Each year the G.S.O. Archives receives thousands of requests for research and historical information. The questions we receive range from very simple questions with easy answers to complex questions involving hours of research. If you have a question about AA’s history or archives, we hope you will contact us (or one of the many other local and area AA archives) to try to find the answer. Below are some of the most frequently asked questions we receive here at the G.S.O. Archives, and some of our answers.
Q. I’ve heard it said that Bill always wished he could change the beginning of ‘How It Works’ to read “Never have we seen a person fail who has thoroughly followed our path” (rather than “Rarely have we seen…”). Is this true?
A. Click here for the A.A. International Conventions Information Sheet
A. Often, G.S.O.’s Archives staff can provide detailed information about the origins and history of groups. Of course, the amount of available information we have about a group depends on the amount of information the group has sent to G.S.O. throughout the years. In addition, it is common for groups to organize meetings prior to contacting the G.S.O. But we can research group histories and usually find fascinating information. Contact the G.S.O. Archives for more information.
A. It was debated for years who wrote the Serenity Prayer, and its origins are still somewhat murky, but it seems most likely to have been written by Dr. Reinhold Niebuhr, a well-known theologian who served for many years as Dean and Professor of Applied Christianity at the Union Theological Seminary in New York City. G.S.O.’s Archives can provide more information about this prayer’s historical origins upon request.
Alcoholics Anonymous became aware of the Serenity Prayer in 1941, when it was discovered printed in the New York Tribune newspaper. Ruth Hock, AA’s first secretary and a non-alcoholic, was immediately taken with it. The headquarters staff thought of printing the prayer on a card to distribute to AA members.
On June 12, 1941, Ruth wrote Henry S., a Washington, D.C.-based AA member and printer by profession, saying:
“One of the boys up here got a clipping from a local newspaper which is so very much to the point and so much to their liking, that they have asked me to find out from you what it would cost to set it up on a small card, something like a visiting card, which can be carried in a wallet... here it is...would appreciate it if you would let me know right away.”
Henry answered back immediately and enthusiastically:
“...Your cards are on the way and my congratulations to the man who discovered that in the paper. I can’t recall any sentence that packs quite the wallop that that does and during the day shown it to the A.A.’s that dropped in and in each case have been asked for copies. I sent you 500 copies in as much as you didn’t say how many you wanted. If you need any more, let me know. Incidentally, I am only a heel when I’m drunk, I hope, so naturally there could be no charge for anything of this nature.”
Ruth responded again on June 17, and wrote:
“Your generous response to my request for the little cards is certainly much appreciated by us all up here. Glad so many of you down there liked it too, for it backs me up in my feeling that it really has ‘something.’”
Q. Who wrote Chapter 8 of the Big Book, “To Wives”?
A. Bill was the author of the ‘To Wives’ chapter. It is commonly thought that Lois wrote it. But, as Pass It On describes (page 200), Lois said, "Bill wrote it, and I was mad." She added, "I wasn't so much mad as hurt. I still don't know why Bill wrote it. I've never really gotten into it - why he insisted upon writing it. I said to him, 'Well, do you want me to write it?' And he said no, he thought it should be in the same style as the rest of the book."
G.S.O.’s Archives can provide extensive historical information about A.A.W.S.’s literature and pamphlets: origins; content; editions; printings; changes; and corrections that have been made over time.
Q. What is the history behind reading The Lord’s Prayer at meetings?
A. It is mentioned in Dr. Bob and the Good Oldtimers that the prayer was used from the very beginning in the Fellowship, at least as early as 1938 and 1939. In those days there was no AA literature, so the early groups relied heavily on existing prayers, and on the Bible and Oxford Group literature, for inspiration and guidance.
Bill W. commented several times in his correspondence about the early use of the Lord’s Prayer. He wrote a letter to a member in 1959 in which he stated:
“This practice probably came from the Oxford Groups who were influential in the early days of A.A. You have probably noted in A.A. Comes of Age what the connection of these people with A.A. really was. I think saying the Lord's Prayer was a custom of theirs following the close of each meeting. Therefore it quite easily got shifted into a general custom among us.”
