By 1934 alcoholic Bill Wilson had ruined a promising Wall Street career because of his constant drunkenness. He was introduced to the idea of a spiritual cure by an old drinking buddy Ebby Thacher who had become a member of a "first century Christian movement" called the Oxford Group. Wilson was treated at Charles B. Towns hospital by Dr. William Silkworth, who promoted a disease concept of alcoholism. While in the hospital, Wilson underwent what he believed to be a spiritual experience and, convinced of the existence of a healing higher power, he was able to stop drinking.
On a 1935 business trip to Akron, Ohio, Wilson felt the urge to drink again and in an effort to stay sober, he sought another alcoholic to help. Wilson was introduced to Dr. Bob Smith. Wilson and Smith co-founded AA with a word of mouth program to help alcoholics. Smith's last drink on June 10, 1935 is considered by members to be the founding date of AA. By 1937, Wilson and Smith determined that they had helped 40 alcoholics get sober, and two years later, with the about 100 members, Wilson expanded the program by writing a book entitled Alcoholics Anonymous which the organization also adopted as its name. The book, informally referred to by members as "The Big Book," described a twelve-step program involving admission of powerlessness over alcohol, moral inventory, and asking for help from a higher power. In 1941 book sales and membership increased after radio interviews and favorable articles in national magazines, particularly by Jack Alexander in The Saturday Evening Post.
By 1946, as membership grew, confusion and disputes within groups over practices, finances, and publicity led Wilson to write the guidelines for noncoercive group management that eventually became known as the Twelve Traditions>. AA came of age at the 1955 St. Louis convention when Wilson turned over the stewardship of AA to the General Service Conference. In this era AA also began its international expansion, and by 2001 the number of members worldwide was estimated at two million.
In 2006, 1,867,212 members in 106,202 AA groups were reported worldwide. The Twelve Traditions informally guide how AA groups function, and the Twelve Concepts for World Service guide how AA is structured globally.
A member who accepts a service position or an organizing role is a "trusted servant" with terms rotating and limited, typically lasting three months to two years and determined by group vote. Each group is a self-governing entity with AA World Services acting only in an advisory capacity. AA is served entirely by alcoholics, except for seven "nonalcoholic friends of the fellowship" out of twenty-one members of the AA Board of Trustees.
AA groups are self-supporting and not charities, and they have no dues or membership fees. Groups rely on member donations, typically $1 collected per meeting in America, to pay for expenses like room rental, refreshments, and literature. No one is turned away for lack of funds.
Beyond the group level, AA may hire outside professionals for services that either require specialized expertise and/or are full time responsibilities, as of 2007 GSO in New York employees 40 or so such workers.
AA receives proceeds from books and literature which constitute more than 50% of the income for the General Service Office (GSO), which unlike individual groups is not self-supporting and maintains a small salaried staff. It also maintains service centers which coordinate activities like printing literature, responding to public inquiries, and organizing conferences. They are funded by local members and responsible to the AA groups they represent.
Anyone, including non-alcoholics, is allowed to attend "open" AA meetings, while "closed" meetings are reserved to those who attend for their personal drinking problems. There are groups for men or women, groups angled at gay people, and groups for speakers of minority languages. Most AA meetings begin with socializing. Formats vary between meetings, for example, a beginners' meeting might include a talk by a long-time sober member about his or her personal experience of drinking, coming to AA and what was learned there about sobriety. A group discussion on topics related to alcoholism and the AA program might follow.
In a typical meeting, the chairperson starts by calling the meeting to order and offering a short prayer, meditation, and/or period of silence (practice varies by meeting). Then, a section from the book Alcoholics Anonymous may be read aloud, usually the beginning of Chapter Five, entitled "How It Works". Announcements from the chairperson and group members follow. Many groups celebrate newcomers, visitors, and sobriety anniversaries with rounds of applause. Following announcements, donations are collected, usually by passing a basket around the room. There is no requirement to make a donation. Most members contribute a small amount, often just some loose change. The making of large donations is actively discouraged in AA. Depending on the type of meeting, a talk by a speaker relating their personal experience with alcoholism and AA or a discussion session with topics chosen by the chairperson, the speaker, or the attendees follows. The "no crosstalk" suggestions, where responding to another member's comments is discouraged, is a hallmark of AA meetings. In many meetings, in order to encourage identification, members confine their comments to their alcoholic drinking and recovery, following the guidelines of "what we were like, what happened and what we are like now". This format is intended to avoid distracting the group from its primary purpose. After the discussion period, the meeting is typically ended with a prayer, usually the Serenity Prayer or often in the US, the Lord's Prayer Lord's Prayer. These ending prayers are sometimes undertaken by the entire group forming a circle and holding hands. More socializing typically follows the close of the formal meeting, and it is common for members to gather at a nearby coffee shop. Other meeting formats also exist where specific AA related topics are discussed in more detail. A common example is a Step Study meeting where one or more of the 12 steps are discussed at length.