A collection of obits from around the web for Prison Fellowship founder Chuck Colson:
Notice that Chuck Colson didn’t claim to be a changed man, and that God had forgiven him, so why couldn’t the criminal justice system? He knew he was guilty, and accepted the punishment not only as just, but as something that needed to happen so he could be spiritually and morally free. And for Colson, his conversion wasn’t just personally therapeutic, but he spent the rest of his life helping people who had been like him: a prisoner, justly condemned for his crimes, but still loved by God, and worthy of redemption. RIP.
He created the Prison Fellowship Ministries in 1976 to minister to prisoners, ex-prisoners and their families. It runs work-release programs, marriage seminars and classes to help prisoners after they get out. An international offshoot established chapters around the world.
“You can’t leave a person in a steel cage and expect something good to come out of him when he is released,” Colson said in 2001.
His approach led to court challenges to the use of state facilities to foster one religion, Christianity, in violation of the constitutional separation of church and state.
While faith was a large part of his message, Colson also tackled such topics as prison overpopulation and criticized the death penalty, though he thought it could be justified in rare cases. He said those convicted of nonviolent crimes should be put on community-service projects instead of being locked up.
Released on parole in January 1975, after seven months in a minimum-security prison, Mr. Colson became a leading voice in the evangelical movement and an advocate for prison reform.
The need for such work, he said, was drawn from what he called his frightening experience in confinement. Prison, he said, was filled with embittered prisoners who contemplated escape and revenge at every turn.
“He transferred his huge drive, intellect and maniacal energy from the service of Richard Nixon to the service of Jesus Christ,” said his biographer, Jonathan Aitken, a former British government minister who endured a similar journey of political disgrace and personal redemption after a 1999 conviction for perjury.
Mr. Colson’s autobiography, “Born Again,” first published in 1976, sold millions of copies over the years. In 1993, he was awarded the prestigious Templeton Prize, worth more than $1 million, which is given each year to the person who has done the most to advance the cause of religion.
Outwardly, Mr. Colson remained recognizably the same person before and after his conversion. Even toward the end of his life, he retained the same amused expression in his heavily wrinkled face.
His crumpled look, fondness for blazers and striped ties, and talent for incisive repartee gave him the appearance of an overgrown New England prep-school boy, but also masked one of the traits he shared with Nixon: an outsider self-image.
Someone once asked me, “Don’t you know he’s a convicted felon?” The question made me laugh. Yes, I knew that. I was a senior in high school when Watergate happened. We watched the proceedings on TV in my Government class. I read his autobiography, Born Again, not long after it was released, and I heard him speak about it at the Governor’s Prayer Breakfast in Lansing, Michigan; I think it was in 1976.
Chuck Colson himself never lost sight of the fact that he was a convicted felon. He also never lost sight of God’s gracious forgiveness through Jesus Christ. He founded Prison Fellowship Ministries, and led it to become a powerful force for spiritual, educational, and social change in prisons throughout American and around the world. But that is not the ministry or the realm in which I came to know and appreciate him. Rather it was in his leadership in Christian worldview thinking. In his Lansdowne, Virginia office, carefully protected in a glass case, there is one of C.S. Lewis’s pipes. I believe history will recognize Chuck’s place in a very small group of men including Abraham Kuyper, Francis Schaeffer, and of course Lewis, as leaders most responsible for framing evangelical Christians’ thinking about our faith in relation to the world.
Sarah Pulliam Bailey at CT:
“He allowed a humbling period to define him and his whole posture to the culture,” said Eric Metaxas, who has written biographies of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and William Wilberforce. He took over for Colson on BreakPoint’s radio show after Colson fell ill. “One of the important things about Chuck is his commitment to worship God with our minds. As incredibly serious Chuck was about theology and evangelism, he brought those things into the public sphere.”
Colson was also known for his efforts in getting those from different backgrounds to collaborate. His personal life almost seemed to embody an evangelical-Catholic alliance. He was Southern Baptist with an admiration for John Calvin, Abraham Kuyper, and Francis Schaeffer, while his wife, Patty, is Catholic. He collaborated with Richard John Neuhaus to launch Evangelicals and Catholics Together, which produced a 1994 statement that alienated Colson from some leaders over evangelical/Catholic differences.
“Chuck and Richard helped wave caricatures aside. Catholics saw in Chuck Colson somebody who was a serious, intellectual, thoughtful guy, not some hick or hillbilly,” said Robbie George, a professor at Princeton University. “We’re certainly in much better shape than we were even 20 years ago.”
Jonathan Aitken at CT:
Once it leaked out that Chuck Colson had become a man of prayer, cynicism erupted everywhere. The media’s mockery was vicious and damaged whatever chances he might have had of evading the clutches of the prosecutors. So he was indicted—but on what charge? The evidence against him was slim. He apparently knew nothing about the Watergate break-in. Nor had he broken any easily identifiable criminal law, whatever might be said about his political amorality. The old Colson would have played every trick in the book to beat the rap. But a different Colson was emerging. In addition to his regular meetings with his prayer group, he was applying his first-class mind to reading Scripture, to studying Christian authors, and to taking his first stumbling steps in theology. His was learning and changing—although this was neither a quick nor an easy process.
