How Accurate Is the Dick B Narrative of Early Akron AA?

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How Accurate Is the Dick B Narrative of Early Akron AA?

By Jesse Beach 05/24/18

“A living amends I owe to the fellowship of AA is that I left Dick to work on the Akron/Dr. Bob history. Only later I came to understand that Dick had an agenda." -AA Historian Jay Stinnett

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Black and white image of men in suits at a table under a sign reading "BUT FOR THE GRACE OF GOD A.A."
AA is a not a zero-sum game: It’s not Christian but not secular, Buddhist but not Christian, irreligious and therefore not religious.

Have you heard it said that AA of yesteryear was a Christian fellowship, early New York AA is where the liberals were, and Akron AA was bible-belt AA? I heard that. My impression was this narrative came from objective historical accounts. Now, I’ve discovered some 1940s Akron literature and I’m not sure. A look at early AA documents suggests that AA has never been Christian, secular or Buddhist or anything really—just accommodating.

“Periodically, I find it useful to pick up something I think I know and re-examine it.” This is part of the legacy of Dr. Ernie Kurtz, author of the seminal account of AA’s beginnings, Not God: A History of Alcoholics Anonymous.

“In doing history, recognize that one truth, can’t be the total truth, when we come across conflicting truths; one truth might be more-true than the other… we might ask, ‘Why is one person lying?’ Ask first, ‘Does this person have an agenda?’ Everyone has one agenda or another; the only agenda for the historian is to try to figure out what really happened. It’s easy to feel that when we find a truth that we have the truth. Historical truths should be presented tentatively. [As historians] our task is not to convince; our task is to present.”

Let’s start with where I got this idea of AA’s Christian roots in the first place. You can’t google “AA History” without finding the prolific writings of Dick B. In his 1992, Anne Smith’s Journal, Dick argues that Alcoholics Anonymous, “emanates from the Bible and Christian roots.”

There are 46 Dick B books and a thousand essays. Is he AA’s historian? Dick B’s own webpage memorializes and markets his views and books. Other sites tout Dick as a legitimate historian. Silkworth.net reports, “Dick B. is the leading scholar on the spiritual roots of Alcoholics Anonymous.” My impression of early Ohio AA was likely colored by Dick-isms, directly or indirectly; they continue to come up in online debates.

From Dick B’s autobiography: “In 1986, he was felled by alcoholism, gave up his law practice, and began recovery as a member of the Fellowship of Alcoholics Anonymous.” Kurt’s Not God was his doctoral thesis for his Harvard History PhD. How might a lawyer’s writing differ from an academic’s? Is a lawyer’s goal to expose the truth or cherry-pick evidence to make a persuasive argument? Nevertheless, just because he’s “selling something” doesn’t make it not-true.

Not everyone regards Dick B as a historian. On Amazon.com’s page for a 1995 variation of Dick B’s, Dr. Bob’s Library: Books for Twelve Step Growth, there is one lone review, a warning: “writing under the guise of ‘AA History’ this writer is promoting an agenda—the Evangelical Christianization of AA—that flies in the face of [AA] World Service approved histories.”

Have you ever read, The Akron Pamphlets? For $4, you can still get the set of five from Akron Intergroup. The wrapper explains this account of our history:

“This historical literature was written by Evan W. at the request of Dr. Bob … Evan was a former writer for the newspaper… These pamphlets reflect the early mindset of Akron’s earliest members.”

Let’s compare the two narratives, The Akron Pamphlets, “the early mindset of Akron’s earliest members” vs. Dick’s case that, “The pioneers believed the answers to their problems were in the Bible. The AAs in Akron called themselves a ‘Christian Fellowship’”? We will leave it to you and your bullshit-meter to conclude what is-or-is-not true about early AA.

“Spiritual Milestones in Alcoholics Anonymous,” one of five of The Akron Pamphlets, records, “there have been some who have managed to keep sober simply by mechanical actions.” The pamphlet continues that for others, “until one has some spiritual conviction, and the more the better, he takes no joy in his sobriety.” The 16-page history suggests spiritual nourishment and Dick would be delighted to see they don’t shy away from recommending the Ten Commandments and the Prayer of St. Frances of Assisi. That’s pretty-darn Christian, alright. But Dick, keep reading.

