From Publishers Weekly
From the mid-20th century until now, Coffin has served as the prophetic conscience of a nation divided by race, war and economic injustice. In this compelling and eloquent biography, Goldstein captures the enigmatic nature of the great preacher and activist who came to be called the voice of American Protestant liberalism. Drawing on interviews with Coffin's friends and family as well as on unprecedented access to his archives, Goldstein begins with Coffin's privileged early life in a wealthy family committed to helping in various social causes, then highlights his stint as a second lieutenant in the army. After the war, Coffin studied at Yale, where he discovered the significance of religion as a cultural force, and at Union Theological Seminary in New York, where his uncle, Henry Sloane Coffin, had been president. Although he spent only one year at Union, his study there amongst the giants of theology and social activismReinhold Niebuhr, Paul Tillich and John Bennettcemented his commitment to social justice and the ministry. With the advent of the Civil Rights movement, Coffin threw himself headlong into the fray; he participated in 1961 in the Freedom Rides and in various demonstrations, and later joined Benjamin Spock and Daniel Berrigan in actively protesting the Vietnam War. Goldstein captures Coffin's fervent commitment to helping others as well as his flaws as a husband and father. Coffin remains one of America's most important cultural figures, and Goldstein's first-rate biography provides a deeply appreciative and unflinchingly honest tale worthy of its celebrated subject.
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Although saying that William Sloane Coffin Jr. "remains the last of a once flourishing breed in American public life: the liberal Protestant minister preaching to the nation's faith and conscience" seems hyperbolic, he is definitely one of the most influential religious figures of the twentieth century. Goldstein paints him as the successor to Martin Luther King Jr., and the liberal Protestant counterpart to Billy Graham--characterizations that illuminate political and religious fissures of great significance in twenty-first-century America. Goldstein's life of Coffin is also a compelling biography of twentieth-century American liberalism that delves right down to liberalism's anticommunist, conservative, patriarchal, and privileged roots. Goldstein wisely gives Rabbi Arnold Wolf and Coffin himself the last words. According to Wolf, Coffin is, politically, "not particularly radical, courageous in a personal way, but not particularly vanguard or unusual," yet a "real" and "authentic" preacher, "giving classical Christian sermons based on the Bible." Authenticity permeates even the more troubled aspects of Coffin's life, and life, according to Coffin, is an "instrument" to be played by God. Steven SchroederCopyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved