The Books the Good Old-Timers Read

EDITOR'S NOTE:  This article is reprinted from the appendix to Glenn C., The St. Louis Gambler & the Railroad Man, 2nd ed., Hindsfoot Foundation (New York: iUniverse, 2005).

The Big Book

In early A.A. in the St. Joseph river valley region, the book which completely surpassed all others in importance was always Alcoholics Anonymous, published in 1939 and referred to simply as the Big Book. In fact, it proved to be impossible to establish A.A. groups anywhere in Indiana until this work came out. One of the original Akron people actually came to Indiana in 1938, a year before the Big Book was printed. This was John D. Holmes (they called him "J.D."), who had gotten sober in Akron in September 1936, and was the tenth person to get sober in the new A.A. movement.

When Dr. Bob's son Smitty came to speak in South Bend at our annual Michiana Conference a few years ago, I got to eat dinner with him, and I asked him whether he recalled J. D. at all. Smitty smiled with delight as the old memories returned, and told me that he not only remembered him very well and very fondly, but that he had been the one who had driven over and picked up J. D.'s wife Rhoda to bring her back to his parents' house when his father (Dr. Bob) made his first contact with the couple.

J. D. came to Indiana in 1938 after the newspaper in Akron which he worked for was sold and he was left jobless. His wife Rhoda had originally come from Evansville, Indiana, and they decided to make a trip to visit her family there for the Memorial Day holiday which came at the end of May. He found a new job on the newspaper there and they simply stayed and did not go back. Evansville was a city on the Ohio river in the southern part of the state. Although Rhoda was not an alcoholic, she and J. D. held something like an A.A. meeting every Wednesday night in their home in order to help him keep sober.

The Upper Room

Like so many A.A.'s from the extremely early period, J. D. and Rhoda used a little work called The Upper Room for their private daily meditation and also to provide a discussion topic for this little Wednesday meeting. The spirit and philosophy of this meditational guide had almost as big an influence as the Oxford Group on early A.A. One can see this especially in the Big Book, where the ideas taught in The Upper Room shaped many of the most basic theological principles and assumptions. As far as is known, no one who played a shaping role in early Indiana A.A. was connected in any strong way with the Oxford Group or used any of their literature for A.A. meetings anywhere in the state. So the Oxford Group influence lay in the deep background in numerous ways, including the basic ideas behind many of the twelve steps, but was not an actual presence in Indiana A.A., even at its beginning.

The Methodist Episcopal Church South had begun publishing this extremely popular devotional manual called The Upper Room in the Spring of 1935 in Nashville, Tennessee, about the same time A.A. itself was founded. The Upper Room was a product in part of the Protestant liberals of the early twentieth century, who drew inspiration from works like Adolf Harnack's What Is Christianity? (1900) and Horace Bushnell's Christian Nurture (1847). Bushnell argued in that book that although some Christians might be brought to faith by a sudden conversion experience of great emotional intensity (of the sort which were seen so often in the American frontier revivals of the early nineteenth century), that most Christians would gain spiritual awakening through a process which was more of the educational variety.

The Upper Room was designed to provide that "educational experience." Each page had one day's meditation. There were bible verses and readings, and a meditation for that day, and a prayer. Most important of all, however, The Upper Room was shaped by the fundamental Wesleyan and Methodist belief that real spirituality was not a matter of outward, formal religion but "the religion of the heart." (Note 1) So The Upper Room was written in a way which could cross the normal denominational boundaries, and it talked about spirituality in a way which any sincere and tolerant person could appreciate, no matter what his or her religious background. It continued to be the work used for daily meditations by most A.A.'s in the United States down to 1948.

J. D. made numerous twelfth step calls after he moved to Evansville, but was at first unable to get any other Hoosier alcoholic to join him. Things improved when Dr. Bob sent him a copy of the newly published Big Book right after it came off the press, and armed with this new tool, J. D. had a good deal more to work with than just his own claims about what their little group had accomplished in Akron. The first A.A. meeting in Indiana was held by him and a local surgeon, Dr. Joe Weldorn, after Dr. Joe's drinking finally landed him in the county jail in April or May of 1940, and he finally became willing -- sitting there in his cell staring at the bars -- to do something about his problem.

A.A. quickly began spreading through Indiana from that point. On October 28, just a few months later, an A.A. group was started in Indianapolis, after Doherty Sheerin, a retired businessman there, traveled down to visit J. D.'s group and see how it was run. Dohr in Indianapolis and J. D. in Evansville continued working together through the years that followed, and eventually established A.A. groups over much of the rest of the state.

