William Sloan Coffin, Jr. was born in 1924 in New York City. After his father’s sudden death in 1933, the family relocated briefly to California and then Paris. He attended private school at Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass. He studied piano in Paris and briefly studied music at Yale before joining the Army during World War II. His proficiency with languages made him an ideal liaison officer with the French and Soviet armies. Upon his release from the army, he returned to Yale where he received a B.A. in government in 1949. When war broke out in Korea, he once again found a way to help the war effort, this time as a case officer in the C.I.A. working in West Germany. There, he recruited anti-Soviet Russians to undermine Stalin’s regime. After three years with the C.I.A., he returned to Yale once more, this time studying in the Divinity School. Upon his graduation in 1956, he was named acting chaplain at Phillips Academy. He spent a year as chaplain at Williams College and was then tapped as chaplain at Yale in 1958.
While a chaplain at Yale, he became increasingly involved in international relief work, beginning with Operation Crossroads Africa, where he lead a group of students into Guinea in the summer of 1960. The following year, he was appointed by the President’s Advisory Committee on the Peace Corp to help train the first wave of Peace Corp volunteers in Puerto Rico. That same year, he was involved in civil rights efforts, and was one of several Freedom Riders who were arrested protesting segregation laws in Montgomery, Alabama. He would be arrested two more times in conjunction with civil rights protests, once at an amusement park in Baltimore, Maryland and once more at a lunch counter in St. Augustine. Florida. In addition to causing waves in support of the civil rights efforts, he also became a strong protestor of the war in Vietnam. In 1965 he was one of the founders of a group called Clergy and Laity Concerned about Vietnam. He was one of several intellectuals to sign “A Call to Resist Illegitimate authority,” an open letter calling for change in the policy and direction of the Vietnam War. In the fall of 1967, he and Dr. Benjamin Spock led a demonstration in Boston where hundreds of young men who had been drafted handed over their draft cards to the Justice Department in an act of civil disobedience. He, Spock, and several others were subsequently charged with conspiracy to aid and abet draft resistance. Charges were later overturned on appeal. In 1972, he was one of several peace activists and clergy present in Hanoi during the release of three prisoners of wars. He remained chaplain at Yale until 1976.
Shortly thereafter he joined New York‘s interdenominational Riverside Church. There he continued with his ministry of social activism, speaking out on issues such as the environment, poverty, homelessness, international arms control, and gay right. In 1979, he was one of four prominent clergymen allowed to visit Americans taken hostage at the U.S. Embassy in Terhan. In 1987 he left Riverside Church to become president of SANE/FREEZE (now Peace Action), an international organization calling for global disarmament and ban on nuclear testing. He opposed the 1991 war on the Persian Gulf, and was likewise against the 2003 War on Iraq. He passed away in 2006 of congestive heart failure.
In the humanities lecture series of Southeastern Massachusetts Technological Institute, Reverend Coffin speaks about God, Man and Change.
Coffin, William Sloan Jr. The collected sermons of William Sloane Coffin : the Riverside years. Louisville, KY : Westminster John Knox Press, 2008.
---. Credo. Louisville, KY : Westminster John Knox Press, 2004.
---. Once to every man: a Memoire. New York : Atheneum, 1977.
Charney, Mark D. “Rev. William Sloane Coffin Dies at 81; Fought for Civil Rights and Against a War.” New York Times. 13 April 2006. 7 June 2011. http://www.nytimes.com/2006/04/13/us/13coffin.html?pagewanted=1
Reverend William Sloan Coffin, Jr. 7 June 2011. http://ecojustice.net/Coffin/Archive-Intro.htm
Schudel, Matt, and Adam Bernstein. “The Rev. William Sloane Coffin made his mark as activist, rebel.” Seattle Times. 16 April 2006. 7 June 2011. http://community.seattletimes.nwsource.com/archive/?date=20060416&slug=coffinobit16