Oxford Group

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The Oxford Group was a Christian organization founded by the American Christian missionary Frank Buchman. Buchman believed that the root of all problems were the personal problems of fear and selfishness. Further, Buchman believed that the solution to living with fear and selfishness was to surrender one's life over to God's plan.

Buchman was an American Lutheran minister of Swiss descent who in 1908 had had a conversion experience in a chapel in Keswick, England, when he attended a decisive sermon by Jessie Penn-Lewis in the course of the 1908 Keswick Convention.[1] As a result of that experience he would in 1921 found a movement called A First Century Christian Fellowship. By 1931 the Fellowship had become known as the Oxford Group.[2]:11–12, 52 The Oxford Group enjoyed wide popularity and success, particularly in the 1930s. In 1932 the Archbishop of Canterbury, Cosmo Lang, in summing up a discussion of the Oxford Groups with his Diocesan Bishops, said, "There is a gift here of which the church is manifestly in need."[3] Two years later William Temple, Archbishop of York, paid tribute to the Oxford Groups which "are being used to demonstrate the power of God to change lives and give to personal witness its place in true discipleship."[1]

In 1938, Buchman proclaimed a need for "moral re-armament" and that phrase became the movement's new name. Buchman headed MRA for 23 years until his death in 1961. In 2001 the movement was renamed Initiatives of Change.[1]

The co-founders of Alcoholics Anonymous met through the Oxford Group, and codified several of its tenets into AA, the first twelve-step program.



Although Frank Buchman was originally a Lutheran, he was deeply influenced by the Higher Life movement whose strongest contribution to evangelism in Britain was the Keswick Convention. He had come to the Keswick convention in 1908 hoping to meet pastor F. B. Meyer, one of the leading lights of the Keswick convention and one of the main advocates of silent meditation as a means to be inspired by God. Unfortunately — or fortunately — Meyer was not present, and Frank Buchman chose to attend the sermon by Jessie Penn-Lewis instead, which became a life-changing experience for him[1]:30

F. B. Meyer's influence on Buchman was a major one. Meyer had published The Secret of Guidance in 1896.[4] One of his mottos was: "Let no day pass without its season of silent waiting before God." Meyer personally coached Buchman into daily guidance.[1]:36

The theology of the Keswick convention at the time was Christian holiness with its idea, originally derived from Methodism, of the second work of grace which would allow "entire sanctification": Christians living in close union with Christ could remain free from sin through the Holy Spirit. That is where the frequent, and to many Lutheran or Reformed ears, bizarre assertion by Buchman that "human nature can change" originates.[5] Absolute moral standards belong by Holiness even though the formula used by Buchman had been formulated by the American Presbyterian missionary Robert Elliott Speer. Frank Buchman was also very influenced by Presbyterian Yale professor Henry Burt Wright[6] (see The Four Absolutes infra).

The name[edit]

The name "Oxford Group" appeared in South Africa in 1929, as a result of a railway porter writing the name on the windows of those compartments reserved by a traveling team of Frank Buchman followers. They were from Oxford and in South Africa to promote the movement. The South African press picked up on the name and it stuck.[2]:52–53 It stuck because many of the campaigns of the Oxford Group were undergirded by Oxford University students and staff. And every year between 1930 and 1937 house-parties were held at the University. In the summer of 1933, for instance, 5,000 guests turned up for some part of an event which filled six colleges and lasted seventeen days. Almost 1,000 were clergy, including twelve bishops.[1] In June 1939, the Oxford Group was legally incorporated.

Beliefs, not a religion[edit]

The Oxford group literature defines the group as not being a religion, for it had "no hierarchy, no temples, no endowments, its workers no salaries, no plans but God's plan." Their chief aim was "A new world order for Christ, the King."[7] In fact one could not belong to the Oxford group for it had no membership list, badges, or definite location. It was simply a group of people from all walks of life who have surrendered their life to God. Their endeavor was to lead a spiritual life under God's Guidance and their purpose was to carry their message so others could do the same.

