The Minister Who Walked the Walk:
A Review of A Recent Biography of the Religious and Political Activist William Sloane Coffin Jr.
By RODGER CITRON
Friday, Jul. 23, 2004Warren Goldstein, William Sloane Coffin Jr.: A Holy Impatience(Yale University Press 2004)
William Sloane Coffin Jr. was born into an established, wealthy Protestant family, and was educated at Andover and - after serving in the Army in World II - Yale. At Yale, he was a member of Skull and Bones and, later, the star student of his Divinity School class. Before deciding on a career in the ministry, he was recruited by the CIA. He spent his life ministering to the elite and campaigning for liberal causes from an elite perch -- most notably as chaplain of Yale University, and then as senior minister of the Riverside Church in New York City.
I read Warren Goldstein's biography of Coffin twice. During my first take, I read the book in small segments, no more than a chapter in one sitting, and appreciated the biography more than I actually enjoyed it. (Perhaps in the summer heat of Washington, D.C., I had only enough energy to join the crowd in hailing "Spider-Man 2" as an updated version of "Hamlet.") But then, on my second take, I came to enjoy the book, and to appreciate the author's insistence upon detail and context in presenting a comprehensive portrait of Coffin.
Indeed, Goldstein has hit the trifecta in this excellent biography. First, through thorough research, he gives a detailed account of Coffin's public actions and words. Second, with the cooperation of the minister and his family and friends, Goldstein provides a candid account of Coffin's private life. Third, and finally, by occasionally stepping back from the events and situating them in historical context, the author provides a deeper understanding of Coffin and of the causes he championed.
A Public Life of Action: Fighting for Liberal Causes
Coffin first distinguished himself while he was the chaplain of Yale, a job he began in 1958 and held for more than 15 years. With the support of two university presidents (A. Whitney Griswold and Kingman Brewster) who took great pride in being able to demonstrate tolerance, Coffin was able to involve himself, and to engage others, in a number of liberal causes.
Coffin did more than "talk the talk" -- preaching in support of civil rights and against the Vietnam War. He also "walked the walk." For example, in 1961, he participated in one of the Freedom Rides to desegregate the South, getting arrested in Montgomery, Alabama, and attracting front-page attention from The New York Times.
Later in the decade, Coffin again risked imprisonment by supporting efforts to resist the draft. In 1968, he was a defendant in the "Boston Five" trial of draft resisters (among the other four defendants was the well-known provider of childcare advice, Dr. Benjamin Spock). Though Coffin was convicted at trial, the conviction was set aside by a court of appeals, and the Justice Department ultimately dropped the case.
Coffin left Yale in 1975, not sure what he would do next. In 1977, he became senior minister of Riverside, "the flagship church of American mainline Protestantism," according to Goldstein. During the decade when he served as head minister at Riverside, "Coffin became the country's most influential religious advocate during the 1970s and 1980s for nuclear disarmament" - a cause so important to him that he resigned from Riverside in 1987 to become the president of SANE/Freeze, "the nation's largest disarmament organization."
Coffin also unequivocally supported the rights of homosexuals at a time when such advocacy was rarely heard from a religious pulpit.
In the brief space available for this review, it is worth noting three aspects of Coffin's public life. First and foremost, he was a restless man of action. Coffin was most engaged and did his best work when he threw himself into a cause. However, as Goldstein demonstrates, those who were closest to him paid a price for that restlessness.
Second, with his extensive connections to the elite, Coffin was an insider, and brought an insider's confidence to the causes he championed. The term "synergy" usually is limited to discussions of business, but it is an apt term for describing the relationship between Coffin and Yale, and, later, Coffin and Riverside Church. Coffin used the platform available to him to (further) engage those institutions in the pressing issues of the day.
Third, well aware of the importance of public relations, Coffin consistently employed pithy aphorisms in his public speeches and sermons. He always was prepared for the media with "sharp quotes and succinct observations," according to Goldstein.
A Turbulent Private Life: Coffin's Public Life Exacted a Cost
As extraordinary as Coffin's public life at Yale and Riverside was, this aspect of Coffin's life - especially his role in the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War protests - has been documented elsewhere. (For example, Norman Mailer provides a contemporaneous description of Coffin during the October 1967 march on the Pentagon in The Armies of the Night.)
Thus, the most fascinating part of the biography is Goldstein's extended account of Coffin's personal life. Twice divorced, Coffin had a family life that ultimately suffered due to his extensive public life.
But that was not the whole story. According to Goldstein, Coffin's first two marriages ended in divorce in part because of his time away from home. But they also ended in divorce in part because - as a man most engaged when he was in action, and as a member of the generation that married before the emergence of feminism - Coffin did not make himself emotionally available to his first two wives.
Goldstein also details Coffin's close relationship with his mother, Catherine, while he was growing up. (During the early years of his adolescence, the two were alone in Europe while Coffin studied piano.) Goldstein speculates that for Coffin, Catherine "remained the unconscious standard by which all other women would be judged - and found wanting."
A Sympathetic, Clear Portrait, Improved by the Subject's Cooperation
Needless to say, Goldstein could not have drawn such a sharp portrait of Coffin's marriages without the cooperation of the relevant parties. Coffin is to be admired for making this part of his life so accessible, and Goldstein deserves credit for rendering it with sympathetic clarity.
Today, Coffin is retired and lives in Vermont with his third wife. He has written several books about his life, work, and beliefs. If you have time for only one book, however, Goldstein's biography is more than sufficient to provide a thorough understanding of the influential Protestant minister who - by his own words - has been continually engaged in a "lover's quarrel" with his country and the world.