Peace Activist William Sloane Coffin Dies at 81

The Rev. William Sloane Coffin, a former Yale University chaplain known for his anti-war and peace activism, dies at the age of 81. Coffin questioned authority throughout his career, using civil disobedience to fight for civil rights and against war.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

A peace activist from the Viet Nam War era has died. The Reverend William Sloane Coffin was 81-years-old when he suffered heart failure in Vermont. He was sitting outside in the sun, surrounded by his family.

Students at Yale University once knew him as their chaplain. Parishioners at New York Cities famous Riverside Church knew him as their minister. People across the country met him in the comic pages, though they might not have known it.

NPR's Margot Adler reports.

MARGOT ADLER reporting:

Throughout his life, the Reverend William Sloane Coffin promoted issues of nuclear disarmament, civil rights, and peace. He spent 18 years as the chaplain at Yale University, where he fought for civil rights, and against anti-Semitism and the Vietnam War. He engaged in civil disobedience, including offering sanctuary in churches and synagogues to draft resisters. He was indicted by the government for aiding those resisters.

He spent a decade as the minister of Riverside Church, in New York, transforming the church into a center of political activism, on issues of poverty and civil rights. Some congregation members said he spent too much time on activism and not enough on pastoral duties.

In 1989, Coffin became the head of the disarmament group, SANE/Freeze. Cora Weiss, a long-time peace activist, who worked for decades with Coffin, says she talked to him on the phone at least twice a week, even during the last phases of his illness.

Ms. CORA WEISS (President of the Hague Appeal for Peace): Bill was clearly the conscience of a country, and he questioned authority long before that phrase came into vogue. From the clergy to the White House, he did more than question, he protested.

And, he raised a lot of doubts, and he actually, his last book is about doubting. It's a book of letters that he writes, to an imaginary young man at college named Tom, about doubting, and how important doubting is.

ADLER: The Reverend Coffin once said a true patriot is someone who maintains a lover's quarrel with his country.

Even after he was given six months to live, he continued to be active for two years. Last October he brought interfaith leaders to his bedside to create a new group opposed to nuclear arms.

Although his once fiery speaking voice was now slurred, here he speaks about the nuclear issue on Connecticut Public Radio in 2003.

Reverend WILLIAM SLOANE COFFIN (Minister and peace activist): A few nations have arrogated to themselves, the right to build, own, threaten to use, nuclear weapons--while policing the world around them against their production. Well nuclear apartheid will not succeed any more than racial apartheid succeeded in South Africa.

ADLER: Known for jokes and one-liners, the Reverend Coffin was immortalized in Doonesbury when Gary Trudeau merged Coffin with a friend who was a priest, creating The Reverend Sloane.

Throughout his life, the Reverend Coffin maintained the possibility of hope, despite the persistence of doubts.

Here he is on NPR in 1994.

Reverend COFFIN: Hope is a state of mind, independent of the state of the world. So you, if your heart's full of hope, you can be persistent when you can't be optimistic. You can keep the faith despite the evidence, knowing that only in so doing, has the evidence any chance of changing. So while I'm not optimistic, I'm always very hopeful.

ADLER: The Reverend William Sloane Coffin, dead at 81.

Margot Adler, NPR News, New York.

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