Activist, chaplain Coffin dies at 81

The Rev. William Sloane Coffin, Jr. ’49 DIV ’56, a former Yale chaplain, CIA agent and celebrated lifelong activist, died Wednesday in his Vermont home at the age of 81.

Coffin, a liberal Presbyterian minster, dedicated his life to social justice causes ranging from civil rights to the Vietnam War and nuclear proliferation. He leaves behind a legacy of unabashed social activism and inspiring religious leadership that extended beyond his time at Yale — first as a student and later as University chaplain from 1958 to 1975. He had been suffering from heart problems for several years, culminating in a fatal heart attack Wednesday afternoon.

“He was a prophet to the people and a pastor to the nation,” said current University Chaplain Rev. Frederick Streets, a friend and admirer of Coffin. “His voice was part of a chorus of men and women who were singing for freedom and justice in America.”

Streets met Coffin in 1972 as a divinity student at Yale. He said the then-chaplain soon became one of his greatest mentors, and that Coffin immediately gained his admiration among students for his conviction to living his faith — “a love ethic rooted in Christianity” — as well for his tremendous skill and appeal as a preacher.

By that time, Coffin had already established himself not only as a powerful figure at Yale, but also as a prominent figure in the national civil rights and antiwar movements. He had been active in organizing freedom rides and other protests in segregated Southern states, and had both worked with and befriended several noted civil rights leaders, including Martin Luther King, Jr.

John Wilkinson ’60, former University secretary and a former dean of Ezra Stiles College who befriended Coffin when he was an undergraduate, said Coffin always challenged those around him to question their notions of morality and take action to defend their own interpretations of it. Soon after taking up the position of Stiles dean, Wilkinson met Coffin’s challenge by joining the chaplain on a civil rights trip to Baltimore to desegregate an amusement park. The group was arrested on July 4, 1963, for civil disobedience and held in jail for several days, an experience that Wilkinson said cemented his friendship with Coffin.

“Who could persuade a 25-year-old man like me who was getting married in a week to go down to Baltimore and go to jail? Bill could do it,” Wilkinson said.

The combination of his strong commitment to his moral ideals and his ability to challenge his listeners is what made Coffin’s impact so vast, Yale historian and professor emeritus Gaddis Smith said. Throughout his time at Yale, Smith said, Coffin reached out beyond his circle of friends to appeal to students and faculty of all backgrounds in his campaigns.

As chaplain, Coffin became known not only for his impressive Sunday sermons, but also for his role as a leader in campus activism. Wilkinson recalled many times when Coffin invited speakers of diverse religious beliefs to address social justice issues on campus and actively organized civil rights trips to the South and antiwar protests both at Yale and nationally.

Deputy Provost Charles Long, who became familiar with Coffin as a student in the 1960s, said he admired Coffin’s ability to balance activism with his role as a preacher.

Smith said Coffin’s time at Yale marked an era of transition for the University, a change facilitated by Kingman Brewster, who was president of the University throughout most of Coffin’s time as Yale’s chaplain. Though Coffin and Brewster did not always agree with one another, Brewster was generally supportive of Coffin’s goals.

“He played, along with a group of others, a role in transforming Yale from a bastion of smug conservative self-satisfaction into a place that became a place for cutting edge reform,” Wilkinson said. “He really was a source for moral change.”

One of the most significant disagreements between the two influential men arose in 1967, Smith said, when Coffin requested that Battell Chapel be used as a sanctuary to resistors of the Vietnam War draft. Brewster flatly refused, Smith said.

But Wilkinson also said that there was more to Coffin than his record of courageous civil disobedience.

“Bill would engage in public acts of disobedience, but the most important thing was that he interacted with people personally and persuaded them to follow up on their convictions,” Wilkinson said.

Coffin continued to act on his sense of conviction upon leaving Yale, Streets said. In 1975, when he became pastor of Riverside Church in New York, he began campaigning against nuclear proliferation. More recently, he worked with Streets to counter the growing prominence of the religious right relative to other U.S. religious institutions. To support the initiative, Coffin helped found the Clergy Leadership Network, a cross-denominational group of liberal and moderate religious leaders.

Smith said he hopes Coffin’s commitment to social justice will continue to inspire students at Yale, whom he said he sees as less active in social causes than students during Coffin’s term.

Doug Coffin ’76, a nephew of the late pastor, said he hopes contemporary students take advantage of the unique resources Yale offers to socially aware students. He said his uncle was a pioneer in offering support to the socially aware, and that he regrets not allowing himself to benefit from his presence. Doug Coffin said he eventually came to know his uncle better since his days at Yale, and that he has found him to be as caring as his reputation held.

“When I went to Yale, I felt a bit awkward being related to such a famous person, that I wanted separate myself and be my own person,” Doug Coffin said. “That was one of the stupidest things I ever did. I missed out on a lot of great sermons.”

Funeral arrangements were still pending as of Wednesday night.

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