A Big Book Compromise Opens AA to Unbelievers

This article is an excerpt from Drunks: The Story of Alcoholism and the Birth of Recovery, by Christopher M. Finan

In the spring of 1938, the future of the group started by Bill Wilson and Bob Smith three years earlier was very much in doubt.  There were only two meetings–in Akron and New York. Wilson had proposed an ambitious plan for expansion: he wanted to send members on speaking tours around the country and hoped to open medical facilities where alcoholics would be welcome.  But there was no money to pay missionaries, much less to found hospitals.

The only project that was underway was a “book of experience” that would describe how to get sober.  But the book was progressing slowly.  Wilson was the principal author, and he had never written a book. As he finished each chapter, he sent the draft to Smith, who shared it with members of the Akron group. Wilson read the chapters aloud during meetings of the New York group.

It was a painful process. Nobody could argue much with Wilson’s story in the first chapter, but the New Yorkers had a lot to say about the next three.   “[T]he chapters got a real mauling. I redictated them . . . over and over,” Wilson said. It took him six months to satisfy everyone.1

As he began outlining the fifth chapter, “How It Works,” he was dreading the reaction of the other alcoholics. It would be the most consequential part of the book. “[A]t this point we would have to tell how our program for recovery from alcoholism really worked,” Wilson said. The “program” would be the steps that Wilson and his friends had taken to get sober. Wilson wasn’t sure he could do it. “The hassling over the four chapters already finished had really been terrific. I was exhausted. On many a day I felt like throwing the book out the window,” he said.2

There was already a “word of mouth program” that was based on the four spiritual practices of the Oxford Group: making a “moral inventory” of your defects of character; sharing these shortcomings with another person; making restitution to those you had been harmed; and praying to God for the power to undertake these tasks. As Wilson lay in bed with a pencil and a pad of paper, these steps did not seem detailed enough for alcoholics. They would have to be clear enough to provide guidance to people in places where there were no members of the group to advise them. They would also need to be unequivocal. “There must not be a single loophole through which the rationalizing alcoholic could wiggle out,” Wilson said.3

“Finally, I started to write,” Wilson recalled. “I relaxed and asked for guidance.”

With a speed that was astonishing, considering my jangling emotions, I completed the first draft. It took perhaps a half an hour. The words kept right on coming. When I reached a stopping point, I numbered the new steps. They added up to 12. Somehow this number seemed significant. Without any special rhyme or reason I connected them with the 12 apostles. Feeling greatly relieved now, I commenced to reread the draft.

Here is Wilson’s first draft of the twelve steps:

1. We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable.

2. Came to believe that God could restore us to sanity.

3. Made a decision to turn our wills and our lives over to the care and direction of God.

4. Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.

5. Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.

6. Were entirely willing that God remove all these defects of character.

7. Humbly on our knees asked Him to remove these shortcomings—holding nothing back.

8. Made a complete list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.

9. Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.

10. Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.

11. Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our contact with God, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.

12. Having had a spiritual experience as the result of this course of action, we tried to carry this message to others, especially alcoholics, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.

“I was greatly pleased with what I had written,” Wilson said.4

For a moment, he allowed himself to believe that he had described a program that was unassailable, if not God given. Wilson’s happiness was short-lived. At that moment, he received a visit from a member of the New York group, Horace C., and another man who had been sober for only a few months. Wilson read his work to them and waited for their applause. He was shocked by their response:

[Horace] and his friend reacted violently. “Why twelve steps?” they demanded…“You’ve got too much God in these steps; you will scare people away.” And, “What do you mean by getting those drunks down ‘on their knees’ when they ask to have all their shortcomings removed?” And “Who wants all their shortcomings removed, anyhow?”

Seeing the disappointment in Wilson’s face, Horace acknowledged that “some of this stuff sounds pretty good,” but he didn’t back down. “Bill, you’ve got to tone it down. It’s too stiff,” he said. “The average alcoholic just won’t buy it the way it stands.” Wilson responded with a strenuous defense, insisting on the importance of every word. The debate went on for hours. Finally, Lois appeared and suggested they take a coffee break, which ended the discussion for the night.5

The debate over the twelve steps grew during the following weeks. Horace and his friend were right. Wilson had talked about God a lot. God was also mentioned frequently in the chapters that Wilson had already written. While Akron members were generally supportive, the issue divided the New Yorkers into three groups that Wilson later identified as “conservatives,” “liberals,” and “radicals.” Fitz M., the son of a minister, wanted to go even further in identifying the group as religious. He believed that the book should declare its allegiance to Christian principles, “using Biblical terms and expression to make this clear,” Wilson said. The liberals had no objection to the use of the word “God” throughout the book, but they were adamantly opposed to identifying their movement with a particular religion. In their view, the religious missions had failed because drunks were unwilling to accept their beliefs.6

Wilson described the third group as “our radical left wing.” At least one member, James Burwell, was an outspoken atheist. The others were either agnostics or believers who nevertheless opposed any mention of God. Henry Parkhurst had been among the first to see the importance of the book and had developed the fund-raising plan that would make its publication possible. He was also one of the first to express the view that religion should be downplayed. In part, this was an expression of his own religious doubts. But it was also a question of marketing. In a memo about “sales promotion, possibilities,” he expressed concern about alienating the customers:

One of the things most talked about . . . among us is religious experience. I believe this is incomprehensible to most people. Simple and meaning [sic] words to us—but meaningless to most of the people that we are trying to get this over to. . . . I am fearfully afraid that we are emphasizing religious experience when that is actually something that follows.

