Alcoholics Anonymous: The Early Days

Alcoholics Anonymous began on the first day of Dr. Bob’s sobriety – June 10th, 1935.

Several years later, 1939 to be exact, the book Alcoholics Anonymous: The Story of How Many Thousands of Men and Women Have Recovered from Alcoholism was published. This volume has come to be affectionately called the Big Book.

In the almost eighty years since A.A.’s founding, it’s helped millions of people recover and spawned countless other fellowships. Today, a woman trying to get sober has her pick of fellowships, meetings, and sponsors. It wasn’t always like that.

I’m not so sure the explosive growth of twelve-step based recovery is such a good thing. Let me be clear, I’m beyond grateful for this program. When I think of all the lives A.A., and other twelve-step fellowships, have touched, my mind boggles.

Still, a lot has changed since Bill and Dr. Bob set out to help other alcoholics. Sponsorship, and in a larger sense recovery, isn’t treated the same.

god centered sponsorship and co sponsorship

Success Rates from the Early Days

The second edition of the Big Book contains a forward. Published in 1955, it reads “Of alcoholics who came to AA and really tried, 50% got sober at once and remained that way; 25% sobered up after some relapses, and among the remainder, those who stayed on with AA showed improvement” (The Big Book, page XX).

50%, or 75% depending on how you look at it, isn’t too shabby! Imagine if half to three quarters of those walking through the doors of AA today got sober!

So, why’d rates of recovery drop from those lofty numbers to today’s approximate 1%? More importantly, how do we get back to these astounding numbers of recovery?

Well, it could have something to do with sponsorship.

Sponsorship from the Early Days

“Though three hundred thousand have recovered in the last twenty-five years, maybe half a million more have walked into our midst, and then out again. We can’t well content ourselves with the view that all these recovery failures were entirely the fault of the newcomers themselves. Perhaps a great many didn’t receive the kind and amount of sponsorship they so sorely needed. We didn’t communicate when we might have done so. So we AA’s failed them.”

–Bill W., excerpted from a 1961 volume of the Grapevine

During the 1930’s, 40’s, and 50’s, a different type of sponsorship was practiced. First, there was co-sponsorship. Before we get into that, though, let’s discuss God centered sponsorship.

God Centered Sponsorship

This is the idea that rather than running to your sponsor with any and all problems, you take them to God.

Remember, nowhere in the Big Book does it say we should rely too much on our sponsor. In fact, nowhere in the Big Book does it mention a sponsor at all. This idea will be explored in detail later.

Anyway, God centered sponsorship is simple. We pick a sponsor, a woman who’s been through all twelve of the steps. We work through them with her. Then, instead of besieging her every time something bad happens, we pray and meditate over it.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s vitally important to communicate with your sponsor. Hell, I call mine four or five times a week. Still, I don’t bring my problems to her (unless, of course, it’s a problem she’s had personal experience with).

I bring my problems to God. I pray to God, letting her (yep, my God is a woman!) know what’s going on. Then I meditate, listening for an answer. Often, God speaks to me through other women. For example, if I have a problem with money, I’m going to call my friends who’re good with money. That’s God speaking to me.

Want to know something funny? Often, after meditating on a problem or issue, I’ll call my sponsor about it. That’s another perfect example of God speaking to me through other women.

I think it’s important here to point out the difference between practicing God centered sponsorship and simply being lazy. Being lazy is not working steps, not communicating with your sponsor, and not living life on spiritual principals. God centered sponsorship is working steps and then communicating with your sponsor as needed rather than 1,000 times each day.


If God centered sponsorship sounds radical (and I hope it doesn’t!) then co-sponsorship is going to sound crazy! This is the idea that the sponsor should take her current sponsee with her to meet other newcomers.

Okay, that sounds kind of confusing, right? I had to read it twice and I’m still not sure what I wrote. Thankfully, Clarence S., an old-timer, had a much simpler explanation. He wrote,
“Additional information for sponsoring a new [wo]man can be obtained from the experience of older [wo]men in the work. A co-sponsor, with an experienced and newer member working on a prospect, has proven very satisfactory. Before undertaking the responsibility of sponsoring, a member should make certain that [s]he is able and prepared to give the time, effort, and thought such an obligation entails. It might be that [s]he will want to select a co-sponsor to share the responsibility, or [s]he might feel it necessary to ask another to assume the responsibility for the [wo]man he has located.”

–Clarence S., excerpted from a 1944 pamphlet on sponsorship

Leaving out the use of male pronouns (seriously, were no women getting sober back then?!), that makes a lot of sense. I cringe when I think of how I sponsored my first newcomer. I didn’t send her to God at all!

If my sponsor had been there, guiding us both, maybe things would have turned out differently. Or maybe not, who knows? God works in mysterious ways, my friends!

Could These Techniques Lead to More Women Recovering?

Ultimately, I don’t know! I think there are a lot of benefits to things like God centered sponsorship and co-sponsorship.

I think there are also other beneficial tactics women with time can take to help newcomers. For example, why make a sponsee call us? Shouldn’t we be calling them? Isn’t that how Bill found Dr. Bob in the first place?

So, will this sort of proactive, in-depth sponsorship help newcomers? There’s only one way to find out! I’ll see you out there in the trenches, ladies!

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