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News in 1973 of convicted Watergate figure Chuck Colson’s profession of faith in Jesus Christ was met with skepticism and ridicule by many in media. But nearly four decades later – with his death today at the age of 80 – Colson’s legacy as a historic evangelical leader with a distinct prophetic voice that has shaped culture and influenced countless lives is firmly established.

He died today surrounded by his family after suffering a brain hemorrhage March 30 while speaking at a Christian conference. He underwent surgery the next day, and his condition worsened Tuesday, when family was called to his side.

His last public appearance, in Virginia at a conference called “Breaking the Spiral of Silence,” exemplified his life’s work. Part of a series he established known as Wilberforce Weekends – named for the 19th century British abolitionist he revered – the event focused on religious liberty, the sanctity of life and the institution of marriage.

His many admirers across a wide spectrum of the church lamented his loss at a time they regard as historically pivotal.

A daily radio commentator and the author of more than 30 books, Colson founded two prominent evangelical ministries that were born from the prison experience that followed his Watergate conviction, Prison Fellowship and Justice Fellowship. The insight he offered that flowed from his faith and devotion to study of the Bible, history, culture and ideas was reflected in his founding of the Chuck Colson Center for Christian Worldview.

Colson’s voice was heard in the recent controversy over the Obama administration’s insistence that Catholic institutions cover health services, such as abortion, that violate church teaching.

In a Feb. 3 video message, he saw the larger issue of the threat to religious liberty.

“We have come to the point – I say this very soberly – when if there isn’t a dramatic change in circumstances, we as Christians may well be called upon to stand in civil disobedience against the actions of our own government,” Colson said in the video.

“That would break my heart as a former Marine captain, loving my country. But I love my God more.”

Colson emphasized that his mind was already made up: “I will stand for the Lord, regardless of what my state tells me.”

See the video:

In the video, Colson refers to the statement he helped draft with fellow evangelicals as well as Catholic and Orthodox believers called the Manhattan Declaration. The statement urges Christians not to comply with rules on issues such as abortion and marriage that conflict with their consciences.

‘In this critical hour’

His influence went beyond the evangelical Protestant movement with which he identified.

As he neared death, Deacon Keith Fournier, editor in chief of Catholic Online, called him “the kind of Christian leader we desperately need in this critical hour.”

Fournier pointed to Colson as “one of my heroes – a man who inspired me as a young man to take the path I have taken.”

“Chuck’s life’s work in Prison Fellowship, the Colson Institute and so many other endeavors, most recently the Manhattan Declaration, are all fruit borne from the same strong tree which grounds him, the Tree of the Cross of the Savior whom he loves,” Fournier wrote.

“He is a classical, dynamically orthodox Christian leader, an historic figure who has been chosen by God to help lead the recovery of Western Culture.”

The events leading to Colson’s dramatic Christian conversion began with his appointment as special counsel for President Richard Nixon in 1969.

Known as Nixon’s “hatchet man,” he was one of the so-called Watergate Seven. He pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice for attempting to discredit Daniel Ellsberg, who famously published leaked federal documents in “The Pentagon Papers” to hasten the end the Vietnam War.

In turmoil as he faced arrest, Colson came to faith in Jesus Christ in 1973 after reading the C.S. Lewis classic “Mere Christianity,” which had been given to him by a friend, Raytheon Company chairman of the board Thomas L. Phillips.

Reports of his conversion in prominent media such as Newsweek and Time suggested he was only trying to reduce his sentence. But an editorial in the Boston Globe acknowledged: “If Mr. Colson can repent of his sins, there just has to be hope for everybody.”

A year after his conversion, he served seven months of a one-to-three year sentence in the federal Maxwell Prison in Alabama.

Influenced by his time in prison, he founded Prison Fellowship in 1976, which has become the nation’s largest outreach to prisoners, ex-prisoners and their families. The organization promotes reform of the prison system, focusing on prisoner rehabilitation. Its biblically based programs have been shown to produce significant reductions in the rate of recidivism.

In 1983, he founded Justice Fellowship, a group that presses for legislative reforms in the U.S. criminal justice system.

In 1993, he was awarded the $1 million Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion, given to a person who “has made an exceptional contribution to affirming life’s spiritual dimension.”

As was his practice with all his speaking fees and royalties, he donated the prize money.

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