The Rev. William Sloane Coffin Jr., a Presbyterian minister and social activist who was an outspoken leader of the civil rights and antiwar movements of the 1960s and ‘70s, died Wednesday at his home in Strafford, Vt. He was 81.
The cause of death was not immediately known, his daughter, Amy Coffin, told The Times. He had suffered congestive heart failure, she said.
“My father was outside in the backyard with us, talking and laughing. Then he was gone,” she said.
In recent years Coffin was stricken by several strokes but continued to participate from his wheelchair in public protest demonstrations, including one in the winter of 2003 before the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.
Coffin emerged as a national figure soon after he was named chaplain at Yale University in 1958 and became an early supporter of desegregation. For the next 30 years he fought for progressive causes, first from Yale’s Battell Chapel, later as senior pastor of the Riverside Church in New York City and then as head of SANE/freeze, a group that was opposed to the nuclear-arms movement.
“Bill was passionate, vocal and risk-taking about the enduring values, peace and justice,” said Marian Wright Edelman, founder and president of the Children’s Defense Fund, who lived with Coffin and his family when she was a student at Yale Law School.
From the time she met him in the early ‘60s, Edelman said, Coffin was on the leading edge of key justice issues.
“In that era, Yale chaplains didn’t go South to get arrested,” she said.
“Bill was a fearless prophet,” said the Rev. George Regas, rector emeritus of All Saints Church in Pasadena, who first worked closely with Coffin in the Vietnam War era when they were both antiwar activists.
“Bill never gave up on challenging the power structures on the big issues,” Regas said. “No one intimidated him.”
Coffin was one of the first white Northerners in 1961 to join the Freedom Riders, who traveled through the South on interstate buses, monitoring enforcement of civil rights laws. He was arrested in Alabama during a protest demonstration against segregated bus stations, and again in Maryland and Florida when he demonstrated against public facilities that practiced discrimination against blacks.
“You’ve got to be rugged and determined and expect to take hard knocks if you’re going to do a Christian’s work in the world,” he told a reporter in an interview after his first several arrests.
Journalists covering the contentious field of social justice through the ‘60s and ‘70s began to seek out Coffin on the Yale campus to take a closer look at the Ivy League minister who peeled through his neighborhood on a motorcycle and had a knack for creating controversy.
“Walking through the streets of New Haven with William Sloane Coffin Jr. is like being in a movie about a small-town folk hero,” Jessica Mitford wrote, in one of several feature articles she wrote about Coffin’s antiwar activities in 1967. “People come up to shake his hand, students run after him with urgent questions, old folks stop their cars to call out, ‘Good luck, Bill!’ and ‘Howdy, Reverend.’ ”
Norman Mailer described Coffin’s athletic build, his 6-foot-plus frame and broad features, in his 1968 book, “Armies of the Night, History as a Novel, The Novel as History.” Despite an education that took him from Deerfield to Exeter Academy to Yale University, Union Theological Seminary and Yale Divinity School, Coffin’s voice “sounded close to the savvy self-educated tones of a labor union organizer,” Mailer wrote.
In public lectures and sermons, however, he was eloquent and provocative. “War is a coward’s escape from the problems of peace,” he told a Yale audience in 2003.
When a church group asked him about his frequent run-ins with the law, he said, “I can only reassure you that I don’t like to go around picking fights. Some fights pick you.”
Not everyone would agree with that. Once in a bar in Austin, Texas, Coffin pulled two brawlers apart. One of them had a broken beer bottle in his hand. The other had a knife.
“Bill ran between them and stuck his arms out straight. They could have cut him to ribbons,” recalled longtime friend John Silber, who was on the Yale faculty with Coffin. “He looked at them with a fierce, determined look, eyes blazing like Moses coming down from the mountain,” Silber said in a 2004 interview with The Times.
“Bill was quite physical,” Silber recalled. “Thoughtful and physical both.”
