Remembering Charles Colson, a Man Transformed
Once it leaked out that Chuck Colson had become a man of prayer, cynicism erupted everywhere. The media's mockery was vicious and damaged whatever chances he might have had of evading the clutches of the prosecutors. So he was indicted—but on what charge? The evidence against him was slim. He apparently knew nothing about the Watergate break-in. Nor had he broken any easily identifiable criminal law, whatever might be said about his political amorality. The old Colson would have played every trick in the book to beat the rap. But a different Colson was emerging. In addition to his regular meetings with his prayer group, he was applying his first-class mind to reading Scripture, to studying Christian authors, and to taking his first stumbling steps in theology. His was learning and changing—although this was neither a quick nor an easy process.
Painful though it was, Colson's repentance was authentic. The most dramatic sign of this was that he became so convicted of sin that against the advice of his own lawyer he decided to plead guilty. To do this he had to find a unique section of the criminal code (18 USC Section 1503), under which he admitted "disseminating information whose probable consequences would be to influence, obstruct and impede the conduct and outcome of the criminal prosecution of Daniel Ellsberg." Since Ellsberg, the leaker of the Pentagon papers, was never prosecuted, this plea was (to put it mildly) a legal oddity. But in the fevered atmosphere of Watergate a judge accepted it and sentenced Colson to a 1-3 year prison term.
During the time he spent in jail, Colson had to learn many lessons in humility and penitence. Blows rained in on him. He failed to gain the presidential pardon that he had been expecting after the clemency granted to Nixon. He was disbarred from practicing law. His father died. His son was arrested for narcotics possession. But Colson gradually began surrendering to God's will. He immersed himself in Bible reading, started a prayer group with fellow prisoners, and completed the Design for Discipleship course published by the Navigators.
Yet his spiritual steps forward seemed to be accompanied by practical reverses. What he found particularly hard to bear was having his parole application denied after other Watergate prisoners, notably John Dean and Jeb Magruder, were freed. But Colson prayed on and was unexpectedly given parole in July 1975 after serving seven months of his sentence.
Born Again Celebrity
He did not settle easily into the world of freedom. There were continuing struggles between the old and the new man in him. But God's plan gradually became clear. He came up with the idea of starting a discipleship program for prisoners furloughed out to a Christian retreat house. The head of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, Norman Carlson, listened to Colson's presentation of his scheme and gave it the go-ahead on an experimental basis. This was the genesis of what was to develop into the worldwide ministry of Prison Fellowship (PF).
While he was working out his vocation for discipling prisoners, Colson wrote a book which became a worldwide best-seller. This was Born Again. The phrase was little known outside evangelical circles in 1976. But Colson's title and the searingly emotional narrative he had written about his journey and his conversion changed that. It also helped when an emerging candidate for the presidency, Jimmy Carter, described himself as a Christian who had been "born again." The whole world started to ask what these two words meant. Colson, via Nicodemus and John 3:1-8, provided an answer.