GENERAL ARTICLES

LONDON LETTER

What I Think of the Oxford Group

Beverley Baxter September 1 1937
GENERAL ARTICLES

LONDON LETTER

What I Think of the Oxford Group

Beverley Baxter September 1 1937

LONDON LETTER

What I Think of the Oxford Group

Beverley Baxter

I HAVE just come through a curious experience. It still puzzles me, and it will clear my own mind to put the whole affair before the tribunal of Maclean’s readers. It concerns the Oxford Group, that modern evangelical religious movement which has caused so much controversy and which, I know, has been a matter of both enthusiasm and concern to many Canadians. But let me discuss the matter in chronological order.

Among the various things I do to fill up the seven days of the week is to write a weekly signed article for the Sunday Graphic. This is one of Lord Kemsley’s twentyseven newspapers, having a circulation of about one million. It will, therefore, be realized that it is read by a large section of the populace, and initiates many subjects of nation-wide discussion.

Last Easter I wrote an article for the Sunday Graphic entitled "If Christ came to Europe." My purpose was to discuss the political aspect of the Sermon on the Mount. It seemed to me that here was a policy of conduct for the nations of the world which transcended in importance all other political utterances. My arguments were meant to show that to the extent to which the nations had followed Christ’s precepts there had been peace and happiness, and that to the extent to which they had rejected those precepts there had resulted fear, anarchy, war and unhappiness.

I did not intend the article to be evangelical or religious in the narrow term. It resulted, however, in an immense correspondence in which the religious element was stressed and the political aspect seemed ignored. In going through the letters I was greatly struck by the number of writers who used the words "God control.” As it could not be a coincidence, I made enquiries and discovered that this was the rallying cry of the Oxford Group—that extraordinaryreligious movement which has nothing to do with Oxford but which has carried its name into many strange places.

Dr. Buchman

ABOUT THAT time I began to receive letters from various members of the Group in London. They were anxious that I should lunch with them at Brown’s Hotel and meet Dr. Buchman, the founder of the Group.

Accordingly I went to this quiet but fashionable hotel in Mayfair, and was given an excellent lunch by a young man who told me that he had given up his career to devote his life to the cause.

I asked him if he was a man of means, but he said that no Grouper was concerned with money. God would provide if it was God’s will that one should serve Him in this way.

He was a high-minded youth in a state of spiritual excitement which made his eyes shine, and I must confess that in the stress and fret of the materialisticexistence all about us it was not unimpressive to find a young man dedicating himself openly to the service of God.

After lunch we adjourned upstairs to a sitting room where I met Dr. Buchman. The doctor, who is a SwissAmerican Lutheran, does not look like a man who would launch a mountain. On the contrary, he is something in type between a Middle West doctor and a real-estate salesman. He has a nice smile and his pince-nez tilt upward at an attentive and brisk angle—almost like an auctioneer thinking he has heard a bid.

He told me how men’s lives were being changed in

Norway, Germany, Holland, Canada and Britain. A young man joined us and told how a certain editor had been "changed.” I remarked that his newspaper had failed to show any evidence of the alteration, but this was passed over with a smile. Everyone smiled. In fact, a lot of smiling was done at this interview.

Other young fellows came in. They were, I gathered, the unofficial chiefs of staff, the Brain Trust of the Group, or shall I say, the Soul Trust? I do not mean to be flippant. The Buchmanites like slogans and I do not think they would resent any of those appellations.

Each one told how some man’s life had been changed by his efforts. At each recital “Frank” (Dr. Buchman) would look up with that eager smile, like a debutante who sees the arrival of her young man at the ball.

Puzzled but somewhat impressed, I went away. The next Sunday in my column in the Sunday Times I described Dr. Buchman in these words:

"It was with understandable curiosity last Tuesday that I met one of the most incalculable personalities— Dr. Frank Buchman, the American founder of the Oxford Group Movement. Dr. Buchman—I cannot, like his followers, call him “Frank”—is plump but not stout: his voice is pleasant without any trickeries, his ears are large and honest, and his nose long and intelligent. I have not heard him speak, and therefore can only describe him as

he is in conversation. The impression he gives is that of a successful doctor in a small town who is ‘one of the boys’ when off duty, but earnest and skilful when called to the bedside.”

