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.