The Twelve Traditions of Alcoholics Anonymous (and Similar Fellowships)

Whereas the Twelve Steps deal with an individual’s suggested programme of recovery, the Twelve Traditions deal with the functioning and welfare of groups. Both are equally important. Together, they provide the basic message of each Fellowship and the reasons for the movement’s success. Although they are posed in the form of suggestions, there is really no room for compromise.

Origin of the 12 Traditions

The Twelve Traditions represent one of the twin pillars of Alcoholics Anonymous (the other pillar is of course the Twelve Steps, which precede them by roughly ten years). Bill Wilson first introduced the Traditions in 1946 in articles for the Grapevine Magazine entitled “Twelve Points to Assure Our Future”. In 1949 the Traditions were officially adopted at the First International AA Convention, in Cleveland, Ohio. They were subsequently revised, to become the 12 Traditions as they are now seen displayed at AA meetings worldwide. Almost all the derivative 12 Step Fellowships that followed, such as Narcotics Anonymous and Gamblers Anonymous, have adopted suitably worded versions.

Guidance Rather Than Compulsion 

“When we come into AA we find greater personal freedom than any other society knows. We cannot be compelled to do anything. In that sense, our society is a benign anarchy.” 

(Bill W, AA Comes of Age, 1957). These are fine words but in reality, AA is a bit more organised than Bill W might expect you to think. Even benign anarchy needs guidance of some kind. The Twelve Traditions provide this.

Not Rules But Suggestions

All great world-changing movements tend to start with one or two people conceiving an idea that others later latch onto and exploit for different purposes  – potentially detrimental to the original concept. Christianity and Communism are just two examples. The enduring power of AA is partly due to the foresight of Bill W in planning to prevent this exploitation from happening. Sooner or later in every organisation, there comes a need to put some sort of structure in place. Although the Twelve Traditions are not rules but suggested guidelines to help AA Groups function, they have great power and authority. Or to put it another way – anarchy only works when there is personal responsibility and a few pointers.

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The Purpose of the Twelve Traditions

Bill W, who first formulated these, was only too well aware of how the power of addiction and a person’s ego could combine to cause mayhem, with disastrous effects. He saw that the group ego needed some sort of restraint too. He realised that spirituality was the most effective way of providing this. He wrote that “Happily for us, we found that we need no human authority whatsoever.

We have two authorities that are far more effective. One is benign, the other is malign. There is God, our Father, who very simply says: I am waiting for you to do my will. The other authority is named John Barleycorn, and he says: “You had better do God’s will or I will kill you.”


Bill W accordingly brought spirituality into the Twelve Traditions. Amid all the practical advice and definitions lies Tradition Two, which reinforces the idea of a Higher Power – that ‘X factor’ component, that had earlier made the Twelve Steps so unique and so effective: “For our group purpose there is but one ultimate authority — a loving God as He may express Himself in our group conscience. Our leaders are but trusted servants; they do not govern”. 

The Wisdom of Bill W

His great genius lay in his ability to lead by inspiration rather than the rulebook. By appealing to members’ better nature, he kindled their sense of gratitude, love, and responsibility ensuring that they thus had nothing to react or rebel against, except their own selves. “The AA Traditions are neither rules, regulations, nor laws. We obey them willingly because we ought to and we want to. Perhaps the secret of their power lies in the fact that these life-giving communications spring out of the living experience and are rooted in love.” (As Bill Sees It, p 319).

Versions of the Twelve Traditions

The most commonly used format is the ‘Short Form’ which is often displayed or read aloud at meetings (see the end of this article), but there is also a ‘Longer Form’ as found in the Book Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions’ written by Bill W and originally published by Alcoholics Anonymous World Services Inc in 1952. This longer form defines in more detail such terms as professionalism, anonymity, property, and service, leaving little room for dispute or misinterpretation.

There is also a much shorter version which is essentially the message of the Twelve Traditions, that is read out at the start of every AA meeting – known as the preamble, described in official AA wording as ‘A short definition of A.A’s main purpose. Written by Grapevine editors in 1947’.  Here it is:

‘Alcoholics Anonymous is a fellowship of people who share their experience, strength, and hope with each other that they may solve their common problem and help others to recover from alcoholism. The only requirement for membership is a desire to stop drinking. There are no dues or fees for A.A. membership; we are self-supporting through our own contributions. A.A. is not allied with any sect, denomination, politics, organization, or institution; does not wish to engage in any controversy, neither endorses nor opposes any causes. Our primary purpose is to stay sober and help other alcoholics to achieve sobriety. ‘

About Handling Relationships

Everything formulated by the founders of the AA movement is based on real-life experiences, which is why it still resonates with addicted people today. Bill W and his colleagues knew how difficult it is to manage personal relationships, especially in early recovery, and just about everything in the texts that they produced has a bearing on how members should relate to one another. This is especially true of the Traditions. In the book AA Comes of Age, Bill W. wrote: “Our Traditions are a guide to better ways of working and living, and they are also an antidote for our various maladies.

