The Oxford Groups & AA:
Similarities & Differences
"Our debt to them [the Oxford
Group Movement] . . . was and is immense."
—Bill Wilson in Alcoholics
Anonymous Come of Age, p. 73
It would be surprising if anyone who read the two preceding chapters didn't
notice certain similarities between Alcoholics Anonymous and the Oxford
Group Movement, for similarities abound in ideology, operation, and style.
took its central doctrines virtually unchanged from Frank Buchman's Oxford
Groups. This can be seen clearly in the 12 steps, the cornerstone of AA's
program. The following chapter is devoted entirely to the 12 steps, so
for now suffice it to say that the Buchmanite principles of personal
powerlessness and the necessity of divine guidance are embodied
in steps 1, 2, 3, 6, 7, and 11; the principle of confession is embodied
in steps 4, 5, and 10; the principle of restitution to those one
has harmed is embodied in steps 8 and 9; and the principle of
of continuing to practice the other Buchmanite principles and to carry
the word to other "defeated" persons ("alcoholics," in the steps) is embodied
in steps 10 and 12.
spell out some of these correspondences in more detail: AA inherited the
Oxford Group Movement belief that human beings in themselves are powerless,
and that only submission to God's will is sufficient to solve human problems.
It also inherited the belief that God will guide anyone who "listens."
An additional Buchman legacy is the belief that it's necessary for human
beings to confess their "wrongs" (in AA) or "sins" (in the Oxford Groups);
as well, both groups employ(ed) both private and public confessions. The
Oxford Groups emphasized private confessions from "sinners" to individual
"soul surgeons," and public confessions at houseparties, while AA emphasizes
private confessions from "pigeons" (newcomers being indoctrinated with
the AA program) to "sponsors" (experienced members responsible for indoctrinating
individual newcomers) and public confessions at AA meetings.
closely related concept, common to both AA and the Oxford Groups, is belief
in the necessity of "sharing." This term embraces both private and public
confessions, but also encompasses giving "witness," both private and public.
In AA, this concept is embedded in the twelfth step as the injunction "to
carry this message to alcoholics." While AA has for the most part dropped
the term "sharing" (which is now usually associated with new agers and
the Brie and Chablis set), it still adheres to it religiously.
point of ideological correspondence between the two organizations
is that AA, in exactly the same manner as the Oxford Groups, ignores social,
political, and economic factors as causes of personal and social problems.
AA concerns itself solely with alcohol abuse (more properly, with its own
program for "alcoholics"), but even though its focus is narrower than that
of the Oxford Groups, its approach is identical. Nowhere in the dozens
of books and pamphlets published by AA will you find even a hint that there
is any cause of alcoholism (or even contributory factors) other than the
alcoholic him (or her) self.
extreme emphasis on individual responsibility rather than social factors,
and the accompanying belief in the necessity of divine guidance, implies
acceptance of the political-economic status quo and a marked disinterest
in, and at times outright hostility to, political activism. Critics recognized
this tendency in the Oxford Groups well before Bill Wilson and Dr.
Bob joined the Oxford Group Movement and organized within it what was to
In 1932, Frank Buchman expressed his anti-political activist attitude in
as callous a manner as is imaginable. In that year, when tens of millions
were unemployed, with a very large number of them homeless and hungry,
well-fed Frank Buchman stated: "The President's social trends report indicates
there will surely be a revolution in this country. We are going to make
it a spiritual revolution. What hunger marchers need is to be changed."ii
Buchman didn't say a word about food, housing, or employment; he knew
what the poverty stricken really needed—"guidance."
present-day AA, this anti-activist tendency is not as extreme as it was
in the Oxford Groups, but it's still so obvious that observers who know
next to nothing of AA's history or that of its predecessor, the Oxford
Group Movement, find it striking. One such observer, Ellen Herman, notes:
"The [12-step] programs' core concept . . . is decidedly apolitical . .
. In particular, the programs' philosophy . . . emphasizes the person and
problem in isolation from any outside social forces."iii
ideological correspondence between AA and the Oxford Groups can be found
in their attitude toward recruitment of those who have (had) doubts about
their programs. The Oxford Groups encouraged doubters, including agnostics,
to pray and to
practice "quiet times" acting "as if" they believed in God. The assumption
was that God would make himself known to the supplicator, God having a
"plan" for every human life and being ready to reveal it to anyone who
would "listen." In AA, the approach to doubters and the assumptions underlying
that approach are identical to those of the Oxford Groups. AA even has
a prescriptive slogan for newcomers harboring doubts: "Fake it until
you make it." In the "Big Book," Bill Wilson devotes an entire chapter,
"We Agnostics," to this idea. In it, he comments: "We [atheists and agnostics]
found that as soon as we were able to lay aside prejudice [that is, rational
thought] and express even a willingness to believe in a Power greater than
ourselves, we commenced to get results . . ."iv
concept of God implied in this belief is less than subtle. The AA/ Oxford
Group Movement concept of a deity has little to do with Einstein's impersonal
God who doesn't play dice with the universe, while it has much to do with—and
is in fact indistinguishable from—the Old Testament concept of a God who
is jealously concerned with the most picayune aspects of his followers'
related similarity is that even though the roots of both AA and the Oxford
Groups are in evangelical Protestantism, AA is, and the Oxford Group Movement
was, nonsectarian. Frank Buchman and his followers always insisted that
they were not a religious organization and were in fact a "movement" which
intended to revitalize existing religious organizations. AA, like the Oxford
Groups, has no ties to any particular religious bodies; but it goes one
step further than the Oxford Groups and argues, not very convincingly,
that its program is "spiritual" rather than religious.
