymous: “avoided absolutes; avoided aggressive evangelism; embraced anonymity; strove to avoid offending anyone who might need the programme.”

    This reminds me that the ritual questioning, Step translating agnostics of AA are not the recalcitrants. We are merely righting a ship that has been drawn off-course, back to the principals of unity, which means equality, which can’t exist without accommodation. Autonomous – not automatons.

    Thanks again Bob and AAagnostica, for a soulful pick-me-up.

  5. bob k says:

    In all likelihood there would have been no Jack Alexander article had the connection with Buchman not been broken, and virtually hidden. Wilson certainly had a vision in many areas.

  6. Thomas B. says:

    Indeed, Bob, thanks for an excellently researched and written article about the influence of Frank Buchanan and the Oxford Group upon AA. I find it ironic that both Bill and Clarence S. chose for different reasons to disassociate AA from the evangelical protestant Oxford Group.

    Actually, it was rather of a fortuitous happening — during AA’s formative years whatever benefit derived from the Jack Alexander article, published in March of 1941, may very well have been neutralized had AA still been affiliated with an organization that espoused the hope that Hitler could also be evangelized. After December 7, 1941, we were at war with Hitler’s Germany, an Axis ally of Japan.

  7. Neil F says:

    Thanks this well written, inciteful look an important part of AA’s history. This provides context for much of what Bill wrote in the BB and 12×12.

    Thanks for researching and documenting this important relationship.

    • bob k says:

      And I thank you. Please watch for two upcoming essays on the founder himself. His most unfortunate childhood, I think, makes him a sympathetic character, regardless of what is negative.

      Coming to an AA Agnostica near you in a few weeks.

  8. John M. says:

    Bob, as always very well researched and your clarity in narrating the history of the early influences of AA always has a flair for the dramatic – and as others have remarked with your other historical pieces, I am always sad when your essay ends and I find myself wanting more! Perhaps that’s the insatiable alcoholic in me.

    Your narrative never loses sight of the fact that although AA had many early religious influences, the principles which are at the basis of our program are principles that both religious and secular folks can for the most part identify with and agree on.

    Thanks Bob, I’m always happy when I see your name at the top of a new post. –John

  9. William P. says:

    This seems very well written and useful. I wonder why the Big Book’s later revisions have not reflected in more detail the founders’ wish to distance themselves from the evangelistic aspects of the Oxford Movement. This is particularly important in view of evangelism which one encounters today in many AA meetings, particularly in rural areas. Agnostics, atheists and adherents of other faiths or beliefs are turned away. This seems inconsistent with the founders’ intent, that no one should be felt unwelcome.

    • bob k says:

      Thank you for the kind words. The unkindest distancing from Buchman, and from the Oxford Group was in ignoring them until some apologetic words in AA Comes of Age, a long time later.

      As Joe C. and I often discuss, aggressive evangelism is more present in the new millenium than it was decades ago. The “God-boys” have circled the wagons.

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