An outstanding man died this past weekend. Chuck Colson (1931-2012) was a great author, speaker, and prison reformer.
He had gone from being a high-priced lawyer to senior counsel for President Richard Nixon to going to jail for Watergate-related crimes.
Before he went to prison, he had a dramatic conversion after a friend gave him a copy of C. S. Lewis’ classic book, "Mere Christianity." He describes the transformation Christ made in his life in his book, "Born Again," the first of about 30 titles he produced.
I have had the privilege of interviewing Chuck Colson about half a dozen times for Christian radio and television programs. He was always a great and insightful guest.
I remember one of those times in the mid-1990s. As I recall, it was a Saturday night, and I interviewed him after he spoke at a conference at the Broward County Convention Center. His assistant told him that there was a crowd waiting for him outside the room where we were doing the interview. But he told Colson he knew a way the two of them could escape through a back exit.
It was late. Colson had just given a long public speech, then he had to endure a TV interview with me. One could easily see how he would have chosen to simply slip away with his aide.
But Colson preferred to go meet with the crowd to talk with them. He was a very nice man — the man I got to see on camera and off-camera.
However, he wasn’t always that way. Someone erroneously said that Colson would drive over his own grandmother if it would help Richard Nixon. Colson said he had never made that statement, but he didn’t bother to correct the record because he liked the reputation it gave him.
One of his colleagues in the Nixon administration, Jeb Stuart Magruder, who worked for Nixon’s re-election campaign, wrote this in his 1974 memoir, "An American Life:" “I came to regard Colson as an evil genius. His brilliance was undeniable, but it was too often applied to encouraging Richard Nixon’s darker side, his desire to lash out at his enemies, his instinct for the jugular.”
Memoirs about political events can be self-serving and self-justifying. That would include Colson’s and Magruder’s. But it’s an interesting perspective to hear what a colleague of Colson said about the man before his professed conversion. Magruder continued, “I would have to say — granting always Nixon’s central responsibility for what happened in his administration — Colson was one of the men among his advisers most responsible for creating the climate that made Watergate possible, perhaps inevitable.”
Having served for seven months, after Chuck Colson got out of prison, he went on to found Prison Fellowship in 1976. This is a ministry that has tremendous impact in touching the lives of hundreds of thousands of inmates around the world. The main goal has been to change convicted criminals into godly men and women.
Chuck told me in a 2009 interview that Prison Fellowship is established in 114 countries across the globe. Just in the U.S., it has a presence in more than 1,300 prisons. Among many of its activities is providing Christmas gifts each year for the families of incarcerated men and women through the Angel Tree Project.
Chuck Colson did a daily radio commentary for about three minutes, on some 1,400 outlets across the country, reaching about 8 million listeners a week.
And Colson has been the driving force behind the Manhattan Declaration. This statement is geared toward uniting Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox Christians to take a stand in an increasingly hostile culture for life, for marriage, and for religious liberty.
Chuck Colson will be missed.
One of the most touching things I recall reading ever was where Colson was reflecting on his life, and he realized that he went from the pinnacle of power — with an office just a few doors down from the Oval Office — to being an inmate in prison. Yet it was the prison experience that God ended up using in his life the most — to help other inmates find God and grow in Christ.
In other words, God used his greatest failure in life for a greater good. As Cal Thomas points out, “Colson’s great legacy isn’t Watergate. It is Prison Fellowship.”
Not a bad legacy for a man who was once Tricky Dick’s “hatchet man.” Colson once said, “I can very well identify with Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who’s one of my great heroes. Solzhenitsyn says, Bless you, prison; bless you for being in my life; for there lying on the rotting prison straw, I came to realize that the object of life is not prosperity, as we are made to believe, but the maturing of the soul. [End of paraphrase]. For me, prison was a maturing of the soul.”
Chuck Colson was a great trophy of the grace of God.
Jerry Newcombe is host of and spokesman for Truth that Transforms with D. James Kennedy (formerly The Coral Ridge Hour). He has written or co-written 23 books, and hosts the website www.jerrynewcombe.com.
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