Jim Burwell

Another Friend Bumper Sticker

By bob k

Bill Wilson wrote the Twelve Steps in 1938, “one night, late in December. He was frankly pleased with what he had written and was in no way prepared for the violent reaction when he read his steps to the group a few nights later… The ‘liberals’ were appalled and said so”. (Bill W., Robert Thomsen, p. 263)

“The ‘radicals,’ led by Hank P. and Jim B., became adamant in pressing their concerns that there was ‘too much God’ in the Twelve Steps.” (Not-God, Ernest Kurtz, p. 75)

The Christian “conservatives” loved it all, exactly as written. The radicals found allies among the moderates who feared the aggressive evangelism would be off-putting for drunks. Later on, the voice of psychiatrist Dr. Howard, joined the push for Bill to tone down the preachy nature of the manuscript, which Howard opined was “pure Oxford Group”.

“The fights raged on – and these arguments lasted much longer than the first night; some were still at it weeks later.” (Thomsen, p. 254) Even the somewhat sanitized Pass It On concedes that “there were heated discussions. Jimmy B. opposed the strong references to God”. (p. 199) The clear evidence of history was reiterated – “the missions did the ‘God bit’ and everyone knew they always failed with alcoholics”. (Thomsen, p. 253)

Bill resisted at first, but the cry for change was insistent. In the end there were concessions. “The felicitous phrase ‘God as we understand Him’ was suggested by Jimmy B., a New York member. Weasel wording the ‘God stuff’ made it possible for people of widely varying beliefs – even nonbelievers – to embrace AA’s process of spiritual transformation.” (Bill W., Francis Hartigan, p. 124) The radicals might not have been fully satisfied, but given their minority position, their achievement was reasonable.

At the center of the battling was the truculent relative newcomer and unapologetic atheist, Jim Burwell. Many years later, Susan Cheever, in a piece for The Fix, “The Angry Atheist Who Made AA Great,” wrote of her title character – “Without this nonbeliever, AA would never have thrived”. (The Fix, July 13, 2013)

Burwell’s influence on modern Alcoholics Anonymous has been far more profound than could have been realized at the time. As the world has become increasingly secular, and for so many, religion replaced by all manner of “spirituality”, a more Christian AA would be unpalatable to a huge percentage of the current membership. It is not only the atheists of today’s AA who owe thanks to this intractable advocate of “freethinking”.

Prosperity, Church Overdose, AND AWOL

On March 23, 1898, Jim Burwell was born into prosperous circumstances. He spent his early life “in Baltimore where his father was a physician and a grain merchant”. (silkworth.net) His parents were drinkers, occasionally overindulging, but they were not alcoholics. “Father was a well-integrated person, and while mother was high-strung and a bit selfish and demanding, our home life was reasonably harmonious.” (The Vicious Cycle, BB, p. 21) However, of four children, all three sons became alcoholics. Jim’s sister never drank.

At age 13, Jimmy was sent off to Virginia, to an Episcopal boarding school for boys where he stayed for four years. It was there that he developed his powerful aversion to all churches and established religion. At the academy, there was Bible reading before every meal, and church services to be endured four times on every Sunday. Over time he became contemptuous of the “mindlessness of faith”.

To please his father who hoped he would become a physician, at 17, he started university. Shortly thereafter he had his introductory experience with alcohol, blacking out the very first time he drank. His academic performance was inconsistent at best, and he feared he was on the brink of being expelled. In 1917, he rushed to join the Army, pre-empting an ineluctable embarrassment. Having done some OTC in college, he entered the military as a sergeant, and exited as a private, and narrowly avoided serious consequences when he went on a drunken celebratory escapade a week before the armistice was signed.

