Chuck Colson, founder of Prison Fellowship, dies


LANSDOWNE, Va. — One of America's most dynamic Christian leaders and orators has passed away. Charles "Chuck" Colson, the founder of Prison Fellowship Ministries and once a prison inmate himself, died today in a Washington, D.C. area hospital. He was 80 years old.

"Though his monumental voice may be stilled, his message will live on in the thousands of biblical worldview thinkers whom he so skillfully attracted, inspired, and motivated," said Terry White, a former Vice President of Communications with Prison Fellowship.

Colson was hospitalized March 30 after his speech became slurred during a Wilberforce Weekend conference in Northern Virginia. Doctors performed surgery, removing a pool of clotted blood from the surface of his brain.

Although his health seemed to be improving in the days following, a statement released April 18 from Jim Liske, CEO of Prison Fellowship Ministries, said Colson's health had seriously degraded and he was not expected to survive.

An attorney, Colson served as Special Counsel for President Richard Nixon from 1969 to 1973. He was often referred to as the "hatchet man" for his ability to disparage others and to cover up illegal White House activities.

Colson resigned from the Nixon Administration in 1973 and soon thereafter converted to Christianity after being invited to the home of Tom Phillips, then the president of the Raytheon Company.

Colson referred to the night he accepted Christ in an editorial he wrote 35 years later, Reflections on My Conversion.

"I left (Phillips') house that night shaken by the words he had read from C. S. Lewis's Mere Christianity about pride.," recalled Colson. "It felt as if Lewis were writing about me, former Marine captain, Special Counsel to the President of the United States, now in the midst of the Watergate scandal," he wrote.

Colson said that from that day on he never looked back. "That's because, for the last 35 years—whether in pain, suffering, joy, or jubilation, it makes no difference—I have known there was a purpose. I have known that I belong to Christ and that I am here on earth to advance His kingdom."

When Colson's conversion spread to the media, The Boston Globe reported, "If Mr. Colson can repent of his sins, there just has to be hope for everybody."

In 1974, Colson entered a plea of guilty to Watergate-related charges; although not implicated in the Watergate burglary, he voluntarily pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice in the Daniel Ellsberg case. He received a one-to-three-year sentence and served seven months at the Maxwell Federal Prison Camp in Alabama, the first of several former Nixon associates to go to jail.

In his official Prison Fellowship biography notes, Colson stated that he never really left prison. In 1976 Colson founded Prison Fellowship, a prison outreach organization that today serves in 113 countries ministering to prisoners, ex-prisoners and their families.

Later he founded Justice Fellowship, a public policy organization that lobbies for criminal justice reform. In 1991 Colson launched BreakPoint, a radio ministry heard daily on more than 1,000 stations with a weekly listening audience estimated at 8 million.

Not just a visionary leader of a prison ministry, Colson was a biblical thinker and a staunch apologist for authentic Christianity. Through his BreakPoint broadcasts, best-selling books and frequent speaking engagements, he was a crusader for religious liberty, the right to life, and biblical truth—and he fought to stem the erosion of Judeo-Christian values from society.

In 2009 Colson participated in the drafting and became a lead signatory of the Manhattan Declaration, a statement on conscience and marriage endorsed by Catholic, Anglican, Eastern Orthodox and evangelical leaders. Today the pronouncement's online petition has half-a-million signatures and has become a foundational statement for groups that support traditional marriage and religious liberty.

In that same year, Colson began focusing efforts on developing other Christian leaders through the Chuck Colson Center for Christian Worldview, an online research and training center. The Colson Center website also hosts Colson's popular weekly "Two-Minute Warning" video commentary.

"Chuck Colson was truly our collective voice," said Jim Garlow, pastor of Skyline Church in San Diego. "The Catholics have the Pope. As evangelicals we used to have the strong presence of Billy Graham. Colson's voice was so strong. His intellect so exceptional. His inclusive ways so Christ-like. I cannot imagine the church in America without his presence."

"The Chuck we knew was everything they are saying in the tributes," said White, who worked for Prison Fellowship eleven years. He was "loyal, funny, genuinely interested in you as a person, brilliant in his ability to pull together history, scripture, and philosophy into memorable and actionable insights.

"For a man whose pride was once his downfall, his humility was his hallmark characteristic."

White recalled the last time he saw Colson in person.

"The ramrod-straight old Marine was now a little tottery and needed a hand getting up on the platform," said White. "But once behind the pulpit and microphone, the Lion again roared as strongly as ever, pleading for biblical truth and biblical insights to be the guiding principles in all of life—in media, in politics, in medicine, in business, and in interpersonal relationships."

Nelson Keener, former Senior Vice President of Ministry Enterprise at Prison Fellowship, called Colson "a strong, brilliant leader and visionary."

He said that Colson always encouraged and cultivated a culture of collaboration with and between management and staff.

"The employees represented such a diverse group of Christian traditions that I always viewed it as a microcosm of the body of Christ—a stimulating place to work and do ministry," recalled Keener who, during his eight-year tenure at Prison Fellowship, often accompanied Colson to meetings around the country.

"Chuck was exceptional in his ability to appeal to and challenge a broad base of Christian leaders world-wide," said Keener. "I think this was due to Chuck's personal and intellectual integrity and Prison Fellowship's professionalism and commitment to the gospel."

Colson received numerous awards in his lifetime including the prestigious Templeton Prize for progress in religion in 1993, donating the $1 million prize to Prison Fellowship. Colson's other awards have included the Presidential Citizen's Medal, the nation's second-highest civilian honor (2008); the Humanitarian Award from Domino's Pizza Corporation (1991); The Other's Award from The Salvation Army (1990) and several honorary doctorates from various colleges and universities (1982-2000).

Colson is survived by his wife of 48 years, Patty; three children, Wendell, Christian and Emily; and five grandchildren.

Chuck Colson — How God Turned Around Nixon's Hatchet Man
On October 15, 2008, Chuck Colson gave his testimony at Columbia University during a Veritas Forum.

Chuck Colson, 35 years of faith