Specialized meetings

In the St. Joseph river valley, Father Ralph was certainly the third most read A.A. author. But a different kind of procedure was followed with his writings. Those members who were deeply interested in the spiritual life would form small private meetings in their homes to read and study the most recent Golden Book. Copies of these pamphlets were (and still are) sold at the Central Service Office in South Bend. Good old-timers like Submarine Bill would give copies to the people whom they sponsored, and tell them to read them carefully. But there was a kind of tacit understanding that it was not usually appropriate to read from one of the Golden Books or use it for meeting topics in official A.A. group meetings.

Part of this arose from the fact that Father Ralph's books were not officially sponsored by the Indianapolis A.A. group. He wrote and published those totally on his own. Writings which were not sponsored by a regular A.A. group or intergroup were not automatically regarded as necessarily wise for other groups to use for official A.A. meetings. The Golden Books also were not for everyone in the program (some people liked them and others did not), and perhaps even more importantly, they dealt with fairly advanced issues in the spiritual life which would have probably been greatly confusing to a lot of newcomers who had just walked into their first A.A. meeting.

We are talking here about the question of what sorts of things were appropriate to read in officially scheduled A.A. meetings, that is, those which were listed in the meeting directory for that town or county. These were meetings where one expected struggling alcoholics to stagger through the door, just having chosen a meeting at random off the list, seeking blindly for help, and too new and befuddled to understand anything except the most basic A.A. material.

But there was in fact a whole tradition of specialized meetings which were not A.A. meetings in the formal sense -- particularly in the sense that they were not listed in the local meeting directories that were handed out to those who were brand new to the program. Private study groups meeting in people's homes were one sort of specialized meeting. For a long time, Submarine Bill had all the people whom he sponsored meet once a year to study the twelve steps, sometimes using a tape recording of Father Ralph's talk on the steps or something else of that sort to start off each session.

A private study group of this sort could read any sort of book which the participants wanted to, and groups sometimes chose very interesting sorts of materials to read and study. The general understanding, for example, was that A.A. people needed to be familiar with all sorts of different kinds of spiritual works, from various religious traditions, and other things that were important to the understanding of A.A. history. I have heard of groups on the West Coast, for example, meeting to study the medieval spiritual writer Meister Eckhart, or my own book on The Higher Power of the Twelve-Step Program.

In the St. Joseph river valley region, Father David G. Suelzer, O.S.C., Prior of the Crozier Fathers and Brothers at Wawasee, Indiana, conducted weekend spritual retreats for A.A. members. He was not an alcoholic himself, but he was a consultant at Hazelden during the 1960's and was very much a friend of the A.A. movement. There never were any rules saying that non-A.A. members could not speak to A.A. groups. Over the last ten or fifteen years, I have heard people try to claim that this was an ancient and sacrosanct A.A. rule, but that is just silly and historically ignorant. A closed A.A. discussion meeting is not supposed to have anyone present who does not have a desire to stop drinking (unless the group conscience decides otherwise), but this is not the same as an A.A. convention, conference, workshop, or international, which is an open meeting.

Or, to mention a different kind of specialized meeting, a group of A.A. people might set up their own private weekend spiritual retreat. For the people in the St. Joe river valley region there were for a long time well-attended annual retreats of that sort at Fatima House retreat center at Notre Dame University and at the Yokefellow retreat center in Defiance, Ohio. In the 1990's, meetings began being set up, bringing people together from various parts of Indiana -- and also large meetings at the national level where people came from all over the United States and Canada -- to hear talks about A.A. archives and A.A. history. These were not necessarily sponsored by any particular A.A. group, intergroup, or Area organization, but were the ad hoc creation of a group of interested A.A. members.

There were also workshops set up by the Elkhart intergroup at mini-conferences, where the A.A. people who attended could hear psychotherapists talk about specific psychological problems which recovering people often had to deal with, and where A.A. members could attend Al-Anon workshops and vice versa, and where all sorts of other topics could be discussed, on A.A. history and other subjects.

