Psychiatrist Scott Peck calls it the greatest event of the twentieth century: the “founding” of Alcoholics Anonymous in Akron, Ohio, on June 10, 1935. It did not seem auspicious at the time. Two apparently hopeless alcoholics, one jobless for years, the other a surgeon who had needed a drink that day to steady his scalpel, had found each other.

In the 56 years since, A.A. membership has grown from two to nearly 2 million, A.A.’S 12 Steps, which owe virtually nothing to modern psychology or medicine, are unreservedly embraced by courts, hospitals, and a large number of counselors and psychologists. Beyond A.A., the 12 Steps have become the treatment of choice for a large catalogue of disorders, from sexual addiction to overeating. Author Keith Miller calls the 12 Steps “a way of spiritual healing and growth that may well be the most important spiritual model of any age for many contemporary Christians.”

Yet many Christians have an ambivalent attitude toward Alcoholics Anonymous, A.A.’S 12 Steps recognize not God, but a “Higher Power” who is “God as we understand him.” This sounds like slippery, New Age language. The “disease concept” of alcoholism—not invented, but certainly popularized by A.A.—seems to remove any moral dimension from drinking.

The spiritual roots of the 12 Steps are complex, tangled between experience-oriented evangelical Christianity and secularizing, psychologizing tendencies of American religious pluralism. Understanding how these sources produced the 12 Steps can help Christians know how to interact with them today.

Bill W.’S Hot Flash

Bill Wilson (“Bill W.” in A.A. lore, because of A.A.’S principle of anonymity) was unquestionably the most influential person in the development of Alcoholics Anonymous. In 1934 he was a grandiose, loud-talking New York City alcoholic. Nearly 40, he was feeding his habit by stealing grocery money from his wife’s purse and sometimes by panhandling. Several times he had been hospitalized, but he always started drinking again, no matter what resolutions he made.

One November day an old alcoholic friend, Ebby Thatcher, paid him a visit. Thatcher was sober and had come to tell Wilson why. He had had a religious experience. Members of an organization called the Oxford Group had visited him in jail, where he had been incarcerated for drunkenness, and he had yielded his life to God. The desire to drink was gone, he said. His life was changed.

After several visits, Thatcher convinced Wilson—who was quite averse to religion—to attend a meeting at a Manhattan rescue mission sponsored by Calvary Episcopal Church, local headquarters of the Oxford Group. Wilson stopped at several bars on the way and was quite drunk when he arrived. He was, however, sufficiently moved by the testimonies to go forward and testify at length to his own changed heart. This change lasted less than a day: Wilson went on a three-day binge and was hospitalized again.

Thatcher visited the hospital, and at Wilson’s request repeated his formula for conversion: “Realize you are licked, admit it, and get willing to turn your life over to the care of God.”

Wilson fell into a deep depression after Thatcher left. As he was later to describe it,

I still gagged badly on the notion of a Power greater than myself, but finally, just for the moment, the last vestige of my proud obstinacy was crushed. All at once I found myself crying out, “If there is a God, let Him show Himself! I am ready to do anything, anything!”

Suddenly the room lit up with a great white light. I was caught up into an ecstasy which there are no words to describe. It seemed to me, in the mind’s eye, that I was on a mountain and that a wind not of air but of spirit was blowing. And then it burst upon me that I was a free man. Slowly the ecstasy subsided. I lay on a bed, but now for a time I was in another world, a new world of consciousness. All about me and through me there was a wonderful feeling of Presence, and I thought to myself, “So this is the God of the preachers!” A great peace stole over me and I thought, “No matter how wrong things seem to be, they are all right. Things are all right with God and His world.”

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Wilson never took another drink.

Naturally, this new convert joined the Oxford Group, attending Sunday-night meetings at Calvary Church, pastored by the Episcopalian Sam Shoemaker. Shoemaker was the best-known Oxford Group leader in America. Though he left the movement in 1941, he would continue for decades as a prominent evangelical leader, known for his books, his radio program, and his role in launching the Faith at Work movement. But he may have made his greatest contribution through Wilson.

