Who Started AA? The History Behind the 12 Steps

The West Virginia Alcoholics Anonymous is a 12-step program that uses social connectivity and spirituality to help people fight alcoholism. Alcoholism was first recognized as an issue in the 1930s when it became prevalent among many Americans due to widespread poverty during this time period. 

The Christian 12 step program is a set of guidelines that can be used to help identify and understand one’s own problems, accept responsibility, and work on self-improvement. AA meetings in WV help those recovering from alcoholism or other addictions find helpful resources such as sponsorship groups with people who have been through similar struggles.

Who Started AA?

The organization has had many influential founders over its history. An affluent man from Rhode Island called Dwight L. Smith Jr. A religious movement known as Oxford Group, New York stockbroker William Griffith Wilson also referred to as “Bill W.” Akron surgeon Erskine Smith (known then only as “Biff”), and Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Jung all have contributed greatly into what Alcoholics Anonymous stands for today.

Bill Wilson: The Brainchild of Alcoholics Anonymous

Bill Wilson, commonly referred to as the man who started AA, is often seen as the visionary and founding father of this influential movement. His story begins when he was struggling with alcohol addiction himself in 1935. Bill had been sober for quite some time before that night, but one failed business meeting triggered his deep craving for alcohol

Bill Wilson Meets Dr. Bob

Woman praying after finding a Christian 12 step program

Bill Willson had been sober for about five months and traveled to Akron, Ohio in 1935 for a shareholders’ meeting. However, he lost the proxy fight that day and found himself all alone with nothing but time on his hands. He was drawn towards the bar at Mayflower Hotel where Bill immediately attempted looking up another alcoholic only if they would talk him out of feeling so low.

The introduction between Bill W. and Dr. Bob was a long time coming, but the two men finally met when they were introduced by an Akron surgeon who had struggled with alcoholism himself. The meeting proved to be life-changing as both individuals shared their stories about how alcohol affected them personally. They each listened intently to one another’s struggles, which motivated each other into sobriety.

Not too long afterward, Bill moved in with Dr. Bob and his wife. The doctor did relapse after their first encounter but, he took his last drink on June 10, 1935. This date is known as the official date of the founding of Alcoholics Anonymous.

The Oxford Group and Thier Influence on Alcoholics Anonymous

A Christian organization founded by Frank Buchman, the Oxford Group, greatly influenced those who started AA. They believed that alcoholism is a spiritual disease and their solution to living with fear and selfishness was through surrendering oneself over to God’s plan.

The Oxford Group was a small but powerful group of people who came together to explore their spirituality and lead others on the same spiritual journey. They had no need for large buildings or lavish expenses because they believed that God would provide all necessary resources as long as members surrendered themselves completely to his guidance. It is said that their endeavor was led by one sole purpose: “To carry his message so others could do the same.”

The Oxford Group Principles

The group recommended meditation and adherence to Christian principles, pointing out that they are necessary for a spiritual revolution. The six tenets listed were: 

  • Men need to understand their sins
  • Confession is the first step in changing from sinfulness into goodness
  • Men can be changed if they want it badly enough (and by God’s grace)
  • Once souls have been purified through a change of heart, then direct access with God is granted
  • The age of miracles has returned
  • Those who do not repent must also help others see this light.

The Oxford Group caught the attention of those working in psychiatry and psychology. In the 1930s, Rhode Island Rowland Hazard sought help from famed Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Jung for his alcoholism. Dr. Jung directed him to The Oxford Group as Rowland’s case could not be addressed through medical means but needed spiritual intervention instead.

Rowland met with Edwin “Ebby” Thatcher, his first introduction in the Oxford Group, and together, they embraced its principles as a path to sobriety. It was a sober and transformed Ebby who showed up at Wilson’s home in November 1934 with a smile on his face, free of the bondage that alcohol can create for one soul.

The Foundations of Who Started AA

Woman in red shirt praying for guidance at a christian 12 step program


Bill Wilson remembers the day that changed his life and planted the seed for the 12 Steps in the Big Book of A.A. In the Big Book chapter, “Bill’s Story,” he describes his view of Ebby’s transformation into sobriety.

Wilson details turmoil he felt, recounting questions of God and the spirit that led to both hesitation and a desire to embrace his friend’s new way of life. Ultimately, Wilson rejected the offering citing his contempt for religion. 

 “The wars which had been fought, the burnings and chicanery that religious disputes facilitated made me sick.” 

