Classical Protestant Liberalism
and Early A.A.

Glenn F. Chesnut

  Classical Protestant liberalism is a term for a movement which took over much of American Protestantism during the first half of the twentieth century. The term "liberal" should not be misunderstood -- this is a term which can mean different things in different situations. They were "liberal" in the sense of wanting to liberate Christianity from the medieval doctrines and dogmas which had built up over the past almost two thousand years and which had, in their belief, totally obscured the simple teachings of real first century Christianity. They wanted to liberate Christianity from intolerance and bring it out from under the control of people who burnt other people at the stake and chopped off their heads and burnt crosses in front of their houses and forced native peoples into converting to Christianity at the point of a gun. It was totally different from the sometimes almost insane radicalism that began to appear later in the twentieth century (the radical form critics and demythologizers and Death of God theologians and other such folk). What American church historians call classical Protestant liberalism was a strongly biblically oriented movement which was attempting to get back to the simple spirituality preached by the historical Jesus.

The Upper Room (which was the meditational book most often used by early A.A.'s) was published by the classical Protestant liberals, who believed that we should start our days with the kind of prayer and meditation contained in its pages. Each day's page had one or more Bible verses, and meditations stressing the Fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man, living with continual God-consciousness, keeping the all-accepting love of Jesus in our hearts, and treating all our fellow human beings with compassion and love. Both the Old Testament and the New stressed that God's love was especially extended to those who were helpless and in great need: widows and orphans, poor people without food or clothes, and those who were rejected by society. These were the people for whom classical Protestant liberals felt a special responsibility. (Alcoholics of course also knew what it was like to be rejected and cast off by everyone around them.)

Front cover, The Upper Room, January-February 2004

The Upper Room
P.O. Box 340012, Nashville, Tennessee 37203
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JANUARY 1, 2004

From Saying to Doing

Read Exodus 3:1-12

Be doers of the word, and not merely hearers
--James 1:22 (NRSV)

In my lifetime I have frequently heard the phrase "the crossing point." It refers to that point where decisions are made. In the realm of faith, the "crossing point" is where the law of God intersects our lives and becomes part of our everyday experience. It is crossing from "I believe" to "I know," from agreement to action.

For me, Moses was an example of this. He was tending the flock of his father-in-law when the Lord appeared and informed Moses that he had been chosen to lead the Hebrew people out of Egypt to freedom. Moses offered many excuses, then finally submitted to carrying out God's will.

For his faith to have meaning, Moses had to return to Egypt and lead the Hebrews into the promised land. If the gospel is to have meaning for us and through us for others, we must discover the crossing point in our lives. It is the point where we move from saying "Love your enemy" to actually loving our enemy, from saying "Feed the hungry" to actually feeding the hungry.

Prayer:  Father, help us to bring the gospel into our daily lives. May we cross from faith to practice, from saying to doing. In Jesus' name. Amen

Thought for the Day
God expects us to turn our good intentions into actions.
Martha M. Friesen (Nebraska)


The Upper Room
FEBRUARY 21, 2004

End of Winter

Read Psalm 27

Be still, and know that I am God.
--Psalm 46:10 (KJV)

I had been ill for many long, cold winter weeks. I had been discouraged, frightened, and irritable. I was worn down. Then one day the snow was gone; the wind died down, and the sun began to shine.

Clutching a little meditation book -- my lifeline all winter -- I took a blanket and dragged the chaise onto the back lawn. Anxious and exhausted, I plopped down and opened my book. The first words I read were, "Be still, and know that I am God." I knew they were meant for me. I closed my eyes and quieted my distracted spirit. I rested in the stillness and let myself feel the presence of God, who had brought me through a hard winter.

The cozy blanket became the arms of God, holding me and healing me after the pain of my illness. I was surrounded by the warm safety of divine love. I breathed in the fresh air. The touch of the sun became the caress of God's faithfulness. The gentle breeze soothed the loneliness of my winter isolation. I let God's healing light pour into my body, spirit, and mind, and the darkness of winter and illness seemed to seep away. A feeling of returning life stirred. I had not been alone. And because of that realization, I know that I am never alone.

Prayer:  God, you are our beloved, who brings healing for body and soul. Thank you. Amen

Thought for the Day
God's love enfolds us like a warm blanket.
Marie Collamore (Massachusetts)


Back cover, The Upper Room, January-February 2004

  Just as a personal note, my Grandfather and Grandmother Hind were Protestant liberals. He taught bible and history at a Methodist college, and then became a pastor in the North Georgia Conference of the Methodist Church. When I visited them as a child, we would begin every morning by sitting as a family in the living room, and reading from that day's passage in The Upper Room, passing the book around the room so that each person got to read one portion. As soon as I was old enough to read a little bit, I was very proud to be able to read the Bible verse for the day, or the thought for the day, when the little booklet was passed to me. Now Methodist pastors were paid very little, and my Grandfather and Grandmother were very poor in terms of this world's goods. One time, a well off member of the church which my Grandfather pastored gave my Grandmother enough money to buy a set of nice china to put on her table at dinner time. My Grandmother, however, when she went to the store, noticed that you could buy a set of cheap earthenware for half the price. So she bought two sets of the earthenware, and gave one of the sets to another person who attended their church, who had even less than she did. I can also remember her saying, if I ever spoke any unkind words about anyone else, "There is so much good in the worst of us, and so much bad in the best of us, that it behooves the none of us, to talk about the rest of us." And as she went around the house during the day, doing her household chores, she would sing the great old hymns to herself in a quiet voice. She and my Grandfather lived with God continuously. This is real classical Protestant liberalism.  

