Rev. Sam Shoemaker,
an A.A. “Co-Founder” and Spiritual Source
Dick B. © 2005
An Introduction to Sam
Shoemaker and A.A.
Bill Wilson often said: Reverend
Samuel Shoemaker was a wellspring of the principles and attitudes that came to
full flower in A.A.’s Twelve Steps for Recovery; that Sam’s early teachings did
much to inspire him and Dr. Bob; and, that from Shoemaker, he and Dr. Bob in the
beginning absorbed most of the Twelve Step principles. Then, at A.A.’s 1955
International Convention, Bill declared that early A.A. got its ideas of
self-examination, acknowledgment of character defects, restitution for harm
done, and working with others directly from Sam Shoemaker. Later, Bill added
that early AAs learned about moral inventory, amends for harm done, turning
their wills and lives over to God, meditation and prayer “and all the rest of
it” straight from the Oxford Group as it was “then led in America” by Dr.
Shoemaker. Finally, Bill wrote to Sam himself in 1963: “The Twelve Steps of A.A.
simply represented an attempt to state in more detail, breadth, and depth, what
we had been taught–primarily by you.” Bill also said:“Without this, there could
have been nothing–nothing at all.” Bill then added Sam Shoemaker’s name to his
list of “co-founders” of A.A.
There is much more. Sam was the Episcopal Rector at Calvary Church in New York,
the church which operated Calvary Rescue Mission where both Bill Wilson and his
“sponsor” Ebby Thacher made their decisions for Christ. Ebby’s Oxford Group
mentors Rowland Hazard and Shep Cornell were much involved with Sam’s Calvary
Church at that time. When Bill emerged from Towns Hospital in late 1934, Sam
immediately asked Bill to help Professor Frederick E. Breithut with his drinking
problem. In March, 1935, Bill, as godfather, sponsored the baptism of Breithut
by Sam Shoemaker. Ebby himself became a communicant at Calvary Church. And the
relationship of Bill and his early friends with Sam, and with Oxford Group
meetings at Calvary House and Oxford Group meetings and houseparties led by
Shoemaker was close and continuous. In the mid to late 1930's, Bill spent many
hours closeted with Sam in Sam’s book-lined study at Calvary House, discussing
the spiritual ideas which were soon to characterize A.A.
Even more important are these facts: Bill actually asked Sam Shoemaker to write
the Twelve Steps; but Sam declined, saying the Steps should be written by an
alcoholic, namely, Bill. Then, when Bill had completed the Big Book manuscript,
he circulated it to Sam for review prior to publication. Also, Sam’s reach into
early A.A. actually extended much farther than New York. For Dr. Bob’s pastor in
Ohio wrote to Sam advising him of the progress with alcoholics in Akron as a
result of Bill’s stay with Dr. Bob and his wife at their home during the summer
of 1935–the period when A.A. was founded.
But much concerning Sam Shoemaker and A.A. has taken back stage. A.A. and A.A.
historians have simply ignored specifics that Sam contributed to A.A.’s Step,
Big Book, and Fellowship ideas. Unless we learn those details, we will be
without access to, or understanding of fundamental spiritual principles AAs
borrowed from Shoemaker. One example is “finding God”–a challenge that has been
distorted through lack of knowledge of its Shoemaker source.
You cannot fairly appraise Sam Shoemaker’s legacy to A.A. without knowing the
depth and breadth of what Sam had to offer. Sam wrote over thirty books, at
least half of which were circulating (before A.A.’s 12 Steps and Big Book were
published in 1939) and being circulated in New York, Akron, and the Oxford
Sam was also a prolific writer of sermons, pamphlets, and articles for the
Calvary Evangel, his parish newsletter. The sermons and articles included his
1935 piece on “The Way to Find God.” Also, his pamphlet on “A First Century
Christian Fellowship” (the name by which the Oxford Group was known during
A.A.’s formative years, and a name which Dr. Bob used to characterize Akron A.A.
