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Thornhill, Alan (1906-1988) | Archival Collections at Wheaton College

Name: Thornhill, Alan (1906-1988)


Historical Note:

Alan Edward Carlos Thornhill, priest and author of numerous musicals, historical plays, revues and domestic comedies, was born on March 16th, 1906, in Liverpool, England. He was educated at Repton School and Hertford College, Oxford.

At Repton, headmasters serving during Thornhill’s era included Michael Ramsey, Geoffrey Fisher and William Temple, all eventual Archbishops of Canterbury. There Thornhill, nestled comfortably in the seclusion of the school library, discovered the lasting pleasures of reading Chesterton, Shaw, Keats and Browning.

He received ordination in 1929, and served a large London parish before returning to Oxford College as Fellow and Chaplain. His former tutor, the imposing Principal Cruttwell, persuaded him to join the Hertford faculty. Thornhill complied, lecturing and competently performing his pastoral duties for five years. “I failed to influence the majority at Hertford College,” he recalls, “but God honored in unexpected ways the work in the lives of a few.”

At Oxford in 1928, he befriended Frank Buchman (1878-1961) at an informal but momentous house party, initiating Thornhill’s lifelong association with the Oxford Group, which soon evolved into Moral Re-Armament (now called Initiatives of Change). MRA, the result of Buchman’s worldwide call for moral and spiritual re-armament, urged Christians of all stripes to courageously face impending war and totalitarian ideologies. With its emphasis on experience rather than doctrine, MRA provided a focus where differing religious and political persuasions met without compromising individual beliefs. It influenced thousands of idealistic young people the world over.

In fact, it was an offhand remark from Buchman that nudged him toward the world of literature. Buchman, aware of Thornhill’s incessant theater-going, commented, “Of course the theater is a tremendous force. It could help to transform society.”

For Thornhill, the observation gained momentum as his spiritual life quickened, and his vision for service sharpened. After much rumination, he claimed his own unique role in implementing “new men, new nations, a new world,” Buchman’s oft-repeated phrase. At St. Mary’s Church in the heart of Oxford, where Latimer, Ridley and Cranmer awaited their martyrdom, and where Newman preached and Wesley prayed, Thornill surrendered fully, at last discovering full peace – and certain leanings toward artistic direction.

Later, when Buchman asked what he was writing, Thornhill responded, “Nothing.” Very casually, Buchman said, “You’re a fool.” Shortly thereafter, Thornhill seized pen and paper, writing the fateful words, “Act One Scene One,” the inauguration of his literary career. Now his desk was his pulpit.

His first play, The Forgotten Factor (1940), deals with human and ideological clashes during a tense strike. It was first performed for Ford factory employees, with Henry Ford in attendance. Later it was performed for Senator Harry S. Truman, FDR’s right-hand man in quelling seemingly unbreakable labor gridlock.

Impressed, Truman agreed to sponsor a national premiere in Washington, DC, touting it as “…the most important play to come out of the war. There is not a single bottleneck in industry that could not be broken if these ideas are given the green light...”

Thornhill’s involvement with MRA often escorted him into controversial territory. Traveling across the U.S. in the 1950s, he discovered firsthand the anguish erupting within the Civil Rights movement. In response he wrote The Crowning Experience (1957), based on the life of Afro-American educator Mary McLeod Bethune, daughter of former slaves.

The play’s title is derived from a statement uttered by Bethune when, at an MRA event, she stood peaceably with a repentant racist: “To be part of this great uniting force of our age is the crowning experience of my life.” It debuted in Atlanta, GA, to 11,000 its first weekend. In an unprecedented action, the owner of the theater opened the doors to both black and white audiences, promising continued use for as long as the production company could fill it.

In 1978, Thornhill and conservative journalist Malcolm Muggeridge collaborated on Sentenced to Life: A Parable in 3 Acts, first performed at London’s Westminster Theater. The play, exploring euthanasia without oversimplifying, attempts to flesh out the spiritual implications of an issue often seen purely in terms of economics, vague sentimentality or personal comfort.

A talented and productive writer, Thornhill also possessed a rare genius for sustaining varied, substantive friendships. In Best of Friends (1986), he relates a series of revealing but invariably kindhearted portraits of those who’ve enriched his spiritual and intellectual life, including Buchman, Muggeridge, comedian Charlie Chaplin and mezzo-soprano Muriel Smith, who, on stage and film, so memorably realized the role of Bethune.

In One Fight More (1943), he writes of another cherished acquaintance, B.H. Streeter, author, Doctor of Divinity, Provost of The Queen’s College, Oxford, and Canon of Hereford. After Streeter had nearly surrendered to a potentially dreary retirement in 1934, Thornhill gently persuaded him to publicly implement the truths he’d made plain in his many scholarly books. Invigorated, Streeter soon fell in with the goals of MRA, traveling and speaking enthusiastically on its behalf.

However, Thornhill considered his most edifying, electrifying and enduring friendship to be that of Jesus Christ, “the unseen friend in every human relationship.” He adds, “In the end friendship means identifying with my friend’s life…He actually trusts us to be his hands, his feet, his mouth, part of his plan.”

For the remainder of his life, Thornhill readily applied his pen to the cause of Christ. Audiences who would not sit through sermons would gladly sit through a well-produced play. The world, indeed, was his stage.

Other works include Mr. Wilberforce, MP (1965) Bishop’s Move (1968), Hide Out (1969) and Ride! Ride! (1976), based on the life of John Wesley. A prose work, Three Mile Man (1980), lovingly chronicles the charms of wildlife in Rotherfield, Sussex, through the eyes of his friend and gardener, Peter Warnett,

Thornhill married Barbara van Dyke in 1947. He died on December 11th, 1988 in Mark Cross, West Sussex. His funeral was held at St. Denys Church, Rotherfield, Sussex.

Note Author: Wheaton College Archives & Special Collection staff






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