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The Time Line


Buchman, a Lutheran minister, has a powerfully transformative religious experience, which leads him to eventually form the Oxford Group. This experience of Buchman’s contains all of the elements that would later be codified as the Twelve Steps.

After he is forced to resign from the children’s hospice, which he founded, Buchman harbors deep resentments against the hospice Board. During this time, Buchman suffers from stress related illness, and decides to have a holiday in Europe to recuperate.

While in Britan attending the Keswick Convention, an annual gathering of evangelical Christians, Buchman drops in for Sunday morning at a small chapel. The sermon is on Christ’s Crucifixion and is so moving that it leads Buchman to examine his own sin. He describes the experience as follows:
I saw the look of sorrow and infinite suffering in His face. I knew that I had wounded Him, that there was a great distance between myself and Him…my sin, my pride, my selfishness and my ill will had eclipsed me from God in Christ…I asked God to change me and He told me to put things right with [the hospice Board].

On the Tail of a Comet
by Gareth Lean

Buchman is elated by this experience, and he writes a letter to each member of the Board, asking their forgiveness. After he relates his experience that afternoon to his companions at tea, Buchman is approached by a young man who asks if he may talk more with Buchman. The two walk around a lake together, and the young man makes a surrender similar to Buchman’s. Buchman later says of the experience:
That was the first man that I ever brought face to face with the central experience of Christianity.

On the Tail of a Comet
by Gareth Lean

It is not difficult to see the seed of the 12 Steps in Buchman’s experience. The sermon on the Crucifixion gives Buchman the chance to take a moral inventory (step 4). Realizing his powerlessness over his sin (step 1), he fully believes that God can change him (step 2), and so Buchman surrenders himself to God (step 3) and asks God to remove his shortcomings (steps 6&7). Buchman then asks for and recieves God’s guidance (step 11). When God tells him to make things right with the hospice Board, Buchman becomes willing to make amends to the Board, and then does so by writing the letters (steps 8&9). Buchman shares the whole experience with his companions at tea (step 5), and then helps a young man to have a similar experience of his own (step 12).

If the comparison of Buchman’s converison experience to the Steps feels jumbled and awkward, it is because Buchman’s experience is the type of spontaneous event that the Steps are meant to systematically reproduce. Buchman was not intentional about his conversion, nor did he follow any predetermined formula. In a sense, the Steps are an attempt to make an experience like Buchman’s available to any one who desires one and is willing to work through the necessary tasks.

In the years that follow his conversion, Buchman’s work in bringing others to “the central experience of Christianity” will help to refine the practices that in turn become the formula of the Twelve Steps.


The Oxford Group is formed from Buchman’s post-conversion efforts and develops its own unique evangelical style. This style is characterized by an emphasis on personal change and the practice of Guidance.

A typical Oxford Group experience begins with a House Party. House Parties are informal gatherings to which the Groupers invite potential converts. During the course of an evening, members of the Group practice what they call Sharing. They tell the story of their life before the Oxford Group, what happened to them when they encountered the Oxford Group, and what their life is like now because of the Group. In these stories, the Groupers confess their moral shortcomings and explain how Jesus has helped them overcome those shortcomings.

During the course of a House Party, potential coverts who become interested in having an Oxford Group experience request an Interview. Interviews are a one-on-one session with an experienced member of the Group, who asks the potential convert to examine their lives against the standard of the Four Absolutes.

The Four Absolutes are: Honesty, Purity, Unselfishness, and Love. These are the absolute standards that the Groupers attribute to Christ. When one examines oneself against the Four Absolutes, one is looking for ways in which one’s thinking or behavior violates those standards. In an Interview, the Four Absolutes allow the Oxford Grouper to discover those places in potential converts’lives that are most troubling to them. After a full confession of shortcomings is made, the potential convert is asked to surrender their will and their lives to God.

New converts exit an Interview feeling Changed. They are prepared to live life on a new basis. They also are usually given an assignment by the Grouper who conducted their Interview. If the convert had mentioned harming someone, they are sent out to make Restitution. In an act of Restitution, new converts Share their experience with the persons they have wronged, and then expresses a desire to do whatever is necessary to correct that wrong. They probably also invite them to a House Party.

