This month I’ve written an extensive series on the history of Frank Buchman and his cult, known variously as First Century Christian Fellowship, the Oxford Group, Moral Re-Armament, and currently Initiatives of Change. We explored high profile cult members and the group’s negative contributions to World War 2. Here you can find links to each post in the series.
Buchman’s personal history
Frank Buchman was born in 1878 and lived until 1961. He was raised Lutheran and studied at Mount Airy Seminary, becoming an ordained Lutheran minister in 1909. He worked first at a suburban church and then as Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) secretary for Penn State. While at Penn State, he claimed to have doubled membership in the club, yet alcohol on campus and other vices seemed unaffected.
Buchman’s spiritual experience
To console himself after losing his Hartford position, Buchman took a European tour financed by his father. At a religious convention in Keswick, England he had a spiritual experience. “The ‘I’ of ego was crossed out by a horizontal stroke, producing the cross of Christ.” Buchman traveled to Oxford and later Cambridge, gathering young men around him to follow his interpretation of Christianity. He called them First Century Christian Fellowship.
Buchman’s cult speak
One classic cult tactic he adopted was cult speak. He redefined everyday terms for group members, words like sanity, guidance, and surrender. In this way, he could craft a message that sounded innocuous or agreeable to outsiders, while also communicating extremist messages to indoctrinated members. This enabled Buchman to simultaneously exert mental control over members while sounding ecumenical or benign to the outside world.
The Oxford Group engaged in public confession, frequently and to great social upset. They believed confession served two purposes, to unburden the confessor and to serve as testimony to potential converts. As such, meetings usually started with a period of public confession of sins, often sexual in nature.
Private confession in the Oxford Group worked a bit differently. Here the hidden hierarchy of the group was made manifest. Members were encouraged to confess to others with longer membership or greater favor from Buchman, to seek out spiritually superior mentors with adherence to Group principles as the metric. Newcomers would confess to longstanding members, who would confess to Buchman’s inner circle, who would confess to him. This left Buchman with only God and himself to hear his private confessions.
Confession as comedy
Penitence was not the overarching theme of such confessions, but playfulness. Members who crafted their confession for humor were rewarded with laughter and applause. The shameful and unthinkable became punchlines, and terrible acts became humorous anecdotes. They confessed without repentance.
Frank Buchman claimed that members of his Oxford Group could commune directly with God, day in and day out. He took the concept of a daily time set aside for Bible study and prayer, and added the psychic scam method called automatic writing or spirit writing. He taught that, like a spirit medium channeling the dead, he and his adherents could channel God.
Frank Buchman claimed, “It is our destiny to obey the guidance of God.” As we discussed earlier in this series, guidance was defined by Frank as “powerful radiograms” from God to Group members, received as passive thoughts during their quiet time. But what if the guidance a member received conflicted with the teachings of Buchman?
Buchman proposed four Absolutes as part of living a “guided” and “God-controlled” life: Absolute Honesty, Absolute Purity, Absolute Love, and Absolute Unselfishness. These were first mentioned in The Principles of Jesusby Robert E. Speer, then expanded on by Buchman’s mentor at Yale, Henry B. Wright. Most Oxford Group literature credits Buchman with creating this idea. How absolutely honest!
Frank Buchman called Oxford Group evangelism “soul surgery” and urged his members to do it at every opportunity. Ever the lover of short numbered lists, he put recruitment into the 6 Basic Assumptions SNF the 5 Procedures of the Sane, as well as crafting the 5 Cs as a recruitment tool. The 5 Cs were: Confidence, Confession, Conviction, Conversion, and Conservation.
As previously discussed, Frank Buchman was talented at gathering followers and converts, but what did he do once he had them? He treated them with an intoxicating, debilitating mixture of love bombing and verbal abuse, gentleness and unruly anger, promises of salvation and constant reminders that they were weak, sinful, and insane without the Group. Cult leaders are domestic abusers not content with a mere one household to rule and terrorize.
Rich and famous
While Buchman yelled and screamed at his regular followers, he simply fawned over people of high status. He defended this behavior by arguing it was better to “change” (convert) a “big sinner” (a person of power and influence) than a small one. He promoted a top-down style of spiritual salvation, one that worked within existing systems of power, rather than seeking to dismantle them.
Frank Buchman did not simply want the financial support of his wealthy patrons. He wanted their fame and glory too. If a famous person made a remark even slightly favorable to Buchman, he would have the quote reproduced in Group pamphlets as advertising. He would suggest that any celebrity he had met was not simply polite or agreeable, but a follower. Even when this was not true.
