The Religious Roots of Alcoholics Anonymous
and the Twelve Steps

by A. Orange

Chapter 1:
Bill Wilson Writes the Twelve Steps



"Early AA got its ideas of self-examination, acknowledgement of character defects, restitution for harm done, and working with others straight from the Oxford Groups and directly from Sam Shoemaker, their former leader in America, and nowhere else."
== William G. Wilson, Alcoholics Anonymous Comes Of Age, page 39.


Where did the early AAs find the material for the remaining ten Steps? Where did we learn about moral inventory, amends for harm done, turning our wills and lives over to God? Where did we learn about meditation and prayer and all the rest of it? The spiritual substance of our remaining ten Steps came straight from Dr. Bob's and my own earlier association with the Oxford Groups, as they were then led in America by that Episcopal rector, Dr. Samuel Shoemaker.
== William G. Wilson, The Language of the Heart, page 298, published posthumously in 1988.


Every Alcoholics Anonymous meeting begins with several people reading several standard texts, the articles of faith of the group. One of these articles of faith is of course the Twelve Steps. They are prefaced by a statement like "This is how we achieved sobriety, and if you want what we have, and are ready to go to any length to get it, then you are ready to take certain steps." (Meaning: You are ready to do Bill Wilson's Twelve Steps.)

Our stories disclose in a general way what we used to be like, what happened, and what we are like now. If you have decided you want what we have and are willing to go to any length to get it — then you are ready to take certain steps.
        At some of these we balked. We thought we could find an easier, softer way. But we could not.   ...
        Half measures availed us nothing.   ...
        Here are the steps we took, which are suggested as a program of recovery:
[and then the book lists the 12 steps.]
The Big Book, 3rd Edition, William G. Wilson, pages 58 to 59.
Those statements imply that the original members of A.A. looked long and hard for something, anything, that would work to save alcoholics from self-destruction, anything to break the cycle of addiction [quit, relapse, quit, relapse, quit, relapse], and that the Twelve Steps were what finally worked for those pioneering alcoholics.

Nothing could be further from the truth.


A.A. co-founder William Griffith Wilson
The truth is that a newly-sober alcoholic named William Griffith Wilson — a down-on-his-luck former Wall Street hustler who put on airs of having once been a prosperous stock broker — just sat down, in December of 1938, and wrote up twelve commandments for the new religious group that he and fellow alcoholics Doctor Robert Smith and Clarence Snyder had started. Those commandments were simply a repackaged version of the practices of another cult religion that was popular at that time, something called "The Oxford Group", or "The Oxford Group Movement", and later, "Moral Re-Armament" — a religious cult that was created by a deceitful fascist renegade Lutheran minister named Dr. Frank Nathan Daniel Buchman — a dogmatic fanatic who actually thanked Heaven for giving us Adolf Hitler, and praised Heinrich Himmler as "a great lad".

Bill Wilson, Dr. Robert Smith, and Clarence Snyder had all been enthusiastic, true-believer members of Frank Buchman's Oxford Group cult religion, but the other Group members asked Bill to leave, and to take his shabby alcoholics with him, because Bill was spending too much time with his alcoholics, and not enough time following the dictates of the cult leader, Frank Buchman. Even worse, from the Oxford Group's point of view, Bill Wilson was establishing himself as the leader of a sub-cult, the "Alcoholic Squadron of the Oxford Group", thus competing directly with Frank Buchman for leadership of the cult, which is one of the ultimate crimes in any cult. ("Thou shalt have no other leader before me, for thy Leader is a jealous leader, and wants all of your loyalty.")

Still, Bill Wilson, Dr. Bob Smith, and Clarence Snyder believed in the religious tenets of Buchmanism so much that they just formed their own independent religious group, with exactly the same beliefs as before. In fact, it was the same group; Bill Wilson and Dr. Robert Smith and Clarence Snyder simply split off and hijacked and took over the alcoholics' branch of Frank Buchman's cult.

Bill Wilson had previously been ambushed by his old friend and drinking buddy Ebby Thacher at a very vulnerable moment, in December of 1934, when he was sick and detoxing from alcohol in a hospital, and tripping his brains out on delirium tremens and hallucinogenic drugs. Under those conditions, Ebby succeeded in converting Bill into a believer in Frank Buchman's cult. The conversion worked so well that Wilson continued to believe in Buchmanism even after he was kicked out of it.

The practices of the Oxford Group were:

  • 1) Admission of personal defeat (You have been defeated by sin).
  • 2) Taking of personal inventory. (List your sins.)
  • 3) Confession of one's sins to another person.
  • 4) Making restitution to those one has harmed.
  • 5) Helping others selflessly.
  • 6) Praying to God for Guidance and the power to put these precepts into practice.

