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The Four Absolutes -
Their Source, Application, and Significance
Honesty, Purity, Unselfishness, and Love
by Dick B., Copyright, 2002
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What are these Four Absolutes?
You have to be around A.A. for quite a while before you hear much about the
Exceptions to that statement are those who read our Conference Approved
history DR. BOB and the Good Oldtimers, or Dr. Bob’s last major speech,
or are in the chain of sponsees beginning with Clarence Snyder, or come from the
Akron area, or who have dipped their feet into A.A.’s Oxford Group origins, the
role of Rev. Sam Shoemaker, and the notes made and shared by Dr. Bob’s wife,
We’ll provide a brief statement and documentation of the facts about the
Absolutes. And these are long overdue because there have been many
misunderstandings, misinterpretations, and confusing questions. Just take this
example: Even those who ought to have known better sometimes say that the Four
Absolutes constitute a distillation by Dr. Robert E. Speer of Jesus’s teachings
in the sermon on the mount. But that is not so!
The Four Absolutes actually originated in a book by Dr. Robert E. Speer,
titled The Principles of Jesus. Speer laid down four principles which he
believed represented the uncompromising moral principles taught by Jesus. Speer
cited verses from the Bible for each proposition. And his four principles were
thereafter most commonly called the Four Standards.
I’ve heard several early Oxford Group activists use that term. I’ve seen it
used often in Anne Smith’s journal. And it pops up in some of the Oxford Group
writings I’ve researched. On the other hand, Dr. Bob often said the standards
were yardsticks. But the term absolutes really came from Professor Henry B.
Wright of Yale who popularized the expression absolutes. He cited Speer’s
work. He dug up many verses from the Gospels and the Church Epistles that set
forth these same principles. And Wright’s immense influence on Dr. Frank Buchman,
Founder of the Oxford Group, resulted in the adoption of the phrase Four
Absolutes. Bill Wilson referred to them by that name and even claimed they were
incorporated into his Steps Six and Step Seven.
How were they used?
There’s more misinformation than information about the application of the
absolutes. As I have written so often, there were no Steps either in A.A. or in
the Oxford Group during the four-year period when A.A. was being developed. But
there was lots of literature then being read and circulated on the topic of the
absolutes. I believe the first significant use of those moral standards occurred
about 1919 in China, when Frank Buchman suggested to Sam Shoemaker that sin
might be blocking Sam’s relationship with God. Shoemaker wrote down the four
absolutes–honesty, purity, unselfishness, and love–and then compared as sins
those areas in his life which fell short of the standards. Shoemaker remarked:
My sins arose before me like tombstones; and Sam then made a decision to
surrender his life to God–a decision and event to which he referred every single
year of his life thereafter in his own personal journals.
From at least that early point, Oxford Group people often made lists using
the Four Absolutes as moral standards. They would write down the four standards.
Then they would write down where they had fallen short of these standards. Then
they would confess the shortcomings to another and go about forsaking the
behavior, changing themselves, and making restitution for harms done–all based
on surrendering their lives to God and receiving His guidance from the Bible,
the Standards, prayer, listening to His Voice, and talking to each other.
Early AAs in Akron often incorporated a pledge in the prayers they made when
they surrendered upstairs in the home of T. Henry Williams. In addition to
accepting Jesus Christ as their Lord and Saviour and asking God to take alcohol
out of their lives, they would ask for help in living up to the four
standards–concepts one oldtimer called the cardinal principles of Jesus
Bill Wilson early criticized the Four Absolutes as being too tough for
alcoholics to swallow, just as he later criticized several other Oxford Group
principles and practices. By contrast, Dr. Bob Smith consistently favored
application of the Four Absolutes. So did his wife Anne, and the other leaders
such as Henrietta Seiberling and T. Henry and Clarace Williams. Today, these
absolutes have become all but forgotten except for the pockets I first
They are also misinterpreted because observers haven’t taken the time to
learn their Biblical origins and their intended guidance and application. And I
suggest the following path that will help. First, take the standards as the
yardsticks for A.A.’s Fourth Step inventory (something which was actually done
before there was a Fourth Step concept in 1939). Second, take the standards
as the yardsticks for the continued personal inventory in the Tenth Step
before the was a Tenth Step had been adopted in 1939. Third, consider the
principles of the Twelfth Step before there was a Twelfth Step in 1939. Then
look at the twenty-eight Oxford Group principles that impacted on A.A. and which
Bill virtually codified in his Big Book Steps in 1939. Finally, look through
the Big Book for its emphasis on honesty, unselfishness, and love. You can
forget purity because that was probably the stickler for Wilson though it was
the insistent subject of teaching in Akron and Cleveland A.A. If you take this
study course, you have the application of these four ideas in pioneer A.A.
Let’s have the documentation, and You do the homework.
What and where they are: A good reference point for your start can be
found on pages 237-238 of my title, The Oxford Group and Alcoholics
Anonymous: A Design for Living That Works, 2d. ed. My squib on page
237–based on Oxford Group thinking–begins:
Absolute Honesty, Absolute Purity, Absolute Unselfishness, and Absolute
Love are the essence of Jesus’s teachings about the Will of God, the ideals
for man’s life, and the moral standards by which man’s thoughts and actions
may be tested for harmony with God’s will.
My extensive footnotes show you exactly where you can find these in Frank
Buchman’s speeches, in books about Buchman, in descriptions of Oxford Group
principles, in Sam Shoemaker’s writings, in A.A. conference-approved books, in
Anne Smith’s writings, and in some A.A. groups today. Save yourself some time,
and begin there for extensive, precise documentation.
