Magazine article The Christian Century

William Sloane Coffin, Prophet, 1924-2006

Magazine article The Christian Century

William Sloane Coffin, Prophet, 1924-2006

Article excerpt

When William Sloane Coffin Jr. was honored last year at Yale as a civil rights leader, an antiwar activist, an endearing university chaplain and an unfearing liberal preacher, at one point he summed up his faith--and by extension, himself: "I believe Christianity is a worldview that undergirds all progressive thought and action," Coffin said. The Christian church is called, he said, "to respond to biblical mandates like truth-telling, confronting injustice and pursuing peace."

What is "so heartbreaking," he added at the April 2005 event, is that many churches are focused on management and therapy, and that parish clergy are "gumption-deficient."

Coffin, 81, who died April 12 at his home in rural Strafford, Vermont, was to many admirers the embodiment of the Christianity he described at the Yale tribute.

"To my generation, he was a hero," said Bob Edgar, chief executive of the National Council of Churches. He was "no ordinary man and he leaves no ordinary hole."

"His prophetic vision brought the imagination of the biblical prophets and of Jesus to life in our times," said John H. Thomas, general minister and president of the United Church of Christ. Ordained in 1956 as a Presbyterian, Coffin later became a UCC minister, and he remained so until his death. "He was urgent and clear, but never stern," Thomas said.

While serving as chaplain at Yale from 1958 to 1975, Coffin was among the Freedom Riders, who rode interstate buses in the South in the early 1960s to challenge segregation. During the late 1960s and early 1970s, he was heavily involved with protests against the Vietnam War.

At a protest in Boston in 1967, more than 1,000 draft resisters turned in their draft cards at a church service led by Coffin. The chaplain was indicted and convicted on charges of conspiracy to aid draft resisters, but the conviction was later overturned.

From 1976 to 1987, Coffin was senior minister of the Riverside Church in New York City, affiliated with the UCC and the American Baptist Churches. More than 20 years ago, Coffin led that congregation in becoming the UCC's first "open and affirming" church, a movement that now includes almost 600 congregations committed publicly to the full inclusion of gay and lesbian persons. …

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