Dohr was a good Irish Catholic, and on November 10, 1943, he brought a young priest named Father Ralph Pfau into the A.A. program. Father Ralph was not only the first Roman Catholic priest to get sober in A.A., he also became one of the four most published A.A. authors when he began writing his famous Golden Books, published under the pseudonym of Father John Doe.

The only part of Indiana which did not initially receive A.A. from that Indianapolis-Evansville axis was South Bend in the north where A.A. got established when Ken Merrill (a factory owner) and Joseph Soulard "Soo" Cates (an engineer who worked as a sales representative for a large national corporation) started a meeting in South Bend on February 22, 1943, using just the Big Book for their guide. They do not seem to have had any contact during the first year or two with the Indiana A.A. groups further south.

Fulton J. Sheen

Presumably many A.A.'s in South Bend and the surrounding St. Joseph river valley area continued to use The Upper Room for their daily meditations, and to provide meeting topics. But Marty Gallagher in Elkhart, whose memory went back further than any other old-timer in the area, said that other things were used too, and that some A.A. meetings, for example, would be set so that everyone could sit and listen to Fulton J. Sheen speak over national radio on the Catholic Hour. They would then use his talk to provide the discussion topic.

Sheen, a Roman Catholic priest and theologian who taught at Catholic University, first went on the radio program in 1928. By the time A.A. came along, Father Sheen had over a million loyal listeners tuning in to hear him every week. He was eventually made a bishop in 1951. His style of preaching was attractive to A.A. people: Bill W. received instructions in Catholicism from him at one point, when Bill was flirting with converting to that faith. (Note 2)

It would be wrong to speak of Sheen as a liberal, but he knew how to speak about spiritual matters in a way which non-Catholics could also appreciate and understand. So his radio talks were useful for the same reason that the Upper Room was useful: it was a way of talking about spirituality which crossed many of the normal Christian denominational boundaries.

The Move Away from Exclusively
Christian Language

Many A.A. people however eventually began to be uncomfortable with the use of meditational literature which was so exclusively Christian, even if it was a very liberal or non-denominational version of Christianity. Already in the Big Book, the name of Christ was only mentioned once, on page eleven, where he was referred to merely as "a great man" who had an excellent moral teaching which was nevertheless not always wholly practical.

In the United States, going back at least as far as the New England Transcendentalists like Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) and Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862), there were many who believed that a serious pursuit of spirituality required going to all the great spiritual classics for inspiration and help. The Bible was one great spiritual classic, but there were many other equally ancient and inspired spiritual classics found around the world: the writings of Confucius, various Hindu religious works, and so on.

And behind the Transcendentalists lay the great thinkers of the eighteenth century Enlightenment -- people like Voltaire, Kant, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson -- who believed that good spirituality had to reject the world of authoritarian religious doctrines and dogmas and infallible holy books, and speak in terms which would be intelligible to rational human beings anywhere in the world. A.A. from the beginning was deeply affected by the spirit of the Enlightenment and its morality of knowledge: it was fundamentally dishonest, it was believed, to ask intelligent people to take things on blind faith -- as dishonest as lying or stealing or trying to pass bad checks. Real knowledge always had to be based on either (1) rational explanation or (2) personal experience.

Also, up until almost the middle of the twentieth century, most Americans and Europeans who had any kind of education past the simple grammar school variety were taught Latin, and the brighter ones learned Greek as well. So all educated westerners were also influenced by the spiritual teachings of the ancient pagan Greeks and Romans, and particularly by the philosophical ideas of Plato and the Stoics. Many early A.A. people were professionals, who had learned at least a little about the classics as part of their college educations, and they sometimes found some sort of Platonic or Stoic concept of God more congenial than what they were hearing in the Christian churches: the higher power was the divine unity of all things (in which our spirits too were participants), or the creative divine Mind or Reason of which this material universe was an expression.

Twenty-Four Hours a Day

In May 1942, a once wealthy Boston businessman named Richmond Walker who had lost everything due to his drinking, went to his first A.A. meeting and never had another drink again in his life. The little Boston A.A. group which he joined had barely gotten started, and had just split off from the Jacoby Club, to which it had been closely attached at the beginning. (Note 3) Rich also had a home in Daytona Beach, Florida, where he was also actively involved in the A.A. movement. He began writing some meditations for himself on little cards, which he would carry around with him, and finally in 1948, the Florida A.A. people persuaded him to print these up in book form. He printed some copies, under the sponsorship of the Daytona Beach A.A. group, and began distributing them from his basement. He gave it the title Twenty-Four Hours a Day.