Job Loss, Memory Loss

During his military service, Burwell had become a “periodic” alcoholic. A similar pattern was continued in the civilian world, his drinking confined for the most part to weekends. He had some early career success. Employed in sales by a new national finance company, after three years, he opened and operated their Philadelphia office and was earning an exceptional income for a twenty-five year old, “but two years later I was blacklisted as an irresponsible drunk. It doesn’t take long”. (BB, p. 223) Jimmy next worked in sales promotion for an oil company in Mississippi, and for a while did well and got “lots of pats on the back”. Then he cracked up two company cars, and was fired by Hank Parkhurst, of “To Employers” fame. They would meet again in New Jersey, ten or eleven years later.

One more good job was lost over drinking. To that point, most of Burwell’s drinking had been confined to weekends, but at about the age of 30, that changed. A dry period of working “like mad” would be followed by a “rewarding” binge. He sometimes had trouble shutting down the sprees on Sunday. In the eight years before he stopped drinking in 1938, he had and lost, or quit, forty jobs. Every time he drank, he blacked out, and he would awaken with a “gnawing fear”.

January 8, 1938 – that was my D-Day; the place, Washington, D.C. This last real merry-go-round had started the day before Christmas, and I had really accomplished a lot in those fourteen days. First, my new wife had walked out, bag, baggage, and furniture; then the apartment landlord had thrown me out of the empty apartment; and the finish was the loss of another job… I finally landed at my mother’s doorstep – shaking apart, with several days’ beard, and, of course, broke as usual…

Here I was, thirty-nine years old and a complete washout. Nothing had worked. Mother would take me in only if I stayed locked in a small storeroom and gave her my clothes and shoes. We had played this game before. That is the way Jackie found me, lying on a cot in my skivvies, with hot and cold sweats, pounding heart, and that awful scratchiness all over. (BB, p. 219)

Jimmy’s old school friend, Fitz Mayo, had gotten sober in October, 1935, and he had his traveling salesman sponsee, Jackie, call in on the Burwell home. They talked for eight straight hours. “I don’t remember much of what he said, but I did realize that here was another guy exactly like me… Jackie told me about a group of fellows in New York… who, by working together to help each other, were now not drinking and were happy like himself. He said something about God or a Higher Power, but I brushed that off – that was for the birds, not for me.” (BB, p. 220)

Good God, There’s a lot of God!

After being dry two weeks, Jackie got drunk, and Jimmy became “the sponsor of his sponsor”. They were both summoned to New York, where they checked in at Hank’s. “All they talked about that first weekend was God.” (BB, p. 226) Burwell was conflicted. He loved having new friends who were like him, but the “God” palaver was more than he could take. No shrinking violet, and his confidence bolstered by his three weeks of sobriety, Burwell spoke out against the pious pontificating. Vociferously. Repeatedly.

“At our weekly meeting, I was a menace to serenity those first few months, for I took every opportunity to lambaste that ‘spiritual angle,’ as we called it, or anything else that had any tinge of theology.” (BB, p. 227-228) “I became a problem to that early group with my constant haranguing… I did love the understanding fellowship.” (Sober For Thirty Years, AA Grapevine, May 1968)

Tradition Three

Now it had become the turn of the godly to be conflicted, as “the elders held many prayer meetings hoping to find a way to give me the heave-ho, but at the same time stay tolerant and spiritual”. (BB, p. 228) Burwell’s involvement in these events made its way, years later, into the 12 + 12, as anti-religious “Ed”, whose disruption of the group’s harmony provided an early test of the inclusionary principle of the third Tradition – “The only requirement for AA membership is a desire to stop drinking”.

Years later, when Bill Wilson wrote the Traditions essays, he included a line that ranks among the most unforgettable in AA history, ranking beside “There was no real infidelity”, and, “Why don’t you choose your own conception of God? We’ll now close with the Lord’s Prayer”. Making fun of the early society’s exclusionary attitude and quest for respectability, “pure alcoholics” were sought, he reported. “They could have no other complications. So beggars, tramps, asylum inmates, prisoners, queers (sic), plain crackpots, and fallen women were definitely out.” (Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, p. 140)

Burwell was out on the road selling auto polish for Honor Dealers, making nice profits for Hank and Bill. In early June, the dilemma of the bombastic blasphemer seemed to have solved itself as the polish salesman relapsed while working out-of-town. The paragons of “love and tolerance” ignored his pleas for help, by telegram and telephone. Somehow, after two weeks, Jimmy made it back to Hank’s. He was meek and chastened. That part is likely true – he was doubtlessly less denigrating of the faith of his sober cohorts. But Wilson shows his creativity by adding a mysterious confrontation with a bible in a lonely hotel room.

