A Timeless Prophet

As mainline churches work to find positions on difficult social issues, Westminster John Knox Press recovers a 20th-century pro­phetic voice. William Sloane Coffin served as the senior minister of The Riverside Church in New York City from 1977 to 1987. During his 10-year tenure, Coffin preached more than 300 sermons, nearly two-thirds of which addressed social issues. Frequently ahead of his time, he preached on topics ranging from nuclear disarmament to homosexuality in ways that were both pastoral and prophetic.

Coffin gained notoriety first in the freedom rides of the early 1960s, then by helping students at Yale resist the Vietnam draft, and finally as a leader in nuclear disarmament in the 1980s. Never one to shy from an argument, Coffin regularly assumed bold, progressive positions on divisive issues, doing so in a way that invited dialogue and differing opinions. Often theoretical and academic in style, his sermons remain both credible and accessible because he devoted his life to actively working for peace and justice.

This second volume of Coffin’s Riverside sermons begins with his first sermon of 1983, the one that would become his most famous, titled “Alex’s Death.” Preached just two weeks after his son’s death in an auto accident, Coffin questions the commonly held notion that death is God’s will. He counters with the promise that when Alex died, “God’s heart was the first of all our hearts to break.” These sermons, from his last five years of parish ministry, represent the maturity of Coffin’s thought and the culmination of 30 years of living and preaching the social gospel. Most remember Coffin for his activism, but Sunday after Sunday he used the pulpit to challenge, coerce, and cajole his congregation to stand with Christ. These sermons are essential reading for those who believe the gospel beckons Christians to social action.

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Sojourners Magazine January 2009
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