The following story is based completely on Sam Shoemakers own words about his experiences with the beginning of AA:
Let’s get the record straight; I have always felt that Bill gave me a great deal more credit for helping to get this amazing outfit started than I should have been given. I have noticed it’s something Bill does with a lot of other people too – perhaps that’s how he makes so many “swans out of geese”.
I believe the church has a great deal to learn; not from any individual member of AA, but from the incredible collective experience of AA. I pray to God that what is happening pretty steadily and consistently throughout the fellowship could happen in every church. The AA fellowship is made up of people who are beginning to be changed, not saints, and not perfect. We in the church can all learn by this example and if we think we’re above it we are in real danger.
Although I am not an alcoholic, I don’t see much difference between getting drunk on whiskey, gin, or beer or in getting drunk on temper, lust, resentment, or fear. So I believe the principles of the AA program are good for everyone. The idea that the principles are more important than personalities is worthy of examination.
I don’t believe that principles alone have ever saved anyone from defeat or trouble. The principles must be seen at work in people, so they become incarnate and visibly available to others in need. They must be clothed with life, caring, and intelligent action. Behind people who have found an answer there are always other people who have found an answer, and so on. This goes back through a long apostolic succession of genuine spiritual discovery which must have originally been set in motion by God.
But He didn’t give those principles a primeval push and expect them to go by themselves. He was in the principles and also in the people who live out the principles. He is present in whatever spiritual method people use to carry out those principles in winning their battle. I think in all human transformation, whether of a directly spiritual kind or that done through medicine or science, God is present and at work.
The program of recovery is based upon the faith in a “Power Greater than ourselves”. Will-power, or any appeal to it, isn’t sufficient for any of us in solving our troubles. When you think you’re able to manage your own life without God, you are adding pride to whatever other sins you may have. Pride is not only the first of the seven deadly sins; it ought to have a category all its own.
Many problems begin to be solved as soon as people realize they cannot solve them by themselves. That takes pride right out of the driver’s seat. I believe God would be psychologically necessary even if He weren’t theologically necessary. Nothing but God is big enough to tell the human ego to move over.
Through the twelve steps Alcoholics Anonymous has created the ability to reach people of all faiths and denominations, even agnostics and non-believers. By using phrases such as “God as we understood Him” and “Power Greater than ourselves” anyone coming into AA would not have loyalties they had already formed interfered with. They would be strengthened by their association.
In AA one can begin with a very modest faith and see power in the results of the others within the fellowship. One can see people who were once lost and defeated become victorious over seemingly unsolvable problems. AA says to the skeptic, “Begin with whatever faith you’ve got.” You’re not asked to swallow anything you’re not ready to swallow. The key is having an open-mind!
I was fortunate to have been around AA when the movement was just getting started. Many of the successful ideas AA picked up on were being used and taught within the Oxford Group at the time. Fortunately, AA was able to avoid some of the mistakes we made in the Oxford Group.
The four absolutes that the Oxford Group professed are a good thing to strive for, but a bad thing to think you’ve reached. Be careful of thinking that you are “absolutely” honest, pure, unselfish, or loving. I have an old preacher friend who liked to say, “If you think you is where you’re going – you ain’t ever gonna get there.”
I worked with a bishop named Austin Pardue in Pittsburgh who believed that facing oneself is the beginning of all Christian conversion. He also has said, “We ought to pray to God to me merciful enough not to show us all of ourselves at one time. We would probably die from shock.” I believe it’s best for us to get these ideas or concepts step–by-step as we are ready to face them. That is why the AA program is so successful.
I truly believe that there is really only one answer for any need or sin on this earth and that lies in the forgiveness of God for the past and the grace of God for the future. There’s a little prayer I would like to share which is said to be the prayer of a long dead slave: “Oh Lord, I ain’t what I ought to be, and I ain’t what I want to be, and I ain’t what I’m going to be. But oh Lord, I thank you that I ain’t what I used to be.”