All other accounts of Burwell’s continuing “disbelief” provide a debunking of the Wilson’s fable. The implied conversion is a fiction.

The Big Book

Jim Burwell returned to New York, sobriety, and the as-yet unnamed fellowship at the time when efforts to finance and produce a book were underway, and about to become the all-consuming. Ernie Kurtz has Jimmy at the forefront of those favoring a book. Perhaps, he thought a book would provide a further separation from the overt religiosity still lingering from the Oxford Group association, and thriving among the Akronites. Possibly, he was among the several unemployed, and under-employed New York alcoholics who envisioned career opportunities in the grand schemes being conjured by Bill and Hank. It is also reasonable to presume that the secularist may have been convinced by his former boss, the great “power-driver”, that Bill would be persuaded to write a book that was primarily “psychological”.

Thus we have returned to the beginning of the tale, and Bill’s hyper-religious first draft. The vehement arguments of the agnostic and atheistic element resulted in these changes: “In Step Two we decided to describe God as a ‘Power greater than ourselves.’ In Step Three and Eleven we inserted the words ‘God as we understood Him.’ From Step Seven we deleted the expression ‘on our knees.’ And, as a lead-in sentence to all the steps we wrote these words: ‘Here are the steps we took which are suggested as a Program of Recovery.’ AA’s Twelve Steps were to be suggestions only.” (Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age, p. 167)

Jim BurwellMuch of the credit for these changes goes to Jimmy B., but there were others in the camp, albeit somewhat less militant. Robert Thomsen, who, of all the biographers, had by far the greatest direct access to Bill Wilson, wrote, “There were agnostics in the Tuesday night group, and several hardcore atheists”. (Bill W., Robert Thomsen, p. 230) These men essentially accepted the “strength of the group” as a higher power. Years later, Bill Wilson was obliged to acknowledge that the troublesome heathen horde had “widened the gateway”.

In today’s multicultural world where, in most urban regions, various shades of latitudinarian spirituality have supplanted the canon and dogma of religion, the AA of the original manuscript would be unattractive, even to substantial segments of the fundamentalist population. There are many who would argue that had every “God reference” in AA’s Big Book been changed to an uncapitalized “higher power,” the gateway would be far wider still.

Further Contributions

“Jimmy B… had moved to Philadelphia in February 1940 to take a new job. Philadelphia soon had its own AA group… (which) came to the attention of Dr. A. Weise Hammer.” (Hartigan, p. 140) Hammer was a prominent surgeon with even more prominent friends. He shared his abundant enthusiasm for AA with Judge Curtis Bok, one of the owners of the parent company of the Saturday Evening Post.

Bok commissioned the Jack Alexander article which led to an incredible growth of AA from 2,000 to 8,000 in the last ten months of 1941.

Later on, Burwell penned AA’s first ever history piece, “The Evolution of Alcoholics Anonymous”. The essay, viewable on barefootsworld.net, carries the disclaimer: “His recollection of some of the specific facts are inconsistent with other reliable versions of the same story”. The less kind may perhaps speculate on possible brain damage resulting from his many blackouts. Burwell’s recounting of AA’s early history is woefully inaccurate.

Jim B. was not invited to contribute his story to the First Edition of the book. He may have simply not been long enough sober. “The Vicious Cycle” did appear in 1955’s Second Edition, and has survived into the third and fourth. It is understandable that this proud member wanted the recognition of having his narrative in a book he helped to create. He may well have consented to some editing, or soft-selling of his stance as a nonbeliever.

