Pastor, educator, ecumenist: Henry Sloan Coffin (1877-1954)

It has been just over 50 years since Henry Sloane Coffin died. This milestone offers an occasion to take the measure of this noted pastor, educator, and ecumenist.

Coffin was born into a prominent New York City family, the son of a lawyer and a Scottish mother. He learned the Westminster Shorter Catechism when a youngster and developed a deep respect for the ministry at home and at the Fifth Avenue Church where the family worshipped. He attended private schools, went off to Yale, where he was Phi Beta Kappa, a member of the famous society Skull and Bones, and president of the YMCA.

While in New Haven, he fell under the influence of Dwight L. Moody, noted evangelist, who changed his life. Sensing a call to ministry, he traveled to Scotland to absorb the theological liberalism of the age. He finished his studies at Union Theological Seminary in New York and at Yale; he was ordained into the ministry in 1900. Madison Avenue Church called him as pastor.

In terms of the theological controversies raging at the time, Coffin thought of himself as a liberal-evangelical, and published a number of books, including Some Christian Convictions (1915), In a Day of Social Rebuilding (1918), and God Confronts Man in History (1947). Through his books he expressed his views and become widely known.

He also became embroiled in the Fundamentalist-Modernist controversy. Early in the 20th century, Christians in general and Presbyterians in particular confronted new challenges to the faith by confessing through the Westminster Standards, e.g. Darwinian evolution, biblical criticism, comparative religious studies, and the sociology and psychology of religion. Presbyterians tried to defend the faith behind Five Fundamentals: an Inerrant Bible, the Virgin Birth of Christ, the Substitutionary Atonement, the Bodily Resurrection of Jesus, and Jesus’ Miracles, all affirmed by the General Assemblies of 1910, 1916, and 1923. More liberal-minded Presbyterians signed “An Affirmation,” known as the “Auburn Affirmation” because of the seminary where it was written, to suggest that the Christian faith and life could not be fully expressed simply through these specific doctrines. Coffin sided with the affirmationists and fought for greater diversity within the church.

Union Theological Seminary in New York called Coffin to be its president in 1926, just after this conflict. In his inaugural address he pledged to provide a “training school” for various ministries at home and abroad and for allied institutions such as schools and colleges. He also proposed graduate study to promote research and specialization in branches of Christian learning, and to provide extension education for various types of church workers. He articulated a passion for the worldwide kingdom of God, and reminded his constituency of the seminary’s tradition. He concluded: “We have taught here the gospel of Christ as the power of God not only for the salvation of individuals, but for the redemption of society — for the Christianization of industry and commerce, of education and statesmanship, of the relations of races and of nations.” He proposed continuing to do so.

One of the ways by which he fulfilled his vision was by strengthening the seminary’s faculty–by appointing notable scholars and teachers to various posts. For example, he saw something special in an undoctored Detroit pastor named Reinhold Niebuhr, a brilliant, prolific, energetic Christian of German Lutheran and Reformed heritage who became one of the seminary’s most well-known theologian-ethicists. In addition to producing Leaves from the Notebook of a Tamed Nativist (1929) about his ministry for Ford’s factory workers, Niebuhr published Moral Man and Immoral Society (1932) among others, which broadened his fame. He was invited to give the Gifford Lectures in Scotland; he published those lectures as The Nature and Destiny of Man (1941. 1943).

Coffin referred to his noted professor as “mind on the move.” He worried as Niebuhr worked on his Nature and Destiny that he was digging himself into such a deep hole that he might not be able to dig himself out in his second series of lectures. Coffin also named another professor of note to the faculty in 1933–theologian Paul Tillich. Coffin called Tillich “a massive theologian.” Later he complained that students really could not understand Tillich’s lectures despite his warm heart and winning ways. My wife, Elizabeth, and I once heard Tillich speak at Princeton Theological Seminary and we could not understand a word he said. We knew, however, that what he said was important. When Tillich published his Systematic Theology he helped clarify his ideas and contributions to our Christian faith and life. With these and other appointments, Coffin made UTSNY into a theological center of the nation and world.

This pastor turned seminary president was also a bridge builder. While he remained what he called a liberal-evangelical, he was sympathetic to the theological turn after World War I, the Depression, and World War II toward Karl Barthism and Neo-Orthodoxy, as it was called. God was known as the completely “Other.” The movement re-emphasized human sinfulness and the need for human redemption in Christ as Redeemer and Lord.

During his presidency, Coffin supported the efforts of professors and students to make a better world through such publications as Christianity and Crisis in 1937 and the Fellowship of Reconciliation. He had to deal with radical students who organized the Agenda Club to promote their causes during the Depression and WWII. He called it the “Leap before you look Club,” good-naturedly. When he retired, his admirers gave him a farewell dinner at the Columbia Faculty Club where they sang:

President Coffin, our hats are off to you
We like your laughter,
We like your chaff,
We like you through and through.

Coffin was also an ecumenist in an age when Christians were moving closer to each other. He tried to break down old denominational barriers he perceived to be anachronistic. He celebrated, for example, the reunion of the Church of Scotland with the United Free Church of that country. He labored on this side of the Atlantic to bring together the Protestant Episcopal Church and the Presbyterian Church in the 1930s and 1940s, working with Bishop Henry K. Sherrill, a strong supporter of UTSNY. When Coffin was elected moderator of the PCUSA in 1943, he attempted to heal the division between Presbyterians North and South. Although he failed, he did pave the way for that reunion in the 1980s. He also participated in the Oxford Conference in 1937, which focused on the meaning of Christian Life and Work. Thus he helped prepare the way for the World Council of Churches, organized in 1948, just after his retirement from UTSNY.

Coffin was a very influential and likeable pastor, educator, and ecumenist. We may remember him for the words with which he concluded his farewell to the UTSNY graduating class: “Ours is a calling in which we share the joy of our Lord.” So it is! See Henry Sloane Coffin, A Half Century of Union Theological Seminary, 1896-1945 (1954); Morgon Phelps Noyes, Henry Sloane Coffin, The Man and his Ministry, (1964). Activist nephew William Sloan Coffin kept the family name in the news. See Warren Goldstein, William Sloane Coffin, Jr., A Holy Impatience (2004)

JAMES H. SMYLIE is professor emeritus of church history at Union Seminary — PSCE in Richmond, Va.

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