A Brief History of the Conference
From the Summer 2016 issue of Box 459
It’s been with us for so long now, providing guidance and stability throughout the Fellowship, that there may be some within the A.A. universe who have forgotten — or never knew — that not everyone thought creation of the General Service Conference was a good idea. It could be said that nothing comes easy in A.A. — not the price many have paid to get here, the sacrifices necessary in keeping our groups together, or the ongoing maintenance of the very services that hold us in unity today. So, it should be no surprise that getting the Conference up and running as “the actual voice and the effective conscience for our whole Society” itself took some doing.
A.A. had grown tremendously in the years since the Alcoholic Foundation had been created in 1938, when there were barely 100 A.A. members. In 1946, when membership had reached about 30,000, Bill had begun formulating a plan for some kind of conference with delegates from A.A. groups around the country.
In the beginning, though, there was little enthusiasm for the project. As almost all the 15 trustees on the board of the Alcoholic Foundation saw it, the Alcoholics Anonymous movement had flourished in the 10 years since the Foundation had been created, and they saw no reason to endorse what looked like a radical change. Bernard Smith, who joined the board as a nonalcoholic trustee in 1946, was alone in supporting the plan. A businessman and a lawyer, Smith’s backing over the next few years was to prove crucial.
One angry faction that opposed the conference called itself the Orthodox Group, and included Henrietta Seiberling among its few members. In a letter she wrote at the time she charged that Bill was motivated by greed and suffering from delusions of grandeur, and that, “we want the people in the Groups to know just what the dangers are.”
One nonalcoholic trustee, Leonard Harrison, resigned over the issue, saying in a February 1948 letter to Bill: “I have felt that a degree of isolation of the Foundation from the main currents of the Alcoholics Anonymous movement has been, and would continue to be, a stabilizing factor in dealing with the necessary ‘housekeeping,’ legal, and financial affairs of the A.A. headquarters. The somewhat intricate relationships envisaged in your plans… will invite more troubles than solutions, I believe.”
Harrison later rejoined the board and was credited by Bill with being a calming influence that helped the Foundation weather the controversy.
Essentially, Bill feared that after he and Dr. Bob passed on, the Alcoholic Foundation would eventually suffer a loss of legitimacy. As Bill saw it, such a development would hurt A.A. in various ways, including diminished financial support from A.A. groups for the New York office.
Writing to an A.A. member in San Diego at the end of 1947, Bill said: “We shall have to do something… about the New York Headquarters. A self-perpetuating Board of Trustees unknown to most A.A. members could never stand up over the long future. So we shall have to have some kind of annual conference in which out-of-towners delegated for the purpose would sit down and talk things over with the Trustees, the office, and the Grapevine, and make a joint annual report to the Groups.”
As Bill noted, however, in a July 1955 article from The Language of the Heart (p. 162), “It was one thing to say that we ought to have a General Service Conference, but it was quite another to devise a plan which would bring it into successful existence. The cost of holding such a Conference was easily dismissed. Even though the outlay might be $20,000 for each yearly session, this would be only fifteen cents apiece extra for each A.A. member, and mighty well worth it. What member wouldn’t give that much to be sure that A.A. didn’t collapse at its center in some future day of great need or crisis?
“But how on earth were we going to cut down destructive politics with all its usual struggles for prestige and vainglory? How many delegates would be required and from where should they come? Arrived at New York, how could they be related to the Board of Trustees? What would be their actual powers and duties? Whatever the plan, it had to be sound enough to work well on the first trial. No blunders big enough to create a fiasco could be allowed.”
And work well it did. Like other not-so-popular-at-first ideas (think Big Book and Twelve Traditions), in the 66 years since its “experimental” appearance on the A.A. landscape, the General Service Conference has proven to be an indispensable thread woven firmly into the fabric of A.A., a worthy successor to the Fellowship’s founders and early members.
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Other articles include: A call for resumes; Openings for various non-trustee Directors and Class A Trustees; Budget Highlights; and the Bulletin Board — Items and Ideas on Area Gatherings for AAs.