Its founder is Dr. Frank N. D. Buchman, an American Lutheran minister. He was bom in Pennsburg, Pennsylvania, and is now about fifty six years old.
The Soul Surgeon, as some of his followers call him, was educated at Muhlenberg College (where he was later given an honorary Doctorate of Divinity) and at Mount Airy Seminary, Philadelphia.
He started his ministerial career at Overbrook, Pennsylvania, and was afterwards attached to a Lutheran settlement house in Philadelphia, where he was in charge of a hospice for boys and young men.
Afer five years he appears to have become involved in a quarrel with his committee. What ever the rights or the wrongs of the case may have been, there seems to have been considerable bitterness on each side. Dr. Buchman resigned and set out for his first visit to Europe.
Eventually he arrived at Keswick to attend a religious convention, and here he claims to have undergone some supernatural or visionary experience.
While at Keswick, and immediately following his conversion, Dr. Buchman discovered a remarkable capacity for influencing young men.
In the course of a walk one evening he claims to have “changed the life” of a young Cambridge man who was staying in the same house. He was evidently impressed by this success, and attracted by its possibilities. When he returned to America he did not take up another pastorate, but became Y.M.C.A. Secretary at Pennsylvania State College. Here he experimented as a “lifechanger” in real earnest.
In this way the corner-stone of the new revivalist movement was laid, for one of the most important facets of the Movement is the insistence upon a definite conversion that can be pinned down to some specified time, place, and emotional condition, rather than upon the slow building-up of the religious life on a completely unemotional basis.
Dr. Buchman spent six years at the college. During this time he developed the gift for personal influence that he had discovered at Keswick, and claims to have brought about several spectacular conversions.
During 1916 he was travelling in India, Korea and Japan. In 1917 he was back in America with an appointment as extension lecturer at Hartford Theological Seminary. Whether he found this to be an unfruitful field is not known, but he did not remain there long. In the following year he was once more in China and launching his first House Party. Since that time House Parties have been the chief means of expanding the Movement’.
And then Dr. Buchman decided to turn his attention towards England. He arrived at Cambridge, armed with introductions to undergraduates from people he had met abroad, and started what has been described as “a conversational work among the students”.
By this time he had a certain following on three continents. He seems to have regarded his work in Cambridge as successful, for on his return to the United States he applied similar methods in several American universities. He then imported into England some of his converted American students, and reciprocated by taking back certain picked men from this country.
In the summer of 1921, the first English House Party was held at Cambridge. By this time, Buchmanism (a term that did not find favour with the Buchmanites) was established in England and the U.S.A. An effort was made to change the name to “First Century Christian Fellowship”. The term “Oxford Group” was adopted later.
There are many people who contend that the first precept of the Movement, “absolute honesty”, is infringed by this inaccurate title. That the name remains unchanged, in spite of the annoyance caused, certainly seems a breach of the rule of “absolute unselfishness”.
Those who object, and with good cause, are usually members of the University, or people who are interested in the very different Oxford Movement which originated with Dr. Pusey a hundred years ago.
The juxtaposition of “Oxford” and “Movement” has been a happy one from Dr. Buchman’s point of view for, apart from the social and intellectual cachet of the place name, it has undoubtedly brought the reflected glory and the reflected publicity of the true Oxford Movement. The Centenary Celebrations of the Oxford Movement taking place, as they did, three months before the launching of the intensive campaign of the Group in the autumn of 1933, has caused a natural confusion in the mind of the public.
Possibly it is partly because of this similarity that the title has not been altered. Dr. Buchman, as I shall presently show, realises that the uses of publicity are sweet.
Oxford is proud of such men as Newman, Keble, and Pusey, but it repudiates the Buchmanites. In the whole University there are only about two hundred members. In the interests of absolute honesty I shall, in future, refer to the organisation by its truer title of Buchman Group Movement or Buchmanism.
Here is the official explanation of the use of the name “Oxford”, sent to me by Dr. Buchman and signed by the Rev. A. E. C. Thornhill, Fellow and Chaplain of Hertford College; the Rev. C. F. Allen, Fellow and Chaplain of Lincoln College; and Miss C. L. Morrison, Tutor to the Society of Oxford Home Students:
“To millions of people throughout the world the name ‘Oxford Group’ represents a reawakening of vital Christianity. This re-awakening has been brought to them for the most part by Oxford men and women, both dons and undergraduates, who base their lives on their motto ‘Dominus Illuminatio Mea’.
