The Religious Roots of Alcoholics Anonymous
and the Twelve Steps

by A. Orange

Chapter 9:
The Oxford Group Morphs Into Moral Re-Armament



In 1938, Liberty Magazine asked, "How Honest is the Oxford Group?"

TIME magazine reported on the growing criticism of Frank Buchman's "Oxford Group":

Monday, Jan. 28, 1935
Eligible Chimpanzee

In the U. S. many a preacher and layman has grown tired of discussing Dr. Frank Buchman's Oxford Group. But in Canada the subject is still alive. Last week in Toronto Dr. Thomas Todhunter Shields, radio preacher and perfervid Fundamentalist (TIME, Sept. 17), told his Jarvis Street Baptist congregation:

"The Oxford Group is the biggest hoax ever forced upon man in the name of religion. It is devoid of any intellectual content; it is suited to people who don't think at all. A chimpanzee would be eligible for membership provided it had a dinner jacket and looked respectable."
TIME magazine, Jan 28, 1935

... Last week, Dr. Buchman and his 59 Group workers were well started on a great U. S. push. It had begun with a meeting in Manhattan's Waldorf-Astoria, a luncheon to the Press, a ten-day house party at Briarcliff Manor. To anyone who recalled how that stalwart Presbyterian John Grier Hibben drove Buchmanism off the Princeton campus in disgrace for over-zealous proselytizing in 1926, the extraordinary eminence of the Waldorf meeting's sponsors would have been a surprise. On the reception committee were not only such conservative and ultra-socialite names as Mr. & Mrs. Frederic William Rhinelander, Mr. & Mrs. Herbert Livingston Satterlee and Mr. & Mrs. William Fellowes Morgan, but also the most orthodox churchmen such as Bishop William T. Manning, John R. Mott, Princeton's Joseph Ross Stevenson. To be sure some of the namees were themselves surprised.

Absent from New York, Bishop Francis John McConnell had not given explicit permission to use his name, but he voiced no complaint. Later Rev. Dr. Cleland Boyd McAfee (Presbyterian missions) wrote the Groups that he had been listed "by mistake."
...
Criticism of the Groups has become routine, centering chiefly in two aspects of their work. Many a theologian objects to the absence of thought-content in it. Typical is the criticism of Yale Divine Halford Edward Luccock in the current World Tomorrow: ": . . Superficial . . . a conception of a deity almost completely absorbed in sending down hourly directions to his favorites. . . ." Also, it is objected that the Groups work exclusively among the rich. At Briarcliff last fortnight it was observed that they paid much attention to Curtis B. Dall, the President-elect's son-in-law, who began showing a perfunctory interest last spring.
TIME magazine, Jan 23, 1933

Monday, Dec. 19, 1938
"Absolute Honesty"

Like patent-medicine manufacturers, the Oxford Groups of Dr. Frank Nathan Daniel Buchman esteem testimonials. From their London and Manhattan headquarters they send out batches of statements from the great and the near-great, praising their trademarked remedy — or at least denouncing the ills it is meant to cure.

The Groups have lately circulated a triple-shot testimonial containing the following items: 1) a letter from Dr. Henry St. George Tucker, Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, calling attention to a speech by the Archbishop of Canterbury; 2) the Archbishop's speech, in which he mentioned the Groups as one of many evidences of a new interest in religion; 3) a copy of the Church of England Newspaper devoted to extravagant praise of the Groups.

Last week the American Church Monthly (high-Episcopal) editorially charged that the Groups were trying to make it appear that Bishop Tucker and the Archbishop of Canterbury "esteemed the Groups as highly as the enclosed newspaper did (of which there is no evidence)." One tenet of Buchmanism is "Absolute Honesty" (along with Absolute Purity, Love, Unselfishness). Cracked the Monthly: "We do not for a moment suppose that Dr. Tucker was a party to this devious and dubious business, nor the Archbishop either; but it does go to show what happens to 'absolute honesty' in an advertising age."
TIME magazine, Dec. 19, 1938


TIME magazine didn't mince words — they called Frank Buchman a cultist right on the cover.
In early 1938, the Cardinal of the English Roman Catholics was surprised to learn that he was endorsing Frank Buchman's religion, something that he couldn't remember having done. He responded by banning the Oxford Groups:

"Tainted"
      A prime talking point of Dr. Frank Nathan Daniel Buchman's Oxford Group has been that it works equally well in the framework of any Christian church — not excluding the Roman Catholic. Sympathetic accounts of the Group's work have appeared in the Catholic Times in England, [and in] the Catholic World in the U. S.   L'Osservatore Romano, semi-official newsorgan of the Holy See, once ran a letter guardedly praising Buchmanite aims. One of the prettiest Buchmanites extant, Baroness Connie de Hahn of Budapest, used to say at European meetings: "I was brought up a Roman Catholic, and being changed has made me a much better Roman Catholic." Last week, however, a potent Catholic prelate, Arthur Cardinal Hinsley, Primate of the Roman Catholic Church in England, wrote his clergy informing them that no Catholic might join the Group.
      According to the Cardinal's secretary, Groupers on the continent "made propaganda use" of a laudatory letter which they said was written by Dr. Hinsley but which he could not recall writing. But his condemnation of them rested on theological rather than moral grounds. Wrote he: "The Group Movement is so tainted with indifferentism, i.e., with the error that one religion is as good as another, that no Catholic may join in such a movement so as to take any active part therein or formally to co-operate therewith."
TIME magazine, April 4, 1938, page 66.

In 1938, with war with Hitler looming, Frank Buchman renamed or morphed his organization into something called "Moral Re-Armament." Some critics of Buchman have suggested that the Oxford Group Movement was so thoroughly unpopular by then that they essentially wanted to dissociate themselves from their own bad reputation. (Was it merely a coincidence that just two months after Cardinal Hinsley banned the Oxford Groups, Frank Buchman was out promoting a new organization with a new name that had not been mentioned by the Cardinal?) There was also at least a hint in the renaming to "Moral Re-Armament" that the USA and Great Britain did not need to re-arm with guns; that everything would be okay if they just got straight with God, and then God would take care of the situation with Adolf Hitler.

Notice how Frank Buchman displayed a pattern of "sequential panaceas" — he proclaimed that he had one "sure-fire-can't-fail" magical solution after another:
  • First, Frank Buchman promoted a thing that he called "First Century Christian Fellowship" — which he claimed was a revolutionary new program that was going to sweep the world, and save the world by bringing genuine early Christian fellowship back to the people.
  • And then there was "The Oxford Group Movement" — a revolutionary new program that was going to sweep the world, and save the world.
  • And then there was "Moral Re-Armament" — a revolutionary new program that was going to sweep the world, and save the world from World War II.
  • And then MRA degenerated into a song-and-dance show that was going to save the world by taking "the message" to the people — the You-Can-Defend-America Campaign.
  • And then there was the School for Home Defense in Maine, and the Midwestern Industrial Morale-Building Campaign, which was supposed to save America from its enemies during World War II.
  • And then, during the cold war after World War II, Moral Re-Armament was the "spiritual force" that was going to save the world from Communism.
  • And then, finally, during the Vietnam War, there were the Sing Out! and Up With People! shows, which were again going to save the world by bringing "morality", religion, and patriotism to the people.

Frank Buchman opportunistically switched campaigns every time the political winds shifted.

So what about the previous panaceas? What happened to them? Once Moral Re-Armament got started, was the Oxford Groups Movement still going to save the world? (I guess the answer to that was, "Oh well, let's just sort of forget about that one.")

In late May of 1938, on the occasion of his sixtieth birthday, Frank Buchman gave a speech in London that was just a non-stop stream of slogans and propaganda tricks, where he introduced the term "Moral Re-Armament":

