For the first 12 years of my sobriety, I attended meetings in the Gramercy Park section of New York, near the headquarters of the Oxford Group at Calvary Episcopal Church and their 23rd Street mission, where Bill W. first got sober. AA meetings were still held in the adjacent church building, where Bill, Ebby T., Hank P., Fitz M. and other future AAs first met.
It was at one of those meetings that I first admitted my life had become unmanageable, after hearing a woman named Irene share about the unmanageability of her own life when she drank. Yet I had no idea of the history that surrounded me. Apparently, neither were apparently my fellow alcoholics. I never even heard the name Oxford Group mentioned.
That changed many years later when I moved to a rural area upstate. At Big Book meetings in particular, the subject of AA’s origins in the Group would sometimes come up. Invariably, this would arouse controversy. People either liked the Group, or intensely disliked it. The reasons were never clear. No one actually seemed to know much about it. Still, it was obvious that the divide had to do with religion.
That, as I eventually learned, had divided AAs from the very start. That’s why the Big Book insists ours is a spiritual, not a religious program. That’s also why it insists on open-mindedness as one of the key principles that will enable us to work it. Any alcoholic can recover, it asserts, “provided he does not close his mind to all spiritual concepts” (p. 568).
That assertion would seem to lay the need for open-mindedness more heavily on those who have a problem with the spiritual angle of the program than on those who don’t. And that is correct. They are the ones for whom the "contempt prior to investigation" quote is intended. They are the ones who “can only be defeated by an attitude of intolerance or belligerent denial” with regards to things spiritual.
Yet the Big Book doesn’t mean to suggest that open-mindedness is required only of the agnostic, the atheist, or the secularist in general. Believers too may need to practice this principle, and with regards to the same issue. Both groups tend to conflate spirituality and religion, only from different directions. One is disposed to reject things because of their association with religion while the other is disposed to accept them for exactly the same reason, particularly if it is their religion.
Something of this sort appears to be at work in the division evident in the rooms regarding the Oxford Group and its influence on AA. Some seem to oppose the Group simply because of its evangelical affiliation, while others seem to support it precisely because of that affiliation. In neither case does the conflict seem to have anything to do with the facts. Minds have been already made up, and closed.
Our two texts’ silence on the matter has not helped. Fearing to stoke the flames of controversy, Bill made a decision not to make any direct reference to the OG in the Big Book or the 12&12. Indeed, for a long time he sought to distance AA from the Group in the public eye. Nevertheless, Bill always kept an open mind. When he finally acknowledged the Group’s contributions, he was even-handed and balanced. The Oxford Group, he said, had taught AA both what to do and what not to do.
Borrowing from the literature on the subject, we will try to summarize what these positive and negative lessons are, making available the basic information that can help us to come to a reasonable and fair-minded understanding of the issue. For those who may wish to explore the topic further, sources are footnoted.
OG Links Leading to Formation of AA
- Dr. Carl Jung diagnoses Rowland H.’s alcoholism as a medically or scientifically hopeless condition which only a spiritual experience can relieve, leading Rowland to join and find sobriety in the OG.1
- Rowland carries the message to Ebby T., who also gets sober in the OG and carries the message to Bill W., who also finds sobriety there.
- Through these two Groupers, Bill comes in contact with Dr. Jung, whom he recognizes as his inspiration for the fellowship that eventually becomes AA.2
- OG members pass on to Ebby, and Ebby passes on to Bill, William James’ Varieties of Religious Experience, from which Bill derives the ideas of a spiritual experience (sudden) and awakening (gradual).3
- Bill asks the alcoholics in the OG meetings at Calvary to meet separately with him, first at a nearby cafeteria (Stewart’s) and later at his Brooklyn home, leading to the very first AA meetings
- The call that connects Bill to Dr. Bob, and in which Bill identifies himself as an OG member, goes through Akron OG supporter and Episcopal priest the Reverend Walter Tunks to non-alcoholic OG member Henrietta Seiberling, who was looking for someone to help Dr. Bob following his recent revelation at an OG meeting (where he had attended 2 ½ years) that he was a “secret” drinker.4
- Subsequently, separate OG meetings begin to be held in the home of OG members Clarace and T. Henry Williams, the latter a former chief engineer of the company involved in the proxy fight which had taken Bill to Akron and whom Bill had met during those proceedings.5
- Bill later refers to these Akron links as “the chain of events that Providence” was unfolding, naming Henrietta as the strongest of them.6
OG Influence on 12 Steps
- In the clearest statement on the matter, Bill W. writes that “the early A.A. got its ideas of self-examination, acknowledgement of character defects, restitution for harm done, and working with others straight from the Oxford Groups and directly from Sam Shoemaker, their former leader in America, and from nowhere else.”7
- In his 1961 letter to Jung, Bill notes the OG’s “large emphasis upon the principles of self-survey, confession, restitution, and the giving of oneself in service to others.”8
- When writing the Big Book’s chapter “How It Works,” Bill’s first draft of the Steps contains 6, all derived from the OG, which he then expands to 12. The 6 were: “1) We admitted that we were licked, that we were powerless over alcohol; 2) We made a moral inventory of our defects or sins; 3) We confessed or shared our shortcomings with another person in confidence; 4) We made restitution to all those we had harmed by our drinking; 5) We tried to help other alcoholics, with no thought of reward in money or prestige; 6) We prayed to whatever God we thought there was for the power to practice these precepts.”9
- The 12 Steps were also influenced by the OG’s “Five Procedures”: “1) Give in to God; 2) Listen to God’s direction; 3) Check guidance; 4) Restitution; 5) Sharing for witness (how one had changed) and for confession (what one had done).10
- Though AA shunned the OG term “surrender,” it incorporated its concept of surrendering one’s life to the care of God in Step 3, using “turn over” instead.11
- OG experience also contributed to various aspects of the 12 Steps, as when someone's amends going awry led to the addition of the proviso “except when to do so would injure them or others” in the 9th Step.12
- Step 11’s prayer and meditation derive from similar OG practices, including observing a “quiet time” and seeking “guidance.”13
- Oxfordites emphasized one member working with another, which Bill W. credits for the like practice in the 12th Step.14
- Most of the OG members were not alcoholics, and the precepts they were to follow concerned all their affairs, a concept added in Step 12 to the idea of practicing the principles beyond the problem of drinking.
OG influence on spiritual principles
- The idea of a spiritual awakening (first written as spiritual “experience” in Step 12) was derived not only from William James, but also from the OG, which held it as its primary goal and referred to it as a conversion experience or a spiritual reawakening. It was as a result of his own spiritual experience that Lutheran minister Frank Buchman had founded the movement that eventually became the OG.15
- Buchman’s spiritual experience led him to practice the principle of restitution (AA Step 9) by making amends to the members of the board of a boy's home where he had worked and which he had left on bad terms and with a great deal of resentment.
- The idea of James and Jung that a spiritual experience or awakening could be a solution to alcoholism implied that alcoholism was at least in part a spiritual problem, an inference that for Bill grew into a conviction with the help of the OG’s Rev. Sam Shoemaker, whom he credited for the understanding that alcoholism was a spiritual disease as much as it was a physical and a mental one as Dr. Silkworth had taught him.16
- Though it objected to the term “absolute,” in practice AA followed the OG’s Four Absolutes by the heavy emphasis it placed on the principles of honesty, unselfishness, and love.17
- Embodied in the Four Absolutes was the ideal of striving for the perfection which is of God, an ideal which Bill acknowledges he incorporated in the 12&12’s 6th and 7th Steps.18
- The OG emphasized a “changed life” attained through “stages,” implying the idea of a gradual process which AA expressed through the concept of “steps.”19
- The OG held that its workers should not be paid for “soul surgery” in aiding others to attain the changed life, a key principle in AA’s 8th tradition.20
- In Ebby’s kitchen-table talk with Bill, he had noted that in the OG one could choose one’s own concept of God, to whom he also referred as “another power” and a “higher power,” echoed in AA’s “a Power Greater than ourselves,” in Step 2 and “God as we understood Him” in the 3rd and 11th Steps.21
- Some of the language we find in the Big Book and the 12&12 (and the ideas it conveys) is borrowed directly from the OG, such as the phrase in the Promises (Big Book, Step 9), “that God is doing for us what we could not do for ourselves,” which is found in the OG publication, What Is the Oxford Group?22
OG Influence on AA Practices, Tone, Style
- OG meetings were held in an informal setting or “house parties” where a sense of fellowship could develop. Ebby recounts that he had found in the OG “friendship and fellowship of a kind he had never known,"23 like so many later would in AA.
