The Upper Room
and Early A.A.


Glenn C. (South Bend, Indiana)



INTRODUCTION

  From the time A.A. started in 1935 down to 1948 when A.A. member Richmond Walker began publishing and distributing Twenty-Four Hours a Day from the basement of his home in Daytona Beach, Florida, most A.A. people carried out their morning meditation by reading The Upper Room each day. In the excerpts below, six people from the early days of A.A. talk about its use:

From Dr. Bob and the Good Oldtimers (1980), the official A.A. biography of the cofounder of A.A., pages 71-72, 137-139. and 310-311:

"Sue [Dr. Bob's daughter] remembered the quiet time in the mornings -- how they sat around reading the Bible. Later, they also used The Upper Room, a Methodist publication that provided a daily inspirational message, interdenominational in its approach. 'Then somebody said a prayer,' she recalled. 'After that, we were supposed to say one ourselves. Then we'd be quiet. Finally, everyone would share what they got, or didn't get. This lasted for at least a half hour and sometimes went as long as an hour."'

"As T. Henry described it, a typical meeting in 1938-39 went like this .... 'Usually, the person who led the Wednesday meeting took something from The Upper Room [the Methodist periodical mentioned earlier] or some other literature as a subject. Sometimes, they selected a theme such as "My Utmost Effort" or "My Highest Goal." There would be a quiet time. then different people would tell something out of their own experience.'"

Clarence Snyder's wife Dorothy S. M., talking about the way Dr. Bob worked with newcomers, mentioned that he would sometimes recommend that they read Drummond's The Greatest Thing in the World. "Those were the three main books at that time: that, The Upper Room, and [Emmet Fox's] Sermon on the Mount."

A Manual for Alcoholics Anonymous (from AA Group No. 1, Akron, Ohio, 1940, Part VI):

"Now you are out of the hospital .... First off, your day will have a new pattern. You will open the day with a quiet period. This will be explained by your sponsor. You will read the Upper Room, or whatever you think best for yourself."

Mitchell K., How It Worked: The Story of Clarence H. Snyder and the Early Days of Alcoholics Anonymous in Cleveland, Ohio (1999), chapters 3.8 and 5.5.

Clarence Snyder told Mitchell that "new people were told they had to read the Bible .... They were instructed to do this on a daily basis. Clarence said that newcomers were also told to read The Upper Room daily and to read The Sermon on the Mount by Emmett Fox."

"Clarence believed that in order for a prospective member to get well, his entire family had to get well also .... Family members were invited to attend meetings, were given a copy of the book Alcoholics Anonymous, and were told to read the Upper Room."

From A.A. historian Dick B., whose books on A.A. history include The Akron Genesis of Alcoholics Anonymous, The Oxford Group & Alcoholics Anonymous: A Design for Living That Works, and New Light on Alcoholism: God, Sam Shoemaker, and A.A. In one of his recent articles on the internet at http://www.dickb.com/goodmorn.shtml, Dick says:

In the A.A. "spiritual recovery program which produced such a high success rate in the 1930's and early 1940's .... the growth part of the program had a great deal to do with Quiet Time -- a Quiet Time that included Bible study, prayer, receiving revelation from God, and the use of devotional books and periodicals such as The Upper Room as ancillary study materials and as a spur to spending substantial time with God each morning."

From A.A. historian Glenn C. (South Bend, Indiana), The St. Louis Gambler & the Railroad Man: Lives and Teachers of the A.A. Old timers (2005), page 246:

James D. "J. D." Holmes, the tenth person to get sober in A.A., left Akron in 1938 and moved to Evansville, Indiana, where he eventually was able to start the first A.A. meeting in Indiana. "Although Rhoda was not an alcoholic, she and J. D. held something like an A.A. meeting every Wednesday night in their home in order to help him keep sober .... Like so many A.A.’s from the very early period, J. D. and Rhoda used an extremely popular devotional manual called The Upper Room for their private daily meditation and also to provide a discussion topic for this little Wednesday meeting."
A note on some of our sources of information:  Clarence Snyder, who got sober in 1938, and was one of the major early A.A. leaders, lived down to 1984, and was extensively interviewed by AA historian Mitchell K., who wrote the story of Clarence's life in a book which has become one of the AA classics. Sue Smith Windows (Dr. Bob's daughter) lived down to 2002, and was interviewed by a number of good AA historians over the years. J. D. Holmes, who got sober in 1936 (little more than a year after AA was begun) wrote a memoir, now in the New York AA Archives, before his death in 1961.
The Oxford Group of course had the largest single influence on early A.A. Many of the twelve steps were simply developments of Oxford Group teachings. However, the second most important influence may well have come from The Upper Room. For the first thirteen years, A.A. members studiously read it every morning and thoroughly internalized its values and conception of the spiritual life. It became so totally ingrained in the spirit and traditional teaching of A.A., that any modern A.A. members reading from issues of The Upper Room published back during that period, can often feel that they are sitting in an A.A. meeting, listening to the good old-timers teaching them about the life of the spirit.


Outside the Upper Room Chapel in Nashville, Tennessee, one of the great AA pilgrimage sites

A group of tourists outside the Upper Room Chapel in Nashville,
Tennessee. This chapel, with its simple white Southern classic interior,
and a bas relief of the Last Supper on the wall over the altar, is one of
the most moving of the sites associated with early A.A. history


The Upper Room was a very new publication at that time, a product of the kind of classical Protestant liberalism which had completely taken over the Methodists (the second largest American Protestant denomination) at the beginning of the twentieth century. This kind of liberalism had also deeply affected many other Protestant denominations as well (including groups like the Congregationalists and, except for periodic conservative reactions, even the Presbyterians), so although it had started as a publication of the old Southern Methodist Church, the use of The Upper Room quickly began spreading to people from many other Christian denominations also.

The Upper Room began publication in April 1935, only a month before Bill W. and Dr. Bob met for the first time. The copies I have are little paperback booklets, seven inches high by four and one half inches wide (17.78 by 11.43 cm). The dates show that they were coming out quarterly by that period.

The volumes I have are from 1938 and 1939. At that point, Grover Carlton Emmons, who had started the Upper Room series, still had his name on the title page as editor. The publisher was the Board of Missions of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, in Nashville, Tennessee. Rev. Emmons was Secretary of the Department of Home Missions and Hospitals. The Methodist Episcopal Church, South, spread across the Old South from Texas in the west to North Carolina and Georgia and the other Atlantic seaboard states of the old Confederacy in the east, and as far north as Kentucky. It was one of the four large Wesleyan denominations in the United States which eventually were merged to form the present day United Methodist Church. The Southern Methodists were more Catholic-oriented than the other Methodist groups, which perhaps gave them a deeper understanding of the need for continuous spiritual development as we walked the life of faith -- and some kind of decent literature to help us along the way.


Travis Park Methodist Church in San Antonio, Texas, where the idea for The Upper Room was first devised; this became the standard early AA meditational book

Travis Park Methodist church in San Antonio, Texas.
Some of the women of this church suggested the need for a
publication like The Upper Room to their former pastor, Grover
Carlton Emmons, who had by then gone to hold an important post
at Southern Methodist headquarters in Nashville, Tennessee.

(Glenn C., who wrote this article, attended this church when he was a child, and was ordained by
one of the later editors of The Upper Room after that man became a Southern Methodist bishop.)


Reading meditations from The Upper Room from that early time period (1935-48) can help us enormously in understanding the meaning of a number of traditional A.A. concepts and beliefs. In order to provide some examples of this, I have taken a number of excerpts from different day's readings and assembled them below, giving all or part of the reading for that day and then making some of my own comments about the way it relates to A.A. teaching.
 

Character

  The Upper Room, 5.1 (April, May, June 1939), for Sunday, May 21, 1939. The readings for May 21-27 were on the topic of "The Kingdom Within."  

  "Let God take scales of justice to my life." Job 31:6 (Moffatt*) . . . . In the Old Testament, Job calls upon God to weigh his life in the eternal balance . . . .

In every man's record there are four chapters: reputation, character, influence, destiny. Reputation is what people think of us. Character is what we are, the real product of our thoughts, our hidden motives. Influence is what we put into the lives of others. It cannot be measured. It cannot be limited. Destiny is determined by one's record. To the righteous death is not to be feared. It is the open door to a larger and finer life. The secret of the well-kept record is to have the mind and the spirit of Christ within.
 

  This is what early A.A. was talking about when it talked in the Sixth Step about "defects of character." The Upper Room tells us what that technical term "character" meant to them: it is what we really are. It is "the real product of our thoughts" and "our hidden motives" for acting the way we do.

