William Sloane Coffin Jr. was born into an aristocratic Coffin family of Yalies whose uncle, Henry, served as president of Union Theological Seminary (N.Y.) Young “Bill,” an accomplished pianist who studied music in Paris, started his public career in the Offices of Strategic Services (USA) and the CIA, serving for a time in the Soviet Union. Later he attended Yale Divinity School, where he fell under the influence of Reinhold Neibuhr of Union. He graduated and opted to serve as chaplain first at Williams College and then for two decades at his alma mater, Yale.
In this rich biography the author reminds us among other things of the part Coffin played in the Civil Rights Movement of the ‘60s and the anti- Vietnam War protests of the ‘70s. In the process he made headline news in the newspapers and on TV placing an emphasis on “prophetic Christianity.” The biographer illustrates Coffin’s eloquence while doing so.
In the 1960s Coffin made a major contribution, following Martin Luther King Jr., to civil rights by attacking our pride and “self-glorification” as the root of all evil. With regard to the movement to recognize the dignity of African Americans, he exclaimed, “It is a fundamental theological presupposition of the Christian Church that it is not because we have value that we are loved by God, but because we are loved by God that we have value.” Was it “not contradictory,” he mused, “for a Christian to show compassion to a Negro as an individual without at the same time being concerned with the structures of society which make him an object of compassion?”
In the cause Coffin had little hesitation in breaking bad news and disturbing the peace for good laws, because he considered Jesus the “Prince of Peace,” as “perhaps the chief disturber of the peace.” Coffin marched with King and the members of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the Freedom Riders. He spent time in jail because of his protest for justice. Moreover, he appealed to other persons, especially those in high places, to come to Birmingham and elsewhere – to “come and do likewise.” It should be noted that King preached from the Yale Chapel pulpit before he was assassinated.
Coffin considered the conflict in Vietnam more complicated than the issue of racism and civil rights. Nevertheless, he eventually joined activists, such as Rabbi Abraham Heschel, Catholic priests Daniel and Phillip Berrigan, and Protestant leaders, such as Presbyterian Eugene Carson Blake, in opposing the war. He helped organize Clergy and Laymen Concerned about Vietnam (CALCAV), which later became Clergy Concerned about Vietnam (CCAV). He claimed in his protest that the war as it dragged on was being “waged in a fashion so out of character with American instincts of decency that it cannot help but undermine them.” We were resorting to what appeared as “indiscriminate” killing because of our frustrations.
He grew more intense in his language. He claimed that the “essence of the spirit of the Biblical Lamech is the guise of goodness with which it cloaks evil. … Just because we do not seek territorial expansion does not mean we cannot be corrupted by pride and power.”
As a Neibuhrian, he focused on American pride, and the “self- righteousness of the assumption that if one’s country does a deed, it must be a good deed. In a sermon on the subject, he lamented “O America,” paraphrasing Augustine, “thy pride-swollen face hath closed thine eyes. Thou hast become as Lamech.” He concluded with Lamech’s song of murder, and with a modern wail: “O America, my country, my country.”
Because he protested the war by turning in his draft card with others at a worship service he spent time in jail. The charges were eventually dropped. Yale’s President, Kingman Brewster, wondered if he should fire his chaplain. At a Gridiron dinner, he was advised by other Yalies: “Of course not, that kind of freedom is what we’re fighting for.” Brewster mused about the alternatives. “There is little timid patriotism; and there is the larger patriotism which believes in the risk of freedom as well as its defense.”
It should be noted that in the 1970s, Coffin visited Union Theological Seminary in Richmond where he was interviewed on the institution’s radio station throwing out his provocative one-liners as indicated in an illustration in this volume.
Coffin was called, despite his reputation, to Riverside Church in New York City, and served the congregation and the country from America’s leading liberal pulpit for a decade. He met his challenge, which was complicated by another national debate that took place about homosexuality. Homosexuals in his congregation organized, much to the dismay of some parishioners. Coffin held that the solution of the problem was for us to love one another. Of course, he supported family life, and began one of his Mother’s Day sermons with a Yiddish proverb: “God could not be everywhere, so God made mothers.” Coffin traveled far and wide to preach and speak. He left Riverside in the competent hands of his staff. He always kept his eye on public affairs. During the Nixon administration one of his students at William College, Jeb Stuart Magruder, served on the president’s staff. He was worried that Magruder was a “Nice guy!” He tended to be “morally asleep.” Coffin mused that if we did not stand for something we might “fall for anything.” Coffin felt that his pastorate, “Down by the Riverside,” as he put it was not as satisfying as it might have been. Some of his parishioners left the congregation because of disagreements with their outspoken pastor. He eventually left, also, taking up the SANE/Freeze cause for nuclear disarmament.
Always on the road preaching, lecturing, demonstrating, Coffin, it seems, had little time for family life. Goldstein tells us he was married three times, divorced twice, and had two children. In his last chapter, the author writes that his eighty-one year old subject is “Flunking Retirement!” Coffin now walks with a cane and speaks with a slight slur. But he is often “on the road again” and is always ready with a memorable comment on this life’s continual challenges. Furthermore, he still enjoys music, which has been such a great part of his life. He likes the comment of fellow New Englander, Mark Twain, about Wagner’s music. It is “better than it sounds.”
This biography is for older readers and serves as a reminder of one whose life has shaped ours. It also introduces younger readers to an American pastor, preacher, and prophet who suffered from a “Holy Impatience” for his own generation and posterity. God bless you, Bill It’s been a blessing knowing you!
JAMES H. SMYLIE is professor emeritus of church history at Union Seminary – PSCE in Richmond, Va.