Roots of a Mentor

I first heard of William Sloane Coffin in 1967,

I first heard of William Sloane Coffin in 1967, when he was a leading spokesperson for "A Call to Resist Illegitimate Authority," a manifesto pledging to "counsel, aid, and abet" young men in resisting the draft. It made a strong impression on me and, with other influences, led to my refusing to register with the Selective Service System two years later. Our paths crossed occasionally over the next 20 years until the late 1980s, when I had the privilege of working with him in the merged SANE/Freeze anti-nuclear organization.

One memory that stands out is a trip we made to Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, for a speaking engagement. As we crossed the Susquehanna River into the rolling hills and farms, I told him that no matter how far my life had moved from that lush farmland where I grew up, returning there always felt like coming home. He smiled and remarked, "A tree can’t have branches unless it first has roots."

These books describe the roots and branches in Coffin’s life. A Holy Impatience, a biography written with the cooperation of Coffin, his family, and his friends, is both story and analysis. Through recording the span of a life, Goldstein also provides a history of the social movements in which Coffin was involved.

Coffin’s roots are in the liberal northern Protestant establishment of Yale University and Union Seminary, institutions with an activist sense of noblesse oblige that shaped his life. The early death of his father, a stint in the Army during and after World War II, and CIA service during the Korean War are chronicled with interesting detail.

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Sojourners Magazine June 2004
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