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William Sloane Coffin Jr

William Sloane Coffin Jr.

William Sloane Coffin, Jr. (born 1924) was a Yale University chaplain who spoke out against the Vietnam War and was indicted as a criminal by the United States government for conspiring to aid young men to avoid the military draft.

William Sloane Coffin, Jr. was born to considerable wealth and social position on June 1, 1924, in New York City. When he was 11 his father died, and he grew up in the company of tutors and teachers in New England and Paris, France. He graduated from Andover Academy in 1942, spent a year of piano study at the Yale School of Music, and then, in the middle of World War II, he enlisted in the U.S. army. He emerged from Officer's Candidate School as a second lieutenant and was sent to Europe in 1945. Already fluent in French and German, he now mastered the Russian language and served for two years as a liaison officer with the American and Soviet forces. He returned to Yale University from 1947 to 1949 for the completion of his college degree and for religious training at Union Theological Seminary. However, because of his ability to speak Russian, he allowed himself to be recruited for a three year tour of duty in Europe with the Central Intelligence Agency.

In 1953 Coffin came back to Yale University, this time to Yale Divinity School for training which would lead him to become an ordained Presbyterian minister. In spite of his army-CIA background, the pulpit was a natural progression. After all, he had been named for his uncle, Henry Sloane Coffin, who had been president of Union Theological Seminary for 19 years (1926-1945). Somewhat aggressively athletic in behavior, young Coffin did not fit the image of a prelate. He rode a motorcycle wherever he went. He played classical piano and married the daughter of famed violinist Arthur Rubinstein. Finally, he was fearlessly outspoken in calling attention to discrimination and injustice.

After becoming a minister, Coffin took a one year job as acting chaplain at Andover Academy. The next year (1957-1958) he was the chaplain at Williams College in Massachusetts. The year after that he was appointed chaplain at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, the position which he held for the following 17 years.

The coming of Coffin to Yale coincided with the beginnings of social protest throughout America. Black Americans under the leadership of the Martin Luther King, Jr. had already transformed a segregated bus system in Alabama. Courageous young white students were traveling southward to help end racism. Still others were on the streets of the nation protesting against the death penalty, against nuclear war, and against injustice everywhere. This had been Coffin's approach to society's problems from the start, and he now embarked on his own campaigns.

His first protest was against anti-Semitism at Yale. His second was to gain the admittance of more African students at Yale. He was successful in both endeavors.

Coffin's third protest in the spring of 1961 was to join several other black and white ministers and students for a "freedom ride" on a Trailways bus through Alabama and Georgia. Such rides provoked the racist fears of some southern whites, spurring them to attack and burn the busses and to beat the riders. Coffin and his friends were jailed before any mob reached them, but the reaction of the Yale faculty and administration was anything but approving that their chaplain had put himself in the position of doing time in a southern jail.

Within the next five years, American participation in the fateful Vietnam War increased. At first, the majority of young Americans heeded the nation's call to arms. But as casualty lists lengthened, debate over U.S. policy sharpened and the numbers of people disapproving of America's Vietnam intervention grew. Coffin and a huge number of other ministers never harbored any doubt that the anti-Communist foreign policies of the government were wrong. The slaughter of the Vietnamese was for them a positive evil. Once more, to the consternation of many of his Yale colleagues, Chaplain Coffin began to protest. He helped to establish committees for re-appraising U.S. foreign policy. He was one of the founders of Clergy and Laity Concerned About Vietnam, a powerful peace group.

By 1967 the United States had hundreds of thousands of fighting men in Vietnam. Antagonism to the war within America had moved from verbal protest to outright resistance and to draft-card burning. These were called acts of civil disobedience. They had been justified in America since the Pilgrims first fled the persecution of the British Crown. The writings of Henry David Thoreau had also sustained their use. According to the theory of civil disobedience, whenever governments or majorities behave immorally, those who are harmed may appeal beyond the civil law to "conscience" or to "higher law." Chaplain Coffin appealed to higher law in October 1967 when he and four other people (Benjamin Spock, Marcus Raskin, Michael Ferber, and Mitchell Goodman) received draft cards from men who refused to serve in Vietnam and returned them to the attorney general of the United States. The federal government did not recognize civil disobedience as anything other than the breaking of the law. It promptly indicted them for conspiracy to aid draft resistance—a felony for which those convicted could receive prison sentences and heavy fines. The court refused to permit Coffin and his friends to place the Vietnam War itself on trial, and Coffin was found guilty. He appealed his case, and finally, in 1970, the whole matter was simply dropped.

