The Twelve Steps Of Alcoholics Anonymous?Who Wrote Them?
The Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous—Who Wrote Them?
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There Were Those Who Didn’t
Cofounder Dr. Bob: One who made it clear that he didn’t write the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous was cofounder Dr. Robert H. Smith (known as “Dr. Bob”). In his last major address to AAs—recorded in The Co-Founders of Alcoholics Anonymous: Biographical Sketches: Their Last Major Talks (NY: Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Inc., 1972, 1975)—Dr. Bob stated:
In the early A.A. days . . . our stories didn’t amount to anything to speak of. When we
started in on Bill D. [A.A. Number Three], we had no Twelve Steps, either; we had no
But we were convinced that the answer to our problems was in the Good Book. [p. 13]
It wasn’t until 1938 [three years after A.A. was founded in June 1935] that the teachings and efforts and studies that had been going on were crystallized in the form of the Twelve Steps. I didn’t write the Twelve Steps. I had nothing to do with the writing of them. [p. 14—emphasis added]
“Cofounder” Rev. Samuel M. Shoemaker, Jr.: Bill Wilson made it clear that his friend Rev. Sam Shoemaker, Rector of Calvary Episcopal Church in New York, was the “wellspring” from which A.A.’s ideas had flowed. [See The Language of the Heart: Bill W.’s Grapevine Writings (NY: The AA Grapevine, Inc., 1988), 177]. Bill finally said concerning Sam:
Having now accounted for AA’s Steps One and Twelve, it is natural that we should ask, “Where did the early AAs find the material for the remaining ten Steps? . . . The spiritual substance of our remaining ten Steps came straight from Dr. Bob’s and my own earlier association with the Oxford Groups, as they were then led in America by that Episcopal rector, Dr. Samuel Shoemaker. [The Language of the Heart, 298]
And Bill even called Shoemaker a “cofounder” of Alcoholics Anonymous. [See Dick B., The Akron Genesis of Alcoholics Anonymous, Newton ed. (Kihei, HI: Paradise Research Publications, Inc., 1992, 1998), 137.]
There is another and far more important story pertaining to Garrett Stearly, Sam Shoemaker, and Bill Wilson. [Reverend Garrett R. Stearly was a member of the church corporation at Shoemaker’s Calvary Episcopal Church.] Our Oxford Group friend, James Draper Newton, who has been aligned with Buchman, Shoemaker, and the Oxford Group since the early 1920’s, has repeatedly reminded us of two conversations he [Newton] had with Stearly. According to Newton, Stearly twice told him:
Bill Wilson asked Sam Shoemaker to write A.A.’s Twelve Steps. Shoemaker declined. Shoemaker told Bill that the Steps should be written by an alcoholic and that Bill was the one to do it. [See Dick B., The Oxford Group and Alcoholics Anonymous: A Design for Living That Works, new, rev. ed. (Kihei, HI: Paradise Research Publications, Inc., 1992, 1995, 1998), 127-28. This statement was made to me several times on the telephone and in person by James Draper Newton of Fort Myers Beach, Florida]
So Sam Shoemaker did not write the Twelve Steps even though he was the principal source for their ideas.
There Were Those Who Gave Bill the Twelve Step Ideas Way Back in 1934
There were at least three people who gave Bill Wilson all the precepts of the Twelve Steps, long before A.A. was founded, and at least six months before Bill met Dr. Bob in May of 1935. See Bill W., Bill W.: My First 40 Years (Center City, MN: Hazelden, 2000), 126-69; Bill Pittman and Dick B., compilers and editors, Courage to Change: The Christian Roots of the Twelve-Step Movement (Center City, MN: Hazelden, 1994), 22-23; ‘Pass It On’: The Story of Bill Wilson and How the A.A. Message Reached the World (NY: Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Inc., 1984), 111-16.
The first was Bill’s friend Ebby Thacher. See Lois Remembers: Memoirs of the co-founder of Al-Anon and wife of the co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous (NY: Al-Anon Family Group Headquarters, Inc., 1987), 87-88.
Next came Ebby’s Oxford Group friend F. Shepard Cornell. See Courage to Change, 22-23; “Pass It On,”116; Francis Hartigan, Bill W.: A Biography of Alcoholics Anonymous Cofounder Bill Wilson (NY: St. Martin’s Press, 2000), 59.
