Where do 12-step programs come from?

Where do 12-step programs come from? This is the first of a 5-part series of articles in which this, and other related questions will be discussed at some length. While this first blog looks at where 12-step recovery programs come from, across the whole of these articles however, I will also:

  • Explain what the 12 steps are, and how they work (Part 2)
  • Make clear the difference between the 12-steps of recovery and the various 12-step fellowships that accompany it (Part 3)
  • Describe the the role of the 12-step recovery program in addiction hospital programs/recovery centres (Part 4)
  • Describe how counselling can help with working the 12-step program (Part 5)

I must start however by making it absolutely clear that none of what follows in any of these articles is sanctioned by Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), Narcotics Anonymous (NA), Cocaine Anonymous (CA), or any other 12-step fellowship. Instead, what follows are my own thoughts having been involved with 12-step recovery fellowships both personally and professionally for over 30 years.

To understand where the 12 steps of recovery come from, we first must start with a brief history lesson. Prior to 1939, when the text book Alcoholics Anonymous was published, AA as we know it today did not exist. Unofficially however, it began 4 years earlier when Bill Wilson (1895-1971), the author of the text book Alcoholics Anonymous, met in Akron Ohio with a doctor who was struggling with active alcoholism named Bob Smith (Dr Bob: 1879 – 1950). Without going into detail as to what happened during that meeting, suffice it to say that it resulted in Dr Bob getting sober, recovering from alcoholism, and remaining sober until his dying day.

Over the next few years, Bill Wilson and Dr Bob worked hard to repeat with other alcoholics what Dr Bob had experienced that day. Working with alcoholics in both Akron and New York City (which is where Bill Wilson lived), they succeeded in helping more than 100 men and women recover from alcoholism. The techniques they were using, and the results they were seeing, were deemed as being repeatable, assuming those who employed them did so without modifications or alterations. It was this desire to ensure their methods would not be changed by others that led to the writing of the text book Alcoholics Anonymous. The book was an effort to ensure that the techniques they had been using would be accurately recorded and could subsequently be replicated faithfully. When the book came out in 1939, the as yet unnamed group of 100+ recovered alcoholics decided to name themselves after it – hence AA was born.

But, where did the 12 steps themselves come from? Who invented them? Who wrote them? Well, a little more history is required here I’m afraid. This time we turn to the general vibe of turn of the century America. The 20’s and 30’s were a time of temperance, moderation and religiosity in America. Nowhere was this practiced more diligently than within a large movement of the day known as the Oxford Groups. The Oxford Group movement was huge and its membership had a tremendous amount of influence in America at that time. The mission of the Oxford Groups was to practice 1st century Christianity with zeal.  In these efforts they used a number of guiding principles and practices. These included active evangelism and “house parties”, where members would meet and share their experience and faith. By the time he met with Dr Bob in 1935, Bill Wilson had been involved with the Oxford Groups for about 6 months and had been adopting many of these principles and practices in his own life.

The Oxford Group principles in themselves were nothing extraordinary. In fact, they were fairly standard Christian behavioural and attitudinal ideas about recognising the role of Christ in one’s life, giving personal testimony, surrendering one’s self to God and making restitution for wrongs one may have committed. What Bill Wilson brought to the mix was the specific act of telling of one’s own alcoholic story to another alcoholic who was struggling, and to talk with these alcoholics about the idea that alcoholism is the manifestation of an allergy to alcohol. In telling his own story to others, nothing was held back so that the person Bill was helping could see that he was not there to preach or save his soul – very UN-Oxford Group like! Instead, Bill’s goal was to first show the struggling alcoholic that Bill recognised his struggles from a personal perspective and without judgment, then to offer that alcoholic something that Bill had actually discovered for himself – for free.

Eventually, in writing the book Alcoholics Anonymous, Bill Wilson did something to the doctrine of the Oxford Groups that he and the other 100 sober alcoholics were trying to stop others from doing to what they’d been practicing, and now had down pat. Essentially, the original 100 alcoholics had taken some of the Oxford Group’s principles and altered them slightly to suit their own goal: that of helping alcoholics find a higher power and recover from alcoholism. Even though they themselves had actually changed some of the Oxford Group’s ideas to suit their goals, they now didn’t want anybody coming along and revising them further, potentially ruining what they’d discovered as working while doing so.

In the text book Alcoholics Anonymous, Bill took some of the stricter Oxford Group principles and watered them down a bit. In an effort to make it much more likely that a person working through these steps would experience a psychological change, he also broke them up into smaller, user friendly chunks and turned the Oxford Group’s five steps to salvation into Alcoholics Anonymous’ 12 steps of recovery in the process. As already described, the need to rely on Jesus Christ specifically as one’s saviour was removed, and AA members could choose any conception of a higher power that suited their needs or faith (I bet the Oxford Group membership were not too thrilled with that one either!). When it came to the Oxford Group’s action steps, Bill elaborated a little and specified an actual method for identifying one’s faults in a way that didn’t make people want to run for the hills, as well as describing a workable method for identifying harm done to others so that restitution could be made to them. Apart from the aforementioned removal of Jesus as one’s saviour of choice, Bill didn’t so much change the Oxford Group’s principles as operationalise them. He made it easier to understand what it is that one is actually supposed to do in order to have psychological change sufficient to recover from alcoholism as a result of a spiritual experience.

Yes, this was the purpose for which the 12-steps were written. To assist those who work through them to experience a psychological change sufficient to recover from alcoholism as a result of finding and developing a relationship with a higher power of their own choosing. This higher power would not only facilitate the needed psychological change, but it would positively remove their alcoholism and change their lives. While the actual wording of the 12 steps have stood the tests of time, the simple changing nature of people has seen them take on a different flavour since 1939 – but more on that in next week’s blog tackling the task of explaining what the 12 steps are, and essentially how they work.