Coffin, William Sloane 1924-2006

views updated

COFFIN, William Sloane 1924-2006
(William Sloane Coffin, Jr.)


See index for CA sketch: Born June 1, 1924, in New York, NY; died of congestive heart failure, April 12, 2006, in Strafford, VT. Minister, activist, and author. Best remembered as a vocal antiwar activist while serving as chaplain at Yale University during the Vietnam War, Coffin was once convicted of conspiracy against the government. Despite his long career as a minister, his original course in life was much different. As a young student, he aspired to be a pianist and graduated from Phillips Academy at Andover in 1942. He also attended Yale as a music student before World War II. Enlisting in the U.S. Army, he was an infantry officer in Europe and achieved the rank of captain. To his later great shame, he participated in a program that located Soviet citizens in Europe and returned them to their native land. Many of these people were imprisoned by the Soviet government, some never to return. The experience turned his views against Stalinist Russia, and he joined the Central Intelligence Agency during the Korean War as a way to fight Communism. He helped organize paramilitary excursions into the Soviet Union in missions against the communist regime. Nearly all the missions failed, however, a result of superior Soviet intelligence. Returning to America, Coffin, who had completed a B.A. from Yale in 1949, returned to the university for a B.D. in 1956. Ordained in the Presbyterian church that year, he was acting chaplain at Phillips Academy for a year, then chaplain at Williams College, before returning to Yale in 1958. While at Yale, he became active in the civil rights movement and was a participant in the Freedom Ride in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1963. Sympathetic to students, he supported the decision of many young men to resist the draft during the controversial Vietnam War. Along with Benjamin Spock and three other defendants, Coffin was charged in 1968 with encouraging people to resist the draft, a federal offense. The widely publicized trial resulted in their conviction, but in 1970 the judgment was overturned. That year, Coffin helped avoid campus violence by working with the National Guard to prevent overt action against a crowd of demonstrators who were protesting the prosecution of several Black Panthers members. The demonstration remained peaceful, thanks in large part to Coffin. He continued his pacifist work in 1972, when he traveled to Hanoi with other activists in an effort to release American prisoners of war. After leaving Yale in 1975, Coffin was named senior minister at the Riverside Church in New York City. Here, he continued to be an outspoken peace activist who worked for arms control and on other issues, such as juvenile delinquency and unemployment. In 1979, he notably traveled to Tehran, Iran, during the hostage crisis. He left the Riverside Church to work for the disarmament organization Sane/Freeze in the 1980s. Although he had a stroke in 1999 that slowed him down, Coffin continued to speak in public against wars, including the Iraq war initiated by President George W. Bush. The author of several books, including The Courage to Love (1982) and The Heart Is a Little to the Left: Essays on Public Morality (1999), the liberal former university chaplain was said to have served as a model for the character of the Rev. Scot Sloan in the Doonesbury comic strip by Garry Trudeau.



Coffin, William Sloan, Jr., Once to Every Man: A Memoir, Atheneum, 1977.


New York Times, April 13, 2006, p. A21.