AA started in riots

“AA started in riots.”
Mitchell K., quoting his sponsor, Clarence Snyder.
How it Worked: The Story of Clarence H. Snyder and the Early Days of Alcoholics Anonymous in Cleveland, Ohio

By Roger C.

What would become AA was born and bred within the Oxford Group, an explicitly Christian religious movement.

The early (pre-AA) get-togethers were of “alcoholic squads” within and a part of the Oxford Group. This was true both in New York City (where at least the squad met at Bill Wilson’s home) and in Akron, Ohio, where the alcoholics “did not meet separately from the Oxford Group.” (Wikipedia) The gatherings were explicitly religious ones, and included Bible readings and prayers, with the participants often on their knees, in supplication to our Lord Jesus Christ for a reprieve from alcoholism.

Bill and the New Yorkers broke with the Oxford Group in 1937 or, as his wife Lois put it, “they were kicked out” for focussing too much on alcoholism and not enough on Christ. In Akron, however, the gatherings of the alcoholic squad remained within the Oxford Group and focussed on the principle: “Trust God, clean house and help others.”

Until “AA started in riots.”

* * *

The first AA meeting – the first meeting called “Alcoholics Anonymous” – was held in Cleveland on May 11, 1939, one month after the Big Book had been published.

To put it mildly, “the first AA meeting in the world was not uneventful.” (How It Worked, p. 142)

The previous night, the Clevelanders, who up until then met as part of the alcoholic squad every week in Akron, announced at the Akron gathering that they had decided to start their own meeting in Cleveland and make a complete break with the Oxford Group.

“You can’t do this,” Dr. Bob shouted.

“The meeting almost turned into a riot as the Cleveland Group got up as a whole and walked out.” (How It Worked, p. 141)

The next evening was much more disturbing.

According to Clarence, the entire group from Akron showed up the next night and tried to “discourage” the Cleveland meeting from happening. Discourage was a very mild term, according to Clarence; and he used it sarcastically. He said:

“The whole group descended upon us and tried to break up our meeting. One guy was gonna whip me. I want you to know that this was all done in pure Christian love… AA started in riots. It rose in riots.”

Clarence was often quoted as saying, “If you don’t stand for something, you’re liable to fall for anything.” (How It Worked, p. 142)

Thus began the very first “AA” meeting. It was completely free of the Oxford Group. “It was a meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous. It was a meeting held by, and for alcoholics and their families only.” (How It Worked, Mitchell K., p. 141)

And it began in riots.

* * *

The first ever meeting in AA explicitly for nonbelievers was held on January 7, 1975, in the city of Chicago. And thus was born Quad A: Alcoholics Anonymous for Atheists and Agnostics (AAAA).

And similar meetings sprung up in other parts of the United States… In California… In New York City…

And two-thirds of all agnostic AA group listed with the General Service Office have held their very first meetings after the millennium.

Times change.

In the twenty-first century, a faith in God, personal salvation and a life after death is sinking faster than a metaphoric Titanic.

AA was always meant to be an umbrella organization for all with a desire for a reprieve from the affliction of alcoholism.

And so when the Clevelanders started the first-ever meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous and broke away from the alcoholic squad anchored in the Oxford Group in order to make room for Catholics that was the right thing to do.

And so when we start new meetings and break away from the religiosity of the Christian Church in order to make room for atheists and agnostics that is the right thing to do.

You do what you have to do. As Clarence Snyder so correctly put it: “If you don’t stand for something, you’re liable to fall for anything.”

We are merely part of Alcoholics Anonymous moving from alcoholic squads of the Oxford Group in the 1930s to the new millennium.

Ever onwards and upwards.

Will some object?

Guaranteed. the White Paper, written in 2010, describes meetings for agnostics and atheists as “dangerous deviations” and call for “a course of action for eliminating them and returning our Fellowship to the pure spiritual oasis that has nourished suffering alcoholics for 75 years.”

Groups will be tossed from Intergroups and others will not be listed.

No surprise. Change doesn’t come easy for any of us. And, while we would by far prefer unity and harmony, that is not our call. We’re not the ones threatening others with “elimination,” which was the stated goal of the Greater Toronto Area Intergroup when it booted two agnostic groups out of AA two and half years ago. Didn’t work.

As Clarence reminds us from his experience over seventy years ago with the first AA meeting: “One guy was gonna whip me. I want you to know that this was all done in pure Christian love… AA started in riots. It rose in riots.”

