William Sloan Coffin, Jr.: A Holy Impatience

Goldstein, Warren

Yale University, 2004


Goldstein has written a clear and readable account of this remarkable figure–athlete, bon vivant, pianist, preacher, raconteur, CIA agent—who was one of the most important colleagues of Martin Luther King, Jr. in the civil rights struggle, and maybe the most important white colleague. Many believe that Coffin was influenced more by the social philosophy/theology of Reinhold Niebuhr than by any other single source. He had been born to privilege in New York city, nephew of Henry Sloane Coffin, Jr., and member of a family who owned prosperous rug and furniture store companies that served the elite of New York. He spoke Russian and French fluently and also German and Spanish. Married three times, he was a better public figure than husband and father, though his wives had plenty to do with it, including his first wife’s adulterous promiscuity and his second wife’s drunkenness. His second wife made the mistake of trying to compete with Bill at parties–i.e., for limelight, and was resentful when nobody took her as seriously as they did him. Coffin was a pain in the neck to Kingman Brewster, President of Yale in the 1960s, who nonetheless protected him and Yale when conservative alums erupted over the chaplain’s liberal views and public antiwar stances. When Coffin stepped down from the chaplaincy Brewster wrote him a warm note, thanking him for the “exhilaration you breathed into all of us,” for enthusiasm both preached and lived. He signed the note, “Affectionately, King.” Coffin had a man’s man approach to danger, sports, courage, the military. Many were struck by how much he swore, for a minister. “Don’t he cuss purty,” said fellow Presbyterian pastor Douglas E. Nelson. Brewster told his own biographer that Sunday attendance at Battell chapel when Coffin was in the pulpit were probably the most fulfilling hours of his presidency. Coffin later became pastor of Riverside Church in Manhattan, and well known for his disarmament and gay rights agenda. He appears to have been a genuine and genuinely liberal Christian believer and preacher. His prayers were as famous, or more, than his sermons, though his sermon after his son’s death, “Alex’s Death,” has been extremely widely anthologized and reprinted. His third wife, Randy, noting how antsy Coffin got on August vacation set it down to “applause deprivation.” He was far more at home in front of a crowd than anywhere, and especially with a carefully composed and rehearsed sermon as his assignment. When, toward the end of his life, Coffin had endured two strokes and rehab for them, he spoke with a fairly significant speech impediment. On returning to Battell Chapel afterwards, he asked that people should bear in mind Mark Twain’s quip about Wagner’s music, namely, “it’s better than it sounds” and apply the same standard to his speech.