Manuscript Shows AA Founders Debated How Much to Emphasize God and Christianity

Sept. 24, 2010

Click here to go to Dr. Tom Horvath’s Quote

For decades, addicts have adhered to Alcoholics Anonymous‘ 12 steps and the book that lays them out, informally known as the Big Book, as if the words in it had appeared from somewhere on high.

But it turns out that the original manuscript, written in 1939 by AA co-founder Bill Wilson, was heavily edited to make it less religious and more welcoming to people who did not consider themselves Christians. The original is being published next week as “The Book That Started it All.”

Sid Farrar, the editorial director of Hazelden Publishing, which is publishing the manuscript, called it “one of the more important documents in the movement.”

“This shows the book didn’t come down from heaven,” he said. “It wasn’t written by one person, but it was this remarkable group process.”

After being hidden for 70 years, the edits of the Big Book show there was debate, largely unknown until now, about how overtly to reference God and Christianity in the group’s tenets.

The final version of the book directs AA followers to embrace a “higher power” and “God of your understanding” instead of “God” or “Jesus Christ” as they follow a path to sobriety. Adopting a more inclusive tone, instead of adhering to a specific religion, was enormously important in making AA accessible to people of all faiths as well as atheists, according to AA historians and treatment experts.

“There was an early recognition that there were going to be people of all religions and no religions they wanted to reach,” Farrar said. “They didn’t want to turn people off, but at the heart of the 12 steps, this is a spiritual program. They had to figure out, ‘How do you convey that?’ That was the debate. You can see that very clearly in the editing process.”

For example, the editors softened Step 7 of the 12 by deleting a phrase that evoked prayer. They changed “Humbly, on our knees, asked Him to remove our shortcomings,” to “Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.”

Because it’s not exclusive, the text has since been adopted by many diverse faiths and also by those who struggle with addictions other than alcoholism, from drugs to gambling to sex.

Alcoholics Anonymous: ‘Big Book’ Was Edited to Be More Inclusive

“When I got the first scans of the manuscript, I got chills,” Farrar said. “If he hadn’t sent this out to be edited, AA could have become a Christian movement or one of the many unsuccessful temperance movements that died on the vine.”

The release of the edits is well timed with the cultural discussion about the role of spirituality and religion in addiction treatment, which has spread to pop culture with HBO’s new television series, “Boardwalk Empire,” about the Prohibition era.

An alternative to AA called Smart Recovery, which was founded in 1994 and has about 600 meetings across the country, doesn’t use spirituality or religion in its program. AA is the biggest treatment program by far, with more than 2 million members.

“We have no objection to a higher power, but what we teach is not connected to that,” said Tom Horvath, Smart Recovery’s president. “That would be like if you’re going to medical school to learn how to treat cancer. I don’t care if you pray about it, but that’s not what I’m going to teach. It’s an entirely secular approach.”

Keith Humphreys, a research professor of psychiatry and behavior sciences at Stanford University, said that for some people, however, spirituality is necessary.

“A lot of AA people have been through experiences that were scarring to their person or their values, like they stole from their employer or passed out drunk at their kid’s birthday party,” he said. “They feel ashamed for the people they’ve hurt and want to make it up. That’s a spiritual process, admitting what you’ve done wrong and atoning. For a lot of people to feel fully recovered, that part is pretty important.”

The only parts of the Big Book that have changed in seven decades ? and four editions ? are the personal stories of recovery added to the end, which have, in time, included more tales from women and minorities.

Alcoholics Anonymous: Rough Draft of the Big Book

The book marks the first time in modern history that alcoholism was recognized as a disease of the body and mind, instead of a moral failing. The doctor who wrote an opening essay calls it an “allergy.”

“It was as good an analogy as any, given the time,” Farrar said.

Humphreys agreed that the Big Book’s scientific principles are now outdated, “like looking at a racecar vs. a Model T,” he said.

“We now know why alcohol affects the brain. We know about liver disease, the role of genetics, and medication that can help. If you have an alcohol problem in 2010, you’re in much better shape than you were in 1934.”

After writing the draft, Wilson mailed out 400 copies because he wanted, as he said on page 11, to “try it out, you know, on the preacher, the doctor, the Catholic committee on publications, psychologists, policemen, fishwives, housewives, drunks, everybody, just to see if we’ve got anything that goes against the grain.”

The five or six who finally edited the book ? and whose changes can be seen in “The Book That Started It All” ? aren’t identified by anything other than their green, red or graphite pencil marks. Historians haven’t yet figured out who they were.

The manuscript stayed in the Wilson home for nearly 40 years. After Wilson’s death in 1971, his wife, Lois, gave it as a gift to a friend, who kept it private for decades. It was put up for auction in 2004 at Sotheby’s, which sold it for $1.56 million. At the time, there was criticism from historians ? and AA members, who said that it should be public.

Now it is. The buyer sold it a couple years later to a Houston man, who asked Hazelden to publish it. Before they did, however, Farrar said he was concerned about the reaction of AA members, mostly about having to pay $65 for it.

“I was overly sensitive,” he said. “There’s a lot of buzz going on among AA people, and it’s mostly gratitude. I’m hoping that people will have their favorite passages and say, ‘Oh, my God, that’s what it originally said.’”