Frank Buchman’s support for fascism and the Nazi Party became increasingly unpopular as it looked like Britain was going to war with Hitler. By the early months of 1938, Cardinal Hinsley of Oxford had reached the limit of his tolerance and he banned the Group from campus. Buchman urged his student followers to move house parties and meetings off campus to their parents’ homes, and he rebranded the cult.
Frank Buchman decided to bring his cult, then called Moral Re-Armament (MRA), to the United States in 1939. To appeal to Americans, he made patriotism a feature. While he had never particularly valued it before, and it conflicted with his own teachings about rising above national boundaries to work together, it was an effective marketing strategy.
When WWII began in September 1939, Frank Buchman and several of his British followers relocated to the United States, a then neutral country, to avoid war service. They relaxed in the Florida sunshine at the DuPont family summer mansion and in the forests of Maine at their Tallwood retreat.
Asking for special treatment
The British MRA members avoiding war service in the United States claimed they were “lay evangelists of an established religion”, a specific exemption within British draft law. That’s how it came to pass that Parliament debated in September and October of 1941 whether MRA recruiters qualified as ” regular ministers of a religious denomination “. Parliament decided they did not.
Henry “Fuckhead” Ford
During the pre-war years of the 1930s, when Buchman was saying “Thank Heaven for a man like Hitler” and advising Prime Minister Chamberlain to appease the Nazis, a rich and famous American Buchmanite was spreading antisemitic propaganda. The automobile magnate Henry Ford (Senior) went from being the most celebrated employer in the United States to a violent union buster within twenty years, arguably a consequence of joining the Oxford Group.
Pissing off Protestants
As the Oxford Group/Moral Re-Armament became more political, it became less Christian in every sense. Frank Buchman’s original focus on “winning souls for Christ” and adopting “First Century Christian” principles gave way to anti union, anti communist, and anti war propaganda and a pan religious appeal. As Buchman tried to export his cult to India, he packaged it as a philosophy or lifestyle rather than part of the Christian faith. This created tension between the MRA and its clergy members.
Losing Sam Shoemaker
Reverend Sam Shoemaker, an Episcopal priest and early Buchmanite, had been crucial to the Oxford Group’s success in the United States. He was essentially the American leader of the movement, and had let the Oxford Group use part of his church, Calvary Episcopal in New York, as their US headquarters. But between their creeping takeover of his church and the erasure of Jesus from the message, Shoemaker reached his limit. In 1941, he informed MRA they would need to find new offices and publicly left the group.
As many of Buchman’s Protestant clergy followers abandoned Moral Re-Armament and its squishy theology, the Catholic Church maintained its official opposition to the group. Starting in the 1930s when the cult was known as the Oxford Group, Catholic bishops objected to its Protestant (Lutheran) origins, its claim that all religions were equally compatible with it, and its practices including Guidance.
Communism and labor
One of the constants across the life of Frank Buchman and the many names of his cult was anticommunism. As mentioned earlier, Buchman was quoted in the New York World Telegram in 1936 saying, “Thank Heaven for a man like Adolf Hitler, who built a front line of defense against the anti-Christ of Communism.” He didn’t just prefer capitalism: he claimed God did too.
Frank Buchman may have been homosexual himself. Rumors to that effect certainly followed him across national boundaries and decades. Buchman never married or publicly courted any woman, and there was never a suggestion of sexual impropriety between him and any woman. There were however hints of scandal when it came to men, particularly the much younger undergraduate men he tended to surround himself with.
Castle in the Alps
Frank Buchman’s wealthy Swiss patrons bought three resort hotels in the mountains of Caux , Switzerland and had them renovated for the new Moral Re-Armament headquarters. As discussed previously, Buchman had lost his US headquarters when Rev. Sam Shoemaker left the group and stopped letting them use his church facilities. The property was gorgeous, with breathtaking mountain views and intricately detailed architecture.
In August, 1961 Frank Buchman died of a heart attack. He was 83 years old. His follower Peter Howard took over for the next four years until his own death. Howard had been over the course of his life an Oxford student, captain of the British rugby team, an Olympic bobsledder for England, “black shirt” for the British Union of Fascists which modeled itself after the Brown Shirts of Germany, and a writer of MRA propaganda. He had followed Buchman since his Oxford days.
I could not have written this series without the research done by A. Orange for their book and website, accessible here http://www.orange-papers.org/