Frank Buchman and the Oxford Group
By bob k
The founder of the Oxford movement – a Christian evangelical movement and the birthplace of AA – Frank Nathaniel Daniel Buchman was born in the small town (pop. 1,200) of Pennsburg, Pennsylvania, on June 4th, 1878, fourteen months earlier than AA’s future co-founder, Bob Smith. Pennsburg’s population was almost exclusively German, morally conservative, “where the only permissible vice was overeating”. (Frank Buchman – A Life, Garth Lean, p. 3)
Buchman’s mother was a devout Lutheran, with grand ambitions for her son. His father was entrepreneurial, operating first a General Store, and later a railroad inn with a restaurant and bar. Pennsburg had no high school which prompted the family to move to nearby Allentown, which was larger (pop. 18,000) and rapidly growing.
In Allentown, Frank attended high school and his father became a wholesale liquor distributor. The teenager was no more than an average student. Nonetheless, he moved on to Muhlenberg College and Mount Airy Seminary, and was ordained a Lutheran minister in 1902. Accurately seen as ambitious by his fellow students, Buchman had aspirations of being called to an important city church. When instead he was offered an unprestigious posting in the Pennsylvania suburb of Overbrook, a new parish lacking even a building, he accepted, possibly to evidence his humility. With diligent effort, he arranged rental of an old storefront with living quarters for himself above.
“Within three years he had built up the vigor and life of the church, and had established a hospice for young men. Differences (over finances) arose between him and the official board of the hospice, however, and he resigned his position.” (Roots Of Alcoholics Anonymous, Bill Pittman, p. 114)
Exhausted and depressed, Buchman embarked on an extensive holiday abroad. Seething with resentment over his unjust treatment at the hands of bureaucrats, Buchman flitted about Europe for several month’s at his parents’ expense. The elder Buchmans were frustrated by their son’s seeming contentment with this leisurely lifestyle, but relented in furnishing him additional funds to go to the 1908 Keswick Convention.
The Birth of AA’s Steps 4 to 9
The Keswick Convention was an annual gathering of evangelical Christians in Cumbria, England. In a small, half-empty chapel, he was deeply moved by the preaching of Jessie Penn-Lewis.
I thought of those six men back in Philadelphia who I felt had wronged me. They probably had, but I got so mixed in the wrong that I was the seventh wrong man… I can only tell you I sat there and realized how my sin, my pride, my selfishness and my ill-will had eclipsed me from God in Christ. I was the center of my own life. That big “I” had to be crossed out. I saw my resentments against those men standing out like tombstones in my heart. I 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. (Lean, p. 30-31)
In letters of apology to these former “bosses”, he took ownership of his own prideful behavior in holding resentments. This action brought much relief. Bill Wilson expanded on the self-analysis, confession, and amends process and incorporated them in Steps 4 through 9.
Religiosity aside, the wisdom of letting go of resentment and moving away from concentration on “self” are age-old, widespread, almost universal, philosophical ideas. Although far from being the exclusive purview of alcoholics, these ideas are prominent in AA. Thus, the Step 3 problem is presented as: “Selfishness-self-centeredness! That, we think, is the root of our troubles. Driven by a hundred forms of fear, self-delusion, self-seeking, and self-pity, we step on the toes of our fellows and they retaliate. Sometimes they hurt us, seemingly without provocation, but we invariably find that at some time in the past we have made decisions based on self which later placed us in a position to be hurt”. (Alcoholics Anonymous, 4th Edition, p. 62) Also aligning with Mr. Buchman’s experience: “Resentment is the ‘number one’ offender. It destroys more alcoholics than anything else”. (AA Big Book, p. 64)
Down at the YMCA
Young man, there’s no need to feel down.
I said, young man, pick yourself off the ground.
I said, young man, ’cause you’re in a new town
There’s no need to be unhappy.
Young man, there’s a place you can go.
I said, young man, when you’re short on your dough.
You can stay there, and I’m sure you will find
Many ways to have a good time.
It’s fun to stay at the YMCA.
It’s fun to stay at the YMCA.
They have everything for you men to enjoy,
You can hang out with all the boys … (Village People, 1978)
It was a calmer and happier Frank Buchman who returned to the United States, and was hired as Secretary of the Penn State College YMCA. He had grave reservations about the scraps, hazing, and drunkenness at “the most godless university in the country”. (Lean, p. 33) Initially he worked hard and was ridiculed by the students, but eventually he doubled membership and got various groups studying the Bible. However he feared that decisions for Christ were shallow, as “the alcohol consumption had hardly decreased and the general tone of the college had not greatly altered”. (Lean, p. 35)
It was at Penn State that the minister discovered the enormous power in working one-on-one, as he was able to bring “change” to some unlikely candidates. Football coach, ‘Pop’ Golden gave up a life of dissipation under Buchman’s ministration. The conversion of other notables had a great impact on the regular folks. As a young man, much as was the case with Bill Wilson, Buchman “was dazzled by the elegance and wealth” of the social elite. (Lean, P.11) His recruitment system became very organized, and other religious leaders came to study his methods and the conversion movement spread to other colleges. “It really began at Penn State College last year under Frank N.D. Buchman. ‘This new evangelism of the second decade of the twentieth century is transforming our colleges.'” (Yale Paper, Mar. 3, 1915)
In April, 1915, Buchman left Penn State College for India, and then China. His hope to convert a few key players, which was then expected to bring these huge nations to Christianity, was seen as naïve by his critics. A second China mission had an early setback as his colleagues “became critical of each other, and Buchman in particular”. (Lean, p. 52) During this 1917 tour to China, Buchman met recent Princeton grad, Sam Shoemaker, who found the Pennsylvanian to be abrupt, but insightful. The two men would later share common bonds of their work with the Oxford Group, and their influence on the formation and practices of Alcoholics Anonymous.