Wilson would write, “Dr. Silkworth [a physician who introduced the disease concept of alcoholism to Wilson] gave us the needed knowledge of our illness, but Sam Shoemaker had given us the concrete knowledge of what we could do about it. One showed us the mysteries of the lock that held us in prison; the other passed on the spiritual keys by which we were liberated.… The early A.A. got its ideas of self-examination, acknowledgment 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 from nowhere else.”

That spring, Wilson went to Akron, Ohio, on a would-be business deal. The deal fell flat. Broke and lonely, Wilson felt sorely tempted to drink. Desperately, he looked in his hotel’s directory and called a clergyman, asking for contacts with the Oxford Group. After a long series of unproductive calls he reached Henrietta Seiberling, a Vassar graduate and daughter-in-law to the founder of the Goodyear Rubber Company. Wilson’s first words to her were, “I’m from the Oxford Group and I’m a rum hound from New York.” He poured out his fear of falling, and she invited him over immediately.

She had a project in mind. For two years she had been working on a surgeon, Bob Smith, through the Oxford Group. Smith was Wilson’s opposite in personality: a silent drinker, stern and distant. The group had confessed with him and prayed with him, but his drinking had remained as uncontrollable as ever. Seiberling might have brought Wilson and Smith together that night except that Smith had come home with a potted plant for Mother’s Day and fallen into a drunken sleep under the dining room table. The next day the two men met, and they hit it off remarkably.

It would be nearly a month before Smith took his last drink and A.A. was “founded.” Wilson stayed on for months at the Smiths’ home, and the two men had many late-night philosophic conversations. Their hopes, of course, were all in the context of regular meetings of the Oxford Group, which had brought the two men together and constituted their only spiritual moorings. Soon the two men had convinced other alcoholics in Akron to join the Oxford Group meetings, just as Wilson had previously done in New York.

Evangelical Roots

The Oxford Group (emphatically not the Anglo-Catholic Oxford Movement associated with John Henry Newman) was the child of an American Lutheran clergyman, Frank Buchman. Beginning in 1908, he spearheaded an informal evangelistic movement dedicated to reclaiming “first-century Christianity.” While the Oxford Group (later renamed Moral Rearmament) would ultimately drift away from a solidly grounded faith, they began with a strong evangelical identity.

The Oxford Group tried particularly to reach up-and-outers by avoiding church buildings and traditional Christian language. According to writer Charles Knippel, Sam Shoemaker would urge those who did not yet believe in Christ to “accept God however they might conceive of him, or even to pray ‘as if’ there is a God.” The group’s beliefs were orthodox, but they were little interested in doctrine. Their emphasis was on experience, primarily the experience of conversion.

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Oxford Group meetings were small and informal, emphasizing prayer, mutual confession, the importance of making restitution where you have wronged someone, and “guidance”—a Quakerish process where members sat quietly and expressed what they believed God might be saying to them. Guidance was always “checked” with other members. The group emphasized the importance of personal witness.

Most of these emphases and practices found their way into A.A. Yet within five years, both the New York and the Akron alcoholics split from the Oxford Group. The basic reason is clear. For the alcoholics, the Oxford Group was too religious, too sure that they knew what alcoholics needed, and most unwilling to let alcoholism be their main subject. They wanted alcoholics to listen, not just talk, and to focus on Christ.

Bill Wilson was developing a very different vision: a fellowship of alcoholics dedicated to helping one another stay sober through a spiritual program—a program that recognized no dogma, no absolutes, and was open to all religious persuasions, including atheism. For the Oxford Group, the goal was Jesus Christ. For Bill Wilson, the goal was simply sobriety.

The Big Book And The 12 Steps

In the early years of A.A., converts were few, backslidings many. But the recovering alcoholics, and Bill Wilson in particular, were dogged in their efforts, and their meager results seemed remarkable to them. Gradually they gained insight into what worked and what didn’t.

