Frank Buchman was born in Pennsburg, Pennsylvania, on 4 June 1878. The town had one main street of plain brick houses, a Lutheran Reformed church, a general store, a millinery shop, a small cigar factory, a hotel, and a newly-built railway station patronised by four passenger trains and two freights a day. Its 1,200 inhabitants were virtually all Pennsylvania Germans - the name by then corrupted to Pennsylvania Dutch - most of them descended from settlers who had trekked up the valleys from Philadelphia during the previous century and a half. To the east lay the Perkiomen River, named after an Indian chief, and all around stretched the rolling, fertile farmland which had made Pennsburg a comfortable and prosperous township.
Like the rest of Pennsylvania Dutch society, Pennsburg was a conservative and intensely close-knit place. 'I could lie awake at night', said Buchman later, 'and think who lived in every house from one end of Pennsburg to the other.' German, in a dialect which sounded like a mixture of Swabian and Swiss German, was still the language of everyday speech, and to the end of his days Buchman's father was more at home with German than with English. Most of the area's local newspapers were printed in German, sermons were delivered in German and many of the customs of the homeland survived intact. At Christmas the trees were heavy with red apples and cookies decorated with red sugar; on Shrove Tuesday there were special doughnuts, known as Fawsanochdkucha (Fastnachtkuchen). It was all part of a culture quite different from anything outside the area.
The people, too, strongly resembled their prototypes in Europe. They were serious, dutiful and apt to take a sombre view of life, and their morality embodied a keen appreciation of the value of material things. They believed in hard work, frugality and a scrupulous honesty in their dealings. Buchman once described them as ‘people who are conservative, stubborn, suspicious. Not to excel in something is just too bad.’
Abstinence from alcohol was regarded as preferable, and the only permissible vice was overeating. To the Pennsylvania Dutch, indeed, the delights of the table were among the principal joys of life. This was the land which originated the waffle and shoo-fly pie, the land of chicken corn soup and dandelion salad. Everyone was expected to provide a good meal at short notice and anyone who was not a good trencherman was apt to be suspect.
The first ‘German’ settlers arrived in the late seventeenth century. For them, Pennsylvania was a land of refuge from religious persecution. They had come at the invitation of the English Quaker in 1680, William Penn, to whom Charles II had granted a tract of 45,000 square miles in his newest colonial domain. Penn’s mother was German and he was thus particularly sensitive to the plight of those who were being harried for their beliefs by either Catholic Hapsburgs or Lutheran princes, or both. So they poured across the Atlantic - Mennonites, Schwenkfelders, Seventh-Day Adventists, Amish and Moravians as well as Lutherans. Most came from Swabia and southern Germany, from eastern Switzerland and from the Tyrol.
Buchman’s ancestors travelled from eastern Switzerland half a century or so later, not so much to avoid persecution as to take up free land in a thriving and congenial community. The family’s Swiss citizenship was in the town of Bischofszell. The most noted bearer of the name had been Thomas Bibliander,* who succeeded Zwingli as Professor of Theology in the Academy at Zurich in 153l. At the time when the Turks were besieging Vienna and every pulpit was thundering against the 'Mohammedan enemies of Christ', he issued a medieval translation of the Koran into Latin, the universal language of scholarly Europe. His printer was imprisoned, and he himself was only with the greatest difficulty restrained by his friends from setting off for the Middle East. Frank Buchman, in later years, took much delight in the assumption – suggested to him by a Buchman he met in Paris - that he was descended from Bibliander; but the extent of the kinship is uncertain.1
(* Following the custom of the time, he had adopted the classical rendering of the family name)
The Buchmans who emigrated to Pennsylvania were Martin and his brother Jacob. They left Switzerland in 1750, sailed for Philadelphia from Rotterdam on the Phoenix on 28 August, and then trundled by wagon the sixty miles to Cetronia, where both soon became modestly successful farmers. Martin's son and son-in-law fought in the Revolutionary War, as major and captain respectively, in the Northampton County Militia. Meanwhile in 1738 Buchman's mother's forebear, Jacob Greenwalt,2 had left the canton of Bern with his wife and three sons, become indentured to a farmer for two years to pay for their passage and then settled in the same Northampton county. Young men from both families went West to seek their fortunes. One of Frank Buchman's maternal uncles, Aaron Greenwalt, settled in Anoka, Minnesota. He was one of the first in the state to enlist for the North in the Civil War, and died at the battle of Gettysburg. Buchman's own father, Franklin, got as far as Indiana, where he worked as a road builder - on the ‘corduroy’ roads of those days, made from tree trunks - but then caught malaria and had to be brought home to the family farm. He met Sarah Anna Greenwalt at a picnic and, on 5 January 1875, they were married and went to live at the Greenwalt farm in the lovely hill country around Weisnersville.
