Cover image for The Spiritual Vision of Frank Buchman By Philip Boobbyer

The Spiritual Vision of Frank Buchman

Philip Boobbyer


$66.95 | Hardcover Edition
ISBN: 978-0-271-05979-2

$37.95 | Paperback Edition
ISBN: 978-0-271-05980-8

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232 pages
6" × 9"
10 b&w illustrations

The Spiritual Vision of Frank Buchman

Philip Boobbyer

“Philip Boobbyer’s thorough scholarship uncovers the roots of Buchman's spiritual vision and demonstrates the wide-reaching significance of his campaigns for moral renewal. It will become the definitive study of this enigmatic figure.”


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The Spiritual Vision of Frank Buchman is an in-depth look at the life, spirituality, and ideology of one of the most original figures in twentieth-century religion. Frank Buchman (1878–1961), the Pennsylvania-born initiator of the movement known as the Oxford Group and Moral Re-Armament, was a Lutheran pastor who first had influence as a college evangelist and missionary with the YMCA. His thinking then evolved during the 1930s, the Second World War, and the early Cold War as he tried to develop a world philosophy that could offer an answer to war and materialism. His impact was particularly felt in the areas of conflict resolution between nations and interfaith dialogue, and Alcoholics Anonymous also owed much to his methods. Philip Boobbyer’s book is the first scholarly overview of Buchman’s ideas and is an important addition to the growing corpus of academic literature on his worldwide outreach. Boobbyer shows how his work reflected broader processes in twentieth-century religion and politics and can be seen as a spiritual response to an emerging global society.
“Philip Boobbyer’s thorough scholarship uncovers the roots of Buchman's spiritual vision and demonstrates the wide-reaching significance of his campaigns for moral renewal. It will become the definitive study of this enigmatic figure.”
“This work engages with all the important literature and makes judicious assessment of the contributions of others. But what is here is original, both in terms of the remarkable range of primary sources utilized and the focus of the work, a focus not to be found in any other book.”
“Frank Buchman is an important historical figure with remarkable influence on a range of different nations, movements, organizations, and eminent people. There has long been a strong need for a good academic study of him, and The Spiritual Vision of Frank Buchman successfully and admirably fills this lamentable gap. Buchman has always attracted passionate critics and disciples, and the more even tone of this volume is especially welcome.”
“Frank Buchman was the American founder of the international movement that was variously called the First Century Christian Fellowship, the Oxford Group, and Moral Re-Armament. This body had a protean character, evolving from a religious revival movement into something like a nongovernmental organization dedicated to world peace and reconciliation. The ideas of the founder have proved elusive, but Philip Boobbyer, who has enjoyed full access to the available sources, has now pieced together a compelling portrayal of what moved the man.”
“This inspiring account of Buchman's journey should be required reading for anyone interested in bringing peace to an interdependent, war-torn world.”
“Philip Boobbyer . . . has provided a definitive and well-written portrait, which will be of enduring value, of Buchman and his vision.”
“This is the first effort to write a critical, spiritual biography of Frank Buchman (1878–1961), the founder of the Oxford Group and the Moral Re-armament movement, with emphasis on his ideas rather than on the details of his life. . . . This biography is well worth reading.”

Philip Boobbyer is Senior Lecturer and Deputy Head in the School of History, University of Kent.


Preface and Acknowledgments




Chapter 1: Origins

Chapter 2: Guidance

Chapter 3: Personal Work

Chapter 4: Theological Questions

Chapter 5: Strategy and Organization

Chapter 6: Politics and Ideology


Archival Abbreviations




“The world is slow to realise that the spiritual is more powerful than the material,” declared the American religious leader Frank Buchman in November 1938. He was talking on the BBC, with the growing polarization of Europe on his mind, and wanted to alert his listeners to the power of what he called “valid religious experience” to generate personal and social change. There was a missing ingredient in contemporary attempts to avert war, he thought: an awareness of how an encounter with God could change people’s lives and give them the resources to live peacefully and unselfishly. In other words, the answer to the crisis in the world lay at the spiritual level. This view was typical of Buchman. Throughout his life he stressed the importance of faith and moral standards for resolving conflict and bringing about social change. The Holy Spirit, he believed, had plans for humanity that could bring unity out of division and which people could work toward in practical ways.

