Woodrow Wilson’s last surviving grandchild died earlier this month, having served for 27 years as the liberal Dean of the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. Following, or leading, the trajectory of the Episcopal Church towards left-wing activism, Francis Sayre Jr. turned the Gothic and still uncompleted edifice into a rallying point for anti-war activists during the turbulent 1960s and 1970s. In 1973, he hosted a Counter-Inauguration with Leonard Bernstein to protest the start of Richard Nixon’s second term.
Born in 1915 in the White House (the last baby born there!), and dying at his home on Martha’s Vineyard, Sayre represented both the public spiritedness and faulty judgment of America’s WASP elite in the 20th century. His father was a Harvard law professor and Assistant Secretary of State under FDR. His wife was the daughter of a Connecticut U.S. senator who was also a retired U.S. Navy admiral. Papa Sayre’s young assistant was Alger Hiss, whose theft of classified documents from Sayre’s office on behalf of the Communist Party would later be exposed famously by Whitaker Chambers. Francis Sayre’s uncle was William McAdoo, who as Treasury Secretary to Woodrow Wilson perhaps saved the American economy by shutting the stock market for four months at the start of World War I to prevent the Allied powers from divesting of American assets. Less commendably, McAdoo, as a California U.S. senator, was the Klan-supported presidential candidate in 1924.
A photo from 1915 shows President Wilson affectionately glancing over the shoulder of son-in-law Francis Sayre Sr. and down at the Baby Francis Jr. Wilson was himself a progressive Presbyterian, and a minister’s son, who shared in the grand optimism of the Protestant Social Gospel in the early 20th century. As an Episcopal priest and prominent cathedral dean, Sayre carried that Social Gospel to laudable — but just as often radical — extremes, helping to dethrone the Episcopal Church from its cultural heights.
Ironically, even as the Episcopal Church was falling from predominance, Dean Sayre was busily completing the massive cathedral that was to serve as the church of state for the nation’s capital. By 1978, when Sayre retired, the cathedral was 90 percent completed, though the final touches would not occur until 1990, after 83 years of construction. It is the world’s sixth largest. Appropriately, Sayre presided over the entombment of his grandfather in the cathedral, the only president to accept the honor. FDR had shunned Sayre’s predecessor after he had pressed him for the cathedral’s rights to his corpse.
SAYRE WOULD PRESIDE over the installation of classical statuary and stunning stained glass that illustrated the Bible’s dramas, even as his theology cast doubt on their historical veracity, and his ministry partly replaced their significance with intense political activism of the left. The National Cathedral’s physical rise was concurrent with the Episcopal Church’s transformation from upscale Christian worship to tasteful museums where liberal WASPS organize. Sayre reputedly said: “Whoever is appointed the dean of a cathedral has in his hand a marvelous instrument, and he’s a coward if he doesn’t use it.” He was no coward. And his brush strokes were broad and bold.
Among his many controversies, Sayre hosted Leonard Bernstein and the National Symphony Orchestra to perform Haydn’s Mass in Time of War, as a counter-event to President Nixon’s inaugural concert in January 1973. He later observed: “I have felt that the Cathedral was an instrument in some sense beyond the confines of the church as an institution — an instrument that could be effective (in the nation’s capital) in the political center — in the arena of politics and public discussion and welfare.”
Sayre served as a navy chaplain on the U.S.S. San Francisco during World War II, and he always professed to be a patriot. “She had quite a war record,” he boasted of his ship to the Martha’s Vineyard newspaper in his later years. “Two and a half years through battle, hell and damnation.” A fierce critic of McCarthyism, he denounced anti-Communist witch hunters as “pretended patriots.” In a typically political sermon, Sayre preached in 1954: “There is a devilish indecision about any society that will permit an impostor like McCarthy to caper out front while the main army stands idly by.”
President Eisenhower, over whose funeral he would preside at the cathedral in 1969, with President Nixon as eulogist, appointed Sayre as U.S. liaison to the United Nations World Refugee Year. An early advocate of civil rights with marched in Selma, Sayre was appointed by President Kennedy to the first Equal Opportunity Committee. But Sayre would denounce the Johnson Administration, largely because of the Vietnam War, as “termite ridden.” At Sayre’s invitation, Martin Luther King preached at the cathedral on the Sunday before his assassination. The cathedral dean’s rhetoric got more radical with time. In 1972, Sayre fulsomely denounced Israel’s “oppressing” Palestinians. He later claimed that his career would be “truncated” by this denunciation, though he would not retire for another six years.
IN HIS POLITICAL, Sayre professed to follow the ancient Jewish prophets, citing Elijah’s challenge to Israel: “How long go ye limping between the two sides?” The cathedral dean added: “That question, chilling in its candor, probes rather painfully; and I’m afraid we’ve been doing a good bit of limping ourselves, and the testing may not be far off.” Speaking in the late 1950s, he was specifically referring to the Civil Rights revolution. But Sayre typically saw all of his political activism as God’s Kingdom at work.
“Theology is not an exact science,” Sasyre told the Martha’s Vineyard newspaper. “It’s a thing that comes to each person who has any of it but they adapt it to their own lives, to their own needs, thoughts and meaning. That’s all right. This is part of a person’s freedom and that freedom ought to be central to our faith.” In the 1930s he had decided to enter the ministry because of “the deplorable absence of moral codes in society and the present day lack of positive faith in whether God exists.”
Predictably, Sayre criticized the rise of post-WWII evangelicals, specifically Billy Graham. “The salvation of the world doesn’t come about by arithmetic,” the cathedral dean pronounced, not approving of Graham’s mass revivals in stadiums. “There is a dimension to sin that goes beyond the individual.” The Episcopal Church, largely sharing this view, began its 45-year membership plunge during Sayre’s second decade at National Cathedral.
With a grandiosity similar to his presidential grandfather, Sayre supposed prioritized the completion of the National Cathedral’s high tower over its nave, so that the Gothic tower could more quickly dominate the skyline of the nation’s capital. In his retirement, he served as chaplain at the hospital on Martha’s Vineyard, serving God sincerely, if in the stiff and high collared style of his WASP ancestors.
As the National Cathedral rose and was refined with ever more intricate iconography, Sayre would enthusiastically escort reluctant visitors onto the precarious scaffolding against the soaring walls for a closer look. The dean, whose long face and high forehead resembled his grandfather’s, was himself an icon of the old Mainline Protestant cultural hegemony of the early and mid-20th century, with all its virtues and blindnesses. And like his Grandpa Woodrow Wilson’s, Sayre’s dramatic life was both tragic and magnificent.