About Chaplain Bill Coffin

By: Bishop Will Willimon
When I came to Yale Divinity School in 1969, I did not come there completely committed to parish ministry. I was mad at the church, mad at my native South, mad at the older generation, in short, mad. Bill Coffin’s particular brand of Christian madness met my anger just when I needed it. I had about decided that, in order to be a Christian, at least to be a preacher, one needed a lobotomy or at least castration. Then I heard Bill Coffin raving, cajoling, exhuberantly preaching and pleading, punching and pounding from the pulpit of Battelle Chapel at Yale, and I was hooked. Coffin was brash, bold, and interesting. He combined his engagement with current crises with a playful obedience to scripture. He defended the Christian tradition by trusting it to name our present realities truthfully.

In less than a semester of Sundays, I was hooked. I wanted to one day talk like Coffin. I saw the potential power of the pulpit. I had discovered the summoning God who had summoned me. I was to be a preacher.

I vividly recall the winter Sunday when, no sooner had Coffin begun to preach, a wild looking young man stood up, gesturing toward the pulpit, and started screaming, “That man is a heretic! That man is speaking for the devil, not for God!”

The congregation gasped and sat stupefied.

We looked at Coffin who stopped, let the young man have his say, and then responded calmly, “You know, you could be right. It’s a tough job trying to speak for God. I may have it wrong. But how do you know for sure when you haven’t heard me out? I’m only five minutes into a twenty minute sermon! May I continue?”

The young man seemed surprised, smiled sweetly, responded, “OK,” and sat down. Coffin continued with his sermon on the calling of the disciples. It was wonderful.

Back in those days, when Yale was still related (though only vestigially) to the Protestant Christian tradition, there was the custom of having the President of Yale sit on the other side of the chancel, read the scripture lessons, and then sit through the sermon. Coffin loved to make little asides to the President as he preached. The President sometimes looked pained, knowing that some of Coffin’s sermonic commentary would result in hundreds of letters from enraged Yalie alumni who disagreed with Coffin’s politics.

In the middle of a sermon on some text Coffin exclaimed, “Of all the dirty books and pornographic things ever written, none are as filthy as three minutes in the mind of William Westmorland” (the then commanding General in the Viet Nam War). Kingman Brewster grimaced greatly, knowing that he would need to clear his calendar to answer his mail the next week.

I pray that each of us in Campus Ministry might have some small measure of the power and the spirit that infused the ministry of William Sloan Coffin.

Will Willimon Former Dean of the Chapel, Duke University, and currently Bishop of the North Alabama Conference of the United Methodist Church.

A link to an interview and related pieces from NPR’s Fresh Air with Terry Gross