  Reform Judaism was a movement within the Jewish tradition which arose during the same historical era as classical Protestant liberalism and was very similar to it in many ways. Reform Judaism arose as a challenge to the elaborate rules and rituals of Orthodox Judaism. Reform Jews have the same attitude towards all the complicated rules which the medieval Jewish rabbis claimed to have deduced from the simple language of the Torah (two sets of pots and pans and plates and silverware, one for meat dishes and one for dairy dishes, and so on), which classical Protestant liberals have towards the medieval philosophical nit-picking of the doctrine of the Trinity and the Anselmic substitutionary doctrine of the atonement and the doctrine of transubstantiation and so on. Reform Jews and classical Protestant liberals both cried out, "it is time to leave the ancient world and the middle ages behind!"  

  Medieval Christian doctrine was filled with thousands of technical terms and complicated distinctions. These were not Biblical. In terms of the understanding of Christ's person and work, for example, you may look throughout your New Testament, and never find any talk of three hypostaseis ("persons," or actually "substrata" in this case) united into one ousia, with the second hypostasis, the Logos (the Idea of the ideas up in the realm of the Platonic ideas), being incarnate in a Christ who is homoousios to us with respect to his humanity and homoousios to God the Father with respect to his divinity, having two physeis (natures), two wills, and two energeiai (energies) united into a single hypostasis and a single prosopon, indivisibly, inseparably, unconfusedly, and immutably (and these last four words are all highly technical philosophical terms too -- even though they may look like ordinary English, they aren't).  

  In Christianity, many scholars trace classical Protestant liberalism back to Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834), a German theologian who in 1799 published a book called Speeches on Religion to the Cultured Among Its Despisers, in which he stated that real spirituality was not about doctrines and dogmas and intellectualizations and rationalizations. Real spirituality was based on Gefuehl (feeling) and Anschauung (intuition), the ability to sense the Infinite lying outside the box of space and time in which our minds were normally imprisoned, and an awareness of our absolute dependence upon this Infinite power.

Schleiermacher was brought up as a child in what was called "pietism," a German Lutheran movement which stressed that real spirituality was about what is inside us -- our basic attitudes and perceptions and feelings -- and not about external conformity to church doctrines and dogmas and elaborate sets of legalistic rules. (Frank Buchman, the founder of the Oxford Group, was a Pennsylvania Lutheran who was brought up in a pietistic German-speaking religious environment.)

Another German theologian, Albrecht Ritschl (1822-1889), was also a major figure in the development of classical Protestant liberalism. Science dealt with facts, he said, while spirituality dealt with the realm of moral value. Stating that such-and-such was a fact said nothing about whether it was morally good or bad. Living the spiritual life meant learning how to recognize and seek that which was good. Science and real spirituality were not in conflict with one another: spirituality dealt with an entirely different dimension of existence.

Many American Protestant liberals were also strongly influenced by the theologian Horace Bushnell (1802-1876), a Congregationalist who was born in Connecticut and educated at Yale. His book Christian Nurture (1847) stated that in modern America, more and more people were coming into the spiritual life as the result of a kind of "educational experience," as opposed to being converted in a single highly emotional religious experience at a revival. The revivalistic conversion experience had been common on the American frontier, but the United States was now turning into something very different from a wild frontier society.

By the end of the second decade of the twentieth century, in the northern Methodist church (one of the largest Protestant groups in the United States), the Sunday School literature had been completely taken over by Bushnell's ideas on Christian nurture, and the Sunday School books were directed towards helping people grow in the spiritual life as a gradual "educational experience." The classical Protestant liberal meditational book The Upper Room (used by so many early A.A. people), came out of Methodist roots and was also designed to use appropriate Bible verses and short meditations on those verses as a way of producing this gradual educational experience.

  Classical Protestant liberals believed that all the major religions of the earth had something worthwhile and valuable about them. They pointed out that all the great religions had something equivalent to the Golden Rule, for example, the requirement that we show the same kind of love or compassion towards other human beings which we would wish them to show towards us. It might not be phrased in the same words, but the same thought would be there. There were a number of fairly universal spiritual truths.

In the Methodist churches which I went to as a child, I remember them taking us children to a Jewish synagogue on one of the Jewish holidays such as the Feast of Booths, and showing us a movie of the Roman Catholic mass being celebrated, and so on.