itself). Sam also wrote “Three Levels of Life,” and “What if I Had but One
Sermon to Preach” (two pamphlets which were tucked into the back of Anne Smith’s
Journal). Sam’s booklet “One Boy’s Influence” was quoted in Anne Smith’s
Journal. Six other Shoemaker books are known for sure to have been owned, and
read by, Dr. Bob and his wife Anne Smith. In all, therefore, Sam’s ideas reached
A.A. through his books, his pamphlets; his published sermons; his Evangel
articles; his personal conversations with Bill; his influence on Bill’s mentors
Reverend Irving Harris, Julia Harris, Rowland Hazard, Shep Cornell, Hanford
Twitchell, Victor Kitchen, and others; and Sam’s actual conduct of, and
leadership in, the very first alcoholic meetings on the East Coast. Meetings
which were actually Oxford Group assemblages. Sam’s ideas were also passed down
the chute via Calvary Rescue Mission, where Bill first went for help and where
he later went to find and help other drunks.
Sam Shoemaker ideas can be found in the very language of the Twelve Steps. They
can be found almost verbatim in the Big Book. They are part of A.A. fellowship
jargon. And they were later reiterated and explained when Shoemaker addressed
A.A. International Conventions in St. Louis and subsequently at Long Beach. Also
in the articles he wrote for A.A.’s Grapevine. Also when he wrote about A.A., as
he frequently did, in his own books and pamphlets. Recall too that Sam’s
colleagues described him as a “Bible Christian.” His books, sermons, and
articles were permeated with references to the very Bible verses and chapters
that became the foundation of A.A.’s own basic ideas. Principles that were
studied in, and borrowed from, the Bible itself by A.A.’s Akron pioneers.
Additional Shoemaker input came from Sam’s frequent references to the writings
of Professor William James, whom Bill Wilson was later to call a “founder” of
A.A. and from whose Varieties of Religious Experiences, Bill obtained some
significant principles. Furthermore, Sam was an outspoken advocate of Quiet
Time, Bible study, prayer, and the use of devotionals; and these practices
became part and parcel of early A.A. meetings, group quiet times, and personal
Shoemaker/Wilson correspondence located at the Episcopal Church Archives in
Austin, Texas also demonstrates the degree to which Wilson confided in Sam from
the beginning of their friendship. The correspondence dealt with Roman Catholic
influences and activities in A.A., with Oxford Group ideas, with Bill’s ventures
into spiritualism and LSD, and with Bill’s ideas about A.A. itself.
Specific Shoemaker Ideas
Every AA who stays in our
fellowship long enough to be exposed to its Big Book, its Twelve Steps, and its
meeting buzzwords will readily recognize thoughts that seem to have come
directly from the books and other writings of Sam Shoemaker.
These include: (1) Self-surrender. (2) Self is not God. (3) God either is, or He
isn’t. (4) “Turning point.” (5) Conversion. (6) Prayer. (7) Fellowship. (8)
Willingness. (9) Self-examination. (10) Confession of faults to God, self, and
another. (11) Amends. (12) “Thy will be done.” (13) Spiritual Experience. (14)
Spiritual Awakening. (15) The unmanageable life. (16) Power greater than
ourselves. (17) God as you understand Him. (18) The “Four Absolutes”-- honesty,
purity, unselfishness, and love. (19) Guidance of God. (20) “Faith without works
is dead.” (21) “Love thy neighbor as thyself.” (22) Clear references to Almighty
God (using Bible terms) as our “Creator,” “Maker,” “Father,” “Spirit,” “God of
our fathers,” and “Father of Lights.” (23) The Lord’s Prayer. (24) Jesus’s
“sermon on the mount.” (25) Self-centeredness. (26) Fear. (27) Grudges. (28)
Quiet Time. (29) Reliance on God. (30) Relationship with God. (31) “Giving it
away to keep it.” (32) “News, not views.” (33) God has a plan. (34) Seeking God
first. (35) Belief in God. (36) Born again. (37) Marvel at what God has done for
you. (38) Let go! (39) Abandon yourself to Him [God]. (40) “Not my will but
Thine be done.” And many others.
You can find, in my title New Light on Alcoholism: God, Sam Shoemaker, and A.A.
a list of 149 Shoemaker expressions that very closely parallel A.A. language.
Many more can be found in specific quotations from Shoemaker’s books, books
which have been fully reviewed in my New Light work on Shoemaker.
