THE OXFORD GROUP
In the early thirties, Oxford was the place where the largest number of young people were prepared to take training for the task to which Buchman had set his hand. They and the Communists, who founded their October Club in 1932 and recruited three hundred members in the first year, were probably the most controversial bodies in the university. This was not because either group was sensationally numerous. Their significance resided in their radical commitment.
The first sign that many of the brighter spirits in Oxford were turning to Communism was the recruitment of poets like W. H. Auden, Stephen Spender and Cecil Day Lewis in the late twenties. Others followed them in the early thirties, mainly because of despair at the state of society. Three million Britons were unemployed, and living on a means-tested pittance not far from the starvation line. Successive governments, Conservative and Labour, seemed unwilling or unable to do anything about it. On the Continent Mussolini's dictatorial colours were now apparent, and in January 1933 Hitler came to power.
'No one who did not go through this political experience during the thirties', writes Day Lewis in his autobiography, 'can quite realise how much hope there was in the air then, how radiant for some of us was the illusion that man could, under Communism, put the world to rights.'1
There was generosity as well as naivety in this illusion, for Day Lewis and his friends seemed ready to dismantle their own pleasant way of life if they could thereby lessen the injustices of society and the world. Bearing in mind the pressures at home and abroad, the complacency of the establishment, and the almost total ignorance of how Communism was actually working in the Soviet Union, their attitude was understandable and worthy of respect. 'It would have been a disgrace not to have been a member of the Party' in the mid-thirties,' claimed one adherent, who states that he left it in 1938.2
The extent of the migration among British intellectuals-particularly in Cambridge where it included such then unpublicized figures as Kim Philby, Guy Burgess, Anthony Blunt and Donald Maclean - was significant. George Orwell believed that 'for about three or four years the central stream of English literature was more or less under Communist control',3 while Neal Wood writes of 'the dazzling array of intellectual virtuosi', many of whom achieved distinction in literature, the universities, the civil service and the sciences, who took the same road.4
Any examination of the lives of many of these intellectual Communists does much to indicate Buchman's belief that 'moral Bolshevism' among the intelligentsia, like the right-wing materialism of which he had warned the Sao Paulo business men, was an important factor in moving people towards Communism. The story is told in autobiography after autobiography. 'I was ripe for conversion because of my personal case-history,' wrote Arthur Koestler. 'Thousands of other members of the intelligentsia and the middle classes of my generation were ripe by virtue of their own case-histories: but, however much these differed from case to case, they had one common denominator: the rapid disintegration of moral values.'5
In Oxford at that time advocacy of such moral relativism was an active element in Communist propaganda. Hugh Elliott of Hertford College, a friend of the founder of the October Club, says, 'We met the Hunger Marchers on their way to London, sang the Internationale with them and bitterly criticised the Government's policy of "safety first". In the October Club we discussed a new social order. I began to question all my basic beliefs. A distinguished gynaecologist came to lecture to a mixed and packed audience. He told us we were all suffering from inhibitions about sex. Free love was both natural and normal. Many of my friends went the whole way with his teachings, Later, I saw real tragedy in their lives and understood the connection between discarding moral standards and the acceptance of the Communist ideology, which was the lecturer's frank intention. Myself, I hesitated...'
It was at that moment that Elliott met the Oxford Group. 'My friend who had introduced me to the October Club won my respect by his dedication,' Elliott continues, 'but I saw in those who worked with Buchman a greater dedication and self-discipline. They were so genuine. What they started in Oxford aroused a lot of controversy, but could not be talked down, and I joined them.'
Buchman and his colleagues did not decry Communism or support any other political tendency. They simply set before people uncompromising standards of absolute honesty, purity, unselfishness and love, and stated that God had a plan for the world - and for each person individually - which each could find and with which each could co-operate. Buchman asserted, though there was little contemporary evidence to back the assertion, that if they fully committed their lives to God they would, in the future, see transformations in social and national affairs around them.
For some the method seemed too slow, yet it had the virtue of facing both personal and social problems, of filling, in Day Lewis' words, 'the hollow in the breast where a God should be'6.
