Chapter 1: The Real Facts about A.A.’s Pioneer Group
A New Spiritual Recovery Program with Enormous Potential
Writings abound today about: whether A.A. does or does not work; what its success rate is or isn’t; what its success rate at the beginning was or wasn’t; whether A.A. is or was religious or spiritual; whether alcoholism is or is not a sin or a disease; what a “higher power” is or isn’t; whether A.A. is or was about God or merely about anything you might want to call a god; and about what can truly and accurately be called the real “basics” of A.A.
But I have believed and believe, and have researched and found, that the first group in A.A. — Akron Number One, as Bill Wilson called it — provides the proper starting point for a look at A.A., its roots, its history, its nature, its successes, and its God — the Creator. The first group did in fact have its share of alcoholics who wandered by; but the “real” alcoholics who “really tried” (as Bill Wilson described them) were a sturdy band of “last gasp” alcoholics who had stayed sober for about two years since A.A.’s founding days of 1935. This bunch were called the “Pioneers.” Their group — the first actual group in and of Alcoholics Anonymous — was the “self-styled Alcoholic Group of Akron, Ohio.” Their leader, Dr. Robert Holbrook Smith (“Dr. Bob”), called them a Christian Fellowship. And they numbered some forty in all.
This Pioneer Group, with their astonishing success rate of at least seventy-five percent among “medically incurable” alcoholics, developed — from religion, medicine, and their own experience — the basic ideas and spiritual program of Alcoholics Anonymous. And it was that new spiritual program of recovery, founded on reliance on God, that gave great promise to America and the world.
Whether right or wrong, psychiatrist and writer M. Scott Peck stated (and is often quoted for the following evaluation by him), in Further Along the Road Less Traveled:
I believe the greatest positive event of the twentieth century occurred in Akron, Ohio. . . when Bill W. and Dr. Bob convened the first Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. It was not only the beginning of the self-help movement and the beginning of the integration of science and spirituality at a grass-roots level, but also the beginning of the community movement. . which is going to be the salvation not only of alcoholics and addicts but of us all (Howard Clinebell, Ph.D. Understanding and Counseling Persons with Alcohol, Drug, and Behavioral Addictions [Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1998], p. 196).
The Frank Amos Reports on A.A.’s Pioneer Group: (Akron Number One) Program
After locating and analyzing a number of different statements as to the actual program of A.A.’s founding years, I discovered that most of the statements were either inaccurate, incomplete, or mistaken as to the dates involved; or they were or just plain, dead wrong. In the earlier years of research, my focus was on the roots of the program, rather than on the ingredients of the Pioneer program. Finally, I realized that Bill Wilson himself had put in motion an investigation in 1938 of just what was going on in Akron in the 1930’s, and just what the program in Akron really involved. That investigation culminated in two reports by John D. Rockefeller, Jr.’s associate Frank Amos. And the reports were made, in part even before A.A.’s Big Book was commenced, and substantially before that “basic text” was published in the Spring of 1939. The specificity and accuracy of the Amos reports assures us of their great importance today.
How These Historically Important Reports by Frank Amos Came About
Bill Wilson recorded that, in November, 1937, he and Dr. Bob sat in the living room of Dr. Bob’s home in Akron counting recoveries. Wilson said: “A hard core of very grim, last-gasp cases had by then been sober a couple of years. All told, we figured that upwards of 40 alcoholics were staying bone dry, and Bob and Anne [Bob’s wife] and I bowed our heads in silent thanks.” Bill began to think of setting up a chain of profit-making hospitals, of raising money, of subsidizing missionaries, and of writing a book of experiences that would carry the message of recovery to other cities and other countries. Dr. Bob sided with Bill on the need for a book, but was “frankly dubious” about the hospitals, paid missionaries, and fund raising. Dr. Bob and Bill talked it over with the other members in Akron. There was a long, hard-fought session, but together, Bill and Bob persuaded a bare majority of 18 AAs gathered at T. Henry Williams’s home in Akron to accept the whole package — book, hospitals, missionaries, and fund raising. Wilson returned to New York “to try to raise the millions that would be needed.” Meanwhile, Dr. Bob was investigating possibilities for a hospital in Akron. (DR. BOB and the Good Old-timers) [New York: Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, 1980], pp. 123-24, 128).
