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Buchman in South Africa

An extract from 'Frank Buchman A Life' about his first 1928 visit to South Africa, when the name 'The Oxford Group' was coined.

That same summer of 1928 six Oxford men went to South Africa in the long vacation. Five, like Brock, were South Africans, and the party also included Loudon Hamilton and Eric van Lennep, the young Dutchman. The first problem was to raise their fares. 'We began to pray for money,' Hamilton recalled. 'I remember starting an account at the Chartered Bank with nothing in it, but by a variety of mysterious means the money began to come. We wrote not a line, no letters at all, but soon we had enough for those who, like me, needed money for their fare.' Others, like van Lennep, could well afford to pay for themselves.

Buchman was told of this enterprise after it was planned and made no attempt to control or direct their activities in South Africa. The one precaution he did take was to tell each of the party separately to be the person in charge - a stratagem which came to light on board ship when one of them called a meeting in his own cabin, only to meet resistance from all the others, who had been similarly instructed. 'It dawned on us,' said Hamilton, 'that he wanted us all to be equally in charge - to be a responsible team.' The only message Buchman sent during the entire trip was a cable saying that he would come himself the next year.

Despite their inexperience this team of young men made a considerable impression wherever they went. James Lang, the headmaster of Grey College, Brock's old school in Port Elizabeth, found 'something Franciscan in the naturalness of approach and the simplicity of method', and the most popular Presbyterian minister in Pretoria, Ebenezer Macmillan, spoke publicly of the new experience he had found through them. 'One had only to hear them,' he told his congregation, 'to realise that they have got hold of something we have not got, or once had and lost. L. P. Jacks speaks of the lost radiance of the Christian religion - that is just what they have found.'

The visit had one unexpected side-effect. Almost from the outset, the newspapers - seeking for a simple catch-phrase to describe them - labelled them 'the Oxford Group'.* The story is told that a sleeping-car attendant, seeking for a name to put on their compartment, used the phrase for the group of young men who only had Oxford in common - and that the press meeting them picked it up. The name stuck because it so exactly described the party. Francis Goulding - a St John's graduate, by then working full-time with Buchman - remembers him receiving the news that this name was being generally used: 'He wasn't enthusiastic, but he said, "If it's got to be called something, that's as good as anything."'

(* The Sunday News of Durban (6 June 1939) attributed this to John Geary of the Pretoria News, who 'had a gift of coining phrases, the most famous of which is "The Oxford Group"'. First used, Pretoria News, 10 September 1928.)

In the early months after the Princeton difficulties, with Time snapping at his heels, Buchman seems to have felt some need to have the balance restored in his own country. In September 1927 he wrote to Mrs Tjader asking whether she could arrange to have his name put into the New York Social Register. 'I feel for the work's sake this ought to be done,' he told her. He need not have worried. The demand for house-parties, both in Europe and America, grew steadily.

There was a series of sizeable gatherings in upstate New York and New England; three in a year at Rhederoord in Holland, a fourth at Wassenaar; two at Melrose in Scotland; two more in Cambridge; while a house-party at the Beauregard Hotel in Wallingford became a standard event before the beginning of each Oxford term.

These occasions had long ceased to be private affairs in private homes because of the growth in numbers. More and more they were held in hotels, and more and more they aroused the curiosity of every sort of investigator, amateur and professional.

Some, like Kenneth Irving Brown, came away declaring that there had been 'no feeling of something uncanny, no conscious emotional exhilaration, no pious solemnity', that on the contrary 'religion was discussed with ease and humour and naturalness'. In a similar vein, the Revd Graham Baldwin reported that, in meetings punctuated by regular outbursts of laughter, all barriers were broken down.

On the other hand, J. C. Furnas, reporting on a house-party at the end of 1927,had clearly found the whole occasion repugnant. He spoke of Buchman's 'oily voice', 'decidedly stuffy' rooms, 'a puerile lust for morbid details'.

In view of the number of people who claim to have heard unwise public confessions, some must have taken place. However, I attended meetings from 1932 onwards myself and cannot recall hearing any. Cuthbert Bardsley, for some years a colleague of Buchman, said after his retirement from the Bishopric of Coventry, '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.' Buchman is reported to have said once, when a clergyman did speak foolishly, 'I think it would have been wiser if he had been checked, but, of course, you can't expect every parson to speak sense. Some of them unfortunately don't.'

Different people, however, are apparently shocked by different things. When discussing this book with an old friend, a Socialist peer, in 1982, I was suddenly asked whether 'all those confessions' of the thirties still went on. Thinking he must mean the kind of thing recorded by Furnas, I asked, 'What confessions?' 'Well,' he replied, 'I once attended a meeting in Oxford, and Austin Reed (the Regent Street clothier) got up and said he had had to overhaul his whole price structure at his shops because he was charging too much.' It must have been painful for a man as reticent as Austin Reed to make such an admission, but it would seem to be the kind of remark which would incline other business men to search their consciences, something which one would expect a Socialist to welcome.

As usual, criticism does not seem to have deflected Buchman. When the Atlantic Monthly asked for an article about the movement, Buchman told its author, John Roots, that he must be quite categoric about the Oxford Group's attitude towards the subject of sex. 'We do', he wrote to Roots, 'unhesitatingly meet sex problems in the same proportion as they are met and spoken of in that authoritative record, the New Testament... No one can read the New Testament without facing it, but never at the expense of what they consider more flagrant sins, such as dishonesty and selfishness.'

Dr J. W. C. Wand, then Dean of Oriel College and later Bishop of London, gave his impressions in the August 1930 issue of Theology. After stating that 'there were numerous recorded instances of Dr Buchman's marvellous success with individuals through bluntly revealing to them the actual sin in their own life', he added: 'This, be it noted, is sin interpreted as widely as in the gospels. One hears more of selfishness, pride, ill-will than anything else, and the charge that "Buchmanism" is unduly concerned with sexual matters had better be dismissed as the merest nonsense.'

In the spring of 1929 Buchman sailed for Europe en route for South Africa. His only travelling companion was a Yale graduate called McGhee Baxter. Baxter was an alcoholic who had already been divorced, but he had met Buchman the previous autumn and resolved to make a fresh start. While only too aware of his continuing problems, Buchman had the highest hopes for him.

'M.,' he noted one morning, 'could step forward into triumphant leadership. What is needed is God's clear light into every nook and cranny of our lives. The sub-cellars and the coal-bin need cleaning out. Never lose God's care for M. Have M. share with you any of his lonely, waking hours . . . M. a witness of the Spirit.'

He took Baxter with him wherever he went that summer, to house- parties at Wallingford and Scheveningen in Holland, to Baden-Baden and the Hesse home in Germany. For much of the time, Baxter stayed sober and, when Buchman sailed for South Africa a fortnight before the main body of his team, Baxter again went with him.

It was an extraordinary decision. This was the first time Buchman had taken a team abroad under its new Oxford Group label. A great deal of criticism had already been levelled at him, and he knew perfectly well that he would again be the focus of considerable press and public interest when he arrived. He seems to have been ready to take risks which anyone intent on building a prestigious work would have thought reckless.

On the Arundel Castle Baxter was faced with all the delightful temptations of life on board ship. 'M. difficult,' Buchman noted one morning. 'Be prepared for the worst.' At the same time he knew that he would never help Baxter by trying to cramp and confine him - and had no intention of doing so. 'In all actions with M. the sky is the limit,' he wrote in a time of quiet.

The evening before they landed at Cape Town, Baxter slipped into a last-night party and, by next morning, was helplessly drunk. Buchman struggled to get him dressed before the ship docked and, while Baxter was led quietly from the ship by Loudon Hamilton, who had remained in South Africa from the previous year, he answered questions from the press. Even then he did not lose faith in Baxter, who in fact proved to be an effective, if erratic, member of Buchman's team throughout the three and a half months in South Africa.

One of the party of twenty-nine who joined Buchman was Eleanor Forde, whom Baxter had for some time been pursuing with proposals of marriage. Just after the main party arrived in Cape Town, they went for a walk on a beach together. An alert newspaperman photographed them; the picture appeared in his paper. Eleanor feared that the picture would give a wrong impression, at the outset, of Buchman and his group, and retired to her room in tears. An hour later, there was a knock at the door. Outside was Buchman, with a single red rose which he gave her without a word.

The tour consisted largely of five major house-parties, each in or near one of South Africa's bigger cities. Each of them lasted ten days, each took place in a sizeable hotel and all drew large numbers. Between 600 and 700 went to the house-party held twenty miles outside Cape Town.

'In Jo'burg I was just a traffic cop directing the crowds,' Loudon Hamilton said. 'We never seemed to be able to finish a meeting. If anyone in the audience got up to leave, there were always at least three others waiting to take their place.' The method at those meetings was very simple. 'Whoever happened to be leading would simply get other members of the travelling team to tell the story of their change.'

'The message in the meetings was direct and personal,' recalls Eleanor Forde. 'Queues of people would come up to us afterwards and ask for a talk. Before they left we made sure they had fully grasped the point of the absolute moral standards, and then made dates with them next day, one after the other, for twenty minutes. "Go through those standards before we get together and then we will talk about listening to God," we'd say.

'Of course, they would not come next day unless they meant business, but nearly everyone did. So they'd come and they'd mostly have it all written down, and boy! the things that came out were the deepest things in their lives. Then they'd get down on their knees and make a decision to give their lives to God, and then they'd go away and change other people. All ages - one was the head of a girls' school, and another was the matron of the big hospital in Johannesburg. That's why she asked us to come and stay in her nurses' home.'

'I was very impressed by them,' recalls Bremer Hofmeyr, then a university student who was shortly to become a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford. 'I was used to one-man shows but this wasn't like that. Buchman himself led some of the meetings - he was spick and span, and moved at a tremendous lick - but my overall impression was not of a person but a group.'

The Group's visit touched all kinds of people, some in spite of themselves. Bishop Karney of Johannesburg, preaching before the Governor-General, the Earl of Athlone, and his wife Princess Alice, admitted that he had gone to the house-party in Bloemfontein 'tired and jaded and not a little critical' but had come back 'feeling much humbler than I went. I was profoundly touched'; while Bishop Carey of Bloemfontein declared that he now felt 'the need of much more power to alter and recreate the lives of the people committed to me' and was 'seeking to discover where I may alter or change'.

The Governor-General was a family friend of the van Heeckerens. Lily van Heeckeren stayed at Government House while they were in Pretoria, and Athlone waited up each evening to hear what the group had been doing that day. He invited Buchman to tea, and asked particularly how the group had reached an outstanding young Afrikaner like George Daneel, who had been a member of the 1928 Springbok Rugby team.

Daneel was at that time training to be a minister in the Dutch Reformed Church, and was still somewhat innocent. Buchman started to teach him how to deal with individual people. One evening he left him and a friend, Don Mackay, to keep an eye on Baxter, who was more than usually beset by his chronic problem and asleep on his bed. Daneel and Mackay had a long talk by the fire in the sitting-room next door. On his return, Buchman asked Daneel how it had gone.

'Fine, Frank - all quiet.'

'That sounds bad,' rejoined Buchman.

Investigation revealed Baxter's room not only quiet but empty, with the window wide open. Buchman sent Daneel and Mackay to find him. They were to divide the town in two, and visit every bar. Early in the morning they returned empty-handed. Baxter had staggered home on his own at 3am.

The house-parties at that time were for whites but the group visited Lovedale and nearby Fort Hare, the only institutions of higher education for blacks in the Cape. Apart from this, their visit had little effect on what was then known as 'the Native Question', but which had not then posed itself as acutely as one would now imagine. The key question appeared to be the bitterness festering between English- and Afrikaans-speaking South Africans as a result of the treatment by the British Army of Afrikaner civilians during and after the Boer War.

At the final house-party at Bloemfontein in September Professor Edgar Brookes, Professor of Political Science at Pretoria University, addressed his English-speaking compatriots with considerable bluntness. 'We have the problem of racialism between English- and Dutch-speaking South Africans,' he said. 'Every one of us individually is going to do our best about this, but it is not going to be done easily or without sacrifice... You must ask God's guidance about learning Afrikaans. It is not everybody's duty, but is there anyone here who is too lazy or has been too proud to learn it? That is a first step.'

Brookes then challenged the audience on their attitude to 'the Native Question'. He did not, he said, have any simple solutions, but 'I do know that we must handle it as Christ would do if He were here . . . Not only have we failed to do it. We have actually been a stumbling-block.' In later years Brookes went into African education and became a close friend of Chief Albert Luthuli, the President of the African National Congress, who described him as 'one of South Africa's greatest champions of public and private sanity and morality'.Brookes' words and the atmosphere of the house-party brought a deep response from many of the Afrikaners. The widow of an Afrikaner general who had died in a British prison camp had sworn that she would never again speak English. Now she stood up and, in broken English, asked forgiveness of the English-speakers for her hatred.

A test of the efficacy of this work was to come three years later in Brookes' own University of Pretoria. An English-speaking professor wrote a book which was offensive to the Afrikaner people. The author was tarred and feathered by the outraged Afrikaners, and in the ensuing rumpus the university became, in January 1933, wholly Afrikaans- speaking. English-speaking professors, including Brookes, lost their jobs. At the centre of this move was the Professor of Economics, Arthur Norval, whose father had been killed by the British in the Boer War.

Norval was induced by his wife to attend an Oxford Group meeting at the home of W. H. Hofmeyr, the headmaster of the Pretoria Boys' High School. One of the speakers was Dr Brookes. Norval wrote later: 'On my return from the meeting I spent one of the most dreadful nights in my life ... I could not go on hating and fighting the English . . . but I could not face the costs as I realised it would mean . . . being looked upon as an outcast and betrayer amongst those whom I counted my dearest friends and with whom I had fought for years for a cause ... I obeyed God and paid the price. On the very moment I accepted God's challenge, my hatred for the English passed completely out of my being, and in its place there came a love which I cannot describe, and which has grown in intensity ever since.'