*The Moffatt translation was the modern translation of the Bible which Dr. Bob and Anne used. James Moffatt (1870-1944) was a Scotsman who pastored churches in the Free Church of Scotland until 1911, when he began teaching, first at Mansfield College at Oxford University and then at the University of Glasgow. He then came to the United States and was Professor of Church History at Union Theological Seminary in New York City from 1927 to 1939. (Reinhold Niebuhr came to Union just a year later, and taught there from 1928 to 1960, so he and Moffatt were colleagues for over ten years.) Moffatt produced the first widely used translation of the Bible in modern colloquial English. His version of the New Testament was published in 1913 and the Old Testament in 1924.
 

Serenity and the
Divine Light within

  The Upper Room, 5.1 (April, May, June 1939), for Wednesday, May 24, 1939.  

  [At the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount] Jesus calls us to life on its highest level in the beatitudes where each "blessed" may also be translated "happy."

The beatitudes teach us that happiness cannot be found in our circumstances unless it is within ourselves. It is the inner life that is the home of happiness where abide humility, godly sorrow for sin, meekness, a desire for righteousness, peace, courage to face persecution and misunderstanding.

The quest for eternal life brings happiness, but the quest for happiness alone misses eternal life. This explains why there are so many disappointed people about us, why this has been called "the age of the great sadness," when multitudes seek happiness in ways that can never reach the goal.

The entrance to the realm of happiness is by a "narrow gate," where Jesus still stands to meet us with the old challenge, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand" . . . .
 

Thought for the Day

"Come, Light serene, and still,
Our inmost bosoms fill,
Dwell in each breast;
We know no dawn but Thine,
Send forth Thy beams divine,
On our dark souls to shine,
And make us blest!"

  In early A.A. Richmond Walker, in his meditational book Twenty-Four Hours a Day, further developed this idea of the Divine Light within, and said that building up the "little spark of the divine" until it glows inside our souls is the key to true serenity. Furthermore, Walker said, the kind of Eternal Life that is spoken of here is something that we can possess here and now within our souls, if we surrender totally to God and, quit worrying so much about the past and the future, and concentrate on living in the Light of God in the Eternal Now.

The early A.A. slogan "First Things First" was based on Jesus' statement in the Sermon on the Mount, "Seek ye first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness and all these things shall be added unto you" (Matthew 6:33). The Upper Room helps us to better understand how early A.A. people meant that slogan to be used. We are actually apt to gain more in the way of material things and external happiness -- or at least we will find that we no longer need to worry about these things all the time -- if we stop putting them at the top of our priority list, and instead start concentrating on staying away from alcohol and working on our character defects.
 

Character allows us
to rise above external
misfortunes

  The Upper Room, 5.1 (April, May, June 1939), for Thursday, May 25, 1939.  

  "Or those eighteen, upon whom the tower in Siloam fell and slew them, think ye that they were sinners above all the men that dwelt in Jerusalem? I tell you Nay . . . ." Luke 13:4, 5 . . . .

There are folk in my community who insist, when calamity comes to their neighbors, that it is punishment for hidden sins. Jesus refutes this idea. The tower in Siloam fell on certain men of Jerusalem but not because they were any worse than their neighbors.

Jesus is saying that while there seems to be no correlation between one's character and one's fortune at the level of merely material things; on the other hand, at the level of moral and spiritual life there is an exact correlation between what we are and what happens to us.
 

Do not let your inner
spiritual life be imprisoned by
church dogmas and creeds

  The Upper Room, 5.1 (April, May, June 1939), for Saturday, May 27, 1939.

[In Matthew 13:31-32, Jesus said, "The Kingdom of Heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all seed, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches."]
 

  The tiny "mustard seed" is loaded with imprisoned power ready to burst forth when in a correct environment . . . . The "seed" of an idea from God's kingdom often bursts into astounding results.

Christianity has been greatly handicapped by conclusions which have been embalmed into creeds, when men should have sought for ideas to implant in their creative thinking with a view to valuable fruitage. A seed encased in some artificial coat cannot germinate and grow. Ideas from the kingdom of God solidified into creeds cannot grow either. Creeds are to tell us how far we have come, not where we are to stay.

