- William Sloane Coffin
Rev. William Sloane Coffin, Jr. (
June 1, 1924– April 12, 2006) was a liberal Christian clergyman and long-time peace activist with international stature. He was ordained in the Presbyterianchurch and later received ministerial standing in the United Church of Christ.
In his younger days he was a superb athlete, a highly talented pianist, a CIA agent, and later
chaplainof Yale University, where the influence of Reinhold Niebuhr's social philosophy led him to become a leader in the civil-rights and peace movements of the 1960s and 1970s.
He went on to serve as Senior Minister at the
Riverside Churchin New York City, and President of SANE/Freeze (now Peace Action), the nation's largest peace and justice group, and prominently opposed United Statesmilitary intervention from the Vietnam Warto the Iraq War. He was also an ardent supporter of gay rights.
William Sloane Coffin, Jr. was born into the wealthy elite of
New York City. His paternal grandfather was co-owner of the very successful W. & J. SloaneCompany. His uncle was Henry Sloane Coffin, president of Union Theological Seminary and one of the most famous ministers in the U.S. His father, William Sloane Coffin, Sr.was president of the Metropolitan Museum of Artand an executive in the family business.
His mother, Catherine Butterfield, had grown up in the Midwest, and as a young woman spent time in
Franceduring World War Iproviding relief to soldiers, and met her future husband there, where he was also engaged in charitable activities. Their three children grew up fluent in French by being taught by their nanny, and attended private schools in New York.
William Sr.'s father, Edmund Coffin, was a prominent
lawyer, real estate developer, and reformer who owned Hearth and Home Corporation(see [http://www.gvshp.org/south_villagemacsulgardhd.htm] ), a property investment and management firm that renovated and rented low-income housing in New York. Upon Edmund's death in 1928, it went to his sons William and Henry, with William managing the firm. When the Great Depressionhit in 1929, William allowed tenants to stay whether or not they could pay the rent, quickly draining his own funds, and at a time when the family's substantial W. & J. Sloane stock was not paying dividends.
William Sloane Coffin, Sr. died at
homein 1933 from a heart attack he suffered returning from work on his oldest son Edmund's eleventh birthday. After this, his mother Catherine decided to move the family to Carmel, Californiato make life more affordable, but was only able to do this with financial support from her brother-in-law Henry. After years spent in the most exclusive private schools in Manhattan, the three Coffin children were educated in Carmel's public schools, where William had his first sense that there was injustice—sometimes very great—in the world.
A talented musician, he became devoted to the piano and planned a career as a concert pianist. At the urging of his uncle Henry (who was still contributing to the family's finances), his mother enrolled him in
Deerfield Academyin 1938.
The following year (when Edmund left for
Yale University), William moved with his mother to Parisat the age of 15 to receive personal instruction in the pianoand was taught by some of the best music teachers of the 20th century, including Nadia Boulanger. The Coffins moved to Geneva, Switzerlandwhen World War IIcame to France in 1940, and then back to the United States, where he enrolled in Phillips Academyin Andover, Massachusetts.
When he graduated from high school in 1942, he enrolled in Yale University in the school of music. While continuing his pursuit of the piano, he was also excited by the prospect of fighting to stop
fascismand became very focused on joining the war effort. He applied to work as a spywith the Office of Strategic Servicesin 1943, but was turned down for not having sufficiently "Gallic features" to be effective. He then left school, enlisted in the Army, and was quickly tapped for becoming an officer. After training, he was assigned to work as liaison to the French and Russian armies in connection with the Army's military intelligenceunit, and where he heard first-hand stories of life in Stalin's USSR.
After the war, Coffin moved to
New Haven, Connecticutwhere his mother and brother were, and returned to Yale, where he would later become President of the Yale Glee Club. Coffin had been a friend of George H. W. Bushsince his youth, as they both attended Phillips Academy (1942), and he brought Coffin into the exclusive Skull and Bonessecret society at the university in Coffin's senior year.
Upon graduating in 1949, Coffin entered the Union Theological Seminary, where he remained for a year, until the outbreak of the
Korean Warreignited his interest in fighting against communism. He joined the CIA as a case officer in 1950 (his brother-in-law Frank Lindsayhad been head of the OSS's Office of Policy Coordination which was one of the predecessors of the CIA) spending three years in West Germanyrecruiting anti-Soviet Russian refugees and training them how to undermine Stalin's regime.
