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William Sloane Coffin Jr.

William Sloane Coffin Jr.: A Holy Impatience

Copyright Date: 2004
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 400
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  • Book Info
    William Sloane Coffin Jr.
    Book Description:

    A magnet for controversy, the media, and followers, the Rev. William Sloane Coffin Jr. was the premier voice of northern religious liberalism for more than a quarter-century, and a worthy heir to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. From his pulpits at Yale University and, later, New York City's Riverside Church, Coffin focused national attention on civil rights, the anti-Vietnam War movement, disarmament, and gay rights. This revealing biography-based on unparalleled access to family papers and candid interviews with Coffin, his colleagues, family, friends, lovers, and wives-tells for the first time the remarkable story of Coffin's life.

    An army and CIA veteran before assuming the post of Yale University chaplain at the youthful age of 33, Coffin gained notoriety as a leader of a dangerous civil rights Freedom Ride in 1961, as a defendant in the "Boston Five" trial of draft resisters in 1969, and as the preeminent voice of liberal religious dissent into the 1980s. This book encompasses Coffin's turbulent private life as well as his flamboyant, joyful public career, while dramatically illuminating the larger social movements that consumed his days and defined his times.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-13505-3
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Preface
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xi-xvi)
  5. PROLOGUE: The Great War, Greenwich Village, and the Upper East Side
    (pp. 1-11)

    With its slaughter and horror, World War I scarred a continent and a generation. For thousands of Americans, however, particularly those whose service lay outside the trenches, the Great War became a crusade, the crowning experience of the Progressive movement. For the thirty-eight-year-old bachelor William Sloane Coffin, the war provided “a great opportunity for a service that is certainly most appreciated.” The Yale-educated Coffin was on a leave from his position as a vice-president of W. & J. Sloane and Company and from his life as a well-known New York City businessman, philanthropist, and real estate developer. Too old for...

  6. ONE Early Years
    (pp. 12-23)

    The arrival of grandchildren—first Ned in 1921 and then Bill three years later—so complicated the routines of the Coffin household and its staff that during Catherine’s pregnancy the following year with Bill’s sister, Margot, the younger Coffins decided to move into their own place. They bought a two-story penthouse apartment in a building then going up at 333 East Sixty-eighth Street. Fifteen floors above the street, designed with the aid of a Skull and Bones architect classmate of Will, the residence boasted spectacular views of Manhattan and the East River. Young Bill watched as the Empire State Building...

  7. TWO Europe: Music and War
    (pp. 24-41)

    In 1938 the world watched with alarm as German and Italian fascism crested. That summer, as refugees streamed out of Europe, Catherine Coffin took her family across the Atlantic to a different kind of refuge.

    On her first trip to France since her husband’s death, Catherine began in Fontainebleu, where the family had vacationed in 1930. Here, the renowned Nadia Boulanger—pianist, conductor, and professor of harmony—presided over the American Summer Conservatory. Just fourteen and filled with enthusiasm, Bill Coffin studied with Boulanger, pouring himself into what he hoped would be his life’s work. “He did interminable exercises,” Ned...

  8. THREE Russians White and Red
    (pp. 42-63)

    Bill Coffin had a hunter’s instinct for sensing opportunities. If there were a time to wait for people and forces to gather and rearrange themselves, he seems to have known when it was, and how to do so. With the war in Europe all but over in the spring of 1945, his training work in Compiègne had evaporated. Bored and restless, Coffin put in for a transfer to the South Pacific, where the war still raged. His friend Chingis Guirey had other ideas.

    Guirey, the irrepressibly flamboyant, soulful son of a famous anti-Soviet Circassian military commander, had met Coffin at...

  9. FOUR The Education of a Warrior-Priest
    (pp. 64-85)

    By the time he returned to his mother and to Yale, Coffin had spent nearly four years in uniform. He had lost his virginity and fallen in love. In the service of his country he had trained thousands of soldiers for combat while never facing enemy fire, and had risen from private to first lieutenant. He had learned to speak Russian fluently enough to translate for generals. He had followed orders to deceive thousands of Russian refugees before helping to send fifteen hundred to prison or death in the Soviet Union, and for that he had received the Army Commendation...

  10. FIVE From Education to Vocation
    (pp. 86-102)

    “My wife would say,” confessed John Maguire, Coffin’s Yale Divinity School classmate (and later president of Claremont University), that Bill Coffin was “the single most dashing guy that she’d ever met. I mean, more panache, more blarney, morebullshit.I mean, here’s a guy who one minute would jump down and sing some Schubertliederand all the women would swoon; and then would be ‘coaxed’ into telling about parachuting behind the lines somewhere to save somebody; then break into Russian songs . . . songster, charmer,bon vivant,great raconteur, . . . a risk-taker . . . just...

  11. SIX “Bus-Riding Chaplain”
    (pp. 103-128)

    In late February 1958 Yale President A. Whitney Griswold was heading south for a vacation. The mail had brought bad, if not completely unexpected, news. Truman Douglass, head of the Board of Home Missions of the Congregational and Christian Churches, had become the third nationally prominent minister to turn down Griswold’s invitation to replace the retiring A. Sidney Lovett as university chaplain.¹

    In the meantime, men whom the president trusted were lobbying him. Philosopher Paul Weiss, the first tenured Jew on the Yale faculty, whom Griswold had asked to listen for “large rumblings from the faculty,” reported that “the most...