Soon afterwards Norval invited the national leadership of both communities to Pretoria City Hall. For twenty-five minutes he spoke to them in the English language he had sworn never to use again. Beside him stood Edgar Brookes. For many years, even up to World War II, such reconciliations remained a continuing influence. At one point C. F. Andrews travelled to South Africa to oppose some anti-Indian legislation. 'I was met by new friends and helpers in the Group,' he said on his return. 'Some were Afrikaners. Others were English. What had seemed impossible was accomplished. The hostile legislation was withdrawn.'

Six of Buchman's party decided to stay on in South Africa. His team had not pleased everyone; and even some of those who had initially been helped broke away. Buchman, they declared, had not mentioned the Cross or the Blood of Jesus Christ often enough and they were going to correct the error. Calling themselves The New Experience, they were to be the first of several breakaways from Buchman's work during the 1930s. As later, Buchman's response was to do nothing. He had no intention of trying to enforce uniformity.

He arrived back in England in October 1929 with a sense that the future was bright. While he had been away, his work had flourished both at Oxford and elsewhere. In Oxford itself, the Group had grown steadily. The newest converts included founders of a University Motor Cycle Club who reckoned to live by the motto 'A temptation resisted is a temptation wasted'. One was Stephen Murray, son of Professor Gilbert Murray; another was Reginald Holme, a scholar of New College. 'We'd both ridden in the last amateur TT in the Isle of Man in 1929,' said Holme, 'we regularly went grass-track racing, which was strictly forbidden to under-graduates, and we'd burnt a Trojan van near the Martyrs' Memorial.

'When I came back in January 1930 I found that something had happened to Stephen. He wasn't womanising, he wasn't drinking, but he'd kept his sense of humour. We said, "The God men have got Stephen and he's drinking milk"; which was a very serious indictment, since I used to live on a diet of beer and Balkan Sobranies.' Murray, it turned out, had become interested in the Oxford Group.

A third member of the club, 'Chip' Lutman, still undecided as to whether he should throw in his lot with the Group, was invited by Buchman to join his team for a series of meetings in Edinburgh in the spring of 1930. Lutman wrote back and said that if Buchman represented God, he would represent the Devil. 'That was a step we all regarded as risky in the staid city of Edinburgh,' recalls Roland Wilson, who had joined Buchman when a Scholar at Oriel, 'and, sure enough, Chip arrived on a huge motor-bike which made a hell of a row and in his most truculent mood. He went with the rest of us to the meeting, which was absolutely laced with theological dignitaries who'd come to make up their minds whether Buchman was sound or not.'

Loudon Hamilton led the meeting: Buchman himself, as so often, was not even on the platform. 'Half-way through the meeting', Wilson goes on, 'Frank sent a message to Loudon telling him to ask Chip if he would speak. So up he got in his flannels and sports jacket and nobody had any idea what he would say. He just said that he'd come up to Edinburgh in great need because he thought the Oxford Group might do something for him, that he'd lived a rotten life but intended to change and do something worthwhile with it. So those men in the front row who perhaps never reached that kind of fellow saw one in the process of change.' The next day Lutman got on his knees, gave his life to God and threw his tobacco pouch and pipe out of the window of the Roxburgh Hotel 'where', as Holme remarked, 'some thrifty Scot no doubt retrieved them'.

It was during this period in Scotland that Eric Liddell, the Scots Olympic gold medallist portrayed in the film Chariots of Fire, renewed his contact with the Oxford Group. Speaking at a house-party in Edinburgh in 1932, during his first furlough from missionary work in China, he described a walk with Loudon Hamilton in Galashiels eight years earlier when, he said, his heart had 'burned within him'. Now he had recently returned to Galashiels to stay with a tweed mill-owner and his wife, Stuart and Bina Sanderson, who were associated with the Oxford Group. Sanderson had 'put a finger on something hidden in his life' to which Liddell objected. Therefore, said Liddell, 'I really lied.' The following Sunday morning, feeling that he must put this right, he had telephoned Sanderson, 'who didn't seem pleased at having his Sunday disturbed'. However, Liddell motored over and they had 'a wonderful talk'.

He wanted to associate himself with the Oxford Group, he said, because it had challenged him to a keener life for Christianity, and he knew he was going back to China leading a fuller Christian life than when he first went out. The invitation to a house-party in St Andrews in September that year quotes Liddell: 'The Group has brought to me personally a greater power in my own life, discipline without the thoughts of discipline and a greater willingness to share the deepest things in my life. In my time in this country I have met no body of people who are so vitally active and through whom the Spirit of God works so closely as the Oxford Group.'* 

(* Liddell’s biographers – D.P. Thomson (Scotland’s Greatest Athlete, The Research Unit, Crieff, Perthshire, 1970) and Sally Magnusson (The Flying Scotsman, Quarter Books, 1981) – while apparently unaware of these statements, both pay generous tribute to the influence of the Oxford Group upon Liddell.)

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Frank Buchman A Life