by Carla H.

The following is just my opinion. I don’t speak for Alcoholics Anonymous. But as a member, I was interested to discover recently that some of the first people who tried to help alcoholics (versus condemning us as moral degenerates to asylums or prisons forever) were English organizations in the mid-17th century. No wonder, then, that A.A. began with American members of the Oxford Group, a British Protestant group founded at Oxford University in the early twentieth century. I learned this from a new book Milk of Paradise: A History of Opium which also reveals more about alcoholism, its early classification as a disease and those who sought to help alcoholics recover. 

One of the first to write about recovery from alcoholism was a Quaker (1784)

Before we talk about opium, let’s talk about gin: introduced to London from Holland in the mid-1600s. Prior to this time, Londoners generally drank only beer and ale. Gin was much stronger, distillable from bad grain (unsuitable for other consumption), cheap, and therefore more available to the poor and working classes, to alleviate, in part, their miserable working lives at the bottom of the class system. The gin craze spread, and with it violent crime, prostitution and malnutrition rose. The governing classes didn’t know what to do with the now-hungover, sick, half-dead laborers and their destitute families.

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In 1689, the Society for the Promotion of Christian Knowledge (SPCK) was founded in London, whose members handed out pamphlets and engaged with the unfortunates, trying to help alcoholics and their families in a positive manner for the first time. SPCK is still in existence today. In sermons and poems, from the mid-17th century on, there were attempts to verbalize and understand what alcoholism and addiction were, beginning in Protestant England and quickly coming to the colonies in America.

I wonder that any human being could escape alcoholism, since humanity has been drinking distilled spirits for thousands of years

Here, the first person to write about alcoholism was a Pennsylvania Quaker clergyman, Anthony Benezet (1713-1785) who wrote The Mighty Destroyer Displayed, an account of the “dreadful use and misuse” of distilled spirits which you can read today online. In fact, Alcoholics Anonymous retains a Quaker element in the way we share from the floor during a meeting.

Benezet’s student and Founding Father Benjamin Rush wrote the landmark work of 1784 that treated alcoholism as a disease, Inquiry Into the Effects of Ardent Spirits on the Human Mind and Body. Rush campaigned against distilled spirits and went on to devise a “Plan for an Asylum for Drunkards to be called a Sober House” in 1810. He was the first to suggest special care for alcoholics.

Milk of Paradise was written by Lucy Inglis and published just this year. I scooped it up and read it in a fever of fascinated engagement, especially because the author’s investigation goes beyond opium and includes the “ardent spirits” that I know well. 

If you’ve read this far, here’s a little more about the milk of paradise. Opium does two things for humans—it reduces fear and pain. So it functioned as a medicine as well as a psych drug in order to get soldiers/warriors/fighters to be willing to go back into battle. And there’s evidence this began in Neolithic days, the beginnings of settled human existence 12,000-10,000 years ago.

All the more reason I thank my Higher Power for my sobriety today

In Italy, near Rome, Neolithic lake dwellers came by canoe with opium poppy seeds. They lived there briefly, from 5700-5230 BC. At about the same time, in the Fertile Crescent of the Middle East, Assyrians were brewing barley beer, so intoxicants were in use in the Bronze Age. What’s more, there’s a recipe for dosing crying infants with opium in an Egyptian papyrus from 1552 B.C.E. I wonder that any human being could have escaped alcoholism or addiction, given that humanity has been using opium and drinking fermented or distilled spirits for thousands of years. And all the more reason I thank my Higher Power for my sobriety today.

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