Rich had been educated at a private school and then at Williams College, an old East Coast men's college (founded in 1785), located in Williamstown, Massachusetts, just a few miles from the Vermont border. He was an honors student who won a gold medal in classical Greek, and not only knew a good deal about the New England Transcendalists and nineteenth century German idealism, but also had a thorough knowledge of the philosophy of both Plato and Kant. His meditational book started with a quotation from a Hindu author and made no reference to Christ or to any specific Christian doctrines. His idea, as he said in his Foreword, was to produce a book which expressed "universal spiritual thoughts" and carefully avoided using too much language which was too closely tied to any particular one of the world's religions. It was a book designed to be read and appreciated by intelligent people from any part of the globe.

The book was first printed just for the program people in Florida, but A.A. members from all over the country quickly began requesting copies. Jimmy Miller, who came into the program in South Bend in 1948, could not remember ever using any other meditation book. Publication figures show that there were soon probably more A.A. people in the United States as a whole who owned their own personal copy of the Twenty-Four Hour Book than there were people who owned a Big Book. At least half the A.A.'s in the country had their own copy of the little meditational book.

In A.A. prayers and devotions, Twenty-Four Hours a Day totally replaced The Upper Room, which had been published by the evangelical movement in its Southern Methodist variety. But lying behind many of the small print passages in Twenty-Four Hours a Day was another evangelical work, God Calling by Two Listeners. So there was always some strong evangelical influence on early A.A. thought, whether it came from the Oxford Group in the very beginning, from the Southern Methodists later on, or from God Calling after 1948. (Note 4)

The two basic A.A. books

All the old-timers in the St. Joseph river valley who came in after 1948 report that they got sober on two books: the Big Book and the Twenty-Four Hour Book. The first book gave them the steps, bu this also of course included the eleventh step: "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." It told us to pray, but did not tell us how.

The Twenty-Four Hour book told us how. It showed in its little daily readings how to do all three things mentioned in the eleventh step: improve our conscious contact, obtain guidance as to God's will for us, and draw upon the power of the divine grace. Many early A.A.'s in the St. Joseph river valley carried the little black book around with them everywhere they went. Partly this was because it was so much smaller than the Big Book editions of those days, and could be slipped into a pocket or a small purse. But probably the most important reason was because when mental upsets occurred -- resentment, anxiety, fear, despair -- and they felt their spirits beginning to fall to pieces, the little black book contained the kind of message which could, as a kind of instant spiritual first aid, often calm the troubled soul better even than reading in the Big Book. They read from both the Big Book and the Twenty-Four Hour Book in their meetings, and regularly used the Twenty-Four Hour book to provide topics for discussion meetings.

The Little Red Book

The Little Red Book (originally titled An Interpretation of the Twelve Steps of the Alcoholics Anonymous Program, first published in 1946) was also read from and used for topics in A.A. meetings in parts of the United States and Canada. It was written by A.A. member Ed Webster in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and sponsored by the Nicollet Group there. Dr. Bob helped Ed Webster write it and strongly supported it: we can learn a lot about Dr. Bob's strategies for working with beginners by studying this book. It was one of the four most read books in early A.A. It was not used for A.A. meetings in the St. Joseph river valley, but one old timer told me that there were strong supporters of this book in other parts of Indiana, such as in some of the A.A. groups in Fort Wayne, for example, and in Indianapolis.

Like the Twenty-Four Hour book, it does not talk of prayer to Christ or obtaining salvation through Christ, but speaks always of praying directly to God or "the Power Greater than Ourselves." The A.A. program was never in any way hostile to Christianity (or to any other of the great religions of the world), but it was nevertheless a firmly held belief that A.A. books and A.A. meetings had always to use language which everyone could use, not just devoted Christians.

The Detroit or Washington
D.C. Pamphlet

There was a little pamphlet, laying out a set of four beginners lessons for newcomers to A.A., which was also very important in many parts of the country. Its actual title was "Alcoholics Anonymous: An Interpretation of the Twelve Steps." Our best information is that it was put together in its commonly used form in Detroit by the North-West Group at 10216 Plymouth Road, which began conducting Beginners Meetings for newcomers on June 14, 1943, so it is often referred to in the midwest as the Detroit Pamphlet. The first printed version however was sponsored by the A.A. group in Washington, D.C., perhaps in late 1943 or the first half of 1944, so on the east coast it is often referred to as the Washington D.C. Pamphlet. It was also later reprinted under the sponsorship of various local A.A. groups in Oklahoma, over on the West Coast, and so on.

In the 1990's, some of the old-timers in both South Bend and Elkhart used the Detroit Pamphlet for working with newcomers in A.A. meetings, and had a good deal of success. They regarded it as the best, clearest, and most effective set of A.A. beginners lessons they had ever seen.


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