"Seeds" of the kingdom of God are not of one kind, but many, such as faith, love, brotherhood, justice, good will, purity, honesty, truthfulness, and sobriety.
 

Prayer

Dear God, help me to find some Christian
seed today. Help me plant it and cultivate it,
then trust Thee for the harvest. Amen.

  Please note that the classical Protestant liberals of the early twentieth century were impassioned and devoted Christians, as appears throughout The Upper Room. But they were tired of the endless disputes over doctrines and dogmas and ancient church creeds which seemed to be paralyzing so many American religious denominations, and which seemed to be rendering them utterly incapable of adapting to the modern world. They heard what Adolf Harnack had said so forcefully. In fact this is Harnackian language in this meditation -- Harnack said we had to learn how to distinguish the true "kernel" of the Christian message as opposed to the dry shell in which it was contained. So real spirituality is about issues like the one mentioned in the reading above: "faith, love, brotherhood, justice, good will, purity, honesty, truthfulness, and sobriety."

Please note also that the classical Protestant liberals regarded Jesus as their great teacher, and prayed fervently for "the mind and the spirit of Christ within." But we see in the prayer above that they were already beginning to shift from addressing all prayers to Christ, to addressing their prayers directly to God the Father instead. Early A.A. people realized from reading The Upper Room that it was perfectly all right to pray directly to the Higher Power who rules this universe, and most of them seem to have felt most comfortable praying that way. One importance of The Upper Room was that they could hear a group of truly devout Christians giving them permission to do this.
 

The dangers of resentment
and the warning contained in
the Lord's Prayer

  The Upper Room, 5.1 (April, May, June 1939), for Wednesday, June 28, 1939.

[The Lord's Prayer, contained in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 6:9-13, says "Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who have trespassed against us."]
 

  "I am afraid of the Lord's Prayer," is the rather shocking statement which Muriel Lester, outstanding Christian and mission worker, recently made in a religious journal. "For a number of years," she adds, "we made it a point of omitting it from our service at our Kingsley Hall."

Why such a statement? . . . When we pray, "Forgive us as we forgive" this means "Father, grant to me that degree of forgiveness that I am willing to extend to my personal enemies."

Are we willing to say this to God? Can we be Christian and hold grudges and nurse hard feelings against anyone? The pathetic thing about holding grudges is that they hurt us more than the fellow we don't like, but, worse still, they separate us from God.
 

  The A.A. Big Book says that resentment is the number one killer of alcoholics. Parts of this meditation in The Upper Room sound like they could have come straight out of a really good A.A. meeting on the topic of resentment. It is interesting to note that early A.A. eventually refused to allow into its meetings any traditional Christian prayers except for three: the Serenity Prayer, the St. Francis Prayer, and the Lord's Prayer. This passage from The Upper Room helps us to better understand why they insisted on retaining the Lord's Prayer: there were things said in that prayer that every recovering alcoholic needed to hear, even if it frightened them and made them uncomfortable. Recovering from alcoholism is not about being comfortable and only hearing the things I want to hear.  

How to pray:  entering the
Divine Silence, seeking guidance, saying
"not my will but yours be done"

  The Upper Room, 4.4 (January, February, March 1939), for Sunday, January 8, 1939. The readings for January 8-14 had as their topic "Lord, Teach Us to Pray."  

  We pray not that we may bring the will of God into harmony with our will but that our wills may become identified with the Will of our Heavenly Father . . . . Martin Luther's translation of the first sentence in Psalm 46:10 is most significant. "Be silent before God and let him mold thee."  

Prayer

"Have Thine own way, Lord!
Have Thine own way!
Thou art the Potter;
I am the clay." Amen

Thought for the Day

A Chinese scholar says: "Prayer is that exercise
by which I bring myself into such communion with
God that I become possessed of God's plan, God's
thought and God's passion for the world."

  The Prayer for the Day is from Hymn No. 154 in the Methodist Hymnal used in the United States today (copyright 1966), and was written by Adelaide A. Pollard (1862-1934). In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, American Methodism had a large number of good women hymn writers, and also women writers on spirituality. Mrs. Phoebe Palmer (1807-1874), in her book The Way of Holiness (1850), taught what she called the "short way," which was similar in many ways to what St. Therese of Lisieux (the Little Flower) called the Little Way. See Thomas A. Langford, Practical Divinity: Theology in the Wesleyan Tradition (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1983) and Wesleyan Theology: A Sourcebook (Durham, North Carolina: Labyrinth Press, 1984).  