The fundamental idea that one did not have to be a Christian in order to be a good and spiritual person was a classical Protestant liberal belief that had a deeply formative effect on early A.A. There was never a serious question within A.A. about whether Jews or Buddhists or what have you could join A.A. -- if you were a suffering alcoholic, the group would welcome you in, and accept your fundamental right to your own religious beliefs.

In fact, early A.A.'s went even further than most of the classical Protestant liberals in terms of insisting that all of world's great religions had valid truths (going further even than the Unitarian Church). This was one of the reasons why A.A.'s started switching from The Upper Room to Richmond Walker's Twenty-Four Hours a Day as their central meditational book as soon it first came out in 1948, while Rich was still printing it himself and distributing it from his own basement. Rich's little book put most of its message in terms of what he called "universal spiritual truths." 98% of it had no explicit Jewish or Christian flavor to it. He did include the occasional fairly generic Bible verse, such as "And underneath are the everlasting arms," and he cited that famous passage from the opening of St. Augustine's Confessions in more than one place: "You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you." But he also started off the little black book with a quote from the Hindu tradition that expressed quite beautifully one part of what A.A. spirituality was trying to achieve. Rich believed, just as so many of the classical Protestant liberals did, that there were "universal spiritual truths" found in almost all the great religions of the world, but he took it even further, and he attempted to write a book that would be for everybody on the earth, not just for those who had been brought up as Christians, and in particular not for just a few New England Protestants like himself (and Bill W. and Dr. Bob).

  The great manifesto of classical Protestant liberalism appeared at the very beginning of the twentieth century. Written by Adolf Harnack (1851-1930), it was called Das Wesen des Christentums ("The Essence of Christianity," published in1900), and immediately began going through printing after printing. The English translation, which appeared the next year in 1901, was given the title What Is Christianity? and likewise went through printing after printing. All over the Protestant world, thousands of people responded to Harnack's prophetic message.

Now ironically, Harnack was a German theologian who was the greatest scholar of his generation on the history of Christian dogma (his three-volume Lehrbuch des Dogmengeschichte, 1886-9) is still enormously useful to scholars today.

But in What Is Christianity? Harnack said that later medieval Christian doctrine and dogma was constructed of pagan Greek philosophical terms (substance and accidents, hypostases and essences, and so on) which even a simple reader could see never appeared in the Bible at all. The true "kernel" of Christianity lay in the simple teaching of the historical Jesus, as seen in such passages as the Sermon on the Mount. It was about finding a loving and forgiving God, and learning to live with love in our hearts. It meant giving concrete help to our fellow human beings who were in need: the little passage from James, "faith without works is dead," was one which classical Protestant liberals attempted to live by continuously.

Classical Protestant liberalism then
begins to disappear as a major force:
(1) the Fundamentalist reaction

  The classical Protestant liberals were attacked from more than one direction as the United States moved further into the twentieth century, and no longer plays such a major role in twenty-first century Protestantism. The Fundamentalist movement arose in the United States as a reaction in part to the classical liberals. The twelve tracts called The Fundamentals (from the which the movement got its name) appeared around 1909, and in 1919 the World's Christian Fundamentals Association was founded. The biblical scholar J. Gresham Machen at Princeton University was an important early Fundamentalist thinker. (As a side note, it was from a textbook written by him that I learned New Testament Greek during my first year at the seminary at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas, although none of my teachers were Fundamentalists. But it was a very good textbook!) It was not until 1925 however, when William Jennings Bryan prosecuted J. T. Scopes for teaching the doctrine of evolution to his students in a Tennessee school, that the Fundamentalist movement began to draw more widespread attention.

The election of Ronald Reagan as president of the United States in 1980 marked a turn in the country, not only towards political conservatism, but also towards an increasing religious conservatism. In the almost twenty-five years since then, the traditionally classical liberal Protestant denominations, who once almost totally dominated American Protestantism, have been declining in membership (or have sometimes been taken over by Fundamentalists), while Fundamentalist denominations have been growing in size by leaps and bounds. Classical Protestant liberalism (of the old sort) is a weak force at best in modern American Christianity, and most Americans do not even know what it was anymore.

Now A.A. drew its membership from all segments of American society. About a sixth of them must have been Roman Catholics (Sister Ignatia, Father Ed Dowling, and Father Ralph Pfau all had a influential effect on early A.A.), and in like manner, a small percentage of the early A.A. people therefore must have been Fundamentalists. So they had some say in the way that A.A. developed, and sometimes spoke out quite loudly.

But the center of the bell-shaped curve, so to speak, lay with those with classical Protestant liberal sympathies. Dr. Bob's wife Anne Ripley Smith, a graduate of Wellesley College in Massachusetts, one of the elite east coast women's colleges, fits the profile of a deeply pious classical Protestant liberal in everything that we know about her. So some A.A.'s were more conservative, and some were more radical, but the "center of gravity" lay with the classical Protestant liberals during A.A.'s earliest years, and studying Fundamentalist theology and belief does not help us much in understanding the way A.A. began.

