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William Sloane Coffin, Jr. papers

Call Number: MS 1665

Scope and Contents

The papers document the career of William Sloane Coffin, Jr., best known as chaplain of Yale University, as senior minister of Riverside Church, and as a political activist. The collection consists of correspondence, topical files, writings, personal papers, audio recordings, videotapes, and other materials created and collected by Coffin. The collection includes ample documentation of the role Coffin played in social and political movements including civil rights, Vietnam War protests, amnesty for draft resisters, disarmament, and international relief work. The following specific groups and organizations are particularly well represented: Operation Crossroads Africa, Peace Corps, Americans For Re-Appraisal of Far Eastern Policy, and Clergy and Laity Concerned about Vietnam. The papers include many other files related to Coffin's involvement in Vietnam War protest and civil rights, particularly his organizing of northern students. Materials relating to Coffin's ministry as chaplain of Yale and as senior minister of Riverside Church, specifically many of his sermons, are also included. Speeches and other writings comprise another significant part of the collection and provide researchers with insight into Coffin's views on a variety of social, political, and religious themes. The collection also includes a small amount of personal and family papers.


  • 1916-2006


Conditions Governing Access

Original audiovisual materials, as well as preservation and duplicating masters, may not be played. Researchers must consult use copies, or if none exist must pay for a use copy, which is retained by the repository. Researchers wishing to obtain an additional copy for their personal use should consult Copying Services information on the Manuscripts and Archives web site. Copies of commercially produced audiovisual materials contained in this collection cannot be made for researcher use outside of the repository. As established by Yale Corporation regulations, box 38 of the original accession is restricted until January 1, 2044; box 3 of Accession 2007-M-068 is restricted until January 1, 2047; box 3 of Accession 2007-M-084 is restricted until January 1, 2051.

Conditions Governing Use

Copyright is retained by Randy Wilson Coffin for the unpublished works authored or otherwise produced by William Sloane Coffin. After the lifetime of Randy Wilson Coffin or June 10, 2035, whichever comes first, copyright passes to Yale University whether such works are at Yale or physically located elsewhere in the world. Copyright status for other collection materials is unknown. Transmission or reproduction of materials protected by U.S. Copyright Law (Title 17, U.S.C.) beyond that allowed by fair use requires the written permission of the copyright owners. Works not in the public domain cannot be commercially exploited without permission of the copyright owners. Responsibility for any use rests exclusively with the user.

Immediate Source of Acquisition

Gift of William Sloane Coffin, Jr., 1994, 2000, 2004. Transferred from Battell Chapel, 2004. Gift of Michael Ferber, 2005. Transferred from the Chaplain's Office, 2007. Gift of Randy Wilson Coffin, 2009 and 2018. Transferred from Yale Divinity Library, 2013.


Arranged in five series and ten additions: I. Correspondence, 1940-1983. II. Subject Files, 1959-1987. III. Yale University Files, 1955-1977. IV. Writings, 1945-1984. V. Personal Papers and Photographs, 1938-1982.


92.77 Linear Feet (311 boxes)

Language of Materials


Catalog Record

A record for this collection is available in Orbis, the Yale University Library catalog

Persistent URL


The papers include correspondence, subject files, writings, clippings, audio and video recordings, and other materials that document the career of William Sloane Coffin, Jr. The collection includes documentation relating to the civil rights movement, Vietnam War protests, amnesty for war resisters, the Peace Corps, Operation Crossroads Africa, and Yale University during the time when Coffin served as chaplain of Yale University.

Biographical / Historical

William Sloane Coffin, Jr. was born June 1, 1924, in New York City. He attended Deerfield Academy and Phillips Academy Andover before beginning his studies at Yale University in 1942. After one year at Yale, Coffin joined the U.S. Army, in which he served until 1947, when he returned to Yale, graduating with a B.A. in 1949. He went on to study for a year at Union Theological Seminary before joining the Central Intelligence Agency in 1950. In 1953, Coffin began studies at the Yale Divinity School, which he completed in 1956, when he was ordained into the Presbyterian ministry. Coffin spent successive years as the chaplain of Phillips Academy and Williams College before returning to Yale to serve as chaplain from 1957 to 1975. While chaplain at Yale, Coffin became a public figure active in the civil rights movement and protests of U.S. military actions in Vietnam. Coffin served as senior minister of Riverside Church in New York City from 1977 to 1987, when he became president of SANE/FREEZE. Coffin retired to Vermont in the mid-1990s, but remained active as a teacher, lecturer, and writer. He died on April 12, 2006, in Strafford, Vermont.

Biographical / Historical

William Sloane Coffin, Jr. was born on June 1, 1924, in New York City to William Sloane Coffin, Sr. and Catherine Butterfield Coffin. After the death of Coffin's father in 1933, the family moved to Carmel, California, where William attended public school until the ninth grade, when he attended Deerfield Academy in Deerfield, Massachusetts. He spent the following year in Paris with his family, studying to be a concert pianist with Nadia Boulanger. With the outbreak of World War II in 1939, the Coffins returned to the United States, and Coffin completed his high school education at Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, graduating in 1942.

