The basic principles which the Oxford Groupers had taught were ancient and universal ones, the common property of mankind… The early AA got its ideas of self-examination, acknowledgment of character defects, restitution for harm done, and working with others straight from the Oxford Groups and directly from Sam Shoemaker.
(Alcoholics Anonymous Comes Of Age, p. 39)
Samuel Moor Shoemaker Jr. was born in Baltimore, Maryland, on December 27, 1893, making him about 2 years older than Bill Wilson. His ancestors had been Schumachers of Germany, Holland, and Switzerland who had converted to Quakerism under William Penn.
Sam’s father “was intelligent… but was terribly handicapped by a shyness that would see him cut off from many persons including his young son”. (The Virginian, bbsgsonj.com) Nonetheless, he would one day be the chairman of the board of regents at the University of Maryland. His mother Nellie “was a dedicated churchwoman and president of the Woman’s Auxiliary of the Diocese of Maryland”. (The Virginian, bbsgwsonj.com)
“A central figure in young Sam’s life at Burnside was his grandmother. ‘Nana’ was an avid storyteller, reader of the Bible, and an accomplished musician… more Victorian than Victoria herself.” (The Virginian, bbsgsonj.com)
When Sam was two, his parents joined his paternal grandmother on the 467 acres estate, 10 miles north of Baltimore, that had been acquired by his grandfather during the Civil War. The patriarch, also a Sam, had made his fortune organizing the Great Western Express transportation line between Philadelphia and Baltimore, then operated his cattle ranch, Burnside, before passing on in 1884.
Located at the edge of the Green Spring Valley, this was fox-hunting territory, a verdant land of rolling hills, and marvelous panoramas. In 1898, Sam’s father converted Burnside to a dairy farm. The Shoemakers enjoyed the privileged existence of the American aristocracy, complete with Negro servants.
St George’s and Princeton
At 14, Sam was sent to an Episcopal boarding school in Newport, Rhode Island. He was initially homesick, and not fully comfortable among the “Yankee” student body at St. George’s. Nonetheless, he held several positions, including president of the mission society. After graduation in 1912, he went on to Princeton, the alma mater of his father.
After his sophomore year, he traveled to Europe. Upon his return, he expressed a newfound political interest by joining protests against war propaganda and military drills at the university. It was at Princeton that Sam discovered his interest in personal evangelism and missionary work as well as the relatively new, at that time, ecumenical movement.
China and Buchman
In 1917, with the blessing of Rt. Rev. John Gardner Murray, bishop of Maryland, Sam Shoemaker went to China to start a branch of the YMCA and teach business courses at the Princeton-in-China Program. Shoemaker was frustratingly unsuccessful in converting the Chinese to Christianity, a failing he confessed on meeting Frank Buchman, perhaps seeking a sympathetic ear. The somewhat brash Buchman suggested that Shoemaker look at his own shortcomings.
Although he was at first offended, Shoemaker reflected upon what the older cleric had told him. Contemplation of the 4 absolutes of honesty, purity, love, and unselfishness brought Shoemaker into an intense awareness of his own inadequacies, and he made the humbling decision to let God guide his life.
Buchman had also stressed to the young missionary the value of sharing personal experience, a practice that would later form a key component in Alcoholics Anonymous. The very next day, he shared this personal experience with a young Chinese businessman who, as a result, “wanted what he had”, and made a decision for Christ. These experiences left Shoemaker with an enormously high regard for Frank Buchman, a man he viewed as “a born mystic”.
In 1919, Shoemaker returned to Princeton to head the Philadelphia Society, a campus Christian organization.
The Calvary Church
In 1920, Shoemaker was ordained a deacon in the Episcopal Church. He returned to missionary work at Princeton, an institution frequently visited by Buchman. In the early twenties, he attended the General Theological Seminary in New York, and after graduation and ordination, got his bishop’s permission to travel with Buchman through Europe and the Middle East.
These journeys were cut short when Sam received a cable and letter from Manhattan. The Calvary Church in the Gramercy Park neighborhood, a once more vibrant ministry, wanted the energetic young man to be their rector. Shoemaker accepted and returned to New York. This was 1925, also the year in which he married Helen Smith, whom he had met at Princeton. Helen was an author, a sculptor, and a church leader.
After a two year trial, Sam was confirmed in the new position. He was able to almost immediately boost the church’s flagging attendance. In the summer of 1927, he began outdoor services in nearby Madison Square.
His mission was not without controversy. Shoemaker was now fully immersed in Buchman’s approach, and the “hot gospelling” of the Oxford Group was not universally appreciated. Also contentious was the decision to sell some vacant property, and use the funds to construct the 7-story Calvary House, adjacent to the church. This building became the American headquarters of the Oxford Group.
At a different location, the church also owned and operated the Calvary Mission, an outreach project to serve the disadvantaged. The facility could house up to 57 homeless men and served over 200,000 meals in its 10 years of operation. Ebby Thacher was living at Calvary Mission at the time of his famous “twelfth step” call on Bill Wilson.
On another front, Shoemaker initiated a Faith At Work program in which dedicated Christians were trained to witness in the workplace. In 1932, he requested and was granted, an extended leave so that he might pursue his ambition to bring his ideas to a wider audience. This continued as a problem, the division of his energies between his local responsibilities, and the worldwide evangelical effort.
From 1926 to 1936, the Faith At Work (later called LUMUNOS) group held Thursday night meetings. Around 1938, it transformed into Moral Re-Armament, which was taking increasing amounts of the rector’s time. As well, it occupied a significant share of the Calvary House’s facilities.
Rev. Shoemaker spent 1940 and 1941 assessing priorities, and the conflicting demands on his time, and near the end of 1941, separated himself entirely from the Oxforders, now known as Moral Re-Armament. It is unlikely that mere scheduling issues led to the split. In 1936, Frank Buchman had made some extremely injudicious remarks in an interview. The remarks were somewhat laudatory of Adolf Hitler and affected the public’s perception of the group.
Throughout 1941, the involvement of the United States in the European conflict was increasingly seen as inevitable. As the nation was about to declare war on Hitler’s Germany, it was not a time to be seen to be affiliated with individuals of organizations that had demonstrated ANY friendliness toward Hitler.
Another probable consideration was Buchman himself, a man with a reputation for not getting along with colleagues. Through the 1930s, he was viewed by many as having crossed the line into megalomania.
Reverend Sam detached.
On the Radio and Off to Pittsburgh
In the forties, Shoemaker became involved in “radio preaching”, and a 5-minute daily show on one station led to a half-hour Sunday broadcast, and then another half-hour program called Faith in our Time. His growing fame led, in 1950, to an offer to become Dean of the San Francisco Cathedral. He declined.
Following the split from Buchman, Rev. Sam reactivated the Faith At Work program.
The following year he yielded to personal urgings from the Bishop of Pittsburgh to accept the position of “rector” at the Calvary Church of Pittsburgh. From his Pittsburgh base, he was encouraged to evangelize the entire area, including nearby Akron, Ohio.
Reverend Sam and AA
Samuel Shoemaker grew up in a privileged environment, but “his own conversion experience gave him an interest in helping people life had dealt with much more severely than most”. (Hartigan, p. 70) Calvary House was sheltering Ebby in December 1934; it was also where Bill Wilson “came to know Sam Shoemaker who would become a lifelong friend”. (Hartigan, p. 64) It was not a friendship without problems.
Calvary House, along with Towns Hospital, was where an enthusiastic Bill Wilson found drunks to tell of his dramatic spiritual experience. Although Bill and Lois, and later, other of their recruits like Hank P., attended Oxford Group meetings, “it was clear almost from the beginning that Bill Wilson was not well-suited to be an Oxford Group member… He never shared in, or had much sympathy for, the Oxford Group’s goals”. (Hartigan, p. 65)
Whether the Wilsons quit, or were thrown out, remains uncertain, but Shoemaker was upset and did not speak to Bill again until after he detached from Buchman’s group. “He later wrote a letter of apology to Bill stating that he and other OG members were wrong to oppose Bill’s desire to work solely with alcoholics and to focus only on helping these individuals to stop drinking.” (Hartigan, pp. 97-98)
Wilson then took the opportunity to extend gratitude and credit to Shoemaker and the Oxforders, a debt that had been minimized or ignored through the estrangement, and in the book Alcoholics Anonymous. Rev. Sam was a prolific author, and half of his 30+ books were in circulation before the publication of the Big Book, likely reading material for the pre-book AA’ers.
Bill Wilson credited Sam Shoemaker as a key source of the ideas underpinning Alcoholics Anonymous:
It was from Sam Shoemaker that we absorbed most of the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, steps that express the heart of AA’s way of life. Dr. Silkworth gave us the needed knowledge of our illness, but Sam Shoemaker had given us the concrete knowledge of what we could do about it, he passed on the spiritual keys by which we were liberated. The early AA got its ideas of self-examination, acknowledgment of character defects, restitution for harm done, and working with others straight from the Oxford Group and directly from Sam Shoemaker, their former leader in America, and from nowhere else. (AACOA, pp. 38-39)
And Bill Wilson later said the following in an address about Rev. Shoemaker at the St Louis AA convention in 1955:
It is through Sam, that most of our principles have come, that is he has been the connecting link for them, it is what Ebby learned from Sam and what Ebby told me that makes up the linkage between Sam the man of religion, and ourselves. How well I remember that first day I caught sight of Sam, it was a Sunday service in his church. I was still rather gun-shy and diffident about churches. I can still see him standing there before the lectern, and Sam’s utter honesty, his tremendous forthrightness, his almost terrible sincerity struck me deep. I shall never forget it. (AACOA, p. 261)
Reverend Shoemaker continued in the service of his church until his retirement in 1961, and he remained throughout his life a friend and supporter of Alcoholics Anonymous. He wrote articles for the Grapevine and traveled to speak at AA events, including the Convention at St. Louis in July 1955.
On October 31, 1963, he moved on to whatever lies beyond.
About the Author
Bob K. lives in the Metropolitan Toronto area, and has been a sober member of Alcoholics Anonymous since 1991, and an out-of-the-closet atheist for that entire time. He has been a regular contributor to the AA Agnostica website for over 8 years, and in January, 2015, published Key Players in AA History In 2013, he co-founded the Whitby Freethinkers meeting.