Bill also wrote the following in a 1955 letter:
“Of course there are always those who seem to be offended by the introduction of any prayer whatever into an ordinary A.A. gathering. Also it is sometimes complained that the Lord’s Prayer is a Christian document. Nevertheless, this Prayer is of such widespread use and recognition that the argument of its Christian origin seems to be a little far-fetched. It is also true that most AA’s believe in some kind of god and that communication and strength is obtainable through his grace. Since this is the general consensus, it seems only right that at least the Serenity Prayer and the Lord’s Prayer be used in connection with our meetings. It does not seem necessary to defer to the feelings of our agnostic and atheist newcomers to the extent of completely hiding ‘our light under a bushel.’
However, around here, the leader of the meeting usually asks those to join him in the Lord’s Prayer who feel that they would care to do so. The worst that happens to the objectors is that they have to listen to it. This is doubtless a salutary exercise in tolerance at their stage of progress.”
As Bill’s 1955 letter indicates, recitation of the Lord’s Prayer at meetings has clearly been controversial in some circles almost since the beginning. The GSO has responded to letters on this issue since the 1940s and 1950s. It is continually addressed in articles in Box 459 and the AA Grapevine, and has often been asked about at the General Service Conference. For example, at the 1962 Conference, in one of the Ask-It Basket questions, this subject was broached: “Question: What is the procedure for dealing with individuals who refuse to stand during recitation of the Lord's Prayer? Answer: Participation--or non-participation-in recitals of the Lord's Prayer should be considered a matter of personal conscience and decision.”
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Q: What is the story behind the Circle and Triangle logo?
A: The Circle and Triangle symbol has long been connected to the A.A. Fellowship. It was adopted as an official A.A. symbol at the International Convention in St. Louis in 1955, and from that point on was widely used in the Fellowship. For the Fellowship, the three legs of the triangle represented the Three Legacies of Recovery, Unity and Service, and the circle symbolized the world of A.A. In Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age, Bill W.’s 1955 speech, in which he describes the adoption of the symbol, is printed:
“Above us floats a banner on which is inscribed the new symbol for A.A., a circle enclosing a triangle. The circle stands for the whole world of A.A., and the triangle stands for A.A.’s Three Legacies of Recovery, Unity, and Service. Within our wonderful new world, we have found freedom from our fatal obsession. That we have chose this particular symbol is perhaps no accident. The priests and seers of antiquity regarded the circle enclosing the triangle as a means of warding off the spirits of evil, and A.A.’s circle and triangle of Recovery, Unity, and Service has certainly meant all of that to us and much more.” (p. 139)
Nevertheless, in the early 1990s, A.A.W.S. decided to phase out the use of the Circle and Triangle symbol on its literature, letterhead and other material. It was decided to phase out the “official” or “legal” use of the Circle and Triangle symbol, and in 1994 the General Service Conference resolved that the logo be discontinued on all Conference-approved literature. However, the symbol is still associated with Alcoholics Anonymous (and other kinds of 12-Step recovery fellowships) and has a special meaning for AA members all over the world.
Q: What’s the history of typical AA slogans like “First Things First” and “One Day at a Time”?
A. We don’t have a great deal of information about the origins of AA’s slogans and acronyms, but we can provide some sharing and preliminary information. Many of these slogans, as with other practices in AA, were simply passed along verbally to other members, so it is impossible to know who started using them first. It is possible that some of the slogans may have originally stemmed from a part of the Oxford Group Movement language, but it could also be that they were original with Bill and Dr. Bob and the early members.
Members have always inquired as to the origins of various slogans, and it has always been difficult to narrow down; in our research, we discovered a letter written by former GSO Archivist, Frank M., dated 1989, who responded to a similar question that was posed to him. This was Frank’s response, “Your interest in the origins of ‘One Day at a Time’ is shared by many of us. Like hand-holding, however, it’s difficult to pin-point the exact ‘moment.’” That is the problem we find with most of our AA slogans, unfortunately!
We do know, however, that many slogans commonly heard have been around since the early days of the Fellowship.
