WASHINGTON (BP)—Former Watergate felon turned evangelical leader and Prison Fellowship founder Charles W. "Chuck" Colson, 80, died Saturday (April 21) in Fairfax, Va. He had suffered an intracerebral hemorrhage in his brain in late March and was hospitalized ever since.
"Though we mourn the loss of a great leader, we rejoice knowing God has welcomed his humble and faithful servant home," said Prison Fellowship CEO Jim Liske in a statement. "Please continue to pray for the entire Colson family. While we all deeply feel this loss, we take heart knowing God has welcomed Chuck into paradise with a 'well done, good and faithful servant!'"
Colson started his career as a hard-nosed political operative in the Nixon White House, where Richard Nixon once told him to "break all the [expletive] china" to get the job as counsel to the president done. That led to a conviction in the Watergate proceedings for obstruction of justice—and a seven-month sentence served out at a federal prison in Alabama.
In the midst of the historic scandal, which led to Nixon's resignation in 1974, Colson's self-assurance and religious apathy broke after a Christian businessman friend, Tom Phillips, prayed for him. Phillips read to him from C.S. Lewis' Mere Christianity, a passage Colson later said led to his conversion. At the time, many doubted the sincerity of Nixon's "hatchet man." Wrote one columnist, "If he isn't embarrassed by this sudden excess of piety, then surely the Lord must be."
Upon his release from jail, Colson decided to start a prison ministry. Prison Fellowship's logo since shortly after the group's founding in 1976 has featured a bent reed, referencing Isaiah 42:3: "A bruised reed he will not break, a smoldering wick he will not snuff out." That reflected Colson's belief that no one—not the most hardened criminal nor the most egotistical Washingtonian—was beyond hope.
"A lot of people falsely accuse Chuck of being overly political—but Chuck's whole emphasis has been to say that the root problem is a spiritual problem," said Timothy George, a close friend of Colson's and dean of Beeson Divinity School at Samford University. George, who for many years co-wrote a column with Colson for Christianity Today and serves on the Prison Fellowship board, added, "He was an evangelist at his deepest heart ... but he realized that preaching the Gospel is not just dropping tracts from a blimp."
Today Prison Fellowship is at work in most U.S. prisons and in more than 115 countries around the world. The ministry helped to launch Justice Fellowship, an advocacy arm for criminal reform, as well as Colson's career as an evangelical leader, an author of more than 20 books, and the lead commentator for BreakPoint, a radio program with an estimated 8 million weekly listeners. Florida Baptist Witness has published Colson's BreakPoint commentaries since 2001.
A Southern Baptist and member of First Baptist Church in Naples, Fla., Colson remained politically and theologically conservative his whole life, but Prison Fellowship gained a reputation for working with both Republicans and Democrats for criminal justice reforms focused on transitioning prisoners into society.
"Chuck Colson was a towering intellect who already has a high-impact place in history as a courageous reformer," said his pastor at FBC in Naples, Hayes Wicker. "He was an exemplary Christian, faithful churchman and the most precious encourager possible of my ministry. He is deeply loved by his church, First Baptist Naples, and will be greatly missed. As his pastor for 20 years, I feel that his 'iron has sharpened' my balsam wood. Like his Savior, he was 'anointed by the Spirit to preach the gospel and proclaim release to the prisoners.'"
Colson also gained a reputation for working across theological aisles, helping to launch the 1994 Evangelicals and Catholics Together initiative and becoming co-author of the 2010 Manhattan Declaration, a statement on conscience and marriage endorsed by a broad spectrum of Christian leaders and now with more than a half-million signatures.
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