I’d like to share some of my personal recollections of those early days at Calvary Church when the fellowship was just getting started. I took lots of notes, especially when talking with Bill Wilson; or I should say when listening to Bill.
Bill believed things really started in Zurich, Switzerland around 1930 when Rowland Hazard went to see Dr. Carl Jung, the great psychiatrist, for help with his drinking obsession. He remained sober under the doctor’s care for about a year. At the end of that time he thought he was safe to be released. But within a few weeks he was drunk again and returned to Dr. Jung. He pleaded with the doctor, “Is there nothing I can do? Can’t you help me?” Dr. Jung told him that he had never seen even one alcoholic of Rowland’s type recover under his care and he couldn’t do anything more for him. Rowland was shattered! He implored the doctor, “Isn’t there anything I can do?”
Dr. Jung informed Rowland that he had heard of some alcoholics who had had a conversion that liberated them. Of course Rowland wanted to know where to find such a conversion and Jung told him that if he looked – he just might find it. I’m certain that if Jung had known how to help Rowland find a spiritual conversion he would have already done so. Certainly for Rowland it seemed to be a death sentence. He left Jung and headed to New York in a hopeless state.
I became very good friends with Rowland over the years and he became a member of our parish. There is a small window in the church created in his memory. Rowland found his way to Calvary Church through the Oxford Group. He began attending meetings and was introduced to the ideas being shared at the gatherings. He later told me he read the book “For Sinners Only”, by A.J. Russell, on a train from New York to Detroit and became stone-cold sober. I’m sure it helped to bring about his conversion.
Rowland was also introduced to William James’s book “Varieties of Religious Experience”. There he read about the conversion of old Sam Hadley. We know from Bill Wilson’s writings that Ebby T. had suggested that Bill read this book. The conversion story of S.H. Hadley had special meaning to the early alcoholics attending the Oxford Group meetings. Henry Hadley, the son of Sam Hadley, was the superintendant of the Calvary Mission. He too was an alcoholic.
I believe S.H. Hadley’s conversion was extremely important – perhaps miraculous – as it relates to the events leading to the formation of Alcoholics Anonymous. Here is an excerpt from the story as it first appeared in 1902 in “Varieties of Religious Experience”.
“One Tuesday evening I sat in a saloon in Harlem, a home-less, friendless, dying drunkard. I had pawned or sold everything that would bring a drink. I could not sleep unless I was dead drunk. I had not eaten for days, and for four nights preceding I had suffered with delirium tremens, or the horrors, from midnight till morning. I had often said, ‘I will never be a tramp. I will never be cornered, for when the time comes, if ever it comes, I will find a home in the bottom of the river.’ But the Lord so ordered it that when the time did come I was not able to walk one quarter of the way to the river. As I sat there thinking, I seemed to feel some great and mighty presence. I did not know what it was. I did learn afterwards that it was Jesus, the sinner’s Friend. I walked up to the bar and pounded it with my fist till I made the glasses rattle. Those who stood by drinking looked on with scornful curiosity. I said I would never take another drink, if I died on the street, and really I felt as though that would happen before morning. Something said, ‘if you want to keep this promise, go and have yourself locked up.’ I went to the nearest station-house and had myself locked up.”
“I was placed in a narrow cell, and it seemed as though all the demons that could find room came in that place with me. This was not all the company I had, either. No, praise the Lord; that dear Spirit that came to me in the saloon was present, and said, ‘Pray.’ I did pray, and though I did not feel any great help, I kept praying. As soon as I was able to leave my cell I was taken to the police court and remanded back to the cell. I was finally released and found my way to my brother’s house, where every care was given me. While lying in bed the admonishing Spirit never left me, and when I arose the following Sabbath morning I felt that day would decide my fate, and toward the evening it came into my head to go to Jerry M’Auley’s Mission. I went. The house was packed, and with great difficultly I made my way to the space near the platform. There I saw the apostle to the drunkard and the outcast – that man of God, Jerry M’Auley. He rose, and amid deep silence told his experience. There was sincerity about this man that carried conviction with it, and I found myself saying, ‘I wonder if God can save me?’ I listened to the testimony of twenty-five or thirty persons, every one of whom had been saved from rum, and I made up my mind that I would be saved or die right there. When the invitation was given, I knelt down with a crowd of drunkards. Jerry made the first prayer. Then Mrs. M’Auley prayed fervently for us. Oh, what a conflict was going on for my poor soul!”
