Charles Colson, who went from President Richard Nixon’s “hatchet man” and Watergate felon to evangelical leader and founder of Prison Fellowship died Saturday afternoon, April 21, 2012 in Fairfax, Virginia. Chuck, age 80, had suffered an intracerebral hemorrhage March 30 while giving a speech at the Wilberforce Weekend Conference hosted by the Charles Colson Center for Christian Worldview in northern Virginia. He underwent surgery the next day to remove a pool of clotted blood from the surface of his brain and remained in critical condition in the weeks following surgery. For the first time in 34 years, he missed spending Easter Sunday in a prison among inmates. He was scheduled to preach at Sing Sing and Rikers Island prisons in New York. Chuck is survived by his wife, Patty, three children and five grandchildren. We need to uphold them in prayer during these difficult days in their lives.
Colson, of Swedish and British descent, was a graduate of Brown University and George Washington University Law School. He also served in the United States Marine Corps from 1953-1955, achieving the rank of captain. Chuck began his political career in 1969 as a hard-nose operative in the Nixon White House, where Richard Nixon once told him to “break all the [expletive} china” to get the job done as special counsel to the president on the Key Issues Committee. With his tough-driven former marine, type-A personality, Chuck indeed was ruthless in getting things done. Colson and John Ehrlichman appointed E. Howard Hunt to the White House Special Operations Unit (the so-called “Plumbers”) which had been organized to stop leaks in the Nixon Administration. Hunt headed up the Plumber’s burglary of the Pentagon Papers leaker Daniel Ellsberg (psychiatrist) in September 1971. The Pentagon Papers were military documents about the Vietnam War which helped increase opposition to the war. Colson hoped that revelations about Ellsberg could be used to discredit the anti-Vietnam War cause. Colson admitted in a later book to leaking information from Ellsberg’s confidential FBI file to the press, but denied organizing Hunt’s burglary of Ellsberg’s office. He expressed regret over the attempt to cover up this incident.
On March 10, 1973, Colson resigned from the White House to return to private law practice but on March 1, 1974 was indicted for conspiracy to cover up the Watergate Burglary. He was convicted in the Watergate proceedings for obstruction of justice and served a seven-month sentence in Maxwell Prison in Alabama. In the midst of the historic scandal, which led to Nixon’s resignation in 1974, and while Colson was facing arrest, his close friend, Thomas Phillips, gave Chuck a copy of Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis. After reading it, especially the section on pride, Chuck was convicted by the Holy Spirit and trusted Christ for eternal life.
Colson’s conversion sparked a radical life change that led to the founding of his non-profit ministry Prison Fellowship and to a focus on Christian worldview teaching and training, the authoring of more than thirty books and the establishing of a daily radio program Breakpoint heard on more than 1,400 stations. Today Prison Fellowship is at work in most U.S. prisons and in more than 115 countries around the world. Prison Fellowship’s logo since shortly after the group’s founding in 1976, has featured a bent reed, a reference to Isa. 42:3 which says, “A bruised reed He will not break, and a dimly burning wick He will not extinguish; He will faithfully bring forth justice.” That verse reflected Colson’s belief that no one–not the most hardened criminal nor the egotistical politician (like himself)–was beyond hope. In 2010, Colson co-authored the “Manhattan Declaration,” a statement of conscience and marriage endorsed by a broad spectrum of Christian leaders and now with more than a half million signatures.
Colson showed that highly intelligent people can be Christians. He had a brilliant legal mind, working for senators and the president of the United States. He received 15 honorary doctorates and in 1993 received the Templeton Prize for progress in religion. He donated the $1 million award to the work of Prison Fellowship as he did all his speaking fees and royalties. In 2008 he was awarded the President’s Citizen’s Medal by President George W. Bush.
A lot of people falsely accuse Chuck of being overly political–but his whole emphasis has been to say that the root problem is a spiritual one, not a political one. He was, at the depths of his heart, an evangelist, but he realized that preaching the gospel is “not just dropping tracts from a blimp.” In his final speech at the Wilberforce Weekend Conference, he said, “Elections can’t solve the problem we’ve got. The problem is that our culture has been decaying from inside for 30 or 40 years and politics is nothing but an expression of culture. So it comes right back to us. Look in the mirror, that’s where the problem is! If we can renew the church to really bring a healthy cultural influence, then there’s some hope we can be changed. The time is right for a movement of God’s people under the power of the Holy Spirit to begin to impact the culture in which we live. Desperately needed!” (Amen!)
Let’s celebrate the life of Charles W. (“Chuck”) Colson–a man of integrity, fidelity, and true Christian faith, a man who was willing to take a stand against the modern trends of the day, a man whose legacy inspires us to even greater devotion to the principles for which he stood. “Precious in the sight of the LORD is the death of His godly ones” (Psa. 116:15). I’m sure that Chuck heard a “well done, good and faithful servant,” as he was welcomed into the joy of the Lord in heaven this past Saturday. From our view, we mourn the loss of a great Christian leader who was willing to “stand in the gap” (Ezek 22:30) and who fought valiantly to maintain a Christian worldview in a society that is spiraling downward spiritually. I personally profited greatly from his writings and Breakpoint Commentaries and will miss him a lot. I’m encouraged that others will continue his work. May their tribe increase!