A Changed American

A MONTH or so went by and I had almost forgotten about this when I received a telephone call from a Canadian saying that he wanted to meet me. Now I love and admire Canadians above all people, but at this time of the year I sometimes feel like putting up a sign outside my office, "Canadian appointments from 2 to 4 only.”

I hope this does not sound ungracious. If it does, I give the editor full permission to cut it out, so if it appears you will have to blame him.

This Canadian was most persistent but pleasantly so. Having dodged him at my office, I was caught by him at the House of Commons. He had two other Canadians with him—fine looking young men who carried themselves well. We had tea and strawberries on the Terrace when I discovered that they were, so to speak, the Canadian vanguard of the Oxford Group.

They were quite charming. They praised my articles in Maclean’s—a subject of conversation which produced no controversy. They laughed at my jokes and were impressed by my profundities. Then they told me with quiet sincerity how the Oxford Group was changing lives in Canada.

It was an impressive story. They were men of good physique, splendid personalities and obvious education. I should have been glad to call any of my Parliamentary colleagues over and say that these gentlemen were Canadians.

Nor was their story unmoving. Without apparent exaggeration, they told how the Oxford Group gospel of surrender to God was gaining converts among the dominating classes in many countries. They could visualize in time an immense League of God that might succeed where the League of Nations had failed. They did not put it so picturesquely, but that was what they were trying to say.

Then they expressed a desire to entertain my wife and myself to lunch at Boulestin Restaurant. I am sorry if a good deal of food is creeping into this story, but the technique of the Oxford Group is of the house party, the dinner table and the tea tray. Their idea is that in a moment of social relaxation the germ of truth might more likely enter unobserved and unchallenged.

My wife and I. therefore, went to Boulestin's, a quiet but expensive restaurant near Covent Garden Opera House. There were two additions to the party. The wife of one of the Canadians was there, and also a rather ordinary looking American. Conversation turned inevitably to the affairs of the Oxford Group.

The American told how he had been changed. Out of curiosity he had gone to a Group meeting, and had seen the light. At once he remembered that in his youth he had stolen $25, so he paid that back openly. Then he told his customers how he had been cheating them. After that his vice-president paid his way to come to England to join the Group rally. On the whole, it did not seem that he had done badly by his confessions.

Then we had strawberries and cream.

The first stirrings of doubt began to creep upon my brain. This American, according to his own story, had been guided by God to declare his crimes. Henceforth, because of his surrender, God would guide him, chide him, direct him, tell him, warn him, stop him. I found myself beginning to wonder. I do not need any special guidance to keep me from striking a child or robbing a blind beggar.

Continued on page 37

London Letter

Continued from page 9

I need no prompting to stop me from cheating at cards or lying to my associates. Hundreds of years of civilization have produced in mankind a realization of the difference between right and wrong, fairness and unfairness, kindness and unkindness, courtesy and rudeness. To imply that mankind has reached nowhere through the generations and has to have seme special prompting in order to do what is right, seemed to me a denial of basictruth .

However, let us get on with the story.

They said that thirty-five Canadians were arriving on Friday and would join a great rally over the week-end at Oxford. They expected about 2,000 to be there. Would my wife and I go? We said we would.

The next day I changed my mind, and sert word that instead of going to Oxford I would write about the Group in the Sunday Graphic.

The Public’s Reaction

'"T'ELEGRAMS began to arrive at once, urging me not to write until I knew more about the subject. A General Windsor, with an American accent, called me on the telephone and somewhat peremptorily advised me to be accurate in everything 1 wrote.

When I reached my office there was a young Grouper with three letters. I refused to see him. It was a busy day, and already these complications had delayed the day’s routine.

As carefully as possible I then wrote an article entitled, “Has the Oxford Group Failed?” It is true that the editor altered the title to “Has the New Faith Failed?” Editors do strange things like that.