The story goes on a bit more and finally concludes with these words from Hadley. “From that moment till now I have never wanted a drink of whiskey, and I have never seen money enough to make me take one. I promised God that night that if He would take away the appetite for strong drink, I would work for him all my life. He has done his part, and I have been trying to do mine.”
Mr. Hadley lived up to his words and spent the next fifteen years of his life in service at the Water Street Mission in New York. He was doing God’s work ministering to the drunkards. Perhaps some of the ideas used at the Water Street Mission found their way into the Oxford Group and ultimately into AA.
One can only imagine how Rowland, Ebby, and Bill must have felt having read that powerful story in The Varieties of Religious Experience and then seeing a sober Henry Hadley standing before them. I’ve always thought it to be a little sad that Henry didn’t find his way to sobriety until three days after his father’s death. Even then, the chain of events was connecting and ultimately leading to the AA program of today.
Rowland had a couple of friends, Shep Cornell and Cebra G., come stay with him at his farm. Both men joined up with the Oxford Group after Rowland made a tremendous impression on them. The two had known Ebby T. and knew he had been getting himself into trouble.
I remember Ebby once told me a story of him trying to drive his car between two trees – something no sober man would ever try to do. He then plowed his car into a lady’s house, destroying the corner of the house. The woman was completely terrified, but Ebby calmly opened the car door and said, “Hello, I just dropped in for a cup of coffee.” As I remember it, she wanted to have him arrested for impertinence – not for crashing into her house.
After calling on Ebby at his home and helping him to get out of some legal trouble the three men introduced him to the Oxford Group. Ebby sobered up immediately. He then became quite active in the Oxford Group in New York and moved into the Calvary Mission.
One time at the Calvary House (not the mission, but the high-rise next to the church where the Oxford Group met) I decided I would try to help out a few of the local “gentlemen drunkards”. They were some guys I had known since I had gone to school with them. I wanted to provide some help and a place for them to sleep. I thought that if I got them together, they could help each other out.
These guys occasionally got a little loud and had even been known to sneak in a bottle. One Sunday morning as I was giving my sermon I noticed something stuck into the cross above the altar. It was an alarm clock. Apparently the boys got “tight” the night before and one of them got mad at the alarm clock. He threw it through the open church window. Needless to say, my efforts with the “gentleman drunks” were fruitless. The Calvary Rescue Mission, however, was undoubtedly having great success – much better than me.
I remember one night in the very early days of Calvary Mission a character name Larry came in. He had met an old friend, Fred, on the street in front of the mission that day. Larry remembered Fred from the time he called the days of sin and drink. Fred was known in the underworld as “Spider”. Larry greeted his old friend by saying, “I thought you were dead!”
Fred replied, “I am; the guy you used to know is dead – this is a new one.” Of course Larry was both puzzled and intrigued and queried, “How’d it happen?” Fred said, “You come back down here at eight o’clock tonight and you’ll find out what changed the Spider.”
That night, without a vestige of faith of any kind, having never heard of God or Christ as anything other than a swear-word, Larry made his start. He had been brought up by an atheist and wound up in the underworld with no knowledge of religion whatsoever. The question is, what did Larry begin to surrender his life to on that night? The answer is, to what he saw – the God that was working in Fred. The God that had changed Fred might be able to change him too. That is how his surrender began.
Written by Michael Fitzpatrick ~ the completion of Rev. Sam Shoemaker’s story tomorrow