Columnists > Voices

The day the social gospel died

William Sloane Coffin Jr. was its most articulate spokesman

Issue: "Faculty follies," April 29, 2006

A long long time ago
I can still remember . . .

That's how Don McLean's No. 1 hit from 1971, "American Pie," begins. The news two weeks ago was that William Sloane Coffin Jr., America's most famous liberal minister from the 1960s through the 1980s, had just died at age 81. Born to a father who was president of New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, educated at elite schools in Massachusetts and Paris, he thought of a career as a concert pianist but became Yale University chaplain in 1958.

February made me shiver
With every paper I'd deliver
Bad news on the doorstep
I couldn't take one more step

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New Haven often has miserable winter weather, and the ideological slush within the Yale Daily News building from 1969 through 1971 was often as unpleasant as the freezing rain outside. So I went occasionally to Battell Chapel to hear Coffin's fiery sermons about the Sin of the Vietnam War. But his bad news of American evil was tempered by his good news that we bright students could remake ourselves into righteous beings.

Did you write the Book of Love
And do you have faith in God above?
If the Bible tells you so

I had no faith in God or the Bible, and probably wouldn't have paid attention if Coffin had given scriptural messages. I was impressed when he rode a motorcycle around campus and called himself a "Christian revolutionary." So were others: Gary Trudeau made him a character ("Rev Sloan") in his Doonesbury comic strip and once enthused about Coffin, "Without him, the very air would have lost its charge. With him we were changed forever."

As I watched him on the stage
My hands were clenched in fists of rage . . .
As the flames climbed high into the night
To light the sacrificial rite
I saw Satan laughing with delight

Coffin's hip sermons reflected the wisdom of both John Lennon and Vladimir Lenin. He advocated an extreme "social gospel," pointing out accurately that many churches had turned their backs on the poor, but minimizing our desperate need for Christ while emphasizing the overthrow of social classes and traditional institutions. Coffin certainly was not responsible for my embrace of Marxism, but he and others made me feel my rage was righteous and my anger was more than angst.

In the streets the children screamed
The lovers cried, and the poets dreamed
But not a word was spoken
The church bells all were broken

Coffin moved on in 1977 to become chief minister at perhaps the leading social gospel church in the country, New York's Riverside. Two years later he journeyed to Iran to meet with American hostages and then speak of America's "sins" in Iran. In 1987, just before Ronald Reagan's tough stand pushed the Soviet Union to decompose, Coffin left Riverside to head the SANE/Freeze movement's push for the United States to disarm.

And the three men I admire most
The Father, Son and the Holy Ghost
They caught the last train for the coast
The day the music died

Two days after graduating I started riding a bicycle to the Pacific Coast. Several years later I providentially came to admire the Trinity: 1975 and 1976 turned out to be the years the music began in my life. The gospel message took root in my heart not in Yale's elegant chapel via an articulate minister, but in a plain and small Conservative Baptist church just east of San Diego where the preacher essentially had one sermon that he repeated every week: "You must be born again."

They were singing / Bye-bye, Miss American Pie
Drove my chevy to the levee / But the levee was dry
And them good old boys was drinkin' whiskey and rye
Singin' this'll be the day that I die

On April 12 William Sloane Coffin Jr., retired in Vermont, was-his daughter said-"out in the sun. Everybody was talking and then he was gone." That's what has happened to the social gospel as well. A few Coffin epigones talk on in an attempt to keep that ol' time religion alive, but evangelicals rely on the most important change agent of all: the grace of Jesus Christ.

Marvin Olasky
Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD News Group and the author of more than 20 books, including The Tragedy of American Compassion. Follow Marvin on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.

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