The Moral Re-Armament Movement: Religion or Cult?

By Clara Sims, Archives and History Department Intern, Fall 2017

What distinguishes a religion from a cult? The line between the two is both contested and blurry, and to answer this question more often than not is to identify who is doing the labeling and what interests of political legitimacy does such labeling serve.

Moral Re-Armament pamphlet page 1

Moral Re-Armament pamphlet page 2A little known religious movement of the World War II era, Moral Re-Armament, is one such movement that walked the line between being perceived as religiously legitimate or controversial and cult-like. It was an international and non-denominational spiritual movement that gained considerable popularity in the United States, as people hoped to prevent horrors of international conflict like those experienced in the first half of the century. Moral Re-Armament strove to inspire a civilization-wide moral revolution with the belief that the seeds of war lie first and foremost in the hearts of men. For over a decade MRA embarked on an energetic journey, made up primarily of young volunteers, to spread its message of absolute morality through original musical plays that travelled across the United States and Western Europe. These plays highlighted how to build relationships of understanding and unity between historically conflicting groups, ranging from the infighting of the family unit to bridging divides between labor and management.

After the unprecedented atrocities of World War II, it is not hard to imagine why the participants of MRA would come to the conclusion that society was in desperate need of a moral re-awakening. Its plays were filled with urgent calls to patriotism and for Americans everywhere to “Wake up!” and come together “or hate and greed will pull the country apart!” Yet the controversial practices of MRA often highlighted in its coverage, such as public confessions, meant that MRA was often cast in a light of religious extremism. But is it fair or useful to remember MRA or its followers in this way?

You Can Defend America cast

You Can Defend America cast photo

In the firsthand accounts of Stella Douglas, a young woman who spent eleven years as a full-time volunteer with MRA, it becomes clear that generalizations about MRA – what it was and its effectiveness – are inadequate in the face of her lived experience. Stella proves in her reflections about MRA to be far from an adherent of “blind faith” or religious extremism.

Rather, in various moments throughout her reflections on MRA, she was not afraid to critique and renounce aspects of MRA even as she defended the movement as a whole. The complexity of engagement in Stella’s reflections on MRA suggest the nature of religious identity is full of conflicts, contradictions, and convictions that go far beyond the reductionist label of  “extremist” or “cult”.

In her writings Stella never abandoned the conviction that a moral revolution was necessary. It is clear that she, along with many of her generation, felt deep unease about the declining morality of western civilization – which she described as selfishness and “dangerous disengagement from the pain of other men.” However, Stella questioned the usefulness of a religious-based morality to accomplish the task of inspiring the empathy and selflessness among men that would lead society towards unity, peace, and tolerance. The daily practice of listening to the voice of God was one of the central practices of MRA, but Stella believed that God was not necessary to alert men to the moral truths of human dignity and respect. Though Stella certainly never went so far as to associate MRA with a cult, she feared that such religious emphasis had the potential to slip too easily toward dogma and away from the diversity and tolerance championed at the heart of MRA’s original vision.

Stella Douglas

Stella Douglas and a friend

Her questions about religion and God ultimately led Stella away from MRA and toward civil rights activism later in life. Nevertheless, she found immense value in the fact that MRA was grappling with solutions to these timeless questions of nature and morality, even as she herself outgrew its tenets and practices. For Stella, MRA had the potential to be a powerful and positive force for change if it had only been able to hold fast to its principles and not succumb to the safeness of conformity. Instead of naming names and “rocking the ship of the state,” MRA soon became focused on its own prestige and popularity, only providing people easy, inoffensive but false answers to the moral crisis of civilization. In this way MRA became exclusive and ineffective to Stella but never crossed the line into religious extremism or cult-like behavior.

