Intellectual Influences on the Twelve Steps

Rose Bruce, EdD, PhD

It is well known that the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous (1) were developed by Bill W (William Griffith Wilson), (2)  Doctor Bob (Bob Smith,) (3) and 100 members of that fledgling society in the 1930’s in the United States. (4)  At that time and still today, members adhered to a strict code of anonymity so as to not jeopardize their standing in the community, get an inflated sense of self, or be overwhelmed by requests for help.  Since that day, The Twelve Steps, as they are affectionately known in recovery circles, have been recognized as an important intellectual contribution and spiritual tool not only in the treatment of alcoholism but many other problems such as drug abuse, gambling abuse, sexual abuse, over eating and the many various ineffective ways that individuals use to cope with stresses in their lives.  They were first published in the book Alcoholics Anonymous in 1939. (1)  Contemporaries of Bill W. included William James, Carl Gustaf Jung, and a Lutheran Minister named Frank Buckman.

The Twelve Steps are listed below.

  1. We admitted we were powerless over alcohol – that our lives had become unmanageable.
  2. Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
  3. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.
  4. Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
  5. Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrong.
  6. Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.
  7. Humbly ask Him to remove our shortcomings.
  8. Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and because willing to make amends to them all.
  9. Made direct amends to such people whenever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
  10. Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.
  11. Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understond Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.
  12. Having had a spiritual awakening as a result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.

The first major influence on the development of The Twelve Steps was the Oxford Group, founded by the Lutheran Minister Frank Buckman, of which Dr. Bob was a member. (4) Bill W. visited the group also.

“Members of the Oxford Group sought to achieve spiritual regeneration by making a surrender to God through rigorous self-examination, confessing their character defects to another human being, making restitution for harm done to others, and giving without thought of reward – or, as they put it: ‘No pay for soul surgery.’  They did, however, accept contributions.” (4) 

They advocated listening to God’s guidance, and carrying it out. 

The Oxford Group developed six steps to accomplish this goal. (8)

  1. A Complete deflation.
  2. Dependence on God.
  3. A Moral inventory.
  4. Confession.
  5. Restitution.

The Six Steps, developed by the Oxford Group (6), look surprisingly like the steps in the Twelve Steps, specifically:

Number Oxford Group Steps Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous Number
1 A Complete deflation 1
2 Dependence on God 2,3,6,7,11
3 A Moral inventory 4
4 Confessions 5
5 Restitution 8,9,10
6 Continues work with others in need. 12

           It is clear that the Twelve Steps operationalize and further expand on the Oxford Steps.  For example, Dependence on God is dealt with in five steps in the Twelve Step Program (2, 3, 6, 7, 11) and Restitution is dealt with in three steps (8, 9, 10).  This change was based upon their extensive experience in working with alcoholics and trying to help them understand and apply the concepts.

           It should be noted that the Twelve Step Program is basically a spiritual one, based on love and service.  The Third Step is the essential step of giving one’s life to a Higher Power.  The Third Step pray reads (Big Book, page 83):

           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 so that I may better do Thy Will.  Take away my difficulties so victory over them may bear witness to those I would help of Thy Love, Thy Power, and Thy Way of Life.  May I do Thy Will always.

This level of surrender to God or a High Power is equivalent to William James’ discussion of Conversion in The Varieties of Religious Experience Lecture IX. Conversion and Lecture X. Conversion – Concluded (8)James describes conversion as

           “To be converted, to be regenerated, to receive grace, to experience religion, to gain an assurance, as so many phrases which denote the process, gradual or sudden, by which a self hit her to divided, and consciously wrong inferior and unhappy, becomes unified and consciously right superior and happy. (p. 5).

           James relates accounts of personal conversion in these essays.  Phrases used to describe this transition in consciousness include “the power of the Holy Spirit” (p. 57), “feel[ing] exceedingly happy and humble” (p. 57), and “utterly full of the love and grace of God” (p. 58).  “We tend to speak of the phenomenon, and perhaps to wonder at it, as a ‘transformation’” (p. 58).  A description of this experience is expressed in Twelve Step recovery meetings, although it is rare, with most people reporting a gradual reliance on a Higher Power.  The degree of surrender depends on the level of need of the individual, with very desperate individuals being ready and willing for a complete surrender necessary for this transformation.

           Bill W. was also corresponding with Carl Gustaf Jung about his ideas from 1945 until his death in 1961.(9)  In a letter written January 30, 1941, Jung comments on a previous patient, Roland H., who had subsequently gone to AA for help.  Jung confirmed that the way out of the level of despair and disintegration that Roland H. presented was through a complete spiritual experience, a complete reliance on the Divine or “Higher Power.”  Jung states that Roland’s “craving for alcohol was the quivalent on a low level of the spiritual thirst for wholeness, expressed in midieval language, union with God.” 

           Alcohol, which is often referred to as “spirits,” is a false God, an inadequate way of meeting the real spiritual thirst of not only an alcoholic, but any outer obsession used to cope and hopefully get spiritual satisfaction.  This is very prevalent in our society, and around the world today. We can all benefit from a refocus on methods and practices which actually meet these needs such as  community, spiritual readings and services, chanting (Gregorian and Sanscrit), music, nature (sunsets, sunrises, the magnificence of the ocean and mountains…), meditation, prayer (listening to our inner guidance) and paying attention to the synchronicity of life, guidance found in dreams and insights, creative expression and the various ways that we connect to the Eternal Essence underlying all things or what Jung calls in Latin, the Unus Mundus.

            The Twelve Steps is a well-articulated path for such a transition.  It is similar to other spiritual practices and ideas.  For example “rigorous honesty” is “right speech” in Buddhism, “One day at a time” is “staying in the present” (Buddhism), “the forth an fifth steps inventories and sharing” are equivalent to “confessions of sins” in the Catholic religion and “missing the mark” in Judaism, “making amends” equals “do unto others and forgiveness” of Christianity, and “turning your will over to God” is “Trust in God” in Christianity. (12)  The spiritual principles of Science of Mind, founded by Ernest Holmes around the same time as AA, are quite similar to the Twelve Steps of AA, although Homes got his guidance and intellectual foundations from books by Ralph Waldo Emerson (a Transcendentalist along with Henry David Thoreau and others), Thomas Troward, and Emma Curtis Hopkins.  These concepts include One Divine Principle (God in AA), the benefits of connection to the Divine through meditation and prayer, and Positive Mind Treatment, similar to William James’ concept of Healthy-Mindedness which we will deal with in the next section.  There are many paths to the same destination.  They are all of value.


  1. Anonymous, Alcoholics Anonymous, (New York, New York, Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Inc.), 1939, 1955, 1976, 2001.
  2. Wikipedia, Bill W.
  3. Wikipedia, Dr. Bob
  4. Anonymous, Dr. Bob and the Oldtimers, (New York, New York, Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Inc.), 1980.
  5. Anonymous, A Course in Miracles, (Tiburon California, Foundation for Inner Peace), 1957, 1983.
  6. Wikipedia, Oxford Group Six Steps.
  7. William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience, (Pantianos Classics) 1902, 1917).
  8. Ian McCabe, Carl Jung and Alcoholics Anonymous. (Pristine Publishing), 2015.
  9. Caroline Myss, Why People Don’t Heal and How They Can. (Pristine Publishing) 1998.
  10. Loise Hays, How Your Body. (Hay House Publishing), 1970.
  11. Glenda Green, Love Without End:  Jesus Speaks, (Fort Worth, TX, Heartwing Publishing), 1999.
  12. Frances Fuchs, Personal email correspondence, November 2020.