Coffin, William Sloane, Jr.

Coffin, William Sloane, Jr.,

1924–2006, American Protestant social activist, b. New York City, nephew of Henry Sloane CoffinCoffin, Henry Sloane,
1877–1954, American Presbyterian clergyman, b. New York City. He was pastor of the Madison Ave. Presbyterian Church in New York City (1905–26), lecturer (1904–9), associate professor of pastoral theology (1909–26), and president
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. Strongly influenced by the social philosophy of Reinhold NiebuhrNiebuhr, Reinhold
, 1892–1971, American religious and social thinker, b. Wright City, Mo. A graduate of Yale Divinity School, he served (1915–28) as pastor of Bethel Evangelical Church in Detroit, where he became deeply interested in social problems.
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, Coffin became a leader in the civil-rights and peace movements of the 1960s and 1970s when he was chaplain at his alma mater, Yale. As minister (1977–87) of Riverside Church in New York City he was involved with such social concerns as nuclear disarmament and the plight of war refugees. Subsequently remaining active in the international peace and disarmament movement, he continued to write, teach, and lecture; from 1987 to 1990 he headed SANE/Freeze. Among his books is A Passion for the Possible (1993).


See his memoir (1977); biography by W. Goldstein (2004).

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Coffin, William Sloane, Jr.

(1924–  ) Protestant clergyman, social activist; born in New York City. He interrupted his studies at Yale to serve the U.S. Army as a liaison officer with the French and Russians (1943–47), then took his B.A. from Yale in 1949. He attended the Union Theological Seminary (New York City) (1949–50), then served abroad with the Central Intelligence Agency as a specialist on Russian affairs (1950–53). Ordained as a Presbyterian minister in 1956, he served as a chaplain at Phillips Andover Academy and Williams College before becoming the youngest chaplain in the history of Yale (1958–75). During his tenure there, he was one of 11 Freedom Riders to Montgomery, Ala. (1961), and was arrested on several occasions during the civil rights struggles of the 1960s. He was one of five individuals (Dr. Benjamin Spock was another) who were sued by the U.S. Department of Justice for conspiring to counsel draft resistance during the war in Vietnam (1968); the charges were dropped in 1970. (Yale graduate Garry Trudeau would lightly satirize him in his "Doonesbury" comic strip as the hip minister, "Rev. Scot Sloan.") He left Yale and became the senior minister at the Riverside Church in New York City (1977–87), where his social activism—offering sanctuary to Central American refugees and providing shelter to homeless people—again made him controversial. He resigned from the Riverside pastorate to become director of the SANE/FREEZE Campaign for Global Security (1988). The author of such works as Civil Disobedience: Aid or Hindrance to Justice? (with Morris L. Leibman, 1972), he described himself as a man having "a lover's quarrel with the United States."
The Cambridge Dictionary of American Biography, by John S. Bowman. Copyright © Cambridge University Press 1995. Reproduced with permission.