More Revealed:
A Critical Analysis of
Alcoholics Anonymous
and the Twelve Steps
by Ken Ragge
ALERT! Publishing; P.O. Box 50233; Henderson, Nevada 89016-0233

Chapter One: In The Beginning...

"The worst of madmen is a saint run mad." -- Pope (1)

In 1939, shortly after its founding, Alcoholics Anonymous was in debt and its membership broke. Hope for the organization's financial stability was pinned to the sale of their newly-published book, "Alcoholics Anonymous." A small group of early AA members, including co-founder Bill Wilson, were discussing what to do. Morgan, an new member, had an idea. He had connections in the media from his days as an advertising man. He could arrange for an interview on a popular nationwide radio program. As the AA literature tells it,

Morgan told a tale of alcoholic ruin and the recovery he had found in AA.(3)

What went on there? The group was so afraid Morgan would go on a binge, they locked him up so he could go on the air to tell how they helped him recover from his drinking problem. If hard experience had told them he was likely to get drunk, how good has his "recovery"? If they didn't have faith in his sobriety, how much faith did they have in their program?

To understand their behavior it is first necessary to have some knowledge of the history of its parent, the Oxford Group.

The AA story begins with Frank Buchman, a Lutheran minister from Pennsylvania. In China in 1918, he began holding a series of meetings called "house parties." A house party was defined as " informal gathering of friends in a hotel or college ... where countless people who would never have darkened the door of a church found a practical, working faith surroundings where they felt at home."(4) 

Buchman was attempting to bring about a revival of what he perceived to be first-century Christianity, hence his group's first name, "First Century Christian Fellowship." While Buchman and his loose-knit "fellowship" made much of non-existent ties to the internationally prestigious Oxford University, the name "Oxford Group" was reportedly coined by a South African baggage handler in 1921.(5)

World Peace Through "God Control"

Literature from the 1930s, when AA and Oxford Group were one, describes their major goals. From one of leader Frank Buchman's speeches:

Oxford Group was the bearer of the secret of sanity. Members, being sane people, had the power to make others sane. This was the "patriotic" duty to which members were to dedicate their lives. All who opposed their plans for "world peace" (Oxford Group world domination) were public enemies. Everyone was welcome to join in the great moral crusade.

For those who were too insane to join on their own, Oxford Group had special methods to help them called "the five C's." Once "helped" with the five C's, one could live life sanely, meaning in accordance with "the five procedures" and "the four absolutes."

The Four Absolutes: The Yardstick of Sanity

The four absolutes are absolute purity (which refers predominantly to sex), absolute honesty, absolute unselfishness, and absolute love. The absolutes were the measuring sticks by which one's actions and thoughts were to be judged. At first glance, they seem to be a worthy ideal. Use of the absolutes, however, could hardly have served other than to make the Oxford groupers feel absolute guilt or in absolute contempt of their God-given reasoning ability.

To understand this, imagine a man with only one dollar in his pocket. He is waiting for the bus to work. The fare is exactly one dollar. An obviously poorly fed pan-handler asks for some change for food. To be absolutely unselfish, the man would have to give up the dollar. But what about his obligation to his employer and his family? Would it be absolutely loving to miss work and possibly lose his job and not be able to provide for his family? The pan-handler is so obviously in need.

In terms of the absolutes, there is no rational, logical, guilt-free solution. One's ability to reason is worthless, as there is no "spiritual" solution through logic. Any logical solution would leave the man a guilty sinner. He would be doomed to fall short of the ideal.

This seemingly lose-lose situation presented no problem for groupers. They held the intellect in scorn anyway, probably as a direct result of the absolutes. In their belief system, people were stymied in their spiritual growth to the degree that they ran their lives by their own will. Humans were obviously unable to run their own lives anyway.

Reason suspended, the groupers had a "spiritual" way of dealing with all of life's problems: Groupers and Guidance.

The Five Procedures of the Sane

The first of the five procedures, Guidance, was to listen for messages from God. Members were to spend an hour in the morning in meditation, pen in hand, and write all thoughts that came to mind. To determine whether the thoughts were from the sub-conscious, the evil one, or from God Himself, they were first checked against the four absolutes. They were then checked by other group members.* Elders were particularly important in this because they were further along the Spiritual Path and therefore better able to determine what was really from God.

Guidance was also considered available all through the day. Not only was Guidance relied upon to know what to do if a problem should arise but also to determine what a member should do with his time or what to prepare for dinner.(7) Complete "surrender" to Guidance was complete surrender to God. Surrender to God was God-control. It was sanity.

Another procedure was Restitution. Amends were to be made for past shortcomings. These shortcomings were predominantly the sins committed before having "surrendered to God," or "giving in to God," as measured against the four absolutes.

The fifth procedure, "sharing," was made up of two parts: sharing for witness and sharing for confession. Sharing for witness was also known as "The Fifth Gospel" and "The Gospel of Personal Experience." These names are particularly appropriate because Oxford Group considered sharing for witness the equivalent of the New Testament gospels.(8) In other words, an elder grouper's sermon was considered as wise, as true, and as spiritually inspired as the words of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.

Sharing for confession was the confession of sins. Unlike most Christian churches, this wasn't done between oneself and God, with a priest in private, or to a limited extent, at a service. Open confession, along with "sharing for witness," were the central core of the meeting experience.

Oxford Group's meetings were rather informal. Everyone was on a first-name basis. They had no "clerical class," relying instead on elders as preachers. The preacher, or leader, was any elder who was thought to have a particularly relevant "message" or "story" that evening. For instance, if a newcomer was expected to be present, someone with a similar background or who suffered from similar sins prior to being saved might be chosen by the members to lead.

After the reading of selected Bible passages, the leader would speak first. His sharing would begin with the confessions of sins of the past and end with the rewards of "surrender" to God-control through Oxford Group. After the sermon, members would give confession and witness from the floor. The meetings were described as both extremely emotional and hypnotic and there was often a great deal of good-natured laughter.

The Five C's

The most important duty of Oxford members was to win souls for Christ. Since most targets for recruitment were already members of Christian churches, it is more accurate to say they worked to win souls for the Oxford Group. The five C's were the "scientific" method of "life changing," or making the insane sane, presented in an Oxford Group manual called "Soul Surgery."(9) The five C's are Confidence, Confession, Conviction, Conversion, and Conservation.(10)

Non-groupers, in spite of being members of Christian churches, were characterized as "hungry sheep who are dependent upon us,, whether or not they or we realize it, for finding the way to the great spiritual Shepherd of men's souls."(11) In order to find the target of scientific conversion, Guidance was used. After "God" told them who to go after, the grouper would "lay siege with all the powers, seen and unseen, that he can muster to his support."(12)

The first step in working with others, or "laying siege," was to dome "so wholly into the confidence of the one we seek to help along the avenue of personal friendship that we know his verdict on his own case, see him through his own eyes."(13)

In winning the confidence of the "lost sheep," the grouper is advised to "avoid argument" and "adapt the truth to the hearer's need."(14) While "adapting the truth" might seem to fall short on the yardstick of Absolute Honesty it must be remembered that, having adopted the absolutes, the grouper's reason is suspended and the inconsistency could not be noticed.

It also would be unreasonable to expect a sane person (a person under God-control) to question the morality of any action necessary to make the insane (those not under God-control) sane. After all, he is following direct orders from God as communicated through Guidance. It is easy to imagine that in the grouper's mind he must have seen himself as "serving Higher Purpose."

The second C, Confession, was used as a means of manipulation. Whereas in Christianity, as in other major religions, confession is a method of clearing the conscience, of removing a sense of separateness from God, in the Oxford Group, as in other cults, confession ultimately served quite different purposes.

Honesty, humility, and truth are, of course, admirable qualities. However,, it is somewhat less than absolute honesty to feign friendship and, with ulterior motives and absolutely devoid of real penitence, go through the act of confession. It is also arrogant to assume that anyone who isn't a fellow Grouper is a lost sheep who needs to be "helped."

Confession had another use for the Oxford Group soul surgeon:

The extraction of Confession was considered of ultimate importance and great effort was made to get it.

This "loving relentlessness" takes on a rather sinister air when the group's "hospital work" is considered. An alcoholic patient, locked away in a hospital, would be given only a Bible to read and was allowed only Groupers for visitors during the "Oxfordizing" period.* The poor victim was under steady pressure, perhaps for days, weeks, or months, to accept Oxford Group interpretations of the Bible and Oxford Group's will as God's will. Even outside of hospitals, the grouper's techniques sometimes led to severe emotional damage including nervous and mental breakdowns.(19)

The third of the five C's, Conviction, was defined as "a vision of the hideousness of his own personal guilt..."(20) If the lost sheep didn't seem to feel guilt intensely enough, effort was made to increase and intensify it.(21)

Sincere confession, confession for what one feels a genuine sense of guilt and shame, was used by the Oxford Group member, as in other cults, for further manipulation. Having "befriended" the lost sheep, gotten a confession of guilt and intensified that guilt, the grouper now had the lost sinner in an extremely vulnerable position. The lost sheep, overwhelmed by "the hideousness of his own personal guilt," needed resolution. His grouper "friend" had already prepared a way out. The soul surgeon had already described, in humble confession, how he was saved by "the programme of His Kingdom."

The lost sheep was almost found. All he needed for Conversion, the fourth C, was to have faith. This meant to be obedient to "the programme of His Kingdom" since faith, for the Oxford Group, was defined as obedience.(22)

For the soul surgeon, the work is not yet done. One final C, Continuance, remains. The most important element in Continuance was to get the new convert working at converting others. The convert is told, "As we have freely received, so we must freely give." This was because it was " of the surest safeguards against its [the conversion experience] soon becoming unreal."(23) In order for a grouper to maintain his unusual beliefs he had to convince others of their truth.

The degree to which one's life is changed by this process is great. "The central pivot around which his life revolves must now be not self but others, not serving his own interests or development but serving and winning others..."(24) Anything interfering with full dedication to "winning others" would be considered selfish at best. Some of the reasons given for weak dedication to practicing soul surgery were spiritual laziness, spiritual cowardice, and "Satan's active interference."(25) Needless to say, believing this would intensify a slacker's feelings of guilt, leading to an even greater dependence on Guidance and need to win converts.*

The Oxford Group was most concerned with bringing rich, famous, and powerful public figures under God-control so their influence could be used to sway the public. One apparent success, the son of rubber baron Harvey Firestone, was to play an important part in the birth of Alcoholics Anonymous and have a great influence on its development.

Dr. Bob Smith was to become revered as one of the two co-founders of Alcoholics Anonymous.

The Oxford Group, through the Firestone publicity, presented itself as having a "program" explicitly for drunks in addition to sinners in general. The meetings left behind at T. Henry Williams' in 1933 was an Oxford Group meeting and was to stay that way for several more years.

Meanwhile, in New York, the other co-founder-to-be was on a downhill slide with his drinking problem. Bill Wilson was first hospitalized at Towns Hospital in New York City. During his first two stays, his doctor, William Silkworth, impressed upon him the hopelessness of alcoholism. Silkworth's theory on alcoholism was that it was "an allergy combined with a mental obsession." and that abstinence was the only remedy. Once a drink was taken, the allergy would take over and an "alcoholic" could stop.

Armed with the knowledge that he was "Powerless over alcohol and that just one drink would cause him to lose control," Wilson's condition got decidedly worse. While previously he might go months without a drinking binge, after "treatment," Wilson would work through hangover after hangover, only to last four or five days, or maybe one or two."(27)

Wilson, perhaps with direct coaching from Silkworth, came to the conclusion that "...nothing could keep him from what he would later call the 'insidious insanity' of taking the first drink."(28)

His mental state became so bad after "treatment" that "terror, self-hatred, and suicidal thoughts became his constant companions.... He contemplated suicide -- by poison, by jumping out the window."(29)

Meanwhile, unknown to Wilson, an old drinking buddy he hadn't seen in five years was getting a message directly from God. In Guidance with other groupers, "God" told Wilson's friend, Ebby, to visit him. Ebby's visit was in November, 1934.