Wilson was shocked. “What Henry, Jimmy, and company wanted was a psychological book which would lure the alcoholic in. Once in, the prospect could take God or leave him alone,” he said.7

The debate continued into 1939. One day, shortly before the book was sent to the printer, Parkhurst pushed his argument one last time in the Newark office he shared with Wilson. It was there Wilson had dictated most of the book to a secretary, Ruth Houck. Houck and Fitz, who favored a more religious book, were also present. Parkhurst wanted changes in the twelve steps. “He argued, he begged, he threatened,” Wilson said. “He was positive we would scare off alcoholics by the thousands when they read those 12 Steps.” Houck, who was not an alcoholic, was the easiest to persuade. Then, Fitz began to soften. Finally, Wilson agreed to make several changes:

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.

While the changes made by altering a few words appeared superficial at first, Wilson later acknowledged that the radicals had secured their major objective. “They had widened our gateway so that all who suffer might pass through regardless of their belief or lack of belief,” he said.8


1 Alcoholics Anonymous, Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age: A Brief History of A.A. (New York: Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, 1957) 159.

2 Ibid.

3 Ibid., 160, 161.

4 Ibid., 161, 162; Alcoholics Anonymous, “Pass It On”: The Story of Bill Wilson and How the A.A. Message Reached the World (New York: Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, 1984), 198.

5 Alcoholics Anonymous, Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age,  162.

6 Ibid.

7 Mitchell K., The Story of Clarence H. Snyder and the Early Days of Alcoholics Anonymous in Cleveland, Ohio (Washingtonville, NY: AA Big Book Study Group, 1999), 39; Alcoholics Anonymous, Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age, 163.

8 Alcoholics Anonymous, Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age, 167.

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 ofAlfred 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.   

Drunks: The Story of Alcoholism and the Birth of Recovery

Listen to Joe C. interview Chris at Rebellion Dogs Radio

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Karen M
Karen M
2 years ago

I have been in AA SINCE 1986. I am an Athust but wanted to get sober knowing AA was the only way to do that. I tried to believe growing up Baptist I knew what they wanted me to believe, but I was faking it. So now all these years later still sober, I proudly say I’m an atheist but believe in that power greater than myself is AA. I have been told I’m going to drink again if I don’t turn my will and life over to the care of GOD but still sober and still an atheist.

Josh Winkelstein
Josh Winkelstein
1 year ago
Reply to  Karen M

I love it: “still sober and still an atheist”. Me too.

John S
2 years ago

Here’s a link to a podcast that I did with Chris last year.

Episode 71: Drunks: An American History

Steven W
Steven W
2 years ago

Thanks Bob for the recommendation.

Great article by Chris Finan

Bob B.
Bob B.
2 years ago

I’m currently reading ‘Drunks: The Story of Alcoholism and the Birth of Recovery’ and have found it to be fascinating and informative. I’m on chapter ‘Search For Higher Power’. Unlike many of my fellow members of A.A. I have no issue with ‘not conference approved’ material and Hazelden is not a swear word to me (lol). Hazelden published a book called ‘ The Book That Started It All – The Original Working Manuscript of Alcoholics Anonymous’ which shows all the corrections in it. The picture at the beginning of this article is an excerpt from that book.  To make a… Read more »

2 years ago
Reply to  Bob B.

Bob B., I’d love to hear more details of your story about getting sober in therapy at 24 but not getting to AA till 28, and then not feeling a strong pull toward AA, and then having to re-work the suggested steps to make them more practicable. My story’s similar, and sober young too, age 20. Thanks, paul.wiedenbein@gmail.com

2 years ago

Hmm, hard to understand how, if Bill dreaded writing chapter 5 so much after the flack he got from the first 4, that he never (well, until 20 years later) realized that he was on an egomaniac trip, which only ego-deflation could have conquered. He must have fought a terrific battle. Chapter 4 must have been every bit as insulting to the agnostics back then as it is today. And Jim and Hank must have found themselves in the same situation as many of us have today: “Better stick with these guys, we need help, and have nowhere else to go… Read more »

Jack B
Jack B
1 year ago
Reply to  life-j

Once again, life-j effortlessly hits the nail on the head.
I hope one day to have a hammer just like his.