Once Restitution has been made, the new Groupers are encouraged to Share at House Parties, to conduct Interviews, and to practice seeking Guidance. Guidance is a form of prayer practiced by the Oxford Group. Generally, the Grouper seeking Guidance takes time in the morning before the day begins to sit quietly and listen for God to speak. Groupers kept notebooks to write down the thoughts that came to them. Some speak about Guidance coming in the form of thought that have a “special light,”others see Guidance as trusting God to guide their conscience and commonsense. In addition to morning sessions, Groupers stay alert during the day, believing that Guidance can come at any time.

Many Oxford Groupers report unusual experiences with Guidance. The general trend in these experiences is that the Grouper gets an insight to act in a way that seems nonsensical at first. Once the initial insight is followed, however, a chain of unpredictable events takes place that results in a minor miracle. Usually either the Guided Grouper makes contact with a potential convert, or a Guided act of charity meets a need of which the Grouper had no prior knowledge.
I was suddenly told by something inside to send money to two children in New Zealand . I obeyed, and the needed money arrived six weeks later, just before the death of their widowed mother, whose sudden illness I could not have foreseen.

For Sinners Only
A.J. Russell
I got hold of [Frank Buchman’s] address and went off to see him. He was out…I sat down at the table in his room and began writing him a letter. All of a sudden he bounced into the room, breathlessly. ‘I knew there was someone needing me,’ he said. It turned out that he was on his way to see somebody else when he felt himself stopped dead in the street and ordered to go to his room. The other appointment was important, so he had run all the way back.

Life Changers
Harold Begbie

Oxford Groupers understand the need to double check the thoughts they receive in Guidance. As a general rule, Groupers test their insights against the Bible, the Four Absolutes, and in cases that are still unclear, they consult other members of the Group. Frequently, too, Groupers will receive Guidance about the behavior of another member of the Group. Approaching other members to offer them Guidance is called “checking.”

The core of Oxford Group practice is saving souls. All other practices are simply in place to facilitate the Group’s efforts at evangelism. Sharing at House Parties, and on mission trips all over the world, form the core of Oxford Group spirituality. Once a potential convert is saved, he or she is encouraged to get to work saving others as quickly as possible. The test of a true Christian’s life, Groupers say, is whether or not that Christian is saving souls.

The Oxford Group grows and changes over time. Some Groupers are focused on foreign missions, others on hosting a roving series of House Parties. Still other Groupers form stable community-based networks that meet regularly in the same place. Stable Groups form in New York City and also in Akron , Ohio . Bill Wilson will eventually have a powerful spiritual experience that will free him of the desire to drink after his encounter with the Oxford Group in New York . Dr. Robert Smith will join the Oxford Group in Akron , but will continue to drink until he works with Bill. Alcoholics Anonymous will develop as a subdivision of the Oxford Group, and the Group’s practices will form the basis for the Twelve Steps.


While under treatment at Towns Hospital , Bill Wilson experiences a flash of white light and an overwhelming sense of well-being that frees him from his alcoholism. Bill’s “hot flash,” as he would later call it, leads him to associate with the Oxford Group. It should be noted, however, that Bill’s experience is quite different from the typical Oxford Grouper’s experience, and these differences have their effect on the way he relates to the Group’s practices.

Shortly before his final treatment at Towns, Bill is approached by Ebby Thatcher, a former drinking companion of Bill’s who is now sober due to his involvement with the Oxford Group. Ebby introduces a reluctant but curious Bill to the Oxford Group and its program. Bill responds by checking himself into Towns.

The spiritual experience Bill has at Towns is as powerful as it is spontaneous. He is relieved of his need to drink even though he had not yet attempted any of the Oxford Group practices. Bill hadn’t shared, examined himself by the Four Absolutes, or made any restitution, yet he walked away from Towns a new man. And Bill was filled with a passion to help other drunks.

When Bill later begins attending Oxford Group meetings, he does so not so much for the sake of his own soul, as to research how the Group works with alcoholics. Apparently, Bill is not at all interested in anything else the Group might have to offer. James Houck, a surviving Oxford Group member, remembers Bill like this:
He was never interested in the things we were interested in. All he ever wanted to talk about was alcoholism.

