Oxford Group Connection
This article is an effort to put together in sequence the
various events that took place in the years from 1908 to 1935
which made possible the meeting in Akron, Ohio between the AA
founders, Dr. Bob Smith and Bill Wilson, and which resulted in
the subsequent birth of Alcoholics Anonymous. It is an
assemblage of facts gleaned from the following publications:
AA Comes of Age
Pass It On
Dr. Bob and the Good Old Timers
Not God (by Ernest Kurtz)
For Sinners Only (by A.J. Russell)
On the Tail of a Comet (by Garth Lean)
Akron Genesis of Alcoholics Anonymous (by Dick B.)
The Oxford Group & Alcoholics Anonymous (by Dick B.)
Do you know any of these names? Frank Buchman--Sam
Shoemaker--Rowland Hazard--Jim Newton--Eleanor Forde--Ebby
Thatcher--Shepard Cornell--Henrietta Seiberling--Rev. Walter
Tunks--Norman Shepherd--Russell Firestone--T. Henry &
Clarace Williams?? All of these people were instrumental in a
scenario that contributed to making possible that historic
meeting at the Gate House of the Seiberling Estate in Akron that
became the birthplace of Alcoholics Anonymous. If it were not
for these people, that meeting could never have taken place, and
the fellowship to which we all owe our lives today might never
have been born.
Where did the steps originate? In AA Comes of Age, (p.39), Bill
"Early AA got it's 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 nowhere else." (1)
prepare to start this history with the story of Frank Buchman,
the founder of the Oxford Group. You will see as we trace the
paths of Dr. Bob and Bill Wilson in the years before they met,
that the Oxford Group and the aforementioned cast of characters
played a part in every twist and turn of the path that led Bill
Wilson to Akron.
BUCHMAN AND THE OXFORD GROUP
were the Oxford Group (2)? In 1908, a YMCA secretary named Frank
Buchman had a spiritual transformation
that changed his life (3).
Upon graduating in June of that year, he started a streetside
church in Philadelphia (Church of the Good Shepherd) with a
donation of seventeen dollars. The church flourished, and he
started a hospice for young men which spread to other cities,
and then he started a settlement house project. Frank had a
violent argument with his trustee committee because they cut the
budget and the food allotment. He resigned and went to Europe,
ending up at a large religious convention in Keswick, England.
The spiritual transformation occurred when he heard a woman
speaker talk simply about the cross of Christ. He felt the chasm
separating him from Christ, and a feeling of a will to
surrender. He went back to his house and wrote these words to
each of his six trustees in Philadelphia: "My dear friend.
I have nursed ill feelings against you. I am sorry. Will you
forgive me? Sincerely, Frank." Feeling an urge to share
this experience, he went to nearby Oxford University and formed
an evangelical group there among the student leaders and
Later the movement spread, and groups formed over the next
twenty years in England, Scotland, Holland, India, South Africa,
China, Egypt, Switzerland, and North and South America. Many of
the basic things they did have carried over directly into our
program. They practiced absolute surrender, guidance by the Holy
Spirit, sharing bringing about true fellowship, life changing,
faith and prayer. They aimed for absolute standards of Love,
Purity, Honesty, and Unselfishness, which were an integral part
of the first AA programs in Akron and Cleveland and New York.
Above all the group was a fellowship: "A First Century
Christian Fellowship." They carried the message
aggressively to others. They met in churches, universities, and
The Oxford Group and their principles were carried to the United
States so that in both New York City and Akron, Ohio an Oxford
Group was in place and functioning when Bill Wilson and Dr. Bob
Smith hit their respective bottoms. These two groups would
befriend and teach their principles to our co-founders before
they ever met, and then go on to host the fledgling groups of
newly dry and nameless drunks as they came together.