The Twelve Traditions are to group survival and harmony AA’s Twelve Steps are to each member’s sobriety and peace of mind. But the Twelve Traditions also point straight at many of our individual defects. By implication, they ask each of us to lay aside pride and resentment. They ask for personal as well as group sacrifice. The Traditions guarantee the equality of all members . . . They show how we may best relate ourselves to each other and to the world outside.”

The Guiding Principles of the Twelve Traditions

Although there are twelve items listed, the principles behind the wording fall into the following fewer, categories:

  • The common good of groups depends on unity and personal responsibility (1, 9)
  • The primary purpose (to stay sober and carry the message) is the only purpose (5)
  • The ultimate authority comes from God (2)
  • Membership is free to anyone desiring to stop drinking, but groups are self-supporting, declining outside funding (3, 7)
  • Groups are autonomous but should cooperate for the greater good (4, 9)
  • Attraction rather than promotion – no business, political activity, or campaigning (5, 6, 8, 10, 11)
  • Anonymity is necessary to ensure principles always come before personalities (12).

The Danger of Financial Gain

Bill W’s history as a Wall Street financier enabled him to see how people grasp new ideas in order to profit from them for selfish purposes and he was determined not to let that happen with AA. In the early days of the movement, he had approached the banker John D Rockefeller for funding and been turned down in a friendly manner – the shrewd businessman could see that AA needed to be self-sufficient because the money would ruin them. It was crucial that financial or any other kind of personal gain should not be allowed to happen.

The Reason for Anonymity

The well-known requirement for anonymity amongst members and in dealings with the public was first thought by many to be a means of protecting members, especially new ones, from the stigma of alcoholism. That might indeed be a part of the reason. However, by far the more important reason for this anonymity was to protect members from themselves. Anonymity was a means of curbing their egos. As Bill W wrote in Tradition Twelve: “Anonymity is the spiritual foundation of all our traditions, ever reminding us to place principles before personalities.

The AA Texts Should Be Considered Together

The three fundamental texts of AA – The Twelve Steps, The Twelve Traditions, and the later (1962) Twelve Concepts (which deal with governance principles of the AA World Services) represent the Three Legacies of AA – Recovery, Unity, and Service. Their message is simple: anyone dedicating themselves to AA’s primary purpose – to stay sober and help other alcoholics to achieve sobriety – should take note of these three sets of principles and practice them in all their affairs.

It is not a ‘pick and mixes’ situation but a comprehensive programme of recovery that is not open to compromise. At Castle Craig Hospital we provide a Twelve Step programme that follows the principles stated in the Steps, Traditions, and Concepts described in this article. 

The Twelve Traditions 

  1. Our common welfare should come first; personal recovery depends upon A.A. unity.
  2. For our group purpose, there is but one ultimate authority — a loving God as He may express Himself in our group conscience. Our leaders are but trusted servants; they do not govern.
  3. The only requirement for A.A. membership is a desire to stop drinking.
  4. Each group should be autonomous except in matters affecting other groups or A.A. as a whole.
  5. Each group has but one primary purpose — to carry its message to the alcoholic who still suffers.
  6. An A.A. group ought never to endorse, finance, or lend the A.A. name to any related facility or outside enterprise, lest problems of money, property, and prestige divert us from our primary purpose.
  7. Every A.A. group ought to be fully self-supporting, declining outside contributions.
  8. Alcoholics Anonymous should remain forever non-professional, but our service centres may employ special workers.
  9. A.A., as such, ought never to be organized; but we may create service boards or committees directly responsible to those they serve.
  10. Alcoholics Anonymous has no opinion on outside issues; hence the A.A. name ought never to be drawn into public controversy.
  11. Our public relations policy is based on attraction rather than promotion; we need always maintain personal anonymity at the level of press, radio, and films.
  12. Anonymity is the spiritual foundation of all our traditions, ever reminding us to place principles before personalities.

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