For decades, addicts have adhered to Alcoholics Anonymous' 12 steps and the book that lays them out, informally known as the Big Book, as if the words in it had appeared from somewhere on high.
But it turns out that the original manuscript, written in 1939 by AA co-founder Bill Wilson, was heavily edited to make it less religious and more welcoming to people who did not consider themselves Christians. The original is being published next week as "The Book That Started it All."
Sid Farrar, the editorial director of Hazelden Publishing, which is publishing the manuscript, called it "one of the more important documents in the movement."
"This shows the book didn't come down from heaven," he said. "It wasn't written by one person, but it was this remarkable group process."
After being hidden for 70 years, the edits of the Big Book show there was debate, largely unknown until now, about how overtly to reference God and Christianity in the group's tenets.
The final version of the book directs AA followers to embrace a "higher power" and "God of your understanding" instead of "God" or "Jesus Christ" as they follow a path to sobriety. Adopting a more inclusive tone, instead of adhering to a specific religion, was enormously important in making AA accessible to people of all faiths as well as atheists, according to AA historians and treatment experts.
"There was an early recognition that there were going to be people of all religions and no religions they wanted to reach," Farrar said. "They didn't want to turn people off, but at the heart of the 12 steps, this is a spiritual program. They had to figure out, 'How do you convey that?' That was the debate. You can see that very clearly in the editing process."
For example, the editors softened Step 7 of the 12 by deleting a phrase that evoked prayer. They changed "Humbly, on our knees, asked Him to remove our shortcomings," to "Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings."
Because it's not exclusive, the text has since been adopted by many diverse faiths and also by those who struggle with addictions other than alcoholism, from drugs to gambling to sex.
"When I got the first scans of the manuscript, I got chills," Farrar said. "If he hadn't sent this out to be edited, AA could have become a Christian movement or one of the many unsuccessful temperance movements that died on the vine."
The release of the edits is well timed with the cultural discussion about the role of spirituality and religion in addiction treatment, which has spread to pop culture with HBO's new television series, "Boardwalk Empire," about the Prohibition era.
An alternative to AA called Smart Recovery, which was founded in 1994 and has about 600 meetings across the country, doesn't use spirituality or religion in its program. AA is the biggest treatment program by far, with more than 2 million members.
"We have no objection to a higher power, but what we teach is not connected to that," said Tom Horvath, Smart Recovery's president. "That would be like if you're going to medical school to learn how to treat cancer. I don't care if you pray about it, but that's not what I'm going to teach. It's an entirely secular approach."