Evangelical Leader Chuck Colson Dead at 80
As Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson gained much of the media attention for their political involvement, Colson took a more backstage role.
"He stood out from the crowd because he had connections to elite society that most evangelical leaders lacked," said Larry Eskridge, associate director of the Institute for the Study of American Evangelicals at Wheaton College. "In that way, he was a valuable addition to the fold simply because he knew people."
As evangelicals negotiated political activism, they would call on Colson to give advice and make introductions, Eskridge said. "He never quite had an empire in the way that James Dobson or Jerry Falwell did," Eskridge said. "He kind of fits the evangelical entrepreneur mold in the sense of how he took the bull by the horns and created Prison Fellowship out of pretty much nothing."
Aiming to convert convicts into citizens, Prison Fellowship has successfully capitalized on church-based voluntarism.
“Chuck was a bridge builder,” said Jim Liske, CEO of Prison Fellowship. “He birthed an organization to empower the local church that continues to bring shalom to communities. He constantly looked for ways to help other organizations do the same thing.”
The ministry operates in 1,300 correctional facilities with about a $40 million budget and works with over 7,000 churches in the United States.
"His legacy will be a clear example of a person whose experience with Christian conversion evidenced itself in a clear and profound way," said Michael Cromartie, vice president at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. "He's an example of a public figure whose conversion stuck and evidenced in ways that were socially important."
Prison Fellowship's Angel Tree Ministry delivers thousands of Christmas gifts each year to children of inmates.
"Chuck enlarged and broadened evangelical outreach by emphasizing the inclusion of a strong biblically rooted justice component," said Samuel Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference.
Colson graduated from Brown University and earned a law degree from George Washington University before joining the Nixon administration. His personal life included some messy parts. Colson had three children with his first wife, Nancy Billings, whom he later divorced. In 1964, he married Patty Hughes, his wife of nearly 50 years. He has described his divorce as "the unhappiest and least attractive part of my life." After Watergate, he served seven months in prison.
In his later years, Colson would note his relationship with his autistic grandson, Max. Colson wrote the prologue and epilogue to his daughter Emily Colson's 2010 book Dancing With Max (Zondervan).
Colson's cultural and political commentary reached millions of readers and listeners. His books, including his 1976 autobiography Born Again, have sold more than 25 million copies. His radio show BreakPoint reaches more than 1,200 outlets, and his Wilberforce Forum promotes Christian worldview thinking and teaching. In 1993, Colson won the Templeton Prize of $1 million for progress in religion. His award money, speaking fees, and royalties went to Prison Fellowship.
“He allowed a humbling period to define him and his whole posture to the culture,” said Eric Metaxas, who has written biographies of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and William Wilberforce. He took over for Colson on BreakPoint's radio show after Colson fell ill. “One of the important things about Chuck is his commitment to worship God with our minds. As incredibly serious Chuck was about theology and evangelism, he brought those things into the public sphere.”