The Founding of Alcoholics Anonymous

In order to fully understand the origins of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), it would be necessary to look at the organizations that preceded it, namely A First Century Christian Fellowship, which became the Oxford Group Movement, and then Moral Re-Armament.

However, since this is a blog post and not a book, we'll begin with Bill Wilson, the better-known co-founder of AA.

William Griffith (Bill) Wilson was born on November 26, 1895, in East Dorset, Vermont. His father, Gilman Wilson, was a heavy drinker and, in 1906, when Bill was eleven years old, his parents separated, largely because of his father's drinking.

In the early 1900s, separations were uncommon, and it resulted in scandal. Not only did Bill feel abandoned, but he also had to deal with the disgrace of his parent's divorce. He didn't deal with it well and, as a consequence, he felt inferior to other children who lived with both parents.

It would be nine years before Bill saw his father again, and he suffered further abandonment when his mother left to attend college, ultimately achieving a career as an osteopath.

Bill Wilson married Lois Burnham in 1918, and they moved to New York City. After a few false starts, Bill began a career as a securities analyst and margin trader on Wall Street.

However, Bill took after his father in that he was a heavy drinker. After losing everything in the 1929 stock market crash, his drinking became worse.

Seeking help, he checked into Towns Hospital, a drying-out facility, in 1933, but this was the first of what was to become four stays at Towns.

During his last stay at Downs, a physician at the facility administered a cocktail of belladonna and other drugs. As a result, he experienced a deep depression, followed by an ecstatic high which he described as a religious experience.

Discharged from the hospital, he continued to seek a form of religious transformation through Christianity, seeking to convert and save other alcoholics. He also began to attend meetings of the Oxford Group.

Overcome by fear of a relapse after five months of sobriety, he called the Reverend Walter Tunks, whose name he found in the church section of a telephone directory. He explained his situation to the pastor, telling him that he needed to connect with another alcoholic in order to maintain his sobriety. Rev. Tunks connected him with Henrietta Seiberling, who arranged a meeting with Dr. Robert Smith, also a heavy drinker, and the two men had what they later described as the first AA meeting.

Of course, this was not a chance encounter. Wilson, Tunks, Seiberling, and Dr. Smith were all Oxford Group members. Both Vermonters, Wilson and Smith developed a close friendship, and the two spent a summer trying to save alcoholics by persuading them to follow Oxford Group principles, which were based on giving control to God, making amends, confession, and others that may be familiar to AA members today.

The two remained in contact with one another after Wilson returned to New York City. Dr. Smith began applying Oxford Group principles in a medical setting while in his position at City Hospital in Akron, while Bill Wilson continued his active involvement in the Oxford Group Movement.

Both Wilson and Smith wanted to move beyond the Oxford Group Movement. As they hadn't heard of the Washingtonians, and knew very little about the temperance movement, they relied. heavily on Oxford Group literature, ideology, and procedures.

Wilson began holding Oxford Group meetings at his home, which he had turned into a halfway house for problem drinkers. Wilson and Dr. Smith may have remained within the confines of the Oxford Group Movement if not for a few problems.

The Oxford Group Movement began taking in non-alcoholics, and some of Wilson's followers were made to feel less than welcome by some of these members, while others found the Oxford Group to be too authoritarian. Additionally, a high profile member of the Oxford Group alienated members who were Catholic or Jewish, and expressed controversial political views, while Wilson wanted to avoid these controversies and to focus on alcoholism.

Thus, Wilson's New York group severed ties with the Oxford Group Movement in 1937.

When Wilson and Smith founded Alcoholics Anonymous, they weren't familiar with other self-help groups that were in existence at the time, so AA's philosophy was taken largely from the Oxford Group Movement, whose key principles were reformed into the AA 12-step program of recovery.

Additionally, Wilson incorporated his own experience of hitting rock bottom, the admission and acceptance of defeat, and a reliance on a higher power.
While the text of Alcoholics Anonymous (Big Book) were a codification of Oxford Group beliefs, the stories in the book were chosen for their consistent theme, and for their ability to reinforce the teachings of the text.

The common theme was that, prior to alcoholism, life was normal, but alcohol had taken over the writer's life, causing great misery. Sobriety, achieved through the AA 12-step program saved the writer's life, transforming it.

AA replaced Oxford Group's literature and the Bible with its own text, generally known as the Big Book.

Bill Wilson completed and published the Twelve Traditions of Alcoholics Anonymous in 1946. While the 12 Steps were intended to be used as guidelines for individual AA members, the 12 Traditions are the operational guidelines for the organization itself.

Although the origins and principles of AA were religious in nature, the organization refers to AA as spiritual, in its desire to avoid conflicts with established religions, and to clarify that members are not required to change their religious affiliations. The emphasis is on trusting a power higher than oneself.

At the time that AA began, there wasn't much in the way of effective treatment or therapy available from the medical or psychological professions, and professional counseling was mostly unavailable. While there were other self-help or group-help programs, they lacked a widespread national appeal.

Alcoholics Anonymous filled a necessary vacuum, and soon acquired a near monopoly position in the recovery movement. In large part, this continues today.

While there are other recovery programs, many of which are not based on the 12-step model, Alcoholics Anonymous meetings are more widely available than any of the others.

A lot of people have been greatly aided in their recovery through Alcoholics Anonymous.