He grew increasingly disillusioned with the role of the CIA and the United States due to events including the CIA's involvement in overthrowing Prime Minister
Mohammed Mossadeghof Iranin 1953, followed by the CIA's orchestration of the coup that removed President Jacobo Arbenzin Guatemalain 1954.
The ministry and political activism
After leaving the CIA, he enrolled at
Yale Divinity Schooland earned his Bachelor of Divinity degree in 1956, the same year he was ordained a Presbyterian minister. This same year he married Eva Rubinstein, the daughter of pianist Arthur Rubinstein, and became chaplain at Williams College. Soon, he accepted the position as Chaplain of Yale University, where he remained from 1958 until 1975.
With his CIA background, he was terribly dismayed when he learned in 1964 of the history of French and U.S. involvement in
South Vietnamand how it differed from what the U.S government public position was, especially regarding broken promises to hold a referendum in the south about unification with North Vietnam. He was in early opposition to the Vietnam Warand became famous for his anti-war activities and his civil rights activism. He had a prominent role in the freedom rides, challenging segregation and the oppression of black people. As chaplain at Yale in the early 1960s, Coffin organized busloads of Freedom Riders to challenge segregation laws in the South.
He was jailed many times, but his first conviction was overturned by the Supreme Court. In 1962, he joined , an organization he would later lead.
Coffin was approached by
Sargent Shriverin 1961 to run the first training programs for the Peace Corps. Coffin took up the task and took a temporary leave from Yale, working to develop a rigorous training program modeled on Outward Boundand supervising the building of a training camp in Puerto Rico.
Coffin used his pulpits as a platform for like-minded crusaders, hosting the Rev.
Martin Luther King Jr., South African Archbishop Desmond Tutuand Nelson Mandela, among others. Fellow Yale graduate Garry Trudeauhas immortalized Coffin (combined with Coffin's protege Rev. Scotty McLennan) as "the Rev. Scot Sloan" in the " Doonesbury" comic strip. During the Vietnam War years, he and his friend Howard Zinnoften spoke from the same anti-war platform. An inspiring speaker, Coffin was known for optimism and humor: "Remember, young people, even if you win the rat race, you're still a rat."
By 1967, Coffin increasingly concentrated on preaching civil disobedience and supported the young men who turned in their draft cards. He was one af several well-known intellectuals who signed an open letter entitled
"A Call to Resist Illegitimate authority", which was printed in several newspapers in October 1967. That same month, he raised the possibility of declaring Battell Chapel at Yale a sanctuary for resisters, or possibly as the site of a large demonstration of civil disobedience. School administration barred the use of the church as a sanctuary. Coffin later wrote, "I accused them of behaving more like 'true Blues than true Christians'. They squirmed but weren't about to change their minds.... I realized I was licked."
And so on
January 5, 1968, Coffin, Dr. Benjamin Spock(the pediatrician and baby book author who was also a Phillips Academy alumnus), Marcus Raskin, Michael Ferber, and Mitchell Goodman(all signers of "A Call to Resist Illegitimate Authority") were indicted by a Federal grand juryfor "conspiracy to counsel, aid and abet draft resistance." All but Raskin were convicted that June, but in 1970 an appeals court overturned the verdict.
Coffin remained chaplain of Yale until December 1975. In 1977, he became senior minister at the
Riverside Church—an interdenominational congregation affiliated with both the United Church of Christand American Baptist Churches, and one of the most prominent congregations in New York City. He was controversial, yet an inspirational leader at Riverside. He openly and vocally supported gay rightswhen many liberals still were uncomfortable with homosexuality. Some of the congregation's socially conservative members openly disagreed with his position on sexuality.
His progressive Christianity led
The Nationto call him "the true heir to Martin Luther King, Jr." after Coffin's death.
In 1979, Coffin was invited to attend a "Christmas party" by the terrorists holding American hostages at the US embassy in Tehran, Iran. He accepted the invitation and lectured the hostages against indulging in "self-pity".
Coffin started a strong
nuclear disarmamentprogram at Riverside, and hired Cora Weiss(a secular Jewhe had worked with during the Vietnam War and had traveled with to North Vietnam in 1972 to accompany three released U.S. prisoners of war) which was uncomfortable for some parishioners. Broadening his reach to an international audience, he met with numerous world leaders and traveled abroad. His visits included going to Iranto perform Christmasservices for hostages being held in the U.S. embassy during the Iran hostage crisisin 1979 and to Nicaraguato protest U.S. military intervention there.
