The readings at various 12 Step recovery meetings are plentiful, regardless of the fellowship — but newcomers often listen to one of the longest and find themselves asking, “What are the Twelve Traditions?”
Various Alcoholics Anonymous groups read both the Preamble and the Promises. Narcotics Anonymous meetings usually include readings such as “Who Is an Addict?” and “Why Are We Here?” Both fellowships, and a number of others, emphasize the importance of the Twelve Steps … and likewise the Twelve Traditions, but by the time those are read aloud, many newcomers (and quite a few experienced members) are impatiently looking at their watches (or phones), ready for the meeting to get fully under way.
So what are the Twelve Traditions? Why are they important? How did they come to pass? It’s a complicated and fascinating history, but it boils down to a simple concept, according to one 12 Step fellowship : “The Steps provided us a way to not kill ourselves. The Traditions provided us a way to not kill each other.”
What Are the Twelve Traditions: First, the Steps
Although the foundation of Alcoholics Anonymous can be traced back to a 1935 encounter by Bill Wilson and Dr. Smith, regarded as the co-founders of the movement, it would be several years before the organization found its footing. As the AA website notes , “Both men immediately set to work with alcoholics at Akron’s City Hospital, where one patient quickly achieved complete sobriety. Though the name Alcoholics Anonymous had not yet been coined, these three men actually made up the nucleus of the first A.A. group. In the fall of 1935, a second group of alcoholics slowly took shape in New York. A third appeared at Cleveland in 1939. It had taken over four years to produce 100 sober alcoholics in the three founding groups.”
During its first decade, the members of Alcoholics Anonymous couldn’t conceive of their newfound sobriety as anything more than a personal solution to their own alcoholic dilemmas — in other words, no one had any expectations that AA would grow into a worldwide organization with more than 2 million members in 180 countries, according to Time magazine . The first piece of AA literature, in fact, dealt solely with the problems caused by alcohol and the steps its members felt were necessary to get and stay sober.
Using the tenets of the Oxford Group, a Christian organization that was a precursor to AA, Wilson “began writing,” according to Susan Cheever, a columnist for The Fix and author of the Wilson biography “My Name Is Bill”: “’I relaxed and asked for guidance,’ he recalled later. ‘With a speed that was astonishing … I completed the first draft.’ When he numbered the steps he had written, there were twelve.” 
As it was completed, Cheever continues, it was circulated among various members of AA, including veteran journalists, who made edits that tempered any overtly religious language and shaped the Twelve Steps into what would be published in 1939 as “Alcoholics Anonymous,” also known as the Big Book. The tome included a number of personal stories, and its publication set off a flurry of interest in the media that would lead to explosive growth over the next several years.
The same year that the Big Book was published, according to the AA website, “the Cleveland Plain Dealer carried a series of articles about A.A., supported by warm editorials. The Cleveland group of only twenty members was deluged by countless pleas for help. Alcoholics sober only a few weeks were set to work on brand-new cases. This was a new departure, and the results were fantastic. A few months later, Cleveland’s membership had expanded to 500.”
Liberty magazine published a similar article that fall, resulting in almost 1,000 phone calls. The following year, business tycoon and philanthropist John D. Rockefeller promoted AA at a dinner for his New York connections, and word began to spread. Mail poured in, and pamphlets were sent back in return. By the end of 1940, membership stood at roughly 2,000 members, and the following March, a glowing article in the Saturday Evening Post brought three times that number to the rooms of AA by the end of 1941.
As word of AA’s success began to spread, however, the needs of the fellowship began to extend beyond the immediacy of sobriety among its members. To be certain, a number of different issues had cropped up in the years prior, according to noted addiction historian William White, starting as early as 1936, when Wilson was offered a position as a “lay alcoholism therapist” at the hospital in which he’d spent time because of his drinking.
“The response of his fellow recovering alcoholics to Bill Wilson’s employment opportunity marked one of the first examples of what would come to be called ‘group conscience’ in Alcoholics Anonymous,” White writes . “The group rejected the idea on the grounds that their emerging fellowship could be hurt by tying itself to a hospital and that Bill’s accepting a paid position could destroy this fledgling community of recovered alcoholics.”