None of the alcoholics knew much about publishing, but they thought a book would be a good way of raising money and publicizing their ideas. Wilson began to write in 1938. His drafts were read and argued over by the alcoholics. So was the title: Alcoholics Anonymous. Published in 1939, and soon known as the Big Book because the first edition was printed on such thick paper, the book was ultimately to make A.A.’s fortune and pay its bills up to the present. It has sold over 10 million copies and currently sells over 1 million each year. It gave the organization its name. Most important, it codified the 12 Steps.

The Big Book reads like a man-to-man advice column from an ancient Field and Stream. Its folksy persuasion contains not a shred of sophistication, whether sociological, medical, psychological, or religious. Yet, as A.A. people would say, it works. Alcoholics treasure it and are apt to quote it like the Bible, using page number instead of chapter and verse.

At its core are the 12 Steps, which are usually displayed prominently at A.A. meetings. Father Ed Dowling, a Jesuit priest who became a close friend to Wilson, thought he saw parallels to the Exercises of Saint Ignatius. As a matter of fact, the 12 Steps draw so broadly from Christian traditions that one could find parallels sprinkled throughout Christian history. The steps came directly, however, through the evangelical practice of the Oxford Group. For simplicity, I have paired some of the steps together.

1. We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable.

Thatcher’s version, when witnessing to Wilson, was, “Realize you are licked.” Alcoholics have a hundred excuses why they drink, and a thousand resolutions to quit. Their first step toward recovery is realizing that their schemes for reform are hopeless, that they cannot just make up their minds to do better. They are caught in something more powerful than themselves.

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This is what A.A. has usually meant by the disease concept of alcohol. They have always been cautious about staking out a medical claim, such as that alcoholism is genetic. The disease concept of alcoholism is more a metaphor than a physiological explanation. To some, the metaphor suggests a claim that alcoholics are victims of circumstance and not responsible for their behavior. That apprehension is misplaced, at least as far as the A.A. founders were concerned. They were saying, in fact, something very close to what theologians express in the language of sin.

A person who sins does so because he is caught in a web of sin. How he got there he may not know, but he cannot escape on his own power, and his attempt to do so only catches him deeper in the web. So the conviction of sin—not sins, but Sin, the underlying, inescapable power that leads to sins—is necessary for anyone who would accept the grace of God.

Similarly, an alcoholic cannot escape her addiction. Until she recognizes her helplessness, she will be unwilling or unable to turn outside herself for the help she needs. She may never know why she is an alcoholic, but she remains responsible—responsible to recognize her helplessness. This is a recognizably Christian idea.

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.

The spiritual roots of the second and third steps are simply conversion. Sinners who have recognized their own hopelessness come to believe that God can rescue them and so turn their lives over to this God. The prayer of surrender—on your knees, inevitably—was heavily stressed in the Oxford Group, and in the earliest A.A. meetings.

The root is twisted a bit, however, with the introduction of “God as we understand him.” This language was not invented by Bill Wilson; it came from the Oxford Group. Shoemaker used it to indicate an openness to people in process. He encouraged honest seekers to “surrender as much of ourselves as we can to as much of Christ as we understand.” He believed that God would reveal himself more fully to them if they were willing to experiment this way. For A.A., however, the term became more accurately a statement of religious pluralism. As historian Ernest Kurtz writes, “The briefest statement of the fundamental, primitive Christian message runs: ‘Jesus saves.’ The fundamental first message of Alcoholics Anonymous, proclaimed by the very presence of a former compulsive drunk standing sober, ran: ‘Something saves.’ ” This Higher Power is often, for the irreligious, simply the A.A. group.

Years later, Shoemaker said that “A.A. has been supremely wise … in emphasizing the reality of the experience, and acknowledging that it came from a higher Power than human, and leaving the interpretation part pretty much at that.” He thought A.A. would have been wrecked by any attempt at doctrinal uniformity. This is the explanation that Wilson often gave, too. Alcoholics came from so many religious persuasions and were so cantankerous, they simply would not assent to any statement of orthodoxy. If you wanted to help them, you simply had to leave room for their independence.

However, there is ample reason to think that Bill Wilson himself was the leading independent and cantankerous alcoholic. Though he was close to Christians for the rest of his life, and once took a year of instruction in the Catholic faith from Msgr. Fulton Sheen, he never could reconcile himself to any orthodox expression of faith. His continuing religious search led him to LSD and spiritualist experiments. “God as we understand him” allows room for seekers—but it also leaves room for those who prefer to define God, rather than to allow him to define them. It is a profoundly ambivalent expression.

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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.

For the fourth step, the Big Book suggests a detailed and probing process of written self-evaluation. It includes listing all people, institutions, and principles that are the object of anger or resentment, and writing down one’s own contribution to all broken relationships. It includes an inventory of sexual issues.

The fifth step, according to Wilson, is the most difficult of all, because it requires humiliation. In A.A. one may confess to a “sponsor,” another alcoholic chosen as a guide because of his or her greater experience and personal affinity. Or one may confess to a pastor or some respected person.

Self-evaluation and particularly confession were significant parts of the Oxford Group’s “first-century Christianity.” The Oxford Group cultivated an atmosphere where people could spontaneously say what they were thinking and feeling—an atmosphere much like that of an A.A. meeting.

6. Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.

7. Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.

Steps six and seven carry on the “surrender to God” begun in step 3, applying it to specific flaws discovered in the course of taking personal inventory. Wilson stressed that it was not enough to know oneself, even to confess one’s shortcomings. One must humbly ask God for help.

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.

Steps 8 and 9 carry on with the list made in step 4, but now call for outward confession and restitution toward those who have been harmed.

This was standard Oxford Group practice. Shoemaker taught that concrete acts of restitution should follow immediately after conversion. That is why on the “founding day” of A.A., Bob Smith disappeared for several hours, to the alarm of his new friend Bill Wilson. As the Oxford Group had taught him, Smith had gone to make the rounds of people he had harmed, to ask their forgiveness and make amends whenever possible.

10. Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.

Practically speaking, A.A. members never “graduate.” Rather, they consider themselves alcoholic for life, even if they have not taken a drink in 30 years. In this sense, A.A. is like a church. It cannot, by definition, be outgrown. It is a lifelong process. The application of this principle may sometimes put A.A. in competition with the church, and thus is unlike a short-term therapy program.

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.

The Christian roots of the 12 Steps are perhaps the clearest in step 11. The focus is on relationship with God himself, not simply on sobriety. While Wilson often stressed the practical benefits of prayer, the eleventh step urges alcoholics to go beyond their own problems and develop a life of conscious contact with God. (Those whose Higher Power was simply the A.A. group, he acknowledged, might find this step difficult.) Wilson suggested that alcoholics begin and end every day with personal prayer and recommended that A.A. members use the resources of their own church, if they had one.

Wilson suggested the prayer of Saint Francis. In times of stress, he recommended praying repeatedly, “Thy will, not mine, be done.” More common in A.A., though, is the “Serenity Prayer,” adapted from Reinhold Niebuhr and often used to close meetings: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.” A.A. made it famous.

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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.

In A.A. parlance, “twelfth-stepping” is witnessing, almost always by giving a personal testimony. In the early days, A.A. members paid calls on the alcoholic wards of local hospitals, looking for the worst drunks they could find. They would tell their stories, and if interest was aroused, go on to explain the 12 Steps. Today, witnessing is generally less aggressive. Nevertheless, A.A. maintains Wilson’s belief that sharing the A.A. message is a means of maintaining sobriety. Wilson observed, “Practical experience shows that nothing will so much insure immunity from drinking as intensive work with other alcoholics. It works when other activities fail.” In other words, A.A. members share their testimony not simply out of concern for others, but also out of concern for themselves.

This emphasis on witness came directly from the Oxford Group, which reflected historic evangelical belief that individual witness is an essential part of Christian living. By “witness” Oxford Group members meant primarily sharing their own stories of conversion. Shoemaker spoke of such witness as “one of the experiences that keeps our own conversion living and burning.”

How Christian Are The 12 Steps?