In December of 1958 Ruth Hock (non-alcoholic), who was AA’s first secretary, wrote a response to a similar question concerning different slogans. In her reply Ruth wrote:
“…Bill [W.] and I first worked together in January 1936 when he had been sober just a little over one year and at that time ‘Easy Does It,’ ‘Live and Let Live,’ and ‘First Things First,’ were part of the daily conversation. They were also used in the very first drafts of the book, but probably only Bill himself could tell you where he picked them up…
“As far as I’m concerned all of the above were introduced into A.A. by Bill W. himself although not original with him.
“Some of these could have been used in Oxford Group meetings but there is no way for sure.”
In addition to Ruth’s response, page 220 of Bill W.’s biography, Pass It On, also addresses this topic:
“Some ‘A.A. saws’ were also used as long ago as the late 1930s: ‘First Things First,’ ‘Easy Does It,’ ‘Live and Let Live.’ Because these appear in the first edition of the Big Book (at the end of the chapter on ‘The Family Afterward’), it’s probable that the use of the slogans originated with Bill and that he brought them with him from Vermont – old saws with new teeth.”
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Q. Why do AA members use tokens, medallions, and chips to mark sobriety? When did that practice start?
A. The chip system is thought to have begun in Indianapolis in 1942. The tradition is believed to have started with Doherty S., who originally brought A.A. to Indianapolis. Doherty himself, in a letter to Bill, seems to indicate the practice originated in Indianapolis in 1942.
Nell Wing wrote in 1962 about the history of the chip system: "…The chip system might have begun in Indianapolis….reference was made in a letter from Doherty to the start of giving out ‘chips’ and ‘tokens.’ This was in 1942. I imagine this would be about right, because most of the early groups started in 1940 and it would take about a couple of years to think of anniversaries and marking any time of sobriety. I asked Bill about this and his memory is that the system started in Indianapolis."
In Dr. Bob and the Good Old Timers, it indicates that Sister Ignatia in Akron, working at St. Thomas Hospital, also used medallions: “Sister Ignatia gave each of her newly released patients a Sacred Heart medallion, which she asked them to return before they took the first drink. She would occasionally give out St. Christopher medals as well…” (page 195).
We don’t know precisely who started this system first, or when and how it spread to other groups. As with many things in AA, the exact nature of the history eludes us!
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Q. Who wrote AA’s Preamble? And when was the word “honest” dropped from it (i.e. “honest desire to stop drinking”), and why?
A. The Preamble first appeared in the Grapevine in June 1947, and was written by Tom Y., the Grapevine Editor serving at that time. Its intent was to inform the public as to what A.A. is and what it is not. Shortly thereafter, the Preamble began appearing in each monthly issue of the Grapevine, and later on in much of our A.A. Conference-approved literature. In 1992 the Grapevine published a short history of the Preamble.
In the 1947 version of the Preamble, it contained the wording, “…an honest desire to stop drinking…” as printed in the foreword to the first edition of the Big Book. However, since the adoption of the short form of the Traditions in 1950, the Third Tradition has always read, “The only requirement for A.A. membership is a desire to stop drinking” and this form was used by Bill in writing the book, Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions.
In 1958 the expression “honest desire” was discussed at great length at the General Service Conference. It was felt that it was impossible to determine what constitutes an “honest” desire to stop drinking, thus the word was dropped. The “new” version of the Preamble, without the word “honest,” first appeared in the September 1958 issue of the Grapevine.
There have been other versions of the Preamble, written by AA members for their local groups’ use, which were then circulated around AA; for example: the “Texas Preamble,” the “Wilmington Preamble,” etc. Many AA members find these interesting, but they have never been adopted by the Fellowship as a whole.
Q. I’ve heard it said that Bill always wished he could change the beginning of ‘How It Works’ to read “Never have we seen a person fail who has thoroughly followed our path” (rather than “Rarely have we seen…”). Is this true?
