Out of the Mouth of William Sloane Coffin, Jr.

“You’re not abandoned. God provides minimum protection – maximum support.”

William Sloane Coffin, Jr. (June 1, 1924 – April 12, 2006) was bigger than life. He had a way about him. He was a great preacher who packed the Chapel at Yale and the Riverside Church in New York City, one of the nation’s greatest pulpit dating back to Harry Emerson Fosdick. Once a promising candidate for a career as a concert pianist, Coffin chose the ministry instead, but he carried his musicality into the cadences of his speech and the power and beauty of his language. A former member of the CIA, he became fiercely committed to peace, a leader in the civil rights, peace, and nuclear freeze and disarmament movements.

After many years of watching from afar, our paths crossed while serving as Pastor to The College of Wooster in Wooster, OH and Pastor of Westminster Presbyterian Church, the College congregation-in-residence. The night of his arrival on campus, a handful of professors gathered in a home into the late hours of the night. I was spell-bound not only by his stories but by the quick repartee and personal interest in the lives of the strangers in the room. For the rest of the week Bill roused the campus with his passionate faith and wisdom.

Years later PBS broadcast Bill Moyers’ interview with him. Bill had suffered a stroke three years before, recovered his speech through persistent therapy, and was now reflecting with Bill Moyers about the recent news that he would be dead by the end of the year. It was vintage Bill Coffin. Realistic, cheerful, life-affirming, humorous, bold, loving, enjoying every moment of the conversation.

It led me to tears. “I have to call him,” I thought. “I have to tell him how important he’s been to so many of us – his close friends and distant admirers such as I.”  After some searching, I learned that he was living in Vermont and dialed the number.

Randy, Bill’s wife, answered the phone. “You don’t know me,” I said, “but I saw Bill’s interview with Bill Moyers last night on PBS. I just felt I had to call. He’s not likely to remember me but I had to call. This is Gordon Stewart calling from Minnes…” “O my, how good of you to call. Let me get Bill. I know he’ll want to talk with you… Bill…Bill….”.  “Gordon!” boomed out the familiar New York baritone voice. “We’ve thought about you many times. So good to hear from you! How the hell are you?  What’s happening out there in Minnesota?”

William Sloane Coffin was not a personal friend. He was a heroic figure I had admired and had put on a pedestal.  There are many reasons he deserved to be emulated, foremost perhaps, was that he really loved people and never forgot them. He lived freely at the end when death was knocking at his door because he believed, as he said,

“The abyss of God’s love is deeper than the abyss of death. And she who overcomes her fear of death lives as though death were a past and not a future experience.”

12 thoughts on “Out of the Mouth of William Sloane Coffin, Jr.

    • Chuck, There is only one of his kind. For some reason I’ve been blessed to meet some of these wonderful people along the way. I read a biography of Coffin several years ago that delved into the depths of his sense of the void in loneliness. It rang such a bell. In the piece on the gambler and grace, you can see in his eyes and hear in his voice the depths of his experience and spirit. Hope all is well in the sun!

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  1. Living in the New Haven area, I was aware of the local attitude that he was some kind of unpatriotic noise-making trouble-maker. Oh well, so was MLK. How this does tie in to my own brief blog today, citing Theodore Roosevelt! The truly great have to be willing to tolerate the slings and arrows they are sure of inviting.

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    • Mona, I have to get to your post. There is a very interesting interview of Coffin and William Buckley (two very different Bills, except for the precociousness they shared) on YouTube. Both are quite young. It’s worth a watch. Bill Moyers called him “The voice of a prophet and wisdom for the ages.” Like Martin Luther King, no man, woman, or institution could stop him from saying and doing what he believed was right. And, most of the time, he WAS right. Teddy Roosevelt had the same sort of boldness of character. I look forward to reading your piece.

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      • Ah! William F. Buckley. I was at the Yale graduation with the boyfriend I didn’t marry when Buckley gave the valedictory, or whatever it was called. I remember telling Tony afterwards that I was horrified at the lack of logic in the talk. Looking back, I guess it was logical – it was the premise I didn’t like.

        Anyway, your honoring of William Sloane Coffin is so appreciated — and I’ve learned still more about you too. Thanks.

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      • That was a few years back, huh! Buckley belonged in the House of Lords or in Buckingham Palace coaching royalty in how to move their eyes, lick their lips, and speak as snobs. He was the master of an unenviable art.

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