“When the Churches fail—God sends a man,” writes one of these, and we gather that in this case the man is Dr. Frank Buchman who is given a place beside St. Francis (who loved the poor!), Martin Luther and John Wesley. The late Harold Begbie, who will be remembered as the trenchant “Gentleman with a Duster”, found it unnecessary to polish “Frank”—as he likes to be called. He describes him as of “scrupulous, shampooed and almost medical cleanness or freshness, which is so characteristic of the hygienic American.” He goes on to say that “if Mr. Pickwick had given birth to a son (I feel that this would have been a flagrant infringement of women’s rights) and that son had emigrated in boyhood to America, he would have been not unlike this amiable and friendly surgeon of souls.”
Mr. A. J. Russell, the historian and chief publicist of the Movement, elaborates the description. Frank has an eternally happy face. He beams through and around his spectacles. In the morning he is “astir with the birds”. “Merriment bursts through the shaving soap.” He “crows with joy”. He also “crackles”—whatever that may mean. Mr. Begbie adds that “he brings a breeze into the breakfast-room”.
Mr. Russell says that “whatever he does he feels is right”, for he believes that he has a daily audience of God in which he receives direct guidance in every smallest detail of life, although when it comes to a second helping at a meal he permits himself to be guided by his own desire.
A disciple once asked him why he had never married and reports that the Master replied with a beam, “Because I have never been guided to marry.”
So there he is—beaming, smiling, crowing, crackling, gay, merry, eternally happy, excessively medicated and fumigated.
The New Yorker believes that “it would have been better to have him morbid and dour than III antiseptic and uproarious,” and goes on to say that “the picture of the radiantly, soapy and laughing Buchman is, of course, elaborated in order to offset the suspicion that there is something unhealthy and lugubrious about the Movement!”
In my opinion, Frank’s followers have served him badly. I should not find myself admiring a crowing, crackling gentleman, all beams and blessings. But I do find myself with a great respect for Dr. Buchman, who is one of the cleverest men it has ever been my good fortune to meet. He appears to “beam” less than anyone else, in spite of the efforts of his admirers to make him out as a ray of sunshine. From time to time he smiles with approval when some young disciple seems to be an especial success with an audience. He has a highly-developed and subtle sense of humour, and consequently can see a joke against himself.
He has an extraordinary—an uncanny—capacity for knowing immediately just how to treat individual people. His judgment is unerring in this direction. He has a genial manner, is an expert listener and, like Lord Beaverbrook, he has that priceless gift of making the man or woman to whom he happens to be talking believe that he or she is quite the most interesting person in the world. He reminds me of Lord Beaverbrook in more ways than one: in addition to the unerring touch with the individual, there is the same fear of hostility en masse. Lord Beaverbrook seems to have conquered this fear to a large extent, but Dr. Buchman is still its victim. Both men have an unusual and arresting manner in public speaking. One would imagine, however, that Lord Beaverbrook was the revivalist and Dr. Buchman the newspaper proprietor. He is aloof, casual, quiet and completely fascinating. He has an almost hypnotic power of holding attention. The eyes of an audience are riveted on him. Another likeness to Lord Beaverbrook is his dislike of direct responsibility. Both men prefer to work through others.
But Buchman has Beaverbrook beaten when it comes to understanding the English. Lord Beaverbrook cannot believe that we are the stupidest race in the world. Dr. Buchman not only believes it but acts on it. He treats his followers like school-children. And they love it. Occasionally he says, “Now! Have you got that clear? Let’s have it settled once and for all. Do you understand that? Let’s have it now, if you don’t.” A House-Party audience is almost entirely composed of adherents to the Movement or those partially convinced. Buchman obviously does not expect anything but an assent to his demands, for if anyone asks so much as a question, he becomes flurried immediately. He shouts, blusters, ties himself into knots and is usually extricated by his followers. He is always evasive. A definite criticism voiced at a meeting spoils the meeting for him. His strength lies in his ability to attune himself to individual types and temperaments and in his great sense of humour. His weakness lies in his complete inability to parry criticism and his fear of an unsympathetic audience. He overcomes this weakness to a large extent by realising it. He does not speak at a House Party until the members have been thoroughly warmed up. After about ten meetings spread over three days and a constant atmosphere of assent, the outsiders are usually mass-hypnotised into at least a highly-sympathetic attitude. It is then that Dr. Buchman appears on the platform.
After I had spent two week-ends at a House Party, and at the end of that time was still asking questions, I found myself receiving scant attention from the earnest young women who hitherto had been all smiles and patient reasonableness. As far as possible they left me severely alone. On the last evening Dr. Buchman and I had a long and highly entertaining interview. He was kind enough to tell me he thoroughly enjoyed it. I know I did. We laughed and we laughed and we laughed.
That evening I put briefly to Dr. Buchman almost every criticism in this book. He suggested that I should do much better financially if I wrote in favour of the Movement. I have no doubt of that. When I brought to his notice the discrepancy between Bob’s story as it appears in For Sinners Only and as the young man himself recounted it at the Central Hall, he remarked, “That’s a good point.” I asked him to justify “Guidance” as he teaches it. He asked me if I had read the Book of Ezekiel lately. I replied that I had not. But I have since done so: I fail to see the slightest connection between the vision of Ezekiel, prophet and priest, a man set apart by God and chosen by Him, not when Ezekiel desired it but when God willed—to be the recipient of direct Divine Guidance, and the little circular clumps of converts, heads together, notebooks in hand, seated in the lounge of a fashionable hotel. Their heads are bent; eyes screwed up. Then in a moment or two they start scribbling in the little books. They read out the result in turn. They laugh and chatter and seem to enjoy themselves hugely. They appear to be playing “consequences”, they believe they are having an audience of God. No, Dr. Buchman, there does not appear to be any connection between this and the burning vision of Ezekiel “among the captives by the river Chebar” when the heavens opened and he saw “visions of God”.
