The Spiritual Heroes of 12 Step Recovery
Anyone seriously studying the origins of AA will come away knowing that Providence is more than just the name of a town in Rhode Island. The hand of God’s providence can be seen clearly at work in the formulation of the Steps, the spectacular growth of the Fellowship, and the still evolving set of spiritual principles that we know today as “recovery.” And perhaps no figure was more pivotal in the emergence of this process than an Episcopal priest named Sam Shoemaker. Shoemaker’s spiritual shadow is cast over nearly all the characters, ideas and events that Providence brought together in the early 1930’s to give birth to recovery. As Bill Wilson wrote, “…the important thing is this: the early A.A. got its ideas of self-examination, acknowledgement of character defects, restitution for harm done, and working with others straight from the Oxford Groups and directly from Sam Shoemaker, their former leader in America and from nowhere else.”
When our friend Roland Hazard returned from Switzerland having been diagnosed by Carl Jung as an alcoholic of the “hopeless variety,” he was told that his only chance for recovery lay in his finding a spiritual awakening. Perhaps it was Providence that led him to Calvary Episcopal Church on the lower East side of Manhattan. Sam was the rector there. He became Roland’s spiritual director and guided him to that much-needed awakening through the practice of the Oxford Group principles. When Roland recovered, he quickly started helping others in need. He brought Ebby Thatcher to the Calvary Rescue Mission that Sam ran in connection with the church. Ebby, in turn, made the first 12 Step call and was “sponsor” to Bill Wilson bringing him along to meet Sam Shoemaker. Shoemaker kept a personal journal and in it he recorded in November 1934: “A significant thing today… met Bill Wilson.” Just how significant their meeting would be he may not have known at the time.
Meeting Sam also made an impression on Bill. Some 21 years later at AA’s 20th Anniversary in St. Louis he said, “How well I remember that first day I caught sight of him. It was a Sunday service in his church. I was still rather gun-shy and diffident about churches. I can still see him standing there before the lectern. His utter honesty, his tremendous forthrightness struck me deep. I shall never forget it.”
Shoemaker quickly became a spiritual mentor to Wilson and helped bring about an awakening in him much like the one that he himself had experienced. Shoemaker’s own awakening had come in China. He was serving as a missionary there and apparently not having too many conversions to his credit. One day in 1919 all that changed. Providence introduced him to Frank Buchman who had come to China as a “missionary to the missionaries.” Their first meeting did not go well. Sam had been working with a group of young Chinese men with not a conversion in sight. He was discouraged by his lack of success and sought out Buchman asking if he could give him some guidance. Guidance was Buchman’s specialty. Buchman responded, “You’re probably a sinner. Find your sin, cut it out and share it with them.”
Shoemaker was outraged by the seeming arrogance of his brief encounter with Buchman and went home still more deeply depressed. His resentment was so strong he couldn’t sleep so he got on his knees and prayed to see what was blocking him from God. He asked and he was shown; that night changed his life forever. The next day he met with his group of students and shared with them what happened. He didn’t preach - he shared his sins. One by one those in his group started to change – they started to share the hidden things inside them that blocked them from God. That lesson in what would later become Steps 4 and 5 was Shoemaker’s real conversion and it made him a near life-long follower of Buchman.
Providence was again at work through Sam in 1932 when he made a train trip from New York to Denver. Riding along with him on the train was a young alcoholic named Bud Firestone, heir to the tire company fortune. Bud had tried treatment on a number of occasions but the treatments never succeeded. Bud and Sam were introduced through a friend and it didn’t take Sam long to get Bud down on his knees sharing the things that were at work in him separating him from God. Bud found both peace and sobriety that day on the train and Bud’s father gratefully invited Shoemaker’s Oxford Group team to come to Akron, Ohio. For ten days about 30 members of the Oxford Group descended on Akron holding their well-attended meetings at local churches and in the ballroom of the Mayflower Hotel.
Less than two years later Bill Wilson stood in the lobby of that same hotel, just six months sober and now wanting a drink. Providence had prepared for that day paving the way through Shoemaker’s campaign that had left a strong Oxford Group component operating in Akron. When Wilson telephoned and said he needed an alcoholic to work with so he could stay sober, one member of the group knew just the right guy – Dr. Bob Smith.
Shoemaker authored numerous books on the practical, life-changing spirituality he espoused. He was a strong proponent of what he called the “experiment of faith.” For Shoemaker, faith wasn’t a matter of simply acceding to a set of beliefs; it was living a life of radical honesty, purity, unselfishness and love. He never let a lack of faith get in the way of someone’s surrender. He gave us the outline of Step Two saying, “Turn as much of yourself as you understand over to as much of God as you understand.”
Shoemaker guided Wilson in the spiritual principles that got him sober and Wilson in turn passed those on to us in the form of 12 Steps. For Sam Shoemaker, that was what his ministry was all about – helping those who were lost and seemingly without faith find their way home to God. In a poem he wrote toward the close of his life, he shared his belief that many in the Church go too far inside the house of God and forget the ones still outside trying to find the door:
I admire the people who go way in.
But I wish they would not forget how it was
Before they got in. Then they would be able to help
The people who have not yet even found the door,
Or the people who want to run away again from God.
You can go in too deeply, and stay in too long,
And forget the people outside the door.
As for me, I shall take my old accustomed place,
Near enough to God to hear Him, and know He is there,
But not so far from men as not to hear them,
And remember they are there, too.
Where? Outside the door -
Thousands of them, millions of them.
But - more important to me -
One of them, two of them, ten of them,
Whose hands I am intended to put on the latch.
So I shall stand by the door and wait
For those who seek it.
"I had rather be a door-keeper…"
So I stand by the door.
Shoemaker’s hand opened the spiritual door for Bill Wilson and for hundreds of others just like him. If you’d like a copy of Shoemaker’s complete poem just write or e-mail and I’d be happy to send it along. Providence always provides!