Bill W.
by Francis Hartigan

Also, Bill is not interested in the fact that Oxford Group practices can be applied to problems other than drinking.
Bill did not think drinking was a sin and he did not share the OG’s view of other human failings either…he had no interest in giving up smoking, and Bill seems always to have been ladies’ man…he also seems to have been unconcerned about the Group’s views on the subject. Houck recalls that [Bill] often regaled its members with tales of his exploits.

Bill W.
by Francis Hartigan

For Bill, it seems, to be sober is enough. In fact, it is more than he ever dreamed possible. If Bill is only interested in as much of the Oxford Group experience as will help him to help other drunks, it is probably because he sees his own sobriety as an unsurpassed miracle. He is sober. He is going to live. How could anything matter more than saving the life of another?

It is important to note, however, that Bill has only a limited experience with the Oxford Group program, as this will later effect his interpretation of the Twelve Steps. Also, that fact that Bill places a high value on sobriety and a much lower value on moral purity will effect his style of working with others, both in person and in writing, and so Bill’s values will become infused into the structure and character of AA.


Bill’s failure to transmit his experience to other alcoholics leads to a conversation with Dr. William Silkworth. After this conversation, Bill approaches alcoholics with a medical description of their shared condition, and saves the “God stuff” for later.

One can imagine that, if Bill had conformed to the norms of the Oxford Group and attempted to apply its principles to areas of his life other than drinking, he might have been an extremely successfully Oxford Group member. He had a dramatic story of sin and salvation, and a steady supply of people eager to hear him and follow his example.

However, Bill feels compelled to focus solely on alcoholism, in his self and in others. He is also driven to draw potential converts from outside the Oxford Group pool. He opens his home to select street drunks and then exposes them to his understanding of Oxford Group principles. Bill strongly believes that he can induce a spiritual experience in other alcoholics by convincing them that they need help. When he is unsuccessful, Bill questions his methods and assumptions. He turns to Dr. Silkworth for advice.
Dr. Silkworth had given me a great piece of advice. Without it, A.A. might never have been born. “Look, Bill,” he had said, “you’re having nothing but failure because you are preaching at these alcoholics. You are talking to them about the Oxford Group precepts of being absolutely honest, absolutely pure, absolutely unselfish, and absolutely loving. This is a very big order. Then you top it off by harping on this mysterious spiritual experience of yours. No wonder they point their finger to their heads and go out and get drunk. Why don’t you turn your strategy the other way around? Aren’t you the very fellow who once showed me that book by the psychologist James which says that deflation at great depth is the foundation of most spiritual experiences?…you’ve got the cart before the horse. You’ve got to deflate people first. So give them the medical business, and give it to them hard…Only then can you begin to try out your other medicine, the ethical principles you have picked up from the Oxford Group.

Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age
Bill Wilson

Bill shifts gears and begins to approach other alcoholics with a description of their medical condition rather than addressing their spiritual need. In Bill’s mind, this is the origin of the first three Steps.

This new approach is significant because it introduces a medical understanding into AA thought, the “disease concept” of alcoholism. This medical understanding coexists with the moral understanding of alcohol inherited from the Oxford Group in AA literature and practice up to the present day.


While on a trip to Akron , Ohio , Bill is hit by the desire to drink. He makes some phone calls and sets up an appointment to meet with Dr. Robert Holbrook Smith, a member of the Oxford Group in Akron who is also an active alcoholic. The encounter results in Dr. Bob’s sobriety and is considered the founding moment of Alcoholics Anonymous. Dr. Bob’s work in Akron and Bill’s work in New York City lead to the growth of two fellowships of recovered alcoholics. Though the fellowships consider themselves to be two halves of a whole program, in practice Akron is far more religious and New York more social.

One of the strongest features of Akron ’s program is the requirement that each member surrender themselves to God before attending any meetings. Wally G., whose story appears in the first edition of the Big Book, says this in an interview with Bill Wilson:
On the business of surrender which I think was probably the most important part of this whole thing, Dr. Smith took my surrender the morning I left the hospital. At that time it was the only way you became a member—you became a member by a definite act or prayer and surrender, just as they did it in the [Oxford] Group.

Quoted in The Akron Genesis of Alcoholics Anonymous
By Dick B.

According to another member of the Akron fellowship, Bob E.:
The act of surrender…was very important at the time. There were no exceptions. You couldn’t attend a meeting unless you had gone through that.

From an interview by Bill Wilson
Quoted in The Akron Genesis of Alcoholics Anonymous
By Dick B.

The Akron fellowship stays very close to Oxford Group practices. They read from the Bible at their meetings. They use the Four Absolutes. They hold morning prayer meetings where they seek Guidance. It comes as hard news to the Akron fellowship when, in 1937, they hear that the New York fellowship is separating from the Oxford Group. The Akronites do not follow suit until two years later, in October of 1939, after the publication of the Big Book. In Akron today, AA still circulates a pamphlet describing the 4 Absolutes and their importance to recovery.

The New York fellowship has no requirement that members surrender their lives to God before attending meetings. Bill’s policy seems to be that it is best to get people into a meeting, regardless of their spiritual inclinations or lack thereof. This results in a fellowship whose membership expresses a mix of attitudes toward spirituality. There is a conservative-religious wing, which believes that the program should be explicitly Christian; a moderate-liberal wing, which believes in God but thinks that each person should be free to interpret their own experiences; and a radically liberal wing of atheists and agnostics who come to meetings but do not engage in any spiritual practices.

When the New York fellowship breaks with the Oxford Group, they leave many of its practices behind. In particular, New Yorkers are not comfortable with the practices of Guidance and the Four Absolutes. Bill describes the feelings of the New York fellowship this way:
They would not stand for the rather aggressive evangelism of the Oxford Groups. And they would not accept the principle of “team guidance” for their own personal lives…When first contacted, most alcoholics just wanted to find sobriety, nothing else. They clung to their other defects, letting go only little by little…The Oxford Groups’ absolute concepts—absolute purity, absolute honesty, absolute unselfishness, and absolute love—were frequently too much for the drunks.

Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age

When Bill writes the first draft of the Twelve Steps, the Steps make several unqualified references to God, and suggest that alcoholics should get down on their knees in order to ask God to remove their defects of character. There is much resistance to these Steps from some of the New Yorkers. They complained to Bill that:
“You’ve got too much God in these Steps; you will scare people away.” And, “What do you mean by getting those drunks “on their knees” when they ask to have all their shortcomings removed?” And, “Who wants all their shortcomings removed, anyhow?”

Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age

After much debate, it is the moderate-liberals who win the day and set the spiritual tone of the Twelve Steps. The Steps will remain spiritual, but with some important amendments.
In Step Two we decided to describe God as a “Power greater than ourselves.” In Steps Three and Eleven we inserted the words “God as we understood Him.” From Step Seven we deleted the expression “on our knees.” And, as a lead-in sentence to all the steps we wrote these words: “Here are the steps we took which are suggested as a Program of Recovery.” A.A.’s Twelve Steps were to be suggestions only.

Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age

The New York fellowship is clearly moving toward a Re-Socialization view of recovery. People with different ideas about the relationship between spirituality and recovery exist side-by-side in the same fellowship, and the opinions of each member are treated with equal respect. While the majority feel that a conversion experience is important to successful recovery, people who do not share this view are welcomed into the fellowship. In the future, as AA grows in New York , this policy will lead to a population that is increasingly agnostic.


Alcoholics Anonymous, commonly called the Big Book, is an attempt to collect and codify all knowledge gained by the new fellowships. Because of the differences between New York and Akron, the result is not a perfect description of either group’s program but represents a middle ground between the two, less religious than Akron, but still less social than New York. The final manuscript shows that, whatever the program of Alcoholics Anonymous may actually be, it is much removed from the Oxford Group.

The Big Book expresses a clear Conversion Experience view of recovery. It suggests that a conversion experience, or a spiritual experience, may be necessary for recovery from alcoholism.

We were in a position where life was becoming impossible, and if we had passed into the region from which there is no return through human aid, we had but two alternatives: One was to go on to the bitter end, blotting out the consciousness of our intolerable situation as best we could; and the other, to accept spiritual help.

Alcoholics Anonymous

The Big Book has high expectations for alcoholics who successfully work the Steps. By the time alcoholics reach Step Ten, the Big Book promises that they will no longer be possessed by the obsession to drink, and will experience a reversal of their natural inclinations toward selfishness. Self-centeredness will be replaced by altruism and reliance upon God.

