A Leap of Faith, a Leap of Action: Excerpts from a Memoir

by William Sloane Coffin

William Sloane Coffin was an activist chaplain at Yale University during the Vietnam war.

This article appeared in the Christian Century October 19, 1977, p. 938. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


William Sloane Coffin’s Once to Every Man (Atheneum) recounts the rich career of an activist clergyman who served as chaplain at Yale University for 17 years, during which time he was involved in civil rights demonstrations in the south, student work camps in Africa, Peace Corps training in Puerto Rico, and antiwar protests in Washington, D.C., and elsewhere.  Of the two excerpts from that book, the first is an account of Coffin’s own student days at Yale; the second concerns his activities as Yale chaplain in support of draft resistance.


In order to get as much advanced standing as possible, I shamelessly bypassed the Yale admissions office, accepting the offer of Henri Peyre, the chairman of Yale’s French department, that he accompany me on a visit to Dean De Vane, who presided over the academic affairs of the college. Monsieur Peyre boldly proposed that I be admitted to Yale as a junior. At first Dean De Vane demurred; but he eventually agreed that my year at the music school, my fluency in French and Russian, my knowledge of Russian history and literature, and my status as a veteran might entitle me to enter Yale as a junior; but only in the fall, and only on the condition that I average B or better in the summer session. I hastened to accept the offer, the liberality of which I later came to realize was typical of him. He also agreed that it would be quite appropriate in my case to suspend the usual requirement that all entering students live in the college.

I had no regrets then or thereafter that music had moved to a more private area in my life. Perhaps I could have had a career as a concert pianist, but no matter; music had been crucial to me and always will be. In times of utter desolation, God alone has comforted me more; and when the world seems bent on madness, its music as much as its literature reassures me of its sanity.

I fared well during the summer session. In particular I was inspired by Hans Kohn, who attacked the subject of nationalism with the vigor and urgency of a scientist seeking the cause and cure of cancer. I even managed to come to grips with economics, although purely by dint of hard work.

To this day no subject intimidates me more, not even philosophy, although I recognize that like philosophers, economists occasionally promise more than they can deliver.

Wrestling with the Questions

Anticipating a career in diplomacy, I registered in the fall as a political science major. But soon I began to discover my true motive for entering college. More than I realized, the experience of the last four years had raised profound questions about the human condition. I had seen too much evil for my boyhood idealism to survive. I had seen that the stream of human life was sullied and bloodied. Dreams of peace and justice, dreams that I -- and communist children alike -- had been fed, were dangerous delusions in the hands of those who had the power and ambition to try to realize them fully. At their best, communist leaders were examples of what Anatole France must have had in mind when he said, “He who wishes to become an angel becomes a beast” (Qui veut se faire ange se fait bête).

So increasingly I found myself drawn to those most interested in the subtleties of good and evil, and they were not political scientists. I suppose I could have turned to Freud and Jung; but those on the contemporary scene who spoke most directly to me were, on the one hand, the atheistic French existentialists, particularly Camus, Sartre and Malraux; and on the other, the American theologians Richard and Reinhold Niebuhr, and Paul Tillich. I met the existentialists in Henri Peyre’s class on contemporary French literature. Peyre himself was an extraordinary teacher. With Tolstoy he believed that certain questions are put to human beings not so much that they should answer them but that they should spend a lifetime wrestling with them. And Peyre wrestled. He doubted the existence of God out of a passionate love of the truth, not out of a pathological need to avoid commitment.

But attracted as I was to Peyre, both as a person and as a thinker, and convinced as I was that Sartre and Camus were asking all the right questions, still I couldn’t help thinking that their answers lacked weight. Their despair was real but the stoicism with which they met it struck me as romantic, lacking strength. The theologians seemed to be in touch with a deeper reality. They too knew what hell was all about, but in the depths of it they found a heaven which made more sense out of everything, much as light gives meaning to darkness.

