Alcoholics Anonymous History &
Early A.A. “Four Absolutes”
A Journey with Jesus
Dr. Robert E. Speer and the Four Absolutes
© 2005 by Dick B. All
The Four Absolute Standards of
The so-called “Four Absolutes”—Absolute Honesty, Absolute Purity, Absolute
Unselfishness, and Absolute Love—have long been known and popular in many parts
of the Alcoholics Anonymous Community.
Some have attributed their origin to Professor Henry B. Wright and his title The
Will of God and a Man’s Lifework. The attribution has some merit in that Wright
took the “four standards” of Robert Speer and expanded on them by citing a
number of correlative verses from various different church epistles in the New
Testament. Some attribute the Four Absolutes to Dr. Frank N. D. Buchman, founder
of the Oxford Group; and certainly Buchman mentioned them and wrote about them
with great frequency. You can find them in Buchman’s speeches that are recorded
in his book Remaking the World. In the Oxford Group itself, they were sometimes
known as the “Four Absolutes” and sometimes as the “Four Standards.” Reverend
Samuel M. Shoemaker, Jr., whom Bill Wilson dubbed a co-founder of A.A., also
wrote about the absolutes in his very first title, Realizing Religion. Though he
had an outspoken distaste for them, Bill Wilson often spoke about their
commonality in the early A.A. Oxford Group circles in New York.. Dr. Bob Smith,
on the other hand, pointed out that early A.A. had no other moral principles,
that these four were its “yardsticks” for behavior, and that—to the end of his
life—he felt they were of great importance. His remarks are contained in A.A.’s
Co-founders pamphlet. Dr. Bob’s wife Anne expressed an even stronger enthusiasm
for them as she wrote about them frequently in her 64 page journal that she
shared with early AAs and their families. (See Anne Smith’s Journal, 1933-1939).
Old-timer Clarence Snyder spoke about them often. (See That Amazing Grace: The
Role of Clarence and Grace S. in Alcoholics Anonymous). The Four Absolutes
appeared on the masthead of Cleveland A.A.’s Central Bulletin for a number of
years. An interpretation of them is still widely circulated out of the Cleveland
and Akron A.A. offices. And even out here in Hawaii, Clancy U.—who was sponsored
by both Dr. Bob and Clarence—was well-known for concluding his talks by saying,
“And don’t forget those Four Absolutes!” In fact, he and his wife traveled all
over the United States, and he never stopped mentioning “those Four Absolutes.”
Their Source: The Principles of Jesus by Dr. Robert E. Speer
I personally saw but one of Robert E. Speer’s titles among the books in Dr.
Bob’s Library. That was Studies of the Man Christ Jesus (NY: Fleming H. Revell,
1896). It was owned a circulated by Dr. Bob and recommended by Anne Smith in her
journal. On the other hand, both Bob and Anne were quite conversant with
writings by Sam Shoemaker; and Shoemaker mentioned several times that he felt,
“One of the simplest and best rules for self-examination that I know is to use
the Four Standards which Dr. Robert E. Speer said represented the summary of the
Sermon on the Mount—Absolute Honesty, Absolute Purity, Absolute Unselfishness,
and Absolute Love” (Samuel M. Shoemaker, Jr., How to Become a Christian. NY:
Harper & Row, Publishers, 1953, p. 57). I cannot say for sure that either Dr.
Bob or Anne actually read Speer’s book that spelled out the four absolute
standards; but they certainly seemed to understand where they came from.
What Dr. Speer Had to Say about Purpose and Principles
My copy of the well-known Speer title is The Principles of Jesus: Applied To
Some Questions of To-day, by Robert E. Speer. NY: Fleming H. Revell Company,
1902. Speer’s writing is clear and easy to understand, always documented with
Scriptural references. It deserves actual quotation, and that is what I shall
“Men are no longer content with the conventional judgments about conduct that
satisfied them a few years ago. It is a striking sight to see them turning
instinctively to Jesus for light on their difficulties or to claim His authority
in support of their solutions of the problems of life (p. 9).
“Jesus Christ is the revelation of right in life. Whatever he approves is right.
