WASHINGTON—Former Watergate felon turned evangelical leader and Prison Fellowship founder Charles W. "Chuck" Colson, 80, died Saturday afternoon in Fairfax, Va. Colson had suffered an intracerebral hemorrhage in his brain March 30 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 the 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.
A Southern Baptist, 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. 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 over half a million signatures.
Colson showed that smart people could be Christians, said Eric Metaxas, the author of bestselling biographies of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and William Wilberforce who read Colson's books after becoming a Christian following his years as at student at Yale University.
"A brilliant legal mind, worked for senators and the president of the United States—he was a huge encouragement to me as a Christian, that the life of the mind went hand in hand with his faith," Metaxas said. "He was for me the example."
Metaxas worked for Breakpoint earlier in his career, before he went on to write for the children's cartoon series VeggieTales and became a bestselling author.
Over the years Metaxas and Colson developed a warm relationship, and Metaxas introduced Colson for what would be his final speech March 30 at the Wilberforce Weekend Conference hosted by the Chuck Colson Center for Christian Worldview in northern Virginia.
Colson fell ill during his speech and paramedics examined him before airlifting him to Inova Fairfax Hospital, where he underwent surgery to remove a pool of clotted blood from the surface of his brain the following day. Colson remained in critical condition in the weeks following surgery, but colleagues were optimistic about his recovery, as he showed signs of apparent consciousness and improvement.
The sudden incapacitation meant that Colson missed—for the first time in 34 years—spending Easter Sunday in a prison among inmates. Instead, inmates at Sing Sing and Riker's Island prisons in New York, where he was scheduled to preach, sent get well cards to him.
With Colson in critical condition, Metaxas had been sitting in for Colson as host of Breakpoint and said he would continue Colson's call to the church to stand firm against the current threats to religious freedom.
"He's not trying to impress anybody," Metaxas said. "He has completely avoided being merely political. And he has completely avoided the taint of the televangelist stuff. He's been his own man. He's been God's man."
Before he fell ill and had to end his speech, Colson urged the church to renew a dying culture, one of his recent themes. He eviscerated the contraceptive mandate as one expression of hostility to the church, but called for a spiritual response to that hostility. (See "Colson's final speech" to read excerpts.)
"Elections can't solve the problem we've got," Colson said. "The problem we've got 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," he continued. "Look in the mirror, that's where the problem is. If we can, through the church, renew the church to really bring a healthy cultural influence, then there's some hope we can be changed. … This is a moment when the time is right for a movement of God's people under the power of the Holy Spirit to begin to impact the culture we live in. Desperately needed."
Colson is survived by his wife, Patty, three children, and five grandchildren.
For more, see "Setting captives free," by Emily Belz, from the May 5 issue of WORLD.
Information on Charles Colson's funeral arrangements.
Video tribute from Prison Fellowship: