Alcoholics Anonymous History
A New Historical Research Challenge
Whenever I find some solid evidence about A.A. history that no historian has mentioned, I become interested and challenged. Further, whenever I find that neither Bill W. nor the current A.A. publishing group has made mention of the item, I become even more interested and challenged. Finally, when I see that the evidence has a direct bearing on the early A.A. program in Akron, as reported to Rockefeller by Frank Amos – our trustee-to-be – the challenge becomes a priority. And if no one mentions a challenge that smacks of religion, church, Christianity, Bible, or alcoholism cure, I know that I’m on to an investigative quest that will be welcomed by the many who just plain want to know. That’s the case here.
The Christian Endeavor root of A.A. is such a challenge. No AA historian other than Richard K. and I seems to have mentioned it at all. Nor did Bill Wilson or his latter-day, well-paid publishing crew. More and more forcefully, the “headquarters” crowd began pushing the idea “A.A. is not a religious society, since it requires no definite religious belief as a condition of membership” (See 44 Questions. New York: Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Inc., 1952, p. 19). This revisionist theme has nonetheless been rejected by the many courts that have ruled against the faulty reasoning that a fellowship dedicated to finding God and promulgating steps to a relationship with God is not religious in purpose and character.
Yet A.A.’s reticent co-founder Dr. Bob certainly pointed to A.A.’s Christian Endeavor root. First, in an almost negative context, Dr. Bob said in his personal story in the A.A. Big Book:
“From childhood through high school I was more or less forced to go to church, Sunday School and evening service, Monday night Christian Endeavor and sometimes to Wednesday evening prayer meeting”
(Alcoholics Anonymous, 4th ed., p. 173)
The foregoing was supplemented with Dr. Bob’s further statement that he resolved thereafter “never to darken the doors of a church” except where circumstances made it seem unwise to do otherwise. However, more than a decade after A.A.’s founding, Dr. Bob commented as to Bill and himself (The Co-Founders of Alcoholics Anonymous: Biographical Sketches Their Last Major Talks. NY: Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Inc., 1972, 1975, pp. 11-14):
“We had both been associated with the Oxford Group, Bill in New York, for five months, and I in Akron, for two and a half years. Bill had acquired their idea of service. I had not, but I had done an immense amount of reading they had recommended. I had refreshed my memory of the Good Book, and I had had excellent training in that as a youngster. . . .
“I’m somewhat allergic to work, but I felt that I should continue to increase my familiarity with the Good Book and also should read a good deal of standard literature, possibly of a scientific nature. So I did cultivate the habit of reading. I think I’m not exaggerating when I say I have probably averaged an hour a day for the last 15 years. . .
“At that point, our stories didn’t amount to anything to speak of. When we started in on Bill D., we had no Twelve Steps, either; we had no Traditions. But we were convinced that the answer to our problems was in the Good Book. . . .
“It wasn’t until 1938 that the teachings and efforts and studies that had been going on were crystallized in the form of the Twelve Steps. I didn’t write the Twelve Steps. I had nothing to do with the writing of them. . . . We already had the basic ideas, though not in terse and tangible form. We got them, as I said, as a result of our study of the Good Book.”
I found, after much further research, that Dr. Bob’s brief comment about his church membership and attendance does not square with the facts—facts still under further extensive investigation by my colleague Richard K. Nor were Dr. Bob’s comments considered in full or in context with Dr. Bob’s other statements and views about the Bible, his training in prayer and Bible study as a youngster, and the ideas which he later developed as he worked with over 5,000 alcoholics subsequent to A.A.’s 1935 founding. In fact, the scanty presence and wholesale omission of the details of Dr. Bob’s religious training suggest intent to support those who often cry in A.A. meetings I’ve attended that the Bible didn’t work and the Oxford Group didn’t work because Dr. Bob was drinking while studying both..