“The name was given first of all to a group of undergraduates who went out from this University to South Africa in 1928, accompanied by a Chaplain to the Oxford Pastorate. It became current usage in public periodicals in England and abroad to the extent that its general adoption became natural and inevitable. From Oxford trained leadership has gone out for thirteen years to establish the movement in over forty countries and in all these countries the name ‘Oxford Group’ has been accepted as the logical title to be used.
“The world does not suppose that the Oxford Group speaks the unanimous opinion of Oxford, any more than the Oxford Movement of a hundred years ago had this unanimous backing. Because there are some to-day who disagree with the principles of this Christian re-awakening it does not therefore follow that the cognomen should be dropped, any more than it was in cumbent on Pusey, Newman and Keble to disavow their Oxford association.
“Oxford men and women in hundreds have found this movement a means of discovering a vital religious faith. They realise the utter confusion contingent upon the changing of a name that has become identified in millions of minds with the Christian message. There are many Group Movements in England alone, of which the Oxford Group is only one. To alter the word ‘Oxford’ would be unnecessary, confusing and seriously detrimental in these days of urgency to the cause of Christ.”
The comments that I would make on this are as follows:
Only about one-twentieth part of the University of Oxford appears to associate itself with the Buchman Group Movement. The proportion outside this comparative stronghold is very much less. To talk, therefore, in terms of “millions” seems to be an exaggeration. On the other hand, to say that “there are some who disagree” is an under-estimate. And those who do disagree do not find fault with any re-awakening of Christianity, but purely and simply with certain Buchman Group principles. Tragically enough the name “Oxford Group” is not identified in the minds of millions with the Christian message. Because of its exaggerations and fanaticisms it is associated with an emotional revival full of laughable absurdities, and bringing in its train, all too often, by no means laughable but very sad results.
As I have already said, Oxford is proud of the Tractarians but the University as a whole violently resents the use of the name “Oxford” in connection with this new movement. Some of the most powerful elements in the Group are Americans, beginning with Dr. Buchman himself and continuing with the Rev. Cleveland Hicks, Mr. K. Twitchell, and Miss Eleanor Forde—all right-hand helpers of Dr. Buchman and in great evidence at Group House Parties. Another prominent member is Mr. Loudon Hamilton, who, however is an Oxford man. Properly speaking any credit or blame—if it is to be associated with a place—should be given to America where the Movement originated.
The world does not indeed suppose that the Group speaks the unanimous opinion of Oxford. It fully realises that it not only represents a minority of opinion but that some of the strongest criticisms and denunciations come from members of the University.
I do not agree that the cause of Christianity is in any way dependent on a name. I do, however, agree that it might be difficult to alter the name at this stage without some confusion. But it would not have been difficult when exception was first taken to it. Its use may be justified for reasons of expediency but not of accuracy.
Dr. Buchman has permitted one of his admirers to liken him to such giants as St. Francis, Martin Luther and John Wesley. In this he sets an example to his followers, for the Movement is remarkable among all other revivals for its complete and utter lack of humility. It believes that it may achieve the reunion of Christendom, although it includes a new doctrine that would never be acceptable by any Church.
Failing this, it considers that it may become “just another gem or facet of Christendom like those affectionately associated with Augustine, Francis, Luther, Wesley, Booth and Moody”. The linking of these names is, in itself, one of the many absurdities of which the Group is guilty. The patronising reference to the work of two of the greatest saints of the Church, two great Christian teachers and the founder of the great and practical Salvation Army, is sufficient proof of the assertion that the Buchman Group suffers from what, to use their own jargon, is popularly known as “swelled head”
The name of Dwight Moody is the only one in this list that might be correctly associated in a comparison. That of Billy Sunday under whom Dr. Buchman once worked might be added.
Buchmanism has been likened to the Salvation Army. There is a similarity with a vital difference. The Salvation Army is chiefly known to the general public through its tambourine-banging at street corners. In this, there is indeed a likeness with the Buchmanites. The Salvation Army has deliberately adopted a method that it considers suitable and successful in attracting comer men and women. The Group uses measures equally undignified as a means of appeal to gilded youth. In place of the tambourines it has a slangy jargon: instead of sanguinary hymns, modern catchphrases: its emotional appeal is subtle and insidious instead of blatant. Above all, and in this it differs from every other form of revivalism, the “penitents’ bench” with its genuine, if hysterical manifestations of sorrow, is superseded by the slap-stick confessional.