There was also one more very important requirement, one that is apparently not listed in these six practices, "Go recruit more members for the Group." Actually, many Oxford Group believers would say, "It is so listed. It's Practice Five. Converting people to the right religious beliefs and 'principles', so that they can get into Heaven too, is definitely helping them. So working all day long to get new converts for the Group is 'helping others selflessly.'" In fact, because the Oxford Groups and Moral Re-Armament had an official policy of never, ever dispensing charity to anybody, recruiting more people into the cult was the only way that the Buchmanites ever "helped others selflessly".

You can get much more detailed descriptions of the practices of the Oxford Group from these two documents. Both are free downloads.

  1. Soul Surgery, by H. A. Walter, The Oxford Group, Oxford: 1932
  2. What_Is_The_Oxford_Group, by "The Layman with a Notebook", Oxford University Press, New York, 1933.

Those were also, essentially, the original six steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, years before the group even had that name — back when it was just "The Alcoholic Squadron" of The Oxford Group. Some of the very early A.A. members mention the original six steps in the "Big Book", Alcoholics Anonymous. These steps are listed in the historical autobiographical story He Sold Himself Short (on page 292 of the 3rd edition the Big Book, and page 263 of the 4th edition):

  • 1. Complete deflation.
  • 2. Dependence and guidance from a Higher Power.
  • 3. Moral inventory.
  • 4. Confession.
  • 5. Restitution.
  • 6. Continued work with other alcoholics.

In December, 1938, while writing the Big Book, Bill Wilson simply rewrote the list of Buchmanite practices, very verbosely, adding enough words to change the six or seven "principles" into twelve. Bill's wife, Lois, allegedly described the process this way: (I say 'allegedly' because the book was probably ghost-written for her by the A.A. faithful. Lois supposedly wrote that book when she was very old and infirm and close to death, so it is hard to say what part of the book is her memories, and what parts their wishful thinking and parroting of the standard party line.)

By this time Bill was ready to start the fifth chapter, "How It Works." He was not feeling well, but the writing had to go on, so he took pad and pencil to bed with him. How could he bring the program alive so that those at a distance, reading the book, could apply it to themselves and perhaps get well? He had to be very explicit. The six Oxford Group principles that the Fellowship had been using were not definite enough. He must broaden and deepen their implications. He relaxed and asked for guidance.
      When he finished writing and reread what he had put down, he was quite pleased. Twelve principles had developed — the Twelve Steps.
Lois Remembers, Lois Wilson, Page 113

Bill Wilson also described the writing of the Twelve Steps this way:

Well, we finally got to the point where we really had to say what this book was all about and how this deal works. As I told you this had been a six-step program then.
...
The idea came to me, well, we need a definite statement of concrete principles that these drunks can't wiggle out of. There can't be any wiggling out of this deal at all and this six-step program had two big gaps which people wiggled out of.
— Bill Wilson, Transcribed from tape, Fort Worth, 1954, on http://www.a1aa.com/more%2012steps.htm [Dead Link]

And Bill also wrote:

"Early AA got its ideas of self-examination, acknowledgement of character defects, restitution for harm done, and working with others straight from the Oxford Groups and directly from Sam Shoemaker, their former leader in America, and nowhere else."
== William G. Wilson, Alcoholics Anonymous Comes Of Age, page 39.

Where did the early AAs find the material for the remaining ten Steps? Where did we learn about moral inventory, amends for harm done, turning our wills and lives over to God? Where did we learn about meditation and prayer and all the rest of it? The spiritual substance of our remaining ten Steps came straight from Dr. Bob's and my own earlier association with the Oxford Groups, as they were then led in America by that Episcopal rector, Dr. Samuel Shoemaker.
The Language of the Heart, William G. Wilson, page 298, published posthumously in 1988.

Note that Bill Wilson was being deceptive there when he listed Sam Shoemaker as the American leader of the Oxford Groups. Sam Shoemaker was the Number Two man, Frank Buchman was the leader. But Bill Wilson didn't want to mention Dr. Frank Buchman, because Buchman had a terrible reputation for his praise of Adolf Hitler and the Nazis, and aiding and abetting draft-dodging schemes.

So Bill Wilson took the various practices and procedures of Frank Buchman's Oxford Groups and turned them into a 12-Step program for Alcoholics Anonymous:

  • 1. [We] Admitted we were powerless over alcohol — that our lives had become unmanageable.
  • 2. Came to believe that God could restore us to sanity.
  • 3. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care and direction of God.
  • 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 willing that God remove all these defects of character.
  • 7. Humbly, on our knees, asked Him to remove our shortcomings — holding nothing back.
  • 8. Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make complete 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 contact with God, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.
  • 12. Having had a spiritual experience as the result of this course of action, we tried to carry this message to others, especially alcoholics, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.

