Chuck Colson

A Promise To Keep

The story of Chuck Colson’s transformation, and the reality of the global organization he has built to help others transform their lives, serves as a divine inspiration. Here is that story and how he came to found the Prison Fellowship:

More than 30 years ago, Charles W. Colson was not thinking about reaching out to prison inmates or reforming the U.S. penal system. In fact, this aide to President Richard Nixon was "incapable of humanitarian thought," according to the media of the mid-1970s.

Colson was known as the White House "hatchet man," a man feared by even the most powerful politicos during his four years of service to President Nixon.

When news of Colson's conversion to Christianity leaked to the press in 1973, the Boston Globe reported, "If Mr. Colson can repent of his sins, there just has to be hope for everybody."

Colson would agree. He admits he was guilty of political "dirty tricks" and willing to do almost anything for the cause of his president and his party. In 1974, Colson entered a plea of guilty to Watergate-related charges.

He entered Alabama's Maxwell Prison in 1974 as a new Christian and as the first member of the Nixon administration to be incarcerated for Watergate-related charges. He served seven months of a one-to-three year sentence before being released.

But Colson never really left prison. Haunted by the desperation and hopelessness he saw behind bars, Colson knew he had to do something to help the men he left behind. In fact, he had a promise to keep.

The Promise of Ministry

One day, shortly before leaving prison, Colson was going about his business in the prison dorm while some inmates played cards. Suddenly, one of the players, a six-foot-inch prisoner named Archie, bellowed, "Hey, Colson. You'll be out of here soon. What are you going to do for us?"

Suddenly, the whole room fell silent. All ears were straining to hear the answer. "I'll help in some way," replied Colson. "I'll never forget you guys or this stinking place."

"Bull!" roared Archie, slamming down the pack of cards on the table. "You all say that. I've seen big shots like you come and go. They all say the same things while they're inside. Then they get out and forget us fast. There ain't nobody cares about us. Nobody!"

But today, nearly 35 years later, thousands upon thousands of Christian volunteers and churches in 113 countries around the world do care-care enough to visit prison, to mentor prisoners, help their families, to share the Good News of Christ with them.

That's because in 1976, Colson founded Prison Fellowship, which, together with churches of all confessions and denominations, has become the world's largest outreach to prisoners, ex-prisoners, and their families, with ministry taking place in 113 countries around the globe.

Today Prison Fellowship has numerous ways for Christians to join in ministry that is not only transforming prisoners and their families, but also transforming the criminal justice system, our communities, and the culture itself: From in-prison Bible studies and mentoring prisoners to helping the children of prisoners understand how much God loves them, from advocating for biblically based justice reforms to promoting a biblical worldview.

Despite his work critiquing the culture, Colson's heart is ever with the prisoner. He has clearly never forgotten the promise he made to his fellow inmates during his brief stay in prison: that he would "never forget" those behind bars

Image Source:
Chuck Nacke
Time Life Picture

Radical Personal Transformation

While Colson is one of the Christian community's most sought-after speakers, he has resolutely refused to establish a speaking fee. Perhaps anticipating criticism of any appearance of self-enrichment by a former Watergate figure, Colson donates all speaking honoraria and book royalties to Prison Fellowship, and despite building a $50 million per year charitable organization, accepts the salary of a mid-range ministry executive.

In recognition of his work, Colson received the prestigious Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion in 1993, donating the $1 million prize to Prison Fellowship. And in 2008, Colson was honored by President Bush with the Presidential Citizens Medal for his years of work with prisoners and their families, which Colson accepted on behalf of the volunteers and staff of Prison Fellowship. Colson's other awards have included the Humanitarian Award, Dominos Pizza Corporation (1991); The Others Award, The Salvation Army (1990); several honorary doctorates from various colleges and universities (1982-2000); and the Outstanding Young Man of Boston, Chamber of Commerce (1960).