In Philadelphia, he was in a leadership position as the longest sober member, and his concession to “increased spirituality”, was to finally do a fourth step, thus surrendering some of his self-sufficiency. He opened himself to the “personality change” promised by the process and gained serenity.

Sober Thirty Years

In 1968, he contributed the article Sober Thirty Years to the Grapevine magazine. Burwell documents the evolution of his chosen higher powers;

  1. John Barleycorn
  2. The AA Fellowship
  3. The forces of “good”
  4. His own better self.

None of these are supernatural, although Barleycorn in his best moments could be divine. His softened attitude allowed him to use the phrase “God, as we understood Him” to refer to an understanding of higher powers that he clearly did not consider as “God” within ANY conventional meaning of the term. He took on the tone of secular humanism.

Burwell did love being sober, and he loved AA. It’s also fairly evident that he was enamored of the role of “AA celebrity”. But, as noted by his contemporary, the longtime sober Cleveland honcho, Clarence Snyder,  “Jimmy remained steadfast, throughout his life and ‘preached’ his particular [non-God] brand of AA wherever he went”. (How It Worked, Mitchell K., P. 107)

In 1946, Jimmy married a woman he had 12th stepped a year earlier. In the 1950’s he moved to San Diego, where he passed into nothingness on September 8, 1974, sober 36 years, and 76 years of age.

Jim B. is buried in the Christ Episcopal Church cemetery in Owensville, Maryland near his boyhood friend, Fitz M. (Our Southern Friend), the son of a minister.

This is one of 32 chapters in the book, Key Players in AA History by bob k.

26 Responses

  1. Metka says:

    Another gem that I enjoyed reading!! I find all these historical aspects of AA so very fascinating and enriching. I also agree that Jim B. had a profound influence on AA which could not have been realized at the time and probably AA would have never thrived without him. Being a non-believer myself I owe this “intractable advocate of freethinking” my gratitude. Who knows if I would have even given AA a chance had there been stress on God only and not “God as we understand Him”. I also enjoyed reading his life story. Truly a good read and thanks again Bob!

  2. John S. says:

    Without Burwell, I certainly wouldn’t be welcome in the rooms. (Though it sounds like he may have been a jerk, in the beginning.)

    Thank you for the for excellent write up, Mr. K. Much appreciated.

  3. johnny says:

    Great read, I am a friend of Jim B indeed.

  4. boyd p. says:

    higher powers

    They are operating outside humans, what we can not change. We can learn from them, if we are listening, but much is beyond our human abilities to comprehend. There are mysteries that will endure. Humility is a necessity.

  5. Mark In Texas says:

    Yeah, for me the concept of a “Higher Power,” or “higher power” is nothing other than the theistic concept of “God” in drag.

    I reject those notions in their entirety. They have no place in my getting sober, or living sober.

    For me it is “All TOO HUMAN” from the get go.

  6. Roger says:

    The “New Atheist” comic was adapted from a cartoon by Bradley James Peterson and captures the approach now taken by many agnostics and atheists in AA:

    New Atheist

  7. John F. says:

    Thanks for the story. Irony is that we are still fighting religiosity in the Akron, Ohio area. I will follow Jim B.’s example and keep stating to new people and old-timers that AA keeps us sober, not belief in the super-natural god of the Oxford Group outlined in the Big Book. We are losing the battle however.

  8. bob k says:

    What is very true Holley, is that we have no idea how many we scare away, but I think there’s plenty that’s more off-putting that “higher power.” In my area, there are a hell of a lot of meetings, and probably two within ten miles don’t close with the Jesus prayer.

  9. bob k says:


    May I suggest that we double Mark in Texas’ salary, effective immediately!!

