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A History of Alcoholics Anonymous – How It Still Stands

A History of Alcoholics Anonymous – How It Still Stands

Alcoholics Anonymous is a program of recovery created to help those who struggle with seemingly hopeless alcohol dependence achieve sobriety. It is a spiritually-based program that encourages you to develop and maintain a connection with a higher power, something greater than you that keeps you from drinking on a daily basis. Although it is spiritual in nature and contains many references to a “God of your own understanding” or a Higher Power, AA does not consider itself to be a religious program. Regular AA meetings are held throughout the week at locations such as churches or community centers. Members attend to share their experience while drinking, their strength in sobriety, and the hope that others can find the same happiness in recovery as they have. Those trying to get sober or who are early in their recovery, referred to as “newcomers”, can find inspiration in those with longer periods of sobriety. The program of AA is based upon the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, a 12 step path to sobriety with the end goal of a spiritual experience that will deepen your connection with your Higher Power. The 12 Steps are outlined in the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous, the basic text for the program. So named due to the thick paper upon which it was originally printed, the Big Book has seen four editions and over 30 million copies sold. The 12 Steps are also deeper explored in the 12 Steps and 12 Traditions, a complementary book to the Big Book. Today, AA has been in existence for over 80 years. It is incredible to see that a program created in an entirely different day and age still maintains its relevance in today’s world. Society has sped up considerably with the advancements in technology and transportation but Alcoholics Anonymous has remained the same, ever present for those looking to get sober. How does AA continue to provide a place for recovering alcoholics to gather and share in their journeys together today?

Before Alcoholics Anonymous

Bill W. was a New York stockbroker with an unquenchable thirst for alcohol. Despite multiple hospital stays and job losses, moving from place to place to find employment with people whom he hadn’t lost trust from, he continued to drink. A drinker from a young age after serving in multiple wars, his alcohol use progressed steadily until he was drinking throughout the day and during the night when he would inevitably wake up shaking. Drinking was habit and routine; he knew no other way to get through life. After a countless series of attempts to get sober, he was visited by an old friend and drinking colleague, Ebby T., who had found a way to get sober through a connection with God, developed in the Oxford Group. Though Bill had been in contact with the Oxford Group, it had proved no help in licking his drinking problem. However, upon seeing a once-defunct Ebby glowing with the light of sobriety, he realized he too could get sober. Ebby took Bill through an early, rougher, unnamed version of the 12 Steps and Bill had his spiritual experience then and there. Ebby also insisted that in order to keep his sobriety he must carry this message to other alcoholics. Only another alcoholic could understand the true suffering and impossibility that a drinking man faces on a daily basis. It takes an alcoholic to know an alcoholic. Though not called Alcoholics Anonymous yet, the program was in sight. From that day Bill never drank again. Soon after his release from the hospital he got in touch with Dr. Bob S.. Dr. Bob was another chronic alcoholic who could not quit despite his endless embarrassments and attempts at sobriety. He learned he could quiet delirium tremens with sedatives in order to get through the day before he could drink after work, doubling his problem to both alcohol and drugs. Bill carried the message that he had learned from Ebby to Dr. Bob. The two men created an immediate partnership to bring it to still others. From this day the program of Alcoholics Anonymous was born. Before Alcoholics Anonymous

The History of AA

After Bill brought the program to Dr. Bob, the two carried it further to Akron City Hospital where they found the third member of AA. These three men made up the first AA meeting and group. Soon after, still in 1935, a group was established in New York. Cleveland became the home of the third group in the fall of 1935. By 1939, these three groups were comprised of the first 100 members of Alcoholics Anonymous. The Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous was written by Bill and published for the first time in 1939, with all 12 Steps laid out and explained. It also included 30 stories of experience, strength, and hope selected from the original members. In the same year, a set of articles  about Alcoholics Anonymous were published by the Cleveland Plain Dealer. The group in Cleveland suddenly swelled to over 500 after hundreds of pleas from struggling alcoholics poured in. Soon after, the members of AA opened an office in New York where alcoholics could reach out for help and receive information about the fellowship, funded mostly by the members themselves. Volunteers replied to letters that individuals across the nation would send after hearing of Alcoholics Anonymous, including a small pamphlet with information on the fellowship. The Big Book was also available for those who needed one. By the end of 1940, the memberships numbers of Alcoholic Anonymous were over 2,000. Publicization of the fellowship from more newspapers and magazines, as well as from well-known members of society, continued to increase. As the membership of Alcoholics Anonymous exploded to 6,000 during the early 1940s, the founders realized the need for a set of guidelines to establish how AA should function in order to remain intact. In response to the greater numbers in 1946, Bill wrote the 12 Traditions to keep the fellowship intact that they may help others find, achieve, and maintain sobriety. In 1950, with over 100,000 members now spread worldwide, Alcoholics Anonymous held its first International Convention. As Dr. Bob died in the same year, it was at the International Convention that he made his final appearance. The 12 Traditions were put into effect, as important as the 12 Steps, to be used by groups all over the world to hold the fellowship together although its members were, in some places, far apart. After the first International Convention, the Central Office in New York began to publish additional informational pamphlets as well as a “meeting in print”, the AA Grapevine. The General Service Board was developed to hold together these worldwide groups, to which the trustees from these widespread groups were responsible. The first General Service Conference was held in 1951. The second International Convention congregated in 1955 where Bill passed down the responsibility of Alcoholics Anonymous to its trustees. Alcoholics Anonymous celebrated its 20th Anniversary at this convention the responsibility of the General Service Board was now more important than ever. If AA were to survive, its members had to rigorously adhere to the 12 Steps and 12 Traditions. Bill W. passed away on January 24th, 1971 of pneumonia. The year before, at the International Conference and the 35th Anniversary celebration of AA, he delivered what are understood to be his final words to the fellowship at large: “God bless you and Alcoholics Anonymous forever.” The History of AA