The group was more like a religious revolution, unhampered by institutional ties; it combined social activities with religion, it had no organized board of officers. The group declared itself to be not an "organization" but an "organism". Though Frank Buchman was the group's founder and leader, group members believed their true leader to be the Holy spirit and relied on God Control, meaning guidance received from God by those people who had fully "surrendered" to God's will.[8]:113 By working within all the churches, regardless of denomination, they drew new members.[9]:6 A newspaper account in 1933 described it as "personal evangelism — one man talking to another or one woman discussing her problems with another woman was the order of the day".[10]:141 In 1936, Good Housekeeping described the group as having neither membership, nor dues, nor paid leaders, nor new theological creed, nor regular meetings; it was simply a fellowship of people who desire to follow a way of life, a determination, and not a denomination.[10]:170

How God Can Lead People[edit]

Frank Buchman speeches include references about, "The Oxford Group's" primary purpose.[11]

  • The Oxford Group seeks to be living Christianity. It builds on the accomplished work of Jesus Christ as set forth in the New Testament. Its aim is to bring to life and make real for each person the articles of faith with which his own Church provides him.
  • The international problems are, at bottom, personal problems of selfishness and fear. Lives must be changed if problems are to be solved. Peace in the world can only spring from peace in the hearts of men. A dynamic experience of God's free spirit is the answer to regional antagonism, economic depression, racial conflict and international strife.
  • The secret is God Control. The only sane people in an insane world are those controlled by God. God-controlled personalities make God-controlled nationalities. This is the aim of the Oxford Group. The true patriot gives his life to bring his nation under God's control. ... World peace will only come through nations which have achieved God-control. And everybody can listen to God. You can. I can. Everybody can have a part.
  • There are those who feel that internationalism is not enough. Nationalism can unite a nation. Supernationalism can unite a world. God-controlled supernationalism seems to be the only sure foundation for world peace!"[12]
  • I challenge Denmark to be a miracle among the nations, her national policy dictated by God, her national defense the respect and gratitude of her neighbors, her national armament an army of life-changers. Denmark can demonstrate to the nations that spiritual power is the first force in the world. The true patriot gives his life to bring about his country's resurrection."[13]

The Four Absolutes[edit]

Moral standards of absolute honesty, absolute purity, absolute unselfishness, and absolute love, though recognized as impossible to attain, were guidelines to help determine whether a course of action was directed by God. The Four Absolutes seem to have first appeared in a book by Robert E. Speer, titled The Principles of Jesus.[14] In the Chapter, Jesus and Standards, Speer laid down Four Principles (honesty, purity, unselfishness, love) that he believed represented the distilled, uncompromising, moral principles taught by Jesus. Speer quoted Bible verses for each Principle. In 1909, Professor Henry B. Wright of Yale, citing Speer's work, dug up many more Bible verses that set forth these same Principles in the YMCA book: The Will of God and a Man's Lifework.[15] Wright dubbed them Absolutes rather than Principles. Next, Frank Buchman and the Oxford Group/Moral Rearmament adopted and popularized the phrase "The Four Absolutes".

In Oxford terms, sin was "anything that kept one from God or one another" and is "as contagious as any bodily disease". The soul needs cleansing: "We all know 'nice' sinless sinners who need that surgical spiritual operation as keenly as the most miserable sinner of us all."[9]:11–16

Spiritual practices[edit]

To be spiritually reborn, the Oxford Group advocated four practices set out below:[9]:9

  1. The sharing of our sins and temptations with another Christian.
  2. Surrender our life past, present and future, into God's keeping and direction.
  3. Restitution to all whom we have wronged directly or indirectly.
  4. Listening for God's guidance, and carrying it out.


The central practice to the Oxford/MRA members was guidance, which was usually sought in the "quiet time" of early morning using pen and paper. The grouper would normally read the Bible or other spiritual literature, then take time in quiet with pen and paper, seeking God's direction for the day ahead, trying to find God's perspective on whatever issues were on the listener's mind. He or she would test their thoughts against the standards of absolute honesty, purity, unselfishness and love, and normally check with a colleague.

Guidance was also sought collectively from groupers when they formed teams. They would take time in quiet, each individual writing his or her sense of God's direction on the matter in question. They would then check with each other, seeking consensus on the action to take.

Some church leaders criticized this practice. Others supported it. The Oxford theologian, Dr B H Streeter, Provost of Queen's College, made it the subject of the Warburton Lectures, given at Oxford University in 1933-5. These lectures were published under the title The God Who Speaks.[16] Throughout the ages, he wrote, men and women have sought God's will in quiet and listening. The Oxford Group was following a long tradition.

