As Bill Wilson Saw Them: The Shoemaker Difference

Bill Wilson came to know Rev. Sam Shoemaker quite well. Bill and his wife Lois went to Oxford Group meetings led by Shoemaker. Shoemaker and Bill corresponded from the very first days of Bill’s sobriety. Bill was present in Shoemaker’s church in early 1936 when Shoemaker officiated at liturgical services for Ebby and with Shep Cornell. Shoemaker and Bill discussed the principles and Steps and Big Book manuscript of A.A. before they were written up. Bill and Lois met Shoemaker at Oxford Group house-parties. And all of these things occurred before A.A. had taken formal shape in the Spring of 1939. I’ve covered the other items–Shoemaker’s articles for A.A.’s Grapevine, Shoemaker’s speeches at A.A.’s Conventions, Shoemaker’s own writings about the Twelve Steps and what the Church could learn from A.A., and Shoemaker’s attendance at talks made by Bill in New York. But the important thing is: What can we learn about A.A. that Sam Shoemaker’s role illuminated.

The Akron Difference

Once I learned the dramatic difference between the A.A. “Program” that was developed in Akron from 1935 to 1938, outlined in the seven points reported to Rockefeller by Frank Amos, and embodied in the personal stories of the Akron and Cleveland people in the First Edition, I saw a whole new light on alcoholism. And I wrote my Shoemaker book, New Light on Alcoholism: God, Sam Shoemaker, and A.A. (2d ed.)

In 1931, Shoemaker was the one who came to Akron and then, with the Firestones and Jim Newton, took Bud Firestone to Denver, converted him on the return train ride, and earned the gratitude of the Firestones for helping Bud achieve sobriety. Shoemaker remained in touch with the Firestone scene, and several of his colleagues came there in 1933 for the famous Mayflower Hotel events. They came also in 1934. And Shoemaker was in touch with Reverend Wright, Dr. Bob’s pastor, about the successes in Akron as a result of Wilson’s visit there in the summer of 1935. Furthermore, some of Sam’s books were part of Dr. Bob’s Library. Some were specifically recommended in Anne Smith’s Journal. And Sam’s book One Boy’s Influence was quoted in Anne’s writings. So there was a very clear Shoemaker influence in the Akron arena.

But it was not the same influence as that found in Bill’s tiny circle of drunks in New York. First of all, Dr. Bob does not seem to have mentioned Sam though he certainly attended events where Sam was present. Second, we have found no correspondence between Bob and Sam in contrast to the many communications between Bill and Sam. Third, Dr. Bob said he did not write the Twelve Steps and had nothing at all to do with writing them, whereas Bill had specifically discussed them with Sam and asked Sam to write them. Fourth, years later, when I asked Dr. Bob’s son to endorse my Shoemaker book (which he did), Smitty said “Who was Shoemaker?” All of which tells me that Sam did not cut a very impressive picture in the Akron birth of Alcoholics Anonymous.

What mattered in Akron were the Bible, prayer, quiet time, devotionals from several denominations, and the acceptance of Christ. And none of these figured much in the language of Bill Wilson or his wife Lois. Certainly not in their reading. For Lois started out as a non-Christian Swedenborgian and Bill started out as a conservative atheist. Neither ever joined or affiliated with a Christian church, as so many of the Akron pioneers did–joining or going to the Roman Catholic Church, the Episcopal Church, the Presbyterian Church, and others.

The Oxford Group/Shoemaker Connection

What Bob and Bill had in common, then, was not a Sam Shoemaker root, but rather an Oxford Group affiliation. Bob’s came largely through his Akron connections with Oxford Group activist T. Henry Williams and from his friendship with Henrietta Seiberling and her interest in the Oxford Group after 1933. Bill’s came largely from his connections with Oxford Group activists Sam Shoemaker, Rowland Hazard, Shep Cornell, Irving and Julia Harris, Victor Kitchen, and others in the Calvary Church circle in New York. Bob searched far and wide in the Bible and Christian literature for his spiritual answers. Bill did not. Yet in the long run, Bill virtually codified in his Big Book and Twelve Steps the Oxford Group ideas he had learned directly from Rev. Sam Shoemaker in New York. In the Big Book project, Bob focused on the personal stories of recovery–which played a different tune than that found in A.A.’s basic text. Nonetheless, the basic text and the stories appear to have been the subject of complete agreement between Bill and Bob as to content. And Shoemaker’s ideas were certainly harmonious with those of the Oxford Group as the Group ideas were known by, and incorporated in, the discussions and practices of founders Bill W. and Dr. Bob.