MRA, which disbanded in the mid 1960s, may not have ultimately succeeded in changing the world, but its impact remained in the beliefs that informed the lives of its followers.  Stella carried forward into the rest of her life, as she became an artist, activist, and caretaker, the questions that MRA inspired. Stella continued to defend the MRA community, advocating that no one should be pigeon holed as “typecast models of unquestioning faith.” Rather she believed MRA’s community, as in all religious movements, were full of highly diverse and complex individuals whose commitment to a moral ideology “did not preserve them from inner conflict.” Stella’s open-minded and constant search to understand and give credit to the complexity of MRA, and the positive goals it maintained, provides an example of how our identities, whether they be religious or political, cannot and should not be simplified. In our own time of extreme divisiveness, we would do well to look behind labels used to stereotype groups such as “cult” and “extremist,” as they are all too often misapplied.

Citation: Sack, Daniel. Moral re-armament: the reinventions of an American religious movement. Springer, 2009, 123.

Stella Douglas Papers on Moral Re-Armament

Moral Re-Armament was an international and non-denominational spiritual movement founded by American minister Frank Buchman in 1938. Moral Re-Armament called for a moral reawakening of nations based on the conviction by Buchman and his followers that the root cause of international conflict was essentially a moral problem.

The Stella Douglas papers on Moral Re-Armament consist of correspondence, personal writings, photographs, scrapbooks, Moral Re-Armament publications, address books, and newspaper clippings, covering the years 1944-1978. Items of note include letters and writings that specifically address Douglas’ participation in and ideas about the Moral Re-Armament program. These letters and writings include reflections on MRA leaders Frank Buchman and Peter Howard, but the majority include Douglas’ ideas about MRA’s ideology and practices.

For more information about Moral Re-Armament and this collection, please see the finding aid.

Additional insight into Stella Douglas’ views on the Moral Re-Armament movement can be found in this blog post by Clara Sims, WU Archives and History Department Intern for Fall 2017.

Moral Re-Armament pamphlet page 1

Moral Re-Armament pamphlet

Moral Re-Armament pamphlet page 2

Moral Re-Armament pamphlet

You Can Defend America cast

You Can Defend America cast photo

Stella Douglas and a friend

2017 Read Posters

We recently received our latest batch of WU READ posters.  This year the Willamette faculty and staff feature: Cindy Koenig Richards, Associate Professor of Civic Communications & Media; Mat Barreiro, Director of Academic Support; Gaetano DeLeonibus, Professor of French & Francophone Studies; Joe Bowersox III, Professor of Environmental & Earth Sciences; and Laura Taylor, Associate Professor of Economics.  Their selection of books (in no particular order) include Should Trees Have Standing, Liar’s Poker, Flowers of Evil, Citizen: an American Lyric, and Ebony & Ivy.

To see larger scale images of these posters and past posters visit:


Protecting Pandas Lecture: Elena Songster

Please mark your calendars for an engaging and informative lecture on “pandas” Monday, February 5 at 4:15 p.m. in the Hatfield Room.

Professor E. Elena Songster of St. Mary’s College of California will share her research on the establishment of the panda preserves in western China and the concurrent development of a conservation ethos in the People’s Republic of China in a talk titled, “Protecting Pandas and the Evolution of Environmental Science and Stewardship in the P.R.C.” The lecture is free and open to the public — please encourage your students to attend!

Note: content and photo from campus-wide email.

Faculty Colloquium: Patricia Varas

Please join us next Friday, February 2nd, at 3 p.m. in the Hatfield Room for our second Faculty Colloquium of this semester.

Presenter: Patricia Varas, Professor of Spanish Patricia Varas Picture

Title: “Ramón Díaz Eterovic: Dealing with the Trauma of the Pinochet Years through Detective Fiction”

The new detective novel in Latin America or neopoliciaco has become the new social novel for many critics. In Chile, it has developed into one of the preferred genres to rescue the past and recollect the years of the dictatorship and its consequences. I will briefly discuss three novels by Ramón Díaz Eterovic in his Heredia series and analyze how they explain “the relationship between the configuration of the historical memory and the description of society during the dictatorship and its following years” (Díaz Eterovic 664).

Students are welcome and coffee and treats will be provided. We look forward to seeing you there.

