Jim Burwell

Fifty Chosen Articles:
Number Five.
Originally posted in April 2012.

Early History.

Traditional AA is god-obsessed.
But without Jim Burwell, the Big Book and traditional AA would be much more religious.


By Linda R.

Jim Burwell’s contribution to Alcoholics Anonymous is truly significant and second only to that of AA’s two co-founders, Bill Wilson and Dr. Robert Smith. Jim is credited with adoption of A.A.’s Third Tradition – “The only requirement for membership is a desire to stop drinking” – as reported by Bill in Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions (pp. 143-145).

In addition, it was primarily Jim, along with Hank Parkhurst, who convinced Bill to change the 12 Steps to be more inclusive for those who did not believe in “God.” Bill writes about the contentious battles over the use of the word God in the 12 Steps and the Big Book during the time they were written. Bill says that in New York the AA’s split into three factions, which Bill labeled “conservative”, “liberal” and “radical.”

The conservatives thought that “the book ought to be Christian in the doctrinal sense of the word and that it should say so.” This faction was led by Fitz Mayo, an Episcopal minister’s son from Maryland and the third man to recover at Town’s hospital, after Hank Parkhurst and Bill himself.

The second faction, the liberals, had no real objection to using the word “God” in the book. The liberals pointed out that most members already believed in a deity. The liberals mainly wanted the book’s Christian religious content to be toned down.

And the third faction was the radical faction, consisting of the agnostics and atheists, led by Jim Burwell and Hank Parkhurst. They wanted “God” removed from the book.

But the atheists and agnostics, our radical left wing, were still to make a tremendously important contribution. Led by my friend Henry and obstinately backed by Jim B., a recently arrived sales man, this contingent proceeded to have its innings. At first they wanted the word “God” deleted from the book entirely. Henry had come to believe in some sort of “universal power,” but Jimmy still flabbergasted us by denouncing God at our meetings. Some members had been so angered that they wanted to throw him out of the group. (Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age, p. 163)

What Jim, Hank and the other agnostics/atheists wanted was a psychological book to attract the alcoholic into AA, and once the alcoholic was in, the alcoholic could take God or leave Him alone as they wished. Bill reports that to the rest of the group, this was a “shocking” proposal. And the battle raged on for almost a year, until just before 400 copies of the completed manuscript were to be sent into circulation. Bill writes about his own role in insisting that the word “God” be used:

We were still arguing about the Twelve Steps. All this time I had refused to budge on these steps. I would not change a word of the original draft, in which, you will remember, I had consistently used the word “God,” and in one place the expression “on our knees” was used. Praying to God on one’s knees was still a big affront to Henry. He argued, he begged. He threatened. He quoted Jimmy to back him up. (Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age, pp. 166-67)

Finally, at the last minute, Bill partially relented and a compromise was reached. The compromise resulted in four extremely important changes to the 12 Steps:

  1. Substituting the phrase “a Power greater than ourselves” for “God” in Step Two
  2. Modifying the word “God” to the phrase “God as we understood Him” in Steps Three and Eleven
  3. Eliminating the expression “on our knees” from Step Seven
  4. Adding the sentence “Here are the steps we took which are suggested as a Program of Recovery” as a lead-in to all the steps, so that they became only suggestions.

After agreeing to these changes in the 12 Steps, Bill acknowledges the contribution of Jim, Hank and the other agnostics / atheists in the group:

Such were the final concessions to those of little or no faith; this was the great contribution of our atheists and agnostics. They had widened our gateway so that all who suffer might pass through, regardless of their belief or lack of belief. (Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age, p. 167)

Jim joined the fledgling New York AA group in January 1938. His sobriety date was June 1938 and he remained sober for 36 years, until his passing in September 1974. His story, “The Vicious Cycle,” was published in the Big Book’s 2nd through 4th editions. He wrote the first history of AA called “The Evolution of Alcoholics Anonymous,” which sketched AA’s beginning years from 1935 to 1940. He played a key role in the publication of the 1940 Saturday Evening Post article written by Jack Alexander. Working with Fitz Mayo, Jim started the first AA groups in Philadelphia, Washington and Baltimore. After moving permanently to San Diego, he was instrumental in the growth of AA there.