Sometimes groupers were banal in their descriptions of guidance. However, innumerable examples can be given of groupers discovering creative initiatives through times of quiet seeking God's direction, as can be seen in books about the Oxford Group such as A J Russell's book, 'For Sinners Only',[17] which went through 17 editions in two years[citation needed], or Garth Lean's 'Frank Buchman - a life'[1]

Buchman would share the thoughts which he felt were guided by God, but whether others pursued those thoughts was up to them.


In the Oxford Group, sharing was considered a necessity, it allowed one to be healed, therefore it was also a blessing to share.[9]:19–21 Sharing not only brought relief, but honest sharing of sin, and of victory over sin, helped others to openness about themselves. Sharing built trust. The message one brings to others by speaking of one's own sins, one's own experiences, the power of God in guiding one's life would bring hope to others that a spiritually changed life gives strength to overcome life's difficulties. It must be done with total conviction for "Half measures will be as fruitless as no measures."[9]:25

Some found public confession disturbing. Beverley Nichols stated "And all that business about telling one's sins in public... It is spiritual nudism!"[18]

However Cuthbert Bardsley, who worked with Buchman for some years and later became Bishop of Coventry, said, 'I never came across public confession in house parties — or very, very rarely. Frank tried to prevent it, and was very annoyed if people ever trespassed beyond the bounds of decency.'[1]:139 Buchman's biographer, Garth Lean, wrote that he attended meetings from 1932 on 'and cannot recall hearing any unwise public confessions.'

Five Cs and five procedures[edit]

The five Cs (confidence, confession, conviction, conversion, and continuance) was the process of life changing undertaken by the life changer. Confidence: the new person had to have confidence in you and know you would keep his secrets. Confession: honesty about the real state of a persons life. Conviction: the seriousness of his sin and the need to free of it. Conversion: the process had to be the persons own free will in the decision to surrender to God. Continuance: you were responsible as a life changer to help the new person become all that God wanted him to be. Only God could change a person, and the work of the life changer had to be done under God's direction.[1]:79


"House parties"[edit]

The first Oxford Group House Party was held in China in 1918. In the summer of 1930 the first International House Party was held at Oxford, followed by another the next year attended by 700 people. By 1934 the International House Party had grown and was attended by representatives from 40 nations, and by the 1935 meeting it had grown, and was attended by 50 nations, to the total of 10,000 representatives. The 1936 meeting at Birmingham drew 15,000 people, and The First National Assembly held in Massachusetts drew almost 10,000 people.[19]

  • There were also travelling teams; many house parties featured out-of-town people who came to the party to relate their experiences in the "Group Way of Life". Attendance was by printed invitation. Invitations were also sent to "key people" in the community.
  • House parties were held in a variety of locations: a wealthy home, at a fashionable hotel, inn, or summer resort, as well as outdoor camps, and at times held in less fashionable locations such as a college dorm. House parties were held from a weekend up to two weeks. A house party team would meet in advance for training and preparation. The teams would remain throughout the meetings and handle a number of details. Oxford Group literature was on display.
  • Meetings followed no formal agenda and were not like church meetings, as singing and public prayer were absent. Time was devoted to talks by the team members on subjects such as sin, surrender, quiet time, the four absolutes, guidance, and intelligent witness.

However, the Oxford Group had its own song: "On sure foundation build we God's new nation, strong and (clear?)...each year...On (God's word?)...shall we stand...and build together what none can sever, bridges from man to man, the whole wide earth to span."

The use of slogans[edit]

Most were coined through Buchman's quiet time; he knew slogans would catch attention, be more easily remembered and more readily repeated. They provided simple answers to problems people face in themselves and others. A few are listed below[8]:129

  • Pray: stands for Powerful Radiograms Always Yours
  • Constipated Christians
  • Come clean
  • Every man a force, not a field
  • Interesting sinners make compelling saints
  • When a man listens, God speaks
  • A spiritual radiophone in every home
  • Sin blinds, sin binds
  • World changing through life-changing

Oxford Group literature[edit]

Some of the Oxford Group literature is available online. See references. For Sinners Only by Arthur James Russell was characterized as the Oxford Group "bible."[20] Soul Surgery by H. A. Walter,[21] What Is the Oxford Group? by Layman with a Notebook,[9] and Eight Points of the Oxford Group by C. Irving Benson.[22]

For alcoholics there were three autobiographies by Oxford members who were active alcoholics which were published in the 1930s. These books provided accounts of the alcoholics' failed attempts to make their lives meaningful until, as a result of their Oxford membership, they found a transformation in their lives and sobriety through surrendering to God. The stories contained in Alcoholics Anonymous Big Book, are very similar in style to these much earlier works.[8]:176 The books were The Big Bender, Life Began Yesterday, and I Was a Pagan by V. C. Kitchen.[23]