The Asian trips were ultimately failed efforts, but “he remarked one day that it had only been in China that (he had learned) the confession of one’s own shortcomings, privately or publicly, was an important way to help others”. (Lean, P.63) It was time to go back to the States, where he continued with the “Hartford Theological Seminary” which had supported his forays into the Orient.
Sam Shoemaker, meanwhile, would work with Buchman for twenty years, as the American head of the Oxford Group movement. He was the Episcopalian minister at the Calvary Mission in New York. Encouraged by Ebby Thacher and other Oxford Group members, when Bill Wilson got out of the Towns Hospital after his last drink, “still shaky, he visited Dr. Shoemaker at Calvary Mission and made a decision to become very active in the Missions work and to try and bring other alcoholics from Towns to the (Oxford) Group”. (The Evolution of Alcoholics Anonymous, Jim Burwell)
Bill would later acknowledge that, “The early AA got its ideas of self-examination, acknowledgement of character defects, restitution for harm done, and working with others straight from the Oxford Group and directly from Sam Shoemaker, their former leader in America, and from nowhere else”. (AA Comes of Age, p. 39)
A “Spiritual Adjunct” to the Christian Church
Throughout Buchman’s career, “in each instance, conflicts with institutional authorities prompted his departure. In 1921, this history of friction culminated in his decision to quit the church proper and create his own organization, which he vowed would be a ‘voice of protest against the organised, committeeised, and lifeless Christian work’ of doctrinal and institution-based religion”. (The Language of the Heart: A Cultural History of the Recovery Movement from Alcoholics Anonymous to Oprah Winfrey, Trysh Travis, 2009, p. 71) These efforts were financed by wealthy “sponsors”.
“His primary focus was on ‘soul sickness’… He saw the contemporary glorification of the physical and the material as a kind of debased Mammonism; what he called ‘materialism’ encompassed sexual acting out, profligacy, vanity, envy, gluttony, and of course excessive drinking.” (Travis, p. 71) The theme of anti-materialism comports well with Bill Wilson’s later ideas of “self-propulsion in the quest to become a self-made ‘Number One man’”.
Buchman travelled a great deal. His right hand man, Sam Shoemaker, held the fort in United States.
A regular meeting held a Corpus Christi College grew so popular that, by 1928, the group moved to the ballroom of the Randolph Hotel, and then to the library of the Oxford University Church, St. Mary’s. The movement got its name when, in the same year, six Oxford students on a mission to South Africa, were branded the “Oxford Group” by the press.
Russel “Bud” Firestone and Dr. Bob
A few years later, Oxford Groupers assisted Russell “Bud” Firestone in conquering a severe drinking problem by turning to God. Bud’s father, Harvey, had four things the Oxford Group liked, wealth, fame, generosity, and gratitude. The rubber magnate in his appreciation hosted a ten day gala, in January, 1933, that brought the religious group to the forefront of Akron society. This set the table for Oxford Group members to arrange the famous Mother’s Day meeting, two and one half years later, of Bill Wilson and Dr. Bob Smith.
It is worth noting that at about this time, Buchman had an even more notable candidate in mind for religious conversion, Adolph Hitler. At least two approaches were made, in 1932 and 1933, to get a Buchman audience with the German leader. The extraordinarily optimistic thinking was that the Fuhrer could be led to a “decision for Christ”, millions would follow, and the world would be changed. Some Buchman critics, former colleagues among them have levelled the charge of megalomania. Not without grounds.
Reinhold Niebuhr – author of the Serenity Prayer – was a prominent, contemporary critic of Buchman and the Oxford Group. “We can see how unbelievably naïve this movement is in its efforts to save the world. If it would content itself with preaching repentance to drunkards and adulterers one might be willing to respect it as a religious revival method which knows how to confront the sinner with God,” Niebuhr wrote. “But when it runs to… Hitler, or to any seat of power, always with the idea that it is on the verge of saving the world by bringing the people who control the world under God-control, it is difficult to restrain the contempt which one feels for this dangerous childishness.”
Nevertheless, the Russell Firestone conversion brought about a rapid ascension in Akron, Ohio, and the group came to the attention of Anne Smith, desperate wife of the drunken and deteriorating physician, Dr. Bob.
