The History of the 12 Steps

Terms like “12-steps,” “12-stepping” and “12-step meetings” have become part of the popular vocabulary of drug and alcohol rehab. But to addicts in early recovery, the history and meaning of the steps may be unknown. Understanding how these revolutionary principles originated will help you understand how these guidelines can help you reach your personal rehab goals.

Origins of the 12 Steps

The 12 steps began as the guiding principles of an organization called Alcoholics Anonymous, or AA, a mutual self-help group that was founded in Akron, Ohio in the mid-1930s. The steps were developed by the group’s founding members, Bill Wilson and Dr. Bob Smith, two alcoholics who had struggled with the disease for years before finding a solution in abstinence, fellowship with others and surrender to a spiritual higher power. In order to sustain their recovery, the founders of AA decided that they needed to share the lessons they had learned with other alcoholics.

The 12 steps developed in the early days of AA as the group evolved. In a 1953 article published in The Grapevine, Bill Wilson identified three major sources of inspiration:

  1. The Oxford Group: An evangelical movement of the 1920s and 1930s that advocated honesty, selflessness, confession of sins and making amends for harm done to others. Bill Wilson was a member of this group before founding AA and was strongly influenced by its principles.
  2. Dr. William Silkworth: One of the first medical professionals to embrace the idea of alcoholism as a disease, Silkworth believed that this addiction was characterized by a mental obsession and an allergy to alcohol. Silkworth was the director of Towns Hospital in New York City, where Bill W. went through rehab.
  3. The philosopher William James: James, author of the book Varieties of Religious Experience, believed that even the most hopeless people could be transformed by a spiritual awakening. Bill W. read Varieties of Religious Experience while going through detox from alcohol in 1934. James’s philosophy became the source of AA’s emphasis on surrender to a higher power.

During the first few years of AA, Bill Wilson and Dr. Bob attempted to define the underlying principles that had helped them achieve sobriety. These principles were originally limited to six fundamental concepts:

  1. An admission of powerlessness over alcohol
  2. Honesty and self-awareness about the disease of alcoholism
  3. Sharing that self-awareness anonymously with one other person
  4. Making amends to others for harm done as a result of addiction
  5. Working with other alcoholics with no expectation of recognition
  6. Seeking spiritual strength from God to complete these goals

These six principles would later be expanded into the 12 steps that continue to shape recovery groups like AA, NA (Narcotics Anonymous), CA (Cocaine Anonymous) and DRA (Dual Recovery Anonymous). Participation in 12-step meetings is free of charge, and membership is kept confidential in order to preserve the anonymity of its members.

The 12 Steps and Alcoholics Anonymous

In an effort to distill his own journey of sobriety into a program that other alcoholics could follow, Bill Wilson set out to compose a book that would outline the principles he had learned. This work, which would be known as the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous, was published in 1939. The 12 steps were outlined in Chapter 5. But before the final version of the steps was published, the concepts were hotly debated with other group members at a series of meetings. As a result of these debates, the term “God” was changed to “Higher Power” to make the 12 steps accessible to people of all faiths and traditions, including agnostics.

Since the 12 steps were first publicized, they have become widely accepted as an effective approach to recovery by psychiatrists, doctors and members of the clergy throughout the world. After working through the 12 steps with the help of a sponsor, members of AA share the fellowship’s message of strength and hope by acting as sponsors themselves.

For addicts who are ready to reach out for help, 12-step fellowships offer an abiding source of strength and support. The treatment programs at Axis are based on the same principles that helped Bill Wilson, Dr. Bob Smith and other early founders of AA recover from the disease of alcoholism. If you’ve decided that it’s time to make lasting changes in your life, we’re here to help you find the hope and support you need to achieve your own recovery.