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Issue Date:  May 19, 2006

William Sloane Coffin's legacy of exceptional joy


I came to write William Sloane Coffin Jr.’s biography by happenstance. My wife first had the idea, but tossed it my way when she was starting a new job and I needed a new book project. Coffin, whom I knew only slightly -- I’d been militantly secular as a Yale undergraduate -- was intrigued enough with the idea to check me out with other scholars, and then to invite us for an evening in Vermont, where his wife, Randy, could decide if I was worth the risk.

That evening remains a little hazy in my memory, because I could never seem to finish my vodka. I finally realized that my host was drinking me under the table, and that I’d better stop. In the morning we had a deal.

Writing the biography was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. Struggling to absorb mountains of documents, hundreds of sermons, dozens of interviews, and a huge public record, and still shape my own narrative, paralyzed me at times. Once the project passed the original five-year deadline everyone we knew began wondering when -- or if -- I would ever finish it.

Bill and Randy must have shared everyone else’s impatience, but never showed it to me. They both wanted the book to secure Bill’s legacy beyond his friends and disciples. Hagiography wouldn’t do the trick. While it was critical for Bill that I had gone to Yale, he liked that I had not been a disciple, and was tickled by the idea of a Jew writing his biography. To that end they put up with intimate, intrusive questions, reports from other interviewees about unpleasant lines of questioning, and the possibility that I would use the extraordinarily personal material they gave me -- from love letters to tax returns, divorce papers, and letters the teenage Coffin children wrote to each other -- to undermine or sully that legacy. They knew Bill had warts, and that I’d have to write about them.

Our handshake deal was that I’d give them the penultimate draft to comment on, but they’d get no editorial control; they’d have to grant me all their rights to the sources before reading a word. That is not to say Bill Coffin simply sat back and waited. One of the world’s most charming men, Bill set about charming his biographer, his biographer’s wife and his biographer’s children.

Was he trying to manipulate me? Sure. But he couldn’t have done anything different. That’s who he was.

The truth is that I came to admire and like Bill far more than I expected at the beginning of the project. Reading (and watching and listening to) hundreds of sermons, I was treated to a consistently challenging mix of biblical exegesis, social criticism, barbs at “conventional” religion, witticisms, quotable aphorisms, moral seriousness and an affecting faith in the power of God’s love. He dictated remarkable letters to critics, responding to their arguments, inviting them to Battell Chapel and further conversation. He treated student concerns, troubles and questions with respect, and offered a great deal of thoughtful counsel on relationships, religion, education and vocation.

I’d wondered about the depth of his Christianity, but found myself telling friends that if anyone could make me a Christian, it would be Bill Coffin. Because not only did he make the love of God almost palpable; he showed why and how that love should be brought out of the church into the world, where it could dissolve the structures of hate and injustice and war.

My interviewees all described a one-of-a-kind character: a storyteller, athlete, bon vivant, musician. In the ’60s and ’70s, he had no equal in the religious wings of the civil rights and antiwar movements (except for Martin Luther King, that is). His energy, uncanny verbal quickness, impatience with doctrine, and skill at making Christianity relevant to all things political, all undertaken with exceptional joy -- this, I too came to believe, was a legacy worth documenting. In fact, I think it’s the key to a vital liberal Christianity today.

I got an enormous kick out of being on intimate terms with such a smart, engaging, funny and famous man. Bill was simultaneously the most eminent and the most interesting mainline Protestant minister in the land, and people wanted to talk about him wherever I went. I got to interview former CIA agents and Coffin’s former lover in postwar Paris -- in Paris, in French -- as well as Arthur Miller.

On the afternoon Bill Coffin died, I was taking a train on my way to Gettysburg College, to give a talk about Coffin and the future of liberal Protestantism. Passover was that night, and I had a powerful feeling of wanting to call him. I knew he’d chuckle at the idea of a Jew speaking at a formerly Lutheran college about Protestantism on Passover. But he’d lost some hearing toward the end, and I knew I’d have to yell into the cellphone, and I didn’t want to do that to my fellow passengers, so I just sat there, almost calling him about three times. My wife called me just before dinner to tell me the news, and so my talk became a eulogy, one in which I argued that his legacy was alive in churches across the country, wherever ministers preached and practiced an open, inclusive, ecumenical, nondoctrinal, witty, quotable, joyful Christianity.

Warren Goldstein is professor and chair of the department of history at the University of Hartford in Connecticut. He is the author of William Sloane Coffin: A Holy Impatience.

National Catholic Reporter, May 19, 2006

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