No comments yet
04 January, 2012

Roland Wilson
Roland Wilson
Roland Wilson achieved a world-wide reputation as the first Secretary of the Oxford Group, the British body devoted to Moral Re-Armament, a position he held for 30 years.

Wilson was born in 1907, and was educated at Dulwich College and Oriel College, Oxford. He read theology at Mansfield College and was an ordained Congregational minister. A meeting at Oxford with Frank Buchman in the 1920s led Wilson to his life’s work.

Buchman, a Pennsylvanian of Swiss descent, had built up a network of people around the world committed to a programme of personal change which could issue in family and social change. He was the friend of Sun Yat Sen in China and Mahatma Gandhi in India. He aimed to enlist people in the universities of Britain and America. His work met with considerable response in Oxford in the Twenties and Thirties and Oxford men and women provided much of the leadership of the Group world-wide. By 1933 it was at work in 50 countries. Every summer, conferences in Oxford brought 5,000 or more over several weeks. In 1938, on the eve of war, Buchman made his call for moral and spiritual re-armament. His work became known as Moral Re-Armament (MRA).

When the Oxford Group was incorporated in 1939 Wilson’s outstanding abilities and dedication marked him out as the natural choice as Secretary. He had an able mind and a deep sense of responsibility. He piloted the Group through the war years, when its work was not always understood. Any active Christian group runs into opposition—from people who do not wish to be disturbed, from those whose morals or mode of life are challenged, or whose materialist ideology runs counter to active faith. In wartime it is easy to attack people. The word was put around that MRA was pacifist—which it never was—and therefore against the war effort, at a time when every man of military age in MRA, including its younger whole-time workers, was in the forces, where many gave their lives and many were decorated for gallantry.

Ernest Brown as Minister of Labour had made lay Christian ministers a reserved occupation. This included 29 essential MRA workers. Ernest Bevan, who was anti-God, de-reserved them. This aroused considerable opposition in the churches and in parliament, on the grounds that their work was vital both for the nation at war and for post-war reconstruction. It finally went against us, and the work was carried by older volunteers and others unfit for call-up, when its adherents were giving their lives on the war fronts, and they campaigned to strengthen morale. Through all this time Wilson piloted the group with tenacity.

On the home front MRA underlined that true morale is based on faith and moral standards. Early in the war a poster proclamation on these lines, ‘A Call To Our Citizens’, was issued by 600 local authorities. Later the leaflet Morale—How To Play Your Part went eventually to over 20 million people, issued by civic authorities either as leaflets door to door, or as full pages in local papers.

MRA began to use theatre productions and, when it was no longer possible to tour them, turned part of its London headquarters into a small theatre. The review Battle Together For Britain ran there night after night, with people coming off duty from the services taking part in it. We had 60 miners’ leaders there one night, in London for urgent discussions with Churchill. The booklet of the same name sold over a million copies.

At the end of the war the Swiss, at immense sacrifice, established the conference centre in Caux. A major question was how to bring about the changes which could ensure a democratic future for Germany. With the aid of the allied authorities a large number of the emerging leadership of Germany came to Caux in the next few years, including Dr Adenauer [post-war Chancellor of Germany] and many of the Ministers-President and other ministers from the regional parliaments, as well as industrial and trade union leaders, editors, clergy and many others who helped save post-war Germany. It was all based on the need for change, not on sentiment. The season of conferences at Caux lasted from June till October, and Wilson attended all of them, playing a leading role in their day-to-day planning.

Profound reconciliation took place with the French and others who were at Caux. Both the French and German governments decorated Buchman for what his work had done in this field.

MRA was invited to work in the Ruhr where the works councils were dominated by the Communists. In the next few years so many Communists’ lives were changed that the party forbade its members even to speak to anyone in MRA. Similar actions were going on at the same time in the industries of Northern France and Northern Italy.

Further afield the first large group to visit Europe from Japan, 76-strong, came in order to be at Caux. They included political and industrial figures, and the Mayors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. They went on to London and then Washington, where they were given standing ovations by both Houses of Congress. Changes of attitude and reconciliation in Caux also affected the peaceful transfer of independence in Morocco and later in Nigeria and Kenya, as well as in Cyprus.

It is not that Moral Re-Armament did it all—many other people were working for similar ends—but that they were sometimes able to make a vital contribution at key points through people who had adopted a new attitude.

Wilson was a quiet but forceful character, always resilient in the face of difficulty. He could show deep understanding of people as well as being tough where needed. He was a real man of faith. He was very musical, as befitted a nephew of Walford Davies, and cared deeply for all his family.

Kenneth Belden

Roland Whitwell Wilson, activist, born 1907, Secretary Oxford Group 1939-71, married 1946 Mary Richmond (deceased, one daughter), died Canberra 28 March 1991.

This obituary was first published in The Independent, April 1991.

Related Posts