But apart from superficial methods, there is no other likeness between the Salvation Army and the Group Movement.
Behind the band at the street comer there is a great, hard-working organisation that fulfils in the widest sense the first part of St. James’s definition of true religion—“to visit the widow and fatherless in their affliction”.
The Salvation Army concerns itself with the upbringing of destitute children, the provision of homes for aged people, the after-care of prisoners, the well-being of emigrants: with unemployment and its trail of tragedies: with healing of body as well as of spirit.
Dr. Buchman has been severely criticised, both here and in America, for his concentration on the souls of the well-fed. It has been said that even in the Colleges the greatest attention is given to “the apple-cheeked boys of wealth and family”. The Movement has been accused of applying the effective principle of “snob appeal” which is used by advertisers who seek for their wares the endorsement of some well-known name. It is believed that the social climbing instinct of the masses will induce them to follow such exalted examples.
The Bishop of Durham, in his famous letter to The Times which was printed on September 19th, 1933, says that following a Charge to his Diocese, published in December, 1932, he had been the recipient of many illuminating letters. He goes on to say that among other things his correspondents “express disgust at the toadying of rich and prominent individuals, at the unscrupulous and even unwarrantable use made of well-known names”.
This charge of social interest is among the least of the criticisms that can be levied, for God knows that the children of the Ritz are, of all men, the most spiritually desolate; and, after all, as the Bishop of Guildford has remarked, “The rich have souls like the rest of us!”
The Bishop of Rochester has said of the Group: “Its sense of social wrong is very weak”. Certainly Dr. Buchman has yet to prove that he inculcates a sense of responsibility towards less materially fortunate people.
At the last meeting of the House Party, held in the Grand Hotel at Eastbourne in December, 1933, a young girl stood up to testify to her surrender to God. She was an exceptional young woman, because she was one of the few people who did not use the opportunity to tell everyone all about herself. She had the courage to beg a well-fed and well-dressed audience to consider the needs of the poor.
“When I see so many fur coats,” she said, “I cannot help thinking of all those who have no warm clothing in this bitter weather. I think we ought to consider whether we have the right to so many comforts when there are others who have so little.”
Up rose Dr. Buchman in his wrath. He seemed to resent the reminder. He appeared to take it as a personal affront. He valiantly defended his own fur coat.
“It was a hand-over,” he said. “Before you criticise, find out the history of these fur coats! There is no difference between the rich and the poor.”
Well, well, well. Remarkably illuminating, but not very inspiring. Not a word of commendation for a courageous appeal. The unfortunate young woman was made to feel a fool. “Don’t think I’m thinking about you,” Dr. Buchman shouted at her. “I’ve forgotten all about you.” And the whole audience roared with laughter. The appeal was side-tracked—not skilfully, but through bluster.
Wealthy ladies, momentarily startled, settled their furs more comfortably about them. Not one in that audience of three hundred or more backed that appeal to their pity-the only attempt to face reality that I have ever heard at a group meeting. Yet those people would have responded immediately if their conscience had not been stifled as quickly as it had been aroused.
The leaders of the Group under estimate the genuineness of the converts. They are careful to avoid anything that might make for a disturbance of conscience and comfort. I have heard “helping” instead of “changing” other people described as a sin.
No one who has not at least some spare money and leisure can take part in the Group’s real activities. House Parties cost participants between eleven and fifteen shillings a day. The Headquarters of the Group in London are at the Metropole Hotel. Those anxious to learn what they have to teach are invited to call there. Would anyone poverty-stricken to the extent of threadbare or shabby clothes be likely to face a West End hotel? Dr. Buchman has evolved a technique of evangelism that is acceptable to Mayfair.
The leaders of the Movement have begun to be sensitive on this point, for in January, 1934, the Group for a brief ten days (I believe the time was shortened from the original idea of three weeks) sent about ninety members to conduct a concentrated mission in the East End Parish of St. Mark’s, Victoria Park.
