Life & Soul

Heretic of the week: Frank Buchman

Frank Buchman (1878-1961) was born in Pennsylvania to devout Lutheran parents and was ordained a minister in that denomination in 1902. His first charge, a new and churchless congregation in a suburb of Philadelphia, ended in a financial dispute over a hospice for the mentally ill he had proposed.

Sent to Europe to recover his deteriorating mental and physical health, the young cleric went to the 1908 Keswick Convention, an annual gathering of Evangelicals. There Buchman heard the Welsh female preacher Jessie Penn-Lewis, whose message of self-renunciation echoed with the troubled minister. Deciding that he was as much to blame for the hospice’s failure as the other parties in the dispute, he “asked God to change me and He told me to put things right with them. It produced in me a vibrant feeling, as though a strong current of life had suddenly been poured into me, and afterwards a dazed sense of a great spiritual shaking-up.”

This experience led to his lifelong endeavour, which saw Buchman successively working with the YMCA at Penn State, taking missionary training at Hartford and working in China, and forming Christian student groups at Yale, Princeton and Oxford. From the latter effort stemmed in 1928 a worldwide movement, the so-called Oxford Groups.

Via “House Parties” at mansions and grand hotels, the group spread Buchman’s brand of “positive” (but non-sacramental) Christianity. In 1938 and then 2004, Buchman’s work was successively rebranded as Moral Re-Armament and Initiatives for Change, becoming ever less specifically Christian and ever more interfaith. Disciples of Buchman’s work formed such efforts as Alcoholics Anonymous and Up With People, spreading versions of his call to submit oneself to a never clearly defined Divinity. This flexibility allowed Buchman to engage in many political bridge-building measures while he lived, however secular the results.