What is Alcoholics Anonymous?

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) is an organization dedicated to helping people end addiction to alcohol. The organization is loosely structured and though there is an overhead group that focuses on things like printing literature, there are over 100,000 groups that operate under the guidelines of AA’s principals. These groups give about half their donations to the main organization and keep the other half to pay for things like room rental and basic needs of the group. People attending meetings donate what they can at each meeting, but are under no obligation to donate if they lack funds.

People looking to end their drinking habit might turn to Alcoholics Anonymous.
People looking to end their drinking habit might turn to Alcoholics Anonymous.

The idea of Alcoholics Anonymous can be traced to the Oxford Group, an American Christian group that was established in the 1920s by Dr. Frank Buchman. One attendee of Oxford Group meetings was Bill Wilson, who suffered from alcoholism. He thought the principals of the Oxford Group, especially the idea that God could accomplish what humans couldn’t, helped him stop drinking. In 1935, Dr. Bob Smith and Wilson established a meeting group specific to the needs of alcoholics wishing to recover, and a few years later, Wilson penned Alcoholics Anonymous-The Big Book, a book that helped to define the steps toward recovering from addiction.

Alcoholics Anonymous can be traced back to the 1920's.
Alcoholics Anonymous can be traced back to the 1920's.

The Big Book introduced the Twelve Step Program, which people wishing to drink would work through in order to gain freedom from continuing to drink. These steps include admitting a problem exists, turning the problem over to a Higher Power (not necessarily a Christian god), making a moral inventory of character defects, and making amends to people the person has hurt. The key to remaining sober was that people had a spiritual awakening at the end of these steps that allowed them to help other alcoholics and to continue to use the steps in daily living. Bill Wilson felt the reason he was able to resist drinking again was this spiritual awakening as he experienced it in the Oxford Group, and the steps in AA are meant to achieve this awakening.

Despite the emphasis on a higher power, or God in Alcoholics Anonymous literature, there are plenty of groups that overtly resist a Christian or Judaic approach. Instead a higher power can be defined as anything a person wishes. While many meetings close with prayers like the “Our Father,” some groups will simply end holding hands and will skip prayers. Still there is plenty of focus on the idea of a higher power making changes in people’s lives, and some people may resist this concept if they are specifically anti-religious or atheistic.

When people enter Alcoholics Anonymous, they need to find a sponsor. In addition to regularly attending meetings, people will meet with their sponsor to help discuss and work the steps. These sponsors are people who have successfully worked through the twelve steps. These steps have been applied to other programs like Narcotics Anonymous, and they do prove useful for some in ending addiction.

Alcoholics Anonymous is most successful in being able to end drinking when meetings are attended regularly. According to AA surveys, fairly high drop out rate occurs during the first few months. When people stay in the program over a year or more, they are often able to maintain sobriety. Currently the AA has close to two million members and operates meetings in many locations around the world.

Some Alcoholics Anonymous meetings close with a prayer.
Some Alcoholics Anonymous meetings close with a prayer.
Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Tricia has a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and has been a frequent wiseGEEK contributor for many years. She is especially passionate about reading and writing, although her other interests include medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion. Tricia lives in Northern California and is currently working on her first novel.

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Discussion Comments


Check out: "An Answer for Christians in A.A. Today: How to Deal with Obstructive Individuals Misconstruing A.A. Principles" by Dick B.


Thanks to this site for posting my comments on the real origins, history, founding, original program, and successes of the early A.A. Christian Fellowship founded in Akron in June, 1935.

The myth that early A.A. got its principles and practices from the Oxford Group is dispelled by Dr. Bob's own last major address to AAs in 1948. It is A.A. Pamphlet P-53. Dr. Bob pointed out that all they had was the Bible. They considered Jesus' Sermon, James, and 1 Cor 13 absolutely essential, he said. And he also stated clearly that the basic ideas of the 12 Steps came from the study and effort in the Bible - which he called the "Good Book."

The 12-Step program fashioned by Bill W. in 1939 was entirely different. It takes its ideas from three major sources, Bill said. (1) Dr. Silkworth - who defined the problem and told Bill Jesus Christ could cure him. (2) Professor William James, whose book declared the validity of cures by spiritual experiences. (3) The teachings of Rev. Sam Shoemaker--based on the Bible - which laid out the remaining 10 steps of what Bill called a practical program of action that - he believed - would lead to a spiritual experience.


While they may or may not have identified themselves as Christians, what's disturbing is Bill's (and to a lesser extent Bob's) fascination with the occult.

It's referred to in "Pass It On", which is AA-approved literature, and detailed in the chapter "The Spook Room" in Susan Cheever's biography "My Name is Bill". Seances were held regularly in the Wilson home, and Bill claimed to have seen at least one ghost (a Franciscan monk, if my sometimes-faulty memory serves).

He was much given to the process of automatic writing, where the writer holds a writing implement then clears his mind to allow the spirits to do the writing. Knowing that gives pause to his remark that the "Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions" seemed to write itself.

Christians in A.A. often fail to reflect on the reference to Jesus Christ as "just a great teacher", a subtle denial of Christ's divinity in the chapter "Bill's Story" in the Big Book (which immediately precedes his recounting of the "white light experience").

After that reference to Jesus, there's plenty said about "God", but it's certainly not the Christian Almighty God.

In A.A. one comes to "God" not through Christ but by working the steps.


The real "power" behind Alcoholics Anonymous: Probably the greatest recent development among anonymous and 12-Step Fellowships is an awakening to how important the power of Almighty God -- not some "nonsense god" called a higher power or light bulb or Big Dipper -- was at the beginning of A.A. and to how important it is for all in recovery to know that there are tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands in A.A. today who want God's help.

They need to know where they came from. They need to know that the first three AAs believed in Almighty God, were, or became Christians in 1934, and were cured by the power of God. Early A.A. was about reliance on what Bill Wilson called "the God of the Scriptures." And the International Christian Recovery Coalition is dedicated internationally to helping this information be known.


Critical to understanding what a person can do in A.A. today are these little-known facts: (1)Where A.A. got its ideas from the rescue missions, the YMCA, evangelists, the Salvation Army, and Christian Endeavor. (2) The Christian religious training each of the co-founders received as youngsters in Vermont. (3) How the first three AAs got sober simply by turning to God for help. (4) What the founders brought to the table when the original program was founded in 1935. (5) The role that God, His Son Jesus Christ, and the Bible played in early A.A. and its successes and the role they can play in recovery today if the afflicted want God's help. History can help us understand these points.


The article is no doubt well-intentioned. But it fails the test of accuracy when it comes to the description of A.A. and its roots.

Early A.A. derived from Christian origins--evangelists, the YMCA, the Salvation Army, Young People's Christian Endeavor Society, rescue missions, and primarily many years after it was formed from the teachings of Rev. Sam Shoemaker. The original program was founded in 1935. It was a Christian Fellowship. Its founders Bill and Bob were Christians. There were no Steps, no Traditions, no Big Book texts, no drunk alogs, and no meetings like those today.

The details can be found in The Akron Genesis of Alcoholics Anonymous, The Good Book and The Big Book: A.A.'s Roots in the Bible, Dr. Bob of Alcoholics Anonymous, The Conversion of Bill W., and Real Twelve Step Fellowship History.

The A.A. folks were required to believe in God, accept Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour, study the Bible, pray together, and read religious literature. They had a documented 75 percent success rate among those who really tried and were surveyed in 1937.

Their basic ideas came from the Book of James, Jesus' Sermon on the Mount, and 1 Cor 13. But all this changed at the time of the compromise agreed upon in New York as the Big Book was being published in 1939.

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