AA started in riots. If need be it will continue to rise in riots. But, if it is to fulfill the visionary mission of its founders, it must now move forward and find a way to be relevant to all suffering alcoholics in the twenty-first century.

atheist-comic III

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26 Responses

  1. BobR says:

    Been sober in AA for almost 25 years. Been dealing with my nonthesism for almost as long. I mean one’s program must be lacking if you haven’t found god by now right? lol. As time goes on it’s strange but Im finding it more difficult to tolerate… No nontheist AA groups in CT that I can find. May be it’s time to start one.

    • John M. says:

      Bob, thanks for the comment. Regarding your last remarks: “No nontheist AA groups in CT that I can find. May be it’s time to start one.”

      As Captain Jean-Luc Picard would say: “Make it so!”

  2. Tim v says:

    I agree that it is inappropriate in our fellowship to say a prayer that comes from a specific faith or religion. I hope we all are grateful to the Oxford group without which we would not exist.
    This thing could not have sprung forth from any agnostic or atheistic movement. It is and always has been about having a spiritual experience, a life of living by spiritual principles. I think it odd that those who cannot bring themselves to accept the fundamental elements of this program not create their own program based on man made philosophy. There is plenty of group therapy etc. in order to offer a solution that isn’t needful of some power greater than themselves. This is AA. This is what we have been from the beginning this is what works for us if you have some better idea you are free to pursue it as you see fit. Please don’t try to somehow improve it or distort it to meet your personal preferences. That wouldnt really be AA.

    • Roger says:

      Hey Tim: Thanks for your comment. No one here is trying to change AA: merely trying to return it to its roots, as an all-inclusive fellowship, without any need for conformity, and respectful of the Responsibility Declaration.
      Glad you want to scrap the Lord’s Prayer. Now that, today, is a distortion of the true AA!

      • bob_mcc says:

        Roger I think you are too understated here. The steps (AA program) is to get you in contact with your conscience and to live according to that. If it includes the beliefs and teachings of a god so be it. The only authority in AA is the collective conscience of the members of a group, a.k.a. the group conscience. Tim appears to want all AA the same as he knows it for all time. He eliminates the contribution of WAFTs in the “first 100” and says we are distorting AA; rather hypocritical. I wish the Book of Tim could be printed so we could all worship his construction of reality and therefore circumvent our conscience to follow his. I am so tired of the innuendos that WAFTs are wrong, distorted, or misguided if you don’t want to follow our way then start your own…. Meanwhile the smug and contented member of AA believes they have done much to remove denial from their lives while open-mindedly meditating to expand their understanding of the world. Do they see or explore the stagnation of AA membership, the white Christian male bias, the 19 that come and leave for one that stays for one year? How many of those that leave do so because of the religious overtones; not to mention those with lengths of sobriety that leave for the same reasons. AA is change, life is all about change. The humility to understand humanity is realizing I know very little – we all know very little, but the skeptics in us and the need to explore command change as a ongoing human endeavor. AA is no different. Let’s make the change for real reasons grounded in love, tolerance and understanding, there is no absolute need for a spirit or god here. This comment “This thing could not have sprung forth from any agnostic or atheistic movement” is insulting. William James thought it better to believe than not in certain situations, that did not mean God exists. But, to the AA crowd that is what it means. The contributions and existence of non theists have been rewritten by the majority. Tim, Bill W. warns that AA can only destruct from within. If AA cannot adapt it will become extinct. As a non theist through love and service guided by my conscience I am part of AA and nobody has the power to suggest otherwise.

  3. Kati A. says:

    If a person’s faith is so fragile that those without faith pose a risk to them, perhaps the person wasn’t really honest with themselves to begin with. Besides the process is not finding faith, but seeking it out.

    I believe there’s room for everyone and don’t recall faith ever being expressed as a requirement for membership.

  4. boyd p. says:

    ” . . . faith in God, personal salvation and life after death is sinking faster than a metaphoric Titanic.” Disappointing puffery, self serving, and contradictory since all minority beliefs need to be welcome in AA. Unity is the goal. Language is by its nature imprecise, temporal, and misused. It need not divide us.

    • Roger says:

      There is a difference between “puffery” and “truthery,” albeit a minor one for people like you. This from Pew Research: “The number of Americans who do not identify with any religion continues to grow at a rapid pace. One-fifth of the U.S. public – and a third of adults under 30 – are religiously unaffiliated today, the highest percentages ever in Pew Research Center polling.” Read more here: “Nones” on the Rise. And, yes, Unity is the goal. So why are you still driving people out of the rooms of AA with the Lord’s Prayer? Self-serving and contradictory: check out the mirror, Bud.

