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A history of the 12 Steps

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Bill Wilson, the co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, recalls the fateful meeting that changed his life and planted the seed for the 12 Steps in the Big Book of A.A.:

“My musing was interrupted by the telephone. The cheery voice of an old school friend asked if might come over. He was sober. It was years since I could remember his coming to New York in that condition. I was amazed. Rumor had it that he had been committed fort alcoholic insanity. I wondered how he had escaped.”

But the only thing Edwin “Ebby” Thacher had escaped from was the slow strangulation of the spirit imposed upon him by alcoholism. Ebby, it turned out, was a member of the Oxford Group, a Christian organization founded by Frank Buchman that believed “the root of all problems were the personal problems of fear and selfishness … (and) that the solution to living with fear and selfishness was to surrender one's life over to God's plan.”

An American missionary, Buchman had a life-changing experience at the 1908 Keswick Convention of evangelical Christians in England; in 1921, he founded A First Century Christian Fellowship, which evolved over the next decade into the Oxford Group.

Oxford principles

At the time, the concepts embraced by the Oxford Group were revolutionary: “no hierarchy, no temples, no endowments, its workers no salaries, no plans but God’s plan.” It was “simply a group of people from all walks of life who (had) surrendered their lives to God. Their endeavor was to lead a spiritual life under God’s guidance, and their purpose was to carry their message so others could do the same.”

The absence of leadership (members believed ultimate leadership resided with the Holy Spirit and striven to embrace God’s will instead of their own), the piety of its members and the focus on carrying its message of hope to others were ancestors to the 12 Steps. A 1936 Good Housekeeping article on the group, in fact, described it as “having neither membership, nor dues, nor paid leaders, nor new theological creed, nor regular meetings; it was simply a fellowship of people who desired to follow a way of life, a determination, and not a denomination.” The group recommended meditation and adherence to Christian principles, and listed sex tenets necessary for a spiritual revolution:

  • Men are sinners
  • Men can be changed
  • Confession is prerequisite to change
  • The changed soul has direct access to God
  • The age of miracles has returned
  • Those who have been changed must change others

The Oxford Group caught the attention of those working in the fields of psychiatry, psychology and philosophy of the day. In the early 1930s, a Rhode Island native, Rowland Hazard, sought help from the famous Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Jung for his alcoholism; Jung directed him to the Oxford Group, believing Rowland’s case could not be addressed through traditional medical means and that a spiritual revitalization was necessary.

Rowland was Ebby’s introduction to the Oxford Group, and together, the two men embraced its principles as a path to sobriety. It was a sober and transformed Ebby who showed up at Wilson’s home in November 1934, with a smile on his face and a soul free of the bondage of the bottle.

A.A. foundations

In the Big Book chapter “Bill’s Story,” Wilson recounts his witness to Ebby’s transformation:

“The door opened and he stood there, fresh-skinned and glowing. There was something about his eyes. He was inexplicably different. What had happened?” Ebby informed Wilson that he had found religion, but “he did no ranting. In a matter of fact way he told how two men had appeared in court, persuading the judge to suspend his commitment. They had told of a simple religious idea and a practical program of action. That was two months ago and the result was self-evident. It worked!”

Wilson details the turmoil he felt, recounting questions of God and the spirit that led to both hesitation and a desire to embrace his friend’s new way of life. Ultimately, he rejected the offering, citing his contempt for religion: “The wars which had been fought, the burnings and chicanery that religious disputes had facilitated, made me sick.” It was his friend’s change, however, that convinced him. Obviously, Wilson realized, Ebby’s will had been unable to initiate such a transformation: “There had been no more power in him than there was in me at that minute; and this was none at all.”

Ebby’s words would prove invaluable to the later development of the 12 Steps: “Why don’t you choose your own conception of God?” “That statement hit me hard,” Wilson wrote. “It melted the icy intellectual mountain in whose shadow I had lived and shivered many years. I stood in the sunlight at last.

“It was only a matter of being willing to believe in a Power greater than myself. Nothing more was required of me to make my beginning.”

From the honesty of the unmanageability of his alcoholism to the open-mindedness of a spiritual solution, Bill Wilson was on his way. After another hospitalization for his alcoholism, he made the decision to turn his will and his life over to the care of a God of his understanding: “I placed myself unreservedly under His care and direction. I admitted for the first time that of myself I was nothing; that without Him I was lost.”

The fellowship materializes

"The Man on the Bed," painting of Bill Wilson and Dr. Bob Smith by A.A. member Robert M., published in the 1955 edition of Grapevine.

Since that day, Bill never drank again. He worked a version of the Steps almost immediately, discussing his “problems and deficiencies,” making a list “of people I had hurt or toward whom I felt resentment” and developing a willingness to admit his own wrongs. According to “My Name Is Bill,” a biography by Susan Cheever, Wilson was also influenced by William James’ book “Varieties of Religious Experience,” and as he began to become more involved in the Oxford Group, the more he found himself drawn to the members who, like himself, were recovering alcoholics.

Eventually, the alcoholics in the group gravitated toward Bill, who saw that many who found sobriety through the group eventually relapsed. He grew discouraged that others didn’t have the spiritual transformation that he did. A friend in the medical field recommended that he stopped preaching and start talking about alcoholism as a disease; he took that suggestion with him on a business trip to Akron, Ohio, where a collapsed opportunity led him to crave a drink. Instead, he called a local religious leader, who gave him a list of 10 names to call so that he might find “a drunk to talk with.” Those names eventually led him to Dr. Robert Smith, who would later be known in A.A. circles as Dr. Bob.

