Reconciled at His Touch, Part 2

The spirit of reconciliation loosed in Geneva, Africa and the American south.

Colin MacIntyre
Feb 25 · 10 min read


Years before the Franco-German reconciliation, a small group of God-listeners arrived at a post-WWI disarmament conference in Geneva. There, in the middle of an uncertain, war-devastated Europe, and trusting in what they had heard from the Spirit of God, they made an uncompromising public announcement:

  • In this time of distress, peoples and nations are eagerly awaiting, not more plans, but power; not machinery, but men.
  • The modern world — disillusioned, chaotic, feverish — demands a solution adequate to its disorder.
  • The international problems of today are, at bottom, personal problems.
  • Men must change if problems are to be solved.
  • Peace in the world can only spring from peace in the hearts of men.
  • A dynamic experience of God’s free spirit is the answer to regional antagonism, economic depression, racial conflict, and international strife.

This was the Oxford Group, so-named because of its attachment to Oxford University in England. Journalist A.J. Russell, a one-time skeptic who became their foremost biographer explains,

It is not an organization for there is no membership; not a sect for it is interdenominational; not a new movement for it is but a continuation of early Christian fellowship; not a church but aiming at inner spiritual fellowship in all churches… None can tell their number, for in their own words: “You can’t join, you can’t resign — you are either in or out by the quality of the life you live.”

For years the Group had included among its own men and women involved in international affairs. To them, whoever held the secret of changing individuals also held the secret of changing nations. This much was clear, only the transformation of the human heart could alter the direction of human policy.

The Invisible Guide… In Geneva

During this inter-war period, the ideal of the League of Nations had been touted highly. Yet even its staunchest and most enthusiastic supporters now despaired at its failure to realize that ideal. Despite all Geneva had accomplished, it became obvious that “idealism, without God, was not enough.” Indeed, the Group felt that,

Until two people joined together in marriage learned to care more about God and each other then about themselves, there is no real solution to their problems. Until all the members of a family make this vital discovery, self-interest blocks the best unity of their home. So it is with nations. Until the welfare of the whole family of nations comes to them more strongly than their own self-interest alone, until they learn that he who would save his life shall lose it, self-interest rides high in international politics. And behind the veil of pious pronouncements and resolutions, the blind policy of self-interest pulls the reins in secret diplomacy.

Self-interest leaves out God, and plugs along. But it is quickly wearied with its plugging. Many men came hoping to find a city of love, and they found a city of loneliness. After the horrors of the Great War, they hoped to find in Geneva, at last, the peace where nations had fellowship together. They found instead the rivalry and jealousy they had left behind. They came, many of them at great personal sacrifice, to throw themselves into the work of building a new world. But they found that the issuing of reports did not rouse the world into great redemptive action.

Into this city of disillusionment, of idealism and cynicism, the Group came to deliver a simple, yet uniquely personal message. There was no organization to set up, no conference to be arranged, no funds to be raised. There were no votes to be counted or resolutions to be passed. “Meetings of refreshing simplicity and friendliness were held” simultaneously with preparations for the Disarmament Conference itself. Who can say which was the most effective? For though the world would again descend into the maelstrom of war, the foundations laid here should not be underestimated. “Personal problems were dealt with and the solution indicated. Lives began to respond, and, turning to God, were changed.”

John Roots, citing Coleridge, said, “They were out to restore commonplace truths to their first uncommon lustre by translating them into action. They were making a film of first-century Christianity by living it.”

As a result, the Group was intolerant of preaching without practice. They stressed witness before argument— incidentally the reason why three centuries of rhetoricians had thus far been powerless to overthrow religion.

…In Africa

No region of the world has suffered more colonial fallout than the continent of Africa. Yet a new light shone on Africa’s deep and supposedly irreconcilable problems when, at one house, people of all denominations and shades of belief lived together for ten days in such oneness that a sister of an Anglo-Catholic Community wrote of her experience: “We lived on so high an altitude of Christian experience that we completely lost all sense of our differences.”

Max Yergan, one of South Africa’s finest minds, had previously told a member of the Group that his country had “sufficient personal religion, and needed no more.” Himself a black man, he changed his tune two years later given the astonishing racial results. Loose-living ranch-owners were somehow becoming life-changers, serving among their own native employees. No missionary preaching could so convince those black men of the reality of Jesus as the staggering turnaround of their “big boss.”

In addition to a spirit of respect between black and white, there arose new fellowship between the English and Dutch. Due to the Groups’ influence, many Dutch began to voluntarily learn English, and many English, Dutch. At a house-party in Bloemfontein, three hundred from both sides stood up and pledged an oath inspired by the inscription on the Christ of the Andes monument:

Sooner shall this limitless veldt pass away, sooner shall this endless sunshine cease than we Afrikaans and English-speaking South Africans shall break the peace which we swear here at the feet of Christ the Redeemer.

…In the American South

In the spring of 1931, Louisville, Kentucky was in bad shape. The Wall Street crash and resulting Great Depression had taken a merciless toll on the city. Tragedy being no respecter of persons, her citizens, white and coloured, from all walks of life and societal status, had reached the last rung of disillusionment. Russell writes,

Their morale was worse than shattered, their reserves of courage as dissipated as their reserves of cash. In the successive, cumulative blows which assailed their well-being and bruised their egos, they believed that… none were so foolish and few as rascally as those who, with no profit to themselves, had led them into the morass and left them there. Seeking a way out, craving leadership, avid of plans of betterment concrete and not empty, all they encountered were the snarling conflict of ambitions, of angers, of rancour unappeased. A personal feud had ruined great institutions, closed banks, precipitated a general bankruptcy. And still its fury raged careless of all save only the satisfaction of a private vengeance.

