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John Nevin Sayre Papers

Identifier: SCPC-DG-117

Scope and Contents

On July 1, 1975 Sayre formalized his intention of depositing his "office files" in the Swarthmore College Peace Collection by signing a statement to that effect. It also included the files still at his home after they were no longer needed. The office files of twenty-four cartons were transferred to the SCPC in July 1975, along with the large accumulation of F.O.R. records at the national office in Nyack, NY. The curator of the Peace Collection decided that the Sayre materials should be a separate document group, DG 117. A unit within the Sayre Papers contained his files of the Episcopal Peace Fellowship, which were separated to form the nucleus of DG 118.

The collection of peace related materials at the Sayre home in South Nyack included four steel cabinets of reference files which he and his wife Kathleen had collected and used for half a century. There were also personal and family writings including small diaries from childhood throughout adulthood, and lifelong correspondence with his beloved brother Francis B. Sayre who became a prominent diplomat. A copy of John Nevin Sayre's unpublished memoirs was donated by his daughter Faith Sayre Schindler who arranged for a visit of several days in the home in 1978 in order to examine and select materials offered to the SCPC. These were brought to Swarthmore in July 1978.

In 1981 more cartons of Sayre materials were found at Shadowcliff, the national F.O.R. office. They included sermons and speeches, materials about Kathleen Sayre's peace work, and books and photographs from the period of the first World War.

Additional personal and family materials were contributed by Faith S. Schindler. In 1993 she sent a suitcase full of letters. The earliest were written by Nevin Sayre's parents in the 1890s. The bulk of the correspondence comprises the exchange of letters between Nevin and Kathleen from their courtship in 1921 through the years when he was delivering speeches and building structures of peace in the U.S. and around the world.

The last accession of Sayre material was received in July 1998 from Faith S. Schindler in response to a suggestion from the SCPC. It is a collection of photocopies of letters of condolence received by Kathleen W. Sayre at the time of Nevin Sayre's death in 1977.

Scope and Contents The major part of the Sayre papers consists of the extensive correspondence of a lifetime which was centered in the Fellowship of Reconciliation. The principal categories are his American (U.S.) and international files. There is also a large quantity of family letters. Related to the international correspondence are the files of the International Fellowship of Reconciliation (I.F.O.R.), of which Sayre was chairman in 1935-1955. They include meeting minutes and reports of Conferences, the Council and Executive Committees. These files also contain historical records, materials on policy discussions, adjunct programs and fund raising. There are some miscellaneous historical materials of the F.O.R.-USA concerning Sayre's particular interests, like the 1933 referendum of the membership. Another series is given to programs and special projects of the F.O.R.-USA, 1919-1958, some in collaboration with other organizations. These files include correspondence, meeting minutes, reports and releases.

Some of Sayre's principal correspondents were: Devere Allen, Roger N. Baldwin, Percy W. Bartlett, Arthur W. Blaxall, Vera Brittain, K.K. Chandy, E. Philip Eastman, Hildegard and Jean Goss-Mayr, Allan A. Hunter, Howard Kester, Herbert Jehle, Muriel Lester, Kaspar Mayr, Wilhelm Mensching, Premysl Pitter, Charles E. Raven, Henri Roser, Paul M. Sekiya, Friedrich Siegmund-Schultze, Emily Parker Simon, Glenn E. Smiley, John M. Swomley, Evan W. Thomas, Charles A. Thomson, and André and Magda Trocmé.

The private side of Sayre's life is expressed primarily in family letters (1892-1972) particularly with his brother Francis B. Sayre, a prominent diplomat, and his wife Kathleen Whitaker Sayre. Additional autobiographical sources are pocket diaries and travel journals. His unpublished memoirs, written after his stroke, are a compilation of reflective writings on aspects of his personal and public life.

Writing and speaking were important aspects of Sayre's most active years. His periodical articles, pamphlets, mimeographed reports on F.O.R. work, hearings in Washington, broadcasts, letters to public officials and editors constitute one category. Another includes sermons and study series given in churches which are mainly in manuscript, often in outline or notes. Sayre kept collections of frequently used illustrations and quotations. Supplemental records about speaking engagements include press clippings, schedules, titles, etc. An extensive subject file, which he and his wife assembled, provided them with ample reference materials, in all printed forms, on national, international and religious issues.


Letters to/from/about Evan Thomas, that relate to his pacifist convictions and imprisonment during WWI as a conscientious objector,were scanned and added to the website Conscientious Objection and the Great War ( in 2019.


  • Creation: 1885-1982
  • Creation: Majority of material found within 1922-1967


Language of Materials

Materials are in English.

Conditions Governing Access

The collection is open for research use.

Physical Access Note

All or part of this collection is stored off-site. Contact Swarthmore College Peace Collection staff at at least two weeks in advance of visit to request boxes.

Conditions Governing Use


Biographical Note

John Nevin Sayre (1884-1977) described himself as a "peace apostle whose life has been devoted to the waging of peace and opposition to war." He was ordained to ministry in the Episcopal Church in 1911. He joined the Fellowship of Reconciliation (F.O.R.) in December 1915, only weeks after the American branch was organized. These events defined the course that his life took.

