Foundation 12 Steps

Recovery 12 Steps


8- Foundation 12 Steps


This page provides information on the foundation and history of the 12 Step — why they were created and what they hope to achieve. Knowing how the Steps came to be can help us understand the background of all 12 Step programs.


  • Step 1- the Problem
  • Step 2- the Solution
  • Carrying the Message
  • Birth of Alcoholics Anonymous
  • 12 Steps- plan of recovery
  • Formation of other anonymous Fellowships


Step 1- the Problem

Bill Wilson, who co-founded Alcoholics Anonymous in 1935, had ruined a promising career on Wall Street by his drinking. Also, in the couple of years before getting sober, his out-of-control drinking and inability to hold a job put a considerable strain on his marriage. During that time, in 1933 and 1934, he was hospitalized for alcoholism at Towns Hospital in New York City on four separate occasions. While there he was put under the care of Dr. William Silkworth, who was known for his innovative methods in treating alcoholics. During Bill’s first stay at Towns Hospital, Dr. Silkworth explained to him his theory that alcoholism is a disease rather than a moral failure or a matter of willpower.

Dr. Silkworth believed that alcoholics were suffering from a mental obsession, which combined with an allergy, made compulsive drinking inevitable once the alcoholic picked up that first drink. To break the cycle, one had to abstain completely from alcohol use. This information was a revelation to Bill, who was greatly relieved to see for the first time why he could not stop drinking despite his best efforts. After being released from Towns Hospital, Bill managed to stay off alcohol for a month before he started drinking again. He had learned about the nature of his problem, but that in itself was not enough to keep him sober. He did not yet know the solution to his problem. The discovery of the nature of our problem – our addiction — is what Bill later incorporated as the essence of what is now Step One in all 12 Step programs.


Step 2- the Solution

Ebby Thatcher, a chronic alcoholic and an old friend of Bill, visited him in his home in late 1934. To Bill’s amazement, Ebby was sober. When asked how he had managed to do this, Ebby said that he “had got religion.” Though Bill was sceptical regarding how a God in his life could help him stop drinking, he later wrote of that meeting with Ebby, who is considered the first sponsor since he carried the message of recovery to Bill: “My friend suggested what then seemed a novel idea. He said, ‘Why don’t you choose your own conception of God?’ That statement hit me hard. It melted the icy intellectual mountain in whose shadow I had lived and shivered many years. I stood in the sunlight at last.” This concept of choosing one’s own Higher Power was later incorporated into Step 2, and it underscores that 12 Step programs are about spirituality, rather than religion.

After Ebby’s visit, Bill continued to drink and landed again at Towns hospital. But this was to be the last time. While lying there in bed and full of despair at his nightmarish predicament, Bill cried out: “I’ll do anything! Anything at all! If there be a God, let Him show Himself!” He then had what is nowadays called a spiritual experience, in which he all of a sudden felt the unmistakeable presence of God in his life. Bill had hit rock bottom, he admitted he was powerless over his disease and needed a power greater than himself for help. This honest admission, together with his humility to ask his God for help, was to be his salvation. That was in December 1934, and Bill never drank again. He died in 1971.


Carrying the Message

Experiencing this miracle in his life, Bill decided to help other suffering alcoholics – the seed of the Alcoholics Anonymous fellowship. For months after that, though, he had no luck getting anyone sober. As he finally had to admit, he was going about it the wrong way by preaching to alcoholics that they must find God in order to sober up. At this point, Dr. Silkworth advised him to give these alcoholics the medical facts first, and to give it to them hard: tell them of the obsession that condemns them to drink to the point where they go mad or die. Dr. Silkworth knew that an alcoholic was more likely to accept this stark truth from another alcoholic. Bill’s experience set in motion the way millions in recovery today maintain their sobriety — by carrying the message of recovery to others.


