A.A. Origins

The origins of Alcoholics Anonymous can be traced to the Oxford Group, a religious movement popular in the United States and Europe in the early 20th century. Members of the Oxford Group practiced a formula of self-improvement by performing self-inventory, admitting wrongs, making amends, using prayer and meditation, and carrying the message to others.

In the early 1930s, a well-to-do Rhode Islander, Rowland H., visited the noted Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Jung for help with his alcoholism. Jung determined that Rowland’s case was medically hopeless, and that he could only find relief through a vital spiritual experience. Jung directed him to the Oxford Group.

Rowland later introduced fellow Vermonter Edwin (“Ebby”) T. to the group, and the two men along with several others were finally able to keep from drinking by practicing the Oxford Group principles.

One of Ebby’s schoolmate friends from Vermont, and a drinking buddy, was Bill W. Ebby sought out his old friend at his home at 182 Clinton Street in Brooklyn, New York, to carry the message of hope.

Bill W. had been a golden boy on Wall Street, enjoying success and power as a stockbroker, but his promising career had been ruined by continuous and chronic alcoholism. Now, approaching 39 years of age, he was learning that his problem was hopeless, progressive, and irreversible. He had sought medical treatment at Towns Hospital in Manhattan, but he was still drinking.

Bill was, at first, unconvinced by Ebby’s story of transformation and the claims of the Oxford Group. But in December 1934, after again landing in Towns hospital for treatment, Bill underwent a powerful spiritual experience unlike any he had ever known. His depression and despair were lifted, and he felt free and at peace. Bill stopped drinking, and worked the rest of his life to bring that freedom and peace to other alcoholics. The roots of Alcoholics Anonymous were planted.

Rockefeller’s dinner

John D. Rockefeller, Jr. hosts a dinner at the exclusive Union Club (right) to publicize Alcoholics Anonymous. Because Rockefeller believes that A.A. should be self-supporting, and this is understood by the guests, no money is solicited or raised. Nevertheless, Rockefeller sees to it that the event receives favorable and widespread publicity. Within a month, small donations trickle in from members, slightly easing the financial difficulty faced by A.A. during this early period.

The first New York clubhouse

With the house at 182 Clinton Street no longer available for meetings, New York members meet wherever they can. Two of them, Bert T. and Horace C., find and guarantee the rent on a small building at 334 1/2 West 24th Street in Manhattan. The clubhouse (right) soon bustles with activity, and Bill and Lois, still homeless, move into one of the two upstairs bedrooms later in the year.

A.A.’s first headquarters

In March, 1940, Works Publishing moves from Newark to a small office at 30 Vesey Street (right) in lower Manhattan. Though something of a financial gamble, the move means that for the first time the Fellowship has a headquarters of its own.

A challenge to the principle of anonymity

A star catcher for the Cleveland Indians, described by the press as “rollicking” because of his heavy drinking, announces that he has achieved sobriety through his year-long membership in Alcoholics Anonymous. His name and face are splashed over sports pages nationwide. Such violation of the Fellowship’s principle of anonymity leads Bill and members everywhere to consider anonymity’s pros and cons.

Enter Father Dowling

On a rainy winter night in late 1940, a kindly clergyman from St. Louis appears at the 24th Street Clubhouse. Leaning on his cane, Fr. Edward Dowling, SJ, (right) introduces himself to Bill, states that he has been reading Alcoholics Anonymous, and then points out the parallels between the Twelve Steps and his own Jesuit order. Thus begins a spiritual sponsorship between Fr. Dowling and Bill that will last for the next 20 years.

Toronto gets the message

The Fellowship’s message will spread north when Rev. Dr. George Little, a Toronto United Church minister who is also active in the temperance movement, learns of the Big Book in 1940, orders a few copies, and gives two to a small group of alcoholics who have been gathering for mutual support. Led by Tom E., the men will become Canada’s first A.A. group as they begin to hold meetings in a room above Toronto’s Little Denmark Tavern in 1943.

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