Editor’s Note: This is a sad day for the whole Christian community. We remember Chuck Colson for so many things, but particularly for the love of Christ he extended to the “least of these,” inmates in prison all over the world, and for his ecumenism, as he did so much to forward evangelicals and Catholics working together. Below is the official notice from Prison Fellowship.
CHUCK COLSON, Founder of prison fellowship & Colson Center for Christian Worldview, dies at age 80
LANSDOWNE, Va., April 21, 2012—Evangelical Christianity lost one of its most eloquent and influential voices today with the death of Charles W. “Chuck” Colson. The Prison Fellowship and Colson Center for Christian Worldview founder died at 3:12 p.m. ET today at the age of 80. After a brief illness, Colson passed away at a Northern Virginia hospital with his wife, Patty, and family at his bedside.
On March 30, Colson became ill while speaking at a Colson Center for Christian Worldview conference in Lansdowne. The following morning he had surgery to remove a pool of clotted blood on the surface of his brain, and doctors determined he had suffered an intracerebral hemorrhage. Though Colson remained in intensive care, doctors and family were optimistic for a recovery as he showed some signs of improvement. However, Tuesday (April 17) Colson became gravely ill when further complications developed.
A Watergate figure who emerged from the country’s worst political scandal, a vocal Christian leader and a champion for prison ministry, Colson spent the last years of his life in the dual role of leading Prison Fellowship, the world’s largest outreach to prisoners, ex-prisoners and their families, and the Colson Center, a research and training center focused on Christian worldview teaching.
Colson has been a central figure in the evangelical Christian community since he shocked the Washington establishment in 1973 by revealing his new Christian commitment in the midst of the Watergate inquiry. In later years Colson would say that because he was known primarily as Nixon’s “Hatchet Man,” the declaration that “ ’I’ve been born again and given my life to Jesus Christ’ kept the political cartoonists of America clothed and fed for a solid month.” It also gave new visibility to the emerging movement of “born-again” Christians.
Put Prison Ministry on the Church’s Agenda
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, which was prosecuted in the acutely sensitive Watergate atmosphere. He entered Maxwell Federal Prison Camp in Alabama in 1974 as a new Christian and as the first member of the Nixon administration to be incarcerated for Watergate-related charges. He served seven months of a one- to three-year sentence.
Colson emerged from prison with a new mission: mobilizing the Christian Church to minister to prisoners. He founded Prison Fellowship in 1976; this would become perhaps his greatest contribution to the Church and the world. Although many local churches had ministered in nearby prisons for many years, most observers would affirm that Colson and Prison Fellowship truly put prison ministry on the agenda of the church in a substantial way.
Colson’s personal prison experience and his frequent ministry visits to prisons also developed in him new concerns about the efficacy of the American criminal justice system. His founding of Justice Fellowship in 1983 helped make Colson one of the nation’s most influential voices for criminal justice reform. His call for alternative punishments for non-violent offenders was often effective because Colson’s conservative credentials enabled him to line up conservative legislators in support of what had traditionally been seen as a liberal set of reforms.
That passion and sense of obligation to God’s calling and to his fellow inmates took Colson into prisons several times a year. He visited some 600 prisons in the U.S. and 40 other countries, and built a movement that at one time extended to more than 50,000 prison ministry volunteers. Often, particularly in the early days of Prison Fellowship, he was vocal in his disgust over the terrible conditions in the prisons and the need for more humane conditions and better access to religious programs.