Whatever he condemns is wrong. But what would He approve if He were here to-day,
and what would He condemn? It is possible to err in either of two ways in
answering this question. (1) Some attempt to apply with rigid literalness the
exact sayings of Christ to present conditions. “Sell all that you have.” “Lay
not up treasure on the earth.”. . . But this view is impossible. None of its
advocates sells all that he has. . . . It is un-Christlike. . . . He came to
displace legalism by the spirit of a true life, to supplant prescription by
principle. . . . “The Spirit will come,” He said. “He will guide you.” (2) On
the other side men err in so refining away the teaching of Jesus in ethical
sublimates that nothing sold and stable is left. Jesus established no
organization, they say. He laid no hard constraints upon men. He broke up the
enslavements of the past whether of opinion or ritual. . . . But Jesus was not
just this. He came to give men power to live a new and eternal life, it is true.
But the new life was to be eternal life lived in time before entering upon
eternity. And He revealed in Himself the objective standards and principles of
the eternal life thus abiding in time (pp. 10-11).
“Following in Jesus’ steps accordingly is not wearing the sort of clothes which
He wore. Neither is it merely the possession of sweet feeling towards all men
irrespective of the moral life. It is the application of conduct to-day under
its changed conditions of the principles which found expression in the life and
teaching of Jesus nineteen hundred years ago, but which, because they are
principles, are not local, transient, and personal, but universal and abiding
“The purpose of these studies will be to seek in the life of Christ for some of
those principles which should guide our lives. These principles found one
application in His life. He lived in His own age and country, and He fitted
Himself to His time and the people among whom He moved. We live in another age,
and the methods and problems of our life are different; but the same principles
which guided Him are to guide us (pp. 11-12).
“That study is most directly helpful which leads us to look straight at Him whom
Luther called “the Proper Man,” who was the revelation of the Father’s will for
every man. What Jesus was, the Father would have each of us be. What Jesus did,
the Father would have each of us do” (p. 12).
Speer’s writing makes me think a good deal about the United Christian Endeavor
Society, in which Dr. Bob participated so actively as a youngster. That Society
asked so many times, “What would Jesus do?” And a good deal of its inspiration
came from the famous book by United Christian Endeavor writer and leader
(Charles M. Sheldon. In His Steps. Nashville, Broadman Press, 1935). This book
was owned and circulated by Dr. Bob!
In Chaper III, after writing about “Jesus and the Father” (Chapter I) and “Jesus
and Prayer” (Chapter II), Speer wrote about “Jesus and the Will of God.” He
“The ruling principle in the life of Jesus, both in its prayer and in its
service, was the will of God. He conditioned His prayers upon the Father’s will
(Luke 22:42), and He declared that He never did anything but the will of His
Father (John 5:30). He found the truest relationships in life, not in the mere
ties of flesh and blood, but in common devotion to God’s will (Mark 3:35). In
doing that will was His meat and drink, so that He could even forego other
nourishment while some noble ministry sustained Him (John 4:34). He taught His
disciples to love it. They were to pray not so much for a million details, as
simply that the will of God might be done on earth as in heaven (Matt. 6:10).
Those were to enter into His kingdom who did the will of His Father (Matt. 7:21)
“Whoever wills to do God’s will, he shall be able to understand Jesus’ teaching,
to “behold” Him as the open way to the Father, and the peace and strength of His
noble will (John 7:17). This was the preaching and practice of Jesus about the
will of God. 1. It delivered Him from all fear. Nothing can intimidate God’s
will of the man who is set in it. “Fear not,” said Jesus (Luke 12:7, 32). 2. It
brought Him perfect steadiness of life and composure of heart. There is no
fitfulness or vacillation in God’s will. . . . 3. It gave Him the power of God.
God does His will through the man who does God’s will . . . . As Jesus did the
will of God, we are to do it. 1. And it is to be with us, not only submission to
power above our own, but also partnership in power greater than our own. . . .
2. It will be with us a deliverance from sin. . . . 3. It will glorify life into
personal partnership with the living God. . . . 4. It will open to us the secret
of accomplishing prayer (1 John 5:24). 5. And make us sharers in the abiding
eternity of God (1 John 2:17)” [pp. 22-24].