I will only summarize here my previously published, detailed evidence about Dr. Bob’s youth and his statements about the Bible, his training in the Bible and Bible study, his prayer life, his quiet times, and his church life. In outline form, here are the points:
Dr. Bob’s stated that he had attended three or four church services and meetings each week at the North Congregational Church in St. Johnsbury, Vermont. He said that when he resumed his religious studies, he had refreshed his memory of the Bible and had received excellent training as a youngster in that in church and through Christian Endeavor. His son told me his father had read the Bible completely through three times in his “refreshment” period. His daughter told me her father read the Bible every day. Dr. Bob told his son he had read for an hour every night, drunk or sober, for many years. Dr. Bob spoke of the immense amount of literature he read. Scads and scads of books were found in his home, under his bed, and in the homes of his kids after the books had allegedly have been thrown or given away. And we now know the broad scope of the Biblical, Christian devotional, and other Christian literature he read. You can know it just by looking at the many remnant books we have found mentioned by family and friends or found in possession of his children. There is no doubt that, from early AA’s beginnings, Dr. Bob set aside a quiet time three times each day for Bible study, prayer, and reflection. He read and circulated a large number of Christian books on the Bible, Jesus Christ, prayer, quiet time, the sermon on the mount, the Book of James, and 1Corinthians 13. We also have Dr. Bob’s own frequent statement as to the “absolutely essential” study by AAs of the Sermon, James, and Corinthians. Also, Bob’s statement that AAs started the day with James, Corinthians, or the Sermon. We also have examined with care Dr. Bob’s specific interest in The Runner’s Bible where James is much discussed, his interest in at least four well-known commentaries on the Sermon on the Mount, and his enthusiastic circulation of Henry Drummond’s The Greatest Thing in the World (an essay on 1 Corinthians 13).
I have a news article from The Tidings (A Roman Catholic paper) printed some eight years after A.A.’s founding. The article reported on the speeches by Dr. Bob and Bill on the same platform in Los Angeles before 4500 at the Shrine Auditorium. There, and once again, Dr. Bob explicitly urged that AAs should cultivate the habit of prayer and of reading the Bible.
Despite incomplete and erroneous reporting, we now know that Dr. Bob not only attended Protestant Christian churches frequently—first as a youngster and later in Akron at St. Luke, Westside Presbyterian Church, and finally St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Akron.
I particularly want to mention here again the two illuminating remarks Dr. Bob made about clergy and churches. His son quoted Dr. Bob’s statements to me personally. Bob’s son said: (1) Dr. Bob’s real beef was with “sky pilots”—a not uncommon, bit of sarcastic nomenclature pointed at some preachers of that day. (2) Dr. Bob was far more interested in the “message” than the “messenger”—an interesting pointer toward Dr. Bob’s avowed preference for Bible study, prayer, seeking God’s guidance, reading Christian literature, and using devotionals. And I believe these remarks help explain his supposed aversion to church and underscore his fervent involvement in Bible study, prayer, guidance, Christian literature, and using devotionals like The Upper Room, Daily Strength for Daily Needs, and My Utmost for His Highest. It may also explain his infrequent mention of his personal church life—despite the fact that he and Anne were charter members of the Presbyterian Church during A.A.’s founding years in Akron and until well after the Big Book was published.in 1939. Morevoer, both his kids told me personally and reported in their Children of the Healer that their dad took his kids to Sunday school regularly. Of course, Dr. Bob specifically recommended that early AAs attend a church of their own choice—something that simply was no part of Bill Wilson’s life..
The challenge? Did Dr. Bob’s younger days in church, his prayer meetings, and Christian Endeavor impact on his later beliefs, actions, A.A. ideas, and the “fixing” of drunks in Akron AA.? Another challenge: What was the background of Christian Endeavor itself; and what ideas of that society bear resemblance to those of pioneer AA? Still another challenge: What, in context, was Dr. Bob’s real view of church, of clergy, of prayer, of prayer meetings, of the Christian Endeavor program, and of the Bible itself?
Some of the answers will be covered in our further, ongoing months of research and writing.
Preliminary Glimpses at Christian Endeavor
From its Founding Through the days of Dr. Bob’s Participation
The Genesis of the Christian Endeavor Society
The first society was organized on February 2, 1881. (See Francis E. Clark. Christian Endeavor in all Lands. Boston, MA: The United Society of Christian Endeavor, 1886, pp. 35, 41, 621).