For a long time I myself, however, remained in the dark. For one thing, I was put off by the churches which were just then beginning to desert the city in droves, fleeing to the suburbs in search of their middle-class constituents. For another, I was unimpressed by many of the Christian students I met. Their answers seemed too pat, their submission to God too ready. It seemed to me that as with parents so with God; too easy a submission is but a façade for repressed rebellion. Their serenity notwithstanding, I suspected that deep down many of these students were angry, and in the case of one small group of fundamentalists I was right. Sensing my yearning to believe, they kept trying to badger me into a conversion. They were obnoxious, and themselves looked very unredeemed. Finally I told them that I thought they had just enough religion to make themselves miserable, and to leave me alone. At that, one of them said, “All right, Bill, but you will always be on our prayer list.” The sweetness with which he said it so thinly veiled his hostility that I couldn’t help answering, “And how does your prayer list differ from your shit list?”

Insights into Faith

Yet every time I was ready once and for all to deny the existence of God, to throw in my lot with Camus (whom I admired above all the existentialists), at such moments I would always have an unsettling experience which would start me wondering all over again. One in particular I remember. In my senior year a good friend was killed in an automobile accident. Sitting in Dwight Chapel waiting for the funeral service to begin, I was filled with angry thoughts. My friend’s death seemed to be one more bit of evidence to prove the fatuousness of believing in an all-powerful, all-loving God when, as any sensitive person could see, the entire surface of the earth was soaked with the tears and the blood of the innocent.

Maliciously I had noted outside that the priest had a typically soft face over his hard collar. Now as he started down the aisle toward the altar he began to intone unctuously Job’s famous words: “The Lord gave and the Lord hath taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.” From the aisle seat where I was sitting I could have stuck out my foot and tripped him up, and might easily have done so, had my attention not been arrested by a still, small voice, as it were, asking, “Coffin, what part of that sentence are you objecting to?” Naturally I thought it was the second part, “the Lord hath taken away,” spoken all too facilely by the priest. But suddenly I realized it was, the first. Suddenly I caught the full impact of “The Lord gave”: the world very simply is not ours; at best we’re guests. It was not an understanding I relished nor one, certainly, to clear up all my objections to my friend’s death. But as I sat quietly now at his funeral, I realized that it was probably the understanding against which all the spears of human pride had to be hurled and shattered.

Then, thank God, the organist played Bach’s great chorale prelude, “Christ Lag in Todesbanden.” It was genuinely comforting. And it made me think that religious truths, like those of music, were probably apprehended on a deeper level than they were ever comprehended. Like music, revelation was not so much the solution of mystery as it was the disclosure of new mystery. So the leap of faith was not a leap of thought after all. The leap of faith was really a leap of action. Faith was not believing without proof; it was trusting without reservation. While such insights were hardly enough to convert me, the experience set me to wondering all over again.

* * *

The day before the October 23, 1967, March on the Pentagon, Mr. Coffin, Dr. Benjamin Spock, and eight other activists met with an official in the Justice Department and turned in the draft cards of young war resisters -- an action that was to result in the indictment of five of the group on conspiracy charges.

Although I spoke briefly the next day, this time in front of the Lincoln Memorial, I couldn’t stay beyond the rally for the march on the Pentagon. Weeks before, I had agreed to baptize the Lewises’ baby in New Haven that afternoon, and the following day had to preach at our regular Sunday service. Incidentally, the moment at the rally that remains most vivid in my mind is the one in which a semi-demented man charged up the steps and knocked down all the microphones. As the marshals of the rally rushed to restrain him, there arose from the crowd cries of “Careful, careful. Don’t hurt him.”

When I returned from church on Sunday I found a note to call James Reston in Washington collect. Although a regular reader of his column, I had never met Mr. Reston. What he wanted to know was how I felt about the march and its many participants who were still facing and talking to the soldiers surrounding the Pentagon. I answered that I thought I had been overapprehensive, that from all reports the crowd was showing remarkable restraint. But whereas I felt good about the march, Mr. Reston felt only depressed. He said that he had read and liked my comments on the steps of the Justice Department but was afraid that our dignified demonstration had been swamped by the more sensational aspects of the weekend, for which, he added, “we in the press bear a large measure of responsibility.” Then he said, “Tell me, Mr. Coffin, what do you think I should write about in tomorrow’s column?”

Thinking this a wonderful approach to column writing, I suggested that he write about the problem of young Americans who had a lot of good things to say but could find few ears to hear them.