The Church Times sent a special representative whose report is obviously written with care and a sense of responsibility. His description is extraordinarily reminiscent of many meetings that I have attended. He writes of the large numbers of Groupers providing their own applause, laughter in the right places, and answers to questions which speakers asked. “The leaders supplied commendatory interjections at the end of many of the speeches, such as “That’s fine!” or “Well! I guess that’s splendid!” He remarks on the tension and weariness that a session of meetings induces and calls attention to the fact that “very many sins were confessed amusingly and greeted with laughter.”
The Rev. R. G. Legge, the Vicar of the Parish, in a letter to the Church Times questions the accuracy of this last statement. For myself I can only say that if laughs were not raised by the so called “confessions” of sins then the Group’s methods in the East End were totally different from their methods elsewhere. I have heard Dr. Buchman himself enjoin new converts to make their testimonies with hilarity!
Mr. Legge writes with a sincere appreciation of the Group and is entirely satisfied with the results of the mission—a week or ten days after its close. It will be interesting to hear whether the results survive the natural waning of emotional excitement.
It is probable that there will be more good and less harm following the Group’s activities in the East End than anywhere else.
The sturdy humour of the East Ender will be proof against many absurdities. He will have neither space nor time for introspective Quiet Hours and his native shrewdness will guard him against the dangers of the so-called Guidance. The man or woman who can survive and glean good from the crowded life of the East End can sift the gold from the dross of a Group Mission.
The Movement in its present form was started because “Frank” was not making converts as successfully as he would wish. He set himself to find out “what was wrong with Christianity or with Frank”. It is recorded that he made the discovery, although we are not enlightened as to where he fixed the blame. It is remarkable, however, that certain points in the Buchmanite Movement are definitely un-Christian. Their interpretation of Guidance is one, and their apparent indifference to the poor is another. The insistence on “the joy and the thrill and the fun”—“a primrose path through the trials and difficulties of life”, as a critic has described it,—is yet another teaching at variance with the Christianity of the via dolrosa and the Cross.
Dr. Buchman carefully trains his followers to carry out his technique of revivalism. Several of the rules seem to have been made for the express purpose of side-tracking intelligent enquiry, the displacing of intellectual honesty by subversive emotional appeal and, above all the muffling-down of criticism. Two of his precepts are: “Avoid argument” and “Aim to conduct the interview yourself”.
The Movement sets itself like a blank wall against either criticism or advice. Its members are bristled against it even if it cannot be expressed. The audiences at the Central Hall meetings had no means of expressing politely any criticism; yet at the outset of one meeting young Cuthbert Bardsley, Curate of All Hallows, Barking-by-the-Tower (who, by the way, had discarded the clerical collar in place of the Old Etonian tie) informed the inoffensive crowd, “We don’t care if you don’t like us.” Another speaker patronisingly remarked, “If you don’t come in with us, well it’s just too bad you’ve missed the boat, and the laugh’s on you.”
That worldly, but extremely shrewd weelkly, The New Yorker, has described Buchmanism as “a form of evangelism which combines the advantages of mysticism, mesmerism, spiritualism eroticism, psycho-analysis, and high-power salesmanship.”
High-power salesmanship and a conspicuous appreciation of advertisement are strong characteristics of Dr. Buchman himself.
His carefully prepared technique of evangelism includes many of the proved measures adopted by other revivalists. But he realises that they must be brought up-to-date, and that the stigma attached to the old-fashioned methods must be avoided by the use of different terms for the same thing. Thus, “Conversion” has become “life-changing”; “converts” in turn may become the more positive and sometimes impertinent “life-changers”.
The question, “Are you saved?” is transformed into “Are you changed?” In the same manner, the “testimony” of converts has become the “sharing” of the Buchmanites.
There are a string of catch phrases and slogans. The vocabulary of the Groupers is very limited. Great use is made of topical similes, as, for instance, “Frank’s” explanation of the word “PRAY”
The initial letters of the name Jesus are used to form a reiterated sentence: Just Exactly Suits Us Sinners.
One profound utterance is, “Crows are black the whole world over,” which being interpreted means, “Sin is the same in whatever country it is committed”. This remark is becoming very stale.
“Sin blinds, Sin binds,” is one of the few catch-phrases that has some sense in it.
The actual revivalist methods of the Group Movement take their place midway between those practised in the past by Sankey and Moody, Torry and Alexander, Billy Sunday, Gypsy Smith and Evan Roberts; and those emanating from the Four Square Temple in Los Angeles under the control of Mrs. Aimée Semple Macpherson.