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Speaking to the Soul: Sam and a Man Named Bill

Speaking to the Soul: Sam and a Man Named Bill

Readings for the Commemoration of Samuel Shoemaker, priest and evangelist

Psalm 130

Isaiah 51:17-52:1

1 Corinthians 5:6-8

Luke 4:40-44

For millions of people around the world, two letters of the alphabet represent a conversion, a total change, and a life-saving choice. Those two letters are AA for Alcoholics Anonymous, and the man considered the chief founder was a man named Bill Wilson, known as Bill W in the rooms of AA. Bill was an alcoholic who earned his sobriety by following precepts taught him by experience and an organization known as the Oxford Group.


Much of what is at the heart of AA came from that group headed by Samuel Moor Shoemaker III. then rector of Calvary Church in New York and leader of the Calvary Rescue Mission, a place for the down-and-out to try to put their lives back together.


Sam, as Shoemaker was known in AA circles, had met a Lutheran named Frank Buchman years previously. Buchman taught Sam the four absolutes–honesty, purity, unselfishness, and love–which became guiding principles of Sam’s life. Sam learned to “Let go and let God” although perhaps he didn’t articulate it quite that way.


Sam later became rector at Christ Church which was the headquarters of the Oxford Group in the US. The church operated a rescue mission where mentors worked to help those who came through its doors. Among those who came was a man called Bill W., a man with a history of alcoholism and who had hit rock bottom. Bill and his sponsor, Ebby Thacher, both became part of the Oxford Group and, as the literature describes it, “made their decision for Christ.”


As Bill became more active in the Group, he spent more time in conversation and study with Sam, learning about conversion, acceptance, confession, amends, spreading the word and all the things that eventually became the 12-steps of sobriety. As the process became more and more concrete, Bill asked Sam to write them down as guides for others to follow as they struggled with alcoholism. Sam refused, saying that the 12 steps should be written by an alcoholic. Bill did write them, but Sam’s fingerprints (and words) are included in them almost everywhere.


Since then, those 12 steps have helped not only countless alcoholics but others with addiction problems, from co-dependency to narcotics to overeating to emotions to sex. They are not a cure for addiction–there really is no cure per se–but it is a way of life that gives structure and promotes the four absolutes that make for a healthy, transparent, fulfilling life. Sam’s experience helped Bill to find his way to that kind of life and, in 1955, Sam was named by Bill as one of the co-founders of AA even though Sam had not been or was alcoholic himself.


The Oxford Group was an evangelical sort of association, taking the principles of the four absolutes and encouraging members to follow them and then pass them on to others.. Faith was an important part, as it is in any recovery process, and over time the original emphasis on faith in God has become faith in a Higher Power, someone or something greater than oneself upon whom one can rely as an anchor. The important thing is to trust and place oneself in a relationship with that Higher Power, allowing the HP to work through the person not just to heal but to witness to that healing.


The evangelical component came in when each person was encouraged to seek a sponsor, a mentor who had experience to share. After working the steps themselves, the sponsored was then encouraged to share their own experience with others. It was much the way the faith was passed on in early Christianity, a model for the Oxford Group. As each one teaches another one, their own experience is enriched and deepened. That’s kingdom work.

Many people have never heard of Sam Shoemaker, even in the rooms of the Anonymous groups, but he is present nonetheless. Imagine following a path of life where there is total faith in God and allowing oneself to be guided by the principles of honesty, purity, unselfishness and love. Sam did it, and look at the result.

As they say in Anonymous groups, “Let go and let God.” There’s a real challenge but a great payoff for anyone who will follow the steps, even those without addictions.

Linda Ryan co-mentors 2 EfM Online groups and keeps the blog Jericho’s Daughter . She lives in the Diocese of Arizona and is proud to be part of the Church of the Nativity in North Scottsdale.


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Lois Stern

Interesting article. I wish everyone would be guided by the principles of honesty, purity, unselfishness and love. It would prevent many people, including me recently, from being hurt and emotionally abused by friends you thought you could trust.

JC Fisher

Thank you, Whit, I was thinking the same.


I’ve heard of Mr. Shoemaker through a friend
who recently passed away. Now I know a little
more of him. For me, the person I am most
grateful about is Bill Wilson. Without his
sacrifice, a person like me may not be alive
right now. I know what it’s like to suffer
like he suffered. That’s why I’ll remain
indebted to the program for the rest of my life.
May you continue to rest in peace, Bill.

Ann Fontaine

Rich: please sign your full name when you comment. Thanks Editor.

Whit Johnstone

In 12 step programs of recovery it is not usual to use one’s last name, either when speaking in the program or when speaking about the program. I would respectfully suggest that the rule requiring the use of full names on this website be modified to require only the first name and last initial whenever the topic is one of addiction and recovery to honor that boundry.

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