Coffin attended Yale University School of Music for one year before enlisting in the United States Army. Coffin served in the army until 1947, rising to the rank of captain while working as a liaison with the French and Soviet armies. He returned to the university upon his discharge and received his B.A. in 1949. Coffin spent the next year studying at Union Theological Seminary, then joined the Central Intelligence Agency for a three year period. Coffin returned to Yale once again in 1953, this time attending the divinity school, from which he received a B.D. in 1956. That same year he was ordained as Presbyterian minister. Coffin then served as chaplain of Phillips Andover Academy and Williams College in successive one year periods, before returning to Yale in 1958 to succeed Sidney Lovett as university chaplain, a position he held until 1975.

While chaplain at Yale, Coffin emerged as a public figure involved in numerous prominent events, activities, and organizations. He became involved in international relief work, beginning with Operation Crossroads Africa. On behalf of that group, he led a group of students to Guinea in the summer of 1960. The following year, Coffin was appointed to the President's Advisory Committee on the Peace Corps and established its training program. He trained the first group of Peace Corps volunteers in Puerto Rico during the summer of 1961.

Coffin also became a prominent figure in the civil rights movement in the early 1960s. He was one of the "Freedom Riders," a group of black and white activists who rode interstate buses in the South to challenge segregation laws. Following one of these rides in May of 1961, he was arrested in Montgomery, Alabama, along with six other demonstrators, and charged with disturbing the peace. He was also arrested on several other occasions for direct actions against segregation laws. In addition to his direct participation in civil rights protests in the South, Coffin recruited and coordinated the work of many northern activists, particularly white students, and he was also a member of the Connecticut Advisory Board of the United States Commission on Civil Rights.

With the escalation of military actions in Vietnam, Coffin became heavily involved in the protests against the war. His activism began in 1965 with the formation of Americans For Re-appraisal of Far Eastern Policy, a group founded by Coffin and Allard Lowenstein that pushed for United States recognition of the People's Republic of China, the admission of China into the United Nations, and a cease-fire in Vietnam. Later that year, Coffin joined with a group of religious leaders, including John Bennett, Abraham Heschel, and Daniel Berrigan, to form the National Emergency Committee of Clergy Concerned About Vietnam. Coffin was named executive secretary of the organization. Initially, the group adopted a relatively moderate stance, recommending traditional political action and persuasion to affect change in U.S. policy toward Vietnam.

As the war in Vietnam escalated and lay people became interested in the work of the group, it changed its name to Clergy and Laity Concerned About Vietnam (CALCAV). CALCAV organized mobilizations, supported conscientious objectors and acts of civil disobedience, and urged members to offer draft resisters sanctuary in churches and synagogues. During this time, Coffin became a frequent speaker at anti-war rallies and a highly public figure. At an October 1967 protest in Boston, over 1000 draft resisters turned in their draft cards at a church service led by Coffin. Later that month, he and a number of other activists who had collected cards throughout the country, presented them to officials at the Department of Justice in Washington. As a result of these actions, Coffin was indicted along with Benjamin Spock, Marcus Raskin, Mitchell Goodman, and Michael Ferber on charges of conspiracy to aid draft resisters. They were convicted in 1968, but the charges were dropped in 1970 after the verdict was overturned on appeal. Coffin continued to protest against the war, and even traveled to North Vietnam in 1972 to accompany three released prisoners on their trip back to the United States. In the war's final stages and after its end, Coffin was an outspoken proponent of the granting of amnesty for draft resisters.

Throughout his tenure at Yale, Coffin's actions met with mixed reviews among Yale students, administrators, and alumni. Many older alumni and other conservative Yale factions called for his resignation or removal. While Kingman Brewster, Yale's president, disagreed with Coffin's methods of protest, particularly his stand on and involvement in civil disobedience, he stood behind Coffin's rights to free speech and held that Coffin's influence on Yale was generally positive. Coffin left Yale in December 1975, citing the need to remove himself from the academy in order to work on a global level for social justice, disarmament, and an end to hunger.

After leaving Yale, Coffin published his memoirs, Once to Every Man, and in November 1977, he became senior minister of Riverside Church in New York City. While at Riverside, Coffin dedicated himself to a variety of human rights causes, including world hunger, disarmament, homelessness, and poverty, among others. In 1979, he made headlines again by traveling to Iran to hold Christmas services for hostages being held in the American Embassy. In 1987, he left Riverside to become president of SANE/FREEZE, which was renamed Peace Action in 1993.

Coffin married Eva Rubinstein, a ballet dancer and the daughter of Arthur Rubinstein, in 1956 and they had three children: Amy, Alexander, and David. They were divorced in 1968. Coffin re-married in 1969, to Harriet Gibney; they divorced shortly after he left Yale. Coffin's third wife is Randy Wilson Coffin. After becoming president emeritus of SANE/FREEZE in the mid-1990s, Coffin moved to Vermont and continued to teach and lecture. He died of congestive heart failure at his home in Strafford, Vermont, on April 12, 2006.

Guide to the William Sloane Coffin, Jr. Papers
Under Revision
compiled by Tom Hyry, Scott Libson, and staff of Manuscripts and Archives
April 2003
Description rules
Finding Aid Created In Accordance With Manuscripts And Archives Processing Manual
Language of description note
Finding aid written in English.

Part of the Manuscripts and Archives Repository

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