The majority of those who composed the Oxford Group had not experienced Elliott's dilemma. The relative morality which had pene trated the Oxford poets was only beginning to affect the average undergraduate. Many had become agnostics - or nominal Christians - because they had never seen Christianity whole-heartedly lived out, but had been held back from 'the moral slum' of which Spender wrote concerning himself by the standards of their parents or a sneaking feeling that Christianity, if it were possible, was the right way to live. Most Oxford undergraduates had read the Bible - all at that time had to pass an examination on the Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles - and many of those who responded to Buchman's ideas saw in his Oxford friends the nearest thing to the Acts which they had encountered.
So, between 1931 and 1935, about a hundred and fifty undergraduates (myself among them), together with the Chaplains of Corpus, Hertford and Lincoln Colleges, and an occasional professor, met at 1.30 each day, between a hurried bread-and-cheese lunch and the afternoon's sport. The variety was wide though, from the nature of Oxford then, mainly middle-class. Harry Addison, the son of a clerk in a small coal agency in Sunderland, came from Newcastle University with the best classical degree of his year: painfully shy, a passionate scholar, wholly apolitical. Ray Nelson was the ebullient leader of a jazz band, with a penchant for railway timetables. Charis Waddy was the first woman to study oriental languages at the University. John Morrison had already studied theology at New College, Edinburgh, and in Germany under Barth and Bultmann. Kit Prescott, a rowing member of a famous rugby football family, narrowly collected a pass degree and left a string of transformed lives behind him.
The whole mobilisation, though very much in earnest, was conducted with a certain humorous abandon. In one college there was a sweepstake initiated by the 'unchanged' as to who would be 'changed' next. Prescott, spying an Oxford Mail poster 'Oxford Stroke Changed' in the weeks leading up to the Boat Race, acquired half a dozen and nailed them on the doors of his rowing friends in college. One young man who had heard that Roland Wilson was trying to be 'guided by God' followed him for a day to see where he went.
Paul Petrocokino, a faintly Wodehousian figure, who sported a leopard-skin waistcoat and composed in the manner of Handel, remem- bers the rumour in Exeter College that a certain high-spirited maiden, who always toured Oxford on a bicycle with a dog attached, had succumbed.
'Seen the "dog girl" lately?' he had asked one of her admirers in the Junior Common Room.
'Haven't you heard?'
'The Oxford Group have got her.'
They had, indeed, and to the amazement of the connoisseurs, she stuck to it. Buchman's idea was to 'out-live, out-love and out-laugh the pagan world', and she found that interesting.
The training, given and received, was serious. Of the lunch-time meetings, Alan Thornhill, then Chaplain of Hertford, says, 'They were not the usual discussion circles that Oxford loves. The aim was not discussion. It was to build a new world. These meetings were an intense spiritual training. There was complete informality and you could say what you liked, but the spiritual temperature was such that the dilettante and the armchair theorist soon found the pace too hot for him. People were blunt with themselves and each other. Absolute standards of honesty and unselfishness were applied not to some pleasant pipe-dream of the sweet by-and-by, but to details of the nasty now-and-now. What time do you get up these days? How about your times of prayer and listening? Are you winning your friends to this new way of life? Which comes first - ambition or God? These were the kind of questions flung out and fought out in those daily meetings. With them went the simple, practical training that every Christian university ought to give as a matter of course - the moral basis of Christianity, the steps involved in finding a personal experience of faith, the art of passing that experience on, how to listen to God, the building of an unbreakable fellowship.' It was a fellowship of travellers, a dedication without vows or rules, where no one had to do anything except what he or she felt God told them to do.
On one afternoon each week, all came together for a meeting where visiting speakers or distinguished Oxonians took matters wider and deeper. There were reports on the progress in other countries. L. W. Grensted, by now Nolloth Professor of the Philosophy of the Christian Religion, gave a series of talks on the psychology of life-changing and the Christian life. The afternoons finished with a half-hour service which the Professor conducted in the University Church. People went to their college chapel or other churches on Sunday.