      • boyd p. says:

        Perhaps my point was missed because my language was inflammatory.
        When meetings are closed with the Lord’s Prayer I am conspicuously silent, though there are occasional identifiable allies. There were two this morning. A silent ally once squeezed my hand at the end of the prayer. Identifying progress or failure in this regard can be elusive.

  5. Denis K says:

    Thanks for this post, Roger; it sheds light on what we are experiencing here in Vancouver.
    We started in peacefulness earlier this year by registering two new agnostic groups, Beyond Belief and Sober Agnostics, with Vancouver Intergroup. In both instances our paperwork was dutifully looked over by the office manager at Intergroup who in fact commented when the Sober Agnostics group was registered that it was about time we had something like this in Vancouver, that it was a great idea.
    All of us at both groups were pleased with the reception we had and were somewhat relieved we had not experienced the riot that Toronto Intergroup started with the Toronto Agnostic groups. Many of us commented on the open-mindedness of Vancouver AA in general; live and let live etc.!
    Our relief was somewhat short lived when we heard both groups had been de-listed by the Intergroup Chairman, an arbitrary decision by the Intergroup Chair Man as I understand it.
    The delisting had taken place without any consultation with either Mike D. from Sober Agnostics or me from Beyond Belief in spite of our names and phone numbers being on our group registration documents. We learned of our delisting through the local AA gossip.
    And so started the trumped up charges that we are not really AA groups because we have altered the sacrosanct 12 steps and numerous other arguments designed to keep us out of the meeting directory. All of this has been presented to Intergroup who are now in the process of going forward with a vote in January to decide whether or not our Agnostic groups should be listed in the Intergroup meeting directory.
    There have been several visits by AA police to our groups to observe (judge) and report back to whomever they serve. It’s been quite comical watching all this cloak and dagger stuff and hearing all kinds of wild and misinformed comments from many members related to what we are about. Typically we offer an invite to our groups to “come and check us out” or we refer these people to aaagnostica.org for more information. The most baffling part of all of this is no one has taken the time to contact the people who registered the groups to get a first-hand explanation of what we are about, nor have given us the opportunity to hold a non-hostile, intelligent discussion. This appears to me to be a simple case of contempt prior to investigation, these hostilities have been perpetrated by Intergroup whose purpose I understand is to serve the groups; they have no authority to judge.
    The worst of all of this came to me anonymously last week when I was told people were now referring to us as an equivalent of the Ku Klux Klan. The whispering campaign has now become well over the top and quite frankly bordering on slander. This type of tactic has been used for centuries by smarter people than these to discredit something new or at odds with some small closed minds.
    This is now the sad state of affairs (RIOT) here in AA Vancouver.

    • Mark C says:

      Denis, I hope you hang in there. There is simply no question about AA’s religiosity running people out of traditional AA, and thereby creating an enormous barrier for recovery for legions of people. The religionists in AA are legion as well, and their “spiritual” duplicitous actions and spurious logic make it so any attempt to keep the gates open to ALL will only, and perhaps ever, create a hostile environment for those who do not buy their metaphysical lines of belief.

  6. William P. says:

    Reading these comments make me so sad. This issue of atheism and agnosticism seems to invoke such anger pro and con. It seems so unnecessary, so inclined to impede the real objective, attaining sobriety. How can one possibly say that “The only requirement for membership is the desire to stop drinking” and then close a meeting to Buddhists, followers of the Tao. Such arrogance to assume that the ancient Greeks had no wisdom, that only “Christians” can be wise! Socrates himself would be unwelcome at many a meeting. Is this attitude not the ultimate “character defect”? The ultimate irony that it should breed such hatred, such anger standing in the path of recovery?

  7. John L. says:

    This article raises some important issues. One, which I touched upon in my Washingtonian article, is whether there was ever a *founding moment* of AA, and if so, who were the founders. The answer is pretty clear: AA was founded in Cleveland on May 11 1939, and the main founder was Clarence Snyder. It was in Cleveland that AA grew rapidly and acquired its best characteristics.

    It is unconvincing to say that the founding moment of AA was Dr. Bob’s last drink – when Bill gave him a beer and a barbiturate so that his hands wouldn’t shake when performing surgery. (I hope that none of us will ever be operated on by such a surgeon.) The idea of one drunk sobering up another drunk goes back to the Washingtonians – and Ebby sobered up Bill, and someone before that sobered up Ebby. And before all that Henrietta Seiberling had organized an alcoholics squad within the Oxford Group in Akron.

    The other issue is how assertive we non-theists ought to be. I think it would be appropriate for two or more of us to visit regular AA meetings – especially those whose delegates had voted to boot out agnostics AA groups – and, in the discussion period, courteously explain our viewpoint: that our agnostics groups deserve to be listed and treated as valid AA groups – that recitations of the “Lord’s Prayer” and readings of “How It Works” or “The Promises”, are offensive to us and in violation of AA principles and traditions.

    It’s been a long time since I attended a meeting that ended in the LP, but I imagine a scene where, as the faithful are reciting: “Our Father…” a band of freethinkers recite a Freethought passage of some kind (can’t think of one offhand) or just chant: “THINK! THINK! THINK! THINK! THINK!”.

    • Diane K. says:

      I like that you mentioned Henrietta Seiberling. So few people know what was up with her. Not to mention her name. Her role as stated I believe in AA COMES OF AGE was of a sympathetic guide to Dr. Bob. She had a direction from God saying that Dr. Bob was not getting well with the Oxford group’s sole fixation on God. As hard as Dr. Bob tried that was not helping Bob’s sole fixation on alcohol. So she called someone who could focus on the alcohol. She was intuitive. And she had a leading from her thoughtfulness toward the special needs of those needing more of a kick in the pants than a sweet hour of prayer. She called it a guiding from her God. Not specifying the God in Christ. When I first use my microphone in using my iPhone I said the word Henrietta Seiberling and the computer intelligence had the right spelling. This I understood as the sense of the important role she had in the kickoff of AA. SHE WAS THE PLACE KICKER. Sorry for the caps. Many times I’ll mention a historical figure and the microphone doesn’t even know how to spell it so I’m just glad you mentioned Henrietta.

  8. wisewebwoman says:

    I had to laugh at the word “riot.” I belong to a very small group out on the edge of the Atlantic and when I proposed we drop The Lord’s Prayer from our closing, there was a riot and threats and one person leaving the room, me stating I felt highly unsafe for the first time at an AA meeting and being completely ignored. “The only desire…” I kept repeating along with “we are not affiliated…”
    Deaf ears. I was told to do an inventory on my “hatred for the Catholic church.” I have 27 years sobriety. This group is all I have out here in Never Never Land.
    HOWEVER after the Lord’s Prayer is recited at the end of the meeting (from which I abstain), I then say The Responsibility Pledge in which everyone now joins in after initial hesitation and black looks.
    Small but hugely meaningful.
    First hand witness to another riot.

  9. Thomas B. says:

    Just back home in Seaside from the second “Beyond Belief” meeting at the Portland, Oregon Alano Club . . .

    I’ve always been a rebel – sometimes with, other times without – a cause. In my 42nd year of continuous recovery via AA from my primary drug of addiction, Colt .45, I shall continue attending AA meetings wherever I am in our wide “land of the free, home of the brave – NOT” and speaking my agnostic/atheistic, free-thinking truth as authentically heartfelt as I can.

    The challenge for me shall be to do it in a respectful manner, having as much compassion, love and tolerance as I can for all others, regardless of how I am treated by the religiously inspired, no matter how far they stray from our code of “love and tolerance of others . . . “

  10. Gord A says:

    Your comment above caught my attention:
    “In the twenty-first century, a faith in God, personal salvation and a life after death is sinking faster than a metaphoric Titanic.”

    Even though I consider myself somewhere between agnostic and atheist, I do believe that I may exist in some form after my physical death. Luckily, that discussion doesn’t come up in meetings often.

    My bottom line is that AA according to the Traditions will let me believe in any combination of theories I want. The devil is in the details of how each group conducts its meetings, and how some AA service bodies interpret the Traditions.

    Because I live in a small town, I am going slow in establishing an agnostic presence in AA here. I do pass out your books to like minded members.

  11. life-j says:

    only thing about how this relates to our own trouble with intergroup here in mendocino county california is that the most vocal opponents say they have no problem with there being agnostic recovery groups, we just shouldnt call ourselves AA if we change the steps, we should call ourselves something else and not expect to be listed in the AA schedule.

    Of ccourse I don’t see it this way, but this is an issue not addressed by the current article, where indeed the alcoholic group broke entirely away from the oxford group and started something new.

