From across the nation and the world, more than 1,500 guests filled the nave of Washington National Cathedral on Wednesday, May 16, to celebrate the life of Charles Wendell Colson (1931–2012), presidential counselor, best-selling author, and founder of Prison Fellowship Ministries. Seated next to each other under the Cathedral’s vaulted ceiling were an unlikely assemblage of Republicans and Democrats, high government officials and ex-convicts, famous faces and in- famous faces, as well as faceless “little people” he had befriended.
His improbable path to this day was a remarkable journey. After a spectacular rise in the world of hardball politics, the Massachusetts native served four years as special counsel to President Richard M. Nixon. Then, in one of the most dramatic conversion stories of contemporary history, he accepted Christ after reading C. S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity in the summer of 1973. As a consequence of that decision, Colson pleaded guilty to the Watergate-related crime of disseminating derogatory information against Daniel Ellsberg. He was sentenced to a lengthy prison term.
Faithfulness, Not Success
Stunned by the hopelessness he saw while incarcerated in federal prisons at Maxwell and Fort Holabird, Colson promised skeptical prisoners he would never forget them. They were, he realized later, “sinners just like me.” Semper fidelis, the United States Marines motto, was deeply ingrained in the man who had once been the Corps’ youngest captain. Colson kept his word: he never forgot those in prison.
Unexpectedly released after only seven months, Colson took his first tentative steps toward what evolved into an international prison ministry to the least, the lost, and the left-out. “My greatest humiliation—being sent to prison,” Colson later said, “was the beginning of God’s greatest use of my life; He chose the one thing in which I could not glory for His glory.”
For decades, Colson took his ministry into prisons filled with despair “to proclaim Good News to the captives.” He became one of the most respected leaders of the evangelical movement in recent decades. In 1993, Charles Colson was awarded the prestigious Templeton Prize for his “exceptional contribution to affirming life’s spiritual dimension.” He donated the million-dollar award to Prison Fellowship.
Celebrating a Life Well Lived
“Today is a celebration of my father’s life,” said Emily Colson. Her dad had left the family a note saying, ‘‘I want my funeral services to be joyful. I don’t want people to be sad because I believe with every ounce of conviction in my body that death is but a homecoming and that we will be in the presence of God. It is the culmination of life. It is a celebration.’’
Charles Colson was 80 when he died on April 21, 2012, three weeks after he suddenly became ill while delivering a speech at the annual William Wilberforce Conference. “What will we do in the shadow of such an extraordinary role model?” his daughter asked. “I encourage you to continue the work God has begun through my father’s life. Do the right thing. Seek the truth. Defend the weak. Live courageous lives.”
Former Minnesota congressman and governor Albert H. Quie, who once asked President Gerald R. Ford to allow him to serve Colson’s prison sentence so his friend could be released to deal with family problems, reflected on the Chuck he first met after Colson’s dramatic conversion experience in the driveway of his friend Tom Phillips, who had first shared his faith with him on a sultry August night in 1973.
The Rev. Dr. Timothy George, founding dean of Beeson Divinity School of Samford University and chairman of the board of the Colson Center for Christian Worldview, delivered the homily. He noted that the proud Marine had been interred in Quantico National Cemetery and added: “[W]e are here today, in this the nation’s church, to celebrate the life of one who ended his days as a soldier in another army, the militia Christi: a battalion without bullets, soldiers of Christ, arrayed in truth, wielding weapons of faith, prayer, and love.”
Traditional Christian hymns sung by the congregation had been chosen personally by the cradle Episcopalian-turned Baptist. Bass Wintley Phipps, who traveled frequently with Colson into prisons, performed two of his favorites, “It is well with my soul” and “Amazing Grace.” The Cathedral Choir sang Canon Michael McCarthy’s setting of Psalm 23 and John Rutter’s benedictory, “The Lord Bless You and Keep You.” Cathedral Organist Scott Dettra concluded the service with Eugène Gigout’s rousing “Grand Choeur Dialogué,” its antiphonal call-and-response between organ divisions symbolizing Colson’s call for respectful and winsome dialogue between those who may hold different views. Cathedral Carillonneur Edward Nassor welcomed arriving guests, and the Washington Ringing Society rang a Cambridge Surprise Minor quarter-peal as attendees dispersed into the warmth of the noonday sun.
Live each day as if it were the best of
days and the last of days.
And when the last of days comes, live it as the best of days.
—Charles Colson, The Good Life