And finally, Rowland Hazard, who had dramatically conveyed the ideas to Shep Cornell and to Ebby, and then directly to Bill. For the most part, these were the little group of “teachers” from whom Bill learned his ideas at their Stewart’s Cafeteria meetings. See Robert Thomsen, Bill W. (NY: Harper & Row Publishers, Perennial Books, 1975), 226-32; Dick B. The Oxford Group & Alcoholics Anonymous, New Rev. ed. (Kihei, HI: Paradise Research Publications, Inc., 1998), 128-30. And all of this occurred in 1934 and early 1935—long before Bill published the Big Book and Twelve Steps in 1939, and before Bill met Dr. Bob later in 1935.
The most complete and thorough discussion of what Rowland taught Ebby, what Rowland and Shep Cornell taught Ebby and Bill, and what Ebby taught Bill directly concerning the Twelve Step ideas taken from the Oxford Group’s program will be found fully discussed and documented in Dick B. Turning Point: A History of Early A.A.’s Spiritual Roots and Successes (San Rafael, CA: Paradise Research Publications, 1997), 81-108.
These facts were made clear to Dick B. on his two research trips to Bill’s home at Stepping Stones in Bedford Hills, New York. There Dick found manuscripts where Bill described the actual steps and step materials later incorporated in the Big Book and how these were transmitted to him by Ebby Thacher. The dates were 1934! Also, some small glimpses of these materials can be found, even today, in Bill’s Story in Alcoholics Anonymous, 4th ed., 2001, 8-11, 13-15. Again, the dates of Ebby’s visits with Bill were in late 1934.
Bill’s Interim “Step” Period Between 1934 and 1939
Bill, on his own, developed six “word of mouth” ideas, varied in form, and applied in different ways. And these word-of-mouth thoughts and expressions followed the Oxford Group ideas he had learned from Rowland Hazard, Shep Cornell, Ebby Thacher, and Rev. Sam Shoemaker. Bill said there was disagreement as to their wording and application; and Bill himself phrased them in at least four different ways. But, according to Bill, it was these six “word of mouth” ideas that Bill later expanded to the Twelve Steps as he wrote the famous Chapter Five “How It Works” in the Big Book manuscript. See Dick B., The Conversion of Bill W.: More on the Creator’s Role in Early A.A. (Kihei, HI: Paradise Research Publications, Inc., 2006), 149-86.
So it Was Bill Wilson, and Bill Wilson Alone, Who Wrote the Twelve Steps in December, 1938
Recently, several anti-A.A. commentators have laid out historically inaccurate, conjectural, and totally erroneous ideas as to how Bill received some alleged spiritualist-like guidance as he penned the steps. But Bill was simply writing down ideas with which he had been thoroughly familiar in the Oxford Group and from his talks with Rev. Sam Shoemaker—from 1934 on.
The historical facts are simple. They are well-documented. And they show the long trail in Bill Wilson’s life that led from his tutors—Rowland Hazard, F. Shepard Cornell, and Ebby Thacher to him; from his extensive Oxford Group meeting attendance from1934 to August of 1937 when he and Lois left the Oxford Group (See Lois Remembers, 91-94); and from his long conferences with, and teachings by, Rev. Samuel M. Shoemaker, Jr. concerning the step ideas themselves. These well-recorded sources led to Bill’s own incorporation in his Big Book of the Oxford Group ideas that were codified into his Twelve Steps just prior to publication of the Big Book in 1939. A.A.’s own ‘Pass It On,’ said this about the writing:
Bill was about to write the famous fifth chapter, ‘How It Works.’ The basic material for the chapter was the word-of-mouth program that Bill had been talking about ever since his own recovery. It was heavy with Oxford Group principles, and had in addition some of the ideas Bill had gleaned from William James and from Dr. Silkworth (page 197)
Bill’s first three steps were culled from his reading of James, the teachings of Sam
Shoemaker, and those of the Oxford Group (page 199)
The newly published biography of Lois Wilson underlines the Oxford Group source—one which we will call part of “the rest of the story.” See William G. Borchert, The Lois Wilson Story: When Love Is Not Enough (Center City, MN: Hazelden, 2005):
Dr. Shoemaker was to play a significant role in Bill Wilson’s spiritual development and
his writing of Alcoholics Anonymous, which became known as “The Big Book,” p. 156.
These principles, which Bill developed into AA’s Twelve Steps to recovery for millions
of alcoholics around the world essentially incorporated and expanded upon the Oxford
Group’s ‘Four Absolutes’ of honesty, purity, unselfishness, and love, p. 239.
Borchert then lays out what he calls the “first draft of the Twelve Steps.”