  10. Holley S. says:

    I love the AA history stuff! Thank you bob and thank goodness for Jim B. Somebody wrote here recently that they viewed the Big Book as a historical document, boy have I run with that angle. Using the book in that context has been a huge help in not getting angry at it. A friend shared at a Big Book meeting on Saturday that she thinks the book is divinely inspired. I will admit to rolling my eyes but then I let the comment go pretty quick. Thank you all for showing me how to deal with AA religiosity. I am printing out the New Atheist comic and taping it to the cover of my Big Book 🙂

  11. Danny U. says:

    One of my favorite chapters in Key Players in AA History. It was worth another read!! His contribution to AA is invaluable! There is no doubt that his resilience and “spirit” made recovery attainable for “non believers” early on and today. Thanks Bob K.

  12. Holley S. says:

    It might offend more than 2% if it hadn’t scared them away first. Well, after declaring here a few weeks ago that I was done with AA I find myself back in the rooms. The fellowship is undeniable. I enjoy it and I need it. I will have to learn to let the God stuff roll off my back like so many of us do.

  13. Mark In Texas says:

    Thank you once again, Bob, for your very heartening excursions into AA history. I’ve really enjoyed the biographical snapshots found in “Key Players in AA History”.

    I became fascinated by the fact there were atheists in AA from the very earliest days, and what I could find out about Jim B., served to encourage me to keep my seat in the face of overt religious bigotry.

    Jim Burwell’s experience in AA mirrors the open and “out” godless contingent in AA today, and is therefore, of continuing relevance as we only now are beginning to see the light of day in the Fellowship.

    That which is hidden can be easily ignored, and your essay is a mighty fine spotlight on one of our Founding atheist members.

    It might be the case that the importance of Jim Burwell’s “experience, strength, and hope” in the Fellowship cannot be overstated, at least for we godless today.

    Given the fact Jim lived to a ripe old age, died sober, and active in the Fellowship, there is much more to be unearthed about this remarkable individual.

    I don’t know about all those who read these fine essays, but I am greatly encouraged to continue to Live Sober as an open atheist in AA today. I do so in a conventional group, and in that context, working toward a comprehensive knowledge of our history only aides me in that quest.

    Again, thank you, and hats off for another stellar contribution not only to the Fellowship, but to my own path living sober.

    And thank you Roger, for all you do! I continue to be amazed and strengthened by what I find on AA Agnostica.

    Austin, Texas 2016!!!!!

  14. Richard E. says:

    Excellent Bob. I had never heard of Jimmy Burwell until a few years ago when I come across a book titled “God, Not God” (I havent seen the book in years so I may have the title just a little off. I hope this puts Jimmy’s name “on the map” so to speak.

  15. bob k says:

    Thanks for the kind words. It’s very exciting to be a part of the revolution currently underway. I think we’ll see a doubling of secular groups in 2015. Jim B. would be diggin’ it!!

  16. bob k says:

    Steve B, because of AA’s 3rd Tradition, we can individually do whatever we choose to, and be members of AA. Alcoholics Anonymous, of course, does not “just say,” and will not “just say,” that the AA fellowship alone helps people to stay sober, simply because that isn’t the AA message.

    AA takes the position that alcoholics have a very serious malady, and that measures need to be taken to effect a significant personality change, otherwise feelings of restlessness, irritability, and discontentedness will spark a return to drinking.

    I agree with that. We secularists tend to modify the process, not buying into the “God deal,” taking what we want and leaving the rest. Others of us seek out Buddhist practices, or other resources to aid in effecting the necessary change. Most of us come to an awareness that we have a need to do more than merely hang with our new coffee-swilling friends.

    I don’t disagree that Higher Power is a classic bait and switch, but our friend Mr. Burwell managed to snatch the cheese without getting stung by the trap. Many of us have done the same.

    To hope for an elimination of the term “higher power” in AA is an over-reaching, as that term, especially without capital letters, offends probably less than 2% of the AA population.

  17. Thomas B. says:

    Yes, Bob, indeed, it is good to read this enlightening (no pun necessarily intended . . . 😉 essay again, since I thoroughly enjoyed reading it the first time — as well as the other essays — on my iTunes version of Key Players in AA History.