Here is how the Oxford Group came to the United States. One
early member at Oxford, Ken Twitchell, had attended Princeton
University and had a brother in New York City who was a mainstay
in the Calvary Episcopal Church. This becomes one of several
amazing coincidences. In 1918 during his travels, Frank Buchman
met a young YMCA worker, Sam Shoemaker, in China and converted
him to the Oxford Group principles. Years later, Sam became the
minister of that Calvary Church in New York, and that same
church became the titular headquarters for the Oxford Group in
the United States. (The name was changed in 1928 from "A
First Century Christian Fellowship" to the "Oxford
The groups' popularity peaked during this period. There were
10,000 people at one meeting at Stockbridge in the Berkshire
Mountains. Business teams began to have their "house
parties" in various cities (4).
In 1931 in England, a London newspaper editor, A. J. Russell,
attended an Oxford Group meeting with the intention of exposing
the group. But he wrote, "I came as an observer and became
a convert!" (Russell later edited "God Calling",
which may have found it's way into material used by the early
AAs.) Some 9 years later, in 1940, Richmond Walker of the
Quincy, Mass. group wrote the 24-hour book still used by us
today. This was modeled after Russell's "God Calling"
but was slanted away from all spiritual to more of a 24-hour not
drinking theme. Russell's book, "For Sinners Only",
described his journey from prodigal son to the Oxford Group and
became a best seller in the early 1930s in England and the
United States, and was printed in eight languages.
One chapter of the book was devoted to Calvary Episcopal Church
in New York City and it's rector, Sam Shoemaker. Calvary Church
became the virtual American headquarters for the Oxford Group
during the 1930s. And it was here, (in the church's mission) ,
that Bill Wilson's sponsor, Ebby Thatcher, was living at the
time of Bill's last drunk.
THE MESSAGE CAME TO BILL
In 1932 and 1933, a man named Rowland Hazard, son of wealthy
Rhode Island mill owners and a State Senator, had become a
hopeless alcoholic, and in his quest for help had sought out the
world famous psychiatrist, Carl Jung. Jung told him there was no
hope for him there, and to go home and possibly find a
conversion through some religious group. He did this in the
Oxford Group in the United States and became sober. They taught
him certain principles that he applied to his life. This story
is documented in our Big Book.
In 1934, Ebby Thatcher, childhood friend of Bill Wilson's, was
about to be locked up as a chronic drunk in Bennington, Vermont.
He was visited by three men from an Oxford Group; Shep Cornell,
Rowland Hazard, and Cebra Graves. (A precursor to our Twelve
Step work!) They later sent Rowland Hazard back alone to see
Ebby. He acted as a sort of sponsor and told his story. He
taught Ebby the precepts he had learned from the Oxford Group.
Later, as we know, in December of that year, Ebby had his chance
to relay these precepts to Bill Wilson. Here they are,
transcribed from a tape of one of Bill's AA talks:
* We admitted we were licked.
* We got honest with ourselves.
* We talked it over with another person.
* We made amends to those we had harmed.
* We tried to carry this message to
others with no thought of reward.
* We prayed to whatever God we thought
(We also have Bill's handwritten copy of the above.)
Now we begin to see the emerging pattern of events in Akron and
in the New York area in the ten year period before the start of
AA. We see how, through the machinery of the Oxford Group and
its key leaders, Frank Buchman and Sam Shoemaker, events
conspired to make possible this meeting between Bob and Bill in
Akron in 1935. Shep, Cebra, and Rowland were all three Oxford
Group members. They were part of the business teams which were
working around the country in various cities. In November of
1934, Ebby surrendered his life to God at the Calvary Episcopal
Church mission run by Sam Shoemaker. (Sam had met Frank Buchman
in China in 1918, and by 1934 was regarded as a major leader of
the Oxford Group movement in the United States and was hosting
their headquarters.) Ebby is staying at his mission. Bill W.
shows up there drunk looking for Ebby, can't find him, and goes
to Towns Hospital.
Bill Duval recalls in a letter, "Bill W. told us at the
mission that he had heard that Ebby, on the previous Sunday at
the Calvary Church, had witnessed that with the help of God he
had been sober a number of months." Bill said that if Ebby
could get help here, then he (Bill) needed help, and he could
get it at the mission, also. Bill looked prosperous compared to
our usual mission customers, (actually, he was wearing a Brooks
Brother's suit purchased at a rummage sale for $5.00!), so we
agreed that he go to Towns Hospital where Ebby and others of the
group could talk to him.