The wording at the end of Step 12 is deceptive and inaccurate: the 12 Steps are cult practices, not "spiritual principles". There are no actual spiritual principles there for you "to practice in all of your affairs".

Then Bill presented his Twelve Steps to the other early A.A. members, who promptly freaked out and screamed bloody murder. They clearly foresaw that Bill's dogmatic religiosity was going to drive away many of the very alcoholics whom the program was supposed to help. A loud shouting match ensued, and Bill was forced to compromise.

So Bill Wilson toned down the language somewhat: The word "God" in Step 2 was replaced with "a Power greater than ourselves". The phrase "as we understood Him" was added after the word "God" in Step 3 (and later in Step 11). In Step 7, the "on our knees" phrase was deleted from "Humbly, on our knees, asked Him to remove our shortcomings."

But the rest of the steps were left pretty much unchanged, except for this one giant concession: In the Big Book, the Twelve Steps were preceded by a statement saying that they were only "suggested as a program of recovery." (The true believers laugh, and say, "Yeh, it's only a suggestion. But you will die if you don't follow the suggestion.")

That partial editing produced a funny progression:
  • In Step 2, we only have to believe in a nice, vague, "Power greater than ourselves."
  • But then they pull a quick bait-and-switch stunt on us, and in Step 3, it's suddenly "God", a define-it-yourself "God, as we understood Him", they say, into whose care we must give our wills and our lives. But even that is deceptive double-talk: We aren't really free to define 'God' for ourselves — It has to be some version of 'God' capable of taking control of our wills and our lives, and able and willing to 'take care of' our lives for us, and also a God stupid enough to waste his time doing so...
  • And then, in Steps 5 and 6, it's just plain old "God", with no qualifiers at all.
  • Then we are told that it's a God that we should confess to, and pray to... And we should beg "Him" to give us the goodies.
  • And then we are told what to pray for — removal of our "defects of character" and our "shortcomings", and "knowledge of His will and the power to carry it out."
  • So we are supposed to spend the rest of our lives confessing our sins and "seeking and doing the Will of God" by following the orders that we think we hear in our heads during meditation sessions and séances.

That's a religion, not a quit-drinking program.

These are the Steps that came out of that process (as printed in the original 1939 multilith edition):

  • 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 and direction 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 willing that God remove all these defects of character.
  • 7. Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings — holding nothing back.
  • 8. Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make complete 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 contact with God, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.
  • 12. Having had a spiritual experience as the result of this course of action, we tried to carry this message to others, especially alcoholics, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.

Step Twelve no longer promises you a "spiritual experience". After the Big Book was published, too many A.A. members complained that they were not getting any big spiritual experience, or seeing God, as a result of doing Bill Wilson's 12 Steps. So, in the second edition of the Big Book, Bill changed the wording of Step 12 to "Having had a spiritual awakening...", which is so vague that it is meaningless.

Nowhere in the Twelve Steps does it say that you should actually quit drinking, or help anyone else to quit drinking, either. Nowhere in the Twelve Steps do the words "sobriety", "recovery", "abstinence", "health", "happiness", "joy", or "love", appear. The word "alcohol" was only mentioned once, where it was patched into the first step as a substitute for the word "sin" — Bill Wilson wrote,
"we are powerless over alcohol and our lives have become unmanageable",
instead of the Oxford Group slogan,
"we are powerless over sin and have been defeated by it".
And then the phrase "especially alcoholics" was patched into the 12th step as the target for further recruiting efforts:
"...we tried to carry this message to others, especially alcoholics"...
(But regular non-alcoholic people were still fair game for recruiting into Bill's "spiritual fellowship"...)

The Twelve Steps are not a formula for curing or treating alcoholism, and they never were. (See this analysis of the Twelve Steps.)
The Twelve Steps are not "spiritual principles" and they never were.
The Twelve Steps are cult practices that work to convert people into confirmed true believers in a proselytizing cult religion, just like Frank Buchman's so-called "spiritual principles" did.

The commandment in Step 12, which is repeated in Tradition 5, was to "carry this message to others, especially alcoholics".

Carry what message?

The message that William G. Wilson's version of Dr. Frank N. D. Buchman's religion is the answer to alcoholism — the message that enthusiastic obsession with Frank Buchman's superstitious occult practices will save people from alcoholism.

