(Born in Boston, MA, October 16, 1931 – April 21, 2012)
More than 30 years ago, Charles W. Colson was not thinking about reaching out to prison inmates or reforming the U.S. penal system. In fact, as an aide to President Richard Nixon he was “incapable of humanitarian thought,” according to the media of the mid-1970s. Colson was known as the White House “hatchet man,” a man feared by even the most powerful politicos during his four years of service to President Nixon.
When news of Colson’s conversion to Christianity leaked to the press in 1973, the Boston Globe reported, “If Mr. Colson can repent of his sins, there just has to be hope for everybody.” Colson would agree. He admits he was guilty of political “dirty tricks” and willing to do almost anything for the cause of his president and his party.
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 entered Alabama’s Maxwell Prison 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 before being released.
But Colson never really left prison. Haunted by the desperation and hopelessness he saw behind bars, Colson knew he had to do something to help the men he left behind. In fact, he had a promise to keep. One day, shortly before leaving prison, Colson was going about his business in the prison dorm while some inmates played cards. Suddenly, one of the players, a six-foot-tall prisoner named Archie, bellowed, “Hey, Colson. You’ll be out of here soon. What are you going to do for us?”
Suddenly, the whole room fell silent. All ears were straining to hear the answer. “I’ll help in some way,” replied Colson. “I’ll never forget you guys or this stinking place.”
“Bull!” roared Archie, slamming down the pack of cards on the table. “You all say that. I’ve seen big shots like you come and go. They all say the same things while they’re inside. Then they get out and forget us fast. There ain’t nobody cares about us. Nobody!”
But today, 35 years later, thousands upon thousands of Christian volunteers and churches do care. They care enough to visit prison, mentor prisoners, help their families, and share the Good News of Christ with them.
That’s because in 1976, Colson founded Prison Fellowship®, which, together with churches of all confessions and denominations, has become the world’s largest outreach to prisoners, ex-prisoners, and their families, with ministry taking place in 113 countries around the globe.
Today Prison Fellowship has numerous ways for Christians to join in ministry that is not only transforming prisoners and their families, but also transforming the criminal justice system, our communities, and the culture itself: From in-prison Bible studies and mentoring programs to helping the children of prisoners understand how much God loves them, from advocating for biblically based justice reforms to promoting a biblical worldview.
In reflecting on his time in prison Colson had this to say, “When the frustration of my helplessness seemed greatest, I discovered God’s grace was more than sufficient. And after my imprisonment, I could look back and see how God used my powerlessness for His purpose. What He has chosen for my most significant witness was not my triumphs or victories, but my defeat…my lowest days as Christian (and there were low ones–seven months’ worth of them in prison, to be exact) have been more fulfilling and rewarding than all my days of glory in the White House.”
Colson sensed God’s calling to comment on the culture through the written and spoken word. He has written more than 30 books, which have collectively sold more than five million copies. His autobiographical book Born Again was one of the nation’s best-selling books of all genres in 1976 and was made into a feature-length film.
Colson faced a health scare in 1987 when he had surgery for stomach cancer and a painful recovery. He was in Georgetown University Hospital when he learned that former CIA director William Casey was in the room next to him. As Casey was on his deathbed, Colson pointed to a crucifix and asked if Casey knew what it meant. According to Jonathan Aitken’s biography, Casey grunted in agreement. “Then you know it means that Christ died for your sins,” Colson said. “It’s important for you to know him personally at this time. Would you like to pray?” It was, Colson said later, “the real reason I was in that hospital.”
During his recovery, Colson corresponded with Nixon, where he wrote, “It takes more than Watergate or a little cancer to hold me down. I’ll be back stronger than ever.”
In 1999, Colson and Nancy Pearcey co-authored the groundbreaking book How Now Shall We Live?, challenging Christians to understand biblical faith as an entire worldview–a perspective on all of life. In this book, Colson and Pearcey argue that the great battle of the twenty-first century is a struggle between the spiritual and the secular worldviews.
In one of his recent books, The Faith, Colson issues an urgent call to the Church to recapture its passion for the historical, orthodox truths of Christianity–especially in this age when the Church is besieged on all sides by secularism, radical Islam, and militant atheism.
While Colson was one of the Christian community’s most sought-after speakers, he resolutely refused to establish a speaking fee. Perhaps anticipating criticism of any appearance of self-enrichment by a former Watergate figure, Colson donated all speaking honoraria and book royalties to Prison Fellowship, and accepted the salary of a mid-range ministry executive.