The following year, according to a timeline explaining what are the Twelve Traditions by the West Baltimore Group , “a member asked to be admitted who frankly described himself to the ‘oldest’ member as ‘the victim of another addiction even worse stigmatized than alcoholism.’ The ‘addiction’ was ‘sex deviate.’ Guidance came from Dr Bob (the oldest member in Akron, OH) asking, ‘What would the Master do?’ The member was admitted and plunged into 12th Step work.”
That particular incident wasn’t the only struggle that AA groups had with membership, according to the book Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions : “At one time … every AA group had membership rules. Everybody was scared witless that something or somebody would capsize the boat and dump us all back into the drink. Our Foundation office asked each group to send in its list of ‘protective’ regulations. The total list was a mile long.”
What Are the Twelve Traditions: Conception
Other issues continued to detract from the primary purpose of AA — the reception of royalties by Wilson and Smith, for example, from sales of the Big Book, in addition to a myriad of questions to Wilson himself in the form of letters and postcards from various groups across the country. To offer both clarity and continuity, Wilson took to the AA national publication known as the Grapevine, first published in 1945, and in April 1946 “began publication of the Twelve Traditions for the first time,” according to the History of the Chicago Group of Alcoholics Anonymous . “These would eventually be accepted by the groups and bond the fellowship together.”
In that edition of the Grapevine , Wilson pointed out that the contemporary problems of the fellowship “have to do with our relations, one with the other, and with the world outside. They involve relations of the A.A. to his group, the relation of his group to Alcoholics Anonymous as a whole, and the place of Alcoholics Anonymous in that troubled sea called modern society … terribly relevant is the problem of our basic structure and our attitude toward those ever-pressing questions of leadership, money, and authority. The future may well depend on how we feel and act about things that are controversial and how we regard our public relations. Our final destiny will almost surely hang upon what we presently decide to do with these danger‑fraught issues!”
His suggestion: that the fellowship “declare general principles which could grow into vital traditions — traditions sustained in the heart of each A.A. by his own deep conviction and by the common consent of his fellows.” He went on to write out and propose “An Alcoholics Anonymous Tradition of Relations — Twelve Points to Assure Our Future.”
The following year, a 48-page pamphlet entitled The Twelve Traditions was sent to each AA group, and beginning in December 1947, Wilson would elucidate on each tradition, one per month in the Grapevine, through the following November . In 1950, at the Alcoholics Anonymous International Convention in Cleveland, Ohio, numerous speakers introduced and discussed each of the Twelve Traditions before a vote was cast to adopt them as official guidelines for the AA fellowship.
The Traditions: Defined and Spreading
So what are the Twelve Traditions  and what do they say?
- Our common welfare should come first; personal recovery depends upon A.A. unity.
- For our group purpose there is but one ultimate authority — a loving God as He may express Himself in our group conscience. Our leaders are but trusted servants; they do not govern.
- The only requirement for A.A. membership is a desire to stop drinking.
- Each group should be autonomous except in matters affecting other groups or A.A. as a whole.
- Each group has but one primary purpose — to carry its message to the alcoholic who still suffers.
- An A.A. group ought never endorse, finance, or lend the A.A. name to any related facility or outside enterprise, lest problems of money, property, and prestige divert us from our primary purpose.
- Every A.A. group ought to be fully self-supporting, declining outside contributions.
- Alcoholics Anonymous should remain forever nonprofessional, but our service centers may employ special workers.
- A.A., as such, ought never be organized; but we may create service boards or committees directly responsible to those they serve.
- Alcoholics Anonymous has no opinion on outside issues; hence the A.A. name ought never be drawn into public controversy.
- Our public relations policy is based on attraction rather than promotion; we need always maintain personal anonymity at the level of press, radio, and films.
- Anonymity is the spiritual foundation of all our Traditions, ever reminding us to place principles before personalities.
The long form of these traditions was published in April 1953, when “Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions” became an official part of the AA literature. In August 1957, the first Narcotics Anonymous (NA) handbook was published by the group that met at Soledad Institution, a prison in Soledad, California. This handbook, according to William White , contains the first adaptation of the AA Twelve Traditions by another self-help organization, and the wording was changed to reflect both the nature of addiction, the messaging to addicts and the institution in which it was published.
