It’s Time Once Again to Visit the Oxford Group and Alcoholics Anonymous
There has been a resurgence of interest by AAs and 12-Step programs in the relationship of Oxford Group ideas and Alcoholics Anonymous principles, practices, and steps. My own title, The Oxford Group and Alcoholics Anonymous: A Design for Living That Works, 2d. ed. (http://www.dickb.com/Oxford.shtml) was first published a decade ago, then reprinted, and then published again in a revised edition. Each time, all copies were sold or distributed. And the book has been out of print until we recently restored it to life as a print-on-demand book that is available on my website (http://www.dickb.com/titles); on Amazon.com; on Barnes and Noble.com; on the Independent Publishers Bookstore web site; and through many other sources on special order. And that’s a good thing. But it also warrants another brief refresher on some Oxford Group and A.A. points.
Oxford Group – Alcoholics Anonymous Similarities
There are not, and never have been, any “steps” in the Oxford Group. Not twelve. Not six. Not any (See also Pass It On, page 206, note 2). But many expressions and phrases that came directly from the Oxford Group can be found in the Big Book and in the Twelve Steps themselves. There are several reasons for this, but the primary one has to do with Rev. Samuel M. Shoemaker, Jr., rector of Calvary Episcopal Church in New York. Shoemaker was the chief American lieutenant of Dr. Frank Buchman, founder of the Oxford Group. The virtual Oxford Group headquarters in America was located in Calvary House, the large building adjacent to Sam Shoemaker’s church. Shoemaker and his family resided there, and Buchman lived there when he was in America. Oxford Group meetings were often held in the Great Hall at Calvary House. Bill Wilson, Lois Wilson, and two or three other early AAs attended these meetings. Shoemaker was probably the most prolific Oxford Group writer in the world. And Bill Wilson’s brief connection from late 1934 to August 1937 was centered around Shoemaker’s Oxford Group circle. Later, when Bill obtained an authorized vote to write the Big Book, he shared ideas and manuscripts with Shoemaker. Bill also ultimately asked Shoemaker to write the Twelve Steps, but Shoemaker declined, stating that an alcoholic (namely Bill) should write them. For many of the early years, Shoemaker was little known to AAs themselves. In fact, when Bill invited Shoemaker to speak at the St. Louis Convention, Bill himself commented that most AAs did not know who Shoemaker was. But through the years, Bill Wilson gave the Oxford Group and Sam Shoemaker in particular credit for most all the original A.A. ideas published in Alcoholics Anonymous. Bill also mentioned Dr. William Silkworth and Professor William James in the same context.
Oxford Group – Alcoholics Anonymous Differences
When you speak of the Oxford Group and Alcoholics Anonymous, you need always to differentiate Akron A.A. from New York A.A. In the case of New York A.A., there never was an “Oxford Group” A.A. meeting. Some of the New York people, and particularly Bill and Lois Wilson, frequently attended Oxford Group meetings for a time, particularly at Shoemaker’s Calvary House building. Shoemaker frequently led the meetings; and they consisted primarily of life-change testimonies by Oxford Group people as to what God had done for them. And before long, Wilson was meeting separately with alcoholics to the point that Lois Wilson finally commented that the Oxford Group “kind of kicked us out.” The Oxford Group was never focused on helping drunks get sober. It was focused on “world changing through life changing;” A few alcoholics in the Oxford Group actually sobered up while members. But the group itself was focused on “teams” that were sent all over the world. It was focused on “house parties.” And members adopted and wrote about the several ideas that Frank Buchman had pulled together into the usual principles and practices which he believed would change lives and bring the world to a moral and spiritual awakening. There was no hospitalizing of drunks. There were no “drunkalogs.” There were no meetings specifically held to assist drunks. And the large amount of Oxford Group/Shoemaker literature covered various aspects of what, after years of research, I called the “twenty-eight Oxford Group principles that influenced A.A.” My writings were endorsed by a number of the leading Oxford Group activists of the day including Garth Lean (Buchman’s biographer), James and Eleanor Newton, T. Willard Hunter, Kenneth Belden, Michael Hutchinson, and George Vondermuhll, Jr.
