Responsibility is our Theme

Fifty Chosen Articles:
Number Seven.
Originally posted in October 2012.

Quotes from Bill Wilson:

How much and how often did we fail?”

“Let us never fear needed change. Once a need becomes clearly apparent… in AA as a whole… we cannot afford to sit still and look the other way.”


By Roger C.

Bill W spoke at the General Service Conference held in New York City in April, 1965. The Conference theme was “Responsibility To Those We Serve.”

AA was thirty years old. Bill was 70 years old. It was a period of reflection for him. “We old-timers are a vanishing breed,” he said of the early members of AA. “The greater part of us have gone out into the sunset of this world.”

He expressed the hope that the disappearing early AAers had left the members of the day a heritage sufficient to their needs, one which could be “enlarged and enriched.”

Bill was preparing for the 30th Anniversary International Convention to be held later that year in July in Toronto. Much of the spirit of the Conference would also prevail at the Convention, where the theme would be, simply, “Responsibility,” and Bill would repeat much of this speech.

Bill looked back over the years; he did a bit of an inventory of AA’s history, “the better to reveal the areas in which we can improve ourselves.”

“Without much doubt, a million alcoholics have approached AA during the last thirty years,” he said. Estimating that “350,000 of us are now recovered from our malady” through the fellowship of AA, he continued, “So we can very soberly ask ourselves what became of the 600,000 who did not stay.”

No doubt some alcoholics “cannot be reached because they are not hurt enough, others because they are hurt too much. Many sufferers have mental and emotional complications that seem to foreclose their chances,” Bill acknowledged.

But what about all the others?

“How much and how often did we fail them?” he asked.

“Our very first concern should be with those sufferers that we are still unable to reach.”

He had some sense of the failings of the fellowship he had helped launch and which he still clearly revered. One of the themes for his talk was one he had broached before: a growing rigidity in AA.

He referred directly to a contingent within the fellowship which, often unwittingly, made it difficult for an increasingly large number of people to feel comfortable in the rooms of AA. “It is a historical fact,” he said, “that practically all groupings of men and women tend to become dogmatic. Their beliefs and practices harden and sometimes freeze. This is a natural and almost inevitable process.”

He discussed some of the ways that this rigidity could harm the fellowship.

“In no circumstances should we feel that Alcoholics Anonymous is the know-all and do-all of alcoholism,” Bill said, referring to the work of other organizations in the United States and Canada engaged in research, alcohol education and rehabilitation.

“Research has already come up with significant and helpful findings. And research will do far more.”

“Those engaged in education are carrying the message that alcoholism is an illness, that something can be done about it.”

Bill then talked about the growth of rehabilitation facilities in North America and the number of alcoholics treated by these agencies. “True, their approach is often different from our own,” he said.

“But what does that matter,” he asked, “when the greater part of them are or could be entirely willing to cooperate with AA?”

“Too often, I believe, we have deprecated and even derided these projects of our friends.”

“So we should very seriously ask ourselves how many alcoholics have gone on drinking simply because we have failed to cooperate in good spirit with all these other agencies whether they be good, bad or indifferent. Assuredly no alcoholic should go mad or die simply because he did not come straight to AA in the first place.”

Bill was of the view that hardened or frozen beliefs and practices were dangerous in AA. “Simply because we have convictions that work very well for us, it becomes quite easy to assume that we have all of the truth.”

“Whenever this brand of arrogance develops,” he warned, “we are sure to become aggressive. We demand agreement with us. We play God.”

“This isn’t good dogma. This is very bad dogma. It could be especially destructive for us of AA to indulge in this sort of thing.”

Bill defended the right of all AAers to have their own beliefs and to be able to freely express them.

“All people must necessarily rally to the call of their own particular convictions and we of AA are no exception.” Moreover, he continued, “all people should have the right to voice their convictions.”

Bill then returned to the subject of those who had come into AA but not stayed. “Newcomers are approaching us at the rate of tens of thousands yearly. They represent almost every belief and attitude imaginable.”

“We have atheists and agnostics,” he said. “We have people of nearly every race, culture and religion.”

And then Bill got to the heart of his message of responsibility.

In AA we are supposed to be bound together in the kinship of a universal suffering. Therefore the full liberty to practice any creed or principle or therapy should be a first consideration. Hence let us not pressure anyone with individual or even collective views. Let us instead accord to each other the respect that is due to every human being as he tries to make his way towards the light. Let us always try to be inclusive rather than exclusive. Let us remember that each alcoholic among us is a member of AA, so long as he or she so declares.

Towards the end of his address, Bill commented on how difficult it has been for AA to grow at important moments in its history. “Our fears and reluctances and rebellions have been extreme each time we have been faced with great turning points in this society,” he said.

“Let us never fear needed change,” he concluded. “Once a need becomes clearly apparent in an individual, a Group, or in AA as a whole, it has long since been found out that we cannot afford to sit still and look the other way.”


Much of this address – with only minor changes – is reproduced in an article by Bill that was published in July 1965 in the AA Grapevine, Responsibility Is Our Theme. As already noted, the theme of AA’s 30th Anniversary International Convention held later that year was “Responsibility.” It was in response to the concerns raised by Bill that those present adopted the Responsibility Declaration. In an extraordinarily moving event after Bill’s speech on July 3, 1965 at Maple Leaf Gardens in downtown Toronto, more than 10,000 delegates, trustees and AA representatives from 21 countries rose to their feet, joined hands and, led by Bill, recited the new AA declaration with one voice: “I am responsible. When anyone, anywhere, reaches out for help, I want the hand of AA always to be there. And for that I am responsible.” Inspired by this unconditioned affirmation of inclusion, agnostic AA groups invariably end their meetings with this declaration.


