By now Buchman's message, as well as some of his ways of working, was beginning to crystallise. It was not a new message - it had existed for nearly two thousand years - but through his experience and personality it was acquiring certain distinctive emphases. Its expression developed as the age produced new challenges; but its roots remained the same.
His home background, reinforced by his studies at Muhlenberg and Mount Airy, had left him with beliefs which, in the theological language of the day, may be summarised as the sovereignty and power of God, the reality of sin, the need for complete surrender of the will to God, Christ's atoning sacrifice and transforming power, the sustenance of prayer and the duty to witness to others. But these were for him, as he left Mount Airy, largely intellectual beliefs - assumptions, rather than vibrant convictions. 'Everybody went to church,' he once said of Pennsburg, 'but it didn't affect their lives, other than they were very moral. I only once saw anyone become different.' And of himself after Mount Airy, he recalled, 'I was a flat failure. I was the product of a mould, a conservative theological seminary. I was supposed to know how to preach, but I knew nothing about men or how to help them. I knew nothing about the Holy Spirit except as a dove.'
Yet his desire for growth was eager, and as he met new situations and challenges, long-assumed doctrines sprang to life. Meaning was poured into them, and a lesson once learnt was learnt for life.
Thus, during the years at Overbrook and the hospice, he had begun to understand human nature more thoroughly - and, also, to discover that God was reliable, that in a life of 'faith and prayer' practical needs were met. At Penn State he had found that people could change radically and that, through such change in individuals, the tone of an institution could be altered; and in China he had come to believe that what was true for a university could prove true for a nation. In his struggle to alter these larger situations he reached a conclusion which Augustine had remarked upon centuries before: that, although every soul is of the same value and needs the same care, conditions in society could only be affected at all quickly if key people - those with influence - were affected.* Whereas he spoke of Penn State as 'the laboratory' in which he tested the principles on which to work, he had seen China, as he approached it in July 1917, as 'the proving ground of the power to turn nations Godwards'. His mind was grappling with one of the largest challenges which could face a man of faith, and one which not many in his day were contemplating.
(* 'Further in so far as they are known widely, they guide many to salvation and are bound to be followed by many …. Victory over the enemy is greater when we win from him a man whom he holds more strongly and through whom he holds more people.’ The Confessions of St Augustine, translated by F.J. Sheed (Sheed and Ward, London 1944), Book 8, Section IV, pp. 128-9.)
Buchman, however, always regarded his spiritual discoveries as having universal application. After his experience in the little church in Keswick, when he realised his own sin and experienced Christ's forgiveness, he never again considered that any other human being, however corrupted, was beyond the reach of the grace which had healed his own hate and pride.
Another decisive experience had resulted from F. B. Meyer's question to him at Penn State - whether he gave enough time each day to asking God what he should do. This can be seen as the time when Buchman decided to give his will, as distinct from his life in general, to God. Now he must do God's work not in his way, but in God's. His immediate response had been to set aside the hour between five and six in the morning not just to talk to God, but to listen as well. It was his personal discovery of the age-old discipline of silence before God. In carrying out this experiment, he was much encouraged by contact with Professor Henry Wright of Yale and by studying his book, The Will of God and a Man's Lifework, which was published in that same year of 1909.1*
(* Wright immediately sent a copy to Buchman at Penn State, who replied, 'Your book has just come and I am delighted with it ... am teaching it myself to about a hundred' (Mark Guldseth, Streams, privately printed 1982, p. 87). Wright was at this time Assistant Professor of Latin History and Literature at Yale. In 1914 a special chair in Christian Methods was created for him at Yale Divinity School. Guldseth makes clear Buchman's debt - often acknowledged by Buchman himself- at this period to Wright, Moody and Drummond.)
The central theme of Wright's book was that an individual could, through 'two-way prayer' - listening for guidance as well as talking - find God's will for his life and for the ordinary events of the day. Wright himself set aside half an hour for such listening prayer first thing every morning. At such times - and indeed at any time in the day - he declared that what he called 'luminous thoughts' came from God, provided only that the human receiver was clean enough to pick them up. These thoughts Wright wrote down in a notebook and always tried to carry out.