  Please note well: the conservative Protestant evangelicals in the United States are among the strongest supporters of A.A. here in the twentieth-first century. Good evangelical pastors tell members of their flock who have drinking problems, "Go to A.A., they know how to do it so it works. But we'll be praying for you."

A recent issue of the Seventh Day Adventist magazine was devoted entirely to twelve step groups and encouraging their members to applying these principles to a whole host of problems. There was an article on alcoholism, one on drug addiction, one on gambling, another on compulsive spending, and so on. It was a very knowledgeable and sympathetic set of articles.

Conservative evangelical pastors who read A.A. spiritual literature come away in awe at the depth and spiritual understanding they find there. And when they look at A.A.'s in action, they are apt to say things like, "If only more of the people in my congregation could take the spiritual life as seriously as these A.A. folks, and come to the depths of understanding which many of them display." At the Four Square Gospel Church in Mishawaka, Indiana, the members of the A.A. group were astonished when the church members put on a church picnic in their honor a couple of summers ago. They were told, "Don't bring food, we'll supply that. We want you to just come and have a good time."

There are a number of books in print in which every major A.A. teaching is paralleled with a biblical quotation, showing that the entire A.A. program can be defended on good biblical terms. And as someone who has taught the Bible for a living for thirty-three years at the university level, I can assure you that this is absolutely correct.

But if we carrying out a historical investigation into how A.A. first began, the Fundamentalist movement had not yet grown very big at that point in American history, and the center of gravity within early A.A. lay with the classical Protestant liberals instead of the fundamentalists. And A.A. still to this day contains many elements of belief and practice that came from the liberals, not the fundamentalists.

(2) And then on the university and seminary
faculties, the Neo-Orthodox movement began
attacking classical Protestant liberalism

  In the seminary and university faculties, classical Protestant liberalism came under attack from a different group. Karl Barth, a Swiss Protestant theologian of the Reformed (Calvinist) tradition, in 1919 published his Commentary on Romans, and quickly became a major spokesman for a new movement called Protestant Neo-Orthodoxy. (Reinhold Niebuhr, who taught at Union Theological Seminary in New York city, the theologian who wrote the Serenity Prayer, was the major American leader of this movement.)

Barth, who had been horrified at the violence and cruelty of the First World War, said that we had to quit trying to domesticate God into the sweet patron of a "nice" religion. And we had to start taking human evil seriously. The Protestant liberals, he said, talked about loving everybody, but in a way that failed to take into account the massive evil that lurked in the human heart. The Protestant liberals seemed to think that encouraging everybody to love one another would inspire people to change their behavior by their own will power. It was all very sweet, very nice, and totally out of tune with the real world -- the poor boys dying in the trenches, and the madmen who sent them to their doom by the thousands upon thousands.

God was the ganz Anders, the Wholly Other, Barth proclaimed. "You do not make God by speaking of man in a loud voice." "We must first hear God's NO before we can hear God's YES." God's no tells me that I am not God, that I cannot bend the world to my will whenever I wish to, and that I myself have a force of evil within my heart, which can only be healed by the grace of God. And that grace which is all that can save us, is a force coming from totally outside our rationalistic human world of science and psychology and sociology. Every act of real grace is a miracle -- a violation of natural law and the natural sequence of cause and effect -- coming from totally outside our human realm.

Grace comes to us, Barth said, when we hear the Word of God. God speaks his word in and through human words. We read a Bible passage, or read a thought in a meditational book, or hear a preacher giving a sermon, and these are all human words. But suddenly, a few of these words strike us to the core: we feel horrified at our own selfishness and pride, or overcome with joy at the gift of God's love and grace, and we somehow know in our hearts that this was God himself speaking to us.

When people who had served in the Second World War began going to seminary afterwards, and then getting Ph.D.'s in theology so they could teach in seminaries and universities, their traumatic war experiences made this kind of approach make sense to them. The old classical liberal approach began to be squeezed out.

In the United States, many of the brightest of the veterans who wanted to go to seminary and then obtain Ph.D.'s in theology, flocked to Union Theological Seminary in New York city to study with Reinhold Niebuhr (known in A.A. circles as the author of the Serenity Prayer) or to Yale to study with his brother H. Richard Niebuhr. Both were strong representatives of the new Neo-Orthodox theology which Barth had first introduced, and Reinhold was regarded by professional theologians for many years as the greatest living native-born theologian in the United States.

After the Second Vatican Council began transforming the Roman Catholic church in the 1960's, many of the best Roman Catholic thinkers also became greatly influenced by Karl Barth. The Harvard-educated historian Ernest Kurtz shows in the very title of his masterful account of how A.A. began -- Not-God: A History of Alcoholics Anonymous -- that he had read and heard Karl Barth's warnings about the dangers of human presumption, and the necessity to recognize above all, that whatever the Higher Power is which rules this universe, I am not God!