There are some who say that Jim later “mellowed” in his atheism, but according to Cleveland AA founder Clarence Snyder: “Jimmy remained steadfast, throughout his life and ‘preached’ his particular [non-God] brand of AA wherever he went.” (How it Worked: The Story of Clarence H. Snyder and the Early Days of Alcoholics Anonymous in Cleveland, Ohio, p. 107)

Jim himself, thirty years sober, wrote an article for the May 1968 Grapevine, and in it he writes: “Gradually, I came to believe that God and Good were synonymous and were found in all of us.” Jim’s words have an eerie similarity to the humanist slogans in recent ad campaigns, such as: “Why Believe in a God? Just be Good for Goodness’ Sake” or “Humanism is the idea that you can be good without believing in God” or “Good, Without God.” Funny thing, because in a sense, humanism begins where atheism ends. Unlike atheism, humanism is primarily concerned with ethics, not with the debate concerning the existence of God. Perhaps Jim evolved into a secular humanist? Perhaps like Jim, non-believers and believers can find common ground between good and God.

At any rate, what is known is that Jim remained an atheist for his entire life, regardless of the evolution of his ethical life philosophy toward goodness. He never developed a belief in a supernatural God.

The controversy over his atheism seems to stem from Jim’s one and only slip, six months after he joined AA. Prior to his slip, Jim aggressively attacked any belief in God. After his slip, Jim came back with a different attitude. He realized that he needed the group to stay sober. And the group was against him because he openly attacked their beliefs. So Jim “mellowed.” Jim says that “his closed mind opened a little.” Did this mean he started to believe in a supernatural God? No. He realized that for the group to let him back in, it would be wise for him to stop aggressively challenging the beliefs of others in the group. And when his “closed mind opened a bit,” he was finally able to recognize that for some of the others in his group, their belief did help keep them sober. Apparently, what was not useful to him was useful to them. As Jim says, “Who am I to say?”

Did Jim’s changed attitude to be more tolerant of believers stop him from arguing against the use of the word “God” in the new book. No. It was in the period immediately following his slip, June 1938 through April 1939, when Jim argued unrelentingly and most vehemently against the use of the word “God” in the 12 Steps and the Big Book.

Jim’s experience will be familiar to most agnostics, atheists and freethinkers in AA. When interacting with the believers in his group, Jim found that it was important to respect their beliefs and stop his “constant haranguing” against “God,” which he had done when he first joined the group. Belief in “God” is an extremely important component of sobriety for many. And arguing against the religious beliefs of others can become dysfunctional on many levels, for as Jim said about the believers in his group: “Who am I to say?”

On the other hand, it is frustrating to agnostics, atheists and freethinkers to be subjected to the proselytizing of the believers in the rooms. Would that believers would respect the lack of belief of others. Unfortunately, while believers no longer hold prayer meetings on what to do with the non-believers, as they did in Jim’s case (see Jim’s article below), they do push the idea that belief in God is an essential component of sobriety. If only more AAs realized that from the beginning, there was a lot of controversy over the idea that belief in God was essential to sobriety. There were some, such as Bill and Dr. Bob, who truly thought belief in God was essential. But there were others, such as Jim and Hank, who did not think that belief was essential to sobriety. Jim and Hank argued that the alcoholic should be able to “take God or leave Him alone as he wished.” For Jim, as he says in his article, it was the group that kept him sober, not “God.” After his slip, Jim was humbled with the realization that he could not stay sober alone. He admitted that he needed the group.

It is remarkable that individuals like Jim and Hank were able to accomplish so much in those early years, given the religious and social climate of that period. They paved the way for what is happening now with a growing population of agnostics, atheists and freethinkers who are asserting their rightful place in the fellowship.

Jim’s 1968 Grapevine article, which was later reprinted in the November 1999 Grapevine, under the category of “Big Book Authors,” can be found here: Sober for Thirty Years.


For a PDF of this article, click here: Jim Burwell.


20 Responses

  1. Dean G says:

    Context is everything I guess but why is that when commenting on ‘those of little faith’ it is framed in the pejorative. I know that times have changed but how on earth is the non-belief in the supernatural ‘radical’? Like David’s post above such rhetoric further reinforces the sense that atheism and agnosticism are some kind of special group. Consequently, I feel I can no longer participate in traditional AA meetings as I don’t agree with the majority of what’s said.

  2. Dianne B. says:

    Good article and good to know that some men realized that the Big Book was Christian and religious. AA meetings still are firm that God is necessary for sobriety on a daily basis and that worries me as parts of the USA are stating politics needs religion in order to survive the Apocalypse that is coming… I feel AA is contributing to that belief.