In New York, Bill got to see John D. Rockefeller, Jr. And Rockefeller dispatched Frank Amos out to Akron to investigate what was going on. (Amos was soon to become one of A.A.’s first non-alcoholic trustees.) Amos carried out his job thoroughly — investigating what he called the “self-styled Alcoholic Group of Akron, Ohio.” Amos called on Dr. Bob and attended meetings. He questioned members and nonmembers, including professional associates of Dr. Bob. These included an eye specialist (Dr. Ferguson) and a general practitioner (Dr. Howard S.) who had been “an alcoholic and had been cured by Smith and his friends’ activities and the Christian technique prescribed.” Amos interviewed a retired judge who was chairman of the board of Akron City Hospital. He also met with a number of men, their wives, and some of their mothers, hearing stories – “many of them almost miraculous” (DR. BOB and the Good Oldtimers, pp. 128-30; bold face added). Amos then, as the result of his February, 1938, investigation, spelled out the Akron program in precise and simple terms we shall quote in a moment. He also suggested that Rockefeller donate $50,000.00 to the movement. However, Albert Scott, one of Rockefeller’s advisers and also chairman of the board of trustees of New York’s Riverside Church, argued the same point that had been argued by the minority in the Akron meeting at the Williams home — that money, property, and professionalism might “spoil this thing” (DR. BOB and the Good Oldtimers, pp. 134-35).
Amos rendered another “pre-Big Book” report later in 1938. He said that, by then, there were 110 members in the program, of whom 70 were in the Akron-Cleveland area. He observed: “. . . in many respects, their meetings have taken on the form of the meetings described in the Gospels [sic] of the early Christians during the first century.” Regrettably for A.A., I believe, the writer of A.A.’s official biography of Dr. Bob Smith (DR. BOB and the Good Oldtimers) then gratuitously added the following statement — which was not at all a part of the Amos report: “It might also be noted that many terms now considered by A.A.’s to be misleading were then used, not only by non-A.A.’s discussing the movement, but sometimes by members themselves: ‘cure,’ ‘ex-alcoholic,’ ‘reformed alcoholic”’ (DR. BOB and the Good Oldtimers, pp. 135-36). But, in my own view, the writer’s taking of such “editorial” liberty amounted to a flat statement that the founding fathers and Rockefeller’s own people, in talking about a “cure,” were using “misleading” terms in their early statements and work. And therein lies one of the several reasons for my very presentation in this particular day.
The Amos reports were made available to me by A.A.’s archivist at General Services in New York and also by the Stepping Stones archivist in Bedford Hills, New York. I hasten to point out that the idea of “cure” was not considered “misleading” by the founders who experienced and witnessed the cures. They explicitly and repeatedly called them “cures.” We soon will cover some of their actual statements to that effect. But it is highly significant that Bill Wilson (who can and should be called A.A. Number One) and Bill Dotson (A.A. Number Three) both made it clear they had been “cured” of alcoholism. Dr. Bob used the same term when contacting his own professionals. The “cure” statements of all three AAs are often quoted in A.A. Conference Approved literature — even in A.A.’s new “Fourth Edition,” published in 2001. Thus both Bill Wilson and Bill Dotson are quoted as saying: “The Lord has been so wonderful to me, curing me of this terrible disease, that I just want to keep telling people about it” (Alcoholics Anonymous, 4th ed., p. 191; bold face added).
The Precise Details about the Pioneer Group Program — As Reported by Frank Amos
Amos stated to Rockefeller, as to the alcoholic group he had investigated, that the alcoholics were “all considered practically incurable by physicians.” He said they had “been reformed and so far have remained teetotalers.” As to their stories, he noted that, when it came to recovery, the stories were all remarkably alike in “the technique used and the system followed.” He detailed their “Program” as follows (See DR. BOB and the Good Oldtimers, pp. 130-31):
1. An alcoholic must realize that he is an alcoholic, incurable from a medical viewpoint, and that he must never again drink anything with alcohol in it.
2. He must surrender himself absolutely to God, realizing that in himself there is no hope.
3. Not only must he want to stop drinking permanently, he must remove from his life other sins such as hatred, adultery, and others which frequently accompany alcoholism. Unless he will do this absolutely, Smith and his associates refuse to work with him.
4. He must have devotions every morning — a “quiet time” of prayer and some reading from the Bible and other religious literature. Unless this is faithfully followed, there is grave danger of backsliding.
5. He must be willing to help other alcoholics get straightened out. This throws up a protective barrier and strengthens his own willpower and convictions.