  Ernest Kurtz is an important figure in A.A. history. Although (up to this point), most research has been directed to the first generation of A.A. members and people who befriended them and helped them (Bill W., Marty Mann, Sister Ignatia, the Rev. Samuel Shoemaker, psychiatrist Harry M. Tiebout, and so on), when the time comes to begin the study of the second generation, Kurtz will be regarded as one of the most important thinkers of that period. It is not just his historical scholarship which makes him significant. Kurtz' theological ideas and his insights into human psychology -- as well as his wisdom about what the philosopher Socrates called euzen (not just living life, but living our lives fully and well) -- are all aspects of his thought which will need to be studied and appreciated.  

  As the Neo-Orthodox movement developed, it began growing more and more radical, particularly among theologians who mixed these ideas with existentialist philosophy. Some of the most important European existentialist philosophers had been atheists, for example Martin Heidegger, author of Sein und Zeit (Being and Time, 1927) and the French existentialist Jean Paul Sartre, author of L'Etre et le Neant (Being and Nothingness, 1943). The most important Christian Neo-Orthodox existentialist theologians were NOT atheists, but conservative Christians sometimes felt that it was hard to tell the difference!

Rudolf Bultmann, who was Professor of New Testament at the University of Marburg in Germany from 1921 to 1951, taught that the Bible had to be "demythologized" before it could be relevant to modern scientific men and women. The old three-story universe (where Heaven was regarded as literally over our heads, and Hell as literally down in the center of the earth, no longer made sense to modern human beings. We knew that epilepsy was not caused by demons, and modern human beings could not take seriously the mythical picture of the end of the world (with all its bizarre creatures) portrayed in the book of Revelation.

Paul Tillich (1886-1965) was a German theologian who had to flee his country because of his opposition to Adolf Hitler, and took up a position at Union Theological Seminary in New York city, where he and Reinhold Niebuhr made this one of the two or three greatest theological centers in the United States. But Tillich, like Barth and Bultmann, attacked classical Protestant liberalism as refusing to recognize the depths of evil in the human heart and the necessity of a divine grace which came from a source which was totally outside our human ability to intellectualize and rationalize. In his book The Courage to Be, Tillich proclaimed "the God beyond God, who appears when the God of theism has disappeared." It is only when my own world collapses and I look into the abyss of Non-Being, that the New Being can appear.

By the 1960's, at an increasing number of American Protestant seminaries, the impact of the Neo-Orthodox and existentialist theologians meant that classical Protestant liberals were ridiculed and laughed at. This was certainly true at the Methodist seminary which I attended from 1961 to 1965, and it was, in my feeling, very sad and unfortunate. I am not sure that there are any classical Protestant liberals left at all now -- there was still one teaching at Boston School of Theology when I taught there one year as Visiting Professor of Theology during the 1980's, but I think even he partially realized that he was kind of "the last dinosaur," which can be a pretty lonely position to be in. At best the only survivors still around today (if there are any) are like the spotted owl or the California condor or some other nearly extinct species, managing to exist barely in a kind of marginal way in a few isolated localities. But they were good people.

On the other hand, it is perfectly true that the classical Protestant liberals often had no deep conception of grace.

The Oxford Group

  Fortunately, the influence of the Oxford Group, which was a strongly evangelical movement, meant that A.A. combined its Protestant liberal perspective with a strong doctrine of salvation sola gratia (by grace alone), thereby producing a spiritual discipline with extraordinary power. The Oxford Group had kept alive many of the original insights of Augustine, the great African saint, and the sixteenth century Protestant reformer Martin Luther, and John Wesley and Jonathan Edwards, the two great formative theoreticians during the 1740's in the founding period of the modern evangelical movement. They made sure that A.A. understood the essential nature of the Gospel message that we are justified by faith alone and not by works of the law (as the Apostle Paul put it in his letters to the Romans and the Galatians). And the Oxford Group contributed many other vital pieces of the A.A. program. The First Step, seen as surrender to God, owed a good deal to them in the way A.A.'s came to understand it. Certainly the need to confess our defects and wrongdoings to another human being, which is the essential nature of the Fifth Step, came straight from the Oxford Group (it is conceived of in a different way from the Roman Catholic ritual of confession). And in particular, the Eighth and Ninth Steps -- the amends steps -- went straight to the founding experience which turned Frank Buchman's life around. I do not know any other major Christian spiritual tradition which places such a major emphasis on the need to make amends for all our past wrongdoings. (Although the Jewish understanding of the Day of Atonement means that there is a traditional understanding within Judaism of the necessity for making amends for our wrongs to other people.)

Probably the most important thing that the Oxford Group did for early A.A. was to save them from the things that eventually killed classical Protestant liberalism, and to force the A.A. people to develop a fuller and richer understanding of the spiritual life than was present in the Protestant liberal tradition.