additional ideological similarity between the Oxford Groups and AA is a
distinct hostility to formal organization. In the Oxford Groups this stemmed
from a belief in ever-present divine guidance which would render formal
organization unnecessary. (The primary purposes of organization are coordination
and communication, and who or what could better fulfill those functions
than an all-powerful God making his will known to all those willing to
"listen"?) AA inherited this hostility to formal organization and, ironically,
spelled it out in one of the 12 traditions, AA's organizational principles.
The ninth tradition states, in part, that "A.A., as such, ought never be
organized." The results of this hostility to organization were, however,
vastly different in AA and the Oxford Groups. AA, thanks largely to Bill
Wilson, developed an organizational structure which is completely noncoercive
and very democratic, and is in fact quite similar to organizational models
developed by anarchist theorists. The Oxford Group Movement, on the other
hand, was always a prime example of what has been called "the tyranny of
structurelessness"; it was always under the informal but dictatorial control
of its founder, Frank Buchman, and remained so until his death—thanks in
part, in all probability, to the fact that there was no organizational
structure through which disaffected mem-bers could challenge him.
further point of similarity between the Oxford Group Movement and AA, and
one which reflects favorably on both, is their emphasis on human equality.
Unfortunately, this emphasis is based in the shared belief that human beings
are equally powerless without God's guidance; but the fact remains that
there was no institutionalized racism or sexism (with the marked exception
of virulent homophobia) in the Oxford Group Movement, and there is none
in AA. While it's certainly true that the Oxford Groups had no real understanding
of racism and did nothing effective to combat it (and were blissfully unaware
of sexism), and that Frank Buchman hobnobbed with rich and powerful
anti-semites, it's also true that the Oxford Groups did in theory oppose
racism; and while AA was hardly a leader in the fight for desegregation,
it's also true that AA has always made real efforts to make its program
available to all alcoholics regardless of their race, sex, or sexual orientation.
This is not to say that many AA members are not racist, sexist, and homophobic—many
are—but AA has always officially frowned on such prejudice. And, indeed,
as AA's membership, though somewhat whiter than average, is fairly representative
of the U.S. population as a whole, it would be surprising if AA's
members didn't hold many of the prejudices common in American society.v
final, and very important, point of ideological correspondence between
AA and the Oxford Groups is their anti-intellectualism. Given the religious
basis of both organizations, this isn't surprising. Both AA and the Oxford
Groups were based upon belief in a God who would make "His" plans known
to anyone who would "listen." This belief leads directly to antiintellectualism
in that, first of all, there is no evidence that God exists, and thus a
questioning intellectual approach is a direct threat to belief in God.
In the second place, even if you grant that God does exist, how can you
be sure that any "guidance" you receive is from God rather than from your
own imagination? A related question is how do you reconcile conflicting
"guidance" received by different persons unless some "guidance" doesn't
come from God? And if that's the case, how do you tell which "guidance"
is genuine? Obviously, there is no satisfactory answer to these questions,
so an intellectual approach to these problems becomes a real threat to
belief. Thus, Oxford Group members were told, "Doubt stifles and makes
abortive our attempt to act upon God's guidance," and AA newcomers are
often told, "Your best thinking got you here."
related stylistic similarity between AA and the Oxford Groups is an emphasis
upon emotional experience. This stems from their common evangelical roots.
Oxford Group Movement meetings were openly evangelical and often very
emotional, and a great many observers have commented upon the revival-like
quality of Alcoholics Anonymous meetings with their prayers, confessions,
collections, rituals, and witnessing.
rather odd correspondence between AA and the Oxford Groups is the extensive
use of slogans, aphorisms, and folk sayings. Some MRA slogans sound downright
bizarre to the modern ear: "P-R-A-Y: Powerful Radiograms Always Yours";
"A spiritual radiophone in every home"; "F-A-I-T-H: Forsaking All I Take
Him"; "Crows are black the world over"; "When man listens, God speaks";
"Minute Men of God"; "World-changing through life changing"; and "J-E-S-U-S:
Just Exactly Suits Us Sinners." In AA, one frequently hears "One Day at
a Time"; "Easy Does It"; "Let Go and Let God"; "Keep It Simple" (sometimes
"Keep It Simple, Stupid"—KISS); "Utilize, Don't Analyze"; "Fake It Until
You Make It"; "One Drink, One Drunk"; and a number of similar homely homilies.