The Prayer without Ceasing

  The Upper Room, 4.4 (January, February, March 1939), for Monday, January 9, 1939.

For two thousand years, Christian writers on spirituality have discussed the topic of the Prayer without Ceasing. The Eastern Orthodox hesychastic monks on Mount Athos said that it was the continuous repetition of the Jesus Prayer, "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner" until one had a vision of the Uncreated Light. (This was an expansion of the humble Prayer of the Publican in the little story which Jesus told in Luke 18:9-14.)

John Wesley (the founder of the Methodists) said that the Prayer without Ceasing should be Moses' prayer, "O Lord, I pray Thee, show me Thy glory" (with an understood reference of course to the concept of the divine glory proclaimed in the Cherubic Anthem in Isaiah 6:3, "Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory").

The women among the Amish and conservative Mennonites who live in my part of northern Indiana wear distinctive little cloth hats at all times, which they call prayer bonnets. They believe that women should not pray with their heads uncovered, so having the prayer bonnets on at all times allows them to pray whenever they want to during the day without interrupting whatever task they are working at. They do not have any one prayer which they believe should be recited over and over, but the idea of carrying out some sort of prayer without ceasing is extremely important to them.

This meditation in The Upper Room sets out an extremely full and rich understanding of the different dimensions of good prayer:
 

  "Men ought always to pray."  "Pray without ceasing."  "Evening, and morning, and at noon, will I pray."  Luke 18:1; 1 Thessalonians 5:17; Psalm 55:17 . . . .

A college professor said, "I can't pray." We can all pray, if we remember

(1) God is not far off. "Closer is he than breathing, and nearer than hands and feet."

(2) "He that cometh to God must believe that he is, and that he is a rewarder of them that diligently seek him."

(3) "Prayer is the soul's sincere desire, uttered or unexpressed."

(4) Peter, sinking, cried, "Lord, save me."  How natural.  How simple.  Prayer is the soul's cry to God.

(5) "Come boldly unto the throne of grace, that ye may obtain [mercy and find grace to help in time of need]."

(6) Delays are not denials. They are testings.

(7) The secret of successful prayer is, "We receive the things we ask of Him, because we keep His commandments, and do those things that are pleasing in His sight." . . .
 

Thought for the Day

"Sweet hour of prayer! sweet hour of prayer!
       That calls me from a world of care,
 And bids me at my Father's throne
       Make all my wants and wishes known."

  The Thought for the Day is from Hymn No. 275 in the Methodist Hymnal used in the United States today (copyright 1966), written by William Walford (1772-1850). As his dates indicate, he was a hymn writer from the period of the great evangelical tradition of the eighteenth and early nineteenth century.  

The Prayer of Silence
and
the Prayer of Listening

  The Upper Room, 4.4 (January, February, March 1939), for Tuesday, January 10, 1939.  

  Prayer is opening the heart to God . . . . It has its listening side. Prayer is more than speaking to God; it is giving God an opportunity to speak to us. Oftentimes we are so persistent in our appeals that God has no opportunity to answer. We must learn to be silent while He speaks.

After a period of communion and petition, if one will listen -- simply wait with worshipful heart while the Spirit quickens the conscience and understanding -- God will speak in accents as clear as the voice of a friend.
 

  The meditation goes on to say that the proper attitude is to say to God, "Speak, Lord, for thy servant heareth." Where we get into trouble is when we start praying instead, "Hear, Lord, for thy servant speaketh."

This understanding of prayer is one which we see repeatedly in the stories about Dr. Bob's wife Anne Smith and the way she prayed. It is also the one which appears in Richmond Walker's Twenty-Four Hours a Day when he speaks of entering the Divine Silence as the real heart of prayer.
 

Opening the shutters
of my mind to allow in the
Sunlight of the Spirit

  The Upper Room, 4.4 (January, February, March 1939), for Wednesday, January 11, 1939.  

  The sun is shining outside as I sit in my study. But if I want the light to shine in, I must open the shutters. The control is at my end.

Scores of people, good and bad, come to my study each year. They are blocked by all sorts of fear, frustrations, tensions, and defeat. They are problem-conscious rather than God-conscious . . . .

But they find the answer [when they surrender their lives over to God's will]. When the shutters are opened, the sun shines in. When barriers are surrendered, God becomes real. The other day a business man turned to God saying, "I give up." And when he ceased to resist Divine Love, he found peace. It works!
 

  Or as early A.A. people put it, "It works if you work it!" And if you refuse to make the surrender to your Higher Power which is required by the Third Step, you will never be able to enter the Sunlight of the Spirit.  

Resentment blocks
us from praying

  "First be reconciled to thy brother, and then come and offer thy gift." Matthew 5:24 [the Sermon on the Mount].

All of us have had the experience of kneeling down to pray, and becoming aware that all was not well between our soul and God. The prayer had gone haltingly . . . .

What was more, we knew wherein lay the reason. We were trying to present a gift at God's altar, conscious all the time that God could not receive it because we were bringing it with unclean hands and impure heart. Enmity toward another [that is, the burden of anger and resentment] lay heavily upon us, and we knew it, and we knew that God knew it too. How could we expect to pray, and to have our prayer heard, with such a thought haunting our mind!

Not only so, but we never shall be able to pray -- that is, to pray with the complete abandon of perfect fellowship -- until in all the world there is no one for whom we wish anything but good.
 

Nearer is he than breathing,
closer than hands or feet

  One cannot have any real idea of God and not call upon Him.

One may have learned some big words about Him, and have no inward idea of Him. One may have learned [in a theology class] that God is omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient, and not feel [in one's heart what this means, that is] that He is all powerful, everywhere present and all-seeing . . . .

When one knows that God is present everywhere, creating all life in all things, and fulfilling all laws of nature from atoms on up to solar systems, he can begin to appreciate Tennyson's appeal:
 

"Speak to Him thou, for He heareth,
And spirit with spirit doth meet,
For nearer is He than breathing,
And closer than hands and feet."

  Can one be conscious of such a God, ever present, with all power, who sees and understands every secret heart throb, and into whose ear every word is spoken, and fail to call upon Him? A true conception of God creates faith, inspires prayer and brings the personality into vital touch with the Infinite.  

One Day at a Time

  The Upper Room, 4.4 (January, February, March 1939), for Thursday, January 19, 1939.  

  "Be not therefore anxious for the morrow: for the morrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof." Matthew 6:34 [the Sermon on the Mount] . . . .

So many live in the past, in the future, and in the present. Jesus wants us to discard two-thirds of this burden and share the other one-third with him -- "for my yoke is easy and my burden is light."

He wants you to commence today with Him:
 

"I met God in the morning,
when my day was at its best;
And His Presence came like sunrise,
And His glory filled my breast."

  He wants you to conclude today with Him:                                                                                                                              

"All day long the Presence lingered,
All day long He stayed with me;
And we sailed in perfect calmness
O'er a very troubled sea."



CONCLUSION

THE RELIGION OF THE HEART

  Early twentieth-century American Methodists were the children and grandchildren of the circuit riders, the young men who went out on horseback alone into the wildest parts of the American Frontier, marveling in their diaries in ecstatic language about the extraordinary beauty of the towering mountains and wild forests and little springs of pure water. And in their diaries they also recorded how they would weep with overflowing joy, tears rolling down their faces, whenever they found three or four who listened to their message, and committed themselves to forming a little group dedicated to God, in the middle of the trackless wilderness. As the children and grandchildren of these Theophoroi, these ecstatic God-Bearers, early twentieth-century Methodists above all taught the Religion of the Heart.

This was what The Upper Room above all taught early A.A. -- true spirituality is not about doctrines and dogmas and creeds and elaborate theological argument. It is about that great depth of meaning which can only be encountered through feeling and intuition. In other words, as a German philosopher would put it, it not a matter of finding a Begriff or a Vorstellung, but has to do with the realm of Gefühl and Ahnung. Bill Wilson spoke of it in the Big Book as learning how to enter a kind of totally new and different dimension of reality.

Early A.A. was about the Spirituality of the Heart, and learning how to both speak and hear the Language of the Heart. This was what allowed A.A. to transcend every artificial boundary and to spread all over the earth.