Buchman saw his thought to tackle 'Tutz', followed by his immediate meeting with him, as an intimation to him from God. Similarly, a decisive moment for Ray Purdy, who became one of his life-long colleagues, was at a student camp in September 1919, when Buchman received such an unexpected prompting, suddenly got up and hurried to a tent at the far end of the camp, where he found a man seriously ill with acute appendicitis. In later life, too, Buchman would talk of 'that arresting tick' which could intrude into a person's ordinary thinking with particular authority. But his concept of listening was not mainly composed of such occurrences. 'Listening means an unhurried time when God really can have a chance to imprint His thoughts in your mind,' he said at Kuling.2 'For me personally at five o'clock or an earlier hour, I am awake and conscious of the presence of God. Some days it is simply a series of luminous thoughts of things God wants me to do that day. Some days it is just a sense of peace and rest and one or two outstanding things. Other days it is a sense of need for intercession on behalf of certain people. It takes all the fret, strain and worry out of life.'*
(* The thoughts which arose in such times of seeking God's guidance in later years became known, in the verbal shorthand of Buchman and his friends, as 'guidance', although neither he nor they considered that all such thoughts came from God.)
Such communing with God has been the practice of saints down the ages. Buchman's belief was that this contact was also available to everyone and anyone. 'This listening to God is not the experience of a few men,' he told the Chinese. 'It's the most sane, normal, healthful thing a person can do ... You begin to realise your own nothingness.'
To Sam Shoemaker in 1920, Buchman wrote a seven-page foolscap letter, citing a formidable array of Biblical and theological authority for the practice. 'It is, of course, constant in all the books of the Scripture,' he wrote, 'and I am absolutely convinced from my clinical reactions both at Princeton and in other places, that it is possible for babes in Christ to have this experience. Someone once compared the Bible to a lake, in which lambs could walk and an elephant could swim. The same analogy holds ... I want to make it available to the masses who are hungry but unaware of this very simple truth …
'It is not a matter of temperament; much more of a willingness to become as little children. It is given to all alike if they will accept it in a childlike spirit. We have lived such poverty-stricken lives spiritually that the simple offends and seems peculiar. One of the reasons the truth did not flash upon me earlier was a lack of abandon on my part. It was my own stupidity in blundering so long.'
Buchman wrote this letter from a student camp and added, 'This is not without its humorous side. We live a very simple life, and I would have an inspiration, write it out, and then turn out the gas and go to bed, then another one came, then the light out again, then another match. It took a box of matches and a lot of perseverance .. .'3
Buchman was aware that people who tried to listen to God needed safeguards. Human beings had an infinite capacity for self-deception and some of the most dangerous men in history had proclaimed their will as synonymous with God's. To guard against such excesses, he subjected his thoughts to 'a six-fold test'.
The first test was a willingness to obey, without self-interested editing. A second was to watch to see if circumstances intervened - for example, if he felt he should see somebody and that person turned out to be in another country, or if some other more urgent need in another person supervened. A third test was to compare the thought to the highest moral standards known to him: the standards of absolute honesty, purity, unselfishness and love which he had adopted as a rough and ready summary of the moral teaching in the Sermon on the Mount. His fourth testing point was whether any particular thought tallied with the overall teaching of the Scriptures. His fifth was the advice of friends who were also trying to live by God's guidance. If one was uncertain of a course of action, he felt, one should wait and seek out friends and listen with them, picking for the purpose the person least, rather than most, likely to agree with one's own predilections. The sixth was the experience and teaching of the Church.
The moral standards which he used as a test of directing thoughts also became central to Buchman's life and teaching: he took them as measuring rods for daily living. Here again he was indebted to Henry Wright. 'The absolutes' had originally been set out, as a summary of Christ's moral teaching, by Robert E. Speer in his book, The Principles of Jesus. 4Buchman had several times heard Speer preach at Mount Airy, but it was in Wright's book that he first found the summarised standards 'in regard of which', Wright maintained, 'Christ's teaching is absolute and unyielding'. Wright described them as 'the four-fold touchstone of Jesus and the apostles' and maintained that an individual could apply them 'to every problem, great or small, which presents itself ... if (anything) fails to measure up to any one of these four it cannot be God's will'.5*
(* Buchman made one alteration - in the order of the standards. Wright put 'absolute purity' first; Buchman placed 'absolute honesty' in first place.)
