Saturday, August 6, 2011

50 years ago: The death of Frank Buchman, founder of Moral Re-Armament, and forerunner of Rick Warren

On August 7, 1961, Frank Buchman, founder of the organization that became known as Moral Re-Armament, died in Freudenstadt, West Germany at the age of 83. He had been in Freudenstadt--where he claimed to have first come up with the idea for Moral Re-Armament--for two weeks, and died of a heart attack in his hotel room.

Mr. Buchman was born in Pennsburg, Pennsylvania in 1878 and was educated at Muehlenberg College in Allentown and Mount Airy Seminary, becoming ordained as a Lutheran minister in 1902. Mr. Buchman went to England in 1908 to attend the Keswick Convention, where he became convicted of his own self-centredness. He tended to go increasingly in the direction of pietism--the idea that there is a technology or technique that the Christian can employ that will enable him to rise above the level of "ordinary" spiritual experience--as the years went along. Mr. Buchman spent several years working with the YMCA and then took a post at Hartford Theological Seminary. He spent much of his time travelling, leading missionary conferences in China and forming groups of university students at Oxford and Cambridge in England. By the late 1920s-early 1930s, Mr. Buchman's movement was known as the "Oxford Group;" like the Freemasons, the Oxford Group concentrated its efforts on attracting the support of wealthy and influential people.

In its first stage Buchmanism aimed at the regeneration or "change" of individuals by a process of psychological catharsis which involved meditation, prayer, Bible reading, surrender, and confession of sins to other individuals...the "Groupers," as there were called, launched a nation-wide series of "house parties," at which students, and in some cases prominent and wealthy men and women, gathered to seek the "change." At one point in this stage of the movement the insistence upon "confession" caused trouble in some of the "house parties," particularly on college campuses, because the confessions were largely sexual in nature; the movement was banished from Princeton University after Buchman declared that 85 per cent of the students there were sexually perverted. Elmer T. Clark, The Small Sects in America, Revised Edition, 1949, pp. 83-84.

Eventually, the emphasis of the Oxford Group broadened from individuals (pietism) to society (moralism). In order to do that, it would be necessary to appeal to those of other faiths; as a result, the movement shifted from ostensibly Christian commitment to civil religion and morality. In his book Remaking the World (1948), Mr. Buchman said, "MRA is the good road of an ideology inspired by God upon which all can unite. Catholic, Jew and Protestant, Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist and Confucianist - all find they can change, where needed, and travel along this good road together." This shift was reflected in the movement officially becoming known as Moral Re-Armament in 1938. Mr. Buchman visited Edmonton, Alberta in 1933 and 1934, holding a mass rally at McDougall United Church in 1933 and attracting 2,000 people to rallies at the Macdonald Hotel and a downtown theatre in 1934. He visited Banff in both years, and was made an honourary chief of the Blood tribe in 1934, with the title Chief Big Light in Darkness.

Mr. Buchman became increasingly concerned with the influence of Communism, and decided that his movement could counter it. The New York World-Telegram of August 25, 1936 printed an interview with Mr. Buchman where he offered the throwaway comment, "I thank heaven for a man like Adolf Hitler, who built a front line of defense against the anti-Christ of Communism." Efforts by Mr. Buchman to convert Nazi leaders to his views were unsuccessful, and the Nazis suspected Mr. Buchman of being a British spy.

Mr. Buchman tried to use MRA to prevent war, but when the U.S.A. entered World War II, Mr. Buchman enlisted MRA in the war effort using the slogan "You Can Defend America." Harry Truman, then a United States Senator from Missouri who had been assigned the task of reducing waste in the military, praised Moral Re-Armament for encouraging teamwork in industry, and thereby aiding the U.S. war effort. MRA was influential and successful in facilitating post-war reconciliation and co-operation among former World War II enemies and in the peaceful decolonization of Morocco and Tunisia.

One prominent convert to Moral Re-Armament was Ted Workman, owner of the Montreal Alouettes of the Canadian Football League from the late 1950s to the late '60s. In 1960 he was quoted as saying: "Football used to be the end result of life, but that was superficial. Now I think the Alouettes are designed to illustrate the ideology of MRA" (Canadian Football League Illustrated: Montreal Alouettes '70). I don't know how successful the Alouettes were in "illustrating the ideology of MRA," but Mr. Workman's teams during this era never achieved a winning record or finished higher than third in a four-team Eastern Football Conference.

In an interview shortly before his death, Mr. Buchman said of his vision for humanity:

It is that the whole world will learn to live like sons of God, where no man demands too much for himself while any other man goes hungry, where character not color becomes the yardstick to human values, where it is normal to live as one honest, pure, unselfish, loving, united family throughout the earth. Edmonton Journal, August 8, 1961, p. 2.

It became apparent that this vision wouldn't be immediately fulfilled when the Soviets began erecting the Berlin Wall, about 356 miles from Freudenstadt, within a week of Mr. Buchman's death.

Mr. Buchman was succeeded as leader of Moral Re-Armament by J. Blanton Belk. Mr. Belk's most memorable accomplishment may have been the creation of the singing group "Sing-Out 65" in 1965, which carried the "Sing-Out" label until 1968, when it officially broke its ties with MRA and became known as Up with People. Community service was added to the singing and Up with People was incorporated as a charity within the United States. Up with People suspended operations in 2000, but was revived in 2004.

The influence of Moral Re-Armament gradually waned, and in 2001 it changed its name to Initiatives of Change, which calls itself " a diverse network committed to building relationships of trust across the world's divides." If you look at Initiatives of Change's affirmation of its core values, you'll find a mention of God's leading, but no definition of who that God is. To look at this affirmation of an individual's ability to "be a powerful agent for positive change in society," one would never know that this man-centred movement had originated as an ostensibly Christian pietistic movement. The Oxford Group has been credited with greatly influencing the founders of Alcoholics Anonymous; John Lanagan has much useful information on the occultic roots of A.A. at his excellent blog My Word Like Fire.

In looking at the change of emphasis on the part of Mr. Buchman and his movement from the sanctification of individual Christians to "building relationships of trust across the world's divides," one can see an obvious parallel with Rick Warren, an ostensibly Christian pastor who has widened his influence from evangelical Christian churches to international organizations, and has broadened his interests from improving the lives of churches and individual Christians to solving the world's problems. The problems are too big to be solved just by Christian churches, so the help of other "faith communities" must be enlisted. Bridges of unity rather than walls of separation must be built, and since "doctrine divides, but love unites," distinctive Christian doctrines such as trusting in the shed blood of Jesus Christ on the cross as the only payment of the penalty for sins must be de-emphasized if not abandoned. As for a definition of God, that's another potential point of division, so it's best to let each "faith community" define God according to its own understanding--and any differences are best not discussed in the interests of unity. Unity will be achieved at the lowest common denominator; in Mr. Buchman's time, it was a variety of "the Brotherhood of Man under the Fatherhood of God," popularly abbreviated as "BoMFoG." (In 2011, "BoMFoG" may appear too narrow; "Brotherhood" and "Fatherhood" sound too sexist, and being "under...God" sounds too limiting to people who believe in their own divinity.) With Mr. Warren, as with Mr. Buchman, this broadening has led and is leading to the complete abandonment of anything recognizable as Christian, and will likely end up in the same place.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for covering Buchman and the Oxford Group and for mentioning MWLF.

    ReplyDelete