By November 1959, however, NA was floundering and almost died off, until, White details, Jimmy K. and Sylvia W., credited as early leaders of the NA movement, vowed to right the ship: “Jimmy stated ‘we’re going to have to go back to what we started with in 1953 when we first sat down to try to put something together to help addicts. You and I are going to have to live the Steps the way we do, and we’re going to have to follow the Traditions all the way because we died because the Traditions have not been lived up to.’”
By 1961, the Twelve Traditions of NA were published as part of the program’s “Little White Book,” one of its earliest pieces of literature, and ever since that time, the Twelve Traditions have been integral to Narcotics Anonymous as well. By that point, Gamblers Anonymous — founded in 1957 — had adopted the 12 Step model for problem gamblers, and that program, too, would eventually adopt the Twelve Traditions with little change in wording except to reflect the nature of gambling addiction .
So What ARE the Twelve Traditions, Exactly?
In the NA literature, the Twelve Steps are referred to as “How It Works” — meaning that they lay out the (literal and spiritual) Steps necessary for recovery. If you’re asking “what are the Twelve Traditions?,” know this: They could very easily be called “Why It Works.”
In the book AA Comes of Age , Wilson himself wrote, “Our Traditions are a guide to better ways of working and living, and they are also an antidote for our various maladies. The Twelve Traditions are to group survival and harmony what AA's Twelve Steps are to each member's sobriety and peace of mind … But the Twelve Traditions also point straight at many of our individual defects. By implication they ask each of us to lay aside pride and resentment. They ask for personal as well as group sacrifice … The Traditions guarantee the equality of all members … They show how we may best relate ourselves to each other and to the world outside."
In other words, asking “What are the Twelve Traditions?” is to understand how the order and organization of 12 Step organizations is a direct reflection of the growth of its individual members. By working on personal change, the ways in which those members interact with one another and the wider world, and the methods by which they apply those traditions in their lives, demonstrates how profound the changes of sobriety can be.
From a housekeeping perspective, however, the Traditions are considered almost as miraculous as the Steps themselves, for whereas the latter ensured the survival of individuals addicts and alcoholics, the former has seen to the flourishment of the fellowships, as Dr. Michael Gross pointed out in a 2010 article in the peer-reviewed American Journal of Public Health , in spite of how it might appear to the uninitiated: “From what looks like anarchy — traditions (‘AA ought …’) rather than rules (‘you must …’), maximum local autonomy and independence, and absence of centralized or layered tiers of authority — emerges consistency and stability. Without certification, evaluation, supervision, or internal or external monitoring, tradition sustains fidelity to the basic framework of meetings and work on the program's steps.
“AA eschews property ownership and rigorously refrains from soliciting support from sources other than its own members, whose voluntary contributions barely cover the cost of meetings and such basic services as phone lines, meeting lists, and dissemination of free literature,” Gross continues. “A minimal cadre of paid staff serves the membership rather than the reverse. Rigorously refraining from self-promotion, it depends upon the objective appraisals of outside observers and the testimonials of members during meetings and in one-on-one contacts.”
What are the Twelve Traditions? They’re guidelines that prevent anyone in a 12 Step group from amassing power. They prevent the influence of outsiders that might detract from the organization’s primary purpose. They prevent fellowships from imposing membership requirements that might turn away those who need help the most. They frown on individual members identifying publicly as belonging to specific fellowships. And they encourage anonymity, and thus humility, in all affairs.
Certainly they’re so much more than extraneous literature that takes up time at the beginning of the meeting when our members read them aloud. As “The Twelve Traditions Illustrated” point out , “As newcomers, many of us say to ourselves, ‘Let the group officers worry about the Traditions. I’m just an average member. They’re rules for running groups, aren’t they? And everybody tells me, “There are no rules in A.A.”!’ Then we look closer — and find that the Traditions are not rules — and they are not just for officers. They have deep meaning for each one of us, as the Twelve Steps do.”
That may not be readily apparent to those just starting out, but as they say in the rooms of recovery: “Keep coming back.” The more involved in the fellowship individuals become, the more they begin to see how sacrosanct the Traditions are, and instead of asking “What are the Twelve Traditions?,” they’ll be seeking ways to better apply them both individually and as a member of the group.