Birth of Alcoholics Anonymous

A few months later, Bill was on a business trip in Akron Ohio. When the venture turned sour, Bill was tempted to drink but realized that if he was to stay sober he must talk to another alcoholic. Bill phoned local ministers to ask if they knew any alcoholics and was referred to Dr. Bob Smith. They met soon afterward, though Dr. Bob was initially reluctant to hear Bill out. But Dr. Bob was so impressed with Bill’s knowledge of alcoholism and willingness to share his own experience that he became the first alcoholic Bill helped into sobriety. Dr. Bob’s sobriety date of June 10, 1935 is considered the founding date of Alcoholics Anonymous.


12 Step – plan of recovery

foundation 12 steps - Bill Wilson & Bob Smith


Bill and Dr. Bob then sought to develop a simple program to help chronic alcoholics, a program that would help drinkers realize that willpower is useless in overcoming their problem. Their position was that alcoholics were in a state of insanity, rather than a state of sin.  Alcoholics needed to realize that they couldn’t conquer alcoholism by themselves – that surrendering to a higher power and working with other alcoholics were required to get sober. So the two of them set off visiting hospitals for prospects, and would start off by giving these prospects the medical facts about their disease. They then would ask the alcoholic if he was ready to surrender and admit to powerlessness over his drinking. The alcoholic would then be invited to pray to a higher power that he be restored to sanity. With this, the alcoholic’s admission of complete defeat was complete – and now he was ready for recovery.

Two realizations grew out of Bill’s work in Akron. The first was that to remain sober, an alcoholic needed another alcoholic to work with. The second was the 24 hours concept: that if the alcoholic could resist the urge to drink by postponing it for one day, one hour, or even one minute, he could remain sober. Both these concepts are part of all 12 Steps programs and advocated to this day.

At the time they got sober, Bill and Dr. Bob were attending meetings of the Oxford Group, a Christian movement popular in the 1930s and a place where many turned to for their problem with alcohol. Though Bill soon broke away from the Oxford Group, its teachings and structure influenced the formation of Alcoholics Anonymous and the 12 Steps.

By 1939, Bill, with the help of the first 100 recovering alcoholics, wrote the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous. In it they set down what they had learned about recovery from alcoholism. The main objective of this book is to help suffering alcoholics find a power greater than themselves. In this book Bill outlined the 12 Steps, which are a suggested program of action to achieve recovery. Bill has credited the Oxford Group as the inspiration for the 12 Steps, saying in 1955: “The early AA got its ideas of self-examination, acknowledgment of character defects, restitution for harm done, and working with others straight from the Oxford Group and directly from Sam Shoemaker, their former leader in America, and from nowhere else.” Bill also gave credit to the Oxford Group for saving his life.


Cover of Alcoholic Anonymous book - AA 1929


Formation of other Fellowships

Following the success of Alcoholics Anonymous, other 12 Step programs developed, with the second one being Al-Anon. Pioneered by Bill’s wife, Lois, it aimed to help family members of alcoholics. About 20 years after the start of A.A., as drug abuse became a major problem, the fellowship of Narcotics Anonymous was founded.

All 12 Step fellowships are based on and adapted from the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous. The only important difference among these fellowships is Step One and Step Twelve. In these two Steps members identify with their primary problem, and fellowships have adapted them to correspond to a specific substance or behavior that has become a major problem.

(“We admitted that we were powerless over… (problematic substance or behavior) – that our lives had become unmanageable”) and (“Having had a spiritual awakening as a result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to ___ and to practice these principles in all of our affairs”).

The Step 1 of Narcotics anonymous does not specify a particular type of substance, but rather uses the word addiction to emphasize powerlessness over the disease of addiction as opposed to a specific substance. But as far as the actions required for recovery are concerned, all 12 Step programs follow the same principles. In addition, all 12 Step fellowships adhere to the same general guidelines known as the 12 Traditions, meeting formats, and organizational structure as Alcoholics Anonymous.

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