It was the 1980s and Sylvia Lawler, media reviewer for the Morning Call, was recalling growing up in Allentown in the mid-20th century with some newcomers to the Lehigh Valley. In the midst of her musing, she stopped briefly for a thought. “Now when I was a child all you ever heard about was Frank Buchman this, and Frank Buchman that. Yet today nobody knows who in the heck Frank Buchman was.”
It is understandable that Lawler was astonished. To those of her generation, Frank Buchman was a presence. His few comings and goings from the base of his Moral Re-Armament Movement in Great Britain to Allentown were widely covered. And it is understandable that this was so. Because Buchman occupied a place on the world stage in a way that no other Allentown resident had before him, or has done since.
His rise as an evangelist in post-World War I Britain to the end of World War II was called the Oxford Movement by its friends, and Buchmanism to his foes (a word the man himself hated). It centered around not just the message of Christ, but also an attempt to bring the leaders of the world to be spiritual “live wires,” which was so controversial that many prominent theologians thought him a fraud. That Buchman was often seen in the tabloids among the high and mighty traveling first class in ocean liners and staying in exclusive hotels opened him up to charges of corrupting Christ’s message. But no one could deny that whatever else he was, he had a powerful personality that in that period of turmoil between the two World Wars attracted people seeking an alternative between Communism and Fascism.
None of this could have been predicted for Franklin Nathaniel Daniel Buchman when he was born on June 1, 1878 in Pennsburg, Pennsylvania. His father, Franklin Buchman Sr., was a general store owner and innkeeper of the Buchman House Hotel. The only child of elderly parents, he was doted on in his Pennsylvania German family. Those who got to know Buchman in his later years came to believe that growing up in a hotel near a railroad track gave the boy a dose of wanderlust that led him to long for faraway places. Pennsburg with its population of 1,200 could not hold him. At the age of 16 his parents decided to relocate the family to Allentown. The home they located to at 117 N. 11th Street was near the edge of town. Buchman would later recall an open corn field nearby. His father opened a saloon that was popular with the Lehigh County Courthouse crowd and later engaged in the wholesale liquor business.
The chief reason for the move was so their son could attend the Allentown High School. Their goal for him as devout Lutherans was to enter the ministry. When the boy expressed an inclination to attend Princeton, his father told him he would be attending Muhlenberg. Buchman’s time at Muhlenberg would not have marked him as particularly religious. In those days the college was located on South 4th Street, part of the old James Allen property of Trout Hall. Buchman spent a good deal of those college years as something of a campus cut-up. He was an avid dancer and took part in theatrical productions.
But Buchman’s vow to enter the ministry was strong and he entered the Mt. Airy Lutheran Seminary in Germantown. Being deeply affected by the so-called “social gospel” of the day, the belief that it was the church’s duty to aid the poor, Buchman opened a hostel for 50 men in Philadelphia. Unlike many such facilities of the day, the idealistic, young minister wanted his to be first class offering more than just the bare bones, hymn, sing and soup that others offered. The Home Mission Board was not amused with Buchman’s efforts. It seemed to them that he was throwing money away. Confronted with the fact that his books did not balance, Buchman could only stammer that he was trying something different. They in turn demanded his resignation.
Furious now with the whole Lutheran Church establishment and the Home Mission Board in particular, he sought solace in leaving America for Europe. While touring England he entered a chapel and encountered a powerful female evangelist, Jessie Penn-Lewis, whose husband was a descendant of William Penn’s family. “It produced in me a vibrant feeling, as though a strong current of life had suddenly been poured in me,” Buchman wrote later, “and after words a great moral shaking up.” Now charged up, Buchman felt a desire to return to America and share his encounter with Christ’s message with others.
The first opportunity came when he was named secretary of the YMCA at Penn State. According to his biographer and close friend Garth Lean, Buchman found the campus at State College a hot bed of radicals and unbelievers. Like most college towns then and now, Penn State undoubtedly had its share of hellraisers. How much of that had to do with standard college hijinks, and how much to do with rampant atheism on campus can be subject for debate. But there is no doubt Buchman made a name for himself by showing a strong witness for Christ as he understood it in the campus community.
In 1915 Buchman left America for a missionary journey into India and China. With World War I at its height he braved the submarine infested waters of the Atlantic for Asia. The young minister continued to seek out community leaders that he could turn into “live wires” for Christ. Some of the missionaries who had been working for 20 years or more found the arrival of this young American more than they could stand. Others, however, found Buchman’s energy refreshing and a necessary jolt that the missionary field needed. By 1918 following the Russian Revolution, Buchman began to fear Communism would enter Asia and challenge Christian values. He created the four principles- absolute honesty, absolute purity, absolute unselfishness and absolute love- that he felt had to be used to combat Marxist materialism.
In the 20 years that separated World War I and World War II, Buchman created the Oxford movement, based largely in Britain to propagate his views. Most of its members were war veterans in Britain who were disillusioned by the peace that seemed to have been followed by unrest. Britain had won but the British Empire was rattled by the price in blood that had to be paid to do so. For some, Buchman’s ideas seemed to offer a way between the two isms of Communism and Fascism that seemed to want to split the world on totalitarian lines.
In the early 1930s many saw the rise of Hitler in Germany as a bulwark against a Communist Europe. Buchman was among them and some of them tried to make spiritual live wires out the Nazi leadership. One of his followers who tried this with Heinrich Himmler came close to losing her life. In 1936 as Hitler began to re-militarize Germany, Buchman continued in the wildly naïve belief that Adolf Hitler could possibly become a Christian. This brought down on Buchman’s head the combined wrath of the theology community in Europe and America. Buchman argued he was only trying to save Europe from another tragic war. But to many its smacked of appeasement as practiced by the Chamberlain government.
Just before the outbreak of the war Buchman declared the world had to re-arm morally, thus leading to his movement to be called Moral Re-Armament. In 1942 Buchman returned to Allentown after suffering a stroke. He recovered enough from it to return to Europe after and take a role in the reconciliation between France and Germany acting as an “honest broker” in other disputes.
Buchman was at the headquarters of his organization in Switzerland on August 7th 1961, when he died. On August 18, 1961 people from all over the world, among them Mahatma’s Gandhi’s nephew, took part in the funeral procession in Allentown. Today his movement still exists under the name Initiatives for Change.