They talked for several hours. One of the things that impressed Wilson most during the visit was that "Ebby looked different; there was a new way about him..."(30) When asked what happened, Ebby answered, "I've got religion."(31) Wilson was also impressed that Ebby didn't preach. As noted previously, in Oxford Group conversion techniques the method wasn't to preach but to first confess to win confidence. Apparently this is what Ebby did. To quote AA literature, "Ebby told his story simply, without hint of evangelism."(32)

An integral part of his story was salvation from drinking by the Oxford Group, which he described as more spiritual than religious.

During the ensuing days, Wilson remained impressed with the fact that while he was drinking, Ebby was sober.* This led Wilson to set out for Calvary Mission where the Oxford Group held meetings. Wilson arrived drunk.

At its American Headquarters, the Oxford Group dealt particularly with drunks. As Wilson later described it,

and continued,

After the meeting, Wilson was told to go to Towns Hospital where Ebby and other group members could see him. Two or three days later, Wilson checked in.

At Towns, he was given the standard treatment, barbiturates and several hallucinogens, including belladonna and henbane, until "the face becomes flushed the throat dry, and the pupils of the eyes dilated."(34)

After several days, Ebby came to see him. While there is no record of what was said, it is recorded that after Ebby left, "Bill [Wilson] slid into very deep melancholy. He was filled with guilt and remorse over the way he had treated Lois [his wife]..."(35) Evidently, Ebby had done something to provoke it and, knowing the five C's, it is easy to put together what happened.

Ebby was sent to Wilson in a Guidance session. He won Wilson's "Confidence" through "humble confession," eliciting a confession from Wilson. Apparently, Wilson confessed to something he had tremendous guilt over; the way he had treated Lois. Ebby was able to use this to give Wilson a "vision of the hideousness of his own personal guilt."

Now the time of "Conversion" was upon Wilson. in what appears to have been a drug- and stress-induced hallucinatory breakdown, Wilson found "the programme of His Kingdom." From that day forward, Bill Wilson never drank again.

By 1935, Wilson and his wife were both regular attendees at Oxford Group meetings. He was very impressed with what he saw and heard. As he described it, 

Knowing that, "If he did not work, he would surely drink again, and if he drank, he would surely die,"(37) Wilson set out to "work with others." This was the fifth C, Continuance. Rather than go to work to support himself and his wife, over whom he had felt such guilt, he dedicated himself, full-time, with a "burning confidence and enthusiasm," to "give freely that which was so freely given."

After six months Wilson was a total failure, not having saved one drunk. The groupers were reportedly "cool" to his "drunk-fixing." Whether they were upset because of his failure or because he concentrated only on drunks is not clear.*

Part of Wilson's "vision" was to create a "chain" of alcoholics; one bringing others who brought others under God-control. Oxford Group was after everyone, not just drunks. Independent of AA literature, a writer on Frank Buchman's life quotes someone telling Wilson, "You're preaching at these fellows, Bill. No one ever preached at you. Turn your strategy round."(38)

This seems to indicate that Wilson's early problem with the Oxford Group's coolness towards him was more a matter of incompetence at "soul surgery."

In mid-1935, Dr. Silkworth came to Wilson's rescue. He gave Wilson some advice that was to have profound impact and lead Wilson to great success winning souls in a different fashion. It also was to lead, over the next few years, to schism from the Oxford Group for him and his soon-to-be-gathered flock of lost sheep.

Silkworth advised him to not talk about the absolutes and his spiritual (conversion) experience at first with potential converts. He was told,

This advice, to use fear to make indoctrinees amenable to conversion through guilt, was new to the Oxford Group. It wasn't long before Wilson had the opportunity to try out the new techniques, but first, one more missing piece was to be put in place.

