Garry Trudeau, a Yale alumnus, is the creator of the cartoon “Doonesbury.” In his cartoon, Trudeau gently lampoons The Reverend William Sloane Coffin as the cartoon character of Rev, Scot Sloan. The Reverend William Sloane Coffin was a real person, a civil rights and antiwar campaigner who sought to inspire and encourage an idealistic and rebellious generation of college students in the 1960’s from his position as chaplain of Yale University.
Coffin could trace his lineage back to the pilgrims. His father served as president of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and his uncle, The Reverend Henry Sloane Coffin, was the president of Union Theological Seminary.
After his father’s death, his mother took him to Paris where young William studied music in hopes of becoming a classical concert pianist. His interest in music continued at Phillips Academy at Andover, from which he graduated in 1942 and for a year at Yale’s music school. Then he entered the Army and was sent to Europe as an infantry officer. Because of his knowledge of foreign languages, he was assigned first to the French Army and then to the Russian Army. Coffin left the Army as a Captain in 1947, returned to Yale and earned a degree in government.
He then spent three years with the Central Intelligence Agency. He was stationed in Germany. He said, “I was very anti-Soviet but very pro-Russian.” He returned to the states in 1953 to study for the ministry at Yale Divinity School. When he graduated in 1956 he returned to Andover as the school’s chaplain. That year he married Eva Anna Rubinstein, the daughter of the pianist, Arthur Rubinstein.
In 1958, Coffin was named to the chaplain’ post at Yale. The civil rights struggle was heating up and Coffin joined the freedom riders and was arrested in Montgomery, Alabama in 1961, and again 1963 while protesting near Baltimore and a third time in 1964, trying to integrate a lunch counter in St. Augustine, Florida. His arrests caused some stir at Yale, but Coffin said that he was only setting a moral example.
By 1967, the campus that had welcomed back their chaplain from Montgomery as a man of courage was convulsed with the passion surrounding the Vietnam War. On October 16, 1967, Dr. Coffin collected 185 draft cards and 175 classification notices from young men who were resisting the draft. These he left at the Justice Department in Washington, D.C. on October 20, a Friday when the nation’s capital was bracing for anti-war demonstrations. On January 5th, 1968, the Justice Department indicted Dr. Coffin, Dr. Spock and three others on charges that they had engaged in a conspiracy to counsel draft evasion. Coffin, Spock, and two of the three others were convicted but it was overturned on appeal. The case left William Sloane Coffin a national figure, lionized by the left, vilified by the right, and puzzled over by his superiors at Yale. He remained chaplain at Yale until 1976 when he stepped down to work with world hunger and write his memoir. Dr. Coffin was appointed as the pastor to Riverside Church in New York City in 1978.
William Sloane Coffin was an ordained Presbyterian minister. Riverside Church in New York City had been built largely by funds from John D. Rockefeller, Jr. and as a non-denominational church. It had a history of supporting social agendas which coincided with Coffin’s social activism. He used his ministry to draw attention to the plight of the poor and downtrodden, and the irony is that he was preaching to the most prominent, talented, and prosperous parishioners.
Dr. Coffin’s activities slowed down considerably in the 1990’s and in 1999 he suffered a stroke. In 2005 he passed on to larger life. One final anecdote is told about what William Sloane Coffin said to a Yale freshman in 1964. The freshman was George W Bush and his father had just lost a Senate race to Senator Ralph Yarborough. Coffin told the young man that the better man had won.
There is little doubt but that William Sloane Coffin was an iconoclast
but he was interesting company. I first met him at Fort Wadsworth, which is where the Army Chaplains’ School was located in 1978. I had
been in my senior year at Virginia Theological Seminary and was a Captain in the Marine Corps reserve when the anti-war protest had occurred at the Pentagon in October, 1967. I told him that I opposed his views on Vietnam although we agreed that it had been the wrong war and mismanaged badly. In 1984 the Army Chaplains’ School had been relocated to Fort Monmouth, New Jersey, and I attended a course there where I took an elective in homiletics (preaching). I spent a day with William Sloane Coffin at Riverside Church informally discussing the art of preaching. He was a persuasive mentor, a bright theologian, who passionately believed in the causes that he supported. We were usually not always in agreement but then that was a time when conversations were not so polarized.