Initially in merely an attempt to appease his spouse, Dr. Bob began to attend the Christian gatherings, no doubt remembering the mandatory, unpleasant forced Church attendance of his childhood. Despite his original antipathy, Smith was somewhat drawn to the Oxford folks, “…because of their seeming poise, health, and happiness. They spoke with great freedom from embarrassment, which I could never do, and they seemed more at ease on all occasions… I was self-conscious and ill at ease most of the time, my health was at the breaking point, and I was thoroughly miserable… I gave the matter much time and study for the next two and one half years, but I still got tight every night nevertheless”. (Nightmare, p. 178)
“My wife became deeply interested and it was her interest that had sustained mine, though I at no time thought it might be the answer to my liquor problem.” (Nightmare, p. 178)
Oxford Group Practices
The Oxford Group was “a non-denominational Christian fellowship… devoted to ‘world-changing through life-changing'”. (Travis, P.30) It profoundly influenced AA and our 12 Steps, but the statement that the Oxford Group had a six Step program is incorrect. They had no Steps. They were guided by “The Four Absolutes” (or Standards) – Honesty, Unselfishness, Purity and Love. Any behavior could be judged by how well it adhered to these principles.
Action was also directed by the 5 C’s – Conviction, Confession, Contrition, Conversion, and Continuance. Much of this continued for years as AA practices, in some areas, most especially in Ohio.
“The 5 Procedures” represented another formalized Oxford “plan of action”.
- Give in to God;
- Listen to God’s direction;
- Check guidance;
- Sharing – for witness and for confession.
It is quite obvious that the bulk of what is in our Steps, is present here.
The 5 Procedures are clearly seen in AA’s process of transformation. “The two other AA practices present in the Oxford Group were the insistence that its workers–and especially its founder–never be paid for the ‘soul surgery’ of aiding others to attain the ‘changed life’; and an emphasis on the obligation to engage in personal work with others in order to change the helpers’ lives.” (Not-God, P.49)
The Oxford Group “operated under “six basic assumptions”:
- Men are sinners;
- men can be changed;
- confession is prerequisite to change;
- the changed soul has direct access to God;
- the ‘Age of Miracles’ has returned;
- those who have been “changed” must “change others.” (Not-God, p. 49)
Positives and negatives
The alcoholics used the Oxford Group methods as a way to solve their own specific issues (see Pass It On, p. 197), including the vital, “We admitted we were licked, that we were powerless over alcohol”. And yet AA broke away, New York in 1937, Cleveland next in May of 1939, and Akron last, and most reluctantly, at the end of 1939.
The best analysis of the positives and negatives of the Oxford/AA relationship can be found in Ernie Kurtz’ masterful AA history, Not-God: A History of Alcoholics Anonymous (Hazelden, 1979). Some of the most pressing reasons for the separation were that AA steadfastly and consistently:
- avoided absolutes;
- avoided aggressive evangelism;
- embraced anonymity;
- strove to avoid offending anyone who might need the programme.
Of these and others, the most cogent reason for the split was likely Bill Wilson’s vision of the future. In the history of mankind, it may be that there was no one who understood alcoholics better than our founder. The earliest years convinced him that for AA to have a religious attachment would be a mistake. Bill’s unexpected ally in separating AA from the Christian Protestant Oxfords was Clarence Snyder of Cleveland, who was concerned that Cleveland’s many Catholics would be prevented from seeking sobriety through a group with a Protestant affiliation. In 2013, it is hard to imagine the power held over citizens by organized religion in the 1930s, nor will younger people easily grasp the one-time impassable chasm dividing these two Christian groups.
It is abundantly clear that a great debt is owed to these Oxford folks. Self-examination, acknowledgement of character defects, restitution for harms done, working with others, quiet time (meditation), and the quest for change are all practices alive and well in AA. The use of slogans was an Oxford custom; “Study men, not books”, “Give news, not views”. At its peak just prior to World War II, the group had a membership of 50,000, but Mr. Buchman made a major misstep in endorsing Hitler’s anti-Communism, making some statements in a press interview that were seen as pro-Nazi. That AA distanced itself from its Oxford roots may have had much to do with the negative publicity that became attached the group. Alcoholics had their own significant PR issues with which to be concerned.
AA World Services
In 1938, the Oxford Group was renamed “Moral Rearmament” and continues today as “Initiatives of Change,” but its heyday is long past. In 1978, a 100th birthday memorial was organized for founder Frank Buchman, who had died on August 7, 1961.
According to Mel B. (New Wine: The Spriritual Roots of the Twelve Step Miracle, p. 27), this “drew cooperation from a number of prominent individuals who had benefitted from Buchman’s work. But an invitation to Alcoholics Anonymous – perhaps the greatest beneficiary of all – was politely declined… there were two problems: (1) the anonymity principle ruled out anyone speaking for AA; and (2) Bob P. put it (then GM of AA World Services) ‘I think some of our members would say that we got out of bed with those people – why should we now get back in?’”
A good question.
Perhaps a better (if more complicated) question today is: Having decided to climb out of bed with those fellows, had our pioneers already borrowed too much from Frank Buchman and the Oxford Group as part the program of Alcoholics Anonymous?
A paperback version of Key Players in AA History is available at Amazon USA.