Campaigns through Europe[edit]

The Oxford Group conducted campaigns in many European countries. In 1934 a team of 30 visited Norway at the invitation of Carl J. Hambro, President of the Norwegian Parliament. 14,000 people crammed into three meetings in one of Oslo's largest halls, and there were countless other meetings across the country. At the end of that year the Oslo daily Tidens Tegn commented in its Christmas number, "A handful of foreigners who neither knew our language, nor understood our ways and customs, came to the country. A few days later the whole country was talking about God, and two months after the thirty foreigners arrived, the mental outlook of the whole country has definitely changed."[24] On 22 April 1945 Bishop Fjellbu, Bishop of Trondheim, preached in the church of St Martin-in-the-Fields, London. "I wish to state publicly," he said, "that the foundations of the united resistance of Norwegian Churchmen to Nazism were laid by the Oxford Group's work."[1]:232

Similar stories can be told of campaigns in Denmark, where the Primate of Denmark, Bishop Fuglsang-Damgaard, Bishop of Copenhagen, said that the Oxford Group "has opened my eyes to that gift of God which is called Christian fellowship, and which I have experienced in this Group to which I now belong."[11]:78 When the Nazis invaded Denmark, Bishop Fuglsang-Damgaard was sent to a concentration camp. Before imprisonment he smuggled a message to Buchman saying that through the Oxford Group he had found a spirit which the Nazis could not break and that he went without fear.[25]

Presence in the United States[edit]

By 1936, the organization had already come to national attention from the media and Hollywood.[26]

Attempt to reach Nazi leaders[edit]

In the 1930s the Oxford Group had a substantial following in Germany. They watched the rise of the Nazi Party with alarm, as did those elsewhere in Europe and America. Buchman kept in close touch with his German colleagues, and felt compelled to attempt to reach the Nazi leaders in Germany, and win them to a new approach.

It was a time when Winston Churchill and Karl Barth[citation needed] were ready to give German Nazism a chance to prove itself as a democratic political movement, despite its obvious and repeated denunciation of democracy. Hitler had, at first, presented himself as a defender of Christianity, declaring in 1928: "We shall not tolerate in our ranks anyone who hurts Christian ideas."

Buchman was convinced that without a change in the heart of the National Socialist regime, a world war would become inevitable. He also believed that any person, including the German leaders, could find a living Christian faith with a commitment to Christ's moral values.[1]:233–237

He tried to meet Hitler, but was unsuccessful. He met with Himmler three times at the request of Moni von Crammon, an Oxford Group adherent,[27] the last time in 1936. To a Danish journalist and friend[28] he said a few hours after the final interview that the doors were now closed. "Germany has come under the domination of a terrible demonic power. A counter-action is absolutely necessary."[29]

As study of Gestapo documents has revealed, the Nazis watched the Oxford Group with suspicion from 1934 on. A first detailed secret Gestapo report about The Oxford – or Group Movement was published in November 1936 warning that it had turned into a dangerous opponent of National Socialism'.[30] The Nazis also classified the Stalinist version of Bolshevism and non-Nazi, right-wing groups such as Catholic Action as dangerous to Nazism.[27]

Upon his return to New York from Berlin, Buchman gave a number of interviews. He was quoted as reportedly saying, "I thank heaven for a man like Adolf Hitler, who built a front line of defence against the anti-Christ of Communism."[31] The Rev. Garrett Stearly, one of Buchman's colleagues from Princeton University who was present at the interview, wrote, "I was amazed when the story came out. It was so out of key with the interview." Buchman chose not to respond to the article, feeling that to do so would endanger his friends among the opposition in Germany.[1]:240

During the war, the Oxford Group in Germany divided into three parts. Some submitted to Himmler's demand that they cut all links with Buchman and the Oxford Group abroad. The largest group continued the work of bringing Christian change to people under a different name, Arbeitsgemeinschaft für Seelsorge (Working team for the Care of Souls), without being involved in politics and always subject to surveillance. A third group joined the active opposition. Moni Von Crammon's son-in-law was one of those executed along with[32] Adam von Trott zu Solz.[33] They were executed under Hitler's orders after the July 20 plot.

After World War II, further Gestapo documents came to light; one from 1939 states: "The Group preaches revolution against the national state and has quite evidently become its Christian opponent." Another, from 1942, states: "No other Christian movement has underlined so strongly the character of Christianity as being supernational and independent of all racial barriers."[1]:242

Some from the Oxford Group in Germany continued to oppose the Nazi regime during the war. In Norway, Bishop Arne Fjellbu of Trondheim said in 1945: "I wish to state publicly that the foundations of the united resistance of Norwegian Churchmen to Nazism were laid by the Oxford Group's work."[34]

Moral Re-Armament[edit]

In 1938, Buchman made a speech in East Ham Town Hall, London, in which he stated: "The crisis is fundamentally a moral one. The nations must re-arm morally. Moral recovery is essentially the forerunner of economic recovery."[35] The same year the British tennis star H. W. Austin edited the book Moral Rearmament (The Battle for Peace), which sold half a million copies.[1]:279 Gradually the former Oxford Group developed into Moral Re-Armament.

A number of groups as well as individuals dissociated themselves from Buchman as a result of his launching of Moral Re-Armament. Some Oxford Group members disapproved Buchman's attention to matters not purely personal, or his 'going into politics.' Buchman's view was that if Moral Re-Armament was the car, the Oxford Group was the engine, and that individual change was the basis of both. He had said to his students of Penn State and Hartford as early as 1921 that the Oxford Group was "a program of life issuing in personal, social, racial, national and supernational change" or that it had "nothing to do with politics, yet everything to do with politics, because it leads to change in politicians."[1] Nonetheless, while maintaining a lot of Christian language, MRA became inclusive of all shades of religious and philosophical convictions, Buchman comparing in a speech MRA to "the good road of an ideology inspired by God upon which all can unite. Catholic, Jew and Protestant, Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist and Confucianist - all find they can change, where needed and travel along this good road together."[36]

In Britain, the Oxford Group/Moral Re-Armament was very active. The novelist Daphne du Maurier published Come Wind, Come Weather, stories of ordinary Britons who had found hope and new life through the group. She dedicated it to 'Frank Buchman, whose initial vision made possible the world of the living characters in these stories,' and added, 'What they are doing up and down the country in helping men and women solve their problems, and prepare them for whatever lies ahead, will prove to be of national importance in the days to come.' The book sold 650,000 copies in Britain alone.[1]

When war broke out, MRA workers joined the Allied forces in large numbers, and were decorated for valour in many theatres of war. Others worked to heighten morale and overcome bottlenecks, particularly in war-related industries. About 30 Oxford Group workers were exempted from military service to continue this work. However, when Ernest Bevin became Minister of Labour in 1940, he decided to conscript them. Over 2,500 clergy and ministers signed a petition opposing this, and 174 Members of Parliament put down a motion stating the same. Bevin made it clear that he would resign from the Government if he was defeated, and the Government put a three-line whip upon its supporters. As a result, the Oxford Group workers were excluded from the Exemption from Military Service bill.

In the United States, where Moral Re-Armament was doing similar work, Senator (later President) Harry Truman, Chair of the Senate Committee investigating war contracts, told a Washington press conference in 1943: 'Suspicions, rivalries, apathy, greed lie behind most of the bottlenecks. This is where the Moral Re-Armament group comes in. Where others have stood back and criticized, they have rolled up their sleeves and gone to work. They have already achieved remarkable results in bringing teamwork into industry, on the principles not of "who's right," but of "what's right".'[1]:324

At the end of the war, the MRA workers returned to the task of establishing a lasting peace. In 1946, MRA bought and restored a large, derelict hotel at Caux, Switzerland, and this became a centre for reconciliation across Europe, bringing together thousands, including German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer and French Foreign Minister Robert Schuman.[1]:382 Its work was described by the historians Douglas Johnston and Cynthia Sampson as an "important contribution to one of the greatest achievements in the entire record of modern statecraft: the astonishingly rapid Franco-German reconciliation after 1945."[37]

In the following decades, MRA's work expanded across the globe, particularly into the African and Asian countries moving towards independence from colonial rule. Many leaders of these independence struggles have paid tribute to MRA's contribution towards bringing unity between groups in conflict, and helping ease the transition into independence. In 1956 King Mohammed V of Morocco sent a message to Buchman: 'I thank you for all you have done for Morocco in the course of these last testing years. Moral Re-Armament must become for us Muslims as much an incentive as it is for you Christians and for all nations.'[1]:454 In 1960 Archbishop Makarios and Dr Kucuk, President and Vice-President of Cyprus, jointly sent the first flag of independent Cyprus to Frank Buchman at Caux in recognition of MRA's help.[1]:524

In 2001 Moral Re-Armament (MRA), became "Initiatives of Change," a name expressing the emphasis of the organization in effecting social change beginning with personal change. Initiatives of Change claims spiritual roots but no religious affiliation, and invites "those with a faith...both to explore the roots of their own tradition, and to discover and respect the beliefs of others."[38]

Impact and legacy[edit]

Impact on industry[edit]

In Buchman's view, management and labour could "work together like the fingers on the hand", and in order to make that possible he aimed to answer "the self-will in management and labour who are both so right, and so wrong." MRA's role was to offer the experience which would free those people's hearts and minds from the motivations or prejudices which prevent just solutions.

William Grogan, an International Vice-President of the American Transport Workers' Union, said that "between 1946 and 1953 national union leaders, local union officials, shop stewards and rank and file union members from 75 countries had received training" in MRA principles.[39] Evert Kupers, for 20 years President of the Dutch Confederation of Trades Unions, stated that "the thousands who have visited Caux have been deeply impressed by its message for our age and by the real comradeship they found there."[40] In France Maurice Mercier, Secretary-General of the textile workers within the Force Ouvriere, said: "Class war today means one half of humanity against the other half, each possessing a powerful arsenal of destruction... Not one cry of hatred, not one hour of work lost, not one drop of blood shed - that is the revolution to which MRA calls bosses and workers."[41]

Relationship to Alcoholics Anonymous[edit]

In Akron, Ohio, Jim Newton, an Oxford Group member knew that one of Firestone's sons, Russell, was a serious alcoholic. He took him first to a drying-out clinic and then on to an Oxford Group conference in Denver. The young man gave his life to God, and thereafter enjoyed extended periods of sobriety. The family doctor called it a "medical miracle". Harvey Firestone Senior was so grateful that, in January 1933, he invited Buchman and a team of sixty to conduct a ten-day campaign in Akron. They left behind them a strong functioning group which met each week in the house of T. Henry Williams, amongst whom were an Akron surgeon, Bob Smith, and his wife Anne. Bob was a secret drinker.[1]:151–152

Rowland Hazard, claimed that it was Carl Jung who caused him to seek a spiritual solution to his alcoholism, which led to Rowland joining the Oxford group. He was introduced by Shep Cornell to Cornell's friend Ebby Thacher. Ebby had a serious drinking problem. Hazard introduced Ebby to Jung's theory and then to the Oxford Group. For a time Ebby took up residence at Sam Shoemaker's Calvary Rescue Mission[10]:381–386 that catered mainly to saving down-and-outs and drunks. Shoemaker taught inductees the concept of God being that of one's understanding.[42]

Ebby Thacher, in keeping with the Oxford Teachings, needed to keep his own conversion experience real by carrying the Oxford message of salvation to others. Ebby had heard that his old drinking buddy Bill Wilson was again drinking heavily. Thacher and Cornell visited Wilson at his home and introduced him to the Oxford Group's religious conversion cure. Wilson, an agnostic, was "aghast" when Thacher told him he had "got religion".[10]:131–139

A few days later, in a drunken state, Wilson went to the Calvary Rescue Mission in search of Ebby Thacher. It was there that he attended his first Oxford Group meeting and would later describe the experience: "Penitents started marching forward to the rail. Unaccountably impelled, I started too... Soon, I knelt among the sweating, stinking penitents ... Afterward, Ebby ... told me with relief that I had done all right and had given my life to God."[10] The Call to the Altar did little to curb Wilson's drinking. A couple of days later, he re-admitted himself to Charles B. Towns Hospital. Wilson had been admitted to Towns hospital three times earlier between 1933 and 1934. This would be his fourth and last stay.[8]:150

Wilson did not obtain his spiritual awakening by his attendance at the Oxford Group. He had his "hot flash" conversion at Towns Hospital. The hospital was set up and run by Charles B. Towns and his associate Alexander Lambert, who together had concocted up a drug cocktail for the treatment of alcoholism that bordered on quackery, known as "the belladonna cure". The formula consisted of the two deliriants, Atropa belladonna and Hyoscyamus niger, which were known to cause hallucinations. Wilson claimed to have seen a white light, and when he told his attending physician, William Silkworth about his experience, he was advised not to discount it. After Wilson left the hospital, he never drank again.[8]:83–87, 165–167

After his release from the hospital, Wilson attended Oxford Group meetings and went on a mission to save other alcoholics. His prospects came through Towns Hospital and the Calvary Mission. Though he was not able to keep one alcoholic sober, he found that by engaging in the activity of trying to convert others he was able to keep himself sober. It was this realization, that he needed another alcoholic to work with, that brought him into contact with Bob Smith while on a business trip in Akron, Ohio. Earlier Wilson had been advised by Silkworth to change his approach and tell the alcoholics they suffered from a disease, one that could kill them, and afterward apply the Oxford Practices. The idea that alcoholism was a disease, not a moral failing, was different from the Oxford concept that drinking was a sin. This is what he brought to Bob Smith on their first meeting. Smith was the first alcoholic Wilson helped to sobriety. Dr. Bob and Bill W., as they were later called, went on to found Alcoholics Anonymous.

Wilson later acknowledged in Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age:[43] "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."

In 1934 James Houck joined the Oxford Group and became sober on Dec. 12, one day after Wilson did.[citation needed] AA was founded on June 10, 1935. Houck was the last surviving person to have attended Oxford Group meetings with Wilson, who died in 1971. In September 2004, at the age of 98, Houck was still active in the group, now renamed Moral Re-armament, and it was his mission to restore the Oxford Group's spiritual methods through the Back to Basics program, a twelve step program similar to AA. Houck believed the old Oxford spiritual methods were stronger and more effective than the ones currently practiced in A.A. Houck was trying to introduce the program into the prison systems.[44]

Houck's assessment of Wilson's time in the Oxford Group: He was never interested in the things we were interested in; he only wanted to talk about alcoholism; he was not interested in giving up smoking; he was a ladies man and would brag of his sexual exploits with other members, and in Houck's opinion he remained an agnostic.[45]


Because of its influence on the lives of several highly prominent individuals, the group attracted highly visible members of society, including members of the British Parliament and other European leaders[46] and such prominent Americans as the Firestone family, founders of the Firestone Tire and Rubber Company of Ohio.[47] Though sometimes controversial (the group attracted opposition from the Roman Catholic Church[48]), the group grew into a well-known, informal and international network of people by the 1930s. The London newspaper editor Arthur J. Russell joined the group after attending a meeting in 1931.[citation needed] He wrote For Sinners Only in 1932, which inspired the writers of God Calling.[49]

Among those influenced by the Oxford Group and Frank Buchman, one also finds:

Evaluation and critics[edit]

Carl Jung on the Oxford Group[edit]

Carl Jung on the matter of an individual and his involvement in the Oxford Group:

My attitude to these matters is that, as long as a patient is really a member of a church, he ought to be serious. He ought to be really and sincerely a member of that church, and he should not go to a doctor to get his conflicts settled when he believes that he should do it with God. For instance, when a member of the Oxford Group comes to me in order to get treatment, I say, "You are in the Oxford Group; so long as you are there, you settle your affair with the Oxford Group. I can't do it better than Jesus.[50]:272

Published literature critical of the Oxford Group[edit]

In 1934 Marjorie Harrison, an Episcopal Church member, published a book, Saints Run Mad, that challenged the group, its leader and their practices.[51]

The theologian Reinhold Niebuhr criticized Buchman's philosophy and pursuit of the wealthy and powerful. "The idea is that if the man of power can be converted, God will be able to control a larger area of human life through his power than if a little man were converted. This is the logic which has filled the Buchmanites with touching solicitude for the souls of such men as Henry Ford or Harvey Firestone."[52] He called its moral principles "a religious expression of a decadent individualism... bourgeois optimism, individualism and moralism expressing itself in the guise of religion," and added, "no wonder the rather jittery plutocrats of our day open their spacious summer homes to its message!"[52]

Confusion with Oxford Movement[edit]

The Oxford Group is occasionally confused with the Oxford Movement, an effort that began in the 19th-century Anglican Communion to encourage high-church practice and demonstrate the church's apostolic heritage. Though both had an association with members and students of the University of Oxford at different times, the Oxford Group and the Oxford Movement are unrelated.


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v Lean, Garth (1985). Frank Buchman - a life. Constable.
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  52. ^ a b Niebuhr, Reinhold, Christianity and Power Politics, New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1940, "Hitler and Buchman".

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