I first heard Dr. Buchman speak at the Central Hall. The packed audience was growing restive and a fraction bored with the “uninteresting confessions of uninteresting people”, as I once heard it put. In the momentary lull between each confession people were filtering to freedom. Suddenly Frank sprang to his feet.
“Not a person move!” he shouted. “Not a move, please, until we are through with the final act.”
There was an embarrassed but obedient pause on the trek towards the door.
“Shall we have a Quiet Time—a short silence when perhaps God will speak to us?”
Down went everyone’s head. Up went Frank’s voice. “Be still and know that I am God,” said Dr. Buchman, and added it seemed rather as an afterthought, “saith the Psalmist.” He continued to break the silence with a recitation. It is difficult to know whether this was in order to drown the still small voice of conscience or the louder tones of criticism, or whether it was intended to impose upon the audience Dr. Buchman’s own personality.
Frank’s utterances sometimes seem to have been designed not so much for babes as for the half-witted.
When he rose to address a crowded meeting one Sunday evening in the Summer of 1933, he solemnly announced that he had a message of great importance to deliver. Everyone hung upon the master’s words. “It’s the banana that leaves the bunch that gets skinned,” he announced with due impressiveness. These precious words were apparently dropped into a silence pregnant with anticipation. They were repeated a second time. Dr. Buchman claims that he speaks under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Does a remark of that kind suggest the inspiration of Infinite Wisdom?
When Harold Begbie wrote his book about the Group Movement some years ago he thinly disguised Dr. Buchman under his initials. He had stipulated that his name was not to appear for “he regarded publicity as a grave danger and considered privacy essential to his methods”. But in 1928 he had changed this point of view very considerably and permitted great personal laudation in an article that appeared in the Atlantic Monthly, Three years later he was mailing all over the world about ten thousand copies of an article written by a well-known publicist, Mr. A. J. Russell. A year afterwards the history of the Movement appeared by the same writer. It is said that Mr. Russell first came in contact with the Movement in order to make a good thing out of it from the journalist’s point of view, but he became “changed”. However, he still made a good thing out of it for Dr. Buchman told me that he must have earned about £7,000 in royalties.
Mr. Russell was on the staff of the Sunday Express when he first met Dr. Buchman. At one time he had been Publicity Agent to Madame Tetrazzini and had also served as Literary Editor on the Daily Express. While with the Daily Express he had been responsible for the collection of a brilliant series of articles by ten well-known novelists on “My Religion”. He was sympathetically inclined towards the Group Movement and suggested some similar articles on the subject. Dr. Buchman listened with interest. Then Mr. Russell went on to suggest that, as in the case of the “My Religion” series, readers should be invited to air their views for and against the Movement.
“Oh dear, no!” said Dr. Buchman. He reinforced his own opinion—quite a sound opinion on the advantages of newspaper discussions—with the startling declaration that the Holy Spirit’s guidance was against the scheme.
A few months later, however, after Mr. Russell had been “changed” and had been in close touch with Dr. Buchman and his friends, he was permitted to write, and as I have said, thousands of copies of his article were joyously dispatched to all parts of the world.
A Group Supplement to the British Weekly was published in connection with the International House Party at Oxford in July, 1933. It contains a composite picture of some of the headlines of the Canadian and United States secular press during the Group’s tour of the American Continent. On the first page there appears one of the most tremendous personal “boosts” that any one man could desire or dislike—according to his temperament and occupation. It is printed in large and heavy letters and starts: “One man, twenty-five years ago, saw life-changing on a colossal scale as the answer to the world’s problems.” That man is Frank Buchman who, seven years ago, considered that publicity was dangerous and privacy essential to his work. “Who’s afraid of the Big Black Type?” Not Dr. Buchman!
One gathers from a study of his changed attitude that criticism is still regarded as dangerous but that advertising is quite another matter. In fact this new adventure would seen to be all “ad” and very little “venture”.
Sir Evan Spicer, a member of the Group, writing in The Times in September, 1933, complains of the criticism of the Bishop of Durham and others, and remarks, “If anything is wrong let them come in and help us and put us right.” I can assure Sir Evan Spicer from my own experience that even if one goes direct to members of the Group, and indeed to Dr. Buchman himself, and voices some of the doubts felt by outsiders, one generally receives a courteous hearing combined with a bland assumption of infallibility. The usual attitude is “swallow what we say hook, line and bait, or keep out of the Movement”.
Dr. W. B. Selbie has criticised the Group in a very fair and reasoned manner. He emphasises the lack of intellectual or theological background and points out that no religious movement can live on emotionalism alone. He concludes: “I believe that they have something very vital to contribute to the religious life of our time, and it is a pity that the truth and power of their message should so often be obscured by methods of propaganda that are, to say the least, unfortunate. . . . One would be much more hopeful of its future if its leaders were more willing to learn from others and from the experience of similar movements in the past.”