A. No. A rumor has persisted for years that Bill wished he could have changed “rarely” to “never.” But we know, through Bill’s own words, that that is not the case. In a letter to Les V., dated May 25, 1961 Bill W. stated:
"…Concerning your comment about the use of the word 'rarely' in Chapter Five of the Big Book. My recollection is that we did give a considerable thought at the time of writing. I think the main reason for the use of 'rarely' was to avoid anything that would look like a claim for a 100 % result. Assuming of course that an alcoholic is willing enough and sane enough, there can be a perfect score on such character. But since willingness and sanity are such illusive and fluctuating values, we simply didn't like to be too positive. The medical profession could jump right down our throats…I do remember thinking about it a lot."
In addition, the following question and response were made at the 1970 General Service Conference, as part of the “Ask-It” Basket questions. Bill was, of course, still living at this time and was able to respond:
Q. Has Bill ever said, "If there was any change he would make in the Big Book, it would be to change the world 'rarely' to 'never' at the start of Chapter Five"?
A. "No, Bill said he had never considered this" (1970 General Service Conference Report, p. 31).
Q. What is the history behind AA’s Responsibility Statement?
A. The Responsibility Statement reads:
I am Responsible. When anyone, anywhere, reaches out for help, I want the hand of A.A. always to be there. And for that: I am responsible.
It was written for the 1965 A.A. International Convention in Toronto. In an article titled, ‘How I am Responsible became a part of A.A.’, from the GSO newsletter, Box 4-5-9. The article identifies former AA trustee, Al S. as the author of the Responsibility Statement.
In the souvenir book for the 1965 Convention, Dr. Jack Norris writes:
“…We must remember that AA will continue strong only so long as each of us freely and happily gives it away to another person, only as each of us takes our fair share of responsibility for sponsorship of those who still suffer, for the growth and integrity of our Group, for our Intergroup activities, and for AA as a whole. It is in taking responsibility that real freedom and the enduring satisfactions of life are found. AA has given us the power to choose – to drink or not to drink – and in doing so has given us the freedom to be responsible for ourselves. As we become responsible for ourselves, we are free to be responsible for our share in AA, and unless we happily accept this responsibility we lose AA. Strange, isn’t it?”
In a Grapevine article in October 1965, the Responsibility Statement is discussed, and Bill W. expresses his views:
Two major thoughts stood out in the remarks of the many speakers, alcoholic and nonalcoholic, at AA's July Toronto Convention. The first was admiration and gratitude for AA's startling success in sobering up hundreds of thousands of lost-cause drunks. The other was concern that the success which has come to AA over the thirty years since its start in Akron, Ohio in 1935 would not lead us to any complacency about the size of the job still to be done.
The theme of the Convention was: Responsibility. "I am responsible. . .when anyone, anywhere, reaches out for help, I want the hand of AA always to be there. And for that: I am responsible."
AA's co-founder, Bill, in his talk to over 10,000 attending the major sessions of the Convention, stressed the need for cooperation with all who work on the problem of alcoholism, the more than 100 agencies in the United States and Canada alone now engaged in research, alcohol education and rehabilitation.
"Too often, we have deprecated and even derided these projects of our friends just because we do not always see eye to eye with them," Bill said. "We should very seriously ask ourselves how many alcoholics have gone on drinking simply because we have failed to cooperate in good spirit with these many agencies. No alcoholic should go mad or die merely because he did not come straight to AA in the beginning."
"The first concern of AA members should be with problem drinkers the movement is still unable to reach," Bill said. He estimated that there are 20 million alcoholics in the world today, five million in the U.S. alone. "Some cannot be reached because they are not hurt enough, others because they are hurt too much," he declared. "Many sufferers have mental and emotional complications that seem to foreclose their chances. Yet it would be conservative to estimate that at any particular time there are four million alcoholics in the world who are able, ready and willing to get well if only they knew how. When we remember that in the 30 years of AA's existence we have reached less than ten per cent of those who might have been willing to approach us, we begin to get an idea of the immensity of our task and of the responsibilities with which we will always be confronted."
There have been two Advisory Actions from the General Service Conference regarding the Declaration of Responsibility since it was introduced. In 1971, the Conference recommended that:
The Literature Committee, following the general feeling of the Conference, reaffirm both the spirit and the wording of the “I am Responsible” Declaration from the International Convention held in Toronto in 1965.