The Special Value to AAs of Knowing Shoemaker’s Role

As one who has read and analyzed almost every major Oxford Group writing, including the writings of Sam Shoemaker, I can say that if you find a Shoemaker word, phrase, idea, or practice in A.A., you will also find it in Oxford Group writings–publications that didn’t come from Shoemaker. I was told this by Dr. Frank Buchman’s biographer Garth D. Lean (who authored On the Tail of a Comet and several other Oxford Group materials). I was told this by Mrs. W. Irving Harris, wife of Shoemaker’s assistant minister, who lived in Calvary House; was in charge of its Oxford Group book stall; and knew Bill Wilson, Sam Shoemaker, and Frank Buchman quite well. I also could see the point clearly as I read Sam’s earlier articles in defense of “Buchmanism” (as Roman Catholic and other critics of the Oxford Group liked to label Frank Buchman’s “A First Century Christian Fellowship”). I learned it particularly from my friends James D. and Eleanor Forde Newton who went way back with both Frank Buchman and Sam Shoemaker. They each had worked with, and for, Buchman and Shoemaker.

So what, then, is the special point of Shoemaker’s work as far as A.A. is concerned? The answer, I believe, lies in the fact that Sam appears to have written about, and used language similar to, every single Oxford Group idea Bill Wilson adopted The same cannot be said of the other popular Oxford Group works. Many–such as For Sinners Only, Life Began Yesterday, Life-Changers, and I Was a Pagan–centered on stories and gave rise to A.A. “story telling” practices. Some–such as The God Who Speaks, When Man Listens, The Quiet Time, and The Guidance of God–focused on the Oxford Group expression “Guidance.” A few, such as Soul-Surgery and Life-Changers, explained the life-changing 5 C’s–Confidence, Confession, Conviction, Conversion, and Continuance–which became the heart of A.A.’s middle Steps. Some, such as What is the Oxford Group?, Sharing, The Venture of Belief, and Discipleship, endeavored to explain a number of Oxford Group principles such as the Four Absolutes, Restitution, Surrender, Sharing, Willingness, Believing, and Quiet Time. Some, such as The Eight Points of the Oxford Group, The Principles of the Group , Why I Believe in the Oxford Group, and The Breeze of the Spirit attempted to systematize the Oxford Group program. All are useful. All embody ideas I have heard straight from the mouths of Oxford Group activists themselves. All enabled me to set forth the twenty-eight principles of the Oxford Group that impacted on A.A. (The Oxford Group & Alcoholics Anonymous: A Design for Living that Works.)

But what about Sam and his immense number of writings? The answer is that Sam wrote about every one of the foregoing Oxford Group principles. His books tend to be reproductions of sermons he gave on pertinent topics. His style and prose are beautiful and easy to read. Most important, many of the words, phrases, and ideas in Sam’s titles appear at first blush to have been “copied” almost verbatim by Bill Wilson into his Big Book. This is not to say that they were copied. It may well be that Bill Wilson heard them so often that they fell into place and did in fact cause him to say many times that nobody invented Alcoholics Anonymous and that all its ideas were borrowed.

In this article, we’ll just run through Shoemaker and the first six A.A. Steps in the hope you will see the importance of reading Shoemaker’s original works or at least the summaries of them you will find in my titles, New Light on Alcoholism: God, Sam Shoemaker, and A.A. (2d ed.), Anne Smith’s Journal, 1933-1939: A.A.’s Principles of Success, and The Books Early AAs Read for Spiritual Growth.

