It’s often a shock when people in recovery realize that the early members of AA did not have the Twelve Steps and The Big Book. We sometimes take for granted that the language we speak in recovery today must have been the mother tongue of the recovery movement but it was not.
We know from our Alcoholics Anonymous history books that the first guidelines presented to guide personal change were the six steps of The Oxford Group, which was the organization that gave birth to AA. This was the basis used as Bill and Bob began to form the new organization, and the Big Book—initially intended as the first business venture of the new organization.
(You may recall that Bill was selling stock in AA before the others were able to rein in the natural instincts of Bill the stockbroker and dealmaker. Thank Goodness for Doctor Bob and his insistence on anonymity and humility.)
So, what did those earliest members read and study? Primarily the Christian Bible, and the writings of Christian theologians and preachers,. They also read, almost a counter balance, the works of psychoanalyst Carl Jung. Today we know that so many of the practices and directives that we live and prescribe, are from Jung.
But the “big” book that all of the early Oxford Group members, and early AA’s, read was a daily devotional called, “My Utmost for His Highest,” by Oswald Chambers. This small blue book is still available and can be found in l recovery bookstores, and, interestingly, in every bedroom at The Wilson House –Bill Wilson’s birthplace and recovery retreat center in East Dorset, Vermont.
Oswald Chambers was an evangelical minister, writer, teacher and World War I chaplain. His small book promoted surrender, faith, trusting God with your life, and daily practices of private prayer and meditation. The Oxford Group in Europe found him and his book, “My Utmost for His Highest” became their daily reading, hence becoming daily reading for the early AA’s.
The osmosis of Chambers powerful messages fed the development of language and literature through The Oxford Group and then into the next generation of evangelical advocates who worked with “drunks and drinkers.” From them it came into the language and habits of today’s Alcoholics Anonymous—and from there into all those groups that end with an “A”—OA, NA, DA, etc.
What did Chambers ultimately contribute to our recovery movement? He gave us much of our practices and thinking around how to know God’s will, and how to understand God in your life, though today we substitute “Higher Power” for the word “God”.
Chambers also promoted “The Quiet Time” for his followers—that is, daily, private prayer and meditation. Chambers also wrote about “the fellowship of the Sprit” --not the kind of social fellowship we speak of today, but as an internal way of being with the Holy Spirit of God. But his language transcended to our use today.
I came back to Chambers recently and his “My Utmost for His Highest” because of a powerful new memoir written by Macy Halford and published by Knopf this year. Halford, a writer for the New Yorker, was raised in an evangelical home in Texas where her family read “My Utmost” daily and kept those practices.
In her memoir, "My Utmost", Halford explores what it means to have that kind of early evangelical upbringing, and what it means to leave it, questioning whether and what has been left with her and the value of those pieces of faith she keeps today. Her writing is beautiful, and she shows us how to explore whatever religion we met as a child and how to make sense of that as an adult.
In a quote from Chambers that closes Macy Halford’s memoir you will feel the rhythmic echo of page 164 of our Big Book, where we read, “Abandon yourself to God…clear away the wreckage of your past..”
So many years before our book, Oswald Chambers wrote to his followers:
“Leave the Irreparable Past in His hands, and step into the Irresistible Future with him.”