Franklin Buchman senior was both restless and enterprising. Within a year he had left the farm and set up as a merchant, and eighteen months later he and Sarah moved again, this time to Pennsburg, where he bought a general store at 772 Main Street, selling everything from meat and molasses to paraffin. Business prospects must have looked promising. The Philadelphia and Reading Railroad had already opened its Perkiomen branch from Philadelphia to Pennsburg, and planned to extend the line to Emmaus and Allentown.
Franklin and Sarah Buchman's first child, a son, called John William, was born in Pennsburg in 1876, but died from diphtheria before he was two. Five months later their second boy was born in the first-floor bedroom above the store* He was named Franklin after his father, and Nathaniel Daniel after his Buchman and Greenwalt grandfathers. As he said, 'When I was born, they tried to keep everybody happy.' The Buchmans had no more children of their own, but twenty-one years later they adopted their nephew Dan, eighteen years younger than Frank, who became a much-loved if troublesome member of the family.
(* The building, now Markley's Pharmacy, is marked by a plaque put up by the community as part of the centenary celebrations of Buchman's birth.)
The store flourished and, after a time, Franklin Buchman senior was able to emulate his own father, who had been an inn-keeper as well as a farmer, and buy the small hotel down by the railroad station. It had thirteen rooms, a saloon bar, and a wooden balcony which ran the full length of the frontage. It now became the Buchman House Hotel, offering 'Best accommodation for travellers, salesmen and drovers. House furnished with steam heat. Teams to hire at reasonable rates.' 'There was one rule,' Frank Buchman recalled: 'if you weren't in by one o'clock, no lunch. It was a family affair. I used to have to dry the dishes.'
So the young Frank spent a formative period in his childhood in a small railway hotel. The experience played a vital part in shaping his character. The railway tracks were like a river which, every week, brought in a new tide of demanding, hurrying humanity. Through them, the boy caught the echoes and flavours of the great world outside to which otherwise he might have had little access; and he saw his parents acting as hosts to a wide assortment of travellers, taking the meticulous care in preparing rooms and serving meals which was to be a practice with him all his life.
It was, by his own account, a delightful childhood. 'I could walk the tracks from Greensboro to Pennsburg and never get off. I squashed pennies on the track.' Six days a week in the holidays, he went fishing for catfish, sunfish and bass on the upper Perkiomen River and, next morning, fried his catch for breakfast. At Easter, he hunted for eggs which his mother had hidden in the garden, in summer there was swimming, in the winter tobogganing and sleigh-rides. Later, his father took him each Saturday to the races in their carriage, drawn by ‘two spanking black horses’ - though he was not allowed to bet. He had a new red velocipede and a dog called Nickie, and there seemed all the time in the world for everything. The memory of that childhood remained with him through a long life of travel. ‘There is nothing I like so much as Pennsylvania in June,’ he once said. ‘I love the red soil and the flowers, the loveliness of the Blue Mountains ... I'm glad I was surrounded by so much beauty.’
When Buchman was eight, his parents sent him to a private school a few blocks along the tracks. Perkiomen Seminary* was run by the Schwenkfelders, the most liberal of the German sects which had colonised the area. They believed that the Lutheran Reformation was too rigid and state-dominated and that a more personal and spiritual religion was needed, with less liturgy and ritual. To the study of the Bible, they added ‘the inner light which, they considered, came through the direct inspiration and rule of the Holy Spirit. Closer to the Quakers than to the fundamentalist sects like the Amish and Mennonites, they were in many ways ecumenists before their time. Whether their influence on Buchman was permanent is not known - in later years he could not list their beliefs - but in any event it was not a narrow one. Although his family were orthodox Lutherans, he sometimes walked six miles to the nearest Catholic church with a friend who was going to early Mass.
(* Now the centre of a large campus, drawing students from several countries.)