The twentieth-century Methodists were also the only large group that I know of in the history of Christian theology who went so far in defending the idea of a deeply personal God. First the Methodist philosophers called the Boston Personalists, and then a generation later the Methodist seminary professors called the Process Theologians, went much further than any other large group of philosophical theologians in Christian history in developing sophisticated philosophical and metaphysical arguments defending belief in a warmly personal God.

St. Thomas Aquinas for example, the great thirteenth-century Catholic thinker, had said that the only literal statement which a philosopher could make about God was that God was Being Itself. This meant that God at the ultimate philosophical level was basically just an impersonal ground of being. Any talk of a personal God was no more than symbol, metaphor, or analogy. We were forced to talk in that sort of symbolic way, St. Thomas said, in order to talk about God at all, but strictly speaking, referring to God in himself as a personal being was not literally true.

These twentieth-century Methodist philosophical theologians said that the idea of a personal God was not symbol or metaphor, it was perfectly real. In fact the Personhood of God was the Great Reality upon which everything else in the universe was founded.

Early A.A. people did not try to write technical philosophical theology, but from reading The Upper Room, they certainly understood what was at stake. The best Methodist theologians of that era, the seminary professors and the teachers in Methodist colleges and universities, oversaw the material which appeared in The Upper Room, and frequently contributed readings themselves. These meditations were designed to be read by ordinary laypeople, but great pains were taken to make sure that they did not violate good theological principles.

So the meditations in The Upper Room made it clear that God is personal -- this is not a metaphor or an overdrawn use of symbolic language -- and our human lives gain their real meaning only from entering into a deep personal relationship with God, where we become the Friends of God, and walk through the day side by side with the Living God. We talk with him as our best friend. He dries our tears, strengthens our spines, and sometimes even laughs with us, with the great rolling laughter of Heaven echoing among the galaxies and stars.

I do hope that anyone who tries to write about the history of early A.A. and how these good old-timers thought and felt, will take the time to read through some of the meditations from The Upper Room from that period of history when A.A. was first developing (1935-48), and also learn something about the thought world from which this little set of books emerged -- works like Adolf Harnack's What Is Christianity?, Horace Bushnell's Christian Nurture, and Mrs. Phoebe Palmer's Way of Holiness.

And as part of this reading project, it wouldn't hurt to also toss in Rudolf Otto, The Idea of the Holy: An Inquiry into the Non-Rational Factor in the Idea of the Divine and Its Relation to the Rational. In the period right after the First World War, Rudolf Otto and Karl Barth were considered the two greatest Christian theologians of their time. Reinhold Niebuhr was one of Karl Barth's most talented disciples. Otto's ideas however can be more useful in understanding some of the perspective from which The Upper Room was written.

Doing some kind of reading in this area is necessary however to the good A.A. historian. People who do not learn to appreciate that world of The Upper Room and the great theological ideas which lay behind it, will never understand some of the most important aspects of the A.A. understanding of life.
 



About the Author

The author of this article did his seminary work at Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University and was ordained as a Methodist minister in 1964. Although he spent most of his career teaching history and religious studies at Indiana University, he has taught as Visiting Professor of Theology at Boston School of Theology, which was one of the two great Methodist centers of classical liberal theology. He was brought up as a child in the piety of The Upper Room and began reading aloud from its pages at family morning devotions from the time he first learned how to read. His grandfather on his mother's side, who pastored Methodist churches in Georgia and also taught history and bible at Kentucky Wesleyan College for a number of years, received part of his graduate theological education at Garrett Biblical Institute just outside Chicago, which was the other of the two great Methodist centers of classical liberal theology. On his father's side of the family, his Aunt Jenny was the daughter of one of the last of the Methodist circuit riders, so family lore preserved a memory of the Methodist tradition going all the way back to the Frontier Period.

While the author was in seminary during the early 1960's, Methodist theological education was being taken over by the Neo-Orthodox movement -- Karl Barth, Reinhold Niebuhr, Paul Tillich, Rudolf Bultmann, and their followers -- so that he had firsthand contact with many of the best known theologians in that group, and witnessed the demise of classical Protestant liberalism during that decade. As far as he knows, there are no major theologians (among the Methodists or anywhere else) who are classical Protestant liberals of the old school any more. A.A. outlived them, just as A.A. outlived the great days of the Oxford Group. The A.A. people did this in a totally pragmatic way by taking what they saw actually worked and had been demonstrated to be genuinely necessary, and leaving the rest behind.




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