It was Ebby’s change, though, rather than anything else that convinced him. Obviously, there had been no power in either one of them at all when it came time to transform their lives with an act as monumental as this. Bill Wilson’s decision to turn his will and life over is an unprecedented recognition of the need for a spiritual solution. Bill was coming from both angles, admitting that he could not control or manage his alcoholism on his own while also acknowledging what other people said about him – that this might be more than just alcohol abuse.

The Preconception of the 12 Steps

As Bill became more involved with the Oxford Group, it started becoming clear how difficult recovery is without spiritual transformation. Eventually, the alcoholics in the group gravitated toward Bill, who realized many who found sobriety through the group eventually relapsed.

He started to become discouraged as many members did not have the same revelations that he did. It wasn’t until one friend in medical school suggested Bill stop preaching entirely like before but start talking instead about alcoholism being an illness rather than a moral failing. 

This business trip was what lead Bill Wilson to Arkon, Ohio and where he met Dr. Bob. They each shared similar stories and backgrounds in their struggle with alcohol. Bill needed help to keep from drinking wheres Dr. Bob was still struggling to stop. 

The 12 Steps are Born

Bill sat up one night with a pencil and pad and started with the six tenets of the Oxford Group as his raw material. At the beginning of this process, he recounts how we wanted to include more than six steps. He speedily wrote for 30 minutes, and when he was completed, he had twelve steps. 

  1. “We admitted we were powerless over alcohol — that our lives had become unmanageable.”
  2. “Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.”
  3. “Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.”
  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 ready to have God remove all these defects of character.”
  7. “Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.”
  8. “Made a 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 conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His Will for us and the power to carry that out.”
  12. “Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.”

There were many titles suggested for the new book, but it was narrowed down to two. After a copyright check, the other title, “The Way Out,” was taken by a number of other publications. Therefore, “Alcoholics Anonymous” was published in April 1939 with an initial press run of fewer than 5,000 copies.

AA Success Rates

Alcoholics Anonymous Big Book cites a 50% success rate with 25% remaining sober after some relapses. In a 2014 study done by AA, they reported that 27% of the 6,000 members who participated were clean and sober for a year or less. There were 24% that kept their sobriety for up to five years. 13% lasted for as long as a decade. Fourteen percent of the study’s participants lived in sobriety between 10 and 20 years, with 22% reporting they remained sober for more than two decades. 

Another long-term study conducted by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) found that individuals who went through an alcohol abuse program and regularly went to AA meetings had a better chance of staying free of alcohol than those that only went to treatment.

The American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM) states that approximately 10% of the people who become part of a Christian 12-Step program enjoy long-term success in their recovery; however, because there is no impartial data available on Alcoholics Anonymous’s published rates due to the anonymity or unwillingness from members within these groups as well as unrecognized cases by ASAM itself.

The Christian 12 Step Program: How Does Spirituality Help Fight Addiction?

Person with outstretched arms happy they found a Christian 12 step program

Humans search for meaning in life, and everyone’s reason for it may be different. It’s also not just one thing that drives the need, rather a common theme of what gives us purpose. Numerous studies have shown that when an individual has more focus on their own personal sense of purpose or something greater than themselves, this influence can positively impact addiction treatment outcomes. Those who started AA understood this impact.

This doesn’t necessarily mean having a higher power, as many people see belonging to something bigger than themselves as giving them some sort of strength they are lacking. Others find their direction from seeing how the smallest actions make larger impacts on society.

Addiction is isolating and lonely. Working your way back to being part of a community is key to getting off a self-destructive path. Giving back and sharing experiences helps build confidence and a network of support. Addiction has probably caused isolation due to bad behavior, dishonesty, or shame. Starting small by connecting with others in a Christian 12 step program (like West Virginia Alcoholics Anonymous) can be step one towards recovery.

Are You Looking for a West Virginia Alcoholics Anonymous Meeting?

Alcoholics Anonymous, the group that has become synonymous with recovery and lasting sobriety since its inception roughly 80 years ago, is likely to remain a cornerstone of many people’s aftercare efforts. As science and psychology evolve in understanding addiction more deeply, AA meetings in WV may change somewhat but will always be instrumental for some individuals.  

If you or someone you love is looking for help in their fight against alcohol abuse, reach out to our team at Harmony Ridge Recovery. We are here to help support individuals as they commence on their overall journey toward recovery from substance abuse.

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