  3. Ken P. says:

    Yes! Those are straight out of the King James Version of the Bible.

  4. Josh C says:

    To Bill’s credit it seemed as he grew in his own recovery he became a little more open minded and aware of atheists/agnostics in the program (as seen by his statements used in The God Word pamphlet). At this point AA had just become unwilling to deviate from the original text (and still seems unwilling).

  5. Tim R. says:

    Spot on. It’s difficult to believe he really thought he would win hearts and minds while claiming certain people need to “be beaten into a state of reasonableness” and the like. And I, personally, cannot give him a pass for being a man of his time when his words are still taken as gospel by our more religious members today, who then use them on those of us “battling” the “dilemma of no faith”.

  6. Sue says:

    Awesome article. I know as a past delegate and atheist, I frequently comment that AA’s definition of higher power is way too limiting and rigid. (B) right after how it works says “probably no human power could have relieved our alcoholism.” IMHO, that leaves the door wide open.

  7. Sue says:

    I love that they were best friends despite their beliefs. It should be honored.

  8. Mike B. says:

    Why do AA members, including non believers, refer to atheists and agnostics as the radical wing of AA?? It’s as if many of us are conceding that we are abnormal and big book thumpers and bible pounders are the normies .

    We are what we think and I think, without a doubt, that we are the normal people and the god believers are the illogical, dogmatic, radical and disillusioned ones.

    Just one man’s opinion and I had to say it!?

  9. Bob K says:

    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 the incredible growth of AA from 2,000 to 8,000 in the last ten months of 1941.

  10. Bob K says:

    We might be expecting too much of Jim B. and the small group of radicals. In the normal course of events, the tail doesn’t get to wag the dog. Our secular predecessors were granted some small but important concessions BUT no one was handed a red pen and invited to “edit away.”

  11. Michael says:

    Fitz Mayo and Jim Burwell were boyhood friends.

    They’re buried within a few feet of each other at Christ Episcopal Church cemetery in Owensville, MD.

    Maybe somebody thought to honor their friendship…?

  12. Cron says:

    Nice summary of the early debate. The chapters “We Agnostics” and “To the Wives” leave little doubt just how closed minded the founders were. I have heard “bleeding deacons” describe how they were told to “drop to their knees.” Tempting to quote from Dan Jenkins and suggest that I am in fact Episcopalian, a Catholic that doesn’t like the calisthenics, but that might be considered disrespectful on both. I have read how the first women were generally viewed – I wonder about the first person of color?

  13. Dan H. says:

    At the risk of repeating myself, I wish he’d made more noise about the “thee’s” and “thou’s” in the 3rd and 7th Step prayers.

  14. Gary O. says:

    I am ever so grateful to AA which had a great deal to do with me being alive today. My views evolved over my time in the program and I am now agnostic yet fortunate to be part of a men’s group which, mostly, couldn’t care less what its members believe but care a great deal for them. I have found in the fellowship of AA an esprit de corps that far exceeds anything that I ever encountered in any church, a love so deep that it transcends time and space. That love has kept me alive, sober and grateful for a long time.

  15. Bob b says:

    I just try and keep it simple…. we all need to keep paddling day by day to keep the boat afloat…

  16. Marty N. says:

    AA is not religious they say. Now form a circle, hold hands, and say the lords prayer.

    Chapter 4 of the Big Book says, if I don’t do those things, I am savage, belligerent and bewildered. I may be a lot of things; bewildered is not one of them.

    Good article. Thanks for keeping it up front and fresh.

  17. Tommy H says:

    A good question, Tim. I’ll be interested to see the replies.

  18. Tim S says:

    I wonder why it was necessary or even relevant to mention Fitz Mayo, was “an Episcopal minister’s son from Maryland”? No one else’s parentage was mentioned. I ask this from the perspective of an Episcopal minister’s son who has been a sober atheist in AA for 36 years.

  19. Tommy H says:

    Excellent article, Linda.

  20. David W says:

    Bill had an obnoxious way of pretending to be inclusive while at the same time being dismissive. “But the atheists and agnostics, our radical left wing”….”those of little or no faith”. AA was founded on the principle of talking out of both sides of the mouth. Did he not also say that atheists and agnostics “have a right to be wrong”?

    Just like today, Jim had to learn to keep his opinions to himself after he had his slip. Has anything changed in mainstream AA?

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