We will lose interest in selfish things and gain interest in our fellows. Self-seeking will slip away. Our whole attitude and outlook on life will change. We will intuitively know how to handle situations that used to baffle us. We will suddenly realize that God is doing for us what we could not do for ourselves.

Alcoholics Anonymous

Even thought the Big Book expresses a strong Conversion Experience view of recovery, it still differs from Oxford Group thinking in four important ways.

First, the Big Book contains no reference to Jesus Christ. To a modern reader, the Big Book may seem to smack of Christian language, with constant reference to God as “He.”  In its own time, however, and in the context of the Oxford Group, the Big Book was actually taking a big step away from Christian language and theology by leaving out references to Jesus. Furthermore, the Big Book makes clear that each alcoholic can choose their own concept of God.

Much to our relief, we discovered we did not need to consider another’s conception of God. Our own conception, however inadequate, was sufficient to make the approach and to effect a contact with Him…When, therefore, we speak to you of God, we mean your own conception of God.

Alcoholics Anonymous

Second, the Big Book is primarily concerned with alcohol. While the Oxford Group is concerned with the whole of a person’s moral condition, and treats alcoholism as one aspect of that condition, the Big Book focuses on alcohol first and foremost.

Third, the process of inventory outlined in the Big Book has important differences from the Oxford Group practice of the Four Absolutes. Instead of a straightforward self-examination using the ideals of Honesty, Purity, Unselfishness, and Love, the Big Book outlines a three-stage inventory, examining resentments, fears, and sexual behavior. In examining resentments, for example, the inventory-taker looks for ways in which he or she has been selfish, self-seeking, dishonest, and afraid. This is similar to the Four Absolutes, because these four negative qualities roughly match up with the four positive qualities of the Absolutes. However, Big Book inventory is more limited than the Four Absolutes, because it only deals with resentment, fear, and sexual behavior, while the Four Absolutes can be applied much more broadly.

The fourth major difference between the Big Book and the program of the Oxford Group is the substitution of the Eleventh Step for the practice of Guidance. The Big Book describes a practice of meditating in the morning upon the coming day’s events, and then reviewing one’s conduct in the evening. Nowhere is there any mention of Guidance.

The accomplishment of the Big Book is that it codifies Oxford Group techniques, removing elements that would cause undo resistance in the average alcoholic. The program it describes allows for a conversion experience not grounded in the context of an organized religion. The Big Book speaks of this as a “spiritual experience” rather than a conversion experience. All the elements of a conversion experience are present without the necessity of assenting to the doctrines of a specific church. This means that the psychological process of conversion is now available outside of an evangelical Christian context.

However, no one is actually practicing the program outlined in the Big Book. The Big Book does not describe the practice of either the New York or the Akron fellowship; instead, it represents a middle ground between the practices of both groups. At the time of the publication of the Big Book, the balance of power between Akron and New York is even. In the following years, AA headquarters is established in New York and a growing program looks to Bill and to the social program of New York for guidance. Before long, Akron’s becomes a minority viewpoint in AA, and Bill is able to write a new interpretation of the Twelve Steps that is a better expression of the New York program. This new interpretation will take the form of Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions.


In Bill’s struggle with depression, he looks for help outside of the Twelve Steps. What he finds in psychotherapy and his relationship with Father Ed Dowling will change his perspective on the Steps.

After returning from a three month tour of the States, during which he and Lois visited most existing AA groups, Bill collapses into depression and remains depressed for two years. He suffers from such episodes until 1953. Bill’s depression is troubling to many AA’s, some of whom accuse Bill of not working the program. Bill himself also wonders if he hasn’t failed to practice the Steps. According to the official AA biography of Bill:
Bill believed that his depressions were perpetuated by his own failure to work the AA steps…”I used to be rather guilt ridden about this…I blamed myself for inability to practice the program in certain areas of my life.”

Pass It On

And Bill may have good reason to believe that his Stepwork is deficient.
According to Tom P., when he was working with Bill on the Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, Bill was frequently overwhelmed by the guild and remorse he felt as a consequence of his infidelities and the turmoil his affairs were causing within the fellowship…According to Tom, trying to write about the need for alcoholics to practice “rigorous honesty”…left Bill felling terribly fraudulent. The result was those days…when he was so despondent he literally could not pick his head up from his desk.