Buchman first came to prominence through his work as secretary of the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) at State College, Pennsylvania (henceforth Penn State) in 1909–15. The mixture of well-coordinated campaigns and focused work with individuals that he adopted led to a resurgence of Christian commitment on the campus and gained him a reputation as a gifted evangelist. Further appointments resulted—as a YMCA missionary in Asia in 1915–19 and a visiting lecturer at Hartford Theological Seminary in 1916–22—before he branched out to work in an independent capacity. The beginnings of the international movement that subsequently grew out of his work were often traced to a visit he made to Oxford University in May 1921, when his presence at a meeting of a college debate society sparked the emergence of a network of students dedicated to working with him. Although he had been ordained as a Lutheran minister in 1902, Buchman’s approach was nondenominational. He also placed little emphasis on platform speeches, at that time spreading his message mainly through one-to-one conversations, small fellowship groups, and house parties. This was the basis for his work in Oxford and elsewhere, which grew steadily in the 1920s, and rapidly in the 1930s, to the point that house parties were often attended by thousands of people and the movement attracted much attention from the press.

In the 1920s Buchman and his supporters called themselves the First Century Christian Fellowship (FCCF). That name gave way from 1928 onward to the Oxford Group (OG), particularly because of the strength of the work at Oxford University—although the OG was in fact an increasingly international endeavor that made appeals to people of all ages and classes. Much of the group’s work was concerned with helping people at an individual level. It was also practical rather than theological in orientation, placing emphasis, for example, on confession of sin, listening to God, and absolute moral standards. In the 1930s, however, the OG increasingly tried to relate its message to wider national and international issues and to stress the link between spirituality and politics.

The OG became one of the more influential movements of Christian revival in the interwar era in a number of northern European states and also in dominions of the British Empire such as South Africa and Canada. Its influence in parts of the United States was also considerable. Yet in the late 1930s Buchman was looking for a new way to articulate his message and in that context launched “Moral Re-Armament” (MRA), a program of moral and spiritual renewal running through national and international life that was conceived as an answer to bitterness and militarism; the OG soon came to be known by that name. His desire to express this in the context of the ideological battles of the time led him in 1943 to describe MRA as an ideology, and in subsequent decades it was presented as offering an alternative to materialist thinking in both the East and West. As MRA tried to apply this philosophy to urgent political issues—like postwar reconciliation and reconstruction, industrial conflict, and decolonization—its identity began to change. Its adherents increasingly came from all continents and religious traditions, and this turned it from what had initially been a kind of evangelistic enterprise into something increasingly multireligious in character. The expansion of the work meant that at its peak in the 1960s an estimated three thousand people were working with MRA across the world, although this is on the high side and exact numbers are hard to gauge.

The growth of Buchman’s work, along with the fact that he was involved in varying degrees with many of the big events of his time, meant that he became a well-known personality in many countries. His influence—if not always easy to measure—was sufficient for one British commentator, writing in 1954, to call him “the most successful evangelist of his age.” Some thought him a groundbreaking figure. An influential cardinal, talking in 1984, even declared that his ideas were a “turning-point” in the history of the modern world—for the way they linked Christ’s teachings to the transformation of society. He was particularly praised for his work as a bridge builder and reconciler. After World War II he was decorated by a number of governments, including France, Germany, Japan, and the Philippines, for his contribution to postwar reconciliation. This bridge-building work seems sometimes to have had a significant political outcome. If analyst Edward Luttwak is right, for example, MRA helped to facilitate the realization in Europe of the postwar Schuman Plan—through establishing a dialogue between the French and the German elites at its conferences. Buchman’s work also had spin-offs. Movements inspired by OG spirituality included Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and Faith at Work, and Buchman’s influence could also be found in the origins of the National Prayer Breakfast in the United States.

Yet Buchman’s outreach was often accompanied by controversy. In his early years as an evangelist he was often outspoken about what he saw as the failure of Christian workers and institutions to be effective, and this was not always well received. Then in the mid-1920s his work was investigated by the university authorities at Princeton University after reports in Time magazine and elsewhere that suggested it was having an unhealthy effect on students. Throughout his life his spirituality elicited support across the churches, but there were always some who questioned whether it really fitted into the mainstream Christian tradition. In regard to his politics, there was a variety of accusations. In particular, his judgment was questioned when he tried to spread his message to Nazi leaders in the 1930s; indeed, some claimed he was a Nazi sympathizer. In addition, his work during the Cold War was considered overly anticommunist by some—although, conversely, there were also suggestions that MRA was procommunist. Even today, he is often the target of criticism. While his legacy is increasingly being taken seriously by historians, accounts of his life and opinions often contain an element of sarcasm or caricature.

Although Buchman was famous in his lifetime, observers sometimes found it hard to connect the influence he had with a personality that at first seemed unremarkable. To people meeting him for the first time, he did not generally seem striking or imposing. Peter Howard, the English journalist who was Buchman’s successor as leader of MRA and who wrote two books about him, even said in 1946 that his personality was “not always pleasing.” He was, Howard suggested, an example of how the Holy Spirit transcended human personality. It was thus not charisma in an ordinary sense that drew people to him. In a well-known, if somewhat unflattering, portrayal of him that came out in Life Changers (1923)—the first popular account of his work with students—the English religious author Harold Begbie described him as “a young-looking man of middle life, tall, upright, stoutish, clean-shaven, spectacled, with that mien of scrupulous, shampooed, and almost medical cleanness, or freshness, which is characteristic of the hygienic American.” On the other hand, Begbie noted, there was also an “invariable alertness,” a “quickness of eye,” and an “athletic erectness of body” about him, and he exuded a spirit of “contagious well-being.”

