The Religious Roots of Alcoholics Anonymous
and the Twelve Steps

Chapter 2:
Frank Buchman

To understand the Twelve Steps, or any of the rest of the Alcoholics Anonymous religious dogma, you have to understand the teachings of Dr. Frank Buchman, sometimes called Buchmanism, and the beliefs of his religious group, which was variously, over the years, named First Century Christian Fellowship, or The Oxford Group Movement, or Moral Re-Armament (MRA).

If Frank Buchman had only acted as a mentor and source of inspiration for Bill Wilson, he might not have been such an important figure in American history, or worthy of this much attention. But Buchman gives us a sterling example of an extreme religious cult, and we still see echoes of Buchman's ideology in contemporary American politics — particularly in the fundamentalist Christian Radical Right. As one wit observed, "History doesn't repeat itself; it rhymes." Frank Buchman and his cult are, unfortunately, still relevant today.

Frank Nathan Daniel Buchman was born June 4, 1878, in Pennsburg, Pennsylvania, USA, and died August 6, 1961, in Freudenstadt, Germany. His ancestry was "Pennsylvania Dutch" which really meant German (Deutsch), or German-speaking Swiss, and he grew up bi-lingual, speaking both English and Pennsylvania German, something that would come in very handy later when he spent time in Germany.

Childhood acquaintances recalled that "Frank was an unusual boy from the very beginning." Children at school would taunt Buchman with "Fedanda Narische Dumbe Buchman" ("Damn Crazy Dumb Buchman"), a chant in the Pennsylvania dialect which the taunters derived from his initials "F.N.D.B.".106 More than forty years later, one of his classmates remembered Frank Buchman with this statement:

I still see him at school enjoying nothing more than loitering around with the girls indulging in silly, gossipy, trifling talk... Gossip is the core of his whole movement.
E. S. Gerhard, of the Dept. of Languages, Northeast High School, Philadelphia, writing to Dr. Ernst Pfatteicher, President of the Ministerium of Pennsylvania and Adjacent States, 10 January 1939, quoted in
The Mystery of Moral Re-Armament, by Tom Driberg. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1965, p. 19.

Frank Nathan Daniel Buchman
Frank Buchman was ordained as a Lutheran minister in June, 1902. He then opened a hospice for homeless boys and young men in Philadelphia, which did well, but in 1908, he got into a disagreement over money with his trustee committee, who were apparently insisting that Buchman do something to cut costs and raise more funds, to make the hospice more self-supporting.

Frank Buchman resigned in protest and went away in a huff. Using his father's money, Buchman got on a ship for a long vacation in Europe. He ended up at a large religious convention in Keswick, England, where he felt that he had a spiritual transformation. A woman preacher there apparently gave a very moving sermon. Buchman claimed that he suddenly had a vision of spirituality without ego. He explained it as, "the 'I' of ego was crossed out by a horizontal stroke, producing the cross of Christ."

Feeling an urge to share this experience, he went to nearby Oxford University and formed an evangelical group there among the student leaders and athletes. Then he went to Cambridge and did the same. Buchman called his new organization "First Century Christian Fellowship", and claimed that he was recreating the feelings of brotherhood and fellowship that were enjoyed by the original Christians. Later, the organization spread, and groups formed over the next twenty years in England, Scotland, Holland, India, South Africa, China, Egypt, Switzerland, and North and South America.

As a result of his religious experience at Keswick, Buchman felt moved to write letters of apology to all six of the trustees in Philadelphia with whom he had squabbled, asking their forgiveness, trying to make amends. Buchman said that none of them bothered to answer him.

That was rather unkind of them, wasn't it? No wonder Buchman had a disagreement with them, if they were really so haughty and inconsiderate that they would not even acknowledge a man's humble apology and request for forgiveness...

There is just one small detail that Buchman left out in his telling of that story: Buchman didn't put any return address on the envelopes that he mailed back to Philadelphia.

One of the six letters that Buchman mailed to the trustees still exists, in the Krauth Memorial Library at Mount Airy seminary,37 and...

These letters were, in large measure, written for the emotional gratification of Buchman alone. Buchman and his followers often said that the six individuals to whom he addressed these letters "did not bother" to reply. In apparent contrast to the saintly nature of Buchman's penitence, the six Ministerium board members might seem ungracious. However, there was a simple reason for their lack of response; on the back of the letter written to Dr. Ohl, the doctor penciled the following note:

Fortunately I have found the letter ... the like of which Mr. B says he wrote to a number of others, and got no answer. But you will notice that he gives no address. Had he done so I would surely have written. As nearly as I can make out the postmark the letter was mailed in England.6
Buchman was apparently not in the habit of looking for corrective feedback.

