The Rev William Sloane Coffin

Radical priest and rights activist
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William Sloane Coffin, minister of the church, civil rights campaigner and peace activist: born New York 1 June 1924; CIA Officer 1950-53; ordained minister of the Presbyterian Church 1956; Chaplain, Yale University 1958-76; married first 1956 Eva Rubenstein (one son, one daughter, and one son deceased; marriage dissolved 1968), second 1969 Harriet Gibney (marriage dissolved 1976), third Virginia Randolph Wilson; died Strafford, Vermont 12 April 2006.

If America were endowed with a single human conscience in the second half of the 20th century, the Rev William Sloane Coffin could lay excellent claim to the role. Having learnt the heartless realities of war first hand, he became a priest and devoted the rest of his life to activism, disobedience and to the great issues that split the country apart: the civil rights struggle, the movement against the Vietnam war, the threat of nuclear annihilation, poverty and the environment.

Towards the end of his life, even as his physical powers were failing, he repeatedly spoke out against America's ill-starred adventure in Iraq. Coffin was not a pacifist - in the mid-1990s he strongly supported military intervention in Bosnia to end the genocide there. But unfailingly he took the side of the underdog and the dispossessed, in the name of a higher moral cause.

For almost 50 years he was a man of the church. Yet, he once argued, every minister of God had two roles, one priestly, one prophetic. In the latter, he said, his duty was to be "the disturber of the peace, to bring the minister, the congregation and the entire social order under some judgement". And if he became a celebrity in the process, so much the better - if that celebrity helped advance his many causes.

In a sense, Coffin's career was one of noblesse oblige. His ancestors were among Massachusett's earliest settlers, among them a co-founder of the Quaker settlement on the island of Nantucket. His father was chairman of the board of trustees at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art. As a child, he lived in a penthouse in the city's opulent Upper East Side, before the family then moved to California and then Europe, where William studied music.

Most of his life was spent at institutions at the heart of the US establishment: the prestigious Phillips Academy (an American version of Eton), the CIA, and Yale University, where he was chaplain for 18 years. Like most young men of the day, he wanted to fight for his country in the Second World War. In 1943 he joined the US Army, and served in Europe as an infantry officer. What happened immediately afterwards would change his life.

Coffin was a talented linguist and was sent to liaise with the Red Army over the repatriation of Soviet citizens who had been taken prisoner. He knew that as traitors in Stalin's eyes, they faced deportation and probably death. Yet he did nothing to alert them to their fate. His participation in the lie, he later wrote, "left me a burden of guilt I am sure to carry for the rest of my life."

At first he sought atonement in the CIA, where he organised secret operations aimed at destabilising the Soviet regime. Almost without exception they failed ignominously. Coffin however soon found a higher calling. Back at Yale, where he had completed his degree in 1949, he was inspired by the liberal social teachings of Reinhold Niebuhr to enter the ministry. In 1956 he graduated from Yale Divinity School and was ordained a Presbyterian minister; two years later he returned to become chaplain of the university.

From the start he was a radical, unconventional figure, to which Yale was utterly unused. He rode about the campus on a motorbike, and turned his pulpit into a soapbox for every great cause of the day, challenging his students to stand up for what they thought was right. His words were matched by deeds. In 1961, Coffin was arrested for the first of three times as a civil rights activist, as a "Freedom Rider" in Birmingham, Alabama in 1961, at the side of Martin Luther King.

By 1966 the civil rights struggle was largely won. But another, no less convulsive, was taking shape over the increasingly unpopular war in Vietnam. Coffin became a vociferous foe of the draft, and turned his chapel at Yale into a sanctuary for those who refused to enlist. In late 1967, along with Dr Benjamin Spock, he organised a mass protest in Boston and then sent hundreds of draft cards back to the Justice Department in Washington.

The beleaguered Johnson administration was determined to make an example of him. In January 1968, Coffin and Dr Spock were arraigned on serious charges of conspiracy to advise draft evasion. Both were found guilty at a famous trial. But the convictions were overturned on appeal, and Coffin emerged as an international celebrity, who in 1972 led a mission to Hanoi to help secure the release of three American prisoners of war, and their return to the US.

A gift for witty aphorism only enhanced his appeal. Remember, he would tell his student flock, "even if you win the rat race, you're still a rat." Few of those whose lives he touched forgot him. Garry Trudeau, a Yalie of the era, used Coffin as model for the Rev Scot Sloan, "the thoroughly modern minister/ enabler," in his Doonesbury cartoon strip.

In 1976, Coffin left Yale to devote himself to the fight against global hunger. But two years later he became pastor of the venerable and prestigious Riverside Church in New York. There too, there were complaints that he paid too much attention to protest and too little to his pastoral duties. But Coffin continued as always. In his sermons he campaigned on issues ranging from nuclear disarmament to urban unemployment.

In December 1979 he travelled to Tehran with two American and one Algerian clergymen to provide Christmas comfort for the US hostages. In the 1990s a stroke took an inevitable toll on his energies. But his commitment never wavered, driven by his belief that courage and hope were the two cardinal virtues. "I am not an optimist," he would say, "but I am always hopeful."

Rupert Cornwell