PREACHING THE WORD: COFFIN IN DEMAND
by Warren Goldstein
An important new figure on the educational and religious scenes of the early 1960s, William Sloane Coffin Jr. appeared to be everywhere. Life magazine designated him one of the "Red Hot Hundred" in a special issue in 1962 devoted to "The Take-Over Generation." 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 hair line, and athletic build- were about to become fixtures in American media for the rest of the decade. With a knack for stirring up controversy, Coffin created news. By 1963, he had become nothing less than a phenomenon.
Coffin’s first move after the Freedom Ride took him in an entirely different direction. Back in March of 1961 Sargent Shriver had tried to recruit Coffin to organize and head a new training school for the Peace Corps -in a Puerto Rican rain forest. Though intrigued, Coffin declined and instead accepted Kennedy’s invitation to join the Peace Corps National Advisory Council. Despite Coffin’s criticism of the administration during and after the Freedom Ride, Shriver remained interested. In June he asked Coffin to take a four-month leave from Yale, set up the training camp in Puerto Rico, and stay on to run the first two training cycles. After four years of chaplaincy, Coffin who had loved his training work in the army and the CIA -jumped at the chance to immerse himself in the physical world again.
Working with his friend Josh Miner from Andover, by then head of American Outward Bound, to hire an eccentric staff of rock-climbers and physical educators, Coffin oversaw the creation of his training camp in a month. He inspired his staff and made the most of his apparent political pull to get enormous assistance from local units of the US army and Navy, who built latrines, tent platforms, a mess hall, and kitchen. In just a month, the camp was ready for the inaugural cycle of Peace Corps trainees, and a much-reported-on group of thirty-two male road builders and surveyors headed for Tanganyika. Since the volunteers had not been told about this rigorous training regimen, they rebelled at first, and Coffin used a combination of threats and inspiration to turn them around. More than sixty trainees, men and women bound for the Philippines, made up the next batch, and by then the camp was in full swing. Coffin was glad to leave the dense, finally "oppressive" forest after three months but missed the intensity of the work.
As he wrote to his colleagues ten days after returning to Yale, "I have been thoroughly unsuccessful in keeping my mind off Puerto Rico, not that I have really tried very hard. Quite honestly I am torn, and all of you are in it forever." As letters from the camp and from others attested, he provided the soul of the operation. Shriver offered an example of what Coffin had accomplished: "The Philippine Volunteers… began evaluating their program at Penn State in terms of your leadership and inspiration and found everything suffered by comparison…the camp has proven to be one of the best examples of the what the Peace Corps has done to date." Shriver hoped that in the future they could keep "the Peace Corps a ‘Coffin’ kind of operation." Since his first involvement, Coffin kept his fondness for Outward Bound and the Peace Corps. The combinations of the experiences confirmed his conviction that first-hand experience made the best education.
When he first came to Yale, Coffin made relatively little use of his home pulpit because his predecessor had used it to bring famous preachers to Yale. Coffin followed tradition at first, preaching a little more than once a month while inviting such luminaries of American Protestantism as Reinhold Niebuhur, Martin Luther King Jr., and Paul Tillich; the chaplains of Harvard, Wesleyan, and Brown; deans of Harvard and Yale Divinity Schools; his old professors from Union and Yale; and his friend John Maguire. He hosted leading European Protestants as well as church-connected activists such as Donald Benedict from Chicago’s City Mission Society and Will Campbell, the white civil rights activist who staffed the southern office of the National Council of Churches.
When visitors preached at Battell, Coffin usually took to the road, though he stayed for King and Tillich. His secretary kept a doubled-columned "Preaching Engagements" calendar that she gradually filled during the year. The left column indicated Coffin’s Sunday morning obligations; the right, those in the afternoon or evening. Most of his outside invitations during the late fifties and early sixties came from New England prep schools, colleges, and universities, though Coffin did travel as far as Stanford University in January 1961.
As he made bigger waves abroad, however, Coffin began to preach more at Battell, gradually reducing the number of guests. Still, very little kept Coffin home Sunday afternoons or evenings. In the 1962 calendar year, Coffin had thirty-one speaking or preaching engagements out of town. By 1965 the number had grown to fifty-seven.
To the surrounding culture, Coffin offered novelty. Few Protestant ministers projected such masculine affect (at six feet, two inches, and two hundred pounds), multilingual worldliness, and a taste for poetry, music and sports. As a man who could delight unabashedly in beauty, use the word love in a myriad of contexts, and talk the core of Christianity, Coffin projected a more erotic presence than most of his brethren.
Coffin performed well in the spotlight. With President Kennedy on the platform to receive an honorary degree from Yale in 1962, Coffin’s commencement prayer received notices (and excerpts) in the New York Times. Building his prayer around the theme of love, Coffin used for the first time the image of the "lover’s quarrel": because we love the world we pray now… for grace to quarrel with it. O Thou whose lover’s quarrel with the world is the history of the world." He invited his listeners to quarrel with "the worship of success and power," with "a mass culture that tends not to satisfy but exploit the wants of people," with those who "pledge allegiance to one race rather than the human race," and -riskiest of all, given the guest of honor- "with those who prefer to condemn communism rather than practice Christianity." Coffin made sure to praise the can-do ethos of the New Frontier, in the form of "men for whom the complexity of issues only served to renew their zeal to deal with them… men who were always willing to risk something big for something good."
This is an excerpt from William Sloane Coffin Jr.: A Holy Impatience by Warren Goldstein. Published by Yale University Press. Copyright © 2004. Used here with permission of the publisher.
Warren Goldstein is associate professor of history and chair of the department of history at the University of Hartford. His essays and reviews have appeared in The New York Times Book Review, The Nation, and Washington Post. His books include the prize-winning Playing for Keeps: A History of Early Baseball. He lives in Coral Gables, Florida.