The “God” part in the 12 Steps comes from Bill Wilson. The rest of it, “as we understood Him”, was Jim Burwell’s contribution.
But let’s start at the beginning…
AA’s soon-to-be co-founders met on May 12, 1935 (Mother’s Day), with Bill trying to help Dr. Bob sober up at Dr. Bob’s home in Akron, Ohio. Wilson worked away at that for almost a month: it would historically turn out to be one of the most significant recorded examples of one drunk helping another. Dr. Bob took his last drink on June 10, 1935 (a beer to steady his hand for surgery), and this is generally accepted as the founding date of AA.
In January of 1938, Jim Burwell joined the fellowship.
AA consisted of two groups: one in Akron and the other one in New York. The latter group held one meeting a week, at Bill’s home in Brooklyn, which was attended by six or eight men. Only three men in that group, including Bill, had been sober more than a year. AA was a fledgling organization, to say the least.
Bill and Bob were both members of a Christian revivalist movement, the Oxford Group. “The early meetings were quite religious, in both New York and Akron. There was always a Bible on hand, and the concept of God was all biblical,” Jim reported.
Into that mix came Jim, “their self-proclaimed atheist, completely against all religion”.
Jim presented quite a challenge to the group, as he later wrote in Sober for Thirty Years. “I started fighting nearly all the things Bill and the others stood for, especially religion, the ‘God bit.’ But I did want to stay sober, and I did love the understanding Fellowship.”
At one point, his group held a prayer meeting to decide what to do with him. “The consensus seems to have been that they hoped I would either leave town or get drunk.”
Jim was part of a big battle which took place in 1939 over Alcoholics Anonymous, The Story of How More Than One Hundred Men Have Recovered from Alcoholism (the name of the 1939 edition), commonly known as the Big Book.
Thanks to Jim, two key changes were made: First, the word “God” was changed to “God as we understood Him” in two of the 12 Steps.
Second, and most importantly, the word “suggested” was added to the phrase: “Here are the steps we took, which are ‘suggested’ as a program of recovery.”
It is impossible to even try to explain how important that word has been over the years.
There is no question that Bill came to very much appreciate the contribution of Jim Burwell and the other atheists and agnostics in early AA. As he put it they “had widened our gateway so that all who suffer might pass through, regardless of their belief or lack of belief.”
But was the gateway widened enough? Looking back some eight decades after the humble beginnings of Alcoholics Anonymous, the question has to be asked.
Indeed, the divisions in AA at the time were significant, and they do reflect current problems within the fellowship.
Robert Thomsen’s biography, Bill W., written in 1975, touches on these problems as he describes the late 1930s meetings at Bill Wilson’s home in Brooklyn:
There were agnostics in the Tuesday night group, and several hardcore atheists who objected to any mention of God. On many evenings Bill had to remember his first meeting with Ebby. He’d been told to ask for help from anything he believed in. These men, he could see, believed in each other and in the strength of the group. At some point each of them had been totally unable to stop drinking on his own, yet when two of them had worked at it together, somehow they had become more powerful and they had finally been able to stop. This, then – whatever it was that occurred between them – was what they could accept as a power greater than themselves. (p. 230)
Many of the nonbelievers in this new century are not at all comfortable with the language of the Big Book or of the 12 Steps, language which pre-dates World War II.
And so it is asked, today: What about this “God bit”?
Jim Burwell went on to start AA groups in Philadelphia, Baltimore, and San Diego. Among the first ten members of the fellowship on the East Coast, he is often considered the third founder of AA. Jim is the first agnostic AA member to die sober: His sobriety date was June 15, 1938, and he died on September 8, 1974.
This is by far the shortest chapter in the book and so we take this opportunity to share a few reviews of A History of Agnostics in AA:
What a fine piece of work! You and the dedicated humans who put this together have indelibly furthered the “cause”.
I just completed reading A History of Agnostics in AA. I really enjoyed it. The book contains a lot of great information! I particularly liked the “Moving Forward” section and the challenges of getting the conventions off the ground.
Author of The Five Keys
It’s a very informative book. I would like to see this book widely circulated in AA.
Webmaster, AA Beyond Belief
In my opinion A History of Agnostics in AA is an important piece of work for AA. Thank you for your service!
Chair, International Conference for Secular AA
Roger’s description of our historical and present struggles is excellent and palpable. Reading this book has given me a greater understanding of who we are and where we are going. Thank you, Roger C, for this wonderful book!
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