. I had no desire to injure tire cause of the Oxford Group. Above all, I had no wish to hurt the feelings of young men who had been my hosts and had been so courteous. Therefore I paid tribute to the good which had been done by the Buchmanites and the sincerity of its members. Then, going a little deeper, the article contended that there were danger spots which ought to be recognized.

One was the unwisdom of fastening too much on conduct and not producing a corresponding depth of philosophy. Christ healed the sick and forgave the sinners but, knowing that that was not enough, he preached a philosophy which would enthrall and guide the minds of men for all time. I said that the appeal of the Group was superficial and directed to the immature mind. Further, I contended that, since these young men stayed at luxury hotels and journeyed from country to country, Dr. Buchman should publish a balance sheet showing the source of his funds and the nature of his expenses.

The reaction was enlightening. One Grouper at Oxford bought all the copies of the Sunday Graphic he could find and had them destroyed. Another wrote to me referring to my article as a gas attack. Sir Cooper Rawson, M.P., denounced me as pandering to sensationalism. Yet another Grouper quoted Shakespeare on “scurvy politicians.”

A torrent of letters from the general public also descended upon my head. Many of them were violent personal attacks upon myself. Others were violent attacks upon the Group, citing cases of men and women whose minds had given way under the stress of emotional excitement.

Yet there were other letters telling howhappiness and peace had come to the writers through this new preaching of an old gospel. The divergence of views was startling, incomprehensible.

Then a strange thing happened. A huge

luncheon was planned in London at which Dr. Buchman was to be present. Eight hundred Groupers turned up, including the visiting Canadians. Miss Margaret Rawlings, perhaps the most distinguished actress in London, was asked to speak.

'I'he Group then went through its usual technique. Dr. Buchman called out questions. The young men with the banners of their countries shouted their replies in unison. After that there were confessions and a sharing of experiences. When it was finished Miss Rawlings rose to speak.

With that deep autumn-tinted voice of hers and her dark contemptuous beauty, she said: “I was brought up in the Far East, where the body is considered unimportant and the soul is everything. This exposure of the soul I have seen today is like indecent exposure. It is as if I were to take my clothes off in Piccadilly Circus.”

Consternation was on every face. Miss Rawlings went on to the end, merciless and unflinching. The evening newspapers were rushed onto the streets with the placards, “Oxford Group Sensation.”

Spirituality Needed

T AM WELL aware that what I have told

here will hurt the susceptibilities of many readers of Maclean’s. Believe me, I am sorry that it should be so.

W’hen there is so much materialism and so little spirituality in the world, it would seem that encouragement and not discouragement should be given by those whose words can reach the public in any form.

Yet if the Oxford Group is to survive, it must face the ordeal of criticism. Further than that, it should be grateful, providing the criticism is not prejudiced or vindictive. Otherwise it will become intolerant, and that will breed megalomania and introspection.

I am genuinely alarmed at the reaction which would occur if this Group should fail and break up. Yet its leaders should realize that there exists already a selfworship and an attitude of exaltation toward the Group itself which is full of menace.

The worst aspect of all is the essential defeatism of its doctrine. Each of us must find God in his own way—some through prayer, others through music, still more through suffering and sacrifice, and all through faith. But the fatalism which surrenders the human will to the Diety and makes Flim a partner in every petty action of the day’s routine, brings the whole conception of a Divine Being to so low a level that every instinct and sensibility rebels.

To live one’s life so that one hopes to carry out God’s Will is one thing. To be the automatic hypnotic recipient of God’s command, is surely a perversion of everything that humanity has been taught.

I do not doubt the sincerity of these young apostles or deny their own conviction that they are following a Holy Star; but the eager idealism of youth has been so exploited and prostituted in Germany, Italy and Russia, that I fear the Oxford Group may yet degenerate into something far from the intention of its founder, and that it will inflict a cruel injury upon the whole cause of youth.

On the other hand, I believe it possible that, if the Buchmanites will see their own faults and remedy them without losing their enthusiasm, they may play a great part in solving the problems of the world.

At any rate, I claim that in bringing this subject forward for discussion by the British public I have served the true interests of the Group itself. And that is my defense in advance to the protests which this London Letter will provoke.