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By John E. Russell



A Brief History of AA

AA has to its credit a total membership of about 1,000,000 alcoholics. [THE ENCYCLOPEDIA AMERICANA, International ed. (1990), s.v., "Alcoholics Anonymous," by John L. Norris, M. D. (Dr. Norris is Chairman, General Service Board of Alcoholics Anonymous)]. It has 85,000 local groups in 130 countries. [THE WORLD BOOK ENCYCLOPEDIA, 1991 ed., s.v. "Alcoholics Anonymous (A.A.)"]. The recovery rate is 75 percent. Guest House, which treats alcoholic priests and works with AA, at one time had a recovery rate of 80 percent. (Hoffer, op. cit., pp. 179-180. Psychiatrist Hoffer claimed a 50% recovery rate with LSD therapy at one time. I do not believe that LSD therapy is a good method of treating alcoholics).


Psychologist John Drakeford traces the spiritual roots of AA back to the Oxford Group:

Frank Buckman, originally an ordained Lutheran minister, after a conversion experience became a personal evangelism lecturer at Hartford Seminary. He later left the seminary to engage in worldwide evangelism and was responsible for the formation of the Oxford Group Movement.
The Oxford Group was foremost of all a layman's movement of people, loosely knit together, highlighting the "changed life," as conversion was called. It emphasized a series of steps: Confidence, which came from speaking truthfully to another about one's life: confession- conviction--a sense of wrongdoing, guilt; conversion, acceptance of an altered way of life; and continuance, helping others as the person himself had been helped. [John W. Drakeford, INTEGRITY THERAPY (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1967), p. 49].
The central assumptions of the Oxford Group were:
     1. Men are sinners.
     2. Men can be changed.
     3. Confession is a prerequisite to change.
     4. The changed soul has direct access to God.
     5. The age of miracles has returned (through changed lives, miraculous incidents, etc.).
     6. Those who have been changed must change others.
The group lived by high ethical standards and emphasized the four absolutes: HONESTY, PURITY, UNSELFISHNESS, and LOVE. [John W. Drakeford, INTEGRITY THERAPY (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1967), p. 49].


Possibly the most dramatically successful of all these small group movements is itself a derivation of the Oxford Group and now widely known as Alcoholics Anonymous. The Oxford Group sponsored a mission for alcoholics at the Calvary Episcopal Church where Bill W., an alcoholic, became associated with them and achieved a degree of sobriety. [John W. Drakeford, INTEGRITY THERAPY (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1967), p. 50].
Bill W., co-founder of AA, was born in East Dorset, Vermont, in 1895. While in college, he decided to go into the Army (WWI). He married shortly before going in. It was in the Army that he began drinking. Because of some adjustment troubles after discharge, he drank heavily.Then in 1934, Dr. Silkworth pronounced Bill a hopeless alcoholic. Ebby T., Bill's friend, was sobered by The Oxford Group, and paid a visit to Bill. Bill had a spiritual experience in a hospital the next month. Dr. Silkworth assured him that he was not hallucinating, and advised him to hang on to it.

Bill began his work with alcoholics, but failed to sober any. However, he remained sober. Six months after his conversion, a crisis occurred when a job opportunity fell through. The temptation to get drunk drove him to find another drunk to talk to. His search led him to the historic meeting with Dr. Bob in May 1935 in Akron. Dr. Bob was sobered, and Alcoholics Anonymous was founded 10 June 1935.


Then at the end of 1937, the New York AA reluctantly parted from the Oxford Groups, and in friendship. Oxford Group rules did not seem to work with alcoholics. Dr. Bob and Bill saw concrete results in 1937 when forty alcoholics became sober.

TWELVE STEPS was written in 1938.

There were 100 members by 1939. ALCOHOLICS ANONYMOUS was published in 1939. Also, in 1939, the midwest AA withdrew from the Oxford Groups as those in New York had done in 1937-- AA was completely on its own now. This same year, Dr. Bob and Sister Ignatia began treating the 5,000 that they were to treat in the next ten years. Also, the first work in the mental institution began this year.

In 1940, the first religious leaders approved of AA; Father Dowing and Dr. Fosdick. In 1941, an article in the SATURDAY EVENING POST publicized AA and AA membership grew from 2,000 to 8,000 from March through December!

