“One of the greatest things that happened in my life was going to prison. I was increasingly drawn to the idea that God had put me in prison for a purpose and that I should do something for those I had left behind.” Chuck Colson
July 9, 1974 – Maxwell Air Force Base, Montgomery, Alabama: Chuck Colson arrived at the federal minimum-security prison in Alabama’s capital city to begin serving his three-year sentence. It was a sad day, full of guilt and remorse. At 38 years old, he had been on top of the world as special legal counsel to President Richard Nixon, the 37th president of the United States and the most powerful man in the world. Now at 43, Colson felt his life was over. He sat in his cell and cried for the first time in years.
Colson was a hard-drinking, heavy-smoking, ruthless attorney who joked he would step over his grandmother to help Nixon. He had taken great pride in being referred to as ‘Nixon’s hatchet man’ or ‘the president’s evil genius,’ but now newspapers vilified him. He was a national disgrace, and on this sultry summer afternoon, Charles Colson reflected on his shattered life.
He was born in 1931 in Boston, Massachusetts. His dad was a struggling attorney, primarily because he donated much of his legal services to the United Prison Association of New England. Colson earned his Bachelor of Arts from Brown University and his law degree from George Washington University. Two years later, he opened a law practice in Boston, which later expanded to Washington, D.C.
In 1968 Colson served as counsel on Richard Nixon’s presidential campaign. In November 1969, he was appointed Special Counsel to the president. During the Nixon administration, Colson was convicted of masterminding the Watergate Scandal, the bungled burglary and wiretapping scheme at the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate Office complex in D.C.
With his life turned upside down, Colson turned to Tom Philips, a Christian friend, for guidance and support. Before Colson’s sentencing, Philip’s read a chapter, “The Great Sin,” from C.S. Lewis’s book Mere Christianity, to his troubled friend. Colson knew Lewis was talking about him.
Sitting in his car after leaving Philip’s house, Colson was overcome by the enormity of his sin. He repented of his ways and reported to prison with a changed heart. Colson’s “born again experience” became a national joke with the media. They insinuated that he got religion in hopes of a shorter prison sentence.
Two months after Colson reported to Maxwell, Richard Nixon resigned his presidency. White House tapes had confirmed that he used the CIA to obstruct the federal investigation of the Watergate break-in.
Colson was unexpectedly paroled in January 1975 after serving only seven months of his sentence. Before leaving the facility, he promised his fellow prisoners that he would never forget them. True to his word, a year later Colson founded Prison Fellowship Ministry to bring the gospel to those incarcerated and their families. That same year, Colson’s book Born Again, a brutally honest story of his fall from power, became a national bestseller.
Today, Prison Fellowship is the world’s largest prison ministry, with a team in almost 1,400 prisons in 120 countries. Chuck Colson wrote more than 20 books, which sold more than five million copies. All the proceeds were used to support the prison ministry. In 1993, he won the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion. He donated the $1million cash award to the ministry.
Chuck Colson faithfully served Prison Fellowship for 36 years until his death in April 2012 at age 80. He shared his story and faith in more than 600 prisons in 40 countries. In 1974, his promising legal career went down in flames, but he found his calling in a prison cell in Montgomery, Alabama.