For a PDF of this article, click here: Responsibility is Our Theme.


YouTube Audio


11 Responses

  1. Mike O says:

    The problem fundamentalist AA has is the same problem religion itself has. Who OTHER THAN a “fundamentalist” would take the time and energy to continue to involve themselves so heavily in AA, especially many years, even decades on into recovery? More liberal or at least moderating voices would get tired of the losing battle, of being scolded or scorned or patronizingly and condescendingly told to just “keep coming back”. I’ve often heard in meetings over the years the maxim that “the road narrows the further along you get into recovery”, indicating the arrogant notion that only the “honest” and true “carriers of the message” will still be around years later. So, everyone else necessarily fell off the wagon, either through resuming their destructive, addictive activity or seemingly just as ominously, becoming a “dry drunk”? No one can claim that they’ve truly maintained their sobriety?

    It is remarkable when I think of the many years I’ve been involved with and around AA how few people seem to “keep coming back” and how many of those that do are of the “bleeding deacon” variety. Some long-timers are also calm members of good will but they also seem to be background figures, beta personalities that quietly go along with whatever the prevailing stronger personalities dictate. However, the strong personalities are the ones who keep the meetings going and reinforce the orthodoxy. In my mind’s eye I think of the dozens, the hundreds, maybe the thousands of names and faces who made varying levels of impression on me over the years and how precious few of them I’ve seen in a long time. Fundamentalist AAs might say, “they’re either going to other meetings or (ominously) they’re ‘out there’ somewhere.” However, a few of them I’ve run into at the grocery store, at the post office or shopping mall and usually they don’t look too much worse for wear. Yes, some ex-members go back to addiction and chaos and live out their tragic fates and become the object lessons we so often hear about later in meetings (I swear, if I had a dollar every time I heard an old-timer solemnly and sonorously go on about how many dozens of “friends I’ve buried”, who do these people know and hang out with?). Still, how many people simply go to 12 Steps meetings for a period of time (weeks, months, years) and then slowly ease their way out as their normal, healthy lives begin to take over?

    Sometimes I think of the old-timers with 20, 30, 40+ years who still make “recovery” such a central part of their everyday lives as being people who never took the training wheels off. Yes, coming back occasionally and sharing where you’re at, your “experience, strength and hope” and seeing old faces and being a helpful presence to a newcomer is great. But at what point does somebody ever get to move on, to simply live a life absent of addictive activity with occasional acknowledgements of a troubled past and recovery from it but otherwise a positive and healthy sense of themselves in the present? I know many in AA like to trot out the line, “nobody ever GRADUATES from AA”. While that may be true, perhaps many of us with little public fuss and fanfare simply move on from the constant browbeating of the Steps and quietly fold back into life and the world.

  2. Richard K says:

    AA pledge, when anyone anywhere reaches out for help let the hand of AA be there and for that l am responsible!!

  3. Tim O says:

    They way the dogmatic types get around literature like this is they gaslight Bill W after 1939. They say the first 164 pages of the big book is the only piece of AA literature that is valid. Sometime they don’t say it so stringently but they will dismiss anything he later wrote, saying Bill was not in his right mind. He was depressed and all, ya know. Of course they also somehow manage to not focus too much on parts of the big book that say stuff like “we know only a little.”

  4. Thomas says:

    Thanks so much Roger for republishing this article – for me it is especially notable since I had shortly before it was published found out about you and AA Agnostica. It was a”godsend” event for me since I was in a very god fearing and conservative part of southern Oregon whose meetings were full of “god is great” and the only way to get sober is to surrender on your knees to him” kind of folks !~!~!

  5. Bobby Freaken Beach says:

    AA fundamentalism at its worst glorifies 1939 while denigrating or dismissing all that has come since. If God gives you 10 commandments (or 15 if Mel Brooks got it right) we don’t go tweaking them. Change is the bitter enemy of the ultra-conservative. I’m sure our womenfolk will agree.

    Fundies can get quite anti-Bill when he spews liberalism such as what is found here. Maybe LSD warped his brain. For those of us in the progressive camp, what a delight it is to have AA’s founder uttering “Let us never fear needed change!”

    I’m sure that my brother Jesse Beach will agree that it’s time to welcome Billy W. Beach to the family, notwithstanding that the atheist-agnostic hating Grandpa Sandy Beach will be spinning in his grave.

    • Gael says:

      For this to hold true – and it is true – you have to be able to let go of the idea that one is an alcoholic.

      Existence requires motion. Absolute abstract motion.

  6. Lance B. says:

    This article reminds me that Bill Wilson was a very intelligent man. He saw and expressed organizational problems and opportunities for AA which clearly require a good deal of insight. I can imagine many other leaders who might have a small insight like the problem of growing dogmatism, but never get around to expressing it to the membership.

    Of course, despite my ability to understand his prescience, I can’t help but wonder if he could have found a way to be even more effective in communicating it. AA as a whole seems to have neglected what he said in 1965. And many simply do not understand it.

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