At the seminary he had a formal education in languages (including Latin and Greek), rhetoric, mathematics, science and music. In the classroom, he seems to have been eager and hard-working, though no more than an average pupil. Outside it, he was a sociable extrovert, ‘a rapidly growing boy of clear skin and eye and ruddy colour, often monopolised by the "fairer sex"’, according to a family friend.3 When thirteen, he founded a club for boys and girls which he called the PGB Society: the initials, he explained, were merely designed to provoke curiosity.4
If this kind of levity was rare in Pennsylvania German society, another side of the young Buchman had already begun to show itself. His mother, whose cousin had been a distinguished divine, cherished the desire that her son, too, should become a minister, and the boy appears to have accepted the commission readily enough. He recalled, at the age of 83, one incident which may have helped to form his early mind. A well-known Pennsburg drunk appeared one Sunday on the penitent's stool in church, thus signalling a decision to reform. 'I was about five at the time,' related Buchman. 'It was the first time I grasped that religion could change someone's way of living.' His Sunday School teacher noted that he seemed 'to crave the power to lead others aright' and soon he was practising sermons at home.
All the same, he seems to have been subject to most of the peccadilloes of youth. 'When I was eleven I kissed a girl,' he said. 'The girl wouldn't have anything to do with me for a week.' He stole money from his mother to buy sweets, had his mouth washed out with soap for swearing, and years later, when a young man shamefacedly told him that he gave way to a common temptation, asked cheerfully, 'How old are you?' 'Twenty-two.' 'You've got one year to go,' replied the middle-aged Buchman. 'I didn't finally get free of that till I was twenty-three.'
There was no high school in Pennsburg, and so, when Buchman was sixteen, his father sold the hotel and the family moved to Allentown, only eighteen miles to the north but, at that time, a three-hour journey by horse and buggy. It was a major shift in environment and status. They took a comfortable, newly-built terraced house with a porch, at 117 N 11th Street,* looking out across a dirt road to farmland - said to be among the most fertile in the United States. Frank Buchman senior opened a restaurant and saloon at 533 Hamilton Street, at a stone's throw from the court-house, which soon became a centre of political and social discussion. At that time, even the main street was still unpaved and the only form of public transport was a trolley, drawn by two scrawny mules. But - like the rest of America - Allentown was expanding at an explosive rate. Its population, only 18,000 in 1880, was to double by 1900, and new smoke-stacks were constantly going up along the banks of the Lehigh River. There were good telephone, telegraph and rail links with New York and Philadelphia: by the time the Buchmans arrived, twenty trains a day in each direction.
(* In what is now the Old Allentown Historic District. The house is open to the public, and has been preserved by the Lehigh County Historical Society almost exactly as it was when the Buchman family lived there.)
The move did not impair young Buchman's high spirits. At Allentown High School - three and a half blocks from his new home - he and a friend decided to explore the loft, which meant crawling around on the exposed rafters. Buchman slipped and one leg went through the ceiling of the classroom below, to the delight of the pupils and the annoyance of the master. As at Perkiomen, he contributed items of gossip to the school magazine. 'Why does a certain lass carry a picture of Athletics Team ‘95 to school?' he asked. 'She surely has a reason!' At the same time, he was telling a friend that, although he loved dancing, he would give it up when he was twenty-one because he was going to be a minister.
He duly entered Muhlenberg College, a liberal arts institution owned and run by the Lutheran Ministerium, whose prime purpose was to provide the church with a steady stream of ministers. Buchman himself ‘was pining to go to Princeton’, but his father was adamant that Muhlenberg, just a mile from home on 11th Street, was more suitable. The students wore black suits and ties; theology, together with German and Greek, loomed large in the Curriculum; and those who aspired to the cloth were expected to teach Sunday School and visit the sick. Buchman took a Sunday School class at a local mission and spent a good deal of time visiting hospitals and orphanages. But, in other ways, he scarcely comported himself in the accepted earnest fashion.
To begin with, he took painting lessons. He also attended Mrs Chapman's dancing academy on Hamilton Street and was not slow to put into practice what he had learnt. Sometime in 1897 a party was given by Mrs Chapman's pupils, to which each invited a young lady. Afterwards, said the local newspaper, they ‘repaired to Peters and Jacoby’s where they enjoyed oysters on the half-shell, fried oysters, chicken... ice-cream and cake’. On this occasion, it added, ‘There was only one toast, ‘Pitch in.’ Its repetition was not deemed necessary.’5
In the winter, there were sleighing parties to villages as far away as Nazareth. ‘We'd go and dance all night’, recalled Buchman, ‘and then drive home fourteen miles by sled in the early morning.’ On a visit to Allentown later in life, he pointed out the Alpha Tau Omega Fraternity house where he had taken twelve girls to a dance: ‘I couldn't bear to disappoint them.’
At college, he was business manager of the paper, drew cartoons for the year book, the Ciarla - Prohibition appears as a severe and crusty old man - was an enthusiastic member of the tennis and bicycle clubs, won a physical culture prize, was class vice-president for the second half of his senior year, and amused himself writing dramatic sketches and poetry of a romantic character and acting in the freshman play.