  I have not written at length about the Oxford Group in this article, because so many excellent works have already been written about it, and its importance for early A.A. For those who wish to know more, one of the best short accounts is contained in Mel B., New Wine: The Spiritual Roots of the Twelve Step Miracle (Hazelden, 1991). Chapter 2 on the Oxford Group and Chapter 3 on the Rev. Samuel Shoemaker are chock full of information, and show clearly all the many facets of the Oxford Group influence on A.A.

Classical Protestant liberalism was very weak in its understanding of the power of grace, and A.A. simply would not have worked if they had not paid attention to the good evangelicals. The Oxford Group gave them a large part of what they needed to supplement and correct classical Protestant liberalism. Also, as Mel B. describes, the world of nineteenth-century American frontier revivalism might have been disappearing, but there were still literally thousands of revivalists preaching all over the United States. Although some of these revivalists were merely playing on emotionalism, there were also others of them who genuinely understood the power of grace to transform human life.

But one of the most perceptive observations in Mel's little book (in my own opinion anyway) is his section on General William Booth and the Salvation Army (chapter 9, pages 130-134). This was the evangelical group which was not frightened by drunks staggering in, shaking and crying, dirty and ragged, and hopeless and desperate. The Salvation Army not only preached the power of God's grace, they had the courage to actually live in such a way that they could become channels of his grace. There are many people in A.A. today who received help from the Salvation Army at a time in their life when no one else would lift a finger to aid them. Here in South Bend today, the Salvation Army people can be counted on. They are good and generous and loving people of the highest order.

And I think that Mel's admiration for these good people, and his appreciation for the way they preach (accepting people where they are, without condemnation or looking down on them), is a very important intuition. Did the Salvation Army play an important contributing role in pushing the early A.A. people into moving away from some of their Protestant liberal assumptions and in forcing them to recognize more fully the miraculous healing power of divine grace? How many early A.A. people had had to ask the Salvation Army for help at one point or another, back when they were still drinking? We know the Oxford Group contributions to Alcoholics Anonymous, but did the Salvationists provide a major additional evangelical influence? I would say "strongly suspect" instead of "conclusively proven," but I wanted to mention their possible influence in this article.

Existentialist motifs in A.A. thought

  Now there are actually many parallels between early A.A. thought and the ideas stressed by Karl Barth and the Neo-Orthodox movement. In fact, there are fascinating similarities between A.A. thought and the existentialist philosophers, even the ones who were atheists -- the idea, for example, that each one of us must develop his or her own moral system, and then take personal responsibility for all our decisions and deeds. In a real Fourth Step, I do not ask what the church or my parents or society or anybody else said was right and wrong -- I must work out how I will have to live in order to live with myself. We cannot turn to other people to make our decisions for us, or follow a set of external rules blindly, and end up living an authentic existence. That is taught by A.A. just as strongly as it is by Heidegger and Sartre.

I nevertheless do not think there was any direct influence of Barth or the existentialists on early A.A. I think that this was a parallel development, produced by the fact that many of the early A.A.'s had seen military service during the First World War, and were reacting to the same sense of horror that had developed in so many observers as they saw thousands of young men being praised for following orders blindly and charging the enemy's trenches in the face of certain death, and never asking, "was this an order, and were these leaders, whom I should have followed so blindly, without ever taking responsibility for deciding my own fate?" It is useful to read that classic work, All Quiet on the Western Front, to understand better what World War I combat veterans had experienced. The early A.A.'s had developed the same cynical mistrust of facile answers, and demands to follow orders without ever asking questions, Like their contemporaries, the existentialists, theirs was a cynicism and skepticism based on bitter and recent experience.

Other influences on early A.A.:
New Thought and Catholicism

  New Thought (as represented by Emmet Fox and several other authors) was very influential on early A.A. also, sometimes in open and obvious ways, but sometimes more at the level of unconscious assumptions. This was actually a broader theological genre than what is labelled New Thought in the narrow sense. William James referred to this general approach by such terms as "the religion of healthy mindedness" and "mind-cure" -- I do not like the terms, but that is what he was talking about in one of the major sections (Lectures IV and V) of his Varieties of Religious Experience.

The book which Mel B. is currently working on, looks at two important books which early A.A.'s were encouraged to read: James Allen, As a Man Thinketh, and Henry Drummond, The Greatest Thing in the World. Both of these little works stress the fact that how we think about the world -- the character of the fundamental assumptions and habits of thought which shape our whole perception of the world -- will shape how the world actually becomes in reality, and do so to an amazing degree.

To teachers like Emmet Fox, James Allen, and Henry Drummond, a phrase like "alcoholism is a disease of perception" (a statement frequently made by Clancy and before him by the old-time A.A. teacher Sgt. Bill S.) means more than just the fact that our presuppositions shape how we perceive things that happened to us in the past. How I perceive the world will in reality, often to an amazing degree, shape what is actually going to happen. If I think health, I will become healthy. If I think being surrounded by a loving and supportive environment, I will find myself amidst loving friends.