Shoemaker and our Twelve
Make no mistake. Whatever Bill Wilson may have said or implied from time to
time, Sam Shoemaker was not the only source of A.A.’s spiritual ideas. Wilson
often steered his applause in Sam’s direction in an effort to avoid Roman
Catholic and other objections to the Oxford Group from which A.A.’s ideas also
came and of which early A.A. was a part. Moreover, Bill never mentioned A.A.
specifics from Dr. Bob, Anne Smith, the Bible, Quiet Time, God’s direct guidance
or Christian literature that was daily fare in early A.A.
Remember also! Dr. Bob said he did not write the Twelve Steps and had nothing to
do with writing them. Those Steps represented Bill’s personal interpretation of
the spiritual program that had been in progress since 1935. Dr. Bob emphasized,
on more than one occasion, that A.A.’s basic ideas had come from study of the
Bible. Dr. Bob studied the Bible. Daily, for three months, Anne Smith read the
Bible to Bill and Bob. Dr. Bob regularly read the Bible to AAs. He quoted the
Bible to AAs. He gave them Bible literature. And he frequently stressed Bible
study, stating that the Book of James, 1 Corinthians 13, and Jesus’s sermon on
the mount (Matthew 5 to 7) were considered absolutely essential in the early
spiritual recovery program. Bill Wilson and Dr. Bob both said that the sermon on
the mount contained the underlying philosophy of A.A.
Nonetheless, Sam’s own imprint is on the Steps–Steps that were fabricated
entirely at the hand of Bill Wilson. Every one of them. Sam Shoemaker’s imprint
was on the presentation of Oxford Group ideas that Ebby Thacher made to Bill
Wilson in Towns Hospital. And we will briefly take a look at just where
Shoemaker’s language parallels the language of the Twelve Steps. In fact, our
third chapter in “New Light on Alcoholism” provides further details and complete
Step One: Shoemaker spoke of the gap between man and God
which man is powerless to bridge, man having lost the power to deal with sin for
himself. As to the unmanageable life, Sam referred to the prayer in the Oxford
Group so often described in “Victor’s Story” and quoted by Anne Smith in her
journal: “God manage me, because I can’t manage myself.”
Step Two: Sam spelled out the need for a power greater
than ourselves. He quoted Hebrews 11:6 for the proposition that God is. He
declared: God is God, and self is not God; and man must so believe. Sam urged
seeking God first, from Matthew 6:33. He espoused the “experiment of faith” by
which man believes that God is; seeks God first in his actions, and then knows
God by doing God’s will, and seeing that God provides the needed power. For this
idea, Sam frequently cited John 7:17.
Step Three: Sam taught about the crisis of self-surrender
as the turning point for a religious life, quoting William James’s Varieties of
Religious Experience. Sam said it involved being born again; and declared that
man must make a decision to renounce sins, accept Jesus Christ as Saviour; and
begin Christian life in earnest. Sam illustrated a typical surrender, using
language similar to that in A.A.: namely, a “decision to cast my will and my
life on God.” Many times, Sam said one need only surrender as much of himself as
he understands to as much of God as he understands. A clear precursor of A.A.’s
“God as we understood Him”–which has unfortunately been misunderstood and has
been attributed to other sources.
Step Four: Sam wrote of self-examination to find where
one’s life fell short of the Four Absolute Standards of Jesus: honesty, purity,
unselfishness, and love. One was to write down exactly where he had “fallen
short.” There was a “moral obligation” to face these facts, recognize these as
blocks to God, and be “ruthlessly, realistically honest.”
Step Five: Shoemaker taught of honesty with self and
honesty with God, quoted James 5:16 for the importance of confession to others,
and stressed the need for detailed sharing of secrets.
Step Six: Though the fact of Bill’s borrowing of this
“conviction” step from the Oxford Group 5 C’s seems to have been overlooked,
Shoemaker taught often about the need for man’s conviction that he has been
miserable, has (by his sins) become estranged from God, and needs to come back
to God in honest penitence. Sam urged willingness to ask God exactly where one
is failing and then to admit that sin.