After his spiritual experience at Towns, Bill immediately made a
decision to become very active in Oxford Group work, and to try
to bring other alcoholics from Towns to the group. He visited
the mission Oxford Group meetings and the hospital daily for
four or five months, right up to the time of the Akron trip. No
one stayed sober.
W. AND THE OXFORD GROUP WORK
Newton enters the scene)
Rowland Hazard, who rescued Ebby in August 1934, had a thorough
indoctrination in Oxford Group teachings and he passed many of
these along to Ebby and Bill W. Soon after his release from
Towns Hospital at the end of 1934, Bill and the rest of the
alcoholic contingent of the Oxford Group began gathering at
Stewart's Cafeteria in New York following their regular meeting.
Shep Cornell, then a member of the Oxford Group business team
that included Rowland, Sam Shoemaker, and Hanford Twitchell, was
also a recovering alkie. Lois Wilson talked of regular
attendance at the Oxford Group meetings with Bill, Shep, and
Ebby. James Houck, a nonalcoholic Oxford Group member in
Frederick, Maryland, stated that Bill W. went to many Oxford
Group meetings at the Francis Scott Key Hotel in Frederick and
always centered on alcohol. He was obsessed with the idea of
carrying the message. The conclusion is that Bill had a wide
acquaintance in Oxford Group circles, not just confined to Sam
and Calvary House. Bill told Houck that he worked on 50 drunks
in the first 6 months with no success. Calvary House was Sam's
residence and contained an Oxford Group bookstore. Calvary
Mission was at another location in the "gas house"
district. Thousands of people passed through the mission where
they offered lodging, free meals, and Oxford Group meetings
every night. Tex Francisco was its superintendent in 1934 when
Bill showed up there.
Now enters the man most certainly responsible for the fateful
Akron meetings between Bill and Dr. Bob. Jim Newton was surely
the sole catalyst that ordained the Oxford Group would be in
place in Akron, Ohio when Bill showed up there in 1935. This
amazing string of circumstances plays out as follows:
Jim, at age 20, was a luggage salesman in New York who had come
upon an Oxford Group meeting by accident (actually, he was
looking for fun and games that night!) in Massachusetts in 1923
when he was 18 years old. He was converted at the party, got on
his knees and gave the direction of his life to God at that
time. He met a lady named Eleanor Forde who greatly influenced
his thinking about the movement. (He and Eleanor were to meet
and marry 20 years later in 1943.) (5)
Several twists and turns of fate placed Jim Newton in Akron,
Ohio and installed our next cast of characters. These were both
Oxford Group members and regular attendees at Oxford Group
meetings. We will be talking about the intertwined relations of
Henrietta Seiberling, Dr. Walter Tunks, Harvey and Russell
Firestone, Sam Shoemaker, Frank Buchman, T. Henry and Clarace
Williams, and Anne and Dr. Bob Smith.
Jim Newton went to Ft. Myers, Florida in 1926, at age 21, to
visit his father,and they bought a 35 acre tract of land across
the road from the Thomas Edison estate(6). Jim Newton became as
an adopted son to Mr. and Mrs. Edison, and often acted as host
and toastmaster at Edison's famous birthday parties which were
attended by Henry Ford, Harvey Firestone, and many world
renowned business leaders and public figures.
Here begins another key circumstance to set the stage in Akron,
Ohio. Harvey Firestone, Sr., offered Jim a job as secretary to
the Firestone Tire and Rubber Company in 1926, and moved him to
Akron, Ohio putting him in residence at the Portage Country Club
adjacent to the Firestone Estate(7)
Jim worked for Firestone eleven years and was being groomed as
president of the company when he resigned and went full time
with the Oxford Groups. Firestone's clergyman was Rev. Walter
Tunks. Jim joined Tunks' church and became active in raising
funds for their birthday committee.