How the Fellowship Has Evolved

Today there is estimated to be over 2 million members and 117,000 groups, according to the latest data from the General Service Office. Alcoholics Anonymous remains centered upon the 12 Steps and the 12 Traditions, still as important today as they were when first brought into effect in 1950. Through these principles the program has remained intact and available for any individual seeking long-term recovery. With such large amounts of people utilizing the program to stay sober, there are understandably a wide variety of people interested in recovery. Various types of meetings exist today that were not possible before due to limited numbers of members.

  • Women’s meetings: Meetings for women only, now possible with much greater numbers of female members.
  • Men’s meetings: Meetings for men only.
  • Young people’s meetings: As the teenage and young adult population has found home in Alcoholics Anonymous, young people’s meetings are more readily available.
  • LGBT meetings: Meetings that provide a place for LGBT members to express themselves without worry. LGBT allies are also welcome; they are not restricted only to LGBT AAs.

The 12 Steps remain the same and continued to be practiced by AAs today. Since there are many different human interpretations of the steps, not everyone practices them in the same way. Some people choose to adhere directly to how they were stated in the Big Book, but even within the text, Dr. Bob works a 4th Step differently than Bill described it within the first 164 pages. There are discrepancies throughout the program as every individual is flawed, but the program still remains the same, ready for people who hope to get sober. How the Fellowship Has Evolved

How effective is Alcoholics Anonymous?

It is difficult to collect numerical data on the effectiveness of Alcoholics Anonymous. Due to its anonymous nature and its lack of attendance-keeping at meetings, scientists are unable to truly study the success rate of the program. Some peg the rate at around 5%, while a 2006 study showed that after a 16 year period, 34% of individuals not in AA were still sober while 67% who were in AA had maintained their sobriety. With the increased membership due to treatment centers bringing their patients as well as court-assigned attendance, it is difficult to tell how many people are serious about their sobriety. Some are forced into treatment for alcohol dependence by loved ones and aren’t ready to get sober, while others who were pegged for a DUI after a few drinks at the bar are not truly alcoholics and simply made a poor decision one night.

How Does AA Maintain its Relevance?

With a rigorous adherence to the Big Book, the 12 Steps, and the 12 Traditions, AA continues to thrive. Though some discount its credibility due to members who do not follow the traditions, the program itself is incredibly simple. It is summed up in the final chapter of the Big Book as, “Trust God, clean house, help others.” The simplicity is encouraging to many who find comfort in simple instruction. Alcoholics Anonymous is full of flawed human beings doing their best to help one another remain sober on a daily basis. Not everyone practices the principles in all of their affairs which results in AA appearing as though it is ineffective or a program in poor taste. However, no one person can speak as a representative of the fellowship, as stated in the traditions. According to the traditions, the “public relations policy is based on attraction rather than promotion.” After much discourse following the publications of AA accounts in the 1950s, the founders felt it best that no individual could speak on account of the program. How Does AA Maintain its Relevance

The Future of Alcoholics Anonymous

It will be interesting to see where Alcoholics Anonymous is another 80 years from now. Treatment centers may continue to incorporate AA as part of their programs, or may move into a more secular option. Alternatives to AA, such as other 12-step programs, SMART Recovery, or Celebrate Recovery, have proven to be better fits for some individuals with alcohol dependence. As more research is conducted on addiction and alcoholism, more alternatives and solutions will come about. Though there is currently  no “cure” for alcoholism, perhaps there will be in the future. Until then, Alcoholics Anonymous has proved itself an effective solution for many and, as long as the 12 Steps and 12 Traditions remain intact, will remain present for those seeking sobriety.


“The Big Book, Alcoholics Anonymous” 12 Steps to Recovery “The Birth of A.A. and Its Growth in the US and Canada” Alcoholics Anonymous “Estimated Worldwide A.A. Individual and Group Membership” AA General Service Office