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)
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)
Much 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.
“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;
- John Barleycorn
- The AA Fellowship
- The forces of “good”
- 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.