In May 1935, Wilson made a business trip to Akron, Ohio. Alone in a strange city, he was tempted to enter a bar. He was afraid he would drink. He realized he needed a drunk to work on. Although he hadn't yet saved anyone, trying seemed to have kept him from drinking. It was at this point he realized what is considered by present-day groupers to be a milestone in the birth of AA, that "You need another alcoholic as much as he needs you."(40)

Armed with the knowledge that "working with another" would be protection from drinking and the inevitable insanity or death of alcoholism, he set out to find his subject. After contacting an Akron grouper, he was put in touch with Dr. Bob Smith, the "secret" drinker in T. Williams' group. Smith had been a grouper for years but had admitted his drinking problem just weeks before Wilson's arrival. AA literature describes the encounter:

Smith, after one more drinking spree, stopped drinking permanently. Bill Wilson and Dr. Bob were soon at work bringing new souls into the Oxford Group and under God-control. Before Wilson returned to New York, they had formed "that first frightened little group of Akron alcoholics, each wondering who might slip next."(42)

While this "frightened little group" held beliefs almost identical to the Oxford Group, the difference which would lead inevitably to schism already existed. It was the difference in conversion techniques. Oxford Group soul surgery techniques called for augmentation of guilt leading to the conversion experience. The alcoholics had learned, through their own conversion, a different method: augmentation of fear with an initial diminution of guilt. "It's not your fault, it's a disease. There is nothing you can do about it. You'll die unless you believe."

When a person was properly convinced and reached a point of proper desperation, guilt was then applied to bring about conversion to God-control. These new groupers were motivated, not primarily by guilt, but by fear.

Other groupers, being God-controlled through guilt, were accustomed to using guilt to manipulate others. This evidently irritated the growing number of alcoholics in Oxford Group. Wilson attributed this friction to the particular nature of alcoholics:

This indicates the early genesis of AA's belief in the uniqueness of alcoholics and also the need for a new, slower conversion process to complete God-control.

Another cause of irritation on both sides was that the alcoholics' sins were so much worse than those of many of the other groupers. One of the early alcoholics in the Oxford Group, responding to a non-alcoholic grouper saying that smoking was his worst sin, thought, "Oh yeah? Well, that pipe will never take you to the gutter."(44)

While alcoholic groupers took pride in their sins and scorned the triviality of the sins of the non-alcoholic groupers, the non-alcoholics saw the alcoholics as lowering their prestige.(45)

The Oxford Group in New York apparently wasn't as tolerant of the fear-converted alcoholics as the group in Akron. Wilson, who had formed a group in the fall of 1935, was soon to learn that the Calvary Mission groupers were told not to go to his meeting. According to AA literature, it was thought that Wilson's group was not "maximum,"(46) meaning they were less than totally dedicated. Wilson's guidance was considered off.(47) He didn't give all the credit to Oxford Group.(48) (Perhaps that is how they knew his guidance was off.) The alcoholics limited themselves to saving other alcoholics.(49) Another major issue was that the alcoholics preferred to remain anonymous which was contrary to Oxford Group methods of public witness. Rather than breaking away from Oxford Group, as Wilson's wife Lois described it, the Oxford Group "kind of kicked us out."(50) New York AA was on its own in 1937.

In 1938, Wilson set to work writing the Big Book, a sacred text for all alcoholics. The purposes of the book were to "[set] forth a clear statement of the recovery program," "prevent distortion of the message," "publicize the movement," and , hopefully, "make money."(51)

It was in the writing of the Big Book that the core of AA's "program of recovery" was first formalized as "The Twelve Steps." While the first and last step mentioned alcohol, they were, for all other practical purposes, the Oxford Group "programme." AA literature describes the writing of the Steps:

To this day, when an AA member is questioned about the origin of the steps, the response will probably include the phrase "spiritually inspired," meaning that they came directly from God to Bill Wilson's pen. Of course, being "spiritually inspired," The Twelve Steps are beyond reproach.

The first edition of the Big Book was published in April 1939.(53) It contributed to the break with the Oxford Group in Ohio where there were problems keeping alcoholic Catholics in the Akron group. The Oxford Group used the King James version of the Bible and engaged in open confession. Both practices clashed with Catholic teaching.(54)

It was a difficult situation since the alcoholics felt they owed their lives to the Oxford Group. Some members decided, presumably with God's Guidance, to start their own separate meeting in Cleveland. Free from Oxford Group control, they could obey God.

Apparently, one of His earliest instructions was to throw out the Bible. The Bog Book could be used at meetings instead. The book had been carefully worded to avoid offending Catholics. They could now describe themselves as spiritual (they were concerned with "fitting themselves into God's plan"), not religious (they didn't use the Bible as their ultimate authority). Being "spiritual, not religious," confession didn't exist. It was sharing. The Cleveland group was the first to report the effectiveness of the Big Book in converting hospitalized patients.(55)

The Bible was found to be unnecessary, irrelevant.It is interesting to note that Oxford Groups "Fifth Gospel" put personal testimony on a par with the New Testament. Alcoholics Anonymous, at their founding, put it above the Bible.

In the latter part of the 30s, it became important to AA to disassociate itself, at least in the public eye, from the Oxford Group because of the growing distrust and contempt the American public held for the Group. In August 1936, Frank Buchman was quoted by a major New York newspaper:

These and other charges of Nazi sympathies,* didn't sit well with the American people. Frank Buchman and his organization's guidance were in serious question.

Buchman's statements served notice on the American people how misguided and dangerous it can be to believe one's own thoughts are the Word of God.

Though they pale against the charges of Nazi sympathies, other criticisms were leveled against the Oxford Group. Most involved arrogance due to Oxford Group's belief that they alone were sane and getting direct messages from God and that others, even members of Christian churches, were lost sheep. These charges included blindness to thinking, undercutting churches, hypocrisy, self-congratulatory sanctimoniousness and an inability to tolerate criticism.

Just as Oxford Group hit its crest of popularity, public awareness hit its zenith causing their popularity to nose-dive. The Oxford Group became so unpopular they tried to dissociate themselves from themselves in the public eye. In 1938, they renamed themselves Moral Re-Armament.

While these events had their effects on the development of Alcoholics Anonymous, probably none affected their doctrine so greatly as the continued public drunkenness of the Firestone heir converted to God-control. One of Oxford Group's biggest public relations coups became, if not for Oxford as a whole, certainly a great embarrassment to their contingent of ex-drunks.

To prevent this embarrassing situation from happening again, AA's public relations were built upon the "spiritual principle" of "anonymity." While "God" had told the Oxford Group it was everyone's duty to give public testimony, God seems to have told the early AA's, very pragmatically, that if people were one night swayed by testimony on the radio, and the next heard how the speaker had gotten drunk, it would hurt His program.

The idea of "anonymity at the media level" springs from Wilson's vision of a chain of alcoholics. AA literature tells of how the founder of AA in Boston drank himself to death but during periods on the wagon managed to carry the message to others. As they tell it,

Evidently, if people don't know that the bearer of yesterday's message is drinking himself to death today, it doesn't matter. The messenger can do God's work, bring others under God-control and "give to others that which has so freely been given." That is what the early AA members were doing with the radio interview cited at the beginning of this chapter. There was no question of honesty. They were doing what God told them to do. And they were afraid not to. If they didn't have faith in (be obedient to) God and work to bring others into the Program, they would be in serious danger of drinking. To avoid that danger, individual Alcoholics Anonymous members, and AA as a whole, have been very obedient ever since.

When the Big Book was published in 1939, AA membership was about 100. As of 1987, AA reports more than 73,000 groups in 114 countries.(58)

Articles in medical, psychological, and alcoholism journals frequently describe AA as "undoubtedly the most successful" qualified with "far and away the largest membership."

Reference Notes: