By Christopher M. Finan
Editor’s Note: Bill Wilson and Bob Smith got sober in the Oxford Group, a Protestant evangelical movement. The Oxford Group accepted alcoholics as members, but the relationship between the drunks and other “groupers” soon became strained. In the following excerpt from the new book, Drunks: An American History (Beacon Press), Christopher M. Finan describes the conflicts that led to the emergence of Alcoholics Anonymous as a group that welcomed people of all religions as well as agnostics and atheists.
God was very much on their minds as Bob Smith and Bill Wilson began their pursuit of drunks in the summer of 1935. As soon as a man told them he wanted to stop drinking, they asked whether he believed in God. Clarence Snyder, an alcoholic from Cleveland, learned this when he found himself in Akron City Hospital in 1938. By then, there were more than a dozen alcoholics who had stopped drinking with the assistance of “Dr. Bob,” and most of them had visited Snyder. After a week of listening to their stories, Snyder told Smith he was ready to quit.
“Young feller, do you believe in God? Not a God, but God!” Smith asked. Snyder was not ready to say that he did but was afraid Smith would walk out of the room if he admitted it. “Well, I guess I do,” he replied. Smith stood up, pointing a finger at Snyder. “There’s no guessing about it. Either you do or you don’t!” he said. Snyder surrendered. “Yeah, I do believe in God,” he said.
”That’s fine. Now we can get someplace. . . . Get down out of that bed. . . . You’re going to pray. . . . You can repeat it after me, and that will do for this time. . . . Jesus! This is Clarence Snyder. He’s a drunk. Clarence! This is Jesus. Ask Him to come into your life. Ask Him to remove your drinking problem, and pray that He manage your life because you are unable to manage it yourself.”
The two men rose from the concrete floor where they had been praying. “Young feller, you’re gonna be all right,” Smith promised.[i]
The Oxford Group believed that surrendering to God was essential for spiritual growth. Acknowledging that desires are often selfish and corrupt makes it possible to hear what God desires. It is not surprising that the alcoholic members of the Oxford Group were particularly insistent on the importance of surrender, for they knew only too well that they were in the grip of a force they could not control. They believed that the only path forward was to admit they were unable to control their drinking and that they required divine help to stay sober.
The surrender was considered so important that it became a prerequisite. “You couldn’t just go to a meeting—you had to go through the program of surrender,” recalled Bob E., a drunk who got sober in the Oxford Group in 1937. If a drunk wasn’t ready to surrender, he was shown the door. One newcomer who failed to make the grade returned later to try again. “Jeez—when you guys say ‘Take it or leave it,’ you meant it,” he said.[ii]
The recovering drunks in Akron met in the home of T. Henry and Clarace Williams. Smith was deeply loyal to Henrietta Seiberling and the other members of the group who had helped him get sober, and the alcoholic men he had helped felt the same way toward him. They did not attempt to turn the meeting into something else. Most of the men and women who attended were not alcoholics, and the meetings continued to be conducted like other Oxford Group meetings. Much of the meeting time was devoted to silent reflection as the members sought the guidance of God. It remained a religious meeting.
But the Oxford Group could never be the permanent home of a movement that was intent on saving drunks. Many of the alcoholics in the Oxford Group recognized that their goals were different from those of the nonalcoholic members of the group. Their priority was getting sober, and while they appreciated the hospitality of the Oxford Group, they had difficulty grasping its principles. Some of its practices drove them crazy. Newly sober, they found it difficult to sit still during the long periods of “quiet time” when others were listening to God and writing down their guidance. “The guidance thing the groupers had never went down well with the drunks,” Ernie, an alcoholic, said. Newly sober drunks found it difficult to tolerate criticism of any kind, but criticism from nonalcoholics, even the constructive kind, was particularly hard to take.[iii]
The alcoholic members of the Oxford Group in New York were the first to leave. They began meeting on Tuesday evenings at the Brooklyn home of Bill and Lois Wilson and finally cut their ties in May 1937 following a dispute.
A different problem troubled the Oxford Group meeting in Akron. Smith had no idea what a dynamo Clarence Snyder would become. Snyder was a born salesman, and he proved it by quickly making himself the top man at one of the largest Ford and Mercury dealerships in Ohio.
No less impressive was his ability to sell drunks on sobriety. His first convert was a man he discovered in an abandoned house in a Polish section of Cleveland that was occupied by more than a dozen drunks. The man, Bill H., was lying paralyzed on the floor, but he told Snyder he wanted to get sober. A couple of drunks helped him get to Snyder’s car, and he was driven to Akron City Hospital, where he recovered his health.
Snyder and his wife, Dorothy, drove down to Akron every Wednesday to attend the Oxford Group meetings at T. Henry Williams’s home. The car quickly filled with drunks he had recruited in Cleveland. Soon, thirteen people were cramming into two cars. They called themselves the “Cleveland Contingent,” and they differed in important ways from the Akron alcoholics. There was a woman alcoholic among them—Sylvia K., who would become a founder of the first Alcoholics Anonymous meeting in Chicago. The Clevelanders also included the first Catholic members of the alcoholic squadron. A majority of them were Irish Americans.
Women alcoholics made the rest of the drunks nervous. The sad story of Lil, the first woman that Wilson and Smith had tried to help, convinced many that mixing the sexes was a threat to their sobriety.
But it was the Catholic alcoholics who posed an immediate problem. While the Oxford Group claimed to be an ecumenical movement, its members were overwhelmingly Protestant. Their meetings featured readings from the King James Version of the Bible, which was used only in Protestant churches. There were also periods of “sharing” during which members were encouraged to admit their sins, which in Catholic churches occurred only in the confessional.
These aspects of the Oxford Group were enough to convince some priests in Cleveland that their alcoholic parishioners were participating in Protestant rituals that threatened their immortal souls. Snyder attempted to intercede with the priests, arguing that membership in the Oxford Group was helping their people stay sober and actually making them better Catholics. “The Church didn’t buy this line, not one bit,” Snyder said.
When Snyder took the problem to Smith, Dr. Bob saw only two alternatives. “Remain with the Oxford Group and probably risk excommunication, or, very simply leave the Church,” he said. If the Catholics wanted to stay sober, they had to be prepared to abandon their religion.[iv]….
The 1939 publication of Alcoholics Anonymous: The Story of How More than 100 Men Have Recovered from Alcoholism had immediate consequences for the Cleveland alcoholics in the Akron group. Snyder believed it offered a solution to his problem. He approached Smith again:
“What do you have in mind?” Smith asked.
“To start a group without all this rigmarole that’s offensive to other people. We have a book now, the Steps, the absolutes. Anyone can live by that program. We can start our own meetings.”
“We can’t abandon these people,” Doc replied. “We owe our lives to them.”
“So what? Clarence replied. I owe my life to them, too. But what about all these others?”
“We can’t do anything about them,” Doc said.
“Oh, yes, we can. . . . You’ll see.”
Snyder had recently helped hospitalize a Cleveland patent attorney named Abby G. While Abby was still in the hospital, Snyder told Abby’s wife that he was looking for a place to hold a meeting in Cleveland, and she had offered her own large home.
In early May, Snyder announced at the Akron meeting that the Clevelanders were leaving the Oxford Group and would begin their own meeting the following week. “Our policy will be mainly this,” Snyder wrote a few weeks later. “Not too much stress on spiritual business at meetings.”[v]
Some Oxford Group members were outraged at what they saw as a betrayal. They attempted to argue with Snyder after his announcement. When he made the mistake of revealing the location of Abby’s home, some of them showed up at the first meeting to continue their protest. “They invaded the house and tried to break up our meeting,” Snyder said. “One fellow was going to whip me. All in the name of pure Christian love!”[vi]
Smith stayed home. He quickly reconciled himself to the break and began attending the meeting once or twice a month. While he was reluctant to anger his close friends, he understood the reasons for starting the group in Cleveland, which was soon describing itself as a meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous.
By the end of the 1939, Smith was convinced that the Akron alcoholics, too, must find a new home. In December, as many as seventy people began cramming into the living room of the Smiths’ small home on Wednesday nights. “Have definitely thrown off the shackles of the Oxford Group,” he wrote Wilson on January 2, 1940.[vii]
Alcoholics Anonymous had declared its independence.
[i] Mitchell K., The Story of Clarence H. Snyder and the Early Days of Alcoholics Anonymous in Cleveland, Ohio (Washingtonville, NY: A.A. Big Book Study Group, 1999), 25.
[ii] Alcoholics Anonymous, Dr. Bob and the Good Oldtimers, 101; Ernest Kurtz, Not-God: A History of Alcoholics Anonymous (Center City, MN: Hazelden Educational Services, 1979), 54.
[iii] Alcoholics Anonymous, “Pass It On,” 130–31; Alcoholics Anonymous, Dr. Bob and the Good Oldtimers, 100–101.
[iv] Mitchell K., The Story of Clarence H. Snyder, 34.
[v] Alcoholics Anonymous, Dr. Bob and the Good Oldtimers, 163, 167.
[vi] Ibid., 164.
[vii] Ibid., 218.
About the Author
Chris Finan is an agnostic who got sober in 1985. A native of Cleveland, he is a graduate of Antioch College. After working as a newspaper reporter, he studied American history at Columbia University, where he received his PhD.
Drunks: An American History is his third book. He is the also the author of Alfred E. Smith: The Happy Warrior and From the Palmer Raids to the Patriot Act: A History of the Fight for Free Speech in America. Chris is executive director of the National Coalition Against Censorship, a coalition of 56 national non-profits that oppose all forms of censorship.