Ellen Eisenberg and Bill Kelm
Faculty Colloquium Coordinators

Faculty Colloquium: Karen Holman

Please join us next Friday, January 26, at 3 p.m. in the Hatfield Room for our first Faculty Colloquium of this semester.

Presenter: Karen Holman, Professor of Chemistry

Title: “Hijab in the lab: Teaching STEM to girls in Saudi Arabia”

The Research Science Institute (RSI), founded over 30 years ago, is one of the most prestigious international summer research programs in the world for high school students. In 2015, RSI founded a new program for girls at the University of Dammam, Saudi Arabia. Karen Holman Picture As part of the inaugural team of all-female college professors, I traveled to Dammam to teach chemistry in 2015 and again in 2016. I will describe my experiences: (1) in the classroom where the Saudi students embarked on a study of renewable and non-renewable fuels and determined which fuels are “best”, and (2) as a relatively ignorant Western woman seeking to learn more about Saudi culture from the perspective of females in an academic setting.

Students are welcome and coffee and treats will be provided. We look forward to seeing you there.

Ellen Eisenberg and Bill Kelm
Faculty Colloquium Coordinators

Black History Month

This month we have a selection of books and movies on display on the first floor of the library that celebrate Black History Month.  Black History Month began as a way to remember important people and events of African diaspora, and was initially proposed by black educators and students at Kent State University in February of 1969.

When President Gerald Ford recognized Black History Month during the celebration of the U.S. Bicentennial in 1976, recognition of it took hold across the country, particularly in educational institutions.  It now incorporates important people and events of the American Civil Rights Movement as well, such as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, the Montgomery Bus Boycott, and the Selma to Montgomery marches.  So come “check out” our selection of books and videos at our Black History Month display!

Zena Farm and the Sustainability Institute Records

As one of its key roles, the Sustainability Institute at Willamette University oversees management of Zena Forest, part of the largest remaining contiguous block of forestland in the Eola Hills west of Salem. Management guidelines for Zena Forest are the protection, restoration, management, and enhancement of natural resources and ecosystem services of Zena, following an adaptive ecosystem management model.

One acre of the Zena Forest property is occupied by Zena Farm, an historic homestead. It contains an approximately 100-year-old farmhouse, a half acre of organic vegetable production, and an orchard. Zena Farm hosted the annual Summer Institute in Sustainable Agriculture Program, a residential program that combined farming experience and interdisciplinary academic coursework. These records primarily contain documentation and photographs pertaining to the summer institute and the students who participated.

For more information on this collection, please see the finding aid. The records were transferred, organized, and described by Grace Pochis (’16).

Tribute to Wolves

Many different cultures and peoples have referred to January as the Wolf Month including the Anglo-Saxons and Native Americans; the first full moon of the year is traditionally known as the Wolf Moon as well.  Wolves are particularly vocal during breeding season, which falls during the first months of the year…this may be the reason for the association between the month of January and wolves.  Humans have long been fascinated by wolves and with good reason.  Wolves are amazingly loyal and a male and female pair who mate, usually stay together for life.  They are dedicated and affectionate parents and the entire pack takes care of wolf pups.  Besides barking and howling, wolves communicate through facial expressions as well.  They can run up to 35 miles an hour, smell animals from over a mile away, can hear as far as 6 to 10 miles away, and have great vision.  In honor of Wolf Month, check out some of the wolf-related books available in the Hatfield Library on our WU Reads Reading Guide.

2017 Tree of Giving Wrap up

Update on the Tree of Giving Book Drive

Thank you so much for participating in this year’s Tree of Giving Book Drive.  We have officially wrapped up for this year, and Four Corners Elementary was the beneficiary this year.  Together we collected 181 books (including five Spanish-language books), 28 gloves, 15 hats, and 4 scarfs.  We also want to thank all of our drop off locations: The Willamette Store who also provided a 30% discount on books purchased for the Tree of Giving, the Bistro, Law Library, and Sparks Athletic Center.

Additional info is available at: For questions about this event, please contact John Repplinger ( or Michael Smith (

Below are a few photos of the book donations given to Four Corners Elementary School.  Thank you again for all of your wonderful support!