6. The Mystery of Moral Re-Armament, by Tom Driberg. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1965, p. 36.

A History of Addiction & Recovery in the United States, Michael Lemanski, pages 39 and 48.

Nevertheless, faithful followers of Frank Buchman retold the story this way:

      Frank never had any answer to these letters, but this was not important. What mattered was that something fresh had come into his life, something which was to determine its whole course.
Fresh Hope for the World: Moral Re-Armament in Action, edited and introduced by Gabriel Marcel, 1960, translated from the French by Helen Hardinge, page 155.

When Buchman returned to the USA, he got the position of YMCA secretary at State College, Pennsylvania, effective July 1, 1909. He moved in with the boys at the YMCA, and lived there for years. The students didn't like Buchman.

During his first year, Buchman reckoned, he was probably the most unpopular man on campus. Some of the students reacted sharply both to his earnestness and to what they felt were his puritanical attitudes, and he was nicknamed 'Pure John', a jibe derived from a contemporary cartoon figure. He became accustomed to seeing 'Pure John — 99 per cent pure' scrawled on vacant sign-boards; he was guyed in the college revue, caricatured in the college magazine.
On the Tail of a Comet: The Life of Frank Buchman, Garth Lean, page 34.

The other faculty at Penn State didn't seem to like Buchman much, either. One commented, "Buchman oozed the oil of unctuous piety from every pore. I would not be interested in seeing him again if it were at the cost of having to shake hands with him."52

Frank Buchman (center, 2nd row) with Penn State students.
The reformed campus bootlegger Bill Pickle (with the mustache) is to Buchman's left.

Buchman left Penn State in 1915 to travel in the Far East with evangelist Sherwood Eddy for a while. During 1915 and 1916, Buchman traveled in China, India, Korea, and Japan. He met with little success there, and unhappily noticed that the Communists were far better at recruiting than the Christian missionaries were, because the Communists did not display arrogant, condescending, know-it-all attitudes towards "the heathens", and the Communists were not out to destroy the local cultures.

One of the Buchmanites' books tells the story this way:

During the First World War he [Frank Buchman] got to know Sun-Yat-Sen, a great man whose name is today respected both in Communist and Nationalist China. Frank said to him: "The greatest evils in China are squeeze, concubinage and gambling. You must build your new nation on firm moral foundations." Sun-Yat-Sen said of this conversation: "Buchman told me the truth about my country and myself."
Fresh Hope for the World: Moral Re-Armament in Action, edited and introduced by Gabriel Marcel, 1960, translated from the French by Helen Hardinge, page 159.

Really now. As if the leader of China needed a white kid to come all the way from the U.S.A. to tell him that extortion, kept women, and gambling are bad.131

What is even stranger about that story, which was written in 1960, is the fact that way back in 1932, a Buchmanite recruiting manual, "Soul Surgery", in a description of Henry Drummond's missionary work in China, said:

Yungtao, the great Chinese social reformer who recently became a Christian, says that China's three great sins are: concubinage, 'squeeze', and gambling. And he further says that Christian missionaries so often fail, either through ignorance or fear, in not speaking directly and courageously of those deepest fundamental sins, and dealing incisively and adequately with the sinner.
Soul Surgery: Some Thoughts On Incisive Personal Work, H. A. Walter, M.A., Oxford University Press, 1932, page 33.

Somehow, between 1932 and 1960, those words seem to have been taken out of Yungtao's mouth and put into Frank Buchman's mouth...

When he returned to the U.S.A. in 1917, Buchman was appointed Extension Lecturer in Personal Evangelism at the Hartford Seminary, in Hartford, Connecticut. There, he moved into the students' dormitory with the boys, in spite of the fact that he was then 38 years old. Buchman gained a reputation for dwelling on the importance of sexual sin in his dealings with students. He was asked to move out of the boys' dorm when the students complained about his "intrusive methods".

Buchman did not stay long at Hartford. He resigned from his position at Hartford in order to devote himself to "personal evangelism", and to living off of the largesse of wealthy backers, activities which he would pursue for the rest of his life. Buchman now had the free time and the opportunity to travel. In 1918 he was back in China. His return to China was financed by Harry Blackstone of Los Angeles, and Buchman was accompanied by a team of his own choosing that included Dr. Harry Luce, father of one of the co-founders of Time magazine.104

We have to reconsider the whole Hartford Seminary story in light of the later revelations of Buchman's homosexuality. While working at the seminary, Buchman chose to live in the boys' dormitory in spite of the fact that he was then 38 years old. He harped on the importance of sexual sin, and the boys objected to Buchman's "intrusive methods", whatever that means. Just how intrusive were those "intrusive methods"?

Marjorie Harrison, in her contemporary book Saints Run Mad, reported that Buchman wasn't at Hartford for long — "Whether he found this to be an unfruitful field is not known, but he did not remain there long. In the following year [1918] he was once more in China and launching his first House Party."

Was Frank Buchman "asked" to move out of the boys' dormitory, at which point he suddenly decided to go to China, or was he fired for improper activities with boys? And then, of course, the Seminary hushed up the whole thing to avoid a scandal?...

On the other hand, Garth Lean, a devoted life-long Buchmanite who wrote a fawning glorification of Frank Buchman — On the Tail of a Comet: The Life of Frank Buchman — stated that Buchman stayed associated with the seminary until he resigned February 1, 1922. But Lean's story is confused and inconsistent. Lean also said that Frank Buchman was chronically absent from Hartford Seminary (often visiting Cambridge or Oxford), and that Buchman neglecting his Hartford teaching duties for most of the time from 1918 to 1922. Garth Lean wrote that Frank Buchman was so habitually absent without leave that seminary President Mackenzie told Buchman that if Buchman submitted his resignation, Mackenzie would be forced to accept it (page 91).

And by early 1920, Buchman was also already getting into trouble at Princeton over his emphasis of sexual matters:

At the same time Buchman was accused by a few of an abnormal and morbid emphasis on sex and of conducting an unwarranted inquisition into men's private lives. Stories of alleged sexual confessions went round the campus and there was talk of emotionalism and even hysteria. ... By the spring of 1920 van Dusen had begun to think that Princeton would not stand for what he called 'apostolic work'.
On the Tail of a Comet: The Life of Frank Buchman, Garth Lean, page 89.

Then, Garth Lean stated,

On 25 January 1922 he [Buchman] asked Mackenzie if he could give more periods of practical instruction to balance the weight of academic theological teaching in the curriculum. Mackenzie refused, saying that there were other courses which were 'vital' to personal conduct and inner life and that other professors were quite as anxious about that side of the work as Buchman. When rumours were later spread that Buchman had been asked to resign, Mackenzie commented, 'On the contrary, I did everything in my power to persuade Frank to stay.'35 On 1 February 1922 Buchman sent in his formal letter of resignation, thanking Mackenzie and Jacobus for their 'many known and unknown courtesies and kindnesses to me.'

4   Edward Perry, January 1958, unpublished MS. Perry went to Hartford in the autumn of 1921.
35   Perry, unpublished MS.

On the Tail of a Comet: The Life of Frank Buchman, Garth Lean, page 96, and footnotes on page 541.

(Notice how Garth Lean had a habit of finding "unpublished manuscripts", mostly written by other Buchmanites, that said just what he wanted to hear. Trying to find supporting documentation for Garth Lean's stories is very difficult, perhaps impossible.)

      Also of interest here is the fact that Buchman ceased getting a paycheck from the Pennsylvania Ministerium at about that time — he would spend the rest of his life living off of the largesse of rich patrons. After Hartford Seminary, Buchman never held another job, and never got another paycheck in his life. The official story is that Buchman refused to accept the position of minister to a small rural church, so he was no longer paid by the ministerium. But who knows? This is a good area for further research.

      For the most part, Frank Buchman ceased to be part of the Lutheran church. Years later, Buchman was summoned to Reading, PA — he was arraigned before the Synod of the Lutheran Church for not having attended a sufficient number of the periodic meetings of his local ministerium. They were considering defrocking Buchman, basically for absenteeism. In the end, politics won out, and rather than create a big fuss, the Synod let the matter slide.71

Back in China, Frank Buchman's behavior was so obnoxious that he offended just about everybody with whom he had contact. Buchman called together a convention of the China missionaries, where he lectured his fellow missionaries, warning them about "crushes" and "absorbing friendships", which some people could only assume were barely-veiled accusations of sexual affairs, either heterosexual or homosexual. Then Buchman objected when some people took his remarks personally.77

Bishop Logan Herbert Roots and Frank N. D. Buchman in China

Frank Buchman's follower, the tennis player 'Bunny' Austin, described the situation this way: He wrote that Buchman convened a conference of the China missionaries where he declared:

"When I came to China this year," he [Buchman] said, "a man who is a real physician of souls said to me 'Do, wherever you go, give a strong message on the cure to perversion.' I say this because on these hilltops I have seen 'absorbing friendships'." "I can't judge," added Buchman. "I can only tell you that they may be unhealthy and pass on the word of that man who knew far more than I do."
      Even the delicacy with which Buchman put his finger on this problem, brought an explosion.
Frank Buchman As I Knew Him, H. W. 'Bunny' Austin, page 21.

