What Is Buchmanism?
© 1998 by Gaetano Salomone, M.A./M.Div.


"Buchmanism" is the name for a little known and long forgotten Christian nondenominational, evangelical movement of the early part of the this century started by an ex-Lutheran missionary preacher named Frank Nathan Daniel Buchman (1878-1961). That particular name for the movement was coined by outsiders who sought to describe Buchman's programme for Christian renewal, which underwent a number of significant name changes as it developed over time. Known initially as "The First Century Christian Fellowship," or simply as "The Fellowship," it later came to be known variously as "The Oxford Group," "The Group Movement," or "Groupism," and ultimately "Moral Re-Armament" ­ a name which it retains to this day.

Few have heard of Buchmanism, but in its heyday it was a rather well known revivalist phenomenon that grew over the years into a large, international network similar to modern, televangelist ministries. The historical importance of Buchman's movement is its being the direct and immediate progenitor of the modern 12-Step Recovery programs, which adapted most of Buchman's theology in streamlined form. Both Bill Wilson and Bob Smith, the co-founders of A.A., were bona-fide members of Groupism and actively incorporated major elements of Buchman's thinking into the 12-Steps. A.A.'s "Big Book" is, in fact, a perfect example of Buchmanite devotional/testimonial literature.

Buchman had a German-pietist upbringing in Pennsylvania Dutch Country during Victorian America. As a conservative Christian, he was destined to unite a number of popular, mystical tendencies in the Protestantism of his day. The turning point in his life came after a 1908 trip to England where he attended the Keswich Holiness Conferences, which were the Continental counterpart to the American National Holiness Association; the direct and immediate precursor of American Pentecostalism. Buchman had a profound spiritual awakening in a local, Salvation Army chapel while attending those meetings, where he had a mystical identification with the crucified Christ, which he saw as a literal vision of Jesus hanging on the cross.

Buchman's ministry thereafter became more global as he decided to make the Christian message palatable to the modern mind by softening the traditional emphasis on submission to Christ and broadening the doctrinal requirements for salvation and sanctification. Through what came to be known as "house parties," which began as home-based gatherings and eventually expanded into mass-rallies, Buchman invited individuals to publicly confess their sins and submit their wills to God's "guidance," or "God-control." This was an expression of the Protestant principle of "the priesthood of all believers," where people would share their misdeeds with one another in a group setting without priests or ministers.

Participants in the Group were instructed in how to receive direct messages from God and spiritual strength to live out the ethical demands of Absolute Purity, Absolute Honesty, Absolute Unselfishness and Absolute Love. These four attributes were Buchman's distillation of the "Sermon on the Mount" (Matthew 5-7), which he adapted from earlier evangelicals who wanted to get back to the original teachings of Jesus. Buchman mixed these ideas along with those of other progressive evangelicals who sought to reconcile spiritual experience with the secular world and thereby lend fundamentalist agendas an air of scientific authority.

Buchman's crusade was understood as a revitalization of essential Christianity; his "Five C's" of "Confidence, Conviction, Confession, Conversion and Continuance" representing the stages individuals would undergo as they were inducted into the Oxford Group. Through a process known as "personal evangelism," a so-called "life changer" would first win the confidence of a potential convert, who was led to feel conviction, or guilt, over sin and constrained to confess their wrongs to the "soul-surgeon," or the Group. Christians and non-Christians alike were thus coaxed into a moralistic conversion to God and taught how to hear His will for their lives, being admonished to continue in their newly found faith by sharing it with others.

The Oxford Group underwent a major scandal when Buchman told a reporter that, in his view, a "God-controlled" fascist dictator like Hitler would be able to transform the world. The name change to Moral Re-Armament was a damage control tactic after the Group movement was discredited in the press and the church world. Buchman's MRA became a Christian theocracy movement based on absolutist thinking that has been filtered into American society through the Anonymous movements which went their separate way after Buchmanism became more politically-oriented and high-profile.

Many business leaders along with state and local officials have been supporters of Moral Re-Armament. With international headquarters near Geneva and domestic offices in Washington DC, the MRA still exists as a right-wing nationalist organization which seeks to instill its version of Christian values on a community, national and international scale. While it is unknown what the MRA's current association is with AA, the ideological similarity of the two movements is historically undeniable, regardless of Steppism's blatant lie that it is itself a "spirituality" rather than a bona-fide religion with evangelical roots.

Similar ideas and practices as that of the Oxford Group/MRA came to be embodied in 12-Step groups, where "sponsors" tutor newcomers personally into the programs. What Bill Wilson and Bob Smith did was further universalize Buchmanism while simultaneously focusing its tenets and methods to help problem drinkers. Instead of speaking about God directly, people were taught to develop a trust in a general "Higher Power" of their own choosing, which has come to be equated with the "group conscience" of the gathered recoverees.

What is interesting about Wilson's innovation is that it still retained the same pattern of sin and redemption found in Christian holiness theology. The "moral inventories" of the Step groups mimic the self-examination practices of the Oxford Group. "Sinfulness" was reinterpreted as "powerlessness" over various addictions, and confession of sin came to be known as admitting to "defects of character." The evangelical origins of the Steps is also discernible in the Eleventh and Twelfth Steps where individuals pray for guidance and pledge to spread the message of their spiritual renewal to others in need.

If Buchmanism was something of a Christian heresy, A.A. was a heresy of Buchmanism. Wilson's spiritual awakening was, in fact, far more "psychedelic" than Buchman's in that Wilson overcame his drinking after tripping out on belladonna. Wilson thereafter had a voracious interest in all things spiritual from seances and oija boards to Jungian psychology and LSD. While the open-ended religious emphasis of the 12-Step groups have drawn spiritual seekers from a variety of traditions, the fundamentalist underpinnings of 12-Step philosophy have been criticized by secular recovery programs like Rational Recovery.

The progression from classical, Christian evangelicalism to Buchmanism to Steppism is probably one of the least known facts of American religious history ­ a curious phenomenon given the scope and provenance of the Recovery movement. Because of A.A.'s roots in the Oxford Group, it would not be an exaggeration to classify all the 12-Step groups patterned after the original program as various forms of neo-Buchmanism. As such, they are the largest and most successful Christian/New-Age movements in the U.S. today, but have no place in public rehabs without violating the separation of church and state.


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