  12. SEVEN Preaching the Word: Coffin in Demand
    (pp. 129-144)

    An important new figure on the educational and religious scenes of the early 1960s, William Sloane Coffin Jr. appeared to be everywhere.Lifemagazine designated him one of the “Red Hot Hundred” in a special issue in 1962 devoted to “The Take-Over Generation.”¹ From television appearances and radio programs, from prep school lecterns and college pulpits, from national magazines, local newsletters, and newspaper headlines, Coffin preached a witty, quotable, provocative, prophetic Christianity. His photogenic and, more importantly, telegenic good looks—his handsome, square-jawed face, horn-rimmed glasses, slightly receding hairline, and athletic build—were about to become fixtures in American media...

  13. EIGHT Wading into the Big Muddy
    (pp. 145-182)

    Like most Americans, Coffin had little interest in the faraway country of Vietnam in the early 1960s. When editorialists or government officials mentioned the tiny nation that few Americans could have located on a map they generally invoked common, if inaccurate, Cold War pieties. “Communist guerillas” supported by “outsiders” (in this case North Vietnam as well as “Red China” and the USSR) threatened a “democratic ally” whose “freedom and independence” were vital to American interests. That this analysis served to describe the Philippines, Laos, Indonesia, or any number of other countries facing alleged “internal subversion” made it more readily deployed...

  14. NINE Moments of Truth: Civil Disobedience and the Draft
    (pp. 183-224)

    Over the next few years, William Sloane Coffin’s personal confrontation with the Vietnam War pushed him to the forefront of the antiwar movement and to the pinnacle of his fame and influence. In one of the most celebrated political trials of the decade, the U.S. government tried, without success, to imprison Coffin, Dr. Benjamin Spock, and three others in a show trial meant to intimidate those resisting the draft. Coffin and his office became one of the key centers of antidraft and antiwar activity in the country, attracting an enormous amount of attention—positive as well as negative—from politicians,...

  15. TEN Marriage and Family Life
    (pp. 225-248)

    Through all his activism in the political and social spheres and the controversy he engendered, Bill Coffin was also a man with a family, who inevitably had to live through the activism and controversy with him. True to her word and to 1950s domestic expectations, even in the artistic world, Eva Rubinstein had left Broadway to marry Coffin and move to Andover in December 1956. Whatever their personal domestic expectations, she and Bill confirmed the conventional wisdom about the difficulty of the first year of marriage.

    Coffin had worried that the move from Broadway to a little New England town...

  16. ELEVEN Activist Episodes
    (pp. 249-269)

    The rhythms of the church and academic calendar continued to give basic structure to William Sloane Coffin Jr.’s life during the late 1960s and early 1970s. He preached most Sundays during the school year, gave baccalaureate and commencement prayers, counseled students on personal and draft-related issues, performed weddings and funerals for members of the Yale community, wrote recommendations for students, played tennis and squash—extremely competitively—and took Augusts off to spend with his new family on Marsh Island, Maine. He traveled a great deal, driving all over New England after church on Sundays as well as during the week,...

  17. TWELVE Interregnum
    (pp. 270-283)

    By the fall of 1974, when he returned from his sabbatical, Coffin had tired of Yale. Vietnam offered little grist for the prophet’s mill, as Americans seemed ready to forget about the devastated little country across the globe. Yale had changed, too, by the mid-1970s. Students had narrowed their vision as the U.S. economy stagnated, and the fundamental optimism of 1960s higher education, the innovative energy often shared by faculty, students, and administrators, had begun to dissipate under the pressure of budget-cutting and “belttightening.” Absent the frequently excruciating moral choices posed by the war and the draft, undergraduates showed less...

  18. THIRTEEN Down by the Riverside
    (pp. 284-312)

    One day in early 1977 the phone rang in Strafford, Vermont. From the New York City headquarters of the United Church of Christ, Valerie Russell was calling her old friend and mentor Bill Coffn. “I’ve been asked by the Black Christian Caucus at Riverside Church to talk to you.” Coffin interrupted: “So how many of you are there? All four of you talking in one voice?” Her reply —“No, we make up 39 percent of the congregation”—got him thinking. Unruffled, she continued: “As you can imagine, our preference would have been for Andy Young, because he could have kept...

  19. FOURTEEN “Flunking Retirement”
    (pp. 313-319)

    Although much of the steam had gone out of the disarmament movement by the late 1980s, there were still battles to fight in Congress and plenty of the faithful who needed rallying all over the country. Coffin’s role was to do the rallying and the speaking at SANE/Freeze while others administered the organization. It turned out not to be as happy a fit as he had hoped. Coffin felt understaffed and therefore far less effective than he could have been. More to the point, however, was that while Coffin often talked to religious groups, for the first time in three...

  20. FIFTEEN A Holy Impatience
    (pp. 320-333)

    Between the early 1960s and the end of the twentieth century, William Sloane Coffin Jr. was, after Martin Luther King Jr., the most influential liberal Protestant in America. The qualifiers are important. Protestants constituted a majority of American Christians during this period, but only by combining liberal and conservative denominations. The conservative Billy Graham, for instance, had almost unbroken access to the White House during this entire period and preached to many millions in revivals and on television across the United States. A host of right-wing radio and television evangelists have also had large and regular audiences.

    During this time,...

  21. Epilogue
    (pp. 334-336)

    Though the sun warmed the ground, the little church felt chilly and damp in the Vermont spring. On the stage, intent at his mother’s Steinway, oblivious to his surroundings, Coffin practiced a Beethoven sonata. He leaned into the music, making a sound between a hum and a light grunt. The thick fingers danced with surprising nimbleness over the keys. An error: he peered at the score, turned back the page, and started the section over. Unseen, a visitor eased down gently into a rear pew as the music ricocheted around him. He had seen Coffin perform: from the pulpit, from...

  22. Sources
    (pp. 337-338)
  23. Notes
    (pp. 339-370)
  24. Index
    (pp. 371-379)