Walking with the Saints

The Legacy of Sam Shoemaker

Every river has a wellspring at its source. A.A. is like that too. In the beginning, there was a spring, which poured out of a clergyman, Dr. Samuel Shoemaker. Way back in 1934 he began to teach us the principles and attitudes that afterward came to full flower in A.A.’s 12 Steps for Recovery.

Bill Wilson – Co-Founder, Alcoholics Anonymous

This week we honor the life of The Reverend Samuel Shoemaker who was an Episcopal priest and not only a friend of the pioneers of Alcoholics Anonymous, but also a spiritual guide for the program in its fledgling years. In fact, it was Rev. Shoemaker – who as a member and leader of the Oxford Group in America in the 1930’s – influenced the development of the 12 Steps for recovery in Alcoholics Anonymous. A.A’s co-founder Bill Wilson once wrote that “Dr. Sam Shoemaker was one of A.A.’s indispensables. Had it not been for his ministry to us in our early time, our Fellowship would not be in existence today.” Bill W. made it clear that Sam Shoemaker “passed on the spiritual keys by which we were liberated” and that the first three steps of Alcoholics Anonymous were inspired in part by Sam Shoemaker, and Bill further explained the “the early A.A. got its ideas of self-examination, acknowledgement of character defects, restitution for harm done, and working with others straight from the Oxford Groups and directly from Sam Shoemaker, and from nowhere else.”

It is clear that Rev. Shoemaker’s spiritual guidance directly influenced the Twelve Steps and the nature of A.A.’s program of recovery, and it is notable that he was an Episcopal priest. Today, the vast majority of A.A. Meetings are still held in churches. Many of those are Episcopal churches, including our own beautiful campus here where we host six different recovery groups weekly. The Tuesday night A.A./Alanon groups have been meeting here for well over thirty years and are affectionately known throughout the San Gabriel Valley as The Roses Road Meetings.

The contribution and impact that the church has had on A.A. over the past eighty-four years is significant and the fellowship has benefited greatly. But we should also think about the gifts that the Twelve-Step spirituality of Alcoholics Anonymous has to offer the church and the world. There are many. First, is the idea of God as you understand God. This allows for a spirit of opening and welcoming of all people from all directions to come into a common bond of purpose and mutual support that transcends religious tradition or denominational stripes. It helps us return to the core truth that God is for all and with all.

Another important gift that Twelve-Step spirituality offers to all is found in the Fourth and Fifth Steps that are at the heart of the fearless and searching personal inventory, which requires that we get honest with ourselves about the impact our lives have on others. Admitting to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs has taken confession out of the confessional and placed it on the ground in a way that opens the healing grace of God in a way that may not have been accessible before.

These two principles of recovery: welcoming each other’s own understanding of God and the organic nature of “confession” available to all are real game changers. But there are also other credos that people in recovery live (to the best of our ability) that are essential to our spirituality, such as: Our common welfare must always come first, placing principles before individual personalities and Our leaders are but trusted servants, they do not govern. In recovery we take on the understanding that those who have done harm are perhaps spiritually sick, and perhaps, not so unlike ourselves. This is a very different approach that seeing people as “sinners” or “the enemy.” There is so much more, but in closing I just want to say that the Twelve-Step Spirituality is a gift for the world – those in recovery and those who are not. I would encourage all to read the simple yet profoundly spiritual text of Alcoholics Anonymous. If you need a copy, we can provide you one at no charge as a gift from the monastery. We feel this deeply spiritual book is so important for so many that we keep an ample supply on hand. So, just ask us for one and it is yours.

Richard Rohr once said that Alcoholics Anonymous will go down in history as the authentic American contribution to worldwide spirituality, and I feel that it has indeed done that, helping to transform the lives of hundreds of millions around the globe with its message of healing, hope and fellowship in God. Today I give thanks for The Reverend Sam Shoemaker and the early pioneers of Alcoholics Anonymous for this life-changing gift.