How Religion Was Edited Out of AA’s Bible: Early ‘Big Book’ Manuscript Soon to Be Published

  • Share
  • Read Later
Bozena Cannizzaro

The “Big Book” of Alcoholics Anonymous has long been seen as holy writ by AA members. But for the first time ever, recovering alcoholics, scholars and the public will have access to the original manuscript, including editorial comments written in the margins that shaped its first edition. Hazelden Publishing will release the text next week, and as the Washington Post reports, controversy is likely to ensue.

“If it had been a Christian-based book, a religious book, it wouldn’t have succeeded as it has,” said Nick Motu, senior vice president of Hazelden Publishing, the world’s largest purveyor of materials related to addiction. Hazelden is publishing the 4.5-pound, $65 manuscript, titled “The Book That Started It All” (the original was called, simply, “Alcoholics Anonymous”).

But the crossed-out phrases and scribbles make clear that the words easily could have read differently. And the edits embody a debate that continues today: How should the role of spirituality and religion be handled in addiction treatment?

Although it is no secret that AA has long attempted to play down the religious nature of the program, the edits reveal just how intense that effort was from its earliest beginnings. AA’s co-founders Bill Wilson and Bob Smith were members of a Christian revival organization called the Oxford Group, which targeted the wealthy (its founder is ridiculed in this TIME cover story from 1936 as a “cultist” who wanted people to believe that “God is a millionaire”). (More on The Addiction Files: How Do We Define Recovery?)

Wilson took many of the ideas embodied in the 12 steps — including surrender to God, confession, service to others and making amends — from the Oxford Group, which later changed its name to Moral Re-Armament.

While many AA members sincerely believe that the program is “spiritual, not religious,” and people from many faiths — even atheists — have found it helpful, as I wrote earlier, federal courts have unanimously ruled that coercing people to attend AA violates the constitutional separation of church and state.

Though people who choose to attend AA and other 12-step programs can sometimes have miraculous recoveries, attendance must be voluntary as its founders originally intended. If addiction treatment is to be part of modern medicine, it can’t require and mustn’t rely only on spiritual awakenings.

[Note to grammar mavens: a sharp-eyed editor also spared AA from becoming a program based on a book with a grocers’ apostrophe in its title [pdf]: “Alcoholic’s Anonymous.”]

More on

Lindsay Lohan’s Relapse and Court-Mandated AA

Does Big Beer Fear Big Bud?

Even More Evidence for the Health Benefits of Drinking