Jim had been in New York for the Jack Dempsey vs Gene Tunney
fight. While there he confessed to Frank Buchman that his life
was in turmoil and he was about to take a "geographical
cure". Buchman sent him to meet Sam Shoemaker at the
Calvary Church an d he made an Oxford Group confession to Sam
and was led to join one of the Oxford Group business teams.
These were groups of important men who made attempts to convert
others to the Oxford Group method of spirituality. Jim
frequently met with the aforementioned Shep Cornell and Rowland
Hazard. He met T. Henry and Clarace Williams, husband and wife
Oxford Group members from Akron and members of Walter Tunks'
church. The business team put on house parties in various cities
at the finest hotels and clubs. In January of 1933, Frank
Buchman, leading a team of thirty men and women, descended on
Akron for t he first time to give testimonials at the Mayflower
Hotel and in Akron churches, and initiate the townspeople in the
experiences of the Oxford Group. Here we can clearly see input
from Jim Newton's parties with Firestone and Tunks' Episcopal
Church group to influence the choice of Akron as the site of
this endeavor, rather than some other city. Had Jim not already
been a business team member and in place in Akron, it is very
unlikely that Buchman would ever have chosen this small, rather
unknown city as a place to pursue his evangelistic efforts. Jim
was the spokesman who introduced Buchman at all the affairs that
week in Akron.
Now our cast of characters is nearly complete and in place.
Still to appear on the scene, however, are Henrietta Seiberling,
Anne and Bob Smith, and T. Henry and Clarace Williams.
When Jim first arrived in Akron he had been welcomed into the
Firestone family, and had become fast friends with a son,
Russell (Bud) Firestone. Bud had a very bad drinking problem and
had already been sent to several hospitals to no avail. Jim went
with Bud to still another drying-out place, on the Hudson River
in New York, and stayed through the entire 30 day program. Then
he took Bud to an Episcopal Conference in Denver to which the
Oxford Group people had been invited. On the train East again a
fter the party, he was able to introduce Bud to his old Oxford
Group minister, Sam Shoemaker. Alone with Sam, Bud surrendered
his life to God in a private car on the train. His life changed,
and his family situation and marriage were saved.
Akron was the place where AA was to be founded. Jim Newton had
helped bring to the city the Oxford Group message of his
alcoholic friend, Bud Firestone. The message led to Bud's
"miraculous" recovery which lasted for a time. The
message and the recovery were broadcast to an interested
community by a grateful father, Harvey Firestone, Sr., and by
widespread press accounts."(7)
Williams was there, and joined the Oxford Group along with T.
Henry Williams, and began regularly attending the meetings.
About the same time, a lady named Henrietta Seiberling, the wife
of John Seiberling of the Seiberling Tire and Rubber Com pany,
found herself with personal and marital problems, and separated
from her husband. She turned to the Oxford Group and attended
the first meetings at the Mayflower Hotel. She went with a woman
named Anne Smith, the wife of a well-known Akron surgeon who was
in deep trouble with his drinking.
The progenitors now assume their roles. A kindly and
missionary-oriented couple, the Williams, had been impressed
with the Oxford Group message, and had a home to offer for a
meeting place. A gifted and compassionate lady named Henrietta
Seiberling, who had mastered some of the Oxford group
principles, had her eye on using the biblical principles to help
her good friend, Dr. Bob Smith, with his drinking problem. Add
to this mix the efforts of his wife Anne, who assembled books
and spiritual readings and principles from the Bible, the Oxford
Group, and various other Christian writings, all the while
praying for a solution to her husband's seemingly hopeless
drinking problem. The talented and very alcoholic surgeon became
the focus of all these efforts. He did a lot of spiritual
reading, attended a lot of meetings, but remained drunk.
Now all the earlier seeming coincidences converge, and this
story merges into the facts we all know from our AA literature.
Onto this scene landed the "rum hound" from New York,
moved by what both Bill Wilson and Henrietta Seiberling felt was
the guidance of God. Bill had recovered from his disease, and
was determined to stay sober by seeking out and helping another
drunk. The "rum hound from New York", (Bill's
self-description when he made the fateful phone call to
Henrietta), "just happened" to bring to Akron some
solutions heretofore never assembled in one place and delivered
by just one person.