Bill W.
Francis Hartigan

Bill may see his depression as a result of his failure to work the Twelve Steps, but he does not turn to Stepwork to get him back on his feet. This may be due in part to the influence of Father Ed Dowling.

Bill meets Dowling when the man comes knocking at his door in 1940. At the time Bill is down and out, but still four years from serious depression. Dowling announces that he has sought Bill out to discuss the similarities between the Exercises of St. Ignatius and the Twelve Steps. During their conversation, Bill confesses his personal struggles. Dowling, author of the article, “How to Enjoy Being Miserable,” gives Bill a new perspective on depression.
Father Ed quoted to him, “Blessed are they who hunger and thirst.”
When Bill asked whether there was ever to be any satisfaction, the older man snapped back, “Never. Never any.” Bill was to be a person who would keep on reaching. In his reaching he would find God goals, hidden in his own heart.

The Soul of Sponsorship
by Robert Fitzgerald, S.J.

Accepting this view means that Bill can understand his growing despondency not as a result of his failure to apply spiritual principles, but a sign of his spiritual depth and giftedness. According to Dowling, God has blessed Bill with an ambition and a desperation that cause his suffering, but will also lead Bill to great things. The solution for Bill, then, is not to search deeper for moral lapses and confess them, but to press on and accept the suffering as an inevitable fact. Bill does exactly that for four years until his depression becomes intolerable and he seeks help in psychotherapy.

In 1943, Bill enters therapy with Henry Tiebout, who specialized in the treatment of alcoholics and introduced Marty M. to AA. Tiebout’s diagnosis of Bill was that:
both in his active alcoholism and his current sobriety he had been trying to live out the infantilely grandiose demands of “His Majesty the Baby.”

by Ernest Kurtz

This statment reflects Tiebout’s view of alcoholics in general. The next year, Bill switches therapists, and begins seeing Frances Weeks, a Jungian. Week’s opinion of Bill is that his position in AA is causing him to neglect his personal needs. Says Bill in a letter to a friend regarding this insight:
Highly satisfactory to live one’s life for others, it cannot be anything but disastrous to live one’s life for others as those others think it should be lived…The extent to which the AA movement and the individual in it determine my choices is really astonishing. Things which are primary to me (even for the good of AA) are unfulfilled…So we have the person of Mr. Anonymous in conflict with Bill Wilson.

The Soul of Sponsorship
by Robert Fitzgerald, S.J.

Bill continues treatment with Weeks until at least 1949.

Bill’s experience in psychotherapy has an impact on his understanding of recovery and Stepwork. In two letters written in 1956, Bill suggests a means for the application of psychotherapy to AA principles.
It may be that someday we shall devise some common denominator of psychiatry…which neurotics could use on each other. The idea would be to extend the moral inventory of AA to a deeper level, making it an inventory of psychic damages…I suppose someday a Neurotics Anonymous will be formed and will actually do all this.

In the second letter Bill suggests:
an inventory of psychic damages, actual episodes: inferiority, shame, guilt, anger and relive (them) in our minds to reduce them.

both letters from
The Soul of Sponsorship
by Robert Fitzgerald, S.J.

The end result of Bill’s relationship with Father Ed Dowling and psychoanalytic treatment is that Bill moves away from a Religious Conversion View of recovery and adopts a Psychological View of recovery instead. Bill’s Psychological View will greatly influence his thinking as he writes Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, and so it will also affect the future practice of the Twelve Steps.


Hazelden, a treatment center whose treatment plan is based on the Twelve Steps, becomes extremely successful. As Hazelden grows, it replaces a strictly Big Book approach to treatment and with the multidisciplinary approach that will come to be known as the Minnesota Model. The Hazelden version of the Steps becomes increasingly psychological. As the influence of the Minnesota Model grows in the United States , it has an influence on Step practices within AA and other organizations.

Hazelden begins in a small farm house in Center City , Minnesota . Its treatment program is based on the Twelve Steps, and only requires four things of its clients:
When Hazelden officially opened its doors on 1 May 1949 , the program expectations were few and simple. The patients were expected to:

practice responsible behavior;

attend the lectures on the Steps;

associate and talk with the other patients; and

make their beds.