A member of the Akron Oxford Group, Dr. Bob had lost his post at Akron City Hospital and was watching his general practice crumble. Still, he couldn’t stop drinking, and the Vermont native presented a surly picture to the visiting Wall Street investment banker. The two found in one another, however, kindred spirits united by the common bond of alcoholism. Bill needed help to keep from drinking; Dr. Bob needed help to stop: “… he was the first living human with whom I had ever talked, who knew what he was talking about in regard to alcoholism from actual experience,” Dr. Bob wrote in “Doctor Bob’s Nightmare,” the first personal story in the Big Book. “In other words, he talked my language.”

Bill moved in with Dr. Bob and his wife, and while the doctor stumbled after their initial meeting, he took his last drink on June 10, 1935, which is regarded as the official date of the founding of Alcoholics Anonymous. It would be another couple of years before the group of dedicated alcoholics broke from the Oxford Group, and four years until the 12 Steps materialized during the writing of the first edition of the Big Book.

The Steps are born

In 1938, Bill began to write what would become the first edition of the Big Book. He and Dr. Bob realized that they had discovered “a way to help alcoholics get sober that actually worked,” according to Cheever’s biography, and by the end of 1937, they had split with the Oxford Group and begun raising funds for a new fellowship. Although the 12 Traditions would later clarify that A.A., and other 12 Step organizations that followed in its wake, should be fully self-supporting, those early days were hand-to-mouth affairs that required outside assistance if the group was going to survive.

At the same time, Bill began working on a book “that would allow their program to reach men who couldn’t get to meetings or find a fellow alcoholic,” according to Cheever. The first two chapters were sent out, and the publishing house Harper & Brothers offered him an advance, but in the end, the group decided to publish the book themselves. As each chapter was completed, the small group of sober alcoholics in New York, where Bill lived, would read them over, sometimes tearing the various paragraphs down to their foundations and sending them back to him for rewrite. They were then forwarded to the group led by Dr. Bob in Akron, who would again offer commentary and criticism before sending back to Bill for another rewrite. Finally, a select group of editors, including sober alcoholics who had worked at publications like the New Yorker and the New York Daily News, would go over the final draft.

According to Cheever, when Bill got to Chapter Five — “How It Works,” which details the 12 Steps — he sat up one night with a pencil and pad and began with the six Oxford Group tenets as his raw material.

“I set out to draft more than six steps,” he would later write. “How many more, I did not know. I relaxed and asked for guidance. With a speed that was astonishing, considering my jangled emotions, I completed the first draft. It took perhaps half an hour. The words kept right on coming. When I reached a stopping point, I numbered the new steps. They added up to 12.”

  1. “We admitted we were powerless over alcohol — that our lives had become unmanageable.”
  2. “Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.”
  3. “Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.”
  4. “Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.”
  5. “Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.”
  6. “Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.”
  7. “Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.”
  8. “Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.”
  9. “Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.”
  10. “Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.”
  11. “Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His Will for us and the power to carry that out.”
  12. “Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.”

After numerous titles were suggested for the new book, it was narrowed down to two. A copyright check, however, revealed that the other title, “The Way Out,” was taken by a number of other publications, and so “Alcoholics Anonymous” was published in April 1939 with an initial press run of less than 5,000 copies.

The Word Spreads

Although the fledgling group struggled at first, by 1944, there were roughly 10,000 members of Alcoholics Anonymous spread throughout 400 groups. Two years later, that number had tripled. In 1953, the book “Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions” was published, codifying the foundation stones for the program; incidentally, 1953 is also the year that the second largest 12 Step group, Narcotics Anonymous, was formed.

The inclusion of addicts seeking recovery had long been a point of contention in A.A., and in 1948, a short-lived group used the N.A. name to begin a program in the New York State prison system. However, that particular group didn’t follow the 12 Traditions, never aligned itself with the Narcotics Anonymous movement that grew to nationwide status and ultimately died out in the 1970s.

N.A., as it’s known today, was founded by the late Jimmy Kinnon and others, many of them “refugees” from A.A. who felt that particular program was too exclusively focused on a particular substance. On Sept. 14, 1953, A.A. — by this time with a governing board of trusted servants — granted N.A. permission to use the 12 Steps and 12 Traditions, contingent upon the group not doing so under the A.A. banner. The group published its first piece of literature containing the N.A. version of the 12 Steps, called the “Little Brown Book,” in 1954.

As word of A.A. and N.A. began to spread, so too did the hope offered by the Steps the programs used. Other programs eventually followed: Gamblers Anonymous was established in Los Angeles in 1957; Neurotics Anonymous, for recovery from emotional and mental illness, was founded in Washington, D.C., in 1964; Debtors Anonymous and Sex And Love Addicts Anonymous were both formed in 1976. Today, there are dozens of 12 Step groups for a myriad of addictions an life problems, all of them patterning their recovery after the 12 Steps originally conceived of by those early members of A.A.

Today, it’s estimated that there are more than 2 million members of A.A. spread across more than 120,000 groups around the world. Narcotics Anonymous meetings are held 67,000 times weekly in 139 countries across the planet. And those are just the top two 12 Step groups: Given their proliferation, the success of the Steps as imagined one night by Bill Wilson in 1938 is incalculable. In addition, the solace, comfort and serenity they’ve provided to those who seek a better way of life through them cannot be quantified, especially given the fact that they've become a foundation stone — a cornerstone, if you will — of drug and alcohol treatment programs and residential addiction treatment centers around the country.

Truly, it would appear, the spiritual nature of the program at which Bill originally scoffed has proven both effective and miraculous in communities of recovery from all manner of substances and conditions.