At this point, many who have studied my books and research will begin to see
just how much this approach by Speer impacted on the teachings of Rev. Sam
Shoemaker, the life of Dr. Bob, and the writings of Anne Smith. And we need not
go further into the many succinct chapters in Speer’s book, but we do recommend
their reading by those who want to see more. Here, however, our objective is
simply to lay the foundation for Speer’s approach to the Four Absolutes which
have meant so much to so many founders and other AAs.
Speer’s Chapter on Jesus and Standards
Would that we could quote every word in Speer’s Chapter VI. Those words would
put some solid truth about A.A.’s real history before every reader. Those words
might also put an end to so much of the speculative and opinionated jabber among
AAs and the recovery community about the “principles” of the Big Book, the
Steps, and the Traditions. Thus AAs are often in a dither as to the real meaning
of “practice these principles,” “the Twelve Principles of the Steps,” the
expression “principles before personalities,” and the welcomed declaration that
“we are not saints.” By contrast, let’s put the magnifying glass on what Speer
actually wrote about the “principles”—the principles of the Bible—on which A.A.
“1. Jesus did not attempt to issue a code of laws to guide human conduct. He put
men in possession of great moral principles which they would have to apply
themselves. . . . 2. It might seem from Jesus’ teaching that He was not doing
this, but rather dealing with points of application of principle to practice, He
was so practical and illustrative (Matt. 5:39-42), But he taught in this way in
order to make people understand, and the illustrations He used were themselves
such as to make some principle perfectly clear. They set up standards. . . . 3.
And those standards were absolute, the more boldly absolute because Jesus
intentionally framed His teaching in direct opposition to the casuistical method
of the scribes. . . . He cut off escapes and pretexts, and taught that standards
were standards (pp. 33-34).
“4. Men say: “I think this course is right. My conscience does not reprove me.
Therefore it is right for me.” Nonsense. Jesus told His disciples that some day
men would kill them conscientiously and for God’s sake (John 16:2). He pointed
out that there is such a thing as moral color-blindness (Matt. 6:23) [p. 34].
“5. Jesus was, then, the teacher of absolute principles. He made no comparisons,
no abatements for human lust or weakness. Perfection was His standard (Matt.
5:48). He had attained it (John 8:29). He demanded it. We are to be His
disciples in this. Right is to be right. Thinking it right or thinking it wrong
does not make a thing right or wrong. It is right or wrong irrespective of our
thought about it. To know whether it is right or wrong, drag it into Jesus’
presence, and see how He looks at it and how it looks before Him. . . .” (pp.
And Now for the 4 Standards!
[Truth – the standard of Absolute Honesty]
“6. Jesus set up an absolute standard of truth. Find all His allusions to lies.
If Satan is the father of lies, how can any lie be justifiable? Jesus did not
make truthfulness depend upon its profitableness or its loss. Men must be true
and speak the truth regardless of consequences (p. 35).”
[Unselfishness – the standard of Absolute Unselfishness]
“7. Jesus set up an absolute standard of unselfishness. This was His own spirit.
. . . The kingdom with its service of God and man was to be above home, friends,
comfort, life (Matt. 19:29).” [p. 35]
[Purity – the standard of Absolute Purity]
“8. Jesus set up an absolute standard of purity. He tolerated no uncleanness
whatsoever. The inner chambers of imagery and desire must be pure (Mark 7:15). A
hand or an eye, outer or inner sin, must be sacrificed to the claims of the
kingdom of heaven (Matt. 5:29, 30).” [p. 35]
[Love – the standard of Absolute Love]
“Jesus set up an absolute standard of love (John 23:34). Neither dirt (Luke
16:20), nor poverty (Luke 14:13), nor social inferiority (Luke 7:39) were
annulments of the law of love. He Himself loved to the limit (John 13:1), and
with no abatements. The law of love makes it impossible to say: “I don’t like
those people. I can’t love them.” (pp. 35-36).
Jesus Himself Was the Standard, Said Speer
“Jesus Himself was the standard He set up. He was unchangeable. He had been
before Abraham (John 8:58). He would be forever (Heb. 13:8). The absolute
Teacher was the absolute lesson. It is a great thing in this day of wavering, of
quibbling by moral evasions and straddles, to have a faith and a faithful Master
who cannot be moved” (p. 36).
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