Akron was a different story. Many believe today that Alcoholics Anonymous developed out of the Oxford Group in Akron, Ohio. But the facts are far different. To be sure, the rescue of Harvey Firestone’s son Russell from alcoholism by James Newton and Rev. Shoemaker in 1931 led to Russell’s Oxford Group involvement. And the celebratory pre-A.A. Akron events of 1933 involved all of Akron’s notables and were Oxford Group to the core. Finally, it was those events which brought Henrietta Seiberling, T. Henry Williams, Clarace Williams, and Anne Smith into a tiny Oxford Group meeting which soon included Dr. Bob. But the Akron group was called the “alcoholic squad.” Dr. Bob called it a Christian Fellowship. Its emphasis on hospitalization, conversion to Christ, old fashioned prayer meetings, Bible study, the use of devotionals, and in-house living for newcomers was far from Oxford Group in character. So far, in fact, that Oxford Group activist T. Henry Williams called the little group a “clandestine lodge” of the Oxford Group. And quite clearly it was not under the domination of Dr. Frank Buchman, Reverend Sam Shoemaker, or the Oxford Group itself. For it quickly became, in the summer of 1935, a simple spiritual recovery program whose basic ideas were taken from the Bible. They involved abstinence (not an Oxford Group idea), acceptance of Christ (not an Oxford Group element), reliance on the Creator (a universal and Oxford Group idea), obedience to God’s will (a universal and Oxford Group idea), growth in fellowship through Bible study, prayer, Quiet Time, and widespread reading of literature (much more characteristic of Dr. Bob’s Christian Endeavor), and helping other drunks (never a focus in either the Oxford Group or Christian Endeavor) – something born out of the witnessing ideas of the Bible, the Oxford Group, and the experience of both Dr. Bob and Bill with hospitalization and telling other alcoholics that God could help them if they chose to seek Him.
The Most Significant Oxford Group Ideas That Found Their Way into A.A.’s Fellowship
The Four Absolutes: Contrary to common belief, these four “absolute” standards did not come from the Sermon on the Mount, nor did they originate with the Oxford Group. In fact, Dr. Robert Speer had written The Principles of Jesus years before. Speer contended that Jesus had several uncompromising standards; and Speer cited several verses to support his contention. The four standards were “honesty, purity, unselfishness, and love.” Around 1900, Professor Henry Wright of Yale examined the four standards, expanded the discussion of them to show that there were many verses in the Bible that supported these moral standards. Wright called them the “Four Absolute” standards—absolute honesty, absolute purity, absolute unselfishness, and absolute love. Frank Buchman was probably more influenced by Wright than any other scholar. And Buchman added the four standards to his life-changing ideas. Buchman called them the Four Absolutes. But many in the Oxford Group still spoke of them as the “Four Standards.” In her spiritual journal, Dr. Bob’s wife Anne Ripley Smith called them the “moral test.” And many of the ideas for taking a “moral inventory” came from the absolute standards against which one was to measure his moral conduct. Dr. Bob called these the “yardsticks.” He supported them, and Bill Wilson discarded them. But many A.A. people still utilize and stand by them.
Sin: Dr. Frank Buchman was often called the “Soul Surgeon.” He urged that society’s principal problem was “sin.” But Buchman promoted the idea (seconded by Shoemaker and others) that sin was anything that blocked you from God and another person. And this idea of “obstacles” or “blocks” to a relationship with God can be found in the Big Book language. In fact, the word “sin” was originally used in the Twelve Steps. But no more!
Jesus Christ: While the Oxford Group people never talked about “conversion,” they certainly talked about “life changing” and “surrender.” They disdained the word “conversion,” and talked about “change” instead. But Buchman declared there was a simple art to dealing with sin. His catch phrase was “Sin is the problem. Jesus Christ is the solution. The result is a miracle.” Actually, this idea was not far from the original talk of AAs themselves.
The Five C’s: The origin of this phrase lies with Frank Buchman. But the earliest book to speak about it was Soul-Surgery by Howard Walter. Actually, Buchman and Professor Wright collaborated with Walter on the book. And it discussed and explained each of these five principles—Confidence, Confession, Conviction, Conversion, Conservation (often called “continuance’). These were the formula or surgical “art” by which Buchman believed “sin” could be “cut out” and hence eliminated from life. You gained the confidence of another—often by discussing your own sins. You extracted from the other his confession of sins, embracing the same technique. You then got him to “concede” or “be convicted” of the idea that the revealed sin must be hated, forsaken, abandoned, eliminated. You then got the person to “surrender” to God. This “conversion” “changed” the person through the power of God; and he was said to have been “changed.” You then went on to “conserve” or “continue” the changed life. And as A.A. adapted these ideas, the ideas of Steps Eight, Nine, Ten, and Eleven were to “continue” the relationship with God that had been established by the earlier steps. The Five C.’s thus became a heart idea in the Twelve-step life-changing process that Bill wrote and published in 1939.
Quiet Time: The idea of devoting specific time to enhancing one’s fellowship with God each and every day, and often during the day, is as old as the Bible itself. It involved Bible study, prayer, asking God for guidance, and gaining understanding through use of devotionals and other Christian literature. The idea existed in Christian Endeavor which was founded in 1881. The idea existed in the YMCA years before either the Oxford Group or A.A. and was often called the “Morning Watch.” It persisted in the many daily devotional books. And there were countless quarterlies and devotionals that were to guide the believer in the process. The idea was big in early A.A. and persisted in Eleventh Step ideas.