Buchman's adoption of this expression of Christ's standards was, as so often with him, a practical choice. He was interested, above all, in what he called 'the how' - the way in which the life of faith, at its most demanding, could be grasped by the beginner as well as by the long-time believer. The standards of honesty, purity, unselfishness and love were something anyone, however simple or scholarly, could use to measure his life, and the addition of the prefix 'absolute', while setting an aim which no one could attain, had two obvious advantages. It stopped the honest seeker from letting himself off with a second or third best, or with the relativism which adjusts to the standards of the society around him; and it set so high a goal that anyone attempting to live by these standards would constantly be turned back to God for forgiveness, grace and strength. Buchman gained through the years an overwhelming sense that 'Christianity has a moral backbone': that spirituality cannot be divorced from the highest moral imperatives and survive.
Here, as elsewhere, he was striking out against the current of the day and of the age ahead. As William Hocking later observed, 'It is a mark of the shallowness of Western life that it should be thought a conceit to recognise an absolute and a humility to consider all standards relative, when it is precisely the opposite. It is only the absolute which rebukes our pride.'6
By standards Buchman did not mean rules. He had a horror of people who tried to live Christianity by rote or regulation, and when asked whether such and such a piece of conduct was permissible was apt to answer, 'Do anything God lets you.' 'If you want to go on working round here,' he admonished a young man in the last years of his life, 'please stop living by rules and live by the Cross.' For Buchman, 'living by the Cross' meant the voluntary laying down of anything in one's personal life which did not match Christ's standards, the abandoning of one's own will to do the will of God, and the daily experience of Christ's cleansing and healing power. The essence was the free choice of such a way of life, thus avoiding the need for rules and the danger of creating a movement or sect. 'The Cross is an alternative to living by the book,' he said on another occasion. His own criterion was to do nothing which robbed him of the power to help other people spiritually. The standards, in fact, were to be interpreted to the individual by the Holy Spirit.
C. H. Dodd wrote at about the same time that as the Christian approaches any practical problem of ethics, he should 'bring the mind of Christ to bear': 'The moral demand of letting Christ's Spirit rule you in everything is far more searching than the demand of any code, and at the same time it carries with it the promise of indefinite growth and development. It means that every Christian is a centre of fermentation where the morally revolutionary Spirit of Christ attacks the dead mass of the world.'7
Shortly before Buchman's second visit to China, Henry Wright was responsible for another important step in his development. While based at Hartford, teaching and gathering his team, Buchman used to travel four hours each way, once a week, to attend Wright's lectures at Yale. On the wall of Wright's lecture room he was confronted with Moody's words:
'The world has yet to see what God can do in, for, by and through a man whose will is wholly given up to Him.' Wright never began a lecture until two minutes had been spent silently considering those words. Then he would say, 'Will you be that man? Will you be that man?', and would always link his challenge with the Bible verse, 'I, if I be lifted up, will draw all men unto Me.'
Buchman said of those sessions, 'It took me six weeks until I came to absolute conviction and yielded myself to that principle.' Exactly what he meant is not known, but it was evidently a profound commitment - a break-out from a narrow to a universal conception of Christianity - for in repeating the phrases used by Moody and Wright, he always laid stress on the words 'world' and 'all'. This may have been the source of his thought of 'turning nations Godwards', and could help to account for the steadiness which kept him working towards this vision despite the setbacks which were to occur at different times throughout his life.
Perhaps it was also the origin of the quality to which Henry van Dusen of Union Theological Seminary later referred: 'Frank Buchman belongs to the tiny company of the centuries who have known themselves summoned to the surrender of all to the exacting demand of the Divine Will, and who, making that surrender, have pressed on through darkness and light in immovable confidence in the Divine Guardianship of their destiny. A like surrender he requires of every person who would share intimately in the leadership of his work.'8
Buchman's most immediate interest in these years in Penn State, Hartford and China was in studying and practising how to win individuals to God. Here another influence upon him was Henry Drummond, the Scots geologist and evangelist who in his undergraduate treatise Spiritual Diagnosis pioneered the science, as he liked to call it, of helping individuals one by one. Drummond contrasted the detailed clinical work required of every medical student with the total absence in the theological curriculum of 'any direct dealing with men'. Yet, he maintained, a minister could do far more by learning how to help individuals than by preaching sermons. Drummond's phrases were liberally used by Buchman in his talks in China and he is much quoted in Soul Surgery, the little book published in 1919 in which Howard Walter summarised his and Buchman's experience of life-changing. Soul Surgery was intended as an outline of a fuller book which the two friends planned to work upon at Hartford after the second visit to China, a hope frustrated by Walter's death in 1918.