6. It is important, but not vital, that he meet frequently with other reformed alcoholics and form both a social and a religious comradeship.
7. Important, but not vital, that he attend some religious service at least once weekly.
The Frank Amos reports also specifically added:
The A.A. members of that time did not consider meetings necessary to maintain sobriety. They were simply “desirable.” Morning devotion and “quiet time,” however, were musts (DR. BOB and the Good Oldtimers, p. 136).
The “Musts” of the Pioneers’ Program
The seven points of the Pioneer program as described by Frank Amos can appropriately be supplemented by also recalling several commonly stated and well-documented “musts” the Pioneers considered essential to their seven-point “Program”:
Complete abstinence was a must. (DR. BOB and the Good Oldtimers, p. 131.)
Hospitalization was another must in the early days. (DR. BOB, p. 102.)
“Surrender” was a must (DR. BOB, pp. 101, 13). One detailed description and version of the “surrenders” mentioned below can be found in Mitchell K. How It Worked: The Story of Clarence H. Snyder and the Early Days of Alcoholics Anonymous in Cleveland, Ohio (NY: AA Big Book Study Group, 1997), pp. 58, 68-71; and, from several sources, the evidence about “surrender” strongly indicates it involved the following:
• At the hospital with Dr. Bob — accepting Christ and praying on your knees (DR. BOB, p. 118).
• Upstairs at T. Henry Williams’s Home – “real” surrenders (DR. BOB, p. 101). Three different old-timers verified to my satisfaction their own born again experiences that took place. These men were Clarence Snyder, Ed Andy, and Larry Bauer (Dick B., The Golden Text of A.A.: God, the Pioneers, and Real Spirituality. [Kihei, HI: Paradise Research Publications, 2000], pp. 31-33; Mitchell K., How It Worked, p. 70). And the following were the elements of the surrenders that took place:
— An “old fashioned prayer meeting” (DR. BOB, pp. 101, 139).
— Older members would pray for the newcomer and be guided by the language of James 5:13-16 (DR. BOB, p. 131). The “elders” would ask the newcomer to observe the Four Absolutes (Honesty, Purity, Unselfishness, and Love) and to help others who needed it (DR. BOB, p. 139). For a discussion of the origin and nature of the Four Absolutes, see Dick B., The Oxford Group and Alcoholics Anonymous. A Design for Living That Works. 2d ed., (Kihei, HI: Paradise Research Publications, 2000), pp. 237-46.
— The newcomer himself would then pray and surrender his life to God (accept Christ), also asking God to take alcohol out of his life (DR. BOB, p. 139).
Helping others was a must:
• “Our very lives, as ex-problem drinkers, depend upon our constant thought of others and how we may help meet their needs” (Alcoholics Anonymous, 4th ed., p. 20).
• “Faith without works is dead” (Alcoholics Anonymous, 4th ed., pp. 14, 76, 88).
Morning Devotion and Quiet Times
Morning devotions and Quiet Times were a must:
• Bible study, prayer, asking guidance. and religious reading were an integral part of Pioneer AA. “quiet times” (DR. BOB, pp. 131, 150-51, 95-96).
• Studying the Sermon on the Mount, Book of James, and 1 Corinthians 13 was considered “absolutely essential” (DR. BOB, p. 96).
• Individual quiet times at home and during the day, as needed, were part of the process (DR. BOB, pp. 150-51).
Other Important, but Not “Essential,”
Parts of the Successful Program
• Morning quiet time with Anne Smith (Dr. Bob’s wife) at the Smith home in Akron (prayer, Bible reading, guidance, discussions from Anne’s Journal). See Dick B., Anne Smith’s Journal, 1933-1939, 3rd ed., (Kihei HI: Paradise Research Publications, 1998).
• Personal time spent with Dr. Bob, Anne Smith, Henrietta Seiberling. and T. Henry Williams.
• Frequent fellowship with like-minded believers (social and religious).
• Meetings: Informal meetings occurred almost daily; there was also a set-up meeting on Monday; and a regular Oxford Group meeting on Wednesday, with prayer, Bible-reading, guidance, witnessing, topic discussion, surrenders, newcomer announcements, Lord’s Prayer, and social time afterward for men and women (DR. BOB, p. 140). There were no drunkalogs.
• Religious reading recommended by Dr. Bob and Anne or circulated at meetings. (Dick B., Dr. Bob and His Library, 3rd ed. [Kihei, HI: Paradise Research Publications, 1998]; Dick B., The Books Early AAs Read for Spiritual Growth, 7th ed. [Kihei, III: Paradise Research Publications, 1998];
Dick B., Making Known the Biblical Roots of Alcoholics Anonymous: An Eleven Year Project. [Kihei, HI: Paradise Research Publications, 2001]; Dick B., Anne Smith’s Journal, 1933-1939).
• Affiliation with a church.
• An emphasis on family participation. This important element, involving participation by the entire family, has often been overlooked as to its early history and as to its existence in AA. even today. It is not only documented, but Dr. Bob’s kids and the Seiberling children have attested to this facet even in their recollections this very day. And the names of old timers and their wives are part of the original AA. stories.
What Was Not Part of the Pioneer Group Program
• No “Steps.” None! None at all. Not six. Not twelve. Nor did the Oxford Group have Steps.
• No focus by Akron Pioneers on Dr. Carl Jung’s “conversion” prescription; no focus on Dr. Frank Buchman’s much-discussed “spiritual experience” usages; and no special focus on the classic Oxford Group practice of “sharing for witness.”
• No “world changing through life-changing” as in the Oxford Group and Moral Re-Armament (T. Willard Hunter. World Changing Through Life Changing. Thesis [Newton Center, Mass: Andover-Newton Theological School, 1977]).
• No central religious leader like Oxford Group founder Dr. Frank N. D. Buchman (Garth Lean. On the Tail of a Comet: The Life of Frank Buchman. [Colorado Springs: Helmers & Howard, 1988]).
• No “teams” sent around the U.S. and the world to change lives, leaders, and nations, as was regularly done by Dr. Buchman, by the Oxford Group, and by Moral Re-Armament (Frank N. D. Buchman. Remaking the World. [London: Blandford Press, 1961]).
Eleven Features of the Pioneer A. A. Group Program
I would now like to present below my own characterization of eleven specific features of the Pioneer A. A. Group Program; and, where I was able specifically to identify them, their biblical roots:
1. Abstinence–not one drop of alcohol was to be touched (inspired by Dr. William D. Silkworth as well as the revelation received by Henrietta Seiberling concerning Dr. Bob’s drinking). See Dick B. The Akron Genesis of Alcoholics Anonymous, Newton ed. (Kihei, HI: Paradise Research Publications, 1997).
2. Medical help–in most cases, hospitalization (common in Akron and Cleveland).
3. Surrendering your life to God by accepting Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. (John 3:1-8. 16-17; 14:6; Acts 4:10-12; 16:30-31; Romans 10:9-10; Matt. 6:10.)
4. Finding and knowing God through Bible study, prayer, “revelation,” reading, and church. (2 Timothy 2:15; Psalm 5:3; James 1:5, 2:10-11, 5:16; Isaiah 26:3; Matt. 6:25-33.)
5. Identifying and eliminating sin by inventorying one’s sins, asking God’s help in eliminating them, and obeying God’s commandments. (Matthew 5:23-24,7:3-5,26:41; John 16:8; James 5:16,4:7; Luke 6:31; 1 John 1:7-9; 4:20; Psalm 65:3; 51:4.)
6. Living love as exemplified in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, I Corinthians 13, and the Book of James. (Matthew 5:43-45; I Corinthians 13:1-3, 13; James 2:8.)
7. Serving God and others as taught in the Bible and particularly by Jesus. (Mark 12:30-31; Mark 10:45; Romans 12:13; James 1:27, 2:15-16, 20.)
8. Fellowshipping with God through studying His Word, praying, asking guidance. and obeying God. (1 John 1:1-9; 3:2-9; 5:14-15; James 1:5-8, 21-25; 5:15-16; Psalm 5:3; 32:8; 37:5; 46:10; Proverbs 3:5-6; 1 Samuel 3:9; 2 Timothy 2:15; Acts 22:10.)
9. Fellowshipping with like-minded believers. (Matt. 18:1 5-20; Acts 2:40-47; Romans 15:5-7; Philippians 2:1-5; 2 Thess. 3:6-9. And compare 2 Cor. 6:14 — rejecting any activity that meant being “unequally yoked together with unbelievers.”).
10. Witnessing without charge to what God has done and can do. (2 Corinthians 5:20; Acts 26:22-23, 5:29-32.)
11. Receiving power, healing, forgiveness, and deliverance. (Acts 1:8; Psalm 103:2-4; Romans 8:1, 12:1-2.)