- Though Christian, the OG was non-denominational in character, was not affiliated with any church, and had no specific theological positions, focusing only on helping its adherents to live a moral life, what AA would call a new manner of living.
- Unlike religious and secular organizations, the OG saw itself not as an organization but as a spiritual movement: Groups were autonomous, there were no elected leaders, hierarchy, membership dues, sets of rules, or other organizational or institutional trappings, setting an example for the AA idea of a spiritual society or fellowship.
- In a significant departure from the missionary imperative of religion, the OG held that its members needed to engage in work with others in order to change the helper’s life, a principle that led Ebby to Bill and Bill to Dr. Bob and was incorporated in the AA idea that we stay sober by helping another alcoholic.24
- The OG put its emphasis not on theory or belief, but on action, an idea embodied in AA’s “a program of action” and “a faith that works,” the latter originating in the biblical book of James.25
- The OG’s practice of sharing one’s experience for “confession” (admission of defects) and “witness” (how one has changed) served as a model for the sharing that goes on in AA, both at meetings and individually with a sponsor or AA friend.26
- The way we identify ourselves at meeting when we share goes back to Frank Buchman's referring to himself as “Frank B.” and OG members at “sharing sessions” introducing themselves as “My name is so-and-so” before sharing.27
- Differentiating himself from the typical church leader, OG leader Sam Shoemaker was willing to talk about his own shortcomings (rather than about somebody else’s), a practice which is central to AA’s sharing and inventory process.28
- Frank Buchman, the Group’s founder, encouraged the use of slogans (e.g., “When man listens, God speaks”), a practice continued in AA.
Over Ambition, Elitism
- The OG wanted to change the world; changing individuals was mainly a means to that goal; that was just too much of a tall order for the average alcoholic, who just wanted to change enough to stop drinking and get his own life in order; AA learned by negative example to keep its focus on our primary purpose: to stay sober and help another alcoholic achieve sobriety.
- The OG focused on winning over “key men”: the socially prominent, the powerful, industry, political, and community leaders, believing they were in the best position to win others over.29
- The stress on “key men” meant drunks didn’t fit in the OG blueprint; they were seen as "hopeless," "not worth the trouble working with"30; they were not considered to be “really maximum,” a term which differentiated among members according to their commitment to the Group, fostering comparative pride and divisiveness.31
- The emphasis on “key men” led the OG to stress publicity and play up people’s identity, which tended to inflate egos and foster pride; because of the stigma associated with our condition, alcoholics wanted to remain anonymous.
- With time the Group abandoned its small, “house-party” type of meetings and went for big, splash-making and publicity-attracting events involving thousands.
Pressure, Coercion, Authoritarianism
- The OG engaged in aggressive evangelism, trying to make alcoholics “too good too soon.”32
- The idea of achieving absolute honesty, absolute purity, absolute unselfishness and absolute love demanded too much of the alcoholic; it was like “trying to get good by Thursday,” and ended “causing temporary inflation leading to collapse.”33
- Any “guidance” a member had received from God had to be checked and approved by the Group, even with regards to personal matters.34
- Members were also required to follow any “guidance” the Group claimed to have received for them from God.35
- Before being accepted as a member and allowed to attend meetings, a person had to “make a surrender” to God on his knees in front of the Group or another member, the exact words to use being dictated to him, a practice which led some alcoholics to call OG “the take it or leave program” and led Bill to keep the term “surrender” out of the Big Book and the 12&12.36
- The OG followed the practice of kneeling in prayer, to which some alcoholics objected, a practice reflected in the addition of “on our knees” after “Humbly asked Him” in the original Step 7, an addition subsequently deleted.37
- Because of its aggressive evangelism, its focus on attracting “key men,” and it stress on publicity, the OG eventually got embroiled in controversy, the biggest of which was its declared intention (1936) of winning Adolph Hitler to its program, following which it was (unjustly but damagingly) accused of pro-Nazi sympathies.38
- The uproar that followed is one of the reasons Bill omitted any mention of the OG in the Big Book and sought to distance AA from it.
- Another reason was the Pope forbidding Catholics to associate with the OG, which affected in particular the burgeoning group of Cleveland Catholics attending OG meetings in Akron, who were told by their priest this was a violation of church law.39
- There were other sources of controversy, such as the OG tendency to try to referee disputes among various businesses in Akron, especially the tire companies.40
AA Split from OG
The tension between the alcoholic and the non-alcoholic members of the Group surfaced early on. Once Bill started to meet separately with alcoholics, they came to be seen as a “secretive, sub-group,” as an assistant to Shoemaker in NY depicted them. In the spring of 1937, while Sam was on vacation, OG alcoholics at Calvary were prohibited from attending the Tuesday night meetings at Bill’s house in Brooklyn.41
That led to NY’s break with the Group later that year. After being notified of the break, Dr. Bob asked Akron OG alcoholics to meet separately from the non-alcoholics, leading to a complete break in 1939. Cleveland took the lead, separating itself from the Akron OG group and starting to meet in its own home town under the name "Alcoholics Anonymous," after the name of the Big Book, which had just been published.
An open-minded appraisal of the evidence regarding the OG influence on AA would lead one to conclude that, as Bill noted, there was a lot that was good and a lot that was bad. On balance, it is clear that the good far outweighed the bad.
That is why Bill acknowledged that the break was very painful, for despite all the Group’s drawbacks, AA’s debt to it was “immense.” That is also why, singling out Sam Shoemaker in particular, Bill writes that “He will always be found in our annals as the one whose inspired example and teaching did most to show us how to create the spiritual climate in which we alcoholics may survive and then proceed to grow. AA owes a debt of timeless gratitude for all that God sent us through Sam and his friends in the days of A.A.’s infancy.”42
And so to the principle of open-mindedness, Bill adds the principle of gratitude, a virtue of the heart more than of the mind. We can be grateful because, without the OG, there would be no AA. We can also be grateful because, had we stayed in the OG, there would be no AA either.
- In Audios & Videos:
“Rowland H.: AA History”
“Sam Shoemaker: 1960 AA Convention”
“Rich Walker: Author of Twenty-Four Hours a Day”
- In Ray’s Book Reviews:
"The Little Black Book"
- In Big Book Q&A, Personal Stories, 4th Edition:
"Doctor Bob's Nightmare," P178
"Women Suffer Too," P205
"My Chance to Live," P315
"He Sold Himself Short," PP262, 263
"A.A. Taught Him to Handle Sobriety," P557
- In Big Book Q&A, Personal Stories, Experience, Strength & Hope:
"A Feminine Victory," P19
"The Back Slider," P41
"The Seven Month Slip," P46
"My Wife and I," P53
"Riding the Rods," P72
- In Links: At the Public Level:
“Mea Culpa.” Thanks to Oxford Group (aka Moral Rearmament and Initiatives of Change), man who thought himself religious has spiritual awakening, admits to torture and murder, and makes amends (NYT 04/17/10).
- AA Books:
Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age: A Brief History of A.A.
Dr. Bob and the Good Oldtimers: A Biography, with Recollections of Early A.A. in the Midwest
‘Pass It On’: The Story of Bill Wilson and How the A.A. Message Reached the World
The Language of the Heart: Bill W.’s Grapevine Writings
- Non-AA Books:
Bill W., Robert Thomsen. The semi-official biography of our co-founder (Hazelden)
Not God: A History of Alcoholics Anonymous, Ernie Kurtz (Hazelden). The definitive history of AA
Practice These Principles and What Is the Oxford Group? Bill P. (Hazelden)
Twenty-Four Hours a Day ("The Little Black Book"), published anonymously but "Compiled by a member of the Group at Daytona Beach, FLA.," the "member" being Richard Walker and the "Group" being the OG, where he got sober, later joining AA
Believing in False Gods: I Was a Pagan, V. C. Kitchen. The story of a NYC advertising executive’s recovery from alcoholism in the OG
Changed by Grace: V. C. Kitchen, the Oxford Group, and A.A., Glenn F. Chestnut. A historian’s thoughtful analysis of the historical and spiritual antecedents of AA in the OG and the evangelical movements led by Jonathan Edwards in colonial America and John Wesley in 18th century England
- Not-God: A History of Alcoholics Anonymous, Ernie Kurtz, pp. 8,9. Big Book, pp. 26-28, where Rowland is the “certain American businessman”
- In his 1961 letter to Jung, Bill cited this as “the first link that led to the foundation of Alcoholics Anonymous,” and as “the first foundation stone upon which our society has since been built,” Ernie Kurtz, ibid.
- 'Pass It On': The Story of Bill Wilson and How the A.A. Message Reached the World, p. 124
- Kurtz, p. 27; Pass It On, p. 136
- Pass It On, p. 145
- Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age: A Brief History of A.A., p. 19
- AACOA, p. 39
- Kurtz, p. 9
- Bill W., Robert Thomsen, p. 253; Kurtz, p. 69; Pass It On, pp. 197, 198; The Language of the Heart: Bill W.'s Grapevine Writings, pp. 200, 201; Big Book, p. 292, where in the story “He Sold Himself Short,” Earl T. lists the 6 precepts as: “1) Complete deflation (Step 1), 2) Dependence on and guidance from a Higher Power (Steps 2 & 11), 3) Moral Inventory (Steps 4 & 10), 4) Confession (Steps 5 & 10), 5) Restitution (Steps 8, 9, 10), 6) Continued work with others (Step 12)
- Kurtz, p. 48; Pass It On, p. 128
- Practice These Principles and What Is the Oxford Group? p. 59
- Dr. Bob and the Good Oldtimers: A Biography, with Recollections of Early A.A. in the Midwest, p. 80
- Language of the Heart, p. 196; Kurtz, p. 28; What Is the Oxford Group? p. 60
- Language of the Heart, p. 196
- Kurtz pp. 25, 48; Pass It On, p. 130; What Is the Oxford Group? p. 50; Buchman’s group went through various name changes: First Century Christian Fellowship (1921), The Oxford Group (1931), Moral Rearmament (M.R.A, 1938), and Initiatives of Change (2001). The Oxford Group is not to be confused with the Oxford Movement, a liturgical movement within Anglo-Catholicism whose best known representative was John Henry Newman
- Kurtz, p. 45
- The Four Absolutes were: absolute honesty, absolute purity, absolute unselfishness, absolute love
- Pass It On, p. 127; in Step 6 of the 12&12, we read about the need to “raise our eyes toward perfection” and becoming “ready to walk in that direction” (p. 65)
- Kurtz, p. 49; Good Oldtimers, p. 54. The stages were represented by the “Five Cs”: Confidence, Confession, Conviction, Conversion, and Continuance”
- Kurtz, p. 48
- Kurtz, p. 17; Pass It On, pp. 115, 199
- What Is the Oxford Group? p. 111
- Kurtz, p. 10
- Kurtz, p. 49
- Kurtz, pp. 49, 50
- Kurtz, p. 44
- Pass It On, p. 219
- AACOA, p. 39; Thomsen, p. 206
- Thomsen, p. 236
- Kurtz, p. 25
- Kurtz, p. 45; Pass It On, p. 174
- Kurtz, p. 213
- Kurtz, pp. 51, 213
- Kurtz, p. 44
- Kurtz, p. 44
- Good Oldtimers, p. 101
- Pass It On, pp. 191-192
- Pass It On, p. 170
- Kurtz, pp. 52, 78
- Good Oldtimers, p. 159
- Kurtz, p. 45; Pass It On, p. 169
- AACOA, pp. 39-40. In AACOA pp. 74-75 and in Pass It On, pp. 171-173, Bill gives a summary of OG drawbacks while also expressing his gratitude for all the good the Group did for AA