The central thesis of Walter's book was simple, if explosive: if men and women were to be fundamentally changed, if they were to have a real conversion experience, the change must touch and transform the deepest areas of their lives, their root motives and desires. Too often the basic problems were untouched, and it was thought enough if someone declared himself saved - or, in today's parlance, 'born again' - if he joined the appropriate religious institution and began to use the name of Christ liberally, or subscribed generously to the institution's funds. The book's purpose was to explore the art of bringing the basic experience of change to others.
While on the ship with his Hartford friends, en route for China, a Miss Constance Smith asked Buchman one evening how he helped individuals. Next day, he answered her with a rough formula which he called 'the five Cs' - Confidence, Confession, Conviction, Conversion, Continuance, a summary which he often used in following years. Nothing could be done until the other person had confidence in you, and knew that you would keep confidences. Confession - honesty about the real state of the person's life - would lead to a conviction of the seriousness of sin and the desire to be freed from its control. For conversion to take place there must be a free decision of the will - often cold-blooded, seldom emotional. But far the longest and most neglected part was continuance. You were responsible for helping the newly orientated person to become increasingly the person God meant him or her to be. 'Personal work,' Buchman said on another occasion, 'means the unfolding of the possibilities which are in men.' 'What is the craving of the human heart?' he asked in Kuling. Fun, enjoyment, satisfaction, peace, joy - and they come when Jesus and the sinner are reconciled.'
He always stressed that 'life-changing', as he often called such helping of individuals, was not a technique. Only God could change a person, and the work of a 'life-changer' had to be done under His direction, which alone could provide the sensitivity and flexibility required. True diagnosis, too, was not a matter of mere psychology. 'A sacred responsibility rests with the person who has the courage to listen to God,' he said one day at Kuling. 'When a man tells you he has no spiritual power in his life, God will reveal to you why. He will give you the diagnosis of the problems of the very person with whom you are working.'
Such work must naturally be done privately - 'under four eyes', as Buchman sometimes described it. Often it would require the 'life- changer' first being honest about problems which had been, or still were on occasion, those which he found most difficult in his own life, as this gave the other the courage to be open about fundamental problems in turn. Often Buchman found that the problems which most troubled people were sexual, and he did not hesitate to enter this area, into which few others but Freud and himself - from profoundly different angles - dared at that time to venture. As far back as Penn State, he had seen sexual indulgence as one of the most common barriers to a full experience of Christ. It was self-evidently one of the places where the human will was most deeply rooted, and where clarity of decision was most necessary if a person was to become free and able to bring similar freedom to others. Buchman realised that if he were to help others, he must live a pure life himself. 'I find I cannot listen to the slightest suggestive. I need to be antiseptic. I cannot play on the edge. 0 Lord, I want to give myself to the maximum,' he once noted. The act of giving himself more fully to God seems to have led to a sharper battle in his own heart. 'The temptations in an intensified form,' he noted a day later, 'are the preparation for greater victory. They give greater sympathy for the sinner.'
Buchman had learnt that temptation, of whatever kind, was best resisted at its earliest stage. It was easier, he sometimes said, to divert a small stream than to dam a river. He defined the progression of temptation as 'the look, the thought, the fascination, the fall', and said that the time to deal with it was at the thought - 'Tackle temptation well upstream.' This was not a new idea. Thomas a Kempis, whose writings he would not likely have encountered at Mount Airy but whose Imitation of Christ went with him everywhere during his adult life, describes the same progression. 'The enemy is more easily overcome,' writes a Kempis, 'if he be not suffered in any wise to enter the door of our hearts but be resisted without the gate at his first knock.'9
A further necessary element in becoming a free personality, Buchman believed, was to be prepared to make restitution, to put right as far as possible any wrong done. Hence, for example, his own letters from Kuling to the Pennsylvania Railroad Company and to the man to whom he had told a lie - even though, in the latter case, it was the seemingly trivial matter of having pretended to have read a book of which he had only read reviews.10 Sometimes such restitutions might involve public confession, but only when it affected the public. 'If your sin is a public one, like that of the leader in a public quarrel, you ought to confess it. If it is sincere, people will sympathise with you.'