It would be wrong, then, to attribute Buchman’s influence to some form of personal charisma. This is not to say that his character was not important. There was a single-minded quality about him, for example, which was certainly vital for the development of the OG and MRA. But his personal qualities are not sufficient to explain his effect on people. Another possible source of his impact—which is the focus of this book—was the sphere of his spirituality and ideas. Buchman was suspicious of abstract intellectualism; indeed, the fact that his faith was not expressed in particularly sophisticated or scholarly language was probably one reason why the “Christian intelligentsia” sometimes found it hard to embrace him. Yet the relative simplicity and, at times, folksiness of his talks and speeches concealed a lively mind that was very responsive to the world around him. He was a thinker of sorts, if not a theorist. According to one of his supporters at Oxford University, the educationalist and churchman, Julian P. Thornton-Duesbery, he had a mind of “extraordinary speed and range.”

In this context, the wider intellectual and spiritual influences on Buchman need explanation. Buchman was not a voracious reader—although he regularly read newspapers and some biographies—and in this sense his thinking was not primarily constructed from books. But there were writers and people, especially from the early twentieth-century Anglo-American evangelical tradition, whose ideas affected his outlook. Understanding these influences is essential for building a picture of the underlying elements in his thought and for understanding the spirituality of the OG and MRA more generally. If, as one scholar has argued, the OG and MRA had no specific creed or dogmas of their own, they nevertheless promoted a cluster of spiritual practices that formed an identifiable tradition. The spiritual heritage that Buchman drew on gave shape to that tradition.

Unlike the main works on Buchman, which are broadly chronological or biographical, this study is organized thematically. There are dangers to this approach. In structuring the book according to theme rather than chronology, there is a risk of missing the evolution of Buchman’s thought and implying that it was static. But attempts have been made to address this by showing the development of Buchman’s thought or life experience in relation to particular topics. Moreover, the early chapters are weighted toward Buchman’s early life, and the later ones toward his later ideas and activities.

While offering an overview of Buchman’s spiritual vision, this study places particular emphasis on his thinking about the Holy Spirit. The central thesis of the book is that the Holy Spirit was the unifying element in his philosophy and that it is possible by focusing on this theme to see the range and interconnectedness of his ideas and the continuities in his outlook over time. Buchman’s concerns in this area were not theological. He never sought to address the science of pneumatology or to modify Christian doctrines about the Holy Spirit. Swiss literary scholar Theophil Spoerri—an admirer of the OG and MRA—rightly argued in an important portrait of Buchman that if his theological outlook were to be defined, it should be described in relation to his “practical down-to-earthness.” Whereas his Swiss contemporary Karl Barth sought to forge a “theology of the Holy Spirit,” Buchman’s emphasis was on the “practice of the Holy Spirit.”

On the other hand, the way Buchman used and adapted certain religious practices was itself interesting. For example, Buchman’s thinking had a lot in common with the traditions of German evangelical pietism. Indeed, the theologian Henry Van Dusen—who worked with Buchman in the 1920s before later becoming president of Union Theological Seminary—observed that Buchman’s spirituality had roots in “conservative Lutheran pietism,” and David Belden, in an Oxford University dissertation, took a similar view. Buchman’s attempt to bring practices associated with pietistic communities, like silent prayer and small-group fellowship, into the more secular, political arena was an implicit statement that the capacity of the Holy Spirit to resolve human problems had not yet been fully understood.

The Holy Spirit is also a good lens through which to explore Buchman’s thought in relation to some of the areas where his approach was controversial. For example, his understanding of the Holy Spirit was evident in his attitude to God’s “guidance.” Buchman believed that in a kind of prayerful reflection that he called the “quiet time,” God could give people wisdom or guidance as to what to do. It was an idea that was given a central place in the OG and MRA. One scholar, J. Calvin Keene, writing in a dissertation of 1937, even suggested that the level of emphasis given to it in the OG was unique in Christian history. There were plenty of defenders of the practice, including some distinguished theologians, yet some thought that Buchman exaggerated the possibility that God could speak to people. Buchman’s attitude to the Holy Spirit also informed his approach to the relationship between Christianity and other faiths. This was another area of debate, with some people—particularly from some conservative evangelical or Catholic positions—worrying that MRA promoted a theologically ambiguous mixture of Christian and syncretist teachings.