Buchman was, as Thornton-Duesbery often said, 'soaked in the Bible', and made certain that it formed the basis of the training given in Oxford. His recipe for Bible-reading was, 'Read accurately, interpret honestly, apply drastically.' 'The Bible is a manual about fishing for fishermen,' he would sometimes say, in taking people through the stories of the man born blind whom Jesus cured and converted,7 of the woman he met at Jacob's Well whose change affected her whole community,8 or of Philip's daring encounter with the Treasurer of the Queen of Ethiopia.9 He believed that, in order to grow, the infant Christian needed food (the Bible), air (two-way prayer) and exercise - and his young colleagues, here as in China or on his world tour, learnt much about their own natures and the further changes which were needed, as they went into action together.
Buchman insisted, at the beginning of one term, that each should aim to change the most difficult person in the college. With some it happened, and the skill and reticence he practised gradually began to develop in his young friends. Meanwhile, there was trial, and not a little error. 'Ambition came in a good deal with me, and did harm,' recalls Ian Sciortino of St Edmund Hall. 'I met our College Vice-Principal - he'd got a brilliant First in theology - and told him all about the spiritual life. He didn't like being assaulted by a brash young hearty and told me so. I also buttonholed the college chaplain. He was quite encouraging, but I learnt later that he had given me a very unpleasant nickname which went around the Senior Common Room.' Sciortino's Principal, A. B. Emden, however, frequently had him and his friends to his rooms, listened and prayed with them, and remained a life-long friend.
Families naturally reacted in different ways. When the Isis cartoonist, Reginald Hale, met the Oxford Group, his mother was anxious about the subject of 'guidance' and wrote to her uncle, Prebendary Carlile, the founder of the Church Army. Back came a reassuring postcard: 'Dear Marie, Guidance is love in action. Yours in the fight. Wilson Carlile.'10 Margot Appleyard's11 father, anxious that she might later regret her decision to give her whole time to Group work after leaving Oxford, allowed her four months to try it out and then took her on six months' world-wide travel. On their way back across the Mediterranean, she told him that she was more sure than ever that she should work with Buchman and his friends. Her father was content, and backed her in her decision for the rest of his life.
Others met with sterner opposition. One young man was cut out of his father's will, and other parents feared that 'faith and prayer' would mean that their offspring would get into financial difficulties which would put some obligation on them. But most parents, when they were sure their young people felt a deep call, agreed to their following it. Indeed, quite a few followed their children. When Rozi Evans, a cheerful agnostic from Herefordshire, joined Buchman, she was followed by her father and mother, three brothers, two sisters and numerous cousins. The surviving parents of Kit Prescott, Ray Nelson and Francis Goulding were among many who took an active part with them in the Oxford Group for the rest of their lives.
In the vacations the Oxford students - together with those from Cambridge and other universities - took part in campaigns in East London and other industrial areas, as well as taking initiative in their own towns.
Thus, in Scotland, the North-East, Yorkshire, the Midlands and South Wales teams grew round them, and as in East London they moved particularly with the workers. In Newcastle, Harry Addison enlisted the Lord Mayor, Will Locke, who was a miner, and his friends. In Scotland, the Glasgow students raised a team of unemployed shipyard workers. In Yorkshire it was, amongst others, a group of mill-girls, in Birmingham engineering workers, and in Wales shipyard workers and miners. Oxford students, reinforced by some from other universities, were at the heart of Buchman's large-scale ventures in Canada and Scandinavia in the mid-thirties, and many - for some forty to fifty per cent of the Oxford recruits took on the work full-time - pioneered teams of their own in various countries.
At the same time those who had opted for active moral relativism or Communism, or both, went on to play a major part in the intellectual life of Britain, and of the great majority who had joined the Communist Party and later left it, many looked back to their past with nostalgia, feeling, in Koestler's words, that 'never before or since then had life been so brimful of meaning'.12 Their ideas remained, in certain aspects, the antithesis of those the Oxford Group tried to practise, and in some among them the antipathy was so strong that they became active opponents in the coming decades.
Oxford had also become the centre of Buchman's activities in another way. Each year between 1930 and 1937 he hired one or more colleges for a house-party in the summer vacation. In 1930 it was a comparatively small affair at Lady Margaret Hall and St Hugh's. In the summer of 1933 5,000 guests turned up for some part of an event which filled six colleges and lasted seventeen days. Four main meetings ran simultaneously, with the principal speakers shuttling from one to the other; and a team of 400 met with Buchman at 7.30 each morning for training and to prepare the day. Almost 1,000 were clergy, including twelve bishops.
Even the relatively small numbers of 1930 caused some concern to Buchman's more cautious British associates. On 17 June he wrote to Eleanor Forde, recuperating from an illness in America, ‘I go on to Oxford tomorrow. They are paralysed by the number of people coming, but I am not worried.'13 Ten days later he wrote to her enthusiastically, 'We are now under a genuine avalanche. We have to run two concurrent house-parties to cope with all the numbers. We have wonderful weather, green lawns, sunny skies and everything needed to complete a perfect setting - only we do miss you and wish you were with us.'14
Paul Hodder-Williams, the son of the Dean of Manchester and later chairman of the family publishing firm, Hodder and Stoughton, attended the house-party in 1932 and recalled, in 1980, that it made 'the spiritual knowledge I was brought up with come real for the first time - practical rather than theoretical'. He persuaded his uncle to carry a weekly column about the Oxford Group in the British Weekly, and an eight-page supplement of the same paper on the subject ran to an edition of 119,000 copies.15
In 1932 Hodder and Stoughton also produced a racy account of Buchman and his work by A. J. Russell, a former literary editor of Beaverbrook's Daily Express and managing editor of the Sunday Express. The book, titled For Sinners Only, went through seventeen editions in England in two years and was translated widely, the French edition being even more provocatively titled Ceci n'est pas pourvous. The book brought in a flood of letters. George Bernard Shaw's niece read her uncle's copy. She wrote to a friend, 'G.B.S. met the Group in South Africa and felt they had got "the right thing", even if not altogether keen on some frills attached in the way of phraseology. He told me to get in touch and even offered to pay for me at a house-party.' He also urged his secretary to do the same, characteristically suggesting that, as she was the daughter of a clergyman, she needed to seize the chance.16
In 1934 the house-party ended with a meeting in Oxford Town Hall. Its principal interest, as far as Oxford was concerned, was the speech of the Provost of the Queen's College, Dr B. H. Streeter, an outstanding New Testament scholar with wide knowledge of world affairs and especially of the Far East. He said he had been watching the Oxford Group for two and a half years and compared his attitude to 'that taken towards the early Church by Gamaliel, that most amiable of the Pharisees'. 'The reason I have come here tonight', he continued, 'is to say publicly that I ought now to cease from an attitude of benevolent neutrality towards what I have come to believe is the most important religious movement of today. . . . The movement seems to be able not merely to change some bad people into good, but also to give new heart and a new courage and a new sense of direction to those who are already men of goodwill. That is why I have come to the conclusion that in an age of growing world despair it is my duty to associate myself with it.
'May I add,' he concluded, 'that I come to the Group, not as a person with some little reputation in his own sphere of study, or as the head of an Oxford College; I come as one who has already learned something from the Group, and hopes to learn more.'17
The numbers at Oxford house-parties kept on rising. Almost 1,000 people registered on one day in July 1935, twice the previous record for a day's arrivals, and there were 6,000 for a meeting on the lawns of Lady Margaret Hall. Nor was it only Oxford which drew the crowds. In January 1935 1,400 went to a house-party in Malvern, called at the suggestion of the Bishop of Worcester; and this was followed by a series of meetings in Penge, in South London, to which 4,000 went and which the Bishop of Croydon welcomed in glowing terms.
For Buchman himself, however, life was not all moonlight and roses. That summer he was asked by General Lynden Bell to spend a day in the Buffs'* tent at Canterbury Cricket Week. J. L. Guise, the Oxford and Middlesex cricketer, drove him there from Oxford via London, as Buchman wanted to buy a suitable tie for the occasion. The tie of the Eton Ramblers took his fancy, and Guise only persuaded him to purchase something more neutral 'with considerable difficulty'. The whole occasion turned out something of a 'baptism of fire' for Guise, who relates: 'I shall never forget that day; until then I had not realised the degree of persecution and opprobrium Frank had to endure. Bishops, high-ranking soldiers and cricketers packed the marquee and most were holding Frank in suspicious sidelong glances. "There's Frank Buchman", one could hear them mutter to each other. For me it was the test of a lifetime, for I was well-known in the world of cricket and to be Frank's companion meant meeting the same hostility. Only one person was perfectly at ease in every conversation and introduction we had and that person was Frank; he remained his natural cheerful self throughout. ... Driving home in the evening, Frank suddenly pointed to a small cottage . . . and asked me to stop as an old friend of his, a gardener, lived there whom he had not seen for many years. It was a full hour before he came out, very happy that he had found his old friend well and in good heart, though getting on in years.''18
(* Bells exclusive regiment.)
The Group's younger and more ebullient supporters were, of course, the last to play down the significance of the sudden expansion of numbers. When four teams of students were commissioned to visit the South Coast, London, the Midlands and the North respectively, the Group's publicity declared that 'this marked in England and perhaps for the world a revival fully as significant as the Reformation'; while one young enthusiast regarded the arrival of 300 Canadians and Americans at the 1934 house-party as 'the most significant event since the sailing of the Mayflower'. Their history was faulty, to say the least. But a less biased witness, the unregenerate Malcolm Muggeridge, wrote in his book The Thirties that in half a decade the Oxford Group had generated the only genuine religious revival of the period.19
On the other side of the Atlantic, too, Henry van Dusen, a professor at Union Theological Seminary, was describing Buchman's work as 'perhaps the most powerful, and certainly the most striking spiritual phenomenon of our times'. Van Dusen expressed various criticisms, together with his assessment of Buchman's personality, in an article headed 'Apostle to the Twentieth Century' in The Atlantic Monthly.20 His main criticisms were that Buchman was disdainful of the efforts of other Christians, while being 'hypersensitive to any criticism of his own vision'; that he saw the task of 'life-changing' as the sine qua non for every Christian, whatever his gifts, and allowed no division of responsibility for different talents; that he was a name-dropper and 'paid an uncritical, almost childlike, deference to people of birth or social position'; and that he was prone to exaggerations of various kinds which clashed with his avowed standard of 'absolute honesty'. At the same time, his final paragraph describes Buchman as 'one of the most extraordinary men in a period which may be distinguished in the annals of history as the Begetter of Great Leaders'.
'As with all men of genius,' he wrote, 'the secret of Mr Buchman's influence is not easily defined. One thinks at once of obvious qualities which distinguish him and make their contributions to his effectiveness - a quite extraordinary skill in administration; personal attention to the importance of the minutest detail; infinite solicitude for each person's needs and idiosyncrasies; tireless resilience of body and nerves; playful and unclouded gaiety of spirit; financial sagacity, not to say shrewdness; tenacious memory; a sense of strategy which might quicken the jealousy of a Napoleon; exuberant and contagious optimism.
'But one is driven to conclude that none of these is the gift of inborn equipment: all are products of some deeper secret. The ultimate sources of Mr Buchman's personal power are, I think, four: uncanny pre-vision of the future, expert understanding of the inmost problems of the human spirit, unclouded certainty in his own procedure and the absolute deliverance of self - his hopes, his necessities, his reputation, his success - into the direction of the Divine Intention, clearly and commandingly made known to him. How far the first three are themselves the result of the last, no human analysis can reveal.'
1 Cecil Day Lewis: The Buried Day (Chatto and Windus, 1960), pp.208-11.
2 James McGibbon, Sunday Times, 22 July 1984.
3 George Orwell: Inside the Whales and Other Essays (Gollancz, 1940), p.163.
4 Neal Wood: Communism and British Intellectuals (Gollancz, 1959), pp.31, 96-121.
5 Arthur Koestler: The God That Failed (Hamish Hamilton, 1930), pp. 29-30.
6 Day Lewis, p. 209.
7 John 9.
8 John 4, 7-12.
9 Acts 8, 26-39.
10 Reginald Hale, unpublished memoirs, Vol. 1, p.53.
11 Later Margot Lean.
12 Koestler, p. 30.
13 Buchman to Eleanor Forde, 17 June 1930.
14 ibid., 27 June 1930.
15 British Weekly supplement, 6 July 1933.
16 Martin MSS.
17 Oxford Mail, 12 July 1934.
18 John Guise: Those Two Imposters (1985, privately published), pp. 64-5.
19 Malcolm Muggeridge: The Thirties (Hamish Hamilton, 1940), p. 20.
20 Van Dusen, Atlantic Monthly, July 1934.