In 1987, he resigned from Riverside Church to pursue disarmament activism full time, saying then that there was no issue more important for a man of faith. He became president of SANE/FREEZE [ merged with the
Nuclear Weapons Freeze Campaignin 1987 and was renamed SANE/FREEZE; it was renamed Peace Actionin 1993."] (now Peace Action), the largest peace and justice organization in the United States. He retired with the title president emeritus in the early 1990s, and then taught and lectured across the United States and overseas. Coffin also wrote several books. He cautioned that we are all living in "the shadow of Doomsday," and urged that people turn away from isolationism and become more globally aware. Shortly before his death, Coffin founded Faithful Security, a coalition for people of faith committed to working for a world free of nuclear weapons.
Coffin was married three times; his first wife, and mother of his children, was Eva Rubinstein, daughter of pianist
Arthur Rubinstein. The loss of their son Alexander in a car accident in 1983 inspired one of Coffin's most requested sermons. Coffin's daughter Amy lives in California, and his son David is a musician in Boston, Massachusetts.
Although he was given only six months to live in early 2004 due to a weakened heart, Coffin lived with his third wife Virginia Randolph Coffin in the small town of Strafford,
Vermont, a few houses away from his brother Ned, until his death nearly two years later at age 81.
Quotes by Coffin
*"Hope is a state of mind independent of the state of the world. If your heart's full of hope, you can be persistent when you can't be optimistic. You can keep the faith despite the evidence, knowing that only in so doing has the evidence any chance of changing. So while I'm not optimistic, I'm always very hopeful." Quoted in his NPR obituary
*"In our time all it takes for evil to flourish is for a few good men to be a little wrong and have a great deal of power, and for the vast majority of their fellow citizens to remain indifferent." — "In the Yale Alumni magazine in 1967"
*The U.S. government should have vowed "...to see justice done, but by the force of law only, never by the law of force." — "After September 11, 2001"
*"We yearned for a revolution of imagination and compassion that would oppose the very aggressiveness and antagonism that characterized the actions of both Nixon and the Weathermen. We were convinced nonviolence was more revolutionary than violence" — "referring to the organizers of the
Moratorium to End the War in Vietnam"
*"Without love violence will change the world; it will change it into a more violent one." — "June 1968"
*"It's too bad that one has to conceive of sports as being the only arena where risks are, [for] all of life is risk exercise. That's the only way to live more freely, and more interestingly."
*"The world is too dangerous for anything but truth and too small for anything but love."
*"What we and other nuclear powers are practicing is really nuclear apartheid. A handful of nations have arrogated to themselves the right to build, deploy, and threaten to use nuclear weapons while policing the rest of the world against their production. . . . Nuclear apartheid is utopian and arrogant. It is a recipe for proliferation, a policy of disaster."
*"Every nation makes decisions based on self-interest and defends them on the basis of morality." — "to the Yale Class of 1968 35th reunion, May 2003"
*"Even if you win the rat race, you're still a rat."
*"For Christians, the problem is not how to reconcile homosexuality with scriptural passages that condemn it, but how to reconcile the rejection and punishment of homosexuals with the love of Christ." - "An Open Letter from Rev. William Sloane Coffin to the National Conference of Catholic Bishops 2000"
*"By abolishing slavery and ordaining women, millions of Protestants have gone far beyond biblical literalism. It's time we did the same for homophobia."
*"Many of us are eager to respond to injustice, as long as we can do so without having to confront the causes of it. There's the great pitfall of charity. Handouts to needy individuals are genuine, necessary responses to injustice, but they do not necessarily face the reason for injustice. And that is why so many business and governmental leaders today are promoting charity; it is desperately needed in an economy whose prosperity is based on growing inequality. First these leaders proclaim themselves experts on matters economic, and prove it by taking the most out of the economy! Then they promote charity as if it were the work of the church, finally telling us troubled clergy to shut up and bless the economy as once we blessed the battleships." - "as quoted by Rev. Scotty McLennan"
*"To be avoided at all costs is the solace of opinion without the pain of thought."