Buchman’s ideas about the Holy Spirit also shaped his approach to politics, including his response to the European dictatorships and the Cold War. In general, he approached political questions by focusing on people rather than policies. Indeed, one of his American colleagues, T. Willard Hunter, argued in a recent study that what he called the “Buchman doctrine” was an approach to public affairs that involved encouraging the finest instincts in individuals rather than campaigning on particular policy issues. But the emphasis on people was always combined with a larger vision of how the world could change and be brought under God’s direction. Here Buchman was very ambitious—he talked in terms of “remaking the world.” As Buchman’s biographer, Garth Lean—one of MRA’s most influential writers—noted, this wider agenda informed all of Buchman’s main initiatives. Buchman believed that the Holy Spirit could teach people how to think and live and through that transform the character of national and international life. His approach to public life was thus personalist in the sense that it combined the personal with the political. The historian Anders Jarlert called it “social personalism on a national and supranational level.” While some people were enthusiastic about this approach, others thought it was naive. For example, the idea that the world could be transformed through the agency of changed individuals was rejected as simplistic by the American theologian, Reinhold Niebuhr, and MRA was dismissed as utopian by Buchman’s most long-standing British opponent, the Labour member of Parliament, Tom Driberg.

If Buchman emphasized the possibility of changing the world, his optimism was tempered by a strong dose of realism in dealing with people and a readiness to adapt the OG and MRA to changing circumstances. As historian Daniel Sack has suggested, MRA was constantly reinventing its message to accommodate new situations. In other words, Buchman was both idealistic and pragmatic. Here, perhaps, can be found another key dimension to his outlook: there were paradoxes, or at least different tendencies, at work in the message that he forged. This was evident, for example, in the fact that in the interwar period the OG promoted both a nondogmatic spirituality and traditional evangelicalism. The historian Ian Randall noted that the tension was resolved through the deployment of a vocabulary that centered on the Holy Spirit. This offers a clue to understanding more generally how Buchman tried to give a spiritual unity to the OG and MRA. It was through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, rather than some kind of intellectual system, that he thought the different strands of his work could be reconciled.

This study is largely based on a reading of Buchman in his own words. That in itself is not original, for Lean's book in particular was very well researched. Yet there is a greater emphasis here than in Lean's book on the primary sources, on the assumption that Buchman's written and recorded words, taken as a whole, form a discrete body of thought that deserves analysis. Important sources include Buchman's speeches, many of which remain unpublished. Buchman was not a natural orator-although he did have a gift for coming up with memorable phrases. The talks that he gave at the Lily Valley missionary conference in Kuling, China, in August 1918 are a particularly good pointer to his early thinking. His later speeches, published in the collection Remaking the World, are a good guide to his understanding of the world situation before and after World War II-although Buchman's colleagues increasingly had input into the speeches in later years. The transcripts of Buchman's talks at MRA assemblies from the 1940s onward, particularly at the movement's conference centers on Mackinac Island, Michigan, and in Caux-sur-Montreux, Switzerland, are also full of useful material and give a less polished and more "live" picture of him as he engaged with audiences. Buchman's voluminous correspondence, mainly found in the Library of Congress and the OG archive in the United Kingdom, is of course important too, although Buchman's earlier letters generally revealed more about his spirituality than the later ones. In the last decades of his life most of his letters were drafted by Morris Martin, his secretary from the late 1930s onward, and were increasingly just summaries of what MRA was then doing, with a few personal remarks added in.

Other useful sources include the transcript of an OG house party in Putney, London, in 1922, in which Buchman was extensively quoted, and the verbatim notes of comments made by Buchman to the OG team in 1937, taken by a Scottish aide, Lawson Wood. A short collection of statements by Buchman in the 1950s, edited by MRA full-time worker William Conner, was published at the end of the 1950s, and a couple of other unpublished collections of statements by Buchman from the 1940s and 1950s were also put together by aides. Martin left a number of notebooks containing statements by Buchman, an unpublished biography of him, and a memoir. The English tennis star H. W. “Bunny” Austin, who worked with MRA full-time from the late 1930s onward, and Ray Purdy, a Princeton graduate who helped to run MRA in the United States for a number of decades, also left important memoirs. Among the many unpublished portraits of Buchman, the recollections of Signe Strong, a Norwegian artist who worked with MRA beginning in 1938, are notable for their details and insights.

Sifting through all this material to highlight what was most important in Buchman’s evolving vision remains a challenge. Many of the things he said were meant for specific individuals or were responses to particular situations, rather than being intended to reflect some overarching theological or spiritual system. For all that, his outlook did contain a set of underlying principles and insights, and these are discernible through his speeches, letters, and writings, as well as the memoir literature written about him.

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