- Presbyterian minister
- Chaplain of Yale University
- Anti-war activist who traveled to Hanoi during the Vietnam War
William Sloane Coffin, Jr. was a Presbyterian minister, an anti-war activist, and the onetime President of SANE/FREEZE: Campaign for Global Security, which sought “the abolition of nuclear weapons” and the establishment of a socialist “peace-oriented economy.”
Coffin was born into an affluent New York City family on June 1, 1924. His grandfather was co-owner of the W. & J. Sloane Company, a prominent furniture store that catered to New York’s elite, and his uncle was Henry Sloane Coffin, a renowned Presbyterian minister and President of the Union Theological Seminary in Manhattan. Coffin’s parents were William Sloane Coffin, Sr., President of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and Catherine Butterfield, who had spent time in France providing aid to soldiers during the First World War.
A talented pianist, William Sloane Coffin in 1942 registered for classes at Yale University’s school of music. The intercession of World War II, however, put his higher education on hold, and the following year he enlisted in the U.S. Army, where he served as a liaison to the French and Russian forces as part of the Army’s military intelligence unit.
After the war, Coffin returned to Yale and resumed his passion for music, becoming president of the Yale Glee Club.
After graduating from Yale in 1949, Coffin joined the CIA as a case officer and was stationed in West Germany to assist in the recruitment of anti-Soviet Russians seeking to help destabilize the Communist regime of Joseph Stalin.
Coffin ultimately grew disillusioned with the CIA after it supported the 1953 overthrow of the Communist-leaning Prime Minister of Iran, Mohammed Mossadegh.
In the mid-1950s, Coffin returned to Connecticut and enrolled in the Yale Divinity School, where he earned his Bachelor of Divinity degree, and was ordained as a Presbyterian minister in 1956. That same year, he married his first wife, Eva Rubinstein, daughter of the acclaimed pianist Arthur Rubinstein. (In 1968 Coffin would separate from Eva, and he would eventually marry two more times.)
In 1958 Coffin accepted an appointment as Chaplain of Yale University, a position he would hold until 1975.
In the 1960s Coffin emerged as a vocal critic of the segregation statutes of the American South. He organized busloads of Freedom Riders to draw public attention to state and local Jim Crow laws.
Coffin also advocated mass civil disobedience in protest to the Vietnam War, promoting the burning of draft cards. He was a signatory of an open letter entitled “A Call to Resist Illegitimate authority,” which was composed by the anti-Vietnam War group RESIST. And he supported U.S. servicemen who refused “to obey specific illegal and immoral orders” and who aimed to educate others about “the murderous and barbarous nature of the war.”
In 1967 Coffin signed the call for a National Conference on New Politics, a united third-party movement controlled chiefly by the Communist Party USA.
On January 5, 1968, Coffin was indicted by a federal grand jury for “conspiracy to counsel, aid and abet draft resistance.” In 1970 the verdict was overturned by an appeals court.
Also in 1970, Coffin was a prominent figure in the protests opposing the New Haven, Connecticut torture/murder trials of several Black Panthers. Said Coffin in a sermon: “I am prepared as an anguished citizen to confess my conviction that it might be legally right but morally wrong for this trial to go forward.”
In 1972 Coffin traveled to Hanoi as part of a major North Vietnamese propaganda operation. Ostensibly his mission was to “accept” the release of three America POWs.
By this time, Coffin had become a cultural icon for radical politics and religious leftism. Cartoonist and satirist Gary Trudeau immortalized him as “the Rev. Scott Sloan” in his Doonesbury comic strip. Coffin’s fame also earned him opportunities to share the pulpit with such notables as Nelson Mandela, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., and Desmond Tutu.
In the late 1970s, Coffin was involved with Friendshipment, a project (sponsored by Cora Weiss) for reparations to Vietnam Communists. In 1977 this organization cooperated with the Church World Service to organize a large wheat shipment.
In 1977 Coffin became senior minister of the interdenominational Riverside Church in Manhattan.
In 1978 Coffin invited Cora Weiss to run Riverside’s Disarmament Program, which, in the name of “peace,” sought to help consolidate Soviet nuclear superiority in Europe. During her decade-long tenure at Riverside, which was situated across the street from the headquarters of the National Council of Churches, Weiss regularly received Russian KGB agents, Sandinista friends, and Cuban intelligence agents.
In 1979 Coffin accepted the invitation of the Iranian government to celebrate Christmas with the 52 American diplomats who had been taken as hostages seven weeks earlier by a group of fanatical Islamic students in Teheran.
In the 1980s Coffin became increasingly mobilized against nuclear weaponry, initiating his own disarmament program within the confines of Riverside Church.
In 1987 Coffin resigned from his position at Riverside and became President of the SANE/FREEZE campaign, whose ultimate goal was the total dismantling of the U.S. military structure. SANE/FREEZE later changed its name to Peace Action Network, which is currently America’s largest anti-nuclear, anti-war organization.
In his later years, Coffin expanded his activist pursuits into the realm of environmentalism. He was a signatory to a 2003 letter titled “Global Warming: An Interfaith Call for Repentance and Renewal,” which specifically blamed the U.S. for the proliferation of global greenhouse emissions, and advocated the healing of “earth’s wounds” by means of “a sustainable economy.” Other signatories included Cora Weiss, Robert Edgar, and Ingrid Mattson.
Subscribing to the law-enforcement model of dealing with terrorism, Coffin held that the proper response to terror attacks is to apprehend and try the perpetrators in a court of law. After President Bush vowed to bring to justice those responsible for the 9/11 al Qaeda attacks against America, Coffin said, “The U.S. government should have vowed to see justice done, but by the force of law only, never by the law of force.”
Coffin authored a number of books, including: Once To Every Man: An Autobiography (1977); The Courage to Love (1982); Living the Truth in a World of Illusions (1985); The Heart Is a Little to the Left (1999); and Credo (2003). He credited the playwright Arthur Miller, with whom he had lived for six months in 1975, for having helped him develop and hone his writing skills.
Coffin died of congestive heart failure on April 12, 2006.