The "Oxford Movement" (a.k.a. "A First Century Christian Fellowship", "Moral Re-Armament", Buchmanism, "Initiatives of Change") began in 1908 when Frank Buchman, a secretary working for the Philadelphia
found himself in a financial jam. Having started a successful storefront church and men's hospice
, he had hoped to start a settlement house
, but found his ambitions blocked by the board of trustees, who had seen fit to slash the budget for existing programs. After a violent argument, he resigned, and sailed to a conference in Keswick
, England (near Oxford
), where he experienced a religious epiphany
in which he beheld the image of the Crucified Christ.
Responding to this, he wrote six letters to the trustees in Philadelphia stating
"My dear friend. I have nursed ill feelings against you. I am sorry. Will you forgive me? Sincerely, Frank."
In an effort to spread this experience he concieved of a totally new kind of evangelical
movement: one that jettisoned the creaky rituals and symbolism of the two millenia of Christian tradition
in favor of direct guidance by God and asking forgiveness of one's fellowmen, similar to the experiences of the Apostles
, following a moral program of Absolute Unselfishness, Absolute Honesty, Absolute Love, and Absolute Purity (i.e. chastity
). Making ready to return to America with this idea, he and several like-minded supporters overheard a railway porter
refer to them as "the group from Oxford". Hence, the name "Oxford Group", though there is no direct link between the group and the university of that name: the first recorded university to have an official chapter was Penn State
College students, especially, found Oxford Group participation to be both adventurous and comforting at the same time. Remember, at the time, most of the college students in America had come from small towns, and the boozy, sexy, skeptical collegiate social and intellectual life of the Roaring Twenties seemed as frightening as it was liberating. Having a place to come to where you could talk freely about being Christian and their misgivings over drinking, sex, dancing, and smoking, while participating in something that wasn't "Old Time Religion", was a revelation to many young folks.
For them, the biggest draw were the "House Parties", weekend-long events where young folks of both sexes could see, hear, and participate in the communal Oxford Group lifestyle firsthand in a local (rented or borrowed) Stately Home. They'd be treated to food, conversation, shared chores, and a taste of the Good Life, while hearing lectures and public testimonials about how the Oxford Group Changed (the Group always capitalized this) their lives.
The main draw of the House Parties was "Quiet Time", when the will of God was made known. Upon arrival, each party guest was given a small pad of paper and a pencil. During Quiet Time, these would be put to use.
First a group leader would propose a question for God's Guidance, read a Bible passage having to bear upon it, the signal to the group that Quiet Time had begun. Several minutes would pass of complete silence, broken only by the scrape of a chair or a cough. Then one, and another would pick up a pencil and begin to write. Several minutes of quick pencil scratching would ensue. Then, after the last person had put down hir pencil, the leader would say "Amen. What comes?"
The results were often startling to the uninitiated. While there were often a range of answers, the number of duplicates would seem to be too great to be coincidental: the mark of a true message from God. There would then be discussion as to how the message followed, or did not follow, the example of the Bible passage, the ideals of the Group, and suchlike which unpuzzled the message further until the true meaning was uncovered. To those who had "gotten it", it was almost a sure bet that they'd at least think of becoming a member. After all, who wouldn't be flattered to think they had a "gift"!
Once inside, Groupers were encouraged to make friends of, and try to convert, whatever local public figures they deemed sympathetic to their cause: politicians, social leaders, clergy, and successful businessmen were all considered valuable potential converts. For these, the recruitment techniques were somewhat different, and were called the 5 C's.
- Confidence First the "hungry sheep" (to be brought into the fold) would find themselves in the company of a new best friend, or friends: a new secretary, perhaps, or simply a new seat-neighbor on the morning train. The new friend would speak on such general subjects as the importance of networking in business, current events and humanity's general iniquity, and listen sympathetically to personal problems, now and then giving advice. Sooner or later, the sheep would be induced into a meeting with the Group.
- Confession At the meeting, the tone would shift into testimonials about the life-Changing the Group offered. Confessions, often sexual in nature, would be offered freely, and the sheep encouraged to tell stories of his own life. If these were not forthcoming, or the sheep claimed chastity, special probing, called "soul surgery", would ensue, aimed at routing out "hidden vices" -- e.g. masturbation and latent homosexuality, mostly, but any deviant behavior would do. Since most people masturbate, and 90% of all people have had some feeling towards their own sex, this would usually result in a flood of shame and guilt. Don't worry...we've all done it...tell us...
- Conviction At this, the Group would recoil in horror: they'd never, ever, heard such horrendous sins before! The sheep would be put face-to-face with his misdeeds, and made to feel acutely his distance from God. Best to make a clean breast of it, and have it out in front of the group. And, I suppose, drinking had something to do with it? Hm. How long has it been since you had a sober year? And, we guess, you may have done other things drunk you wouldn't have otherwise....How long has it been since you've been to church? Felt really participatory? Hum. Well, it's good that we're here...
- Conversion Now, we meet every Sunday and twice during the week...take this notebook with you, and give Guidance a try, solo, if need be. We'll check up on you. You might need a few more sessions to really get the benefit, so meet with us next Wednesday. And oh, you might think of letting us use your country home next month...we're planning another House Party....
- Continuance And do bring your wife along one of these days, and anyone else you feel might need this. We really are on your side...
As one might guess, Buchman had bigger things in mind than simply getting religion to college students, drunken bums, and the stray plutocrat. His goal was a world guided by God and his principles, and to do so, he traveled widely, establishing a World Center in Caux, Switzerland and a command post in two floors of the Waldorf-Astoria. At his height, he had a radio show "World-wide House Party", with entertainment, sermons, and testimonials, and many, many shelters and missions. His talks, inevitably folksy, warm, and full of good will, sold out the Hollywood Bowl, and many met regularly with their local chapters to confess their sins (any deviation from the principles or doubt was considered a topic) and receive God's Guidance.
Buchman used his meetings with world leaders to trumpet such messages as "Norway converts to God's Guidance!" and "China Rejects Communism For God!" His biggest gaffe, however, occurred soon after his trip to Germany in 1935. There, he was shown an edited version of the shining new Germany and met privately with Hitler, who greeted him warmly. "Thank God for Hitler!" he bubbled enthusiastically. "Of course he's wrong about the Jews, but give me a leader like him, under God's Guidance. Who knows what we could do!"
Who knows, indeed. By that time, Buchman began to look less like a plain country preacher with good intentions and more like a power-hungry despot. Ex-members began to come forth with strange stories on how members were gradually forced into being Buchman-like, and psychologists questioned their conversion techniques. In 1939, Buchman was forced to reorganize under the name "Moral Re-armament", which had under its principles an unquestioned support of the United States Government. The MRA, as it was called, continued on with the more modest goal of focussing on business ethics. Buchman himself died in 1961, and his organization, much abridged, continues to this day under the name "Initiatives of Change", and "Up with People", a youth auxilliary known for its folk choir.
AA claims the Oxford Group as a precursor, but fails to give too many details. One can hardly wonder why.