Bill Wilson believed that "the only radical remedy ... for dipsomania is religiomania." Meaning: the only cure for alcoholism is religious fanaticism — religious mania. That suggestion allegedly came from Carl Jung, the famous Swiss psychiatrist, and when Carl Jung said "mania", he really did mean "mania", as in "maniac".

Note that both William H. White, in Slaying The Dragon, page 77, and Bill Pitmann, in AA: The Way It Began, page 171, attribute that dipsomania quote to William James in The Varieties of Religious Experience, (page 263), not to Carl Jung. For good reason — footnote 1 on page 263 of Varieties says:
'"The only radical remedy I know for dipsomania is religiomania," is a saying I have heard quoted from some medical man.'

William James published Varieties in 1902, but he didn't meet Carl Jung until 1909, so it is unlikely that James got that line from Jung.

Bill Wilson often repeated the story of how either Ebby Thacher or Rowland Hazard (he couldn't remember which it was) brought him James' Varieties to read while he was detoxing in the hospital, in December of 1934, the day after he had his "vision of God" while tripping on the hallucinogenc drug belladonna. Wilson probably read that line about dipsomania and religiomania there and then may have forgotten where he saw it.

In that case, Carl Jung did not contribute anything to the Alcoholics Anonymous dogma. Most all of the A.A. doctrines and practices came from Frank Buchman and the Oxford Group, with just a few odds and ends copied from earlier temperance unions and sobriety movements.

According to the standard A.A. version of the story, a rich American with a drinking problem, Rowland Hazard, had gone to Carl Jung, in Switzerland, for treatment. He had relapsed in spite of Jung's best treatment. Jung apologized, and said that he felt sure now that Rowland was one of the hopeless alcoholics, one for whom there was no cure. When Rowland asked Jung if there was any sure way for an alcoholic to recover — truly recover, Jung is quoted as saying,

Yes, there is. Exceptions to cases such as yours have been occurring since early times. Here and there, once in a while, alcoholics have had what are called vital spiritual experiences. To me these are phenomena. They appear to be in the nature of huge emotional displacements and rearrangements. Ideas, emotions, and attitudes which were once the guiding forces of the lives of these men are suddenly cast to one side, and a completely new set of conceptions and motives begin to dominate them. In fact, I have been trying to produce some such emotional rearrangement within you. With many individuals the methods which I employed are successful, but I have never been successful with an alcoholic of your description.

It seems that Jung's pronouncement that the only hope for Rowland was a "spiritual experience" was the final stage of Rowland's treatment. Rowland felt that such an experience was impossible. He felt so hopeless that he was "deflated" to the point of "giving up." As a result, he had the "rearrangement", and became an enthusiastic new convert to Dr. Frank Buchman's "Oxford Groups" religion.

Some critics discount this story as a complete fabrication. It was Dr. William D. Silkworth who taught the strategy of scaring alcoholics with threats of death and declarations of hopelessness, not Carl Jung.
See: What Carl G. Jung really said about treating alcoholism.

Rowland Hazard allegedly later explained it to Ebby Thacher, who in turn explained it to William Wilson, who explained it to Dr. Robert Smith. Then Bill and Dr. Bob assembled a religious group of alcoholics, inside of the Oxford Group cult, that years later became Alcoholics Anonymous.

So the Twelve Steps really were, right from the very start, intended to

  • start a new religion — Bill Wilson's flavor of Buchmanism,
  • and to give the followers "vital spiritual experiences" and "huge emotional rearrangements" and "religious experiences" by "completely deflating their egos",
  • and to turn the followers into religious fanatics — "religiomaniacs".

Bill Wilson believed that religious fanaticism — religiomania — was The Only Answer for alcoholics, and he said so often.

And note that Bill Wilson also wanted to convert non-alcoholics to his new religion, too.22 Alcoholics Anonymous isn't just about quitting drinking. The original wording of Step Twelve commanded A.A. members to "carry this message to others, especially alcoholics." So non-alcoholic "others" were also fair game for being recruited into Bill Wilson's "spiritual fellowship". They go into other branches of the 12-Step religion like Al-Anon — the wives' and families' auxiliary, Alateen — the teenagers' groups, and ACOA — "Adult Children Of Alcoholics".)

Oh, by the way, the "mental rearrangement" and religiomania and cult religion routine didn't work for either Rowland Hazard or Ebby Thacher. Both eventually quit the Oxford Group and went back to drinking, and drank for pretty much the rest of their lives. (Bill Wilson kept Ebby Thacher housed at a detox farm in upstate New York for the last two years of his life, where he was not allowed to drink. But otherwise, when he was on his own, he drank. Likewise, Rowland Hazard drank on and off for the rest of his life.)




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