The National Catholic Review
Wayne A. Holst

In the years between the death of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968 and the end of the 20th century, the Rev. William Sloane Coffin Jr. was the most influential liberal Protestant in America. He never achieved King’s level of influence; but the media-friendly and pervasive force of his personality; his cogent, engaging summations of Christian principles related to justice and peace and his effervescent style and humor combined to identify him as the Billy Graham of the Protestant left. In his prime, he was a household name to millions of Americans. With this major biography of King’s true successor, William Goldstein, associate professor of history and department chairman at the University of Hartford, ably narrates and assesses Coffin’s life while deftly describing Coffin’s contribution and place in American Christianity. Protestants, Catholics and others who read this book will learn much about religion in the United States during the second half of the last century.

The subtitle of the book, a clear reflection of its subject’s own restless nature, comes from a prayer Coffin wrote early in his career for a Reformation Sunday service in the Battell Chapel at Yale (1958). He prayed that God would kindle in our hearts a holy impatience with the sinful factions that have rent Thy Church.

Daniel and Philip Berrigan were contemporary Catholic activists closest in influence, flamboyance and boldness to Coffin. They differed from him, however, in that they worked essentially with other Catholics. The Berrigans demonstrated little interest in the ecumenical movement that sparked and supported the involvement of the American clergy in general in the civil rights and antiwar movements of that era.

Wherever he went in the United States, Coffin addressed and appealed to interfaith audiences. A Presbyterian by background, he inhabited an ecumenical world, relied on ecumenical assemblies and always sought to work politically in ecumenical ways. At the same time, he was similar to the Berrigans in that he too staked out risky political positions, remaining grounded in a strong personal faith and a willingness to take a position at the vortex of many controversies.

For 17 years, Coffin was a chaplain at Yale University, at the heart of the Ivy League. For a decade more he served as senior pastor at Riverside Church in New York City. Whenever possible, through sound biblical preaching and public advocacy, he took issue with status-quo thinking and raised thoughtful, ethical questions for law-abiding, but often too narrowly focused citizens. He had a way of stirring things up by challenging people’s easy assumptions and common wisdom.

Coffin called into question white complicity in racial segregation, fought his government’s policies in Vietnam and encouraged young men to refuse cooperation with military conscription. Later in his career he became the nation’s most influential religious advocate for nuclear disarmament. He also took up the cause of human rights for gays.

Through it all, Coffin remained essentially lodged in privilege. Primarily a man of ideas, he spent little time with the afflicted. But he was good at what he did. He raised to new heights the level of university chaplain and flagship church pastor as a visible public example. Many times he dangled on the precipice of being sacked to allay the resentments of wealthy patrons. But always he managed to hang on. He stood outsometimes majestically, sometimes ironicallyeven when people disagreed with him or when his personal life seemed profoundly at variance with his public image.

Coffin preached a more open theology than many of his Catholic counterparts who were initially hesitant to dissent, for example, over their nation’s involvement in Vietnam. Jews tended not to respond emotionally to the language of Catholic radicalism with its emphasis on witness, its monastic flavor and its sacramental rituals. But they responded to Coffin.

He was himself strongly influenced by the theology of biblically charged social moralism and the ethical realism of Reinhold Niebuhr, a theologian at New York’s Union Theological Seminary. As a result, many from across the religious spectrum found Coffin’s preaching and religious advocacy congenial, moving and powerful. Goldstein believes his subject had a deep concern for the essential unity of Christianity, yet not at the expense of its prophetic responsibilities.

During the years of his ministry, Coffin displayed considerable moral impatience with racial and religious prejudice, with religion more attracted to rules and divisions than to unity and love, and with nationalism that emphasized making war rather than investing in peace.

Sometimes his restlessness degenerated into extreme behavior and ill-formed pronouncements. But more often, especially as he became more experienced, Coffin cultivated an active patience that provided him with an uncanny ability to wait for an opportunity, seize the moment and take necessary action.

Now, in poor health at 80 years of age, Coffin nonetheless remains an unrepentant enemy of prejudice, injustice and war. Living in retirement in Vermont, he continues to serve as one of America’s outstanding cultural figures. Even late in the day he believes that things could be better, and he remains cheerful and joyful on behalf of ideals and values that seem to hold little sway at various levels of political policy-making.

Goldstein’s book is erudite, penetrating and engaging. He is both respectful and honest in his approach to his subject, a man of profound hopefulness, fed by the promises of the Gospel.

 

Wayne A. Holst is a parish educator at St. David's United Church in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. He has taught religion and culture at the University of Calgary.