Spiritual Experience, Witnessing, Fellowship: While the use and meaning of “spiritual experience” is as varied, confused, and misunderstood today as it was in the Oxford Group, it certainly has survived. Frank Buchman often spoke of the need for a moral and spiritual awakening. Sometimes he spoke of a spiritual experience and awakening. Shoemaker used the term. And it certainly has roots in Shoemaker’s first book Realizing Religion which spoke of the need for finding God, for a vital religious experience, and for Jesus Christ. Shoemaker quoted William James who wrote a famous definition of conversion but called his own book by the name “Variety” of religious experiences. Shoemaker later defined for AAs themselves at an international convention that a spiritual awakening involved prayer, conversion, fellowship, and witness. Carl Jung spoke of conversion. And wherever you start, you end up with the first part of A.A.’s Step 12—“having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps.” Then came “witnessing.” The Oxford Group called it “sharing for witness.” It involved the process of leading others to a changed life through confidence, confession, conviction, and conversion. Many simply said it was accomplished through telling others what God had done for you. And the final idea was “fellowship.” Perhaps this was translated by Wilson into “practice these principles.” But the idea of fellowship with the Creator, with His son, and with other believers is more plainly stated in the epistle of 1 John in the Bible; and that is a likely source of the idea.
What Are the Best Written Resources
By the time I had completed my second revision of The Oxford Group and Alcoholics Anonymous, I had acquired and was continuing to collect as many Oxford Group materials as I could. These came from bookstores and collectors, from James and Eleanor Newton, from Garth Lean, from T. Willard Hunter, from Ken Belden, from George Vondermuhll, Jr., from Mrs. W. Irving Harris, from Morris Martin, from the Shoemaker books and Episcopal Church Archives, from Hartford Seminary, from Moral Re-Armament Headquarters in Washington, D.C., and from individual Oxford Group members like Sidney Cook, Howard Blake, Harry Almond, James Houck, L. Parks Shipley, and from several archives. Thanks to several benefactors, most have been donated to the Griffith Library in East Dorset, Vermont. Some are in Calvary Episcopal Church in Pittsburgh, and some are in St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Akron. There are more than 500 books and articles, and I believe I have read and digested them all, at one time or another. But there are some key helpful books that students can use to supplement my own research volumes listed below.
Frank N.D. Buchman, Remaking the World.
T. Willard Hunter, World Changing Through Life Changing
Peter Howard, Frank Buchman’s Secret
Robert Speer, The Principles of Jesus
Henry Wright, The Will of God and a Man’s Lifework
Howard Walter, Soul Surgery
Harold Begbie, Life changers
Samuel M. Shoemaker, Realizing Religion, Religion That Works, Children of the Second Birth,
Twice Born Ministers, Confident Faith, The Gospel According to You, National
A.J. Russell, For Sinners Only
(Anonymous) What is the Oxford Group?
Garth Lean, Frank Buchman: A Life
Victor Kitchen, I Was a Pagan
Jack Winslow, Why I Believe in the Oxford Group, When I Awake
Cecil Rose, When Man Listens
Howard Rose, The Quiet Time
Eleanor Napier Forde, The Guidance of God
Sherwood Sunderland Day, The Principles of the Group
Julian Thornton-Duesbury, Sharing
B. H. Streeter, The God Who Speaks
Stephen Foot, Life Began Yesterday
Philip Marshall Brown, The Venture of Belief
The Research Documentation
For the sake of the brevity in this refresher, I have not used footnotes, nor full titles, nor a bibliography. That has all been thoroughly done before in the following of my titles: Anne Smith’s Journal, 1933-1939, 3rd ed.; Dr. Bob and His Library, 3rd ed.; Good Morning: Quiet Time, Morning Watch, Meditation and Early A.A.; The Oxford Group and Alcoholics Anonymous; New Light on Alcoholism: God, Sam Shoemaker, and A.A.; and Making Known the Biblical History and Roots of Alcoholics Anonymous. See http://www.dickb.com/titles.shtml.
There the reader will find full explanations, full documentation, and full bibliographies pertaining to the wide variety of Oxford Group books relevant to the A.A. picture and discussed here. Almost every one of the foregoing books I wrote was based on materials actually provided to me by Oxford Group people, was endorsed by the principal Oxford Group people of our time; and written only after my personal review and analysis of the hundreds of written materials which can now be found primarily in Vermont at The Wilson House. In addition, I have conducted ongoing research which is now embodied in the dozens of my articles posted on my own websites and on other A.A. history sites.
Writer, Historian, Bible student, Retired attorney, Active recovered member of the A.A. Fellowship