He answered, “You don’t have to talk to me about that, Mr. Coffin. My son has just finished telling me at lunch that he feels he has no recourse other than to violence.”

We talked of many things before the conversation ended on an unexpected note. “You know, Mr. Coffin, at heart I’m just a Calvinist like you.”

“No, Mr. Reston,” I answered jokingly. “You’re no Calvinist, you’re just gloomy. Calvinists are animated by hope.”

A Flurry of Jitters

The next day Mr. Reston had not succeeded in shaking his depression. I had barely finished his column when the telephone rang. At the other end was the editor of the Yale Daily News. The FBI, he said, was all over the campus interviewing the students whose draft cards we had left with John McDonough only three days before. They certainly wasted no time, I thought. What was less clear was whether they were preparing indictments or simply giving everyone a brush with reality. I told the editor to announce a meeting that night to apprise everyone of his rights.

That evening at seven o’clock the crowd that gathered in Dwight Chapel was understandably nervous. It was one thing to know you might be arrested; it was another emotionally to appropriate the knowledge. Fortunately, many friends were on hand to give the resisters the support they needed. Not all were convinced by Charles Reich and Clyde Summers, two law school professors who expressed the opinion that on their side the resisters had not only their consciences but the United States Constitution. Summers told them they had no obligation to say anything to the FBI, suggesting they be careful, even there in the chapel, as agents were undoubtedly in attendance. That caused a new flurry of jitters, a wave of whispering and looking around.

“There’s one of them,” said the undergraduate sitting next to me, pointing to a large man in a raincoat standing placidly at the rear of the chapel.

“No,” I answered, “that’s a divinity student who turned in his card.”

“Oh,” he said. But in a moment he was back. “That one over there -- the little fellow with the bald head -- he’s one.”

“No, no,” I said. “He’s the Lutheran pastor at Yale.”

Just being together for a while was the important thing, enough to pick up everyone’s morale. The next day there appeared on the bulletin board of the divinity school these words written in large letters: Dear FBI: “Let your foot be seldom in your neighbor’s house, lest he become weary of you and despise you.” Proverbs 15:17.

There was also a note from the dean, Colin Williams, requesting all students to refer the FBI to him so that he could inform them that they were trespassing and interrupting the important business of education. By Wednesday the agents had disappeared, although they continued to call parents and draft boards. It sounded more like harassment than anything else, but there was no way to be sure. As a result there were a few nervous fathers and mothers among the 3,000 who showed up that Saturday for the annual parents’ day gathering in Woolsey Hall. Standing in the back I suddenly heard President Kingman Brewster say:

“The chaplain’s efforts to devise ‘confrontations’ and ‘sanctuaries’ in order to gain spot news coverage seems to me to be unworthy of the true trial of conscience which touches most of your sons and preoccupies so many. . . . I do not think your sons are well served by strident voices which urge draft resistance as a political tactic.”

I had had no prior warning and winced even more when he continued:

“This is especially distasteful when those who urge the resistance are too old to be able to share fully the personal and moral consequences of refusing to serve. . . .”

Good Lord, I thought, doesn’t he know how hard we’ve tried to share these consequences?

I felt better when he cautioned, “We must not soft-pedal the toughest moral problem of our times out of timidity or in the name of public or alumni relations. I have great confidence in your sons’ ability to keep their own counsel and to sort out the true from the false if they are allowed to make up their own minds. I would have no confidence in them at all if they were protected from exposure to all argument and sheltered from the risk of error.

That, I thought, was a proper position for a university president to take. What pleased me most was his statement that the university “would not only permit but would honor and respect those who, not for political effect, but for personal, private reasons witness their conscience by a willingness to pay the price of their disobedience.” I couldn’t see what was wrong with “political effect” -- if only we could have some! -- but at least the university was doing more than the government.

Then, surprisingly, he said: “Even though I disagree with the chaplain’s position on draft resistance, and in this instance deplore his style, I feel that the quality of the Yale educational experience and the Yale atmosphere has gained greatly from his presence. Thanks in large part to his personal verve and social action within and without, the church reaches more people at Yale than on any other campus I know about. More important, the rebellious instinct which elsewhere expresses itself so often in sour withdrawal, cynical nihilism and disruption is here more often than not both affirmative and constructive, thanks in considerable measure to the chaplain’s influence.”