The Roman Catholic and Episcopalian (Anglican) influence on early A.A. has never been looked at adequately. Protestantism, historically speaking, emphasized salvation by faith alone, and rarely said much about continuing spiritual development and growth in grace after we had come to saving faith. And some varieties of Protestantism attack any attempt to speak about responsible moral behavior as "works righteousness," and as something which would totally undercut the pure preaching of the gospel of salvation by faith and grace alone.

(That was, in my estimation, the fatal weakness of the Neo-Orthodox movement, which often created a kind of anomie among many college and seminary students, and left them in desperate psychological shape -- in fact, my own judgment is that the Neo-Orthodox movement often did a whole lot more harm than it did good. It made me very unhappy when a whole class of seminary students whom I was teaching would start crying, "no, we can't preach that, that would be works righteousness," whenever I stated that real faith of necessity would produce powerful changes in our moral behavior.)

But the Roman Catholics and Episcopalians in early A.A. circles knew what was meant by the Letter of James when it said that "faith without works is dead," and they would not let A.A. people fall over into a facile fideism. "Just take Jesus as your personal savior, and pray and meditate on the Bible every morning, and that's all you have to do," was not an approach which was going to keep alcoholics sober. The Third Step necessarily implied acting differently -- stopping doing many of the things we used to do, and starting to do a number of things which we had never done before. And the growth steps which followed implied getting progressively better at the way we acted and behaved.

Even more importantly, many Roman Catholic priests and nuns and religious in the first half of the twentieth century used St. Ignatius Loyola's Spiritual Exercises as the basis of their early spiritual formation. Loyola, who founded the Jesuit order in 1534, was a Spanish soldier who turned his life over to God after one of the new gunpowder weapons inflicted a terrible injury to his right leg, which required him to lie around recuperating for a prolonged period of time, often in enormous pain, with nothing but his own thoughts to occupy him. In Akron, Sister Ignatia often handed a little book of excerpts from the Spiritual Exercises to alcoholics who came through her alcoholism ward at St. Thomas Hospital. She herself was named after that saint.

But the Jesuit influence has to have come into A.A. even before that point. When Father Ed Dowling, himself a Jesuit, obtained a copy of the Big Book not long after its publication, he immediately sensed some important influence of the Spiritual Exercises on the kind of spirituality laid out there, and made a special trip to New York city to visit Bill Wilson and learn more about this powerful new movement. Part of what he noted of course was the continual insistence, throughout the Big Book, on a Catholic understanding of the necessity of works in addition to faith.

But the specific influence of Spiritual Exercises came out above all in the Tenth Step. Taking a daily personal inventory, and working in a careful and disciplined manner to change our spiritual defects -- calling always of course upon the grace of God to empower us to change our hearts -- is the subject of one of the most important sections in the Spiritual Exercises.

How did it get into the Big Book? There had already been conversations on a regular basis between Dr. Bob and Sister Ignatia. And it was also the case that about a sixth of the American population was Roman Catholic, which meant that some of the early A.A.'s came from Roman Catholic backgrounds. Even if they were lay people, they would have unconsciously absorbed, from the priests and nuns who taught them when they were children, the necessity of that sort of disciplined approach to spiritual formation and development.

The most important Catholic
authors for early A.A.

Augustine the great African saint (354-430):  his mother St. Monica had been a childhood alcoholic and he was a sexual addict (a compulsive womanizer) before his conversion. Both of them discovered from personal experience that only the power of divine grace could save us from self-destruction when we fell into the grips of obsessive thoughts and compulsive behaviors of that sort. Major influence on both Bill W. and Ralph Pfau (the Roman Catholic priest who wrote the Golden Books under the pen name of Father John Doe).

St. Augustine said that Pride (superbia or hubris) is the root sin. It makes us try to pretend that we are God, fills us with the libido dominandi (the lust to control everyone around us), and drives us into people-pleasing and putting up phoney fronts in the constant attempt to win vana gloria (vainglory). With all of us human beings (just as Sigmund Freud also pointed out many centuries later), down in the innermost depths of our souls, there will always be a nightmare world of hideous imaginations and desires:  murder, violence, sadism, sexual perversion, incest, rape, theft, and every other evil thought. God's grace can give us power to partially tame down these urges and avoid acting on them, so that we can make real progress in putting them to sleep. But as human beings we are necessarily imperfect, and will never (in this world and in this life) be able to perfectly rid ourselves of our character defects, nor can we act with perfect moral behavior at all times.

We must therefore by necessity be saved sola gratia, by grace alone, as a free gift from God, a gift which we did not deserve. God can above all be described as the verum ipsum, Truth Itself, so we can only save our souls and return to him, the divine source of every transforming spiritual insight, by learning the full truth about who we are. If we continue to be dishonest with ourselves, because we are too proud to admit that we were wrong, our spirits will be doomed.

Although Eastern Orthodox Christians never read or studied him, St. Augustine's teachings were the basis in Western Europe of all subsequent medieval Roman Catholic thought, all the way down to the High Middle Ages. And the sixteenth century Protestant Reformers (Martin Luther, John Calvin, and Archbishop Thomas Cranmer) put an even stronger emphasis on Augustine's ideas, so that for more than fifteen centuries nearly all western Christian teachers (when we are dealing with good and truly knowledgeable theologians) have been Augustinians of one sort or another.