    It was most gratifying to hear one of the five former AA General Service Board trustees attending the recent PRAASA, who identified themselves as agnostics/atheists, relate that when he first got sober in San Diego, he shared meetings with Jim and Rosa. So, yes, hopefully, Joe C., a clean copy of their AA talks will manifest itself.

    I, too, have much hope for secular recovery within AA, but I believe it shall continue for some indefinite time to be a rather dicey matter with ardent believers duking it out with ardent non-believers back and forth, two steps forward, one step backwards, through an ever-evolving group conscience process. As rapidly and rampantly as the world is changing, yes, we are in much more progressive times on the one hand. However, on the other hand, AA — like the US Congress — is considerably more conservatively bent today, than AA ever was in the 70s, when I got sober, just as today’s most liberal Democrat or Republican is to the right of where Richard Nixon was, when he resigned the presidency after the Watergate scandal.

    Nevertheless, I shall consider sharing my non-believing truth both in meetings I attend, as well as continuing to do General Service work as an agnostic atheist in my District and Area.

  18. larry k says:

    Thanks Bob!

    Always good to hear stories of men and women that live within their own conscience and maintain their principles.

  19. Lon Mc. says:

    Thanks, Steve. I’m very comfortable with your position on this. I do believe that Jim B. made it much easier for some of us to benefit from the evolution of guilt-free free-thinking within AA. The future does look better for incubating alcoholics who will be “trying AA,” seeking more rational solutions to their drinking problems. Thank you, too, bob k.

  20. life-j says:

    Steve, agree. This higher power nonsense all it does is create a wedge to sneak the real god in the back door.

    It is among the more tenacious religious bits in AA, and I see many nonbelievers try real hard to define a higher power as their inner self, nature, the universe, the collective unconscious, whatever, just because it says that we must have one. And even more fence-sitters go on about their higher power in meetings in an effort to fit in. It is definitely time to let go of this unnecessary bit of quasi-religion.

  21. Neil F. says:

    I really enjoyed the Jim Burwell story. AA is fortunate that he was one of the Key Players in our history.

    I really enjoyed the book as well. I read the Kindle version as I wanted to get my eyes on it quickly but I now have 5 copies of the paperback version awaiting me at the post office.

    Thanks for your dedication to researching and documenting AA history.

  22. steve b says:

    I can go along with Jim B’s evolution of his concept of a higher power, but I prefer to think that “higher power” is not a useful term, because it implies something supernatural. And even if we limit its use to natural causes, for me it’s an unnatural, awkward and overkilling way to say that something is helpful. So why not just say that the AA fellowship helps people stay sober? What’s wrong with that?

  23. Tommy H says:

    Well done, Bob.

  24. bob k says:

    Well said!

  25. Joe C says:

    If anyone has a written or audio version of Rosa Burwell giving an AA talk, I’d love to read or hear it. I found one CD of the two of them together but the sound recording is so bad it’s not worth the effort. If any of us has access to a San Diego or LA archivist, they might have something in their collection.

    I’m a friend of Jim B is a great way to describe any freethinking AA member. Bob, as you know, I love this book; another one left our literature table at Beyond Belief this week. I predict that secular legitimacy in the fellowship is not far away. In five years look at the radical shift in attitudes about gay marriage. I don’t think it’s wrong to keep gentle pressure on. Intergroups like Toronto ought to feel discomfort. But we’re in a better place than we were 5 years ago and we may not recognize the landscape in another 5 years. Have a great day, everyone.

  26. boyd p. says:

    Oh, those obnoxious atheists. Jimmy B. must have been insufferable in early sobriety, yet he knew the fellowship was his salvation, so both parties hung on, learning humility. We are the better for it. Even though his story in the BB “The Vicious Cycle”, may have been edited, his contribution to AA’s durability is unique and essential.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Translate »

Discover more from AA Agnostica

Subscribe now to keep reading and get access to the full archive.

Continue reading