Painful though it was, Colson’s repentance was authentic. The most dramatic sign of this was that he became so convicted of sin that against the advice of his own lawyer he decided to plead guilty. To do this he had to find a unique section of the criminal code (18 USC Section 1503), under which he admitted “disseminating information whose probable consequences would be to influence, obstruct and impede the conduct and outcome of the criminal prosecution of Daniel Ellsberg.” Since Ellsberg, the leaker of the Pentagon papers, was never prosecuted, this plea was (to put it mildly) a legal oddity. But in the fevered atmosphere of Watergate a judge accepted it and sentenced Colson to a 1-3 year prison term.
During the time he spent in jail, Colson had to learn many lessons in humility and penitence. Blows rained in on him. He failed to gain the presidential pardon that he had been expecting after the clemency granted to Nixon. He was disbarred from practicing law. His father died. His son was arrested for narcotics possession. But Colson gradually began surrendering to God’s will. He immersed himself in Bible reading, started a prayer group with fellow prisoners, and completed the Design for Discipleship course published by the Navigators.
Yet his spiritual steps forward seemed to be accompanied by practical reverses. What he found particularly hard to bear was having his parole application denied after other Watergate prisoners, notably John Dean and Jeb Magruder, were freed. But Colson prayed on and was unexpectedly given parole in July 1975 after serving seven months of his sentence.
A devotee of the great English reformer and abolitionist William Wilberforce, Colson is one of the nation’s foremost voices for checking the excesses of America’s prison-industrial complex. He long ago came full circle from the enforcer of a “law and order” administration to an advocate of mercy and restraint. He doesn’t mind telling uncomfortable truths. He stirred up some of his fellow evangelicals when, in the 1990s, he promoted reconciliation with Catholics. He maddens the Left with his unbending social conservatism.
What seemed to be Chuck Colson’s fall from grace in the mid-1970s was really the opposite. It was the first step on an ascension to true courage and service. His life is a testament to how redemption, so often debased and abused in a 24/7 news cycle obsessed with celebrity and scandal, can be astonishingly powerful and real.
Colson’s life and ministry were certainly no “joke.” Many would aspire to his example but few will have his impact. But it is a reminder that the Author of our lives is writing a story for the fame and name of Jesus, and chooses to write us into that story. Without the providence of God in his life, Colson might have continued down a path of political and legal work for his own gain. Had he authored his own story, it would not have read nearly as well as the version we reflect on today.
Not all who read this post will remember the Watergate scandal. Many simply know Chuck Colson as a respectable, evangelical, grandfatherly figure. But this generation will miss out on the transforming power of God illustrated in Chuck Colson’s life if they do not discover the (younger) Chuck Colson of Watergate– the man whom God brought from darkness into light. It is a tribute, not an insult, to his legacy to remember his entire life, because in his weakness the power of God was made manifest, until the very end.
“But He said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.” Therefore, I will most gladly boast all the more about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may reside in me.” – 1 Cor 12:9
Thank you, God, for Chuck Colson’s life, and we pray your grace and peace on his family in this difficult time.
I came to Colson indirectly during my first summer at the Rochester L’Abri when I read Nancy Pearcey’s Total Truth. After finishing it, I was told she had also written, with Chuck Colson, How Now Shall We Live? I then picked that one up and read it as well. That was several years ago and I’ve now moved away from some of the things that Colson (and Pearcey) tend to stand for. That said, while Pearcey has basically become a mouthpiece for the Republican party masquerading as Francis Schaeffer’s philosophical heir, Colson seemed to maintain a more independent, primarily Christian relationship to politics. His social conservatism is no longer fashionable amongst evangelicals, but it’s notable that Colson actually spent far more time working on prison reform – even criticizing the use of capital punishment, an unusual move for a conservative evangelical. What’s more, as much as I despise most of what the Bush administration stood for, it’s striking to me that the one thing that Bush did get consistently right – avoiding military intervention in Africa and instead attempting to help fight the AIDS pandemic – was also the thing where Colson exerted the most influence.
I wouldn’t call Colson one of my heroes. Those places fall to Lewis, Chesterton, Tolkien, Berry, and Johnny Cash. Nor would I even call him a chief influence. Yet when I look at the overall tenor of his life, his basic orientation to the world, I feel a great amount of gratitude for the work of Chuck Colson. (To say nothing of his powerful testimony. Though I generally distrust “If only…” comments, one can’t help wondering, after hearing Colson’s story, what might happen if some of our contemporary Machiavellian politicians were to undergo a similar change. Imagine, if you can, Dick Cheney suddenly becoming human and spending each Easter with inmates while working for prison reform.) In any event, I’m grateful for Chuck Colson and I feel confident that he has met his lord and was greeted with the commendation, “Well done, my good and faithful servant. Enter into the joy of your master.”