Rev. Francis E. Clark, pastor of Williston Church in Portland, Maine, formed the society in the parlor of his home at 62 Neal Street—the parsonage of Williston Church. Members consisted of boys and girls in the “Mizpah Circle”—a missionary circle for young people which was led by the pastor’s wife. During the February Mizpah meeting, Clark framed a constitution for the society and called it “Williston Young People’s Society of Christian Endeavor.” He wrote that the “greatest stress was on the religious features;” the society was to be “an out-and-out Christian society;” and the activities “were to centre around the weekly young people’s prayer meeting.”
W. H. Pennell, the teacher of the Young Men’s Bible Class, carefully explained the society and its constitution and led all the young people present in signing the new constitution. Several clauses of the constitution are historically instructive and bear repeating here (For the further details on the foregoing and following points and the constitution itself, see Francis E. Clark. Memories of Many Men in Many Lands: An Autobiography. Boston, MA: United Society of Christian Endeavor, 1922, pp. 77-87):
“Object. Its object shall be to promote an earnest Christian life among its members, to increase their mutual acquaintance, and to make them more useful in the service of God. . . .
“Officers. The officers of this society shall be a President, Vice President and Secretary. There shall also be a Prayer meeting Committee of five a Social Committee of five, and a Lookout Committee of Five.
“Duties of Officers. . . . The Prayer meeting Committee shall have in charge the Friday evening prayer-meeting;
“The Prayer-meeting. It is expected that all the members of the society will be present at every meeting unless detained by some absolute necessity and that each one will take some part however slight in every meeting. The meetings will be held just one hour and at the close some time may be taken for introductions and social intercourse if desired. Once each month an Experience meeting shall. . . [the remaining portions of this sentence were not shown in autobiography].”
About Christian Endeavor Founder Francis E. Clark
Francis Edward Clark was born on September 12, 1851 in the village of Aylmer, Province of Quebec, or Lower Canada, as it was then called. His ancestors, however, had lived in “the Old Bay State” for two centuries. His ancestral lineage was peopled with deacons and pastors and descendents who were members of the Orthodox Congregational Church. His young parents went to the Canadian frontier on other pursuits, but both died when Francis was quite young. He said, “All of my boyhood was spent in two Puritan families. . . . My mother and brother were members of the Presbyterian church, in which I, too, was dedicated to God’s service.” Very soon after his mother’s death, his uncle, Rev. Edward Warren Clark, of Auburndale, Mass., came to Aylmer and took him to the uncle’s Auburndale home. The uncle was the first pastor of the newly-formed Congregational Church in Auburndale. Because of ill health, his uncle was obliged to give up his pastorate. But he was elected chaplain of the Massachusetts Senate and Overseer of Harvard College, soon becoming chaplain of the Forty-seventh Regiment of Volunteers in the Civil War.
On the uncle’s return from the war, the family moved to New Hampshire; and the young Francis attended Claremont academy. From there, Francis was enrolled in Kimball Union Academy in Meridian, New Hampshire. On graduation in 1869, he entered the Dartmouth class of ’73. He graduated number 12 in his class and had received a Phi Beta Kappa “key.” Incidentally, Francis commented at some length on the excessive drinking during his years at Dartmouth—something that is part of the Dr. Bob story at Dartmouth as well. In 1873, Francis decided to study for the ministry and entered Andover, which he characterized as “the great theological seminary of New England.” Andover was Congregational in denomination. Near the end of his senior year at Andover, he was called to the pastorate of the Williston Church of Portland, Maine (For the foregoing materials, see Clark, Memories, supra, pp. 1-66).
A Brief Digression: The Period of Dr. Bob’s Youth.
Perhaps not by accident, A.A. literature has chosen to report little about Dr. Bob’s youth. This may be a blessing for those of us who are taking a fresh start, a fresh approach, and a fresh viewpoint. The question concerns just exactly what Dr. Bob did as a youngster in the North Congregational Church at St. Johnsbury and just exactly what he was seeing, hearing, learning, and practicing in the Christian Endeavor Society at his church and even elsewhere. Those questions are being researched right now!
Here’s what AA does tell us about Dr. Bob’s youth. The facts provide an adequate start and framework that can point us toward his early religious years and religious training.
