Service for William Sloane Coffin to be Held at Yale

William Sloane Coffin Jr.

A public memorial service for the late Rev. William Sloane Coffin Jr. (1924–2006) will be held at Yale’s Battell Chapel, corner of Elm and College streets, on May 27 at 2 p.m.

Coffin died on April 12 at his home in Strafford, Vermont, at the age of 81.

Coffin was chaplain at Yale from 1958 until 1975. An icon of political engagement, Coffin galvanized a generation of idealistic youth both with the words he preached from the pulpit and his deeds as a civil rights and peace activist.

He was an accomplished musician who as a teenager studied piano with Nadia Boulanger in Paris and later pursued his musical studies at the Yale School of Music as an undergraduate. After serving in army intelligence—and learning Russian—during World War II, Coffin returned to Yale to complete his bachelor’s degree. Following his graduation in 1949, and a brief stint at Union Theological Seminary, he worked for the CIA in Germany recruiting anti-Soviet Russian refugees.

William Sloane Coffin Jr.
(pictured left)

In 1953, he returned to Yale as a divinity student, receiving his degree and becoming an ordained Presbyterian minister in 1956.

The teaching of renowned theologian Reinhold Niebuhr of Union Theological Seminary was a particularly influential force in Coffin’s spiritual development. Niebuhr advocated political activism as a necessary expression of faith, a creed that was to become the guiding principle of Coffin’s public life.

It was during Coffin’s tenure as Yale’s chaplain that he gained celebrity as a leading proponent of civil rights in America and an early opponent of the war in Vietnam. He was among the first white northerners to join the convoy of Freedom Riders who challenged segregation in the South, and he enjoined students to enlist in the effort.

As the war in Vietnam escalated, Coffin sought to offer Battell Chapel as a sanctuary for draft resisters and preached a gospel of civil disobedience to a flock that far exceeded his congregation at Yale. He was arrested on several occasions for participating in civil rights and peace demonstrations. In 1968 he and four fellow activists, including renowned pediatrician Benjamin Spock, were convicted in federal court of conspiracy to aid resistance to the draft. They were later acquitted.

Garry Trudeau, an undergraduate during his chaplaincy, partly based the Doonesbury character “Rev. Sloan” on Coffin.

William Sloane Coffin Jr.
(pictured far right)

In the decade he spent as minister of Riverside Church in New York, from 1977 to 1987, he was no less engaged in causes that ranged from combating poverty and homelessness and championing the rights of homosexuals to protecting the environment and ending the nuclear arms race. Coffin retired from Riverside to head SANE/Freeze, an organization that was known as “SANE: The Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy,” when he joined it in 1962 and is now called Peace Action.

In his retirement, the former chaplain lectured widely and wrote several books, “The Courage to Love,” “A Passion for the Possible” and “Credo” among them. He continued to speak out against the war in Iraq.

In 2002, Yale awarded Coffin an honorary doctorate of divinity, and last year the Yale Divinity School hosted a two-day celebration of his life and work.

Following the May 27 service, a reception will be held at a location to be determined.

The Coffin family wishes all gifts in memory of Rev. Coffin be given to The William Sloane Coffin Jr. Scholarship Fund. Yale Divinity School established the scholarship in honor of Coffin to benefit students who exemplify the attributes of Coffin’s ministry.

Media Contact

Dorie Baker: dorie.baker@yale.edu, 203-432-1345