*"I love the recklessness of faith. First you leap and then you grow wings" from "Credo" by William Sloane Coffin
*"Once to Every Man: A Memoir" (1977)
*"William Sloane Coffin, Jr.: A Holy Impatience" (2004) [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Guests_of_the_Ayatollah:_The_First_Battle_in_America%27s_War_with_Militant_Islam] "Guests of the Ayatollah" pages 274-275, Mark Bowden (2006)
*"Letters to a Young Doubter", Westminster John Knox Press, July 2005, ISBN 0-664-22929-8 [http://www.commondreams.org/headlines05/0318-02.htm (review and article from CommonDreams.org)]
*"Credo", Westminster John Knox Press, December 2003, ISBN 0-664-22707-4
*"The Heart Is a Little to the Left: Essays on Public Morality", Dartmouth College, 1st edition, October 1999, ISBN 0-87451-958-6
* "The Courage to Love," sermons, Harper & Row, c1982, ISBN 0-06-061508-7
* "Once to Every Man: A Memoir", autobiography, Athenaeum Press, 1977, ISBN 0-689-10811-7
*"William Sloane Coffin, Jr.: A Holy Impatience", by Warren Goldstein, Yale University Press, March 2004, ISBN 0-300-10221-6
*"The Trial of Dr. Spock, William Sloane Coffin, Michael Ferber, Mitchell Goodman, and Marcus Raskin," by
Jessica Mitford, New York, Knopf, 1969 ISBN 0-394-44952-5
* [http://www.yale.edu/divinity/video/coffin/coffin.htm A Politically Engaged Spirituality] Video and transcript of Coffin's April 2005 speech at Yale Divinity School
* [http://www.pbs.org/wnet/religionandethics/week752/profile.html Interview with William Sloane Coffin] from Religion & Ethics Newsweekly, August 2004
* [http://olddogdocumentaries.com/vid_wsc.html William Sloane Coffin: A Lover's Quarrel With America] Video interview from Old Dog Documentaries
* [http://www.30goodminutes.org/csec/sermon/coffin_3519.htm William Sloane Coffin - Not to Bring Peace, But a Sword] Sermon and interview.
* [http://www.yalealumnimagazine.com/issues/2004_03/coffin.html Profile of Coffin] from Yale Alumni Magazine, March 2004
* [http://mssa.library.yale.edu/findaids/stream.php?xmlfile=mssa.ms.1665.xml Personal papers archive] at Yale University
* [http://ecojustice.net/coffin/Coffin-Documents.htm Selected writings] (
* [http://www.peace-action.org/ Peace Action] (formerly SANE/Freeze, the merger of
SANEand the Nuclear Weapons Freeze Campaign)
* [http://www.faithfulsecurity.org/ Faithful Security]
* [http://www.nytimes.com/2006/04/13/us/13coffin.html Obituary] from the "
New York Times"
* [http://www.latimes.com/news/obituaries/la-me-coffin13apr13,0,6172195,full.story?coll=la-home-obituaries Obituary] from the "
Los Angeles Times"
* [http://www.boston.com/news/education/higher/articles/2006/04/12/former_yale_chaplain_william_sloane_coffin_dead_at_81?mode=PF Obituary] from the
* [http://news.ucc.org/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=526&Itemid=54 Remembrance] from the
United Church of Christ"(article and video)"
* [http://www.thenation.com/blogs/notion?bid=15&pid=77125 Remembrance] from "
* [http://www.yaledailynews.com/article.asp?AID=32673 Remembrance] by
William F. Buckley Jr.in the " Yale Daily News"
* [http://www.boston.com/news/globe/editorial_opinion/oped/articles/2006/04/15/the_legacy_of_william_sloane_coffin?mode=PF The Legacy of William Sloane Coffin] by Rev.
* [http://www.ecojustice.net/Coffin Tribute of Yale Class of 1968] to its "Permanent Chaplain "
* [http://www.commondreams.org/views06/0413-32.htm Obituary on Commondreams.org]
* [http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/gallery/2006/04/12/GA2006041202220_metaRefresher.htm?startat=1','cwgallery_win','toolbar=no,location=no,directories=no,status=no,menubar=no,scrollbars=no,resizable=no,copyhistory=no,width=730,height=670,left=0,top=0,screenX=0,screenY=0' Photo gallery of Coffin] from the "
Wikimedia Foundation. 2010.