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 stance

Frank Amos (right), who attended the December meeting and is a close friend of John D. Rockefeller, Jr., agrees to assess the Akron group and explore the possibility of opening a small hospital for alcoholics. In February 1938 he spends several days in the city. Impressed by the recovery rate of Akron group members, he proposes a recuperative facility to be run by Dr. Bob. To Rockefeller he recommends a sum of $50,000 for the early work, but Rockefeller thinks the Fellowship should be self-supporting. The philanthropist does, however, contribute $5,000 toward Bill and Dr. Bob’s basic needs.

The Alcoholic Foundation

Frank Amos and others who had attended the December meeting offer to confer with Bill, Leonard Strong, and various members of the New York group to consider how the movement can be given an organizational framework. As a result, the Alcoholic Foundation is formally established on August 11, 1938, with Dr. Bob as a trustee and Bill on the advisory committee.

The Twelve Steps

As he begins to write the A.A. Book, Bill comes to the point where he must outline an actual program for the recovering alcoholic to follow. Drawing on the teachings of Sam Shoemaker, William James’s The Varieties of Religious Experience, and the Oxford Group-inspired six-step procedure used by Bill and Dr. Bob as they carry the message. The steps grow to 12, and the A.A. Twelve Step program is born.

The Big Book gets started

Bill writes a book meant to aid the alcoholic who is unable to attend meetings or find fellow alcoholics with whom to talk. At the Newark office, he dictates his handwritten notes to Ruth Hock (right) as she types, reviewing and revising drafts all the while. These chapters are mimeographed and mailed to potential financial backers, as well as to Eugene Exman, the religion editor at Harper & Brothers publishers.

Works Publishing: a farsighted plan

Harper & Brothers offers to publish the Big Book, much to the delight of Bill and the trustees. But the astute businessman, Hank P., convinces Bill to sell shares in their own company and to publish the volume themselves. Hank works up a prospectus for what will become Works Publishing Company, with 600 shares of stock selling at $25 per share (right).

About the Author

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