He ended, “I am sure your sons will look back upon Yale as a better place to have lived and learned because of the controversies, including the draft resistance controversy, which so tax the patience of so many of their elders, including their president.”

A ‘Tiffy’ Relationship

Knowing that the press would love the prospect of a good fight and be clamoring for a response, I ducked out as soon as he had finished and went to wait for him in his office in Woodbridge Hall.

At this point I might say that ever since he had succeeded President Griswold five years earlier, President Brewster and I had enjoyed a relationship that might be called tiffy. Usually our disagreements took place in the privacy of his living room. Only once did we have a public fight, at a small meeting of faculty members in the corporation room across the hall from his office. Suddenly losing his temper he had shouted, “Your remarks are certainly ungrateful addressed as they are to one who spends an inordinate amount of his time defending you to Yale alumni.” That was all I needed to shout back, “The amount of time you spend defending me to the right, I spend and more defending you to the left, and I’d be more worried if I were in your shoes.”

At that he had stormed out of the room, leaving the professors sitting around the table in shocked silence. Then the college dean, Georges May, had said in his lovely French accent, “Gentlemen, Kingman and Bill are “simply going through in public what they go through in private all the time. I suggest we continue with our meeting.” Five minutes later Kingman was back, as cool and collected as ever.

Despite our disagreements I had enormous respect for Kingman. I called him “Chief” and meant it. And I knew the affection I had for him was returned.

Now as he came back to his office I asked him, “Can I tell the press that you are willing publicly to debate these matters with me?”

“No, you may not,” he said firmly.

“But, Kingman,” I insisted, “you’ve made an issue of several things and when you’ve got an issue you can educate. You can’t let an educational opportunity like this go by.”

He could see the point and he was not a timid man.

“You can tell the press I’m seeking a proper forum for further discussion.”

Fair enough, I thought. So before leaving his office I wrote a statement for the press and made several copies. Then I walked down the block to where, in front of my home, the grinning newsmen were waiting. “Hey, Bill, where does it hurt? What have you got to say?” I handed them the statement:

“For Mr. Brewster’s kind words on my behalf I am very grateful. For the others -- well, I’m grateful for a president with whom one can disagree and still remain good friends. President Brewster has expressed to me his interest in taking part in a public discussion of the issues he has raised. This I think would be a fine idea.”

“Come on, Bill,” they said. “That’s no good. Haven’t you got something more to say? He went for everything you stand for.”

“No,” I said, “my quarrel is with President Johnson, not with President Brewster.” It sounded a bit grand, but then I was having trouble disguising my true feelings, which were far angrier than I let on. In fact, I was furious. It seemed to me that Kingman was simply swaddling his uncertainty in rectitude. Like so many people unable to make up their minds about the war, he had preferred to attack the immorality of those protesting it. He hadn’t even called it “this terrible war” -- with a shake of the head -- as did so many of the undecided. And President Johnson, Lord knows, had coerced far more consciences than I. But the students, I knew, would take Brewster on, which they certainly did, in editorials and letters. Most regretted he had not dedicated his speech to supporting the resisters. A few denounced his “unremitting dedication to the radical center.” Of course he was also highly praised by many parents, alumni and the two New Haven papers, which probably bothered him, as both are owned by one exceedingly reactionary family.

‘A Boar Is Loose. . . .’

What irked me the most, of course, was that Kingman had not been totally wrong in what he had said about my style. The year before, not having seen Reinhold Niebuhr for years and knowing him to be very sick, I had visited him in Stock-bridge. As I entered his room, he had smiled at me from his bed and said, “Ah, Bill, I heard a speech of yours the other day on the radio. You reminded me so of my youth -- all that humor, conscience and demagoguery.”

I found it hard to resist a bit of rhetorical showboating. Also, when angry, I got strident. A freshman, Larry Dunham, had once given me some excellent advice I didn’t always follow. “Bill,” he said, “when you say something that’s both true and painful, say it quietly.”