In recognition of his work, Colson received the prestigious Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion in 1993, donating the $1 million prize to Prison Fellowship. And in 2008, Colson was honored by President Bush with the Presidential Citizens Medal for his years of work with prisoners and their families, which Colson accepted on behalf of the volunteers and staff of Prison Fellowship. Colson’s other awards have included the Humanitarian Award, Dominos Pizza Corporation (1991); The Others Award, The Salvation Army (1990); several honorary doctorates from various colleges and universities (1982-2000); and the Outstanding Young Man of Boston, Chamber of Commerce (1960).
Despite his work critiquing the culture, Colson’s heart was ever with the prisoner. He clearly never forgot the promise he made to his fellow inmates during his brief stay in prison: that he would “never forget” those behind bars.
Chuck was a model example of someone who used his experience in prison for good, and better yet, for the saving of many lives and the ultimate glory of God!
*Article adapted from the Prison Fellowship website.
If you would like to know more about this amazing Christian leader – Jonathan Aitken wrote an excellent biography on Colson in 2005, Charles W. Colson: A Life Redeemed published by Random House. Product description: Once one of the most despised men in American, Colson went from being Richard Nixon’s “hatchet man” to becoming a leading evangelical. How was a convicted criminal transformed into a Christian servant? Drawing on Colson’s personal papers, Aitken’s biography takes an unprecedented look at the man who continues to influence politics, religion and prison ministry.
Here is List of Most of Colson’s Outstanding Books
2011: The Sky Is Not Falling: Living Fearlessly in These Turbulent Times (Worthy Publishing). Product description: Yes, the world is an increasingly godless place. And it’s never been as pronounced as it is in this era of 24-hour news cycles. From nasty political power struggles to raunchy reality TV, everywhere we look there is evidence of our culture’s steep decline. But it’s no time for Christians to cower in fear. In The Sky Is Not Falling, bestselling author Chuck Colson equips readers with the truth about the most difficult cultural and moral issues of our day and brings clarity and sanity to a world that seems to have gone mad. His message is that Christians must be informed of the truth of today’s confusing social and political issues so that we can live with the confidence and certainty that God has the future in his hands. Every concerned Christian needs to arm themselves with the profound insights in The Sky is Not Falling.
2008: The Faith co-authored with Harold Fickett (Zondervan). Product description: Rightly understood and rightly communicated, the Christian faith is one of great joy. It is an invitation to God’s kingdom, where tears are replaced by laughter and longing hearts find their purpose and their home. This is the heart of the gospel: God’s search to reclaim us and love us as his own. But have we truly grasped this? Those of us who have disdained Christianity as a religion of bigotry—have we repudiated the genuine article or merely demonstrated our own prejudice and ignorance? Those of us who are Christians—have we deeply apprehended the mission of Jesus, and do our ways and character faithfully reflect his beauty? From the nature of God, to the human condition, to the work of Jesus, to God’s coming kingdom, and all that lies between, how well do we understand the foundational truths of Christianity and their implications? The Faith is a book for our troubled times and for decades to come, for Christians and non-Christians alike. It is the most important book Chuck Colson and Harold Fickett have ever written: a thought-provoking, soul-searching, and powerful manifesto of the great, historical central truths of Christianity that have sustained believers through the centuries. Brought to immediacy with vivid, true stories, here is what Christianity is really about and why it is a religion of hope, redemption, and beauty.
2008: Gideon’s Torch with Ellen Vaughn (Thomas Nelson). Product description: Gideon’s Torch is his and coauthor Vaughn’s first novel, a political tale steeped in the details of the White House, the Justice Department, and the K Street maneuverings of those seeking power. As Republican president J. Whitney Lowell takes office, a woman walks into a North Dakota abortion clinic and kills a doctor. Watching the polls, Lowell decides to crack down on every antiabortion group nationwide, whether violent or peaceful, and a civil liberties debate quickly erupts. Before Lowell’s tactics can produce a killer, another group steals a National Institute of Health training video containing shots of a brutal third-trimester abortion and manages to uplink the video to the evening news. And before these terrorists can be apprehended, another group stages an Oklahoma City-style bombing on the first of the sinister-seeming Regeneration Centers, which will use fetuses in AIDS research. They botch their escape and are killed, leaving government prosecutors no case except against an alleged accessory, a Maryland preacher named Daniel Seaton. Seaton’s courtroom testimony and death in prison are linked to the tribulations of St. Paul and give the novel a certain mournful elegance. Colson and Vaughn present every warring faction fairly; the portraits of the president and attorney general are particularly sensitive, and the suicide of Lowell’s chief adviser is quite movingly done.
