This week’s “Did You Know,” is excerpted from the Preface of a South Bend history professor’s book titled, “Changed by Grace.”


A number of wise commentators have already uttered the judgment that Alcoholics Anonymous was the most important new spiritual movement of the twentieth century. It used its extremely spiritual tools to give a workable solution to the problem of alcoholism, the third leading cause of death in the United States, and it also gave birth to a number of other 12-step programs which demonstrated that this kind of approach would work with many other human problems as well. Al-Anon, for example, for the family and friends of alcoholics, was born out of the A.A. movement, along with Narcotics Anonymous, Gamblers Anonymous, Overeaters Anonymous, and for people who suffered from spending addictions or for out-of-control sexual behavior. The group called Emotions Anonymous adapted the twelve steps to deal with a whole range of different crippling emotional problems. But the praise given to the Alcoholics Anonymous program arose for even more important reasons. Their 12-step approach to spiritual development also successfully navigated the sweeping transformation in our understanding of the world which took place over the course of the twentieth century, and did it far better than most religious and spiritual groups of that period. During that century, the rapid development of the new physics and the new biology made deep and basic changes in the way the world looked to human beings and the way they thought about it. The new psychological systems which appeared likewise forced people to look at life of the mind and the spirit in totally different terms. Basic explanatory modes were completely altered. It was the biggest shift in human understanding since the ancient Greeks destroyed the old mythological world view over two thousand years ago.

The twelve-step program learned how to work smoothly with these new ideas and this new morality of knowledge. Instead of fighting the new science, A.A. learned how to express fundamental spiritual concepts in ways that men and women of the new scientific era could understand and accept. Ancient spiritual ideas came back to life again and with a bold new power when expressed in 12-step terms.

Alcoholics Anonymous, the group which accomplished all this, did not however suddenly appear out of nowhere. Both the founders of A.A., prior to meeting one another, were members of the Oxford Group, an early twentieth century Christian evangelical movement. Bill Wilson and Dr. Bob Smith used a number of important Oxford Group concepts as the basis upon which to build their new methodology for working with compulsive alcoholics and their new, highly detailed system for producing human spiritual growth.

This book is an attempt to arrive at a better understanding of precisely what Alcoholics Anonymous learned from the O. G. And we are interested not just in the O.G. itself, but also in the entire preceding evangelical tradition, for the most important of these ideas can be traced back step by step to discoveries originally made during the 1730s when Jonathan Edwards in colonial America and John Wesley in England were laying out the basic principles of the modern evangelical movement. What Edwards and Wesley discovered was that human character could be changed. One could take the story of a person’s life, and with the aid of God’s grace, change the way the story ended. It could be changed from a tale of angry despairing men and women going helplessly to their tragic doom, and converted into a tale of great personal victory. One could produce stories with a happy ending instead of a sad one. Alcoholics Anonymous learned how to accomplish those same extraordinary things in the modern age. To be continued…

The Waynedale News Staff
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