Under the circumstances, however, there was no point in being too harsh on oneself, and as 1967 marked the 450th anniversary of the Reformation, I consoled myself with the thought that Luther had had similar problems. The pope had said, “A boar is loose in the vineyard of the Lord.” But if the pope could deplore his style, to use Kingman’s phrase, Luther could rightfully claim that there was more truth in his little finger than there was in the entire Vatican. When I made that point in a sermon on Luther the following Sunday, no one in the congregation smiled more appreciatively than Kingman. I knew he would have been disappointed had I backed down.

But he himself was not about to back down either. To commemorate the Reformation, the student deacons had voted unanimously to nail a proclamation to the door of Battell Chapel declaring it a “sanctuary for conscience.” They wanted our church to be the first in the country. And the Yale chapter of the resistance was busy planning a service similar to the one in Boston to collect more draft cards. When Kingman got wind of these two actions planned for the church, he called in the faculty deacons. When I got wind of his summons, I insisted on being present.

We met in a small parlor of the large house which is the president’s official abode on Hillhouse Avenue.

“That chapel belongs to Yale,” he said firmly, “and I don’t want illegal acts taking place on university property.”

“That’s some theological definition of a church!” I retorted. “I thought it belonged to God and, if not, then to the duly elected members of the governing body.”

After we had both cooled off a bit, he agreed that decisions regarding the use of the church could not properly be made by university officials no matter who owned the property. So each of us set about winning over the faculty deacons to his point of view. To my amazement, he won. Furious, I accused them of behaving more like “true blues than true Christians.” They squirmed, but weren’t about to change their minds. Finally one of them said quietly, “Bill, on this issue we’re not as certain as you and the students are that your wills are that clearly aligned with the will of the Lord.”

Kingman smiled. I realized I was licked. There was nothing to be done except to change the constitution of the church so that in the future students could have more say in its decisions. So there was no sanctuary for conscience at Yale, not for another four years. And when on December 4 twelve hundred people filled the church to support 48 new resisters, their cards were not placed, as we had hoped, on the altar. After the service they were given to Father Burns, Rabbi Robert Goldberg and myself standing on the steps of the New Haven courthouse. Still, the service was moving. In a voice choked with feeling, Rabbi Goldberg, of Temple Mishkan Israel in New Haven, told the old and new resisters: “History will cherish your conscience if you bring this war into disrepute. Your courage is great. You may go to trial but never to a future Nuremberg.”

I knew we were moving fast toward some kind of showdown. Draft cards were pouring into the FBI from all over the country. General Hershey took it as a personal affront, roaring like a wounded bull, which only delighted the non-card-carrying members of the resistance. At a Boston press conference Michael Ferber said, “Every time the general opens his mouth he gets another couple of hundred draft cards.”

But private citizens too were incensed. My mail was filled with obscenities and the hate callers were busy again on the phone. This time the kids were old enough to answer. Often they’d be told, “Tell your daddy we’re going to kill him.”

The Indictment

One Sunday in December I went early to church, as I usually did, to make sure the candles were lit, the hymns posted. No one was there except the choir, whose final minutes of practice I always like to listen to. Then I discerned two shadowy figures in the back and remembered suddenly a call earlier in the week that had awakened me about 3 A.M. “If you preach on Sunday, Reverend,” a voice had growled, “we’ll kill you.” I had answered, “See you in church,” and hung up.

Approaching the two figures, I recognized them as campus cops. They could only have known of the call because my phone was tapped, and the FBI listening in had kindly passed on the warning to the campus police.

“Don’t worry, Bill,” they assured me. “We’ll take care of everything.”

But I was worried. Suppose our 90-year-old professor emeritus of philosophy, who had a weak bladder, got up to go to the bathroom. I pictured him felled by flying lead.

I insisted they take off their shoulder holsters, which normally they never carried. “If anyone stands up,” I said, “I promise to duck.”

After the processional had brought me to my seat near the pulpit, I cast a casual eye over at the choir seated next to me. There among the second basses, robed like the rest, looking straight at me was one of the meanest-looking characters I had seen since the teach-out at Waterbury. When I preached, my back would be turned to him for a full 20 minutes. I remember praying, “Lord, if you want me, I guess you can have me.”

Nothing happened, but after the service I asked the choir director, Charles Krigbaum, “Who was that strange fellow among the basses?”

“I have no idea,” said Charles. “I assumed he was a friend of one of them. I noticed that he didn’t even sing the hymns. He just kept looking at you.” Suddenly the man himself appeared. “Who are you?” I asked.