    I like and want most everything about AA other than the god stuff, and the closemindedness closely associated with that particular aspect of AA.
    I di want the spirituality, and that is why I’m fighting tooth and nail for us to remain part of AA, even if it means having fight and riots to stay rather than to leave, because AA is the place most agnostics get to have their first contact with, and so this is their first real opportunity to reject a sobriety that would otherwise be within reach, so it is important we’re there to catch them in the fall, and also of course I need a greater fellowship than our fledgling agnostic meetings can provide at present.

  12. Dan L. says:

    The people of AA helped me to find sobriety. I never could have made the required changes in my life and my thinking without the help they so freely gave me. Maybe their “god” helped them do this but I surely did not see her in action, just people helping people. I have to say that the more vocal christians in the organisation just about gave me the justification I needed to go drinking again when I was newly sober and very vulnerable. We are told anyone who can be honest with him or herself and be willing to change for the better can succeed. I have heard local Christians refer to AA as a recruiting ground for new souls and I find this reprehensible at best. On a separate note I do think that old Clarence was more than a little deranged and he was rather fond of discord for its own sake. That is just me. Basically I just want to be left alone in matters I consider to be personal and not forced to conform for the benefit of others.
    Thanks for another great article.

  13. Laurie A says:

    “Within AA, I suppose we shall always quarrel a good bit …” (Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age, p233)
    And BTW (see William P.’s posting), yes AA has copyrighted the 12 Steps, through AA World Services Inc.

  14. bob k says:

    AA is overly hung up on labels – “Newcomer, your Higher Power doesn’t HAVE to be God, BUT you do have to call it ‘God’!” “Huh?”

    WE are starting a new group “Whitby Freethinkers.” For now we are not labelling the group, hoping the name itself will attract those interested in our inclusive policy. Our closing prayer is pretty cool – “Thanks for coming, we hope to see you again next week.” I wrote that myself, and my theological training is minimal.

    I think the essay is brilliant. There is great irony in Cleveland’s Catholics provoking the break from Christian Protestantism. It is “beyond belief” that the Lord’s Prayer soldiers on, even in the most multi-cultural of cities, such as Toronto. Since the earliest of times, this “officialising” of Christian Protestantism has been offensive, and not solely to non-believers.

  15. William P. says:

    Was it Shakespeare who said, “What’s in a name?” Does it really make any difference what we “call” it? The important thing is to help folks stop drinking. Would it work any less if we called it “Agnostics and Atheists Anonymous” (“AAA”) or “Agnostics and Atheists for Sobriety Anonymous”? Has AA copyrighted the “Twelve Steps”? Can it get judicial relief to prevent any “revision”to help agnostics and atheists? Why not just focus on any particular Twelve Steps which help Agnostics and Atheists and anything else that helps, forget about “listing” by the “Central Office” and spread the word, or maybe set up a “Central Office” listing expressly for Agnostics and Atheists and, above all, “get on with it”! If courts insist on sending parolees to conventional AA meetings seek relief on Constitutional grounds. I’m sure that the Founders intended the Constitution to protect persons who drink excessively since a number of them may have had that problem.

    • life-j says:

      in the 12 concepts for world service it states clearly that AA does not intend to get judiciary relief to keep the 12 steps from being abused in the name of other recovery (my words)

  16. Eric T says:

    Interesting post, and the White Paper certainly gave me a jolt! This bit is very revealing in the Introduction: “This paper is being prepared because this author believes A.A. has made an honest error in judgment by supporting the existence of atheist and agnostic A.A. Groups.”

    I disagree, and that’s my opinion.

    Now, enough of that – I’m off to enjoy my day in sobriety, hang out with some fellow members, and gratefully enjoy life. ( I hope that if I accidentally “eliminate” anybody today, my fellows remind me not to be such a jackass.)

    • life-j says:

      I like the part of the white paper where he says that atheism is proof there is a god, because the atheists could not disbelieve in the existence of god if there wasnt one.

    • Pat Nagle says:

      One of my major characteristics (or defect, if you prefer), is a proneness to anger in the presence of selfrighteous B.S., such as the White Paper. The cowardly writer, who fears exposure, sets up a straw man: he states there is only one way to define spirituality (his religious version), and then judges others by their adherence to it. He then wants AA as a whole to back him up. Anybody remember studying the Inquisition?
      He claims 40+ years of sobriety. Sounds to me like he’s had one year forty times. I’ll stick with those AAers who are growing. He’s a disgrace to the rest of us old geezers.

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