William Sloane Coffin
Clergyman, Social Activist : 1924-2006
For more than forty years, William Sloane Coffin spoke with prophetic zeal on matters of war and peace, social justice and religious faith.
His early years—birth in New York City, later childhood in Carmel, California, musical studies in Paris and New England preparatory schools—suggest a world of almost limitless opportunity. Wartime enlistment in the army and four years of active duty suggest his readiness to engage with history in the making.
After the war, he earned a degree at Yale, enrolled in theological seminary and then worked for three years in the Central Intelligence Agency. Coffin returned to theology in 1953, earning his Bachelor of Divinity from Yale. He was ordained a Presbyterian minister and became a chaplain, attaining national prominence during his seventeen years as chaplain at Yale. In 1977, he became senior minister of Riverside Church in New York City. Ten years later he resigned in order to lead SANE/FREEZE (later renamed Peace Action). At the end of his life, he lived in Vermont where he completed a book of reflections on his faith, Credo (2003).
Coffin’s immersion in the controversial moral issues of his generation began in 1960 with international relief work; the following year he helped train the first group of Peace Corps volunteers in Puerto Rico. Civil Rights dominated the early 1960’s, and Coffin was one of the “Freedom Riders” who challenged segregation laws by riding interstate buses in the South. He was arrested on several occasions. Like his fellow clergyman, Martin Luther King, Jr., Coffin turned his attention in the mid-60s to the escalating U.S. military involvement in Vietnam which he actively protested. He co-founded the Americans for Re-appraisal of Far Eastern Policy and joined other religious leaders in forming the National Emergency Committee of Clergy Concerned About Vietnam. With Dr. Benjamin Spock and others, he was charged and convicted with conspiracy to aid draft resisters, a verdict overturned on appeal in 1970. Coffin’s memoir, Once to Every Man (1977), details this period of civil rights advocacy and peace activism.
Coffin’s commitment to humanity sprang from his religious faith, and the core of his faith is love: “To show compassion for an individual without showing concern for the structures of society that make him an object of compassion is to be sentimental rather than loving.”