Thursday, June 5, 2014

Coffin Speaks from His Coffin

William Sloane Coffin, Jr., was senior pastor of historic Riverside Church in New York City for a decade in the 1970’s and ’80s. Many, though, remember him primarily because of his earlier activities at Yale where he was a very vocal civil rights and antiwar advocate.
After his death in April 2006, the New York Times referred to Coffin as “a civil rights and antiwar campaigner who sought to inspire and encourage an idealistic and rebellious generation of college students in the 1960’s from his position as chaplain of Yale University.”
Coffin was born ninety years ago, on June 1, 1924, into a wealthy and elite family of New York City. He originally planned a career as a concert pianist and in 1942 enrolled in Yale University’s School of Music.
But those were war years, so in 1943 he enlisted in the Army. Then in the early 1950s he spent three years working for the CIA. But he grew increasingly disillusioned with the role of the CIA—and the United States—in international affairs.
The year 1956 was a big one for Coffin: he graduated from Yale Divinity School, was ordained a Presbyterian minister, and married Eva Rubinstein, the daughter of pianist Arthur Rubinstein. (His marriage to Eva ended in divorce in 1968.)
In 1958 he became the chaplain at Yale, a position he held until 1975. Then, Coffin began his highly influential ministry at Riverside Church in November 1977, where he remained through the end of 1987.
Two years after his death, Coffin’s Riverside sermons were published in two large volumes under the title “The Collected Sermons of William Sloane Coffin: The Riverside Years” (2008).
I probably won’t read them all, but since the middle of last month I have been reading one of Coffin’s sermons each day. Even though some were preached more than 35 years ago, Coffin’s sermons speak to me today. 
Coffin’s message for 11/13/77 (his second sermon as pastor at Riverside) was “It’s Easier to Be Guilty,” based on Mark 6:25-34. He avers, "God’s love casts out fear. The opposite of love is not hate; the opposite of love is fear. So faith means courage."
Then a little later in the same sermon: “The trick in life is to die young as late as possible” (p. 9).
The following week he declared that “while love seeks the truth, fear seeks safety. And fear distorts the truth, not by exaggerating the ills of the world, which would be difficult, but by underestimating our ability to deal with them” (p. 11).
On 2/5/78 Coffin’s sermon was “On Changing Water to Wine.” I was surprised to find that 36 years ago he publicly said, 
I know exemplary Christians who happen to be gay. Are they to be attacked for something over which they had so little choice? Before rushing in with easy judgments, it would seem to behoove those of us who are not gay to listen very carefully to what our fellow Christians who are have to say about the matter (p. 41).
In addition, as the New York Times article says, Coffin “used his ministry [at Riverside Church] to draw attention to the plight of the poor, to question American political and military power, to encourage interfaith understanding, and to campaign for nuclear disarmament.”
Referring to Abel, the writer of Hebrews declared, “. . . he died, but through his faith he still speaks” (11:4, NRSV). Can’t the same be said for WSC? Through his faith, and his published sermons, he still speaks—from his coffin, as it were.


  1. Local Thinking Friend, and fellow church member, George Melby, sent the following comments"

    "Good Morning, Leroy.

    "I've so enjoyed your blogs thus far, especially re: WSC!

    "If you'd like to hear him speak, go to and enter 'Sermons, William Sloan Coffin.' The one at Chautauqua does not have good sound but the rest seem fine, although much too short!"

  2. I was an admirer of WSCoffin. I'm glad to know he still speaks truth through these old sermons.

  3. Christians do need to learn to listen better. But the pronouncements of Jesus and the Apostles, even in Gospels, highlights the problems of heresy and schism. Both are the antithesis of Christendom. But both Jesus and the Apostles allowed or encouraged those not with them to leave. Hard.

    Love and fear. We are to love God, and fear Him only - (the translation of that fear seems to be closer to terror than respect) - How does one approach a glorious and holy Divinity who is seeking to save His creation with an extreme sacrifice and "relationship". Life is a difficult sojourn in so many of its phases. Thankfully there are those who help us to think (and change) from multiple sides.

  4. Canadian Thinking Friend Rob Daoust, who now lives in Tucson, Ariz., sent these comments:

    "That was a lovely blog of a person who I would have liked to have met.

    "I was moved by the excerpts of some of Coffin's sermons. He was an activist and someone who was ahead of his times in his thinking.

    "When I read 'Love seeks the truth, fear seeks safety,' I wondered if Rev. Coffin was looking at the growing escalation of militarization taking place in his own country. I suspect so."

    1. Thanks, Rob, for sending your comments again.

      Yes, Coffin was definitely against the escalation of especially nuclear weapons during the Cold War.

  5. A "short and sweet" comment by Thinking Friend Glenn Hinson:

    "He was a great soul!"

  6. And then there is this from Thinking Friend Temp Sparkman:

    "This blog on WSC took me back to some of my mixed emotions in the 60s. I resisted facile radicalism, but found just enough sympathy with the judgments of people that were engaged in the struggles to stake out my own positions.

    "What a time!"

  7. I had heard his name before, but this is the first time to sample some of his ideas. Must search out some more. Thank you. And a belated congratulations on your 57th anniversary!

    1. Thanks, David! Good to hear from you again.

  8. Thinking Friend Bob Hanson, who lives in Wisconsin, shared this comment:

    "Thanks, Leroy; another wonderful article about a giant of a person. His writing and actively had a influence on my early ministry as well."

  9. It's kind of you to share William Sloane Coffin Jr's sermon with us today. It was helpful. I know know why that I've kept your sermons locked in my safe. I will enlighten myself with the Good News from my cabinet!