The principles of Jesus and Dr. Robert E. Speer’s book: The Four
Absolutes or Four Standards, as they were also called, emerged directly from
the research by Dr. Robert E. Speer into the heart of Jesus’s teachings. Speer
set out to prove that Jesus taught some four, specific, absolute moral
standards. Perfection was Jesus’s measuring standard. To get the roots straight,
you need to start with Robert E. Speer, The Principles of Jesus. New
York: Fleming H. Revell, 1902, pp. 33-35. Speer provided the following Biblical
documentation for the absolute standards of Jesus:
Honesty: John 8:44: When he [the devil] speaketh a lie, he speaketh of
his own: for he is a liar and the father of it (Speer, p. 35).
Purity: Matthew 5:29-30: And if thy right eye offend thee, pluck it out,
and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members
should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell. And if
thy right hand offend thee, cut it off, and cast it from thee, for it is
profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy
whole body should be cast into hell (Speer, p. 35).
Unselfishness: Luke 14:33: So likewise, whosoever he be of you that
forsaketh not all that he hath, he cannot be my disciple (Speer, p. 35).
Love: John 13:34: A new commandment I give unto you. That ye love one
another, as I have loved you, that ye also love one another (Speer, p. 35).
Note the following: First, the principles did not come exclusively
from the sermon on the mount (Matthew 5 - 7). Second, they are
demanding, absolute targets and yardsticks as far as the Oxford Group,
Shoemaker, Dr. Bob, and Anne Smith saw them. Third, you can find other Gospel
citations by Dr. Speer to verses that support the foregoing asserted moral
standards. Fourth, the moral inventory idea–from which A.A.’s Fourth Step
came–was definitely intended as a moral (as distinguished from immoral,
sinful, unacceptable) inventory–not merely a list of good and bad
Professor Henry B. Wright’s Role: Wright examined Speer’s standards in
terms of the uncompromising standards that Jesus set. Then Wright looked at
Jesus’s teachings about life lived by the absolute standards. He documented his
Scriptural references by citing verses from both the Gospels and the
Epistles. Verses such as Luke 16:10-11 (honesty); Matthew 5:8 (purity); Luke
9:23-24 (unselfishness); Matthew 25:41-43, 45 (love). See Henry B. Wright,
The Will of God and a Man’s Lifework (New York: The Young Men’s Christian
Association Press, 1909). Then, much as AAs later would individually do in
expanding the checklists in Steps 4 and 10, Wright pointed to many Biblical
proscriptions such as adultery, stealing, killing, lying, fornication,
covetousness, and defrauding found in such verses as Mark 10:19-21; Ephesians
4:25-5:4; Colossians 3:5-14; 1 Thessalonians 4:3-12; James 3:17. These remained
a part of early Oxford Group ideas about unacceptable and immoral behavior.
The Big Book: Whatever has happened to the Four Absolutes in the A.A.
recovery program, and despite criticisms of them by Bill Wilson, the principles
are still in the Big Book for all to see. Honesty can be found emphasized–all
through A.A.’s basic text. Unselfishness and the need for altruism,
thoughtfulness, and consideration for others are paramount ideas. Love and the
ideas of 1 Corinthians 13 are mentioned again and again, with an occasional
Biblical reference as well. And purity? Was it lost? Not in Akron, where Dr. Bob
and his group refused to have anything to do with those who committed adultery
and other sins. Today, the purity concept has slipped between the cracks in
the fellowship and in its groups in favor of widespread fornication,
relationships, filthy language, adultery, and a host of other sins that man
falls prey to. But these activities are not part of the A.A. recovery program as
set forth in its Big Book–whether or not the teachings of Jesus have influenced
The Definitions of Men and Women
You can find lots of descriptions of the four absolutes in Oxford Group and
other literature today. But these are the definitions of men and women, and not
necessarily the commandments found in Scripture. That is why I admire Dr. Bob’s
emphasis on the Bible. When he was asked a question about the program, his
usual reply was: What does the Good Book say? Sometimes, it was: What would
the Master do? And the farther our fellowship moves from the Good Book and the
teachings of the Master, the farther it moves toward compromise moral ideas,
language, behavior, and writings. I believe that is a major reason why Dr. Bob
spoke in his last major address saying he still felt the Four Absolutes (taken,
as he would say, from the Good Book) were still important.
Major reference materials:
Robert E. Speer. The Principles of Jesus. New York: Fleming H. Revell
Henry B. Wright. The Will of God and a Man’s Lifework. NY: The Young
Association Press, 1909
Frank Buchman. Remaking the World. London: Blandford Press, 1961, pp.
36, 40, 96, 131.
Harry Almond, Foundations for Faith, 2d ed. London: Grosvenor Books,
19800, pp. 11-13.
Samuel M. Shoemaker, Jr. The Church Can Save the World. NY: Harper
& Brothers, 1938, pp. 119-20.
DR. BOB and the Good Oldtimers. NY: Alcoholics Anonymous World
Services, Inc., 1980, pp. 54, 163.
Dick B., The Oxford Group and Alcoholics Anonymous, 2d ed. Kihei,
HI: Paradise Research Publications, Inc., 1998, pp. 237-246.
_____. New Light on Alcoholism: God, Sam Shoemaker, and A.A., 2d
ed., Kihei, HI Paradise Research Publications, Inc., 1999, pp. 97-101.
_____. Anne Smith’s Journal: A.A.’s Principles of Success, 3rd
ed, Paradise Research Publications, Inc., 1998, pp. 29-36, 49-53, 74-79,
94-95, 100-01, 104-08, 118, 121-22, 133.
Mel B., New Wine: The Spiritual Roots of the Twelve Step Miracle.
MN: Hazelden Foundation, 1991, pp. 76-138.
The Four Absolutes. Cleveland: Cleveland Central Committee of A.A.., n.d.