Coffin was a favorite speaker at anti-war demonstrations in the early 1970s. He flew to Hanoi, North Vietnam, in September 1972 to bring home two prisoners of war who had been released. In 1976 he resigned his post at Yale, and a year later he became the senior minister at Riverside Church in New York City.

At Riverside, a church built by John D. Rockefeller, Coffin found a platform for his political ideology. The interdenominational church was known for its focus on social programs and issues, and while Coffin served as minister he focused on unemployment, juvenile delinquency, and drugs. During this time Coffin continued his work with Clergy and Laity Concerned, only instead of focusing on Vietnam, the group worked internationally for arms control.

One of Coffin's more controversial actions occurred in 1979 when he was one of four Christian laypeople to travel to Teheran to visit the American hostages who were being held at the American embassy. Ostensibly, the role of the four ministers was to inspect the hostages and vouch to the world that they were not being mistreated. It seemed that he was acting more the role of political activist, when upon his return he urged the United States government to assume a more "humble (and) religious stance toward the captors and acknowledge the justice of some of Iran's grievances against the United States."

In 1989 Coffin left his position at Riverside Church to assume executive directorship of SANE/FREEZE, an anti-nuclear organization later known as Peace Action. In his capacity as executive director, Coffin sought the dissolution of NATO and the elimination of short-range nuclear weapons. In 1990 Coffin was made national president of SANE/FREEZE.

Later in the 1990s Coffin opposed the United States involvement in the Gulf War, and urged the deployment of troops in Bosnia. In Christian Century Coffin was quoted as saying, "I first realized when the Cambodian genocide of the Pol Pot regime came to light that violence within borders could be even worse than violence across borders." Many applauded Coffin for his radical political stances, for instance when the President of Yale, A. Bartlett Giamatti said, "You gave us energy." Others weren't so laudatory, such as Carl McIntyre of the International Council of Christian Churches who said, "During the Vietnam years, he contributed to the spirit of surrender that finally gripped our country."

Further Reading

William Coffin has written his own immensely readable autobiography, Once to Every Man (1977). The American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research has published two of Coffin's debates on civil disobedience, one with Charles E. Whittaker (1967), the other with Morris I. Leibman (1972). In 1985 Coffin published some of his reflections on religion in Living the Truth in a World of Illusions. Good biographical information on Coffin's later years can be found in Leaders from the 1960s: A Biographical Sourcebook of American Activism (1994), edited by David DeLeon, and also in American Social Leaders (1993), by William McGuire and Leslie Wheeler. □

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Coffin, William Sloane, Jr.

William Sloane Coffin, Jr., 1924–2006, American Protestant social activist, b. New York City. Strongly influenced by the social philosophy of Reinhold Niebuhr, Coffin became a leader in the civil-rights and peace movements of the 1960s and 1970s when he was chaplain at his alma mater, Yale. As minister (1977–87) of Riverside Church in New York City he was involved with such social concerns as nuclear disarmament and the plight of war refugees. Subsequently remaining active in the international peace and disarmament movement, he continued to write, teach, and lecture; from 1987 to 1990 he headed SANE/Freeze. Among his books is A Passion for the Possible (1993).

See his memoir (1977); biography by W. Goldstein (2004).

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Coffin, William Sloane, Jr.

COFFIN, William Sloane, Jr.

(b. 1 June 1924 in New York City), Presbyterian minister, Yale University chaplain, civil rights and antiwar activist, and defendant in the draft resistance conspiracy trial of the "Boston Five."

Coffin was the second of three children born to Catherine Butterfield and William Sloane Coffin, Sr., vice president of W and J Sloane, a prominent furniture store on New York's Fifth Avenue, and president of the Metropolitan Museum of Art's board of directors. His early boyhood was marked by wealth and privilege: the family spent summers on Long Island and in France and lived the rest of the year in a penthouse apartment in Manhattan. Following his father's death in 1933, however, finances tightened somewhat, and the family moved a number of times before Coffin completed his secondary education at Phillips Andover Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, in 1942.

In 1943 Coffin left Yale University after one year of study to join the army, and was soon stationed in Europe. There he demonstrated an uncommon facility for languages and, consequently, served as a liaison officer first with the French army and later with the Soviet army. Discharged with the rank of captain in 1947, Coffin returned to Yale and graduated with a B.A. in government in 1949. He matriculated at Union Theological Seminary (where his uncle, Henry Sloane Coffin, had once been president), but left after one year to work for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) during the Korean War. From 1950 to 1953 he put his Russian language skills to use training dissident Russians for espionage assignments in the Soviet Union. Upon returning to the United States, Coffin earned his bachelor of divinity degree at Yale University Divinity School in 1956, and he spent the following two years as chaplain at Phillips Andover Academy and Williams College. In 1956 he married Amy Anna Rubinstein, a ballet dancer and actress, with whom he had three children.