AA's first prison work began at San Quentin in 1942. In 1945, Dr. Silkworth and Teddy R. began treating the first of 10,000 prisoners to be treated the next ten years.

In 1944, AA established THE A. A. GRAPEVINE.

In 1946, AA formulated and published "The Twelve Traditions."

In 1949, leading medical associations recognized AA.

In 1950, AA held the First International Convention in Cleveland. Dr. Bob died in 1950.

In 1951, the First General Service Conference met and AA received the Lasker Award from the American public Health Association.


In 1955, the Twentieth Anniversary Convention met at St. Louis. The Three Legacies of Recovery, Unity and Service were passed on to AA from the "old-timers."

Bill W., co-founder of AA, passed away January 24, 1971.

This synthesis gives an historical sketch of AA. [Bill W., ALCOHOLICS ANONYMOUS COMES OF AGE (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1957), pp. vii ff.]. (ALCOHOLICS ANONYMOUS, pp. 1-16). (Clinebell, op. cit., pp. 119 ff.). (Hoffer, op. cit., pp. 22-23).

Group Dynamics of AA

Some principles used in AA are stated in Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions:


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 of God as we understand 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 ready to have God remove all these defects of character.
7. Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.
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 whenever possible, except when 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 conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.
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.
1. Our common welfare should come first; personal recovery depends upon A. A. unity.
2. For our group purposes there is but one ultimate authority--a loving God as He may express Himself in our group conscience.
3. The only requirement for A. A. membership is a desire to stop drinking.
4. Each group should be autonomous except in matters affecting other groups or A. A. as a whole.
5. Each group has but one primary purpose--to carry its message to the alcoholic who still suffers.
6. An A. A. group ought never endorse, finance, or lend the A. A. name to any related facility or outside enterprise, lest problems of money, property, and prestige divert us from our primary purpose.
7. Every A. A. group ought to be fully self-supporting, declining outside contributions.
8. Alcoholics Anonymous should remain forever non-professional, but our service centers may employ special workers.
9. A. A. as such, ought never be organized; but we may create service boards or committees directly responsible to those they serve.
10. Alcoholics Anonymous has no opinion on outside issues; hence the A. A. name ought never be drawn into public controversy.
11. Our public relations policy is based on attraction rather than promotion; we need always maintain personal anonymity at the level of press, radio, and films.
12. Anonymity is the spiritual foundation of our traditions, ever reminding us to place principles before personalities. [TWELVE STEPS AND TWELVE TRADITIONS (?: Alcoholics Anonymous Publishing, Inc., 1953), pp. 5 ff.].

Before examining the principles of AA, it might be well to review some forces acting from within and from without on the alcoholic. One force is peer pressure. The alcoholic probably was in a drinking society, and felt pressure to conform in order to be accepted, and to help meet certain psychological needs. (Dunn, op. cit., p. 23).

As he continued to drink, associational forces probably began to pressure him from differing internalized groups' demands, such as church and family.

Then, at some point, a biochemical dependence on alcohol may have become established, adding another strong internal pressure for him to drink.

A violated value system (conscience) continued to add more guilt. This guilt continued to drive him farther into drinking to anesthetize psychic pain. (Ibid., p. 19).

Family and friends may identify with the alcoholic at first, helping him hide the truth from himself. These are some forces acting on the alcoholic. (Drakeford, op. cit., passim). [Malcolm and Hula Knowles, INTRODUCTION TO GROUP DYNAMICS (New York: Association Press, 1959), pp. 32. ff.]. [O. Hobart Mowrer, ABNORMAL REACTIONS OR ACTIONS? (AN AUTO-BIOGRAPHICAL ANSWER) (Dubuque: William C. Brown Company Publisher, 1969), passim. Dr. Mowrer is a renown research psychologist].

The alcoholic, while under internal pressure, may lose hope and try to "solve" his problem by suicide. "Menninger referred to alcoholism as `chronic suicide,' with the alcoholic seeking self-destruction in alcohol." (Hoffer, op. cit., p. 25). Dunn agrees with Menninger that the alcoholic has a tendency toward self-destruction. (Dunn, op. cit., p. 144).

Bill W., co-founder of AA, believed in God. He declared,

I was not an atheist. Few people are, for that means blind faith in the strange proposition that this universe originated in a cipher [0] and aimlessly rushes nowhere. [ALCOHOLICS ANONYMOUS. (New York: Alcoholics Anonymous World Service, Inc., 1989), p. 10].
AA offers a type of conversion experience, which is implied in the Twelve Steps. Many members of AA have a Christian conversion. Dunn says,
From my observation and working with Alcoholics Anonymous members over a period of years, those I have known to be faithfully following the Twelve Steps and living a new life are those who have come to a personal knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ. (Ibid., p. 125).
Steps five and six indicate admission of guilt and repentance.

Step two indicates faith in God's character.

Step seven indicates confession to God.

Steps three and eleven indicate bowing to the Lordship of God.

The conversion experience itself is indicated in step twelve.

As the vertical relationship is established, the horizonal relationship is also--members reach out to help others in step twelve. Consequently, the circular or internal relationship of the alcoholic is corrected.

When the novice alcoholic comes to an AA meeting, he hears the confession of recovered alcoholics. From this role modeling, he sees that his rationalizations are unacceptable. In this non-threatening atmosphere of caring people, it is easier to be honest with himself and others. He leaves the denial stage and confesses.

Now that the alcoholic is in a group that abstains from alcohol, this positive peer pressure is internalized. Hoffer comments,

Abstention is also contagious. The main reason for the enormous success of Alcoholics Anonymous is their use of these group principles. The AA groups provide exactly the same three functions [as their former drinking groups, only in reverse]: They educate the alcoholic in the skills needed to remain sober, and these are very important; they provide social sanction, by group pressure, confession, public recognition of past errors and tangible awards for sobriety; they provide banking functions by helping find jobs, give loans and in many ways help new members survive. (Hoffer, op. cit., p. 2).
AA dynamics is can be described in its spiritual dimension as well. The alcoholic after conversion not only has human support, but God's support. A person's energy can be diverted into selfish behavior or into unselfish behavior. EROS represents selfish activities and AGAPE (God's love expressed to and through the converted alcoholic) represents unselfish activities.HAGIOS (holiness) represents the conscience or superego, which has been educated by God's Word. The enlightened conscience tells the EGO (the decision-making self) where, when and how to act. The indwelling Holy Spirit gives support and guidance to the converted alcoholic. The additional human positive peer pressure and human support from AA members further help him to make right decisions and carry them out. In addition, an EGO that makes and carries out right decisions becomes strong--new good habits replace bad old habits. Under the training of the Holy Spirit and his human aides, the recovered alcoholic becomes a balanced individual who both receives from society and gives back to society according to the needs of both the individual and his fellow humans.

Husband and wife complement each other and help meet the spiritual, psychological, social and physical needs of each other in a unique way. AA is geared to help husband, wife and children to become a fully-functional family. AlAnon and Alateen enable family and friends to help the alcoholic.

In real life, people falter and fail. AA group members' social behavior is therapeutic to one who may be in trouble. At this time, he will be aided by the action of the group, since his creative energy is being dissipated internally, possibly by interpsychic conflict due to his drinking. He will receive strength from both confrontation and support of the group. When he gains mastery of alcohol, he will begin to help others. He will discover that he will receive strength to keep sober by helping others with their common problem. AA members remain honest with God, others and themselves. They keep channels open to God and to other people.

Although AA believes that Alcoholism is a disease, AA also holds the individual responsible for his own wrongdoing. This is stated in steps five and ten.

Freud believed that in neurosis, the superego (conscience) overpowers the ego (the decision-making self), expending energy and producing a state of anxiety. Freud further believed that conscience should be violated sometimes, to reduce its strength.

Mowrer had a different view of neurosis. He believed that the id (the primitive, pushing, unregulated urges such as sex drive and aggression) gains control of a weak ego and that the conscience is dissociated (cut off).Mowrer's hypothesis is an accurate description of what happens in the alcoholic. (Mowrer, op. cit., p. 31.) AA follows Mowrer's view, by strengthening the ego and by urging the alcoholic to follow his conscience.


Copyright © 1995-1997 by John E. Russell, Revised 1997
Internet Version Copyright © 1998 by John E. Russell