Robert Holbrook Smith was born August 8, 1879 in the family home at Central and Summer Streets in St. Johnsbury, Vermont. Judge and Mrs. Walter Perrin Smith were his parents. The Judge had a distinguished career as Probate Judge, state’s attorney, state legislator, superintendent of St. Johnsbury schools, director of one bank, and president of another. He died in 1918; and he had taught Sunday school for 40 years! Dr. Bob’s mother was said to have felt “that the way to success and salvation lay through strict parental supervision, no-nonsense education, and regular spiritual devotion.”
From 1885 to 1894, Bob went to Summer Street elementary school, two blocks from his home. In 1894, Bob was 15 years old and entered St. Johnsbury Academy—an independent secondary school “for the intellectual, moral, and religious training of boys and girls in northeastern Vermont.” In his senior year at St. Johnsbury, he met his bride-to-be Anne Ripley Smith at a dance in the academy gym. Seventeen years later, they were married. Bob graduated from St. Johnsbury Academy in 1898. He then set off for four years at Dartmouth College, sixty miles south at Hanover, New Hampshire. He graduated in 1902 and by that time was an illustrious graduate of the college drinking “fraternity.” Sadly—by comparison with the endless biographies, stories of, by, and about, Bill Wilson and his life—A.A. has devoted only 23 pages to the foregoing general facts in the official biography of Bob’s life (See DR. BOB and the Good Oldtimers: A Biography, with recollections of early A.A. in the Midwest. NY: Alcoholics Anonymous World Services., Inc., 1980, pp. 1-23). Regrettably, most of these pages contain little more of religious and spiritual significance—mostly just a Dr. Bob drunkalog, and this not even in the words of Dr. Bob.
As to Bill Wilson, Bill himself, A.A., and a host of biographers have provided us with details about Wilson’s birth behind a bar, his renunciation of church, his atheism, his grandfather, his mother, his father, his sister, his boomerang, his violin, his first love, his second love and wife-to-be Lois, his Burr and Burton Academy days, a hobo motorcycle ride, stock market meanderings, Lois’s Swedenborgian religion, the involvement of Lois’s family in Swedenborgianism, and the pair’s marriage in the Swedenborgian church, as well as some information about Bill’s Army days and law school attendance.
When it comes to reporting details about Dr. Bob, A.A. has been favored with very very little. There is nothing about Judge Smith’s religious convictions, activities, and teachings to Bob. There is nothing about Grandma Smith’s religious beliefs, activities, and communications with her son on those matters. There is nothing about the family’s membership in St. Johnsbury’s North Congregational Church. There is nothing about that church’s prayer meetings, church services, Bible studies, and quiet hours. There is nothing about the nature of its Christian Endeavor Society; and there is nothing about CE activities of that particular church society. Nor is there any mention of what Bob learned as a youth from the church, from the Bible, from Christian Endeavor, from his parents, or from the religious ideas taught at the academy he attended. And that is where part of our research is now directed. Details are invited!.
Christian Endeavor Growth From 1881 to 1902—the date of Dr. Bob’s graduation from college at Dartmouth.
The growth of Christian Endeavor from its twenty member society in Williston Church in 1881 to its status at the time of Dr. Bob’s graduation from college in 1902 is absolutely astonishing. Though Congregational in origin, Christian Endeavor met the needs of youth and the need of churches of various Protestant denominations to court, encourage, and instruct young people in the service of Christ. Its influence on churches and youngsters became world-wide in span and duration.
By the time its founder Dr. Francis Clark had written his autobiography in 1922, Christian Endeavor could say that eighty thousand organizations bore its name (Clark, Memoirs, supra, p. 699). It could and did say that three hundred thousand people attended one hundred and fifty different sessions at its 1899 Convention in Detroit (Clark, Christian Endeavor, supra, p. 368). It could and did estimate that about 250,000 Endeavorers every year join the evangelical churches of the world (Clark, Christian Endeavor, supra, p. 338). An online encyclopedia archive on Francis Clark recorded that, in 1908, United Christian Endeavor had 70,761 societies and more than 3,500,000 members scattered throughout the United States, Canada, Great Britain, Australia, South Africa, India, Japan and China
Let’s compare, as to historical significance, Wilson’s much-discussed Washingtonian Society of a century before A.A.’s founding. Society membership, said Wilson, “passed the hundred thousand mark,” but, said he, it lost sight of its goal of helping alcoholics. It became embroiled in Abolition and Temperance matters, quickly faded from the scene after only a few short years of activity, and had been long dead for a good many decades before A.A. was founded (See Wilson’s remarks quoted in Pass It On. NY: Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Inc., 1984, pp. 325, 354, 366-367; Twelve Steps And Twelve Traditions. NY: Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Inc., 1952, pp. 178-179). Furthermore, several perspicacious AAs were later to write that the real failure of the Washingtonian movement was its non-reliance on God and focus on temperance pledges.
Let’s also look at the “Oxford Group”—the much discussed yet maligned “root” of Bill Wilson’s enduring Twelve Steps. At the beginning, in 1922, its members simply consisted of a small group of Rev. Frank Buchman’s traveling friends who had formed what they called “A First Century Christian Fellowship” which soon faded away as a group (See Garth Lean. Frank Buchman: A Life. London: Constable, 1985, p. 97).
Now, let’s look at a timeline of Christian Endeavor from its founding in 1881 to the time of Dr. Bob’s graduation from Dartmouth in 1902. The growth, tremendous size and outreach, and endurance of this Christian fellowship far surpass anything else in the pre-AA history scene.
1881 – February 2, the first society was organized in Williston Church.
October 8, the second society organized in the North Church, Newburyport, Mass.
Before 1882 dawned, there were at least three or four other societies—one in a Christian church in Rhode Island; another in the St. Lawrence Church of Portland; another in Burlington, Vermont.
1882 – June 2 – the first convention was held in Williston Church with six societies of less than 500 members represented and others known to exist.
1883 – 1891 – Societies were rapidly formed in Canada, Hawaii, Ceylon, Foochow, Africa, England, Australia, Turkey, Japan, Spain, France, Samoa, Mexico, and Chile. With large conventions in those years and many societies.
1892 – Eleventh Annual Convention was held at Madison Square Garden. Attendance: 30,000.
1893 – 1896 – Societies and conventions involved China, Japan, the Army, South Africa, Switzerland, Germany, Laos, Scotland, Marshall Islands, India, Hawaii, Guatemala, the Caroline Islands, Italy, Bulgaria, Mexico, and Burma.
1897 – Sixteenth International Convention in San Francisco. 25,000 journeyed across the continental United States to be a part of the outreach and activity.
1898 – 1902 – Societies and conventions were organized and met in India, Russia, Philippines, Jamaica, Portugal, and Persia.
The Washingtonians were washed up in only a few years and long before AA was a twinkle in Bill Wilson’s eye. The Oxford Group finally did gain world-wide notice through the 1930’s; faced stiff opposition from the Roman Catholic hierarchy; ran afoul of thorny claims of Buchman’s supposed Nazi affiliations, and the anti-war views of some at Oxford [not, however, connected with Buchman’s people]. Unlike the Washingtonians, Christian Endeavor, or A.A., the Oxford Group itself was basically a one-man charisma show; and it soon found itself splitting in several directions a decade after World War II.
Yet, in the twenty years beginning with1891, Christian Endeavor had stayed afloat, grown, gained support in many denominations, spawned similar societies in others, and acquired tens of thousands of identifiable adherents. It had literature, books, periodicals, newspapers, conventions, world conferences, offices, officers and trustees, hymnals, summer schools, training schools, and an ever-increasing support and growth rate. In sum, there was absolutely nothing like Christian Endeavor that was similar in form, content, significance, and size during the years prior to or at the time A.A.s conception or actual formative years—nothing at all like the Christian Endeavor Society which was to help instruct and train Dr. Bob in his youth, and which emphasized Bible, Church, Prayer Meetings, Quiet Hours, God, Jesus Christ, fellowship, service and witness (For details, see Clark, Christian Endeavor, supra, pp. 34-88, 621-628). It is no surprise to me, however, that (given today’s secularized treatment approaches) world-wide Christian Endeavor picture has remained in the dark—completely unnoticed in today’s “any god” or “not-god” recovery arena. The theme seems to be: If you want to talk about Jesus, the Bible, and A.A.’s Christian roots, do it somewhere besides A.A., a treatment center, or a government periodical.