Reverend Coffin ’42 Accepts Award For Activism and Service

Reverend William Sloan Coffin ’42 received the Claude Moore Fuess Award in recognition of his contributions to public service, at the final All-School Meeting of fall term. Touting Rev. Coffin as a deserving recipient, Head of School Barbara Chase described him as having “led a life of activism, based on his deep convictions about the meaning of justice.” She continued, “Bill Coffin’s has been a voice fearlessly raised in the pursuit of causes in which he has believed, from civil rights to peace initiatives… He has been willing to be controversial in order to serve the dictates of his conscience.” Rev. Coffin began his acceptance speech by responding to the words inscribed on the medal he received: “Give me a robust nonconformist who has the courage of his convictions.” Describing a “robust nonconformist patriot” as one who carries on a lover’s quarrel with his country, Rev. Coffin said that if one does love their country, one must express it by critically analyzing its policies and actions. Rev. Coffin said, “To [simply] say my ‘country right or wrong’ is a little like saying, ‘my grandmother drunk or sober.’ It doesn’t advance any analysis.” Urging students to have convictions with regards to their actions rather than mere opinions, Rev. Coffin reminded the community, “It takes more than an opinion to construct a temple of learning, like old PA, and it certainly takes deep-seated convictions to make the world a safer, saner place.” Describing his own experiences as a Phillips Academy student in the George Washington Hall classroom of Dr. Arthur Darling, Rev. Coffin spoke on the moment during his Senior spring when his own opinions were transformed to convictions. Dr. Darling had the class sing the Marine hymn and then asked, “Gentlemen, what the hell were we doing there?” Rev. Coffin said, “Thus, 61 years ago Dr. Darling planted, in my mind, the seed of an ever-growing conviction that the United States of America is a very imperialistic power.” Delivering advice towards young adults, Rev. Coffin said, “Don’t study to become fountains of conventional wisdom. Rather, struggle to be a robust nonconformist with the courage of your convictions. Actually, it’s too boring to live any other way.” At a later special Senior-faculty dinner, Rev. Coffin addressed the apathy many young people feel towards government. He said that the reason the U.S. has outstanding athletes but mediocre politicians is because, as Plato said, “What’s honored in a country will be cultivated there.” After Rev. Coffin’s graduation from the Academy in 1942, he spent time in the armed forces, where he served as an infantry officer in Europe. Rev. Coffin then attended Yale University. After graduating from Yale in 1949, Rev. Coffin returned to Europe as a CIA operative working with anti-Soviet Russians in their quest to free Russia of Communism. “I was very much a Cold War warrior,” Rev. Coffin said. Telling of one training mission in which all of his trainees were captured and executed, Rev. Coffin said he saw, “Stalin made Hitler look like a boy scout from time to time.” After three years with the CIA, Rev. Coffin returned to the U.S. and attended Yale Divinity School, graduating in 1956. The school recently established the William Sloan Coffin Peace and Justice Award in his honor. Coffin then briefly took up residence as Chaplain at Andover as well as at Williams College before returning to Yale, where he was chaplain from 1957 to 1975. While serving as Yale chaplain, Rev. Coffin became a prominent figure in the American civil rights movement, traveling on buses through the South as a Freedom Rider. During his protests against segregation, Rev. Coffin was arrested once. He was again arrested in 1968 for allegedly conspiring to aid military draft resisters, but was released on appeal. Published in December, Rev. Coffin’s most recent book, “Credo,” is a collection of inspiring quotations and essays drawn from his long career as a public speaker. “Coffin has both enraptured and challenged the nation.The passionate music of his ministry soars from these pages,” columnist Garry Trudeau said. Bill Moyers added, “[Rev. Coffin has] the voice of a prophet and wisdom for the ages.”