Sunday, April 23, 2006

In memoriam: William Sloane Coffin

I met William Sloane Coffin in 1981 during an international peace conference held in a church very near the campus of the University of Texas at Austin. He served as mentor and guide from afar for me, a young minister who could not understand why his denomination avoided social engagement and action in view of the values of Jesus and the Gospel.

He was a powerful speaker and an even clearer thinker. He was the sort of person who moved you to act because he first moved you to think and to feel.

When persons battling HIV/AIDS started showing up at my church in Richardson, I was not surprised to find very helpful resources written by Coffin. I remember a sermon he preached to his congregation at the Riverside Church in New York City titled something like "AIDS or Affraids," Coffin called his hearers to come to grips with the challenge of AIDS in the midst of the church.

His entire career was about pursuing and standing up for social and economic justice for the benefit of others. He refused to allow his parishioners to hide their heads in the sand of some otherworldly spirituality that served only to disconnect them from reality and mission.

Coffin was arrested in Montgomery, Alabama in 1961 following his participation in one of the Freedom Rides. It would not be the last time he went to jail for what he believed. He worked side-by-side with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Coffin stood up in support of civil rights, peace; and ending poverty, world hunger and nuclear proliferation. Coffin spent his ministry focused on missional faith. He would have had no time for "consumer" approaches to faith.

He fought for peace, but was no pacifist, arguing for U. S. intervention in Bosnia. He served his country as an infantry officer during WWII. Following the war in Europe and thanks to his language skills, Coffin served the CIA in the battle against the cruelties of Stalinism.

Coffin, better than anyone I've ever known, understood the inherent possibilities in the dynamic tension that exists in a minister's role as pastor and prophet.

I once heard him asked how he managed to act in such radical ways and still keep his job at Riverside Church, a congregation endowed by John D. Rockefeller, Jr.

He replied quietly, "When my people are sick or grieving, I visit them, pray for them and hold their hands. When they rejoice in weddings or at births or in good times, I am there with them to celebrate. My people love me and they know that I love them. So, when I stand before them, I can speak the truth."

Coffin believed that courage was the greatest virtue because it made all of the other virtues possible.

During a World Communion Sunday sermon at Riverside Church in 2003, Coffin told his audience that there was a big difference between patriotism and nationalism.

"Patriotism at the expense of another nation is as wicked as racism at the expense of another race. Let us resolve to be patriots always, nationalists never. Let us resolve to love our country, but pledge allegiance to the earth and to the flora and fauna and human life that it supports--one planet indivisible, with clean air, soil and water; with liberty, justice and peace for all."

William Sloane Coffin died on Wednesday, April 13 at this home in Strafford, VT. He was 81.

[Marc D. Charney's wonderful obituary column published in The New York Times, April 13, 2006 provided a number of important facts and the final Coffin quote for this post (Section A21).]


Anonymous said...

I'm also an admirer of William Sloane Coffin whom I've listened to and followed for decades. His gusto for life and his clarity of vision was enormous. I feel blessed to have lived in his time.

I'm convinced that gratitude is the most important religious emotion. Duty calls only when gratitude fails to prompt. When you're grateful for the undeserved beauty of a cloudless sky, you're praying. You're saying, "Thank you, Lord"
Interview with William Sloane Coffin, Aug. 27, 2004, Religion & Ethics Newsweekly @

Bulldog said...


I loveyour blog, long time reader and this is my first time posting. I'm also friends (from our ACU days) with your daughter and Son-in-Law. Please accept this addendum to your post on William Sloane Coffin. What was not mentioned in the post was Coffin's commitment to civil rights for all people, not just the oppressed and disadvantaged due to race or economic class or condition but also sexual orientation.

From the United Church of Christ's website and obituary...
"More than 20 years ago, Coffin led Riverside Church in becoming the UCC’s first “open and affirming” church, a denominational movement that today includes nearly 600 congregations committed publicly to the full inclusion of gay and lesbian persons."

This is a critially imporant part of his life, and his influence on the UCC and American Christianity. From an Ordained UCC Minister...

Reed Benedict

scott said...

I regret that I am just now becoming familiar with the work of Coffin. I am reading Taylor Branch's Pillar of Fire and I love the voice he brought to the struggle.
Thanks for the tribute.

Larry James said...

Reed, thank you for the post and for the most helpful "addendum" to Coffin's work. You are correct. Coffin more than any person I've encountered lived by the notion that injustice suffered by a person anywhere and for any reason is a threat to justice and equity everywhere.

Chris Field said...


Thanks for always being willing to give tribute to those who so richly deserve it. It is a reminder to all of us about what we want to remembered for when we leave this world. I notice very little talk about cars and house sizes when I hear talk about someone's dying. Hmmmmm...