2007: God & Government (Zondervan). Product description: How should Christians live their faith in the public arena? Twenty years ago, the first edition of Chuck Colson’s Kingdoms in Conflict became a bestseller, a must-read for people interested in politics and the relationship between church and state. Now, with a passion for truth and moved by the urgency of the times we live in, Colson has written God and Government, re-voicing his powerful and enduring message for our post-9/11 world. In an era when Christianity is being attacked from every side—books being written charging Christians with being theocrats and trying to impose their views on an unwilling culture—what is the message of the Christian church? What does the Bible say, and what do we learn from history about the proper relationship between faith and culture? Appealing to scripture, reason, and history, this book tackles society’s most pressing and divisive issues. New stories and examples reflect the realities of today, from the clash with radical Islam to the deep division between ‘reds’ and ‘blues.’ In an era of angry finger pointing, Colson furnishes a unique insider’s perspective that can’t be pigeonholed as either ‘religious right’ or ‘religious left.’ Whatever your political or religious stance, this book will give you a different understanding of Christianity. If you’re a Christian, it will help you to both examine and defend your faith. If you’ve been critical of the new religious right, you’ll be shocked at what you learn. Probing both secular and religious values, God and Government critiques each fairly, sides with neither, and offers a hopeful, fair-minded perspective that is sorely needed in today’s hyper-charged atmosphere.
2005: The Good Life co-authored with Harold Fickett (Tyndale). Product description: Sharing from his own life, as well as the stories of others, Chuck Colson exposes the counterfeits of the good life and leads readers to the only true source of meaning and purpose, Jesus Christ. But he does that in an unusual way, allowing powerful stories to illustrate how people have lived out their beliefs in ways that either satisfy or leave them empty. Colson addresses seekers—people looking for the truth. He shows through stories that the truth is knowable and that the truly good life is one that lives within the truth. Through the book, readers get to understand their own stories and find answers to their own search for meaning, purpose, and truth.
2004: The Design Revolution: Answering the Toughest Questions About Intelligent Design with William A. Dembski (Inter Varsity Press). Product description: Winner of a Christianity Today 2005 Book Award! A 2005 Gold Medallion finalist. Is it science? Is it religion? What exactly is the Design Revolution? Today scientists, mathematicians and philosophers in the intelligent design movement are challenging a certain view of science–one that limits its investigations and procedures to purely law-like and mechanical explanations. They charge that there is no scientific reason to exclude the consideration of intelligence, agency and purpose from truly scientific research. In fact, they say, the practice of science often does already include these factors! As the intelligent design movement has gained momentum, questions have naturally arisen to challenge its provocative claims. In this book William A. Dembski rises to the occasion clearly and concisely answering the most vexing questions posed to the intelligent design program. Writing with non-experts in mind, Dembski responds to more than sixty questions asked by experts and non-experts alike who have attended his many public lectures, as well as objections raised in written reviews. The Design Revolution has begun. Its success depends on how well it answers the questions of its detractors. Read this book and you’ll have a good idea of the prospects and challenges facing this revolution in scientific thinking.
2001: Justice That Restores (Tyndale). Product description: America’s justice system is broken. Offenders repeat and return to jail. Chuck Colson shows why the prevailing systems of criminal justice simply don’t work. The book showcases Colson at his best, including personal stories, historical study, and shocking statistics. Bottom line: only a system that is based on a biblical worldview, a system that restores both the offender and the offended, will have any lasting success. This authoritative work is Colson’s legacy statement about criminal justice. These proven principles can reverse the current criminal decline.
Christianity is more than a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. It is also a worldview that answers life’s basic questions and shows us how we should live as a result of those answers. How Now Shall We Live? equips Christians to confront false worldviews and live redemptively in contemporary culture.
1998: Burden of Truth: Defending the Truth in an Age of Unbelief (Tyndale). Product description: Popular author Charles Colson provides practical help for Christians in understanding difficult issues on which their faith collides with the surrounding culture. Burden of Truth covers topics such as medical ethics, education, crime, science, pop culture, family, art, and government. In Burden of Truth Colson spurs Christians on in confronting the deception of the world with the truth of God’s Word.