Clearly, the 12 Steps originated in Christian traditions, transmitted directly through an evangelical movement. Conviction of sin, conversion, yielding to God, self-assessment, confession, restitution, prayer, witness: these are all classic elements of Christian piety.

Yet as Walther Eichrodt wrote long ago, “The same thing practiced by different people is not the same thing.” The 12 Steps are Christian, but A.A. is not. Under Sam Shoemaker’s leadership, these 12 Steps would have created a Christian group; under Bill Wilson’s they made a group that has a wider appeal, for it takes on the pluralistic religious coloration of our culture.

A.A. may be unprecedented in this: it converted not Christian institutions for secular purposes, it converted a Christian program of discipleship. The conversion of universities and hospitals from religious to secular purposes is an old and well-known story. As the leadership of Christian institutions was given to those who lacked personal faith, the institutions were transformed. Their goals—medicine, education—remained the same, but their moorings in a Christian vision were lost.

Similarly, Wilson detached the discipleship process from its Christian vision and applied it to a lesser goal: sobriety. The Oxford Group’s lack of interest in doctrine opened the way for this. They were more concerned with Wilson’s experience of salvation than with its doctrinal content. More than tolerant, A.A. is pluralistic, recognizing as many gods as there may be religions, any of which can “work.”

A number of Christians have attempted to re-Christianize the 12 Steps, by rewriting them, by using them in a Christian context, and by making clear that the Higher Power is Jesus Christ. There can be no objection to doing this. The 12 Steps are a package of Christian practices, and nothing is compromised in using them.

It is more difficult to know how to respond to the 12 Steps as they are actually practiced in secular society. Few Christians have found this difficult, partly because in many parts of the U.S. the majority of people in 12-Step groups recognize Jesus as the Higher Power. Even where this is not so—where feminist A.A. groups emphasize goddess worship, for example—one can easily find an A.A. group more to one’s liking. And most groups are genuinely tolerant. Christians can express their convictions without any sense of intimidation, unless they undermine the pluralistic assumptions of the group by suggesting that others’ view of God is misguided. There is always the possibility that, as in some university settings, the reigning tolerance might become intolerant toward Christians. But this seems rarely to be the case.

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Christians can and do use A.A. or other 12-Step groups much as they use formerly Christian schools and hospitals. We have an interest in recovering from addictions, and there is no harm in getting help where it is available. In fact, there are opportunities for evangelism. The 12 Steps penetrate every level of American society, including some where Christian practices are unheard of. At least one church cultivates an image in 12-Step circles as a “place where you can go to learn more about the Higher Power.”

The problem comes when recovery from addictions becomes salvation in some final sense, and the therapy group becomes a church substitute. A commission of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, making a positive assessment of A.A., wrote that “the ‘spiritual awakening’ to which frequent reference is made in A.A. literature does not refer to ‘conversion’ but to a personality change sufficient to bring about recovery from alcoholism, however that change may take place.” But that is not always the view of people in 12-Step groups. A life-changing experience with a Higher Power may lead them to believe they have found God, and God’s people, and can center their salvation in the 12 Step group.

Bill Wilson’s story, after all, sounds like an authentic Christian conversion—until you realize that he never pledged his loyalty to Christ, never was baptized, never joined a Christian church, and that the rest of his life was morally erratic. Salvation is more than sobriety. Wilson’s life’s work has transformed millions of men and women. But there seems little doubt that, in the final analysis, God’s analysis, his life was unredeemed. He might stand for many others if Christians are not alert to the tangled roots of the 12 Steps.

We ought to use them gladly. They belong to us, originally. They are doing tremendous good. But we should be careful not to be content when troubled people are helped through 12-Step programs. They may be awakening spiritually, and certainly they are being powerfully helped, but they cannot experience the full awakening proclaimed by the twelfth step until they give the Higher Power a name. And how will they know, if they are not told?

Eugene H. Peterson is pastor of Christ Our King Presbyterian Church, Bel Air, Maryland, and author of A Long Obedience in the Same Direction (InterVarsity) and Answering God (Harper & Row), both of which are about the Psalms.

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