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James Payne Alter Papers

Call Number: RG 84

Scope and Contents

This collection documents James Alter's lifelong involvement with the Christian church in India, his affiliation with Yale University, his activities in student Christian organizations, and his ongoing interest in issues of peace and social concern.

Alter's student years at Yale, his involvement in the interrelated student Christian groups of that era, and his experiences as a conscientious objector during the Second World War are well-represented. After his return to India, extensive correspondence, writings and collected material provide important information about people and events as well as providing insight into Alter's personal journey as a son of traditional Presbyterian missionaries returning to devote his own life to an evolving participation in and understanding of the Christian Church in northern India. This record group does not contain a great deal of material relating specifically to the Christian Retreat and Study Centre in Rajpur, which Alter directed from 1954 to 1968. His consulting activities and research after this period are well documented.

The Correspondence of Series I, dating from 1936 to 1983, is divided into Family Correspondence and General Correspondence. Correspondence with family members, particularly his parents, is frequent and substantive. These letters, combined with the circular letters prepared by Jim and Barry Alter for their family and friends, provide thorough documentation of their activities for four decades. A fair portion of the General Correspondence is with the Presbyterian mission board and Presbyterian churches throughout the U.S. that provided financial support for the Alters. Also included in the General Correspondence section are letters documenting Alter's involvement in student Christian work, peace groups, and ecumenical ventures.

Series II is comprised of writings by Alter, including unpublished manuscripts, student papers, book reviews, sermons, lectures, and published works. The majority of the unpublished manuscripts and drafts contained in this Series relate to Christianity in northern India. Many are also available in published form, but drafts have been retained to document changes and revisions.

The materials contained in Series III and Series IV are similar in many ways, but Series III, Research Materials, represents the files that Alter had intentionally gathered together to support his ongoing research. These research materials relate almost exclusively to Christianity in northern India or to the interaction between Christianity and Communism. They include articles, reports, letters, notes, and newspaper clippings.

The Collected Material of Series IV is similar in format but covers a broader range of subject matter. Some materials relate to Christianity in India while others relate to courses taken by Alter, peace groups such as the Fellowship of Reconciliation, student Christian groups, and other organizations with which Alter was affiliated throughout his life, including the United Presbyterian Church Commission on Ecumenical Mission and Relations and the World Council of Churches.

Series V, Biographical Material, gathers together documentation relating to trips, projects, and other events in Alter's life. The Series includes notes, reports, itineraries, photographs, and official documents.


  • 1817-1984


Conditions Governing Access

The materials are open for research.

Immediate Source of Acquisition

Gift of Barbara Beach Alter.


  1. I. Correspondence
  2. II. Writings
  3. III. Research Materials
  4. IV. Collected Material
  5. V. Biographical Material


15 Linear Feet (34 boxes)

Language of Materials


Catalog Record

A record for this collection is available in Orbis, the Yale University Library catalog

Persistent URL


The papers document Alter's lifelong involvement with the Christian church in India, his affiliation with Yale University, his activities in student Christian organizations, and his ongoing interest in issues of peace and social concern. James Payne Alter was born in India in 1919, son of Presbyterian missionaries. He attended Yale College and Yale Divinity School. He was appointed as a Presbyterian missionary to India in 1945. He taught at Ewing Christian College in Allahabad, served as first Director of the ecumenical Christian Retreat and Study Center, Rajpur, and wrote on Christianity in northern India.

Biographical / Historical

1919 October 14
Born in Sialkot, Punjab, India to David Emmett Alter and Martha Payne Alter; his parents were missionaries of the former United Presbyterian Church of North America.
Attended Woodstock School, Mussourie, India
Attended Mount Hermon School, Massachusetts
Attended Yale University, B.A. 1940
Secretary of Yale University Christian Association
Three month prison term at Danbury Correctional Center as Conscientious Objector
Attended Yale Divinity School
Married Barbara Beach, daughter of David Nelson Beach II. (Children: Martha (1944), John (1947), and Thomas (1950))
Student Pastor, Haydenburg, Tennessee, Cumberland Mountain Presbytery under the auspices of the Presbyterian Board of National Missions
Continued studies at Yale Divinity School
Assigned to the mission field in India by the Board of Foreign Missions of the Presbyterian Church in U.S.A. Arrived in India October, 1945
Attended Leonard Theological College, Jabalpur, India
Professor of English, Chaplain, and Chair of the Department of Religion and Ethics, Ewing Christian College, Allahabad, India
Ordained by the Allahabad Church Council of the United Church of North India
Continued studies at Yale Divinity School, B.D. 1952
Served as Study Secretary for the World Council of Churches
First Director of ecumenical Christian Retreat and Study Centre, Rajpur, India
Researched, traveled, and published articles relating to the history of North Indian Christianity
Left India on medical retirement
1983 November 7
In the Doab and Rohilkhand : North Indian Christianity 1815-1915 (Delhi : ISPCK, 1986). Published posthumously, revised and completed by John Alter, son of James Payne Alter

Processing Information

Place names were modernized in the description, with the name originally used in the collection material or in an older version of the finding aid in parenthesis: e.g. “Beijing (Peking)” or “Benin (Dahomey)”.

Guide to the James Payne Alter Papers
Compiled by Martha Lund Smalley and Brad Pohlman
Description rules
Finding Aid Prepared According To Local Divinity Library Descriptive Practices
Language of description note
Finding aid written in English.

Part of the Yale Divinity Library Repository

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