The pamphlet quotes Voltaire, Dr. Karl Stolz, William James and Immanuel Kant. Dick, if you were still alive, I’d ask you to underline this following account, direct from the founders you profess to represent: “The spiritual life is by no means a Christian monopoly. There is not an ethical religion in the world today that does not teach to a great extent the principles of Love, Charity, and Good Will.”

The pamphlet elaborates, “The modern Jewish family is one of our finest examples of helping one another… Followers of Mohammed are taught to help the poor, give shelter to the homeless and the traveler, and conduct themselves with personal dignity.

Consider the eight-part program laid down in Buddhism: Right view, right aim, right speech, right action, right living, right effort, right mindedness and right contemplation. The Buddhist philosophy, as exemplified by these eight points, could be literally adopted by A.A. as a substitute for—or an addition to—the Twelve Steps. Generosity, universal love and welfare of others rather than consideration of self are basic to Buddhism.”

None of early-Akron’s pluralism disapproves of Dick B’s New Testament view to sobriety. You or I or Dick don’t need permission to read a bible at our meeting, so long as the group conscience is in favor. That might color our group “Christian” but that doesn’t concern “AA as a whole.”

I checked-in with an AA historian. Jay Stinnett co-founded the annual AA History Lover’s Symposium, he appears in the credits of the 2012 Bill W documentary and more recently, The Man Who Built Peace: The Frank Buchman Story (2017). Jay has done a great deal of primary research at both AA General Services archives as well as perusing the 227,000 documents at Stepping Stones Archives.

Jay quips, “A living amends I owe to the fellowship of AA is that I left Dick to work on the Akron/Dr. Bob history. Only later I came to understand that Dick had an agenda. Yes, he wrote a lot, but he was notoriously self-referential; he seemed to write the same book over-and-over again.”

Jay introduced me to Gail, an Akron AA history lover who gave me some background on the 1940’s Akron Pamphlets. Gail reminded me that Dr. Bob suffered from insomnia. Pre-internet, and pre-TV, Bob read through the night; he read a lot.

Of Dr. Bob’s library, Jay said, “Bob’s library contains some of the most controversial and dense spiritual stuff I’ve ever read. Try reading Tertium Organum by P.D. Ouspensky or Kingdom Come by Ivan Cooke, Ralph Waldo Trine’s (American philosopher) In Tune with the Infinite or Cosmic Consciousness (1905) by Richard Maurice Bucke, The Basic Teachings of Confucius, and As A Man Thinketh (1903) by James Allen and Outline of Modern Occultism by Cyril Scott. Although 85% of the library is Christian in content, these will show you the breadth of Bob’s search.”

As A Man Thinketh, for instance, may be biblical in name but more Buddhist in content: “Self control is strength. Right thought is mastery. Calmness is power.” Yes, Bob read The Bible, as did other early AAs. Yes, Akron was overwhelmingly Christian by custom and culture. Dick B never spoke to Dr. Bob or Bill W, directly. How much of the Dick B narrative is history and how much is what that Amazon reviewer might label, “revisionist history”?

In a 1966 letter, Bill W reminds us, “A.A. was not invented! Its basics were brought to us through the experience and wisdom of many great friends. We simply borrowed and adapted their ideas.” (AA World Services Inc., As Bill Sees It, p. 67)

So let’s assume that early AA literature “borrowed” Christian narrative. This would be familiar to 100 founding members. Themes such as damnation, redemption and transcendence were ideas embraced by Christianity, but they were hardly Christian inventions. Like AA, The Bible borrowed from the experience and wisdom that came before, be it from Rabbinical parables to the lessons of Siddhartha and Confucius, six and five centuries before the legend of Christ.

Dr. Bob Smith was familiar with bible study but not in isolation. Bob’s—and thus, the greater early Akron AA evolution—was informed, not by a lone Good Book, but by a good many books. This relativism is more than hinted at by the vast array of Bob’s reading diet.

AA is a not a zero-sum game: It’s not Christian but not secular, Buddhist but not Christian, irreligious and therefore not religious. Today’s AA evolves. The British conference-approved pamphlet, “The ‘God’ Word: Agnostics and Atheists in AA” was adopted by the General Service Conference this April. Secular AA isn’t un-AA any more than applying Christian or Buddhist philosophy.

Let’s draw from a context for AA in the day, Circa: 1940s USA from Tobin Grant, a political science professor at Southern Illinois University and associate editor of the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion. Grant’s 2014 claim might shake our view of early AA; get ready.

“It’s common for people to believe that religion was always more vibrant in the past. Earlier generations were always more religious than we are, right? Not always. Religiosity can rise and fall just like other things do over time. In fact, America of the 1940s was about as religious as America today.”

Say what? This Religious News Services report uses “a computer algorithm to track hundreds of survey results over the past eight decades. The result is one measure that charts changes to religiosity through the years.” Grant’s data reveals USA religiosity climbing dramatically from the 1940s to 1965. Algorithmic value of USA religiosity was 65 in 1945. Religiosity peaking at 77 (20% more) in the late 1950s. In 1965 religiosity decline to present day. Around 2005, American religiosity retuned to the mid-60s, where it was in mid-1940s. If we can remember 2005 AA, we have a sense of how religious 1945 AA was.

Dick B got sober in the 1980s—while America scored about 72. Dick’s early AA was in an America with a higher religiosity than 1945 AA. Tobin cites examples of America’s religious insurgence, “The 1950s were also a time when America began to see itself as a Christian nation in a cold war with atheistic communism. President Eisenhower joined a church after being elected, becoming the first president to be baptized while in office. In 1954, the phrase ‘under God’ was added to the pledge of allegiance to signify the religious stance of the country.”

Dick’s 46 books argue that AA, at its best, was/is a Christian Fellowship. I wouldn’t call him a liar. But I don’t know if “historian,” is accurate, either. I don’t doubt Dick’s sincerity about his own salvation being tied to the mercy of his savior, Jesus Christ. That doesn’t make his sobriety more righteous that Jim B who outlived both co-founders. Referred to in the Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions as “Ed the atheist,” Jim B’s humanist view of “power greater than himself” sustained him through life. AA’s greatest growth in groups and members from 2016 to 2017 was internationally, where monotheism isn’t as ingratiated by the population as in the USA. Outside AA, Women for Sobriety, SMART, Life Ring, Addicts Victorious and Refuge Recovery are a few examples of how any creed will do in mutual-aid recovery.

Dick’s “Make AA great again” campaign is predicated on early AA having a universal creed. While the language of AA is familiar to Christians, I suspect that’s for the same reason Alcoholics Anonymous was written in English; it’s the language familiar to the majority. AA’s historical record, The Akron Pamphlets suggests a wholly heterogeneous—not homogeneous—fellowship of members/groups taking what they like and rejecting the rest, be they Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, or none-of-the-above.

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Jesse Beach may be a contrarian. Clean and sober since the disco-era, Jesse finds the prayer-answering, sobriety-granting higher power notion a wee-bit superstitious for his pallet. Still, he finds a secular view of 12-Step culture no impediment to contented recovery. As a rebel, he's no follower either. Anonymity is so-last-century in this next-Gen smiley faces and voices recovery culture. Jesse's not shy; he just finds the message is the medium - not the messenger. Be the face and voice of recovery; have at it; Jesse is kickin' it old-school. Psst, Jesse Beach might not even be his real name. 

Besides addiction/recovery lifestyle journalism, Jesse's word-smithary is also found in music, finance and cue-sport magazines and websites. Jesse hosts a radio show on Sirius XM called, IndieCan Radio, "the best music you've never heard!" When he's away from his computer, you'll find him mountain climbing, cooking or songwriting.

Lurk or make contact with Jesse B on Rebellion Dogs at his website https://rebelliondogspublishing.com, Twitter, and Facebook.

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