(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

In historian James Carroll’s moving introduction to William Sloane Coffin’s Credo, he outlines Coffin’s career as a college chaplain, a Presbyterian minister, and an activist. A chaplain at Yale University in 1961, Coffin became an outspoken leader in the Civil Rights movement and was jailed as one of the first Freedom Riders, a group that fought segregation in the South by riding interstate buses. In 1967 during a protest against the Vietnam War, he encouraged young men to turn in their draft cards at a church service in Boston. He and fellow protestor Benjamin Spock were indicted and convicted of conspiracy charges. The conviction was later overturned. In 1977, he became pastor of Riverside Church in New York City, a congregation known for its leftist bent. Influenced by the activism of Henry David Thoreau, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Jesus Christ, Coffin emphasized the responsibility of individuals—especially Christians—to speak out against unjust social and political structures. In 1987 he stepped down from the pulpit at Riverside Church to become president of SANE/Freeze (Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy), an organization that advocated the elimination of nuclear weapons. After his retirement and until his death, he continually castigated the U.S. government for what he viewed as imperialist ambition, and he vigorously opposed the Iraq war that began in 2003.

Credo presents Coffin’s thoughts and observations on subjects as varied as “Faith, Hope, and Love,” “Patriotism,” “War and Peace,” “Nature,” and “The End of Life.” Whether crafted to convict, encourage, provoke, or inspire, the reflections in Credo are grounded in the Gospel as Coffin understood it. Speaking truth to the powers that be on behalf of the poor, the disenfranchised, the oppressed, and others who have little or no voice in society was fundamental to Christ’s mission and the hallmark of Coffin’s own ministry.

Coffin’s commitment to justice and peace is reflected in his understanding of the word “credo.” Usually it is translated simply as “I believe,” but Coffin interprets...

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(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

Sources for Further Study

Coffin, William Sloane. An American Prophet. Louisville, Ky.: Presbyterian Publishing House, 2005. A DVD documentary about Coffin’s remarkable life, including illuminating interviews with fellow activists Arthur Miller, James Carroll, and others.

Coffin, William Sloane. The Heart Is a Little to the Left: Essays on Public Morality. Hanover, N.H.: Dartmouth College, 1999. A collection of seven sermons encouraging believers to challenge the Christian Right’s stances on issues such as homophobia, biblical literalism, and military spending.

Foley, Michael S. Confronting the War Machine: Draft Resistance During the Vietnam War. Charlotte: University of North Carolina Press, 2006. Well-researched study of the protests against the Selective Service System during the Vietnam War. Includes coverage of the trial and conviction of Coffin and Benjamin Spock on conspiracy charges.

Goldstein, Warren. William Sloane Coffin, Jr.: A Holy Impatience. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2006. A compelling, honest look at Coffin’s public and private lives. Details his journey from a son of privilege to a tireless advocate for social justice and world peace.