No account of AA history would be complete without including the connection between Sam Shoemaker and Bill Wilson. Shoemaker was considered to be the “American Leader” of the Oxford Group. Like AA, the Oxford Group had many pioneers but none more important than Shoemaker. This would seem logical because his church was the headquarters for the Oxford Group in America during the 1930’s. Sam had developed an early relationship with Frank Buchman, the founder of the Oxford Group, which is what led to Sam’s involvement.
The Oxford Group was first known as “The First Century Christian Fellowship” when it was founded in 1921. The fellowship evolved into the Oxford Group in 1928 when a group (mostly students) was doing mission work with Buchman in South Africa. A reporter referred to them as “The Oxford Group” and the name stuck.
The group was an international non-denominational Christian fellowship looking to changes lives. Group meetings varied in size and style from one or two people gathered for quiet time and guidance to groups of tens of thousands in huge arenas and stadiums for what were called “house parties”. The group seemed to be mostly interested in attracting “high society” young men and women who were interested in social issues and in becoming “life changers”.
Much of the work done by the Oxford Groupers within the United States began at the Calvary Episcopal Church. Shoemaker and much of his staff and parishioners were very involved. They held regular meetings at Calvary House, located on the church grounds. Members of the group would carry their message through the use of books, pamphlets, and magazines. Many articles were written by those involved to help get the word out about the group and the “changed lives”. Of course, there was also controversy surrounding the group and its practices which led to negative media attention. The Catholic Church was quite vocal about its disapproval of the Oxford Group.
The principles of the group can be summarized by what “Groupers” (as they called themselves) referred to as the “Five C’s”: confidence, confession, conviction, conversion, and continuance. They also stressed what was known as the “Four Absolutes” which were: absolute honesty, absolute purity, absolute unselfishness, and absolute love. It’s interesting to note that these four absolutes had first been published in a book written by Robert E. Speer, a minister, in 1908. They appeared in his book “The Principles of Jesus”. Speer referred to them as “Jesus and the Standards”.
Sometime in 1938 the Oxford Group changed their name to Moral Re-armament after a speech given by Buchman in which he described there being a “moral crisis” and that nations should re-arm morally. By November of 1941 the Oxford Group was told in a letter by the Calvary Episcopal Church board that it could no longer meet there. This ended Sam Shoemaker’s association with the group.
Ebby T. and Bill Wilson, along with other New York alcoholics, attended meetings of the Oxford Group in 1934 at a time when AA was being born. Bill Wilson started holding Non- Oxford Group meetings in his home, for alcoholics only, shortly after he returned from Akron in the fall of 1935. Sometime in 1936 the home meetings started to show some success and the break from the Oxford Group began.
By early 1937 the majority of sober alcoholics in New York were attending meetings outside of the Oxford Group. However, there was some overlap and a few alcoholics attended both the newly formed un-named organization (Alcoholics Anonymous) and the Oxford Group. The group of sober alcoholics working with Dr. Bob in Akron (known as the Alcoholic Squad of the Oxford Group) was a little slower to pull away from the Oxford Group, although they also attended meetings for alcoholics at Dr. Bob’s home.
The relationship between Sam Shoemaker and Bill W. didn’t end when the group of alcoholics spilt away from the Oxford Group. Their relationship continued to grow and they became lifelong friends. When Bill Wilson introduced Shoemaker at the Alcoholics Anonymous International Convention in St. Louis he had this to say about Sam:
“We in A.A. have a saying that principles ought to come before personalities. Well it is through Sam that most of our principles have come. That is, that 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, a man of religion, and ourselves. How well I remember that first day I caught the sight of Sam. It was a Sunday service in his church; I was still rather gun-shy and dissident 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. I introduce to you one of the great channels – one of the great streams of influence that have gathered themselves together into what is now AA – Sam Shoemaker.”
Written by Michael Fitzpatrick ~ Part II tomorrow