From 1931 to 2012.
One of the most wonderful things about being a Christian is that I don't ever get up in the morning and wonder if what I do matters.
Charles W. Colson was one of the most remarkable leaders of the evangelical world. An honors graduate of Brown University and the American University Law School, a Marine captain, and a successful lawyer, Colson first achieved fame (or notoriety) as Special Counsel to President Nixon. As a member of Nixon's inner circle, Colson quickly developed a reputation for ruthlessness as "Nixon's hatchet man." He was involved in leaking confidential FBI reports to the press to undermine Daniel Ellsberg during the Pentagon Papers trial and to discredit the antiwar movement, and was involved with Watergate and the subsequent cover-up.
Although he left the administration for private practice in 1973, Colson was indicted in connection with Watergate in March 1974. As Colson watched his life begin to unravel, a close friend gave him a copy of C. S. Lewis's Mere Christianity. After reading it, Colson gave his life to Christ and converted to Christianity. His conversion was roundly mocked by many in the press, but nonetheless it moved him to make a deal with prosecutors. He told them that he was not guilty of what they were charging him with, but that he was guilty of obstruction of justice and he was prepared to plead guilty to that. The prosecutors accepted his offer, and Colson went to prison.
Colson spent seven months in Maxwell Correctional Facility Alabama. While there, he was struck by the dehumanizing conditions in the facility and determined to do something to help those in prison. In 1976, he founded Prison Fellowship, which has grown into the largest prison ministry in the world. Prison Fellowship hosts Bible studies, sets up aftercare programs, and in some prisons, runs entire wards under a program called the InnerChange Freedom Initiative. A study by Dr. Byron Johnson of the University of Pennsylvania concluded that IFI cut the recidivism rate from 20.3 percent of the control group to 8 percent. In 1983, Colson also set up Justice Fellowship to work on bipartisan legislation for criminal justice reform.
In 1993, Colson was awarded the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion, which he donated along with all of the royalties from his books to Prison Fellowship.
Given the high recidivism rate of released prisoners, Colson became interested in the causes of crime. Ultimately his research led him to the importance of worldview in shaping society and individual behavior. Much of the last period of his life was spent writing and teaching about this topic.
Another important venture spearheaded by Colson and Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, founder and editor of First Things, was Evangelicals and Catholics Together, a 1994 document that identified important areas of common ground between the two traditions. This helped lay the foundation for the 2009 Manhattan Declaration, which brought together Evangelical, Catholic, and Orthodox leaders in a joint statement on the sanctity of life, the dignity of traditional marriage, and religious freedom. He continued to focus on this to the end, falling ill at the "Breaking the Spiral of Silence" conference intended to move people to action to support the causes promoted in the Manhattan Declaration.
Colson was a prolific writer, authoring or co-authoring some 30 books. He was also responsible for developing curricula for worldview and for ethics, creating an initiative to bring together and informally to coordinate the work of worldview ministries, setting up a training program for worldview teachers, and a host of other projects. Even into his 80s, Colson had enormous energy and a tremendously fertile mind. His leadership will be sorely missed.
Hero of Liberty image attribution: White House photo (Nixon Presidential Library ) [Public domain], via Wikimedia