        The world's condition cannot but cause disquiet and anxiety. Hostility piles up between nation and nation, labour and capital, class and class. The cost of bitterness and fear mounts daily. Friction and frustration are undermining our homes.
        Is there a remedy that will cure the individual and the nation and give the hope of a speedy and satisfactory recovery?
        The remedy may lie in a return to those simple home truths that some of us learned at our mother's knee, and which many of us have forgotten and neglected — honesty, purity, unselfishness and love.
        The crisis is fundamentally a moral one. The nations must re-arm morally. Moral recovery is essentially the forerunner of economic recovery. Imagine a rising tide of absolute honesty and absolute unselfishness sweeping across every country! What would be the effect? What about taxes? Debts? Savings? A wave of absolute unselfishness throughout the nations would be the end of war.
        Moral recovery creates not crisis but confidence and unity in every phase of life. How can we precipitate this moral recovery throughout the nations? We need a power strong enough to change human nature and build bridges between man and man, faction and faction. This starts when everyone admits his own faults instead of spotlighting the other fellow's.
        God alone can change human nature.
        The secret lies in that great forgotten truth that when man listens, God speaks; when man obeys, God acts; when men change, nations change. That power active in a minority can be the solvent of a whole country's problems. Leaders changed, a nation's thinking changed, a world at peace with itself.
        'We, the Remakers of the World' — is that not the thinking and willing of the ordinary man? The average man wants to see the other fellow honest, the other nation at peace with his own. We all want to get, but with such changed leaders we might all want to give. We might find in this new spirit an answer to the problems which are paralysing economic recovery.
        Suppose everybody cared enough, everybody shared enough, wouldn't everybody have enough? There is enough in the world for everyone's need, but not enough for everyone's greed.
        Think of the unemployed thus released for a programme of Moral Re-Armament; everyone in the nation magnetized and mobilised to restore the nations to security, safety and sanity.
        Every man, woman and child must be enlisted; every home become a fort. Our aim should be that everyone has not only enough of the necessities of life, but that he has a legitimate part in bringing about this Moral Re-Armament, and so safeguards the peace of his nation and the peace of the world.
        God has a nation-wide programme that provides inspiration and liberty for all and anticipates all political programmes.
        'Every employed and unemployed man employed in Moral Re-Armament'; this is the greatest programme of national service — putting everybody to work remaking people, homes and businesses. A Swedish steelworker told me: "Only a spiritual revolution goes far enough to meet the needs of men and industry."
        A Labor leader said: "I have seen the Labor Movement triumph and felt in the midst of triumph an emptiness. The Oxford Group gave my life new content. I see in its message the only key to the future of the Labor Movement and of industry the world over."
        Only a new spirit in men can bring a new spirit in industry. Industry can be the pioneer of a new order, where national service replaces selfishness, and where industrial planning is based upon the guidance of God. When Labor, Management and Capital become partners under God's guidance, then industry takes its true place in national life.
        New men, new homes, new industry, new nations, a new world.
        We have not yet tapped the great creative sources in the Mind of God. God has a plan, and the combined moral and spiritual forces of the nation can find that plan.
        We can, we must and we will generate a moral and spiritual force that is powerful enough to remake the world.
Frank Buchman, speaking at East Ham Town Hall, 29 May 1938, quoted in
Remaking the World, the speeches of Frank Buchman, Frank N. D. Buchman, 1949, pages 85-87.
Also quoted in:
Britain and the Beast, Peter Howard, 1963, pages 107-109.
Also see:
Drawing-Room Conversion; A Sociological Account of the Oxford Group Movement, Allan W. Eister, Duke University Press, 1950, page 47.


Notice how Frank Buchman constantly diverted attention away from the sins of Adolf Hitler, and toward the sins of the British and American people. Did we really need God to change human nature, or did we need God to change Adolf Hitler's nature? Was human nature really at fault, or was it something about Adolf Hitler and the Nazis? Then Frank pointed the finger of blame: "The average man wants to see the other fellow honest, the other nation at peace with his own." — It's your fault if we don't have peace, because you just want the other fellow to change, Frank said. But Frank never demanded that "the other fellows" — Adolf Hitler and the Nazis — also change their ways.

Frank Buchman repeatedly claimed that only he had the answer to all of the world's problems. That is standard cultish behavior — "Our way is THE ONLY WAY."

  • "The crisis is fundamentally a moral one. The nations must re-arm morally."
  • "God alone can change human nature."
  • "Only a spiritual revolution goes far enough..."
  • ..."the only key to the future"...
  • "Every man, woman and child must be enlisted..."
  • "Every employed and unemployed man employed in Moral Re-Armament..."
  • "Only a new spirit in men can bring a new spirit in industry."
    (So why did we need a new spirit in industry?)
    But that conflicts with Buchman's other line about, "The answer may lie in a return to those simple home truths that some of us learned at our mother's knee..." Frank Buchman often flip-flopped between declaring that he had something brand new — a new spirit — a new panacea — a new solution to all of the world's problems — and declaring that he was taking us back to the good old days — back to "First Century Christian Fellowship", and back to "Mother's home truths".
    It can't be both brand new and good old traditional 'family values' at the same time.

And again, Frank Buchman used the propaganda trick of putting his words into other people's mouths, to make it sound like more people agreed with him:

  • 'A Swedish steelworker told me: "Only a spiritual revolution... "'
  • 'A Labor leader said: "I have seen..."'
  • That's just like Buchman's declaration, "My barber in London told me Hitler saved Europe from Communism. That's how he felt."

Then there was the propaganda trick of The Glittering Generality. Frank Buchman was just overflowing with flowery phrases and glowing images:

  • ..."simple home truths"...
  • ..."honesty, purity, unselfishness and love"...
  • ..."a rising tide of absolute honesty"...
  • ..."a wave of absolute unselfishness"...
  • ..."confidence and unity in every phase of life"...
  • ..."precipitate this moral recovery throughout the nations"...
  • ..."that great forgotten truth"...
  • ..."the solvent of a whole country's problems"...
  • ..."God has a nation-wide programme that provides inspiration and liberty for all"...
  • ..."Leaders changed, a nation's thinking changed, a world at peace with itself."...
  • ..."the peace of his nation and the peace of the world"...
  • ..."the greatest programme of national service"...
  • ..."a new spirit in industry"...
  • ..."Industry can be the pioneer of a new order"...
  • ..."Industry takes its true place in national life"...
  • ..."the great creative sources in the Mind of God"...
  • ..."the combined moral and spiritual forces of the nation"...

But what did all of that really mean, in concrete terms?

Frank Buchman also used the propaganda trick of Sly Suggestions three times there:
"The remedy may lie in a return..." (Then again, it might not...)
"We might find in this new spirit an answer... (Then again, we might not...)
"We all want to get, but with such changed leaders we might all want to give." (Then again, we might not get "changed" for the better by a change of politicians...)

Buchman also used the propaganda trick of Assume The Major Premise in this line:
"We might find in this new spirit an answer...
What new spirit? Frank Buchman was selling tired old cult religion and some warped old theology that he copied from his mentor Henry B. Wright, who got it from Robert E. Speer, who got it from Henry Drummond...

Buchman also made heavy use of the propaganda techniques of Assume Facts Not In Evidence, and Make Unsubstantiated Inferences, in these phrases:

  • "The crisis is fundamentally a moral one."
  • "The nations must re-arm morally."
  • "Moral recovery is essentially the forerunner of economic recovery."
  • "Moral recovery creates not crisis but confidence and unity in every phase of life."
  • "We need a power strong enough to change human nature"... accompanied, of course, by the unsupported assumption that we must change human nature.
  • "This starts when everyone admits his own faults"...
  • "The secret lies in that great forgotten truth that when man listens, God speaks; when man obeys, God acts; when men change, nations change."
  • "That power active in a minority can be the solvent of a whole country's problems."
  • ..."with such changed leaders we might all want to give."
  • "God has a nation-wide programme"...
  • "Only a new spirit in men can bring a new spirit in industry." Who says that we need a new spirit in industry?
  • "We have not yet tapped the great creative sources in the Mind of God."
  • "God has a plan"...

Who says? Where is the evidence to support any of those groundless claims?
What study, survey, poll, or experiment established the truth of any of those sweeping statements?
Upon what authority did Frank Buchman declare that he knew God's will and God's plan?

Buchman also used The Glittering Generality and Assume Facts Not In Evidence in this sentence:
"The remedy may lie in a return to those simple home truths that some of us learned at our mother's knee, and which many of us have forgotten and neglected — honesty, purity, unselfishness and love."

(Actually, my mother did not endorse Frank Buchman's Four Absolutes. What I remember is my mother expressing bitter contempt for Nazi sympathizers. She considered them traitors who should be shot or hanged. She was a Canadian, and had been a teenager during World War II, so she was painfully aware of the suffering of the British people during the Battle of Britain and the Blitz of London.)

This line used both Assuming Facts Not In Evidence and an Appeal to Lust For Power:
"We have not yet tapped the great creative sources in the Mind of God."
Oh really? What does that mean? What untapped creative sources? How did Frank Buchman become so knowledgeable about the inner constitution of the Mind of God? How could he know how much of it people were utilizing?

Obviously, Frank Buchman was just running off at the mouth, spouting grandiose B.S..

Frank Buchman also originated Bill Wilson's "Higher Power" arguments, including the claims that only God can change human nature, and human nature must be changed, and that your "Higher Power" will supposedly start helping you only after you confess all of your sins, faults, "moral shortcomings", and "defects of character". In the previous speech, Frank Buchman said:

We need a power strong enough to change human nature and build bridges between man and man, faction and faction. This starts when everyone admits his own faults instead of spotlighting the other fellow's.

[Frank Buchman's constant harping on your sins, and your faults (not his, and not Hitler's), was just another example of Standard Cult Rule Number Two: You are always wrong. No matter what anybody else does, you are wrong, and you should wallow in guilt and feel lower than a snake's belly.]

In the "Big Book" Alcoholics Anonymous, Bill Wilson repeated Frank Buchman's religious dogma with these words:

Lack of power, that was our dilemma. We had to find a power by which we could live, and it had to be a Power greater than ourselves. Obviously. But where and how were we to find this Power? Well, that's exactly what this book is about. Its main object is to enable you to find a Power greater than yourself which will solve your problem.
The Big Book, 3rd Edition, William G. Wilson, Chapter 4, We Agnostics, page 45.

In other words, "Only God can change human nature" — only God has the power to defeat Demon Rum. People can't change themselves, or help themselves, or get sober by their own efforts, because they are "powerless over alcohol":

Step One: [We] admitted we were powerless over alcohol...
The Big Book, 3rd Edition, William G. Wilson, Chapter 5, How It Works, page 59.

Remember that we deal with alcohol — cunning, baffling, powerful! Without help it is too much for us. But there is One who has all power — that One is God. May you find Him now!
The Big Book, 3rd Edition, William G. Wilson, Chapter 5, How It Works, pages 58-59.

Then Bill Wilson promised that we would get all kinds of miraculous effects from confessing our "wrongs", "moral shortcomings" and "defects of character" in Steps Four and Five, and Bill declared that, when he surrendered to his Oxford Group recruiter Ebby Thacher and confessed his sins, "the effect was electric". Bill wrote in the "Big Book" Alcoholics Anonymous that after we confess our sins, "We feel we are on the Broad Highway, walking hand in hand with the Spirit of the Universe."

But, like Frank Buchman said, we only get the magical goodies after we confess everything... The good stuff doesn't start until after we confess and "make a surrender".


Frank Buchman making a movie

Frank Buchman continued to insist that he was the only man with the answer to the world's problems, and that becoming one of this followers was the only way to survive the coming troubles. Buchman also liked to imply that his army was the one that would win the coming war:

      The Oxford Group is building a world organism that takes the needs of nations and answers them with men. It is a challenge to every man and every woman to enlist under God's control in that colossal task. What is your part in remaking the world? He who refuses to enlist under God's orders thereby enlists in the cause of world destruction.   ...
      Only Moral Re-Armament can bind the nations together.
Frank Buchman speaking at Interlaken, Switzerland, 10 Sept. 1938,
Remaking the World: The Speeches of Frank Buchman, Frank Buchman, page 108.

Buchman used the "Either/Or Propaganda Technique" there, again, by presenting the listener with only two poor choices:

  • "You will EITHER be completely "God-controlled" and follow God's dictates (as I hear God dictating), OR ELSE you will be 'helping chaos'."
  • "You will EITHER 'enlist' in MRA, OR ELSE you are enlisting in the cause of world destruction."

Frank Buchman also repeatedly used the False Equality Propaganda Technique. Buchman constantly implied that people who were "enlisting under God's control" and "enlisting under God's orders" should actually join Frank Buchman's cult and obey Frank Buchman's orders. Obviously, obeying God's orders and obeying Frank's orders were not the same thing.




Next: The Years Before the War: Appeasing Hitler, and Apologizing for Hitler

Previous: Partying with the Nazi Party



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