Hazelden A Spiritual Odyssey
Damian McElrath

Each client is given a copy of both the Big Book and the Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions. Treatment is administered by lay-therapists, recovering alcoholics who got their sobriety in AA. Treatment is focused solely on the first five of the Twelve Steps. All clients are encouraged to associate with one another, as identification of one drunk with another is seen as central to recovery.

As Hazelden grows, its board decides to expand Hazeden’s campus and treatment program. Several elements are adapted from the program developed at Wilmar State Hospital . Among these elements are the assumption that initial motivation is not related to treatment outcome and the multidisciplinary approach to treatment.

The assumption that initial motivation is not related to treatment outcome means that, unlike in Twelve Step organizations, at Hazelden the desire to stop using is not required to participate in treatment. You don’t have to want to get sober; you just have to check in. This policy means that many of Hazelden’s clients enter treatment with a high level of resistance to recovery. In order to compensate for this resistance, Hazelden places a great deal of emphasis on the First Step, where various forms of intervention are used to convince the client of his or her powerlessness and need for help.

Adopting the multidisciplinary approach means that Hazelden will now have psychiatrists working alongside the lay-therapists. This means introducing conflicting perspectives on how treatment should be carried out. Among Hazeden’s staff there is some resistance to the multidisciplinary approach:
[Lynn Carrol, longtime lay therapist at Hazelden] believed that the professionalization of treatment at Hazelden threatened the purity of the A.A. approach to recovery, and he resisted the integration of professional members and the ideas they brought. Tension between the old and new schools at Hazelden continued and escalated, resulting in Lynn C.’s departure from Hazelden in 1966.

Lynn C.’s exit confirmed the evolution of Hazelden’s treatment regimen from “pure A.A.” to one that integrated multiple disciplines and multiple treatment modalities, still bound together within an A.A.-oriented treatment philosophy.

Slaying the Dragon
William L. White
Many of Carroll’s disciples also became disillusioned at what they considered the betrayal of Carroll and the abandonment of A.A. principles on behalf of psychology. It was a time of serious crisis for Hazelden.

Hazelden: A Spiritual Odyssey
Damian McElrath

As a result of the introducing of psychologists and psychological treatment at Hazelden, Hazelden’s approach to the Steps becomes more psychologically oriented and changes over time with the trends in psychological theory.

For example, Hazelden’s most recent Fourth Step guide suggests a model of inventory that is influenced by Cognitive-Behavioral thought. It assumes that the troubles in an addict’s life are caused by the addict’s mistaken beliefs.
Mistaken beliefs cause us to think irrationally and act in self-defeating ways…One of the benefits of a personal inventory is that you have an opportunity to see in print all of the damaging statements you have been telling yourself over the years and decide if you think they are valid or not.

Step 4: Getting Honest

As Hazelden grows larger, and its influence on recovery thought expands, Hazelden’s psychological style of Stepwork grows in popularity. Hazelden’s version of the Steps effects not only Stepwork within a treatment setting, but in the growing diversity Twelve Step fellowships. The introduction of psychological interpretations of addiction and recovery cause some controversy within AA.
12-step treatment has caused marked disagreements about how much psychological explanation and interpretation should go into an AA meeting. The disagreements concern the importance of ‘getting in touch with your feelings’ and the role of psychodynamic vocabulary in the recovery process…many traditional members feel uncomfortable with ‘treatment psychobabble,’ but the dissatisfaction is reciprocal.

Alcoholics Anonymous as a Mutual-Help Movement:
A Study in Eight Societies
The Nordic Council for Alcohol and Drug Research

The Nordic Council for Alcohol and Drug Research also finds that in countries where Minnesota Model treatment preceded the widespread presence of AA, the practice of Twelfth Step work is impacted significantly.
Institutional treatment based on the 12-step program also may have reduced 12th-step work…Twelve-step treatment programs usually require the completion of Step Five before discharge. Where Step Five is completed in an institutional setting, there is no compelling reason for a newcomer to take a sponsor or share their Step Five with another AA member. The basic symmetry in taking Step Five and the resulting strong social bond is also lacking at most treatment institutions.

Alcoholics Anonymous as a Mutual-Help Movement:
A Study in Eight Societies
The Nordic Council for Alcohol and Drug Research

Hazelden and its style of treatment have promoted a form of Stepwork that is both professional and psychological. This style of Stepwork is also less thorough, with a strong emphasis on the First Step, no presentation of the last seven Steps, and a decidedly negative impact on the practice of the Twelfth Step.

The fact that Hazelden’s Stepwork shifted toward the first five Steps is representative of both the psychological character of Hazelden’s development, as the first five Steps are all focused on the internal state of the Stepworker, and the limits of in-patient treatment, as the amends process and sponsoring others are not practical tasks for an in-patient setting. To Hazelden’s credit, its Minnesota Model pioneered professional Twelve-Step treatment. The popular success of this model will go a long way toward legitimizing the Twelve Steps to the American public, and this will be one factor leading to the Twelve Step Boom.


As AA grows and its population changes, Bill feels the need to reinterpret the Twelve Steps in a way that is responsive to the new membership of AA, and more accurately reflects the program of the New York fellowship. Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions presents Bill’s new interpretation of the Twelve Steps. The new interpretation is both more social and more psychological than the Big Book.
“Alcoholics Anonymous,” published when our membership was small, dealt with low bottom cases only. Many less desperate alcoholics tried A.A., but did not succeed…in the following years this changed.

Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions

AA is now composed of a growing number of alcoholics who still have their health, families, and jobs. Some of these newcomers are also relatively young. Because they are less desperate, these newcomers are also less motivated to work the Steps.
Few people will sincerely try to practice the A.A. program unless they have hit bottom…the average alcoholic…doesn’t care for this prospect—unless he has to do these things in order to stay alive.

Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions

In order to address the needs of this population, Bill “widens the hoop” that members have to jump through in order to feel that they are actively working the AA program. He accomplishes this primarily by introducing the “method of substitution” in his Third Step instructions, and making major changes to the inventory process.

In speaking of the trouble that many AA’s have with turning their will and life over to the care of God, Bill says this:
[Many people] begin to solve the problem by the method of substitution. You can, if you wish, make A.A. itself your “higher power”…many members…have crossed the threshold just this way…most of them began to talk of God.

Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions

Bill clearly expects that alcoholics who use AA as their higher power will eventually adopt a more spiritual outlook. However, Bill’s method of substitution also makes it possible for AA members to feel that they are honestly working the Steps without ever turning their lives over to the care of God.

Bill’s new instructions for the Fourth Step are another significant development. The Big Book outlines an inventory process that sees selfishness as the root of the alcoholic’s problems. In Bill’s new version, however, the root of the alcoholic’s problems is not selfishness, but rather instincts that are out of balance.
Nearly every serious emotional problem can be seen as a case of misdirected instinct. When that happens, our great natural assets, the instincts, have turned into physical and mental liabilities.

Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions

Also, the 12&12 inventory is not focused strictly on defects of character:
The sponsor probably points out that the newcomer has some assets which can be noted along with his liabilities.

Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions

This new inventory is not meant to resemble a soul surgery, in which the Stepworker identifies and carves out the defects of character that are blocking his or her soul from God. Rather, this inventory is an open-ended process of introspection and reflection.

Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions is less hopeful than the Big Book about the results a person can expect from working the Twelve Steps. There is no promise of a life of freedom from selfishness, or a new life of intimacy with spiritual power. Instead, recovering alcoholics should be content with gradual progress over a long period of time.
Having been granted a perfect release from alcoholism, why then shouldn’t we be able to achieve by the same means a perfect release from every other difficulty or defect? This is the riddle of our existence, the full answer to which may only be in the mind of God.

Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions

The sentiment that alcoholics should expect sobriety to be marked by long periods of struggle with their personal shortcomings is a reflection of Bill’s own struggles with depression. His decreased expectations for the quality of his own sobriety lead him to lower his expectations for others as well. Bill’s experiences with seeking help from psychiatrist lead him to a new understanding of the inventory process that is more psychological in nature. Also, in Bill’s mind, the method of substitution is adequate because he does not have the same faith in the ability of spiritual experience to address all of the alcoholic’s troubles.

This new version of Stepwork is no longer insists on spiritual experience as the answer to the problems of the alcoholic. Instead, it offers a solution that is social and psychological in nature. Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions and its brand of Stepwork effects the nature of the Twelve Steps within AA, and will also affect the practice of the Steps in all future Twelve Step fellowships.

Reprinted from Just for Today Meditations