Step Seven: Sam clarified this as the “conversion” step of
the 5 C’s. It meant a new birth, he said. It meant humility. It meant, for
Shoemaker, the assumption upon ourselves of God’s will for us and the opening of
ourselves to receiving the “grace of God which alone converts.” It meant
“drawing near and putting ourselves in position to be converted. . . utter
dedication to the will of God.” Shoemaker often defined “sin” as that which
blocks us from God and from others.” So, originally, did Big Book language. And
each of the foregoing life-changing steps hangs on early A.A.’s definition of
sin and the “removal” process of examining for sin, confessing sin, becoming
convicted of sin, and becoming converted through surrendering it to the end of
being cleansed of sin nature by the power of God. The conversion experience,
according to Shoemaker and early A.A., established or enabled rediscovery of a
“relationship with God” and initiated the new life that developed from the
relationship with God which conversion opened. Since both Wilson’s Sixth and
Seventh Steps were new to A.A. thinking and added something to the original
“surrenders” to Jesus Christ, these Steps cannot easily be understood at all
without seeing them in terms of the complete surrender, the new relationship,
the new birth, and giving the sins to God, as Shoemaker saw the process and as
Bill attempted to write it into the recovery path.
Step Eight: Wilson added this step to the Oxford Group’s
“restitution” idea. Bill also incorporated the Shoemaker talk of “willingness”
to ask God’s help in removing the blocks, being convicted of the need for
restitution, and then being sent “to someone with restoration and apology.”
Step Nine: Sam said the last stand of self is pride. There
can be no talk of humility, he said, until pride licks the dust, and one then
acts to make full restoration and restitution for wrongs done. As AAs in Akron
did, Sam also quoted from the sermon on the mount those verses enjoining the
bringing of a gift to the altar without first being reconciled to one’s brother
(Matthew 5:22-24). Restitution was not merely a good deed to be done. It was a
command of God from the Bible that wrongs be righted as part of the practicing
the principle of love. If one understands Shoemaker, one can understand the
absurdity of some present-day AAs’ guilt-ridden suggestions about writing a
letter to a dead person or volunteering help for the down-trodden or making a
substitutionary gift to some worthy cause. Sam taught that the required amends
were not about works. They were about love!
Step Ten: This step concerned daily surrender and the
Oxford Group idea of “continuance.” Sam taught it was necessary to continue
self-examination, confession, conviction, the seeking of God’s help, and the
prompt making of amends. This continued action was to follow the new
relationship with God and others that resulted from removal of the sin problem
in the earlier steps.
Step Eleven: Sam wrote eloquently about Quiet Time, Bible
study, prayer, and “meditation” (“listening” for God’s guidance). Sam urged
daily contact with God for guidance, forgiveness, strength, and spiritual
growth. So does A.A.’s Big Book. Quiet Time was a “must” in early A.A. And
Shoemaker defined every aspect of a Quiet Time–from the necessity for a new
birth to a new willingness to study, pray, listen, and read rather than to speak
first and lead with the chin.
Step Twelve: This step comprehends: (1) A spiritual
awakening, the exact meaning of which Shoemaker spelled out in his books and in
his talks to AAs. He said spiritual awakening required conversion, prayer,
fellowship, and witness. (2) A message about what God has accomplished for us, a
phrase which Shoemaker himself used, saying, in several ways: “You have to give
Christianity away to keep it,” said he and quite often. (3) Practicing the new
way of living in harmony with God’s will and in love toward others, an idea
easily recognized from Sam’s teachings that a spiritual awakening comes from
conversion, that the gospel message concerns God’s grace and power, and that the
principles to be practiced are defined in the Bible. Accordingly, our Twelfth
Step language, studied without knowledge of its Shoemaker roots, has become
ill-defined and illusory. For A.A. Big Book students know that none of the three
12 Step ideas is set forth or explained in the chapter of the Big Book dealing
with the Twelfth Step. To be frank, A.A. left Christianity in the dust. In so
doing, AAs lost an understanding of what Sam Shoemaker taught and Dr. Bob
emphasized: Conversion, the gospel message, and love and service were defined in
the Book of Acts, the Four Absolutes, 1 Corinthians 13, Jesus’ sermon on the
mount, the Book of James, and other specific parts of the Bible.
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