Sayre was born in Bethlehem, PA, one of two sons of a "captain of American industry" whose family was engaged in the development of the steel industry and railroads. Their maternal grandfather was a clergyman who became a college president. The boys had a privileged childhood; they were sent to boarding schools and summer camps. Nevin studied at Princeton and graduated in 1907. Francis studied at Williams College and Harvard Law school. He was married to a daughter of President Wilson in a ceremony at the White House at which Nevin officiated. Francis entered the diplomatic service and held important posts in the government of Franklin D. Roosevelt. Nevin benefited by gaining access to Presidents Wilson and Roosevelt and other prominent persons like General Douglas MacArthur and Emperor Hirohito.

Nevin Sayre, having decided to enter the ministry, then studied at Union Theological Seminary in New York for two years. He finished his graduate work at the Episcopal Theological School at Cambridge in 1911, and was promptly ordained.

The next few years were an exploratory period during which he considered a career in education, missionary work or the ministry. While working at Princeton in 1914, he heard a lecture on Christianity and war which prompted him to examine the teachings of Jesus on the use of force and the love of enemies. It became clear that Jesus was an "unequivocable pacifist" and that he "totally rejected war". Sayre never doubted that conclusion which became a guiding principle for the rest of his life. When he learned about the Fellowship of Reconciliation, he promptly became a member in December 1915.

Earlier that year, feeling an urge to preach, he responded to the call to the pastorate of Christ Episcopal Church in Suffern, NY which he served during the war years 1915-1919. The congregation of this village church did not curtail his freedom to uphold a strong pacifist position. Nevertheless after the war ended, he felt a call to be an "evangelist to youth and other parishes". He resigned his pastorate in 1919 to become one of the founders of the Brookwood community school which was conceived by a group of members of the F.O.R. for the purpose of "training builders of the new world". He taught there until 1921 when Brookwood became a "workers' college" under new leadership.

1922 was a year of transition. In February he was married to Kathleen Whitaker. She was a young English woman who came to the U.S. in 1916 with her widowed mother. They were Christian pacifists who found the pro-war spirit in English churches and society to be intolerable. Kathleen took a business course and then offered her services at the F.O.R. office where she was promptly engaged by Norman Thomas. Nevin Sayre, in writing his memoirs half a century later, devoted a chapter to "Companions in the Faith". He said that she was "first and foremost" in an international group of comrades. That same year he became editor of The World Tomorrow, a pacifist journal published by the Fellowship Press, and continued in the position until 1924. He had been writing for the publication since its beginning in 1918. He returned to journalism in 1940 when he edited Fellowship magazine for five years while serving as co-secretary of the F.O.R. with A.J. Muste.

For more than forty years (1924-1967) Sayre was an integral part of the national F.O.R. staff. He had worked briefly as associate secretary, along with the secretary Paul Jones in 1921. Following his period with The World Tomorrow, he served again as associate secretary from 1924 to 1935. Then he was F.O.R. chairman from 1935 to 1940. When A.J. Muste became secretary in 1940 he and Sayre headed the staff as "equal partners" until Sayre resigned that position to become the international secretary in 1947. He continued working full time in the international field until 1967 when a stroke forced his retirement.

Sayre's first active involvement in the international aspects of peacemaking probably occurred in January 1921. He spent three weeks in Germany with an international reconciliation team. They observed post-war conditions, and talked with groups and individuals, including Quaker relief workers, in 15 urban areas. In the years that followed, Sayre made frequent trips to Europe, including Russia (1929, 1932) and Eastern Europe (1938). More extensive tours, with his wife Kathleen, took them to the far east in 1949-1950, to South Africa in 1952, and to South America in 1958.

Most of Sayre's international work was done in the context of the International F.O.R. (I.F.O.R.). He became chairman of the I.F.O.R. in 1935 and remained in that position until 1955. During that time he presided over six meetings of the I.F.O.R. Council. Thereafter he continued to undergird the financial support of the organization. A distinctive feature of the I.F.O.R. work which began in the 1930s was the use of traveling secretaries for spreading the peace message to Asia, Africa and Latin America. These notable messengers were Muriel Lester, André and Magda Trocmé, Hildegard and Jean Goss-Mayr. Sayre's own network of contacts throughout the world is evident in the extensive files of his correspondence, country by country, with individuals and F.O.R. groups.

The broad interests of Sayre often involved him in working with other organizations. He participated in the founding of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and served on the Board of Directors from 1918-1928. He helped to form the Committee on Militarism in Education in 1925 and was its first chairman. He served as president of the National Peace Conference in 1935-1938 and led several of its delegations to the White House. Sayre also participated in some special projects undertaken jointly with other peace groups. In 1927-1928 he led a Mission of Peace and Good Will to Central America which was sponsored by the F.O.R. and the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC). The team of four, including a woman, lectured and made contacts in four countries and at the Pan American Congress in Havana. Their immediate aim of ending the fighting in Nicaragua was not accomplished, but they succeeded in laying the groundwork for a 5-year F.O.R. program in Central America. In Asia in 1950 Sayre took the initiative in an international act of compassion. When he and his wife were on their world tour, they learned that Japanese soldiers who had been accused of war crimes in the Philippines were still in prison there, some to be executed. With the support of the International F.O.R. and a committee of the Tokyo YMCA, Sayre went directly to Philippine President Quirino. Before leaving office in1953, he commuted the sentences of all the Japanese prisoners, thus freeing them to return to their country and families.