Hearing of this, and knowing that conditions there were symptomatic of the national disease, the Oxford Group swung into action. First, they would hear from God. Soon, guidance came that a powerful team should be sent into Louisville, whereupon invitations were sent far and wide.

“Whom shall I send, who will go for us?”

Ninety of them came. They ranged from wealthy society people to tradesmen and students. There was a Scotswoman who had run for Parliament at home and who had traveled to America for this series of meetings; and an Oxford student. There was a distinguished minister, for many years a missionary in China. There was a young married couple from Rhode Island whose lives and home had been completely changed by the message three years before. There was a young Episcopal clergyman who had a perfect genius for winning the confidence of boys and helping them to understand how Christ could aid them with their problems. There was a New York woman with a European title whose whole existence had been re-made through finding that an old friend of her husband had been brought to Christ through the Group.

Pentecost saw no motlier crowd in its human composition, and they met with one accord in one place. Each had somewhere arrived at a decision for Jesus Christ in surrender, carried through the early stages of learning to live by guidance from God, helped to win others for Christ, and learned the price and the necessity of full sharing fellowship with like-minded Christians. This means that there were ninety people ready to function as a phalanx under God’s Holy Spirit.

There was a human leader… but he could not possibly have carried the details of all the hours in the day of all the workers who were there. Yet there was not a single bit of individual sharpshooting; we worked almost like one person, because unity was there at the beginning. Noiselessly the members of this group slipped into town by train and car. A church sexton in New York took several in his car and witnessed with great power in the meetings. Some were quartered with families; some stayed in hotels. There were daily groups for special interests: one for business men, one for women, one for girls, one for boys, one for younger married women, and one for ministers; each was led by someone belonging to his particular group. There was daily Bible study. In the evenings we gathered for a united meeting. This began with 300 and ended with 2,500. The theme was not preaching nor exhorting, but simple individual witness to what Christ had done.

As a result, family issues were sorted, personal problems straightened out, and hundreds of people found new life and power in Christ. The confidence of its citizens, depressed by the economic slump, was lifted tremendously, and by the time this Group of ninety prepared to leave, a very different city lay in their wake. It had been an occasion worthy of Lazarus.

Guidance is Progress

Canon L.W. Grensted, one of the Church of England’s most renowned scholars and psychologists, was asked if he thought everyone needed the Group’s kind of direct-from-God guidance. He replied:

Unquestionably. Especially those who ascend in the world. As men climb to more important jobs, they find the difficulty of preserving a sense of proportion becomes far greater. By constantly referring their work back to God, it does put them into proportion for all sorts of situations, and helps them to adjust the difficulties of others. One does not like to make claims for oneself, but insofar as I have been able to make spiritual progress, it has been largely through the insight which has come from these Quiet Times of listening to God. More marked, perhaps in my case has been the progress that has followed through little definite acts of decision for Christ. Some of these things have been very small, with not much meaning to them except that they have meant a personal loyalty. When those little impulses came, they knew they meant definite landmarks, what the Group calls driving in stakes.

Similar stories abound. Nicaragua in the mid-1980s, Nigeria in the Biafran civil war, East Germany’s peaceful transition from communism, South Africa’s journey to the end of apartheid and more.

But more can and must be done. From centuries first to 21st, this personalized, “stake-driving” guidance has been heaven’s prescription for reconciliation. From neighbour to international relations, the scale is not the issue. Even small actions performed in obscurity can have, in true quantum entanglement or butterfly-effect, a wondrously out-sized impact, provided its origins are divine. For the guided life is not one of natural dimensions; it is the Spirit of God, Wisdom expressed through ordinary people like us for the repairing of the world’s wounds and the solving of the world’s problems.

The mystery that has been hidden from the ages and from the generations, but that has now been made manifest in his holy ones… [is] the Anointed within you, the hope of glory. (Colossians 1:27)

And the problems are solved. In the limitless mind of Christ lie solutions and stratagems like a field of unopened treasure chests, freely available to any goer who says, “Here I am, send me.”

The rift between Japanese and Chinese, Israeli and Palestinian, the ethnic and religious conflict in South Sudan, India and Myanmar and so many others fester like open wounds from generation to generation. What each of these dark, seemingly impenetrable zones need are, like Christ-like kintsukuroi in the gaps and cracks of self-destructive inhumanity, faithful representatives of Jesus living out exactly what their Lord had promised —

How blissful the peacemakers,

for they shall be called sons of God.

Johnstone, Douglas; Sampson, Cynthia. Religion, the Missing Dimension of Statecraft. Oxford UP, 1994.

Russell, A.J. For Sinners Only, the Book of the Oxford Group. Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1932.

The main collection on Frank Buchman and the Oxford Group is located at the Library of Congress Manuscript Division in Washington, D.C. It comprises 228,400 items, including up 565 record storage cases plus 27 oversize containers — altogether 244 linear feet.

N E X T → The Black Hole in Our Gospel

Reconciled at His Touch, Part 1 ← P R E V I O U S

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Colin MacIntyre

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