Morgan Phelps Noyes begins his biography of Henry Sloane Coffin by saying that Coffin’s life and ministry constitutes one of the most significant chapters in the story of the Church in the United States during the first half of the twentieth century. “As minister of Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York City, he was for twenty years a preacher and pastor who combined intellectual brilliance, profound Christian conviction, warm interest in all sorts of people and social concern in a balance which led many of his contemporaries to regard his pastorate as a demonstration of the Christian ministry at its best.”
Charles W. Gilkey said of him: “He was the admiration of all of us, the model of many of us, the despair of some of us.” John Baillie regarded Coffin as the most distinguished minister of his generation in the English-speaking world. Richly endowed with unusual gifts of mind and heart, Coffin was equally proficient in the many roles he played — powerful preacher, inspiring leader of worship, beloved pastor, brilliant teacher, able administrator, and ecclesiastical stateman. He touched nothing that he did not adorn. His was a rich and fruitful life.
Henry Sloane Coffin was born on January 5, 1877, in New York City, in which his entire ministry was spent, so that he knew its highways and byways and the people who lived in its streets. He was born to a family of wealth and affluence. He had both the New England tradition and the Scottish inheritance in his make-up. He owed much to his Scottish background — his deep piety, his sense of reverence, and his vocation to the ministry of the Word.
He was drawn naturally to Scotland for theological study after his undergraduate course at Yale. He spent two years at New College, Edinburgh (the theological school of the United Free Church of Scotland). He graduated from Union Theological Seminary in New York in 1900 and was ordained the same year. He was only twenty-three when he was called to his first pastorate at Bedford Park Presbyterian Church in New York City, where he remained until 1905. He then became minister of the Madison Avenue Church, taking over when it was at a low ebb; in a little over a decade it became one of the most influential churches in America, with a membership of 2,000, a Sunday School of 1,700, and a staff of twenty workers.
Joseph Fort Newton described this church under Coffin’s leadership as one of the finest feats of organized preaching in New York. “Standing on the borderline between a fashionable apartment house section and a gray, polyglot slum, by sagacious strategy it has brought the extremes of society together, as few churches have been able to do. It is a noble achievement, as much for its tact as for its vision, uniting personal piety and social ministry. Within all its activities the genius of a great preacher is present to inspire, edify and guide. A scholar, a teacher, a master of what Beecher called ‘executive Christian ideas,’ he thinks like a statesman and preaches like a prophet, persuades by his earnestness and ennobles by his compassion.”2
He never permitted the busy program of the church to be a substitute for preaching. He developed a program of institutional activities in a church which drew its power from the preaching of the Word and from a pastoral relationship of rare friendliness and understanding. To the end of his pastorate he made more than one hundred calls a month. It was not uncommon for him to call at the East Side apartment of a wealthy family only to be greeted with the remark that they were not members of his church — to which his reply was that he would appreciate an opportunity to visit with the maid for it was she he had come to visit.
He was genuinely interested in each member of each family. His people sensed his interest and were ready to share their concerns and problems with him. Reinhold Niebuhr said of him that he “regarded the local congregation as the chief flower of the Christian community and built a church in which all sorts and conditions of men should feel at home, would be instructed, edified, comforted and built into the body of Christ”3
At the early age of forty-one, Coffin was invited to deliver the Beecher Lectures on Preaching, the forty-fourth in that notable series. He took for his theme In a Day of Social Rebuilding and produced a series of lectures worthy of the occasion and singularly appropriate for the disturbing days of 1918 when they were given. The first lecture was entitled “The Day and the Church,” which was followed by lectures on varying types of ministry — reconciliation, evangelism, worship, teaching, organization, and friendship — ending with a study of the kind of ministers needed for the day. The treatment is fresh and warm, and makes the reader feel that the ministry is the greatest vocation known to humanity.
In 1926 Coffin delivered the Warrack Lectures on Preaching in New College, Edinburgh, and in the Colleges of the United Free Church of Scotland in Glasgow and Aberdeen. He was the first American to be invited to hold this lectureship, regarded in Scotland as the highest honor which the churches could canfer on a minister. The general theme was What to Preach, and in the light of his own experience he proceeded to deal with various types of preaching: expository, doctrinal, ethical, pastoral, and evangelistic. There is an extraordinary wealth of suggestion offered on every page. Principal Martin said of these lectures that they had freshness, vitality and force, and they left in the hearers’ minds a heightened conception of what it is to be a Christian minister.