It was Bishop Moloney who had opened his eyes to a further use of confession, both private and public. Buchman had long known that people were more interested and more lastingly helped if he told them of his faults and how he had been freed from them, than if he set before them his virtues, real or supposed. But the revival in the Bishop's diocese which had begun with the Bishop's and his servant's mutual honesty confirmed for him that the principle might have much wider application. So, in the next decades, when he was deploying large teams of people and when his usual practice was for them to do the bulk of the speaking in any meeting, he encouraged speakers to be honest about the specific liberations which handing over control to God had brought to them. This, he found, was the surest way of showing people, whether believers or unbelievers, that God could help them in personal or public matters, that God was in fact a God of power. However, he set firm limits to what should be publicly confessed. Nothing must be mentioned which involved a third party, and where questions of sex were involved, he always said, 'If your sins were forms of impurity, never say what they were. Just say "impurity".'
The taboos of those days being what they were, Buchman's frank dealing with sexual problems, even in private, provoked criticism and rumours. Those who wished to attack him were apt to pounce on any lapse in discretion at any of his meetings, whether he could be considered responsible for them or not. Buchman, however, was undeterred. The facts were there and he could not shrink from dealing with them. 'Men used to come to me, a different man each half-hour,' he once said, recalling visits to summer conferences at Northfield. 'There it was - you could not underestimate it when you got it by the bushel.'
Buchman had also learnt by this time that if one proposed that people should hand over complete control of their lives to God, or even try to live by absolute moral standards, one provoked active opposition. Sometimes it was of the casual kind which had appeared among students in Penn State when Bill Pickle stopped drinking and bootlegging; at others, the more sophisticated - and, he had begun to think, planned - type of action which had removed him from China. This, of course, was quite a different matter from honest disagreement with his approach, or from the fact that his personality did not appeal to everyone. 'Thank God we can disagree without being disagreeable,' he was wont to say. He wrote to Shoemaker, 'Yes, I am liable to make mistakes as other men are and I always want you to feel you can tell me anything."11 He remained friends with hundreds of people who held sincere intellectual doubts on the way he went about things.
Sometimes, of course, sincere differences of opinion and active opposition coincided; and sometimes he overlooked this fact and took opposition to him and his message as a sign of resistance to truth itself. But his basic understanding of opposition grew through experience, and he was coming to recognise the edge of malice or even hatred which intruded when the opposition arose from people or groups who felt that his message threatened their ways of life or even their institutions. That Buchman provoked such opposition did not of itself prove the validity of his stand, but if he had not provoked persecution from any quarter, that would have indicated that he was not putting into practice the revolutionary quality of the great Christian tradition. He did not enjoy it, but he welcomed the test. 'Persecution is the fire that forges prophets - and quitters,' he said in later life.
To move out beyond accepted boundaries, which was to be the pattern of Buchman's life, was a consequence partly of temperament, and partly of the atmosphere in which he began to work and develop in Penn State and China. John Mott's crusade 'to evangelise the world in this generation' was the central theme among the Christians with whom he worked most closely. Mott had become Student Secretary of the International Committee of the YMCA in 1888 and General Secretary of the World Student Christian Federation, which he largely created, in 1895. 'While the missionary enterprise should not be diverted from the immediate and controlling aim of preaching the gospel where Christ has not been named,' he wrote, 'this must ever be looked upon as a means of the mighty and inspiring object of enthroning Christ in the individual life, in family life, in social life, in national life, in international relations and in the relationships of mankind.'12 The strategy for this tremendous enterprise was to mobilise students from as many countries as possible in order to build up 'the new world leadership' for carrying out an epochal change during 'this decisive hour of world history'. His primary aim was not so much to enlist large numbers, but 'to get the ablest, strongest men, those who in any walk of life would be leaders', and he quoted Drummond's saying, 'If you fish for eels you catch eels; if you fish for salmon, you catch salmon.'