Some important knowledge about the disease of alcoholism
accumulated through the work of Dr.Silkworth at Towns Hospital
in New York.
An important spiritual solution to the problem that had been
passed from Dr. Carl Jung to Rowland Hazard and then on to Bill
by Ebby Thatcher.
A validation of this spiritual solution by the scholarly studies
of Professor William James.
A linkage between the problem of alcoholism, and this solution
that God could and would solve the problem if a relationship
were sought with Him by using the Oxford Group's practical
program of action, which was already proven by the results
experienced by Rowland and Ebby when they followed the Oxford
In Akron, T. Henry and Clarace Williams and Henrietta Seiberling
were attending Oxford Group meetings at the Mayflower Hotel and
elsewhere. Dr. Bob Smith also attended with his wife, Anne. He
shied away from talking about his problem publicly, and
continued drinking. In her concern for Bob, Henrietta suggested
to T. Henry that if they could set up a smaller, more private
meeting perhaps Bob might feel more at ease and be able to make
a confession in the Oxford Group fashion, and a commitment to
sobriety. T. Henry's home was chosen for this special meeting
and these meetings started on a Wednesday in April of 1935--just
one month before Bill Wilson came to Akron. These meetings were
usually led by T. Henry, Henrietta, or Florence Main, and at one
of these Dr. Bob was able to confess that he was a secret
drinker and needed help as he could not stop. This was the very
place that was to become the home to the "about to
begin" Alcoholic Contingent of the Oxford Group.
We can now see how all these characters contributed to putting
Dr. Bob and Bill at a meeting in Henrietta Seiberling's home in
the Gate House of the Firestone Estate, and make possible the
founding of Alcoholics Anonymous.
- MAY 11, 1935
We can find no references anywhere to indicate that Bill Wilson
considered or made any conscious effort to locate an Oxford
Group member when he made his desperation phone call in the
Mayflower Hotel in Akron. Henrietta Seiberling wrote as follows:
looked into the cocktail room and was tempted and thought,
'Well, I'll just go in there and get drunk and forget it all and
that will be the end of it!' "
having been sober five months in the Oxford Group, he said a
prayer. He received guidance to look at a ministers' directory
board and a strange thing happened. He put his finger on one
name--Tunks. The Rev. Walter Tunks was Harvey Firestone's
minister, and Firestone had brought Buchman and thirty Oxford
Group members to Akron for ten days in gratitude for their help
for his son, Russell, a drunkard.
Out of the act of gratitude of this one father, this whole chain
AN ATTEMPT TO PAY BACK JUST A LITTLE . . .
This article was written in an attempt to preserve and to
"pass on" the accurate history of the beginnings of
AA, before the sands of time obscure them completely as they
have a habit of doing so well.
See also "Language of the Heart", p.298
you found this interesting and useful.
(2) See "Pass It On", p.130
(3) See also "Life Changers" by Harold
Begbie (Mills and Boon)
(4) For further details of the Oxford Group in the
U.S., see "Pass It On", p.127-32; p.168-74 "AA
Comes of Age", p.39
(5) The land was subdivided and exists yet today as
a prosperous residential development called the Edison Estates.
(6) Bill Wilson was also furnished quarters here
seven years later after he started working with Dr. Bob!
(7) This paragraph was taken from "The Akron
Genesis and AA".
(8) This writer, along with the Akron Archivist Ray
G., had the good fortune to be able to visit Jim and Eleanor
Newton at their home in Ft. Myers, Florida, in May of 1993. Thay
are active and well, she at age 94, and he at 88. Eleanor was
employed by Sam Shoemaker, who introduced her to Frank Buchman.
She went abroad as an Oxford Group worker with Frank in 1926,
and has remained active in the movement ever since.
With Love and Gratitude for the Fellowship of AA,
Bill C. --- firstname.lastname@example.org
Back to AA History