If you then want the “full Monty” eloquently depicted, it is to Sam Shoemaker’s writings themselves that you should turn. We have developed and discussed Sam’s Step contributions in much more detail in two recent books, and you might want to consult them for further facts and documentation. See Dick B. By the Power of God: A Guide to Early A.A. Groups and Forming Similar Groups Today (2000), pp. 69-146. See also Dick B. Utilizing Early A.A.’s Spiritual Roots for Recovery Today (Why It Worked: A.A. History Series, Vol. 1) (1998), pp. 49-56.

Shoemaker and The First Six Steps

Step One: Sin, wrote Sam, makes a gap between man and God that man is “powerless to bridge;” and “we have lost the power to do for ourselves” the climbing or crawling back the distance to “All-holy God” (Shoemaker, If I Be Lifted Up, pp. 131-133). “God, manage me, “cause I can’t manage myself” was a cry heard round Sam’s Calvary Church (Irving Harris, The Breeze of the Spirit: Sam Shoemaker and the Story of Faith at Work, p. 10).

Step Two: “The soundest approach I know to religious discovery is found in St. John’s Gospel, chapter 7, verse 17: “If any man willeth to do his will, he shall know of the doctrine.’ We are busy getting “willing to do His will, ‘ and that means changing many of our ways” (Shoemaker, The Experiment of Faith, p. 36). “We said that what God did for us on the Cross is the cure and corrective for the gospel of “self help,’ so common to-day even among believers (Shoemaker, If I Be Lifted Up, pp. 166-167). “God is, or He isn’t. You leap one way or the other” (Shoemaker, Confident Faith, p. 187).

Step Three: “That night I decided to “launch out into the deep:’ and with the decision to cast my will and my life on God, there came an indescribable sense of relief, of burdens dropping away” (Shoemaker, Twice-Born Ministers, p. 134).

Step Four: “There is a moral obligation to be as intelligent as you can… Face all the facts you can find, honestly and fearlessly” (Shoemaker, Religion That Works, p. 58). “It would be a very good thing if you took a piece of foolscap paper and wrote down the sins you feel guilty of… Put down everything that doesn’t measure up. Be ruthlessly, realistically honest” (Shoemaker, How to Become a Christian, pp. 56-57).

Step Five: “I found it necessary to go to someone I could trust, and make a clean breast of my sins” (Shoemaker, Confident Faith, p. 41). “If a person is honest with himself and with God, he will be honest also with us and ready to take the next step, which is a decision to surrender these sins, with himself, wholly to God” (Shoemaker, The Church Can Save the World, p. 112).

Step Six: “He must be willing to give up the sins which beset, and to accept in full God’s plan for his life” (Shoemaker, Confident Faith, p. 117).

Those are Teasers. You Look Up The Rest!

When I interviewed Congressman John Seiberling in his office at Akron University during one of the Founders Day celebrations, I started reading him the twenty-eight Oxford Group principles I found had impacted on A.A. I asked him if he had ever heard any of them. He replied: “I’d have had to be deaf not to hear them. My mother [Henrietta Seiberling] talked about them all the time.”

And that’s how I felt when I started reading Shoemaker. Every book–and there were more than thirty–contained some new statement of words and ideas I had heard in A.A. from the beginning or had seen in my studies of the Big Book. The A.A. words came alive! So that’s what those phrases meant to Bill Wilson, I thought. So these are the roots of the Big Book ideas and the Twelve Steps, I realized. These are the materials that documented both Bill’s and Sam’s “path” to a relationship with God. And it was a path founded on a Shoemaker declaration about the need to find God. “May you find Him now!, wrote Bill Wilson” It moved on to the “turning point.” Then began the “steps we took” and which–every one of them–contained a Sam Shoemaker idea on a decision, an inventory, a confession, the conviction, the conversion, the restitution, and then the last three “continuance” steps.

Later, of course, I was to find that Wilson himself said in The Language of the Heart that all of these Step ideas came straight from Sam Shoemaker. And you will enjoy finding the rest of them. You can start with my title, By the Power of God, and move on! On–if you like–to my voluminous study of all Sam’s relevant writings, as set out in New Light on Alcoholism.