Coffin urged his hearers not to think of themselves so much as prophets — for Elijah, Amos and Isaiah were not parish ministers, preaching regularly to the same congregations — but as teachers of religion. We are surfeited, he declared, with what are called ‘inspirational sermons” — exhortatations with a maximum of heat and a minimum of light; we need more patient, systematic instruction in the truth of God. A minister should from time to time tell his people what the Christian faith is in terms congruous with present-day thinking, with no attempt at doctrinal fixity, remembering that theology is “the ever-changing interpretation of the soul’s life with God.”
Although Coffin emphasized the heed for a teaching ministry in a biblically illiterate age, he knew that preaching was more than teaching. In his final lecture he says: “Preaching aims at a definite result. The teacher has as definite an objective, but he travels toward it at a more leisurely pace. Not every lecture is designed to alter its auditors; but preaching proposes to make men different. The preacher sets himself to do something in and with the persons who sit before him…. Both preacher and people should expect something to happen, and something momentous, because they face each other for half an hour, while he faces himself and them with the living God in Christ.”4
In 1951, during his retirement, Coffin gave a third series of lectures on preaching, the George Craig Stewart Lectures, at Seabury Western Theological Seminary, Evanston, Illinois. They were entitled Communion Through Preaching. He shows that both sermons and the Lord’s Supper are means of grace and media through which God in Christ offers Himself in personal fellowship. He stresses once again that there is no substitute for biblical preaching, not only because of the danger of departing from the Gospel given once and for all in the self-revelation of God in the Scriptures, but also because through this literature God comes and meets His people. “A sketchy, superficial knowledge of the Bible is crippling to a preacher. By all means let him know his period — its moods, its trends, its reaction to the epoch in which it finds itself. By all means let him know what is in man, but even more let him know the Word of God historically given in the Scriptures.”5
Coffin was sharply critical of much modern preaching. He said that a talk on current events, or on some social evil, or on managing one’s feelings, escaping one’s worries, or overcoming fears is hardly the vehicle for the personal approach of God. God has an inconspicuous role in too many sermons. In Coffin’s view the chief purpose of preaching is to supply an encounter between God and the souls of men. He recognized the value of the emphasis in recent years on the “life situations” of the congregation, but in his view this remained secondary to the offering to God of a sermon through which He can speak and reveal Himself to His children. This demands that every sermon should be grounded in Scripture and should bring the message of an ancient day to bear on current needs.
In his final lecture, Coffin says: “It is no pulpit convention which requires a text from Scripture. It is the effort to recapture for our messages today the supreme quality of revealing God. A preacher who does not zealously collect texts from the Scriptures in order to achieve in his time what the biblical authors have so conspicuously achieved does not belong in the apostolic succession.”6
He recognized the peril that when we start with a biblical text we seem to be dealing with ancient history and not with that which is urgently contemporary. To avoid this peril the preacher should begin with a few sentences which portray our present plight, and then bring in a biblical situation where identical or similar circumstances dominate the scene. The text is thus lifted out of the remote past and made relevant for today. “Many preachers feel the biblical material hampering, so they dispense with it almost entirely at the outset and only introduce it incidentally later on. Hence the popularity of topical as opposed to textual sermons. The peril in this method is that we cut off our message from the historic self-revelation of God which the Church of the centuries has garnered in the Scriptures.”7
The advice which Coffin gives in his lectures on preaching is based on his own practice throughout his ministry. He was preeminently a preacher of and from the Bible, thus reflecting the high reverence for the Word of God as the source and test of truth that is so characteristic of the Scottish tradition in which he was bred. He had the insight and the imagination to see the fresh relevance of the old incidents and old words and to make them spring to life again for modern minds. A study of his published sermons will show that they are serious and thought-provoking, demanding careful listening on the part of the hearers. There is no attempt to talk down to the congregation or to catch their interest with trivialities. But they are enlivened by the use of illustrations from literature, history, and life.