Mott's strategy depended on the peace and freedom of movement and communications which preceded the First World War, and during that war its thrust slackened. The American YMCA, of which he was by now General Secretary, became more and more involved, after 1917, in providing amenities for the troops. Its Secretaries in the mission fields of India and China were inadequate to their primary task, and no match for a Communist missionary like Borodin. Buchman, on his return home after the war, found that the old modes of working - through the YMCA, Northfield and so on - no longer possessed the power which they had previously. He felt that something less organisational, much more dependent upon the kind of transparent fellowship which he and his friends had established through total honesty in Tientsin, was necessary. At the same time it becomes clear, as the story proceeds, that he had absorbed and retained much of the optimism and many of the tactics of Mott's great design.
Such optimism was greatly needed as Buchman faced the post-war world. Every major war brings demoralisation, but one where, in Churchill's words, 'torture and cannibalism were the only two expedients that the civilised, scientific, Christian states had been able to deny themselves',13 drastically undermined both spiritual belief and traditional morality. 'At the beginning of the 1920s,' as one historian relates, 'the belief began to circulate, for the first time at a popular level, that there were no longer any absolutes: of time and space, of good and evil, of knowledge, above all of value.'14 This belief coincided with - or perhaps was in part caused by - two other contemporary phenomena: the wide- spread acceptance of Freudianism, and the fact that Leninism, with its espousal of atheism and a totally relative morality, now controlled one of the major countries of the world. In fact, the age of relativism had arrived, and - much to Einstein's displeasure, for he himself believed passionately in absolute standards of right and wrong- his theory of relativity was used to give scientific respectability to the whole process. As moral relativism spread, it became the dominant theme of art and literature over many decades and penetrated every area of life, lay and ecclesiastical. Buchman, with his uncompromising beliefs, was to find himself more and more often swimming against the tide. It was to batter him, but not to turn him from his purpose.
That purpose was entirely positive. He never organised a protest against anything, still less denounced anyone in public. His response to every difficulty was the faith that God could change people, and the more serious he perceived the state of the world to be, the more intensely he concentrated on individuals. As the century progressed and moral relativism manifested itself in ever more powerful forms, he felt that his calling was to raise a world-wide force of God-directed people.
For the moment, he was returning to his job at Hartford and to the succour of his mother and father. But it became increasingly clear to him that he was intended to find new ways of working and, after his Chinese experience, he was less and less willing to let any job or institution stand in the way of following them.
1 Henry B. Wright: The Will of God and a Man's Lifework (YMCA Press, 1909).
2 Quotations from Buchman in China are taken from verbatim transcripts of his talks at Kuling.
3 Buchman to Samuel Shoemaker, 26 April 1920.
4 Robert E. Speer: The Principles of Jesus (Fleming Revell, 1902), pp. 35-6.
5 Wright, p. 173. Wright listed his sources for these standards as follows: 'Purity - Matthew 5, 27-32; Honesty -John 8, 44-46; Unselfishness - Luke 14, 33; Love -John 15,12' (p. 169).
6 William Ernest Hocking: The Coming World Civilization (George Allen and Unwin, 1958), pp. 166-7.
7 C. H. Dodd: The Meaning of St Paul for Today (Fount, 1978), pp. 146-7; first published 1920.
8 Henry P. Van Dusen, Atlantic Monthly, August 1934.
9 Thomas a Kempis: Of the Imitation of Christ, Book 1, ch.13, paragraph 5.
10 Buchman to Revd T. S. Hughes, 2 July 1918.
11 Buchman to Shoemaker, 28 September 1918.
12 John R. Mott: The Evangelisation of the World in This Generation (London, 1901), p.16.
13 R. S. Churchill and Martin Gilbert, companion volume IV, pp. 913-14, to Winston S. Churchill. Note jotted on a sheet of War Office paper.
14 Paul Johnson: A History of the Modern World from1917 to the 1980s (Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1983), p. 4.