The movement, in its early years, was made up of Buchman's personal followers, and so the name change was incremental rather than abrupt and formal. One of the first uses of the term was in 1938, when H. W. Austin edited the book Moral Rearmament (The Battle for Peace). Buchman and his fellow Oxford Group leaders liked the new phrase, and the former Oxford Group developed into Moral Re-Armament. Buchman used the phrase when on May 29, 1938 he stated, "The crisis is fundamentally a moral one. The nations must re-arm morally. Morally recovery is essentially the forerunner of economic recovery.
The origin of the movement's name lay in the political climate of the late 1930s, in which the re-militarization of post-WWI Germany was a contentious issue. The rejoinder of the Oxford Group and MRA was that the world needed not military re-armament, but moral re-armament.
In 2001, the MRA movement changed its name to Initiatives of Change (IofC) and formed a non-governmental organization, IofC-International, for purposes of cooperation with organizations such as the United Nations and the Council of Europe.
One of the movement's core ideas, especially popular during the Cold War, was that changing the world starts with seeking change in oneself.
In 1965, Up with People was founded by members of and with support by MRA.
In 1965 The National Viewers and Listeners Association was set up by Mary Whitehouse, a member of MRA, who wrote that "without its ideals I cannot see that I would have been interested in starting this campaign".
During Buchman's life, MRA was criticised as a personality cult. The Four Absolutes were criticised as being impossible to fulfil and mutually contradictory, as when Absolute Love required the telling of a white lie, in contradiction to Absolute Honesty.
The Catholic theologian John Hardon claimed that the movement's political ideas were naive, since they simply assumed that moral awakening would solve "social problems that have vexed humanity since the dawn of history". He also criticised the emphasis on personal revelations on the grounds that "if each member of society is allowed to hear the voice of God through personal revelation, the variety of interpretations of the divine will becomes infinite.
MRA's claim that it could unify "Catholic, Jew and Protestant, Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist and Confucianist” led to claims that it obscured its actual Christian basis when that would have invited attack, as within communist or Muslim countries.