Coffin’s biography describes the pattern of his days during his pastorate. After breakfast and family prayers, he held a brief service with his staff at the church, and after dealing with his mail would return home to his study by 10:00 o’clock to work on his Sunday sermons. “He had a remarkable capacity for doing creative work on schedule. Wednesday noon would usually see his Sunday morning sermon completed, pounded out on his own typewriter. Friday noon would find the evening sermon finished, in outline at least, and the prayers for both services prepared. His assistants — who marvelled at his seemingly inexhaustible flow of ideas — were occasionally relieved to find that he was only human after all and that once in a while the sermon would not come and he would be obliged to complete it under pressure toward the end of the week,”8 After lunch the hours were devoted to pastoral calling. His preaching was never a cloistered product. It grew not only out of his intimacy with the Bible, but equally out of his happy intimacy with his people.
In 1952, Coffin contributed a sermon and an account of his preaching methods to a book edited by Donald Macleod, Here Is My Method. Some of his sermons took their rise in a situation in the congregation, some in the experience of one of his members, some in a book he had read, some in a public crisis, some in a text or passage of Scripture which demanded to be preached on. He always kept a notebook at hand for texts, illustrations, and outlines. When text and theme had been chosen, he would sketch an outline and note illustrations under each point. He took great pains over the introduction and conclusion.
When he was ready to start writing, he would talk the sentences to himself to keep the style conversational. He would begin writing with a pencil and continue until his thought was flowing, and then begin again on the typewriter. He would omit all unnecessary words, believing that a lean style keeps the listeners alert.
He would only use enough illustrations to illumine his thought. He recognized that it is possible to make illustrations take the place of precise thinking. Once when Halford Luccock as a student at Union had preached a sermon in Coffin’s classroom, the teacher made this comment at the end: “Mr. Luccock has given us some fine illustrations, and if he can find some ideas to go with his stories, he will have a good sermon.” In his lectures at Evanston, Coffin said: “A preacher must collect illustrations as systematically as he collects texts, and he must employ them with a skill that makes them illustrate his message, and not become either so absorbing or so opaque that listeners recall them rather than the Gospel.”9
Coffin was insistent on keeping his sentences picturesque, so that the ear was turned into an eye. The simpler the vocabulary, in his view, the better. Sentences should be short, and the nouns and verbs should be strong enough to carry the thought. Adjectives and adverbs should be used sparingly. “Preaching to boys and girls is the best training for speaking to children of riper years who remain children in their thinking,” he said.
He achieved his position of leadership in the Church primarily as a parish minister and theological educator; the last nineteen years of his active ministry were spent as president of Union Theological Seminary. When he retired from that position in 1945, a book of essays by his colleagues and friends was presented to the public, entitled This Ministry, the contribution of Henry Sloane Coffin. It reveals the many-faceted nature of his leadership as parish minister, preacher, leader of worship, theological educator, exponent of social Christianity, religious leader in colleges, and theologian and church statesman.
He played a decisive role in the major developments in the nation, education, and the Christian church during the first half of this century. His ministry was marked by great breadth and consistency. He brought rich and poor into the fellowship of his congregation and insisted that the office bearers should represent all the people. In his sermon as Moderator delivered to the Presbyterian General Assembly in 1944, he said that “American Protestant Christianity has stressed sociability at the expense of comprehensiveness. We are generally a one-class church.”
In his Beecher Lectures, Coffin reminded his hearers of the four shepherds with the significant names Knowledge, Experience, Watchful, and Sincere, who in The Pilgrim’s Progress stood for the essential qualities of Bunyan’s ideal pastor, whom Christian and Hopeful met on the Delectable Mountains, who “looked very lovingly upon them,” and “had them to the top of a high hill, called Clear, and gave them their glass to look” at the Celestial City.
Such a pastor was Henry Sloane Coffin. He was a man of conspicuous gifts and graces which made him an outstanding preacher. There was always a firmness in the movement of his thought and an untroubled serenity which reassured his hearers. But what made him a preacher of such power was, as his biographer says, “the transparent reality of his own spiritual life, the vigorous honesty of his approach to the intellectual problems of religion, and the social passion with which he brought his religious convictions to bear upon the perplexities of the changing society in which his hearers were involved.”10
1. Morgan Phelps Noyes, Henry Sloane Coffin, p. 1.
2. Joseph Fort Newton, Rivers of Years, p. 222.
3. Union Seminary Quarterly Review, January 1955, p. 5.
4. op. lit., p. 155.
5. Communion Through Preaching, p. 29.
6. op. cit., p. 100.
7. op. cit., pp. 104-105.
8. Noyes, op. cit., p. 209.
9. Communion Through Preaching, p. 111.
10. Noyes, op. cit., p. 122.

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