For his ruggedly handsome, engagingly flawed, humane if not always lawful behavior, he inspired the Doonesbury comic strip character, the Rev. Scot Sloan. In the late 1960s, after the most heated battles of the desegregation movement had passed, U.S. involvement in Vietnam escalated and Coffin took on the war as his issue. While his colleagues at Yale had supported him through the civil rights era, his popularity there waned during the Vietnam conflict.
In 1967 he wanted to give sanctuary to draft dodgers inside the Yale chapel, but school administrators were against it. He then helped organize an antiwar rally with pediatrician Benjamin Spock in Boston, where 944 men turned in their draft cards. He and Spock were arrested for conspiracy and found guilty of counseling draft evasion. The charges against Coffin were later dropped.
Then-Yale President Kingman Brewster, was cool toward these tactics, which he considered to be “the chaplain’s efforts to devise confrontations and sanctuaries in order to get spot news coverage.”
Coffin resigned from Yale in 1976 and spent the following year writing his autobiography, “Once to Every Man.” In it he told of his early life as the second of three children born into a wealthy New York family. His father, William Coffin Sr., was a vice president of the W. & J. Sloane furniture store, a family business. Coffin’s mother, Catherine, was a Sloane.
His father died of a heart attack when Coffin was 9. His mother moved the family to Carmel, Calif., and soon afterward to Paris so that William could study piano with a legendary teacher, Nadia Boulanger, whose list of students included Igor Stravinsky and Elliott Carter. Coffin was 14 at the time and showed great promise as a concert pianist.
Some years later, when he had given up his dream of a music career, he married Eva Rubenstein, the daughter of the virtuoso pianist Arthur Rubenstein.
He was famously well-connected to the rich and powerful, whose names he dropped with ease. While he sometimes gave the impression that he lived a charmed life, it wasn’t entirely so.
At the start of World War II, Coffin left his undergraduate studies at Yale to join the Army. He later said that military service forged his social conscience. He was a captain in Army intelligence, learned to speak Russian and to hate communism.
His most affecting encounter with what he considered scalding injustice came at the end of the war when he was asked to help repatriate some 2,000 Russian prisoners.
They had fought with the Germans against their home country and were being sent back to face prison and, most likely, death. Coffin knew it but never spoke in their defense and did not warn them.
For the rest of his life he regretted his decision and swore to himself that he would never repeat the mistake. “It made it easier for me to commit civil disobedience in 1967, in opposition to the war in Vietnam,” he later told the Chicago Tribune.
After completing his military service Coffin returned to Yale in 1947 and finished his undergraduate degree. He then entered Union Theological Seminary in New York City, where he hoped to immerse himself in philosophy and theology, trying to understand why people make certain choices. War had shown him both heroism and treachery, he wrote in his memoir. He could not reconcile the two.
The existentialists, particularly Albert Camus, spurred an answer. If an existentialist is resigned to a world of ambiguity and injustice, Coffin chose a different tack. “I took a leap into action.”
He dropped out of school and joined the CIA, a result of his lingering concerns about the brutality of Josef Stalin’s regime in the Soviet Union. He worked in a top-secret program to train Russians as spies for the U.S. But the program was “a spectacular failure,” he later said. Nearly all of the agents were discovered and many of them were executed. Coffin’s faith in the military solution to conflict was at an all-time low.
He went back to school, this time to Yale Divinity School, graduated in 1956 and was ordained a Presbyterian minister.
One theology professor, Reinhold Niebuhr, had a strong influence on him. Niebuhr taught Christianity in relation to modern politics. Coffin took that to mean that as a minister he had a responsibility to show moral leadership.
He wrote in his memoir that he decided to be a clergyman because “ministers who had the courage of their convictions and knew what they were about had greater freedom to say and do what they wanted than good people in any other profession.”
His first assignment after graduation was as chaplain at Phillips Andover Academy in Massachusetts in 1956. It was there that he found his strength as a preacher, stirring up the students to put their energies into social causes.
The following year he was invited to be chaplain of Williams College in southwest Massachusetts. “The bland leading the bland,” he said of campus life, in an interview with his biographer, Warren Goldstein, for the 2004 book, “William Sloane Coffin Jr., A Holy Impatience.”
On the remote New England campus, Coffin began leading discussions about the desegregation work in the South led by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. He published his own thoughts on the subject in the alumni magazine in 1957.
“When the Bible says ‘love your neighbor’ it never assumes the neighbor is lovable; in fact quite the opposite,” Coffin wrote. " ... hence, in the Old Testament the injunction to love the stranger within the gates, and in the New Testament the injunction to love one’s enemies.”
A group of dissenting students exploded cherry bombs in his backyard and broke some windows in his house. The incident attracted wider attention to Coffin as a social activist and a powerful voice of conscience. The students were expelled.
In February 1958, he accepted the offer to be Yale University’s chaplain “with indecent haste,” he told his biographer. Through his years at the school he held the public spotlight. Some faculty and board members didn’t want the kind of attention he attracted.
“Kingman Brewster caught hell from the alumnae for appointing Bill,” Silber recalled. One of them, a Southern lawyer, was once asked by Brewster to get Coffin out of jail after he had been arrested. “The lawyer said, ‘I’d love to see that S.O.B. stay in jail.’ ”
Increasingly, Coffin saw his role as a minister in terms of social and political causes. Referring to peace as “never the absence of tension but the presence of justice,” he helped organize Clergy Concerned About Vietnam before he stepped down from the pulpit at Yale.
He took time off to write his autobiography but not much time. In 1977 Coffin was named senior minister at the Riverside Church in New York City. Two years later he was among three U.S. clergy allowed to conduct Christmas services for 53 American hostages being held by Islamic militants in Iran.
Soon after that a men’s group at the Riverside Church called for Coffin’s resignation. He responded by calling for a meeting of church leaders to discuss the issues. At the next Sunday service, in a show of support a large number of congregation members gave him a standing ovation.
It never got easier for him at Riverside. His critics wanted him to pay more attention to administration, less to national politics. By 1985 the church was known for its vigorous disarmament program and its policy as a “sanctuary church” that offered housing for refugees from civil wars in Central America.
When he left that congregation in 1987 at age 63 Coffin said he had time for “one more biggie,” social justice campaign before he retired. He was named president of “SANE/freeze,” a group that worked for a “sane” nuclear weapons policy and a freeze on arms buildup.
A few years later, when weapons buildup in Russia had been slowed under President Mikhail Gorbachev and the anti-nuclear movement had dissipated in the U.S., Coffin retired to Strafford, Vt.
He had written several books about his experiences (“Once to Every Man,” “Living in the World of Illusions: A Passion for the Possible” and “The Heart Is a Little to the Left” among them).
His marriage to Eva Rubenstein had ended in divorce in 1968, after the couple raised their children.
A second marriage, to Harriet Gibney, had also ended in divorce. Coffin married a third time. His wife, Randy, was with him until he died.
In addition to his wife and daughter, Amy, he is survived by his brother, Ned, his sister Margot Lindsay, son David Coffin, and stepchildren Wil and Jessica Tidman, several grandchildren and step-grandchildren. Another son, Alex, died young.
In retirement, he added gay rights to his activist concerns. Traveling the Eastern Seaboard he spoke at Christian seminaries about the role the church should play in supporting equal rights for gays.
He wrote several more books, including in 2005 “Letters to a Young Doubter,” which offered spiritual advice to the young. Concerned that they might be motivated by money, Coffin suggested another view. “There are two ways of getting rich,” he wrote. “One is to have lots of money, the other is to have few needs.”
He remained an outspoken critic of U.S. involvement in Iraq. “I would not say I am optimistic,” he told The Times in 2005. “I am hoping -- hope being a matter of the soul, not of the circumstances surrounding your life.” With more arrests for civil disobedience behind him than he could remember, at 77 Coffin told the New York Times, “I’ve been flunking retirement.”
In that case, why did he banish himself to rural Vermont?
“Nature gets more interesting as you’re about to join it,” he said.