WASHINGTON-When President Richard Nixon's knee-capper went to prison after pleading guilty to a Watergate-related crime, he touched off one of the most compelling stories of conversion and a redeemed life in the modern American church. Charles Colson, 80, hovered near death in Fairfax, Va., as WORLD went to press April 19. "It is with a heavy, but hopeful heart that I share with you that it appears our friend, brother, and founder will soon be home with the Lord," wrote Prison Fellowship CEO Jim Liske in an April 18 message, as his wife and children gathered at his bedside. Colson suffered a brain hemorrhage on March 30 that had left him hospitalized since.
Colson started his career as a hard-nosed political giant whom Nixon once told to "break all the [expletive] china" to get a job done. But he became a giant for a generation of evangelical Christians. After serving time in prison, he founded Prison Fellowship, a Christian ministry to inmates and their families that has grown into the largest prison ministry in the world-with programs in nearly all U.S. prisons and in 115 countries. An avid writer and speaker, Colson also shaped the church's dialogue about religious freedom, culture, marriage, and abortion.
As counsel to the president in the Nixon White House starting in 1969, Colson's loyalty was absolute: when Nixon wanted to hire John Scali to join the White House communications' staff, Scali complained the job would aggravate his ulcers. Colson ordered the president's physician to tell Scali he was in good health and the job would be good for him, and the physician complied, according to Jonathan Aitken's biography of Colson (Charles W Colson: a Life Redeemed, Continuum, 2005).
Colson's office adjoined Nixon's personal office in the White House. In the good days of the presidency, Colson and Nixon cruised around the Potomac River on a yacht drinking scotch and sodas. But that began to crumble after E. Howard Hunt, a man Colson hired to besmirch the reputation of Pentagon Papers' leaker Daniel Ellsberg, orchestrated the break-in at the Watergate Hotel.
During the Watergate scandal, Colson's self assurance and religious apathy broke one night after a Christian businessman and friend, Tom Phillips, prayed for him. Phillips read this passage to Colson from C.S. Lewis' Mere Christianity: "Pride always means enmity-it is enmity. And not only enmity between man and man, but enmity to God. ... As long as you are proud you cannot know God."
Colson said in his bestselling memoir Born Again that the passage described him exactly and precipitated his conversion. Prominent members of The Fellowship-Doug Coe and Sen. Harold Hughes-discipled him in his early faith, along with Reformed theologian R.C. Sproul. When Colson's conversion became public, many doubted the sincerity of Nixon's "hatchet man." One columnist wrote, "If he isn't embarrassed by this sudden excess of piety, then surely the Lord must be."
In June 1974 Colson pled guilty to attempting to spread damaging information about Ellsberg and obstructing justice. The judge sentenced Colson to one to three years in prison. At the time Nixon sent him a handwritten note saying Watergate would become a "footnote in history," and the country would remember Colson fondly. Though Watergate isn't yet a footnote, Nixon was right about Colson's reputation.
At a federal prison in Alabama, Colson the inmate found a small but steadily growing Christian group within the walls, as he recounts in Born Again. Upon his release seven months later, he decided to start a prison ministry. The logo since Prison Fellowship's earliest days has featured a bent reed, referencing Isaiah 42:3: "A bruised reed he will not break, a smoldering wick he will not snuff out." It reflected Colson's belief that no one-not the most hardened criminal nor the most egotistical Washingtonian-was beyond hope.
Prison, on the other hand, was not rehabilitating, Colson said he learned, but rather a "steady, gradual corrosion of a man's soul."
"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, dean of Beeson Divinity School at Samford University and a close personal friend. George and Colson wrote a column together for many years in Christianity Today. "He was an evangelist at his deepest heart ... but he realized that preaching the gospel is not just dropping tracts from a blimp."
Once Colson left prison and started a successful ministry, "there was a lot of celebrity surrounding Chuck," said Michael Cromartie, vice president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center. Cromartie served as researcher and travel companion to Colson then. In airports, people would recognize Colson as "the evangelical, former White House counsel, ex-convict," said Cromartie. Everyone in Christendom was sending him books to read, Cromartie added, and he was speaking in prisons all over the world.
As Prison Fellowship got off the ground in the late 1970s, the Moral Majority also formed, and criminal justice wasn't on the agenda. "When Chuck would go around and talk about prisoners and prison reform, it was a splash of cold water," said Cromartie. "Chuck was pricking the evangelical conscience" and making sure that "the most forgotten people in our society" weren't forgotten. He later began Justice Fellowship, a public policy arm to push for criminal justice reforms.
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. He also learned to work across theological aisles: Colson developed relationships with top Catholic scholars like the late Richard John Neuhaus and later Princeton's Robert George. (Colson's wife Patty is Catholic.) Out of that alliance came the 1994 initiative Evangelicals and Catholics Together, which proved to be controversial and opened a rift with his mentor Sproul, who believed Colson was minimizing the differences between Catholics and Protestants. "It's been really great for both sides," said Robert George, particularly for the "ecumenism of the trenches" on pro-life and other issues.
When people think of Colson, "First they think of Watergate," said Robert George. "They'll think of Chuck as an activist, an organizer, and institution grower. What is often overlooked is Chuck as an intellectual leader" springing from his "high view of the relationship of reason and faith."
In 2010, Colson, Robert George, and Timothy George (no relation) composed the Manhattan Declaration, a statement of the church's values on marriage, religious freedom, and abortion that half a million people since have signed, including evangelical, Catholic, Orthodox, and Anglican leaders. Colson penned the now well known last lines of the Manhattan Declaration: "We will fully and ungrudgingly render to Caesar what is Caesar's. But under no circumstances will we render to Caesar what is God's."
In Colson's own life, his relationship with family warmed over the years. As a young Marine, Colson married Nancy Billings in 1953, and their marriage ended in divorce 10 years later. They had three children. He then married Patty, his wife of 48 years, and after his conversion became a fierce opponent of divorce. "Back in his law days and his White House days he did not prioritize his family in a way that was healthy," said author Ellen Vaughn, who worked with Colson for 24 years as co-author of some of his books. "Over the years he began connecting with the kids and Patty in a whole different way. ... She was not just a means to his end."
Colson the man also was warmer than the average Washington figurehead. When he walked into a room, "there was a real humility and a real compassion and care for others," said Vaughn. He hugged people a lot in a city that doesn't hug and he was a meticulous thank-you note writer. He also was a practical joker who served drinks with fake flies frozen into the ice cubes and composed phony memos to his staff.
All that Colson undertook came with a certain "relentlessness," said Vaughn. "He would really press and drive many to distraction, but he pressed himself most of all, never seeing anything as improbable." Yet even in urgent calls to the church, said Vaughn, he was an optimist: "He said, 'We're chief of sinners and we're saved. There's no one beyond hope.' ... He wasn't hanging up and saying, 'Come quickly, Lord Jesus.'"
So it was perhaps fitting that when Colson collapsed on March 30, it was in the middle of delivering a speech at the Wilberforce Weekend Conference hosted by the Chuck Colson Center for Christian Worldview in northern Virginia. 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 at the Washington, D.C., area hospital in the weeks following surgery, though colleagues were optimistic about his recovery as he showed signs of apparent consciousness and improvement.
In his final speech, he challenged the Wilberforce audience concerning public hostility toward Christians, saying, "If things are bad, don't think it's going to be solved by an election. It's going to be solved by us."
But he warned his audience not to listen to caricatures of Christians: "We're also seen as wanting to impose our views on people. Don't let them tell you that. We don't impose anything. We propose. We propose an invitation to the wedding feast, to come to a better way of living. A better way of life. It's the great proposal."