Buchman’s home background was even more unusual for the average ordinand of those days. In 1897 his father opened a wholesale wine and liquor business in Emmaus, five miles south of Allentown, and this, combined with his passion for the turf, hardly made him the Lutheran establishment's idea of a model parent for one of their future pastors. In fact, a local minister preached against him and said he would go to hell. However, Frank's father, meeting the minister on the railway station, pulled his leg about the sermon and offered him a drink. This was accepted, and they became friends. Meanwhile his business prospered, and his teams supplied wines, liquor, and soft drinks like sarsaparilla to establishments in four counties.
Buchman’s mother was always ready, in the tradition of the area, to provide hospitality for his friends at the shortest notice. ‘Frank always loved a party,’ said a neighbour, ‘and his mother did too.’ He often referred to her as a ‘great provider’. In the frozen studio portraits of the period, she appears distinctly stern-faced and forbidding. A Scotsman, meeting her in her old age, said she was built like ‘a great square-rigger’. ‘She was tall, her face full of wrinkles, but when she smiled it was like a sunflower,’ he added. Contemporaries stress her sense of humour. At all events, the stern exterior in the photo cloaked an exceptionally tolerant nature, at least so far as her only son was concerned.
By comparison, Buchman's father looks indecisive. But ‘he was’, said a friend, ‘a successful business man who was out to back his son to the limit.’6 He was also generous with friends who got into difficulties; and the years spent in restaurants and behind the bar had given him a shrewd and charitable insight into human nature. That, perhaps, is why his son used later to tell younger men that what they needed, in trying to help people, were the qualities of a good barman - sympathy, willingness to listen and intuition. Buchman said he learnt from his father how to understand people, while he inherited from his mother his personal reserve and a sense of order and of the line that divides right from wrong.
Theirs was a comfortable home in the German style, with a good deal of dark and rather heavy furniture, relieved by pleasant oils and water-colours - several of them, showing considerable sensitivity, painted by the young Frank - and a number of elegant ornaments, including a beautiful Limoges tea service. They had two servants, and wine was regularly served at table.
Sarah Buchman, always to be seen with a crisp white frill at her neck, her hair drawn back in a bun, was both proud that she came from a family of some means* and determined that her son should have the kind of upbringing which she felt their standing as a family merited. Like any good Pennsylvania German, she had an acute sense of the proper order of things; like any good bourgeoise, she longed to see her offspring rise in that order. She hoped he would make his mark in the world, but as a local man of God. In her ambition for him at this time, the temporal and the spiritual were closely intertwined.
(* 'My grandmother came (from Switzerland) with corsets and lace. Few people had corsets in those days,’ related Buchman. (Martin diaries, 12 May 1941.)
Buchman spent his summer holidays either on cycle trips (one year he and a school friend, Arthur Keller, went by train and boat as far as Montreal, making side trips by bicycle or on foot) or at Chautauqua, the religious and cultural centre in New York State, where an annual series of lectures and recitals provided what seems to have been a cross between a holiday and a summer finishing school. Its programme included lectures on subjects ranging from Milton to cookery and temperance, prayer meetings and sports, and was enlivened by a variety of entertainments, among them orchestral concerts, Swiss yodellers and college girl octettes. The lecturers included evangelists like Henry Drummond, though Buchman never met him, and writers like Mark Twain.
While at Muhlenberg, Buchman visited Woonsocket, Rhode Island, at the invitation of a Miss Florence Thayer, whom he had evidently met either in Chautauqua or at a social gathering in Allentown, and whose father ran five satinette mills. The splendour of the Thayers’ home quite dazzled him. The house, he told his mother, was in a very aristocratic quarter, in the finest street in Woonsocket, and right next to the home of a former governor of Rhode island. It had a large hall, a large reception room in gold and white, and there were Wilton carpets on the floor, fine draperies at the windows and handsome pictures on the walls. One room alone, he calculated with the eye of a hotelier's son, must have cost $1,500 to furnish, if not more. The Thayers, he concluded, had no less than three carriages.7
The social life was equally captivating. He went to dances with Miss Thayer and was ‘entertained at cards’ by her friends. One was a multi- millionaire's son who had recently graduated from Harvard. He was, Buchman reported, ‘a splendid young fellow, interested quite a bit in racehorses but seems to be a Christian’. His own delight was all the greater because he felt in such demand. ‘I am perfectly lionised here,’ he told his mother. ‘They want me at the house all the time.’8 As for Miss Thayer herself, ‘She did not disappoint me in the least.’9 It is clear that the young Frank regarded Florence as a possible fiancée. She is on his list of those who gave him Christmas presents in 1897 and 1898; although several other ladies also appear on the latter list. Another young lady was the recipient of Buchman's fraternity pin, such an exchange in those days often being a precursor of engagement and marriage; while the daughter of a third is convinced that had Buchman married, it would have been to her mother, Bertha Werner.
The young Buchman, then, was full of natural contradictions. He relished the gaiety of bourgeois social life, he was dazzled by the elegance and wealth of a world he had only just begun to explore and, whatever might happen after he had reached the age of twenty-one, he had no intention of conforming before then with the standard image of the future Lutheran divine.
At the same time, he was clearly looking for some path of religious or social self-giving. His essays on religious subjects* displayed a warmth and breadth of vision beyond obligatory piety. ‘God's greatest gift to man,’ he wrote on ‘Friendly Service’, ‘is love. Man rises or falls in the scales of greatness as he possesses this gift… The danger is ... that our adhesion to one political party means wholesale denunciation of the other - that in upholding our own city, we abuse others, or in loving our own nation, we hate others. Most of us need to lead broader lives, not only in our thoughts but in our hearts. The cultivation of that spirit must begin with the individual if it is ever to influence a nation. He who will do his share to help it must broaden his life, extend his sympathies and make no bounds for his generosity and helpfulness.’
(* Found in Buchman's home, among other essays in support of ‘The Dance’, ‘Women Bicyclists' and one entitled ‘Cuba Will Be Free’, as well as some love poetry, a play and notes for gossip columns in the school magazine.)
His hopes for the future were displayed in an orotund commencement speech delivered in 1899, entitled ‘The Dawn’: ‘When, in the twilight of the coming century, the roll will be called of those who figure prominently in the moulding and guiding of our nation, may we hope that the names of some of us may appear thereon. Though our names may not appear on earth's scroll of fame, may they appear on Heaven's roll of honour.’
This was more than a young man's rhetoric. Buchman already sensed that sacrifice would be required if such an ambition was to be fulfilled. When a cousin, Fred Fetherolf, told him that Bacon had remarked somewhere in his Essays that a single man could do better work than a married man, Buchman continually pestered him to find the exact quotation. It reads: ‘He that hath wife and children hath given hostages to fortune; for they are impediments to great enterprises, either of virtue or mischief.’10
Even then, recalled Fetherolf later, Buchman's idea was that a man should have a single aim in life: his own was to win people to God. ‘If ever a man had a fixed purpose,’ Fetherolf added, ‘it was Frank Buchman, though he made himself unpopular with some of the fellows because of it.’
His natural ebullience and gregariousness accompanied a deeper instinct to stand, and walk, alone. His character was a compound of ambition, an abundant self-confidence and that growing sense of calling.
In the summer of 1899, aged 21, Buchman graduated from Muhlenberg with honourable mention and the Butler Analogy Prize of twenty-five dollars in gold for an examination paper on Bishop Butler's classic defence of Christianity, Analogy of Religion.11 That same autumn, he went to Philadelphia to attend the Lutheran theological seminary at Mount Airy in Germantown. For the time being at least, his sense of calling was leading him towards the church of his forefathers.
NOTE ON SOURCE REFERENCES
Where references in the following list are attributed to Buchman they come from the book of his speeches, Remaking the World (Blandford, 1961). Quotes from Buchman which are not attributed were noted by friends at the time or in later recollections.
Dr Morris H. Martin, who was Buchman's secretary for the last twenty-five years of his life, has made available to me an unpublished biography in various drafts, as well as his private diaries for certain years and various occasional records of particular journeys or events. These are referred to as 'Martin MSS', 'Martin diaries' and 'Martin account' respectively.
The other main sources, apart from the various books and unpublished autobiographies hereunder noted, are interviews with people who knew Frank Buchman, conducted by Ailsa Hamilton, Graham Turner, Pierre Spoerri or the author.
2 The name was variously spelt Greenwald, Greenawalt, Greenwalt. As Buchman always used the last, this version is adopted here.
3 William F. Day, Sellersville, Pennsylvania; note dated 4 August 1927.
4 Mrs Flora Longehacker, 28 November 1933.
5 Press cutting, undated, probably 29 December 1897.
6 William F. Day.
7 Buchman to mother, 14 July 1898.
8 ibid., 12 July 1898.
9 ibid., 14 July 1898.
10 Francis Bacon: Essays, VIII, 'Of Marriage and Single Life' (Everyman's Library), p. 22.
11 Bishop Joseph Butler, Analogy of Religion (London, 1736).