And in 1977, the Conference recommended that:
The Responsibility Declaration not be changed, as it was made at the 1965 International Convention in Toronto.
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Q. What is the history behind AA’s Unity Declaration?
The Unity Declaration reads:
This we owe to A.A.’s future: to place our common welfare first; to keep our Fellowship united. For on A.A. unity depend our lives and the lives of those to come.
It was written for A.A.'s 35th Anniversary International Convention that was held in Miami Beach, Florida in July 1970. Unfortunately, it appears that the GSO Archives department does not possess records concerning the author of the Declaration.
Documents in our collection indicate that the statement was composed as a combined effort of both the Committee on International Convention and former A.A. trustee, Al S. The correspondence alludes to Al's involvement as a consultant in composing the statement. Certainly, Al wrote the “Responsibility” Statement that had been introduced at the 1965 International Convention.
The "Unity" statement was read by delegates from different countries on Saturday night during the Unity Ceremony. Below, I have presented brief highlights from that night's ceremony, as led by former General Manager, Bob H.:
"As you know the theme of this Conference is Unity Within Our Fellowship. We have asked several of our ex-delegates and members from overseas to be on stage and participate with us adopting our new Declaration of Unity..."
"A.A. unity is the special quality that makes our Fellowship unique. It is the cement that holds our society together, the platform which makes A.A. 'Service' possible. It is more than agreement on basic principles, more than freedom from destructive strife. It is a bond fashioned of shared experience, such as this one we share tonight.
“Unity is our most precious possession, our best guarantee of A.A.'s future. May we all value and preserve it, today and all the tomorrows to come.”
Bob H. then asks all participants on stage to recite the Unity Declaration, which was led by Dr. Norris.
Following the International Convention (1973), the General Service Conference recommended that:
The Unity Declaration be added to all A.A. Literature when feasible and economical, and be referred to A.A. World Services, Inc., for follow-through.
Q. What is the origin of the Third Step prayer and the Seventh Step prayer found in the Big Book?
[Third Step prayer: “God, I offer myself to Thee – to build with me and to do with me as Thou wilt. Relieve me of the bondage of self, that I may better do Thy will. Take away my difficulties, that victory over them may bear witness to those I would help of Thy Power, Thy Love, and Thy Way of life. May I do Thy will always.” page 63]
[Seventh Step prayer: “My Creator, I am now willing that you should have all of me, good and bad. I pray that you now remove from me every single defect of character which stands in the way of my usefulness to you and my fellows. Grant me strength, as I go out from here, to do your bidding. Amen.” page 76]
A. As far as we know, Bill wrote the Third and Seventh Step prayers himself. From the first typed manuscript, which Bill completed in 1938, these prayers contained the same wording they do in the book today. We don’t know of the prayers’ prior presence in any religious movement, though it is likely that their central message – if not their exact wording – might be from the Oxford Group. The Oxford Group was a popular Christian movement to which both Bill and Dr. Bob belonged, and many of A.A.’s spiritual principles were drawn from that movement.
Q. Was Bill nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize?
A. Bill was never nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. In 1960 an individual from the New York area wrote to Bill concerning the possibility of a Nobel Prize. Bill responded that he would be delighted if overtures were made, but the award would have to cite Alcoholics Anonymous and not himself. Bill made it clear that the prize money could not be accepted because A.A. does not accept funds from any person or entity outside Alcoholics Anonymous. In addition, of course, there was the issue of Bill maintaining his anonymity, which would not have been possible with such a public award.
A proposal to nominate Alcoholics Anonymous for the Nobel Prize was presented in early 1986. After careful consideration and deliberation, the General Service Board of A.A. stated that the monetary prize without question would be declined. Beyond that, it was felt that, and in keeping with our Tenth Tradition, which enjoins us to venture no opinions on outside issues, no further comments were necessary.
While Bill was still alive, he declined several honors, among them an offer by Yale University of the degree of Doctor of Laws. In 1976, after his death, Norwich University wanted to award Bill a posthumous degree of Doctor of the Humanities. The degree, however, was declined by his late wife, Lois.