As a devotee of the "pacifist faith" Sayre found it necessary to go beyond preaching it in general and urge it on particular individuals in key positions of power, as in the case of President Quirino above. This practice of "speaking truth to power" was facilitated by his brother Francis B. Sayre who was a son-in-law of Woodrow Wilson and who held important diplomatic positions in the administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt from 1933 to 1952. In 1918-1919 Nevin Sayre had three private interviews with President Wilson which were productive. In 1936 and 1938 he led delegations of the National Peace Conference to the White House which were cordially received. In October 1949 when Nevin and Kathleen Sayre were on their world tour, they had two visits in Japan which were social occasions. They were luncheon guests of General Douglas MacArthur and his wife at the American Embassy, and they were received by the Emperor and Empress of Japan at the royal palace. In both cases they conversed about the favorable circumstances which characterized the post-war period in Japan.

The significance and influence of Sayre's life work are summarized by John M. Swomley, a colleague of Sayre on the national staff of the F.O.R. from 1940-1960 and its executive secretary 1953-1960. He wrote a biographical series titled "John Nevin Sayre: Peacemaker" for Fellowship magazine, 1977-1979. The following excerpt is taken from the beginning of the first article published November 1977:

"John Nevin Sayre was one of the great figures of the American peace movement. He lived an unusual life, dedicated fully to world peace. He invested himself and his fortune in movements for radical but peaceful change. He was the associate and advisor of men and women who became more famous, but who could hardly be said to have had more influence. In many respects, the Fellowship of Reconciliation as an organization is an ongoing tribute to his unswerving commitment and intelligent leadership. For fifty-two years he served the Fellowship in various capacities. No other person during that period, which spanned four wars, made a greater continuous world-wide contribution to the cause of world peace."


37 linear ft. (37 linear ft.)


John Nevin Sayre was a pacifist who spent over 40 years at the helm of the Fellowship of Reconciliation.


In general the arrangement of the Sayre papers corresponds to the broad categories used by Sayre and his secretaries. The collection is comprised of nine series as listed below. Subdivisions were made in some series for the sake of logic and clarity. Individual Arrangement pages precede each series except for Series I, Reference Files. Series A: American (USA) Correspondence, 1909-1972 Series B: International Files, 1922-1974 Series C: International Fellowship of Reconciliation (I.F.O.R.), 1919-1969 Series D: Fellowship of Reconciliation-USA, 1915-1965 Historical Records of special interest to Sayre Series E: Fellowship of Reconciliation-USA, 1919-1967 F.O.R. Programs; Special Projects Series F: Writings, Lectures, Sermons by Sayre, 1908-1967 Series G: Speaking Engagements and Trips, 1923-1967 United States and Overseas Series H: Biographical and Personal Records: Family Letters, 1885-1982 [Memoirs, tributes, obituaries of Sayre and wife, Academic life; Pastoral Ministry, Public engagements and Press clippings, Pocket Diaries; Travel Journals, Sayre Family Letters and memorabilia] Series I: Reference Files (articles, clippings, pamphlets) 1902-1967 [boxes are stored off-site]

F.O.R. Officials during the Sayre years (lists): Executive Secretaries of F.O.R.-USA Chairmen of National Council of F.O.R.-USA International F.O.R. (I.F.O.R.) Executives and Council Chairmen

Custodial History

The Swarthmore College Peace Collection is the official repository for these papers.

Immediate Source of Acquisition

Donor/Depositor: John Nevin Sayre and Faith Sayre Schindler Received: 1975, 1978, 1981, 1993, 1998.

Related Materials

For related materials, search the library's online catalog

Separated Materials

Photographs, mostly of individuals, groups at meetings, and conference sites, were removed to the Photograph Collection. One box contains photos of various sizes re: World War I, including relief work. Letters to/from Martin Luther King Jr., President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and President Woodrow Wilson were photocopied and the originals removed to the Restricted collection.

Bibliographic References

Guide to the Swarthmore College Peace Collection, 2nd ed., p. 63.

Legal Status

Copyright may have been transferred to the Swarthmore College Peace Collection or may have been retained by the creators/authors (or their descendants), in this collection, as stipulated by United States copyright law. Please contact the SCPC Curator for further information.

Processing Information

Processed by Wilma Mosholder, 19__-1999; checklist prepared by Wilma Mosholder, 1999, with assistance from Tina Wong (class of 1999).

Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description
Script of description

Revision Statements

  • 2018: The file list was standardized in Summer 2017 by Mary Olesnavich in preparation for importing into ArchivesSpace. Elisabeth Miller added the notes in Fall 2017.

Find It at the Library

Most of the materials in this catalog are not digitized and can only be accessed in person. Please see our website for more information about visiting or requesting repoductions from Swarthmore College Peace Collection Library

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