“Don’t worry, Reverend,” he said. “I’m a city detective and I’m going to be following you around. Just a little safety measure.

“That’s nice of you,” I said, “but the last thing I want is a bodyguard.”

“You’ll have to talk to the boss,” he answered. “I will,” I said and that afternoon persuaded him that no serious murderer would telephone his intentions.

But I was not through with agents of the law. The very next afternoon when I returned to my office after lunch, Charlotte said two FBI men were waiting to see me. With my mind on other things I assumed they were, as they frequently were, to conduct a routine check on some Yale graduate applying for a government job. Still, two at once was unusual. Opening the door I recognized them both. “Well, gentlemen, who’s the suspected homosexual alcoholic?” I joked because I never liked to answer questions about homosexuality, figuring a person’s sex life was none of the government’s business. I understood, however, the government’s fear of blackmail, although I thought a better candidate for blackmail was a man with a weakness for gambling on borrowed money. Actually, if a student ever talked to me of his homosexuality, I asked him never to put me down as a reference for a government job.

The agents laughed, but only weakly. “Actually, Bill,” one of them said, “we wanted to ask you about some of your recent activities.”

So it’s come to that, I thought. I felt a twinge of fear but also a sense of satisfaction. Maybe our efforts hadn’t been in vain.

“Come on fellows,” I said. “You know I’m not about to tell you anything. Besides, my activities are hardly secret. So suppose you tell me how you feel about the war?”

“We’re not supposed to have feelings about that; we just do our job.”

“Well, how do you feel about doing your job?”

“Not too good right now.”

“You know,” I said, as the thought struck me, “at this moment I really think I’m better off than you are.”

They smiled. “Good luck, Bill,” they said, and with a handshake they left.

I turned to Charlotte. “I guess it won’t be long now.” I was pleased that my feeling of satisfaction persisted.

Three weeks later, January 5, 1968, Benjamin Spock, Paul Goodman, Marcus Raskin, Michael Ferber and I were indicted for conspiring to counsel, aid and abet draft resistance. I suspected that Ramsey Clark felt that the five of us had to be pushed off the sled to feed General Hershey. But I didn’t think it was his idea to hand-deliver copies to the press and then mail the indictments to the homes of the defendants. Talk about style!

Continuing the Resistance

As for Kingman, he knew the difference between an indictment and a conviction. I was innocent until proven guilty; the corporation had no need to act. True to his word, he arranged with David Susskind for an hour of lively if inconclusive discussion, with J. Irwin Miller and many students taking part. What I remember clearest was being overwhelmed by waves of encouragement. Hundreds of faculty signed a public statement of support, and dozens of letters arrived daily, reflecting a deeply felt need to be grateful for something at a time when, at least on the national scene, there were so few things one could be grateful for.

In March President Johnson stunned everyone with the announcement that he would not seek reelection in the fall. When I heard it on the radio, I remembered that the faculty statement of support had included a prophetic quotation from Harlan Fiske Stone: “All our history gives confirmation to a view that liberty of conscience has a moral and social value which makes it worthy of preservation at the hands of the state and it may well be questioned whether the state which preserves its life by a settled policy of violation of the conscience of the individual will not in fact ultimately lose it by the process.

It was just such a policy that cost Johnson his political life. Despite his announcement, the resistance continued its activities, turning in draft cards on Yale property, with no objections now from Kingman. Only Abe Goldstein objected when he found out I was still receiving draft cards. “You now have an opportunity to get a court test of the legality of the war and the right to selective conscientious objection. You don’t want to prejudice that by looking defiant at this time.” But what could I do: make speeches from the platform on Beinecke Plaza and then, when the new resisters came forward, stand there with my hands behind my back? Besides, I was fearful that Johnson, robed in new garments of self-abnegation, might one day turn to the American public and announce that he had exhausted all diplomatic resources -- when in fact he hadn’t begun to use them.

The resistance, I felt, had to continue. The war, I was sure, was going to end only when enough Americans got weary of it, or weary of all the opposition to it. I still couldn’t bring myself to accept Mai Van Bo’s contrary conclusion: “The issue will be settled on the battlefield.”