Thomas a Kempis (c. 1380-1471), The Imitation of Christ. Even if we know all the complex technical terminology of philosophical theology, it will not save us "if we have not love." The good life comes from simple unselfish service to others. This little book, along with Loyola's exercises, formed the heart of Sister Ignatia's spirituality.

St. Ignatius Loyola (b. 1491 or 1495, d. 1556), founder of the Jesuit order. His Spiritual Exercises were used as the basic spiritual discipline for most Roman Catholic priests and nuns in the United States during the period when A.A. was first developing. Many of Loyola's fundamental ideas would have automatically been absorbed by any Roman Catholic lay person who attended parochial school at that time. In terms of his influence on A.A., we can see this especially in Step Ten: "continued to take personal inventory."

St. Therese of Lisieux (1873-1897), the Little Flower. Died of tuberculosis when she was only twenty-four years old. In his Golden Books, Ralph Pfau described the Little Way of St. Therese in A.A. language. One good old-timer from Michigan told me that only a certain percentage of the old-timers had read Father Ralph's books, but that whenever he met an old-timer who especially impressed him spiritually -- people with a simple childlike faith and an unfailingly cheerful approach to life, who never put on airs or went around trying to get public praise or applause, the sort of people whom you could count on to help you in any way they could, be it big or small -- it always turned out that they had read all the Golden Books and deeply admired Father Ralph and his adaptation of the Little Way.

St. Therese of Lisieux


  And in particular, the emphasis in the Big Book upon unending growth in the spiritual life for all our lives, "from glory to glory and from grace to grace," was a Catholic motif that went all the way back to St. Gregory of Nyssa in the fourth century, one of the most influential spiritual writers of the earliest Christian centuries. Ordinary Catholic lay people who had attended mass and gone to parochial school understood this approach to the spiritual life implicitly, and therefore, probably without even thinking about it all that consciously, insisted that their fellow A.A.'s from Protestant backgrounds take this aspect of the spiritual life seriously.

Life supplies us with ever fresh challenges, and God in his grace supplies us with ever fresh sources of insight and spiritual power, so that the good life in A.A. is a journey down the road of happy destiny where we are always learning and growing, and always being even more overwhelmed with the magnificence of God's gifts and his grace -- a journey where our gratitude just keeps on growing the longer we live in the program. The joy, the bliss, the happiness, is in the journey itself, and in climbing each new spiritual mountain range to see the vision of an even greater glory at the top.

This understanding, which went back to St. Gregory of Nyssa's formative writings in the mid-fourth century, is a Catholic (and Eastern Orthodox) vision of the true spiritual life. When combined with the Protestant insight that the gate which opens onto this road which leads from glory to glory is the Gate of Faith, early A.A. created one of the most powerful spiritual disciplines ever developed.


  From each of its many sources, early A.A. took the gold and silver and precious stones, and left behind the hay and sticks and straw. In my observation, people who work the real A.A. program, in all of its original richness, grow further and more deeply in the spiritual life more quickly than in any other spiritual tradition I have ever observed. I have always been left simply overawed by the power of the A.A. program, as witnessed in the way it transforms the lives of perfectly ordinary men and women who work all the steps the way they were originally intended to be worked.

Classical Protestant liberalism however lay at the core of much of the early A.A. approach to traditional Christian spirituality. People who fail to understand the role of that component in the early A.A. synthesis tend to distort early A.A. teaching in ways that produce serious misunderstandings of the program.

  NOTA BENE: In this little essay, I have been talking about how A.A. arose historically, and the kinds of religious ideas which we have to understand to make sense out of the way A.A. developed in the first few years of its existence. The formative early A.A. thinkers had all been brought up as Christians -- Bill W., Dr. Bob, Richmond Walker, Ralph Pfau (Father John Doe), and so on -- and the overwhelming majority of early A.A. members had been brought up in a Christian environment. So it was within Christian spirituality that they found their major source of ideas (not totally so, by any means, but mostly so).

But it has been proven repeatedly that the framework provided by the Twelve Steps and the essentials of early A.A. teaching can be interpreted with equal power within the Jewish tradition, the Muslim tradition, the Buddhist tradition, the Hindu tradition, and within the context of various Native American religions: Navajo, Northern Plains, the shamanism of the mountains of Mexico discussed in the Carlos Castaneda novels, the beliefs of the Potawatomi tribe in my part of Indiana (where the divine power is called in their language the Manitou or Holy Spirit), and so on. The genius of A.A. again and again rose far above its origins, and its core teachings have an incredible flexibility and adaptability. Let us not shrink A.A. into something small and pathetic which would be valid for only a few people living in a single country at one brief era of history. A.A. is worth so much more than that. It is a grace-given gift for all humanity.