In other words, real old-time A.A. was always pragmatic and flexible. About the only real rule which was followed, was that it was usually considered inappropriate to take an official weekly A.A. meeting which was listed in the official meeting schedule, and use any kinds of readings or topics except those which would be of general benefit to everyone in the program, including especially newcomers who had just walked in the door. On the other hand, the more specialized meetings which were intended for people who were beyond the newcomer stage, were often listed in monthly intergroup newsletters and on flyers which were distributed to all the groups in that city or county.

Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions and
Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age

There are well-meaning people today who sometimes mistakenly think that the issue was whether or not a particular book or pamphlet was "conference approved." We remember that when Brooklyn Bob was asked about this, he simply snorted and laughed and said, "We read anything we could get our hands on that might get us sober!" When one says that a particular publication is "conference approved," all one really means is that a group of delegates meeting in New York decided to spend New York headquarters money on publishing it. New York never ever had enough funds to print everything that could be useful to alcoholics trying to get sober and stay sober. The principle of institutional poverty means that A.A. as such cannot set up a publishing house of the sort which one sees among various American religious denominations: the Methodists' Abingdon Press, the Lutherans' Fortress Press and Augsburg Press, and other such publishing houses which require a large investment in buildings and printing presses and large staffs of editors and so on, which are financially supported by denominational funds.

With enormous difficulty, the New York A.A. office finally assembled enough money to print the Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions in 1953. A number of A.A. meetings were subsequently created in the St. Joseph river valley called "step meetings," which would read through the part of the book dealing with one of the twelve steps every week, and then discuss that step as a group. Sometimes the traditions were also studied in the same fashion by the group.

(It should also however be said that there are some good old-timers in Indiana who still believe that The Little Red Book -- which was Dr. Bob's baby -- and the Detroit or Washington D.C. Pamphlet are actually better introductions to the steps for newcomers. They believe that the material on the steps in the Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions is too philosophical and complicated for newcomers, and that it just confuses alcoholics when they first come in.)

The old-timers in the St. Joseph river valley say that there was enormous excitement when Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age appeared in 1957. As one old-timer put it, a woman who remembers those days clearly, "it was the first chance we got to learn something about our history." But the interesting thing is, that although this book was approved by the delegates in New York and published by Alcoholics Anonymous World Services in New York, the A.A. people in South Bend met in small private groups in people's homes to read and study this work.

The Third Principle

In other words, in early A.A. in the St. Joseph river valley, A.A. meetings which were listed on the official meeting schedule would often read and study books which were not published by the central New York A.A. office, and on the other hand, they believed that some of the books which were published in New York and "conference approved," were nevertheless not appropriate for general A.A. meetings. What this meant was that the question of whether a particular book or writing was or was not "conference approved" meant nothing in and of itself about whether it might or might not be judged as appropriate for reading at A.A. meetings.

Books by non-A.A. authors

Going back to the very beginning of A.A. in the St. Joseph river valley, there were important books written by non-A.A. authors which good sponsors recommended to the people whom they sponsored, which were made available for loan or purchase by A.A. groups and intergroup offices, and which could be studied at private unofficial meetings in people's homes or at spiritual retreats.

Ellen Lantz in Elkhart told a story which was similar to that of many other early A.A. members in the St. Joseph river valley. A book written by a non-A.A. author played a crucial role in enabling her to get sober and stay sober. In fact in her case, after she first came into the program, she had to go through three and a half years where she was having periodic relapses before she finally gained permanent sobriety in March of 1951. From the beginning apparently, she was reading Twenty-Four Hours a Day every morning (which she continued to do all the way down to her death in 1985). But then Ed Pike's wife Bobby started meeting with her regularly to read in Father Ralph's Golden Books, and then, in particular, they made a very thorough study of Emmet Fox's Sermon on the Mount. This helped Ellen finally turn the corner, and stop the continual relapsing. In South Bend, the Sermon on the Mount continued to be highly recommended by people like Grouchy John and Rob G., and a number of other good old-timers, all the way down to the 1990's.

Emmet Fox was not an alcoholic. He was a Protestant pastor who was a major leader in what was called New Thought, a form of Christian spirituality which stressed the ways in which the thoughts which run through our minds shape our lives and can even affect our physical health and the material world around us, for good or ill. A.A. people found his writings uniquely effective in helping alcoholics learn basic spiritual principles, and free themselves from authoritarian and dogmatic forms of traditional religious teaching.

Another book by a non-A.A. member which the old timers in Indiana and Ohio frequently mention is Norman Vincent Peale's The Power of Positive Thinking, which came out in 1952. Peale came from a Methodist background, and combined New Thought principles with a very sophisticated knowledge of psychiatry and psychotherapy. He also believed that A.A. was the most important spiritual movement of the twentieth century, and was very impressed by the A.A. program.

The Akron List

In the A.A. program, Fox's book was the most widely known and recommended book written by a non-A.A. author, but there were also other important works. The Akron Manual, a pamphlet that was written and published in Akron in 1940 or thereabouts, and that was intended to be handed out to newcomers when they were admitted for detoxing at St. Thomas Hospital in Sister Ignatia's alcoholic ward, gave a list of ten works in all, which were recommended reading for beginners. At the top of the list came the Big Book of course, and then the Bible, with specific mention of certain key portions. In the New Testament, it was recommended that alcoholics going through detoxification read the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7), 1 Corinthians 13, and the letter of James. Then in the Hebrew Bible (the Old Testament), the pamphlet advised reading and re-reading the 23rd Psalm and the 91st Psalm (both of which are very good for people who are scared to death and coming to pieces). The other eight works were all by non-A.A. authors:

Henry Drummond, The Greatest Thing in the World.
The Unchanging Friend, a series published by the Bruce Publishing Co. in Milwaukee.
James Allen, As a Man Thinketh.
Emmet Fox, The Sermon on the Mount.
Winfred Rhoades, The Self You Have to Live With.
Ernest M. Ligon, Psychology of Christian Personality.
E. Stanley Jones, Abundant Living.
Bruce Barton, The Man Nobody Knows.
Mel B. from Toledo has just come out with a reprint of two of these books, the ones by James Allen and Henry Drummond. (Note 9) Mel says that when he first came into the program back in 1950, these two works were made available for purchase by A.A. groups all over the country, and that when he started reading and studying them, they helped save his life.

Again, early A.A. was flexible and pragmatic. Many of the good old-timers found that these particular books were extremely useful and helpful, and so they recommended them to beginners, and they went to the effort to make sure that newcomers could purchase them at their A.A. groups if they desired.

Encouraging A.A. Members to Read

The Detroit/Washington D.C. Pamphlet stated at the beginning of each lesson that studying their class material was not intended to eliminate the need for such things as "the careful reading and re-reading of the Big Book" and the "reading of approved printed matter on alcoholism." This reference to other printed materials on alcoholism meant that the good old timers who had discovered particularly useful things for alcoholics to read would take steps to make sure that this material was available for the other A.A. members to look at.

This is the practice which is still followed today in A.A. in the St. Joseph river valley by both Mable (the secretary at the Michiana Central Service Office in South Bend) and Alice (the secretary at the Central Service Office in Elkhart). Mable and Alice work on the general principle that everyone in town does not have to agree that a particular book is good -- this is very important -- but that if a particular work is recommended by some at least of the wiser and more knowledgeable A.A. or Al-Anon old timers -- people with quality experience in the program -- they will carry the book. So they have a wide variety of volumes, including meditational books and materials on spirituality, works by both A.A. and non-A.A. authors, studies by psychologists and other experts on alcoholism, and important books on various topics in A.A. history. If it is a decent book you can almost guarantee that it will be available there, but if for any reason they do not have a copy in stock, they will cheerfully order one for you, and phone you the moment it arrives.