1996 (Revised in 2004): Being The Body with Ellen Santilli Vaughn (Thomas Nelson). Product description: Charles Colson has been called, “one of the most important social reformers in a generation.” Ten years ago in The Body, Colson turned his prophetic attention to the church and how it might break out of its cultural captivity and reassert its biblical identity. Today the book’s classic truths have not changed. But the world we live in has. Christians in America have had their complacency shattered and their beliefs challenged. Around the world, the clash of worldviews has never been more strident. Before all of us, daily, are the realities of life and death, terror and hope, light and darkness, brokenness and healing. We cannot withdraw to the comfort of our sanctuaries…we must engage. For, if ever there was a time for Christians to be the Body of Christ in the world, it is now. In this new, revised and expanded edition of The Body, Charles Colson revisits the question, “What is the church and what is its relevance to contemporary culture at large?” Provocative and insightful, Being the Body inspires us to rise above a stunted “Jesus and me” faith to a nobler view of something bigger and grander than ourselves–the glorious, holy vision for which God created the church.
1994: A Dangerous Grace with Nancy R. Pearcey. Product description: In his first book of daily readings, Charles Colson shares truths and warnings on timely and timeless subjects ranging from Aristotle and the Apostles to MTV, the arts and evolution. In this daily devotional Colson presents a full year of cutting edge, “think” pieces sure to motivate Christians to action.
1993: A Dance with Deception: Revealing the truth behind the headlines (Word – revised edition – 2004). Product description: Here are more than 150 commentaries on life in America today, transcribed from Charles Colson’s daily radio program “BreakPoint”. Colson pulls no punches in this confrontation between the myths of modern life and the truth of God’s Word.
1993: The Body: Being Light in Darkness with Ellen Santilli Vaughn (Word). See the Revised Being the Body above.
1991: Why America Doesn’t Work with Jack Eckerd (Word). Product description: In this uncompromising bestseller, two veterans of public service and private business reveal how America’s work ethic has been stripped of its true meaning. Readers are then given the critical steps necessary to halt America’s declining work ethic through an infusion of unique programs, hard work, and a renewed sense of integrity. Colson founded the Board of Prison Fellowship Ministries, and Eckerd founded the Eckerd drugstore chain.
1989: Against the Night: Living in the New Dark Ages (Servant). Product description: Ten years ago when Charles Colson’s top-selling Against the Night appeared, he described the demise of Western culture as the “new dark ages.” The book describes in particular the ominous shadows that have engulfed politics, family life and education. Today as we face the new millennium, the book is still pertinent, as the darkness has not lifted. It seems in many ways to have thickened. Against the Night, however, is not pessimistic. It gives Christians hope that as we regain our vision of living in God’s kingdom and being God’s people, we will be a light in the darkness.
1987: Kingdoms in Conflict with Ellen Santilli Vaughn (William Morrow & Co.). See revised and expanded edition: God and Government above.
1983: Loving God (Harper – Revised in 1997 by Zondervan). Product description: In his magnificent classic, Chuck Colson shakes the church from its complacency with a penetrating look at the cost of being Christian. For those who have wondered whether there isn’t more to Christianity than what they have known—and for those who have never considered the question—Loving God points the way to faith’s cutting edge. Here is a compelling, probing look at the cost of discipleship and the meaning of the first and greatest commandment—one that will strum a deeper, truer chord within even as it strips away the trappings of shallow, cultural Christianity. ‘Looking for the complete volume on Christian living? This is it. And the title sums it up. If you desire life deep, rich, and meaningful, then it is simply Loving God.’ Joni Eareckson Tada President, Joni and Friends
1979: Life Sentence (Chosen Books – Revised in 1999). Product description: The sequel to Colson’s bestseller, Born Again, this book reveals how he began a new life and his struggle to begin a new ministry.
1976: Born Again (Chosen Books – Revised by Hendricksen & Chosen in 2008). Product description: In 1974 Charles W. Colson pleaded guilty to Watergate-related offenses and, after a tumultuous investigation, served seven months in prison. In his search for meaning and purpose in the face of the Watergate scandal, Colson penned Born Again. This unforgettable memoir shows a man who, seeking fulfillment in success and power, found it, paradoxically, in national disgrace and prison. In more than three decades since its initial publication, Born Again has brought hope and encouragement to millions. This remarkable story of new life continues to influence lives around the world. This expanded edition includes a brand-new introduction and a new epilogue by Colson, recounting the writing of his bestselling book and detailing some of the ways his background and ministry have brought hope and encouragement to so many.