harmless, and indeed attractive, stylistic feature of both AA and the Oxford
Groups is informality. Until late in his life, his followers usually referred
to Frank Buchman simply as "Frank," and by all accounts Oxford Group Movement
houseparties were extremely informal affairs with attendees coming and
going as they pleased, addressing each other by first names, and spending
much time on leisure activities. AA is similarly informal. First names
are habitually used at AA meetings, service workers at AA offices are almost
invariably friendly and helpful, and members often engage in informal socializing,
such as going out for coffee, after meetings. Given the terrible problem
of loneliness in American society, it would be surprising indeed if many
alcoholics didn't find the friendliness and informality of AA to be its
most attractive features.
not-so-attractive stylistic similarity between the two organizations is
self-preoccupation. Again, this stems directly from their shared belief
in divine guidance. Frank Buchman and his followers believed that their
movement was directly controlled by God and was the answer to all
human problems. Therefore, all attempts at social improvement outside of
the Oxford Groups' sphere were dead ends, as well as distractions from
the only essential work, that of the Oxford Groups. AA isn't as
grandiose in its claims as the Oxford Groups, but probably a large majority
of AA members would vocally affirm that AA is the only route to
lasting sobriety, and one often hears comments at meetings to the effect
that "AA always works" for those who "honestly" try it. Since AA "always
works" (except for those who lack "honesty" or have other "defects of character"),
there is no need to develop alternative treatments, and attempts to develop
and implement such alternatives are useless at best and could be harmful,
in that they might lead alcoholics away from the only effective
treatment for alcoholism—AA. The blindness and arrogance such irrational
beliefs engender are so obvious as to need no further comment.
initial similarity between AA and the Oxford Groups disappeared decades
ago. The Oxford Group Movement was always aimed primarily at the influential
and well to do, just as AA originally was. That AA initially attracted
upper class and upper middle class alcohol abusers isn't terribly surprising
given the fact that AA's founders were a Wall Street insider and a surgeon,
both of whom came from privileged backgrounds, and were, to boot, both
members of the Oxford Group Movement before they met.
a relatively few years of AA's inception, however, AA's composition
had changed dramatically, probably due to its emphasis upon a desire to
give up drinking being the sole requirement for membership, and the 12th-step
injunction to "carry this message to alcoholics." This is in stark contrast
to the Buchmanites' emphasis upon recruiting "up-and-outers" and "key men."
At present, AA membership cuts across all class lines, though it does seem
to be drawn primarily from the lower middle class.
important dissimilarity between the two groups regards the matter of anonymity.
The Oxford Group Movement went to great lengths to attract the wealthy
and prominent and, once they were hooked, assiduously used their names
in its self-promotions. In addition, the Oxford Groups routinely went to
great lengths to obtain endorsements, or statements that could be misrepresented
as endorsements, from presidents, prime ministers, tycoons, and sports
and show business figures. The Oxford Group Movement also built a veritable
cult of personality around its founder, Frank Buchman, and Buchman left
no stone unturned in his efforts to inflate his own reputation.
contrast, AA has always insisted that members maintain strict anonymity
in relations with the media. AA's insistence in this matter was motivated
by fear that famous and prominent members would announce their AA membership
and then get drunk in public, bringing disgrace upon AA. This policy has
served AA well. In addition to protecting AA from public ridicule, it has
also allowed AA members involved in the addictions field to issue pronouncements
beneficial to AA while hiding their AA membership and posing as disinterested
are only the most outstanding similarities and differences between Alcoholics
Anonymous and the Oxford Group Movement. Anyone thoroughly familiar with
AA and the Oxford Groups should be able to discover other points of correspondence
See, for example, "The Oxford Group Movement," by Henry P. Van Dusen in
The Atlantic Monthly
, August 1934, p. 249; and Saints
, by Marjorie Harrison. London: John Lane the Bodley Head, 1934,
Quoted in "The Oxford Group—Genuine or a Mockery?," Literary Digest
January 28, 1933, p. 17.
"The Twelve-Step Program: Cure or Cover?," in The Utne Reader
p. 61 .
by Bill Wilson. New York: Alcoholics Anonymous
World Services, 1985, p. 46.
According to the "Alcoholics Anonymous 1996 Membership Survey," AA is 86%
white, with both blacks and hispanics being under-represented in its membership.
For instance, the first edition of this book received an absolutely horrendous
review (which contained a glaring and important factual error) in an important
library review journal by an addictions "professional" who was almost certainly
an AA member, but who did not disclose her membership in the review, and,
almost certainly, did not reveal it to the editors of the review journal