Varieties of Spiritual Experience

One book written by a non-A.A. author that was cited over and over again by A.A. writers from the very beginning, was a book by the psychologist William James called The Varieties of Religious Experience. He stressed the fact that there were a number of very different kinds of spirituality. There was a type based on a sudden highly emotional conversion experience. There were other types in which a long, gradual educational experience took place. There was the religion of healthy mindedness, as James called it (New Thought was one version of that), and another form designed to deal with what he called the torment of the divided self. In addition, James pointed out, at all points in religious history all over the world, there had been various kinds of spirituality involving mystical experiences of the divine realm which could be felt but not described in words.

It was necessary to have different kinds of spirituality, James said, because human beings fell into different kinds of psychological types. A small percentage of people were of a psychological type which could only make a significant spiritual breakthrough by having a dramatic conversion experience. When psychologically tested, among other things, many of them tended to be people of the sort who were especially susceptible to post-hypnotic suggestion. But it was futile to try to produce a spectacular conversion experience of this sort among people of other psychological types. The attempt to make born-again Protestant revivalists or Catholic or Hindu mystics out of everyone was doomed to failure from the start.

Any attempt therefore to enforce a rigid uniformity upon everyone in A.A., even if it were, for example, a meditational book where each reading was voted on by all the delegates assembled in New York, would either drive large numbers of people out of the program, or be so bland and trivial that it would be no more than a kind of pre-chewed spiritual baby food which would be of little help to people desiring real spiritual meat and potatoes.

So when A.A. is healthy in any particular locality, there will be different kinds of A.A. meetings reading different things and using different approaches. To give a simple example, the first division in South Bend A.A. after it had begun was a split (involving the formation of a separate breakaway meeting) between those who followed Ken Merrill and preferred a type of A.A. which stressed the psychological aspects of recovery, (Note 10) and those who followed Harry Stevens (Note 11) and wanted a variety of A.A. that was more oriented towards traditional religious language. This did not weaken A.A. in South Bend, but in fact helped it grow and flourish. Newcomers could decide which approach made the most sense to them.

There are A.A. people who are round pegs, and others who are square pegs, and others who are triangular pegs. Trying to force square pegs into round holes, and so on, does nobody any good.

The historical roots of A.A.

Only a very small portion of the traditional A.A. reading matter was published by the New York A.A. headquarters. Attempts by a few people nowadays to create rules saying that only New York A.A. literature can be used in A.A. meetings or sold by A.A. groups or intergroups, are dangerous. They would, if they were successful, totally cut A.A. off from most of its historical roots. What would result would not in fact be A.A. anymore, at least not in any form which the good old-timers would have recognized. It would be some sort of dogmatic, rule-bound neo-fundamentalism. Following mechanical rules, no matter how well-intended the authors of these rules, never got anyone sober. People who turn to authoritarian fundamentalist systems are excessively fearful but also extremely lazy people who do not want to take personal responsibility for themselves or their lives. And alcoholics who refuse to deal with both their many fears and their aversion to hard work and taking responsibility for themselves do not get sober.

With all its richness and variety, genuine old-time A.A. flourished and spread all over the United States and Canada, and then to all the other countries of the world. This was the period of A.A.'s rapid growth, and the period which saw incredibly high success rates in getting alcoholics sober and keeping them sober. If we want to see a true revival of the old A.A. spirit, one of the best ways to accomplish this is to sit at the feet of the good old-timers, and read what they read, and do the things that they report that they did.

The good old-timer Ed Pike the railroad man probably put it as well as anyone. When he first started going to A.A. meetings, "I just made a deal with myself," he said, "that I will do anything that they tell me they do -- anything -- and if I'm big enough, I'll do it."


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