Q. Who are the recipients of the milestone printing copies of the Big Book?
A. The one-millionth copy was presented to President Richard Nixon in April 1973, and the two-millionth to Joseph Califano, Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare, in June 1979. At the 50th Anniversary International Convention in Montréal in 1985, the five-millionth copy of the Big Book was presented to Ruth Hock, who typed draft after draft of the original manuscript. The ten-millionth was presented to Nell Wing, Bill W.’s longtime (nonalcoholic) secretary and A.A.’s first archivist, in July 1990. The 15-millionth was given to Ellie Norris, widow of former trustee chairman John L. Norris, M.D., in 1996; and in the year 2000, the 20-millionth copy was presented to the Al-Anon Family Groups. The 25-millionth copy was presented to Jill Brown, warden of San Quentin Prison, in July 2005, at the A.A. International Convention in Toronto.
Q. What is the origin of introducing oneself with the statement “I am an alcoholic” at A.A. meetings?
A. As with the origins of other customs in A.A., this is something of a mystery. However, we came across a Box 4-5-9 article on the subject in the April-May 1987 issue:
“Who was the first to start a meeting or a qualification with the statement, ‘I am an alcoholic’? How did the worldwide custom begin? As late co-founder Bill W. used to observe, “Nobody invented A.A., it just grew.” And so probably did its classic introduction at meetings.
‘Many members ask us these questions,’ says G.S.O. archivist Frank M. ‘Unfortunately, only a few of the early-timers are left, and not many of them are able to provide plausible theories. So we can only speculate.’
According to an early friend of A.A., the late Henrietta Seiberling, the expression dates back to meetings of A.A.’s forerunner, the Oxford Group Movement, which had its heyday in the early 1930s. Mrs. Seiberling, a nonalcoholic who had sought spiritual help in the Oxford Group meetings, introduced Bill to A.A.’s other founder, Dr. Bob, then struggling to get sober in the Oxford Group.
At small meetings, the members knew one another and didn’t need to identify themselves. But in the large, public meetings, where there was ‘witnessing’ along the lines of an A.A. talk today, personal identification became necessary. Chances are that someone at some time said, ‘I am an alcoholic,’ but Mrs. Seiberling wasn’t sure. Nor did she remember that the phrase was used at early A.A. meetings in Akron before publication of the Big Book. In fact, she said, the word ‘alcoholic’ was rarely uttered, at least in Akron. People referred to themselves as ‘drunks’ or ‘rum hounds’ or ‘boozers’ or other choice epithets reminiscent of the Temperance Movement that gained adherents during Prohibition.
An early New York A.A. first heard the expression as ‘I am an alcoholic and my name is…’ According to his recollection, that was after World War II, in 1945 or 1946. And it is a matter of record that, in 1947, a documentary film entitled, “I Am an Alcoholic,” was produced by RKO Pathé.
From then on, as Bill would say, the custom just grew.
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Q. What is the story behind the Herbert Spencer quote in Appendix II of the Big Book?
A. The Herbert Spencer quote first appeared in the First Edition, First Printing of the Big Book (1939), on page 380, at the beginning of the story “An Artist’s Concept.” The quote was included with this story throughout all 16 printings of the First Edition, from 1939 through 1955. That story was dropped when the Second Edition of the Big Book was published in 1955 – and the Spencer quote was dropped with it. The Spencer quote does not appear in the Second Edition/First Printing (1955) or the Second Edition/Second Printing (1957). However, the quote was added to the Third Printing of the Second Edition in 1959, at the end of Appendix II, where it still appears today.
We have been unable to locate the source for this quote in any work by Spencer, who published an enormous amount on a great variety of topics. The quote is attributed to Spencer on page 650 of The Great Quotations, compiledby George Seldes and published in 1961. More recently, one scholar conducted a considerable amount of research into the origin of the quote and concluded that it derives from a Christian apologetic work by the 18th Century British theologian William Paley. We can neither confirm nor refute this finding, but share it here as an additional resource.