William Sloane Coffin

From Academic Kids

Dr. William Sloane Coffin, Jr. (born June 1, 1924) is a radical clergyman and long time peace activist with international stature. He was Chaplain of Yale University, Senior Minister at Riverside Church in New York City, and President of SANE/Freeze, a nuclear disarmament group, and has prominently opposed U.S. policy from the Vietnam War to the Iraq War.



Coffin was an Army officer in World War II, acting as liaison to the French and Russian armies. Upon graduating from Yale University in 1949, Coffin entered the Union Theological Seminary, where he remained for a year, until the outbreak of the Korean War reignited his interest in fighting against communism. He joined the CIA in 1950, spending three years in Germany contacting anti-Soviet Russian refugees and training them how to undermine Stalin's regime. After leaving the CIA, he enrolled at Yale University Divinity School and earned his Bachelor of Divinity degree in 1956, the same year he was ordained a Presbyterian minister.

The Reverend Coffin became Chaplain of Yale University from 1958 until 1975. He was in early opposition to the Vietnam War and 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 protesters known as 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 SANE: The Committee for a SANE Nuclear Policy, an organization he would later lead.

Coffin used his pulpits as a platform for like-minded crusaders, hosting the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela, among others. Fellow Yale graduate Garry Trudeau has immortalized Coffin as "the Rev. Sloan" in the Doonesbury comic strip. During the anti-Vietnam War years, he and his friend Howard Zinn often spoke from the same anti-war platform. An inspiring speaker, Sloane is known for optimism and humor: "Remember, young people, even if you win the rat race, you're still a rat."

Coffin had been a friend of George H. W. Bush since his youth, as they both attended Phillips Academy (1942) and Yale together. It was Bush, in fact, who brought Coffin into the exclusive Skull and Bones secret society at the university.

By 1967, Coffin increasingly concentrated on preaching civil disobedience and supported the young men who turned in their draft cards. That October, 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 were indicted by a Federal grand jury for conspiracy to counsel, aid and abet draft resistance. All but Raskin were convicted that June, but in 1970 an appeals court overturned the verdict.

Riverside Church

Coffin remained chaplain of Yale until December 1975; in 1977 he became senior minister at the Riverside Church in New York City. Broadening his reach to a national audience, Coffin became a leading activist, meeting with world leaders and traveling abroad to countries including Iran and Nicaragua to protest U.S. policies.

Nuclear disarmament

In the 1980s he was a leader in the movement against nuclear weapons; 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 (now Peace Action), the largest peace and justice organization in the United States at the time. He retired as president emeritus in the early 1990s, and since then has taught and lectured across the United States and overseas. He has cautioned that we are all living in "the shadow of Doomsday," and has urged that people turn away from isolationism and become more globally aware.

Coffin has been married three times; he lost his son in a car accident. His daughter lives in California. He lives with his wife Randy in a small town in Strafford, Vermont.


Quotes by Coffin

(After 9/11): The U.S. government should have vowed "to see justice done, but by the force of law only, never by the law of force."

"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."


  • Credo Westminster John Knox Press, December 2003, ISBN 0664227074
  • The Heart Is a Little to the Left: Essays on Public Morality Dartmouth College, 1st edition, October 1999, ISBN 0874519586
  • Once to Every Man: A Memoir, 1977. Autobiography.
  • The Trial of Dr. Spock, William Sloane Coffin, Michael Ferber, Mitchell Goodman, and Marcus Raskin, by Jessica Mitford, New York, Knopf, 1969.

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