Delicacy? Really now. Frank Buchman should have known that going over to China and calling the missionaries there a bunch of perverts wasn't going to win him very many friends.

Bunny Austin continued:

      In spite of the storm bursting around his head, Buchman continued the attack. Another day he spoke of the sin of men preaching but not living the life, or sitting at their desks and not being in touch with people's moral and spiritual needs. Many assumed Buchman was attacking them personally. Mortally offended, they added their voices to the chorus of criticism. It was Buchman's first experience of a whispering campaign against him. He re-examined his own motives, but his conscience was clear, and he now realised there was a determined force of evil at work trying to negate and undercut his vision for the Chinese people.
Frank Buchman As I Knew Him, H. W. 'Bunny' Austin, pages 21-22.

Ah, yes. That was Frank Buchman's usual behavior for the rest of his life. Buchman considered anyone who dared to criticize him to be obviously evil and working for the Devil.

Also notice how Buchman felt entitled to attack and criticize his fellow missionaries, and accuse them of perversion, but when they responded by criticizing him in return, it was a "whispering campaign" and a "determined force of evil at work". Frank Buchman could dish it out, but he couldn't take it.

The grandiose language is typical of Buchmanite literature: "a determined force of evil at work trying to negate and undercut his vision for the Chinese people." What "vision"? Where did a junior missionary from Pennsylvania get off having a "vision for the Chinese people"? And then the author implied that Frank Buchman was so important that the Devil had to scheme and plot to subvert Buchman's "vision". That is delusions of grandeur.

  • And then Frank Buchman told Ruth Paxson that he never took orders from a woman.78
  • Then, when Rev. Tewksbury accused Buchman of egotism, Buchman replied that most of his message was derived from Henry Wright.79
  • Finally, on August 31, 1918, Frank Buchman received a telegram from Bishop Logan Roots in Hankow that ordered him to "DISCONTINUE WORK."80
  • Buchman sailed to Japan.

But before he got kicked out of China, Frank Buchman met a young Episcopalian minister named Samuel M. Shoemaker Jr., who was also having no success as a missionary. Through psychological mind games that involved criticizing Shoemaker and putting him down, Buchman converted Shoemaker to his own beliefs, and Shoemaker became Buchman's faithful follower and right-hand man for more than twenty years.

"Sam Shoemaker"
Rev. Samuel Moor Shoemaker Jr.

Bishop Roots had a further role to play in Frank Buchman's organization, "Moral Re-Armament". Bishop Roots would eventually discover that one of his missionaries did indeed have a Chinese mistress. Bishop Roots flipped out and jumped to the illogical conclusion that Frank Buchman had been right about everything after all. When Bishop Roots later retired and returned to America, both he and his son John McCook Roots became true-believer life-long followers of Frank Buchman. Then the Buchmanites described the situation as,
"How Frank Buchman was used in making his own country the most responsible of nations, with the help of the Bishop who had failed him earlier."
Preview Of A New World; How Frank Buchman Helped his country Move from isolation To world responsibility; USA 1939-1946, Arthur Strong, back cover and pages 100 and 101.

It was in Kuling, China, in 1918, that Buchman had started his custom of having "House Parties". He would gather around himself whatever wealthy or influential people he could get, and hold informal church services, in a rich person's home or a large hotel suite, that were more like an open house than a church service. People would come and go as they pleased, and would hang out with Frank, as he was called (never Dr. Buchman or Rev. Buchman), or hang out in some other room, as they liked, playing cards or music sometimes. In the middle of all of this, Buchman developed and expounded his beliefs. And then, from 1919 through the mid nineteen-twenties, Buchman took his style of religious meetings to American college campuses, especially favoring the rich, upscale universities like Harvard, Yale, and Princeton.

Next: The Religious Tenets and Doctrines of Buchmanism

Previous: Bill Wilson Writes the Steps

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Last updated 13 July 2014.
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