Appointed Yale chaplain in 1958, Coffin in 1960 led a group of fifteen students to Mamou, Guinea, to build a community center. The following year he participated in one of the early freedom rides from Atlanta to Montgomery, Alabama, where he and six others were arrested for "disturbing the peace." Their convictions were later overturned on appeal. In the meantime, Peace Corps director Sargent Shriver tapped him to go to Puerto Rico in the summer of 1961 to organize a capstone training program, modeled on the British Outward Bound, for the first Peace Corps volunteers.

After the U.S. war in Vietnam escalated in 1964 and 1965, Coffin became critical of American policy. By early 1967 he had begun speaking out openly against the intensifying war and, with several others, founded Clergy and Laity Concerned About Vietnam (CALCAV). The ecumenical organization presented a thirty-eight-page position paper and organized a two-day mobilization of clergy in Washington, D.C. There, ministers, priests, and rabbis lobbied congressmen and senators, and Coffin and several others met with Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara.

As the war raged on in 1967, however, Coffin concluded that working within the system had produced no change in the Johnson administration's prosecution of the war. Therefore, he moved more deliberately toward civil disobedience. He joined several others in pledging to "aid and abet" draft resisters, and in urging churches and synagogues to declare themselves "sanctuaries of conscience," or havens where draft resisters could await arrest. He also served as spokesperson for a group of older supporters of the draft-resistance movement at a press conference at which the "Call to Resist Illegitimate Authority" was unveiled. A petition written by several intellectuals, the "Call" argued that the war was unconstitutional and cited examples of American war crimes. As a result, it argued, "every free man has a legal right and a moral duty to exert every effort to end this war, to avoid collusion with it, and to encourage others to do the same." On 16 October 1967 Coffin gave the featured sermon at a nationally publicized draft card turn-in at the Arlington Street Church in Boston. The climactic event of the service included Coffin and several other clergy accepting the draft cards of 214 men who were openly defying selective service laws. Four days later Coffin again was the primary speaker at a rally outside the Justice Department in Washington, where he led a small group who delivered to a Justice Department representative nearly 1,000 draft cards that had been collected in cities across the country. He told the crowd outside that "to stand up in this fashion against the law and our fellow Americans is a difficult and even fearful thing, but in the face of what to us is insane and inhumane, we can fall neither silent nor servile."

For these acts the U.S. district court in Boston indicted Coffin with four others, including the noted pediatrician Dr. Benjamin Spock, for conspiracy to aid and abet draft resisters. Many within the antiwar movement were at once delighted and terrified. Some suggested that the trial of the "Boston Five" would provide a forum for dissenters to "put the war on trial," while others feared that the indictments signaled the beginning of widespread political repression. In the end the trial served only to disappoint. Judge Francis Ford ruled out any discussion of the legality of the war, and the defendants adopted a First Amendment defense, denying that they had committed any overt acts in furtherance of a conspiracy. Rather, the defense argued that they had merely offered moral support to those young men who had already decided to resist the draft. The jury found Coffin and three others guilty, though the convictions were thrown out a year later.

Coffin continued to speak out against the Vietnam War, and in 1972 he was part of a delegation invited to North Vietnam to accept the release of three American prisoners of war. He resigned the chaplaincy at Yale in 1976, and the following year he was hired as pastor of the Riverside Church in New York City, where he continued to be active in a variety of social, political, and foreign policy issues until his retirement in 1987. In 1999 Coffin published The Heart Is a Little to the Left: Essays on Public Morality.

As a former CIA officer and a minister with a gift for oratory, Coffin brought an air of authority to the antiwar movement of the 1960s. Although many sympathizers were disappointed that his conspiracy trial failed to produce the promised fireworks, few have challenged his contribution in reaching a wider public with the movement's critique of the war.

Coffin emphasizes his 1960s activism in his memoir, Once to Every Man (1977). Mitchell Hall, Because of Their Faith (1990), gives a lucid history of CALCAV, and Michael Friedland, Lift Up Your Voice Like a Trumpet (1998), examines the role of white clergy in both the civil rights and antiwar movements. Jessica Mitford, The Trial of Dr. Spock (1969), and Michael Foley, "Confronting the Johnson Administration at War: The Trial of Dr. Spock and Use of the Courtroom to Effect Political Change," Peace and Change (Jan. 2003), provide the most thorough examinations of Coffin's conspiracy trial.

Michael S. Foley

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