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Dockery, Union professors reflect on Colson’s legacy

Union President David S. Dockery (left) and Charles Colson in the president's office in 2005. (Photo by Morris Abernathy)
Union President David S. Dockery (left) and Charles Colson in the president's office in 2005. (Photo by Morris Abernathy)

JACKSON, Tenn.April 21, 2012 – Charles Colson was a “leader among leaders who helped to shape a generation of evangelicals,” according to Union University President David S. Dockery.

Colson, founder of Prison Fellowship, author of more than 20 books and one of the most prominent evangelical leaders in the United States, died April 21 at age 80.

“His statesmanship served as a model for Christians across denominational lines,” Dockery said. “His writings taught us how to think christianly, how to engage the culture, how to give a reason for the hope of the Christian faith.

“His heart, formed by his own life experience and dramatic conversion, touched many who had lost hope through the years,” Dockery continued. “His love for the gospel, demonstrated in his vision for Prison Fellowship and so many other ministries, radiated for all to see.”

Colson, a former aide to President Richard Nixon, pleaded guilty to Watergate-related charges and served seven months in prison in 1974-75. He became a Christian prior to his prison term, and shortly after his release launched Prison Fellowship, the world’s largest prison outreach that serves the spiritual and practical needs of prisoners around the world.

Colson entered the hospital on March 30, and doctors performed surgery the next day to remove a pool of clotted blood from his brain. His health took a turn for the worse on April 17.

Union is one of two universities in the world that Colson has allowed to use his name. At Union, Harry Lee Poe occupies the Charles Colson Chair of Faith and Culture. Poe said Colson devoted most of his adult life to a group of people that Jesus called “the least of these” – men and women serving time in prison.

“I was a prison chaplain in Kentucky in the early days of Prison Fellowship, and I saw firsthand the difference that his ministry made,” Poe said. “He played a major role in advancing ideas of prison reform while bringing Christ to people who might never have known him otherwise. He could have had a vastly different life with all the powerful connections he had, but he learned through suffering that the life in Christ is the only life worth living.”

Gregory A. Thornbury, dean of Union’s School of Theology and Missions, said when he was growing up in the 1970s, “it seemed as though every Christian household in America had a copy of ‘Born Again,’ the story of Chuck Colson’s transformation from Nixon’s hatchet man to follower of the Lord Jesus Christ.”

“It was a poignant reminder to the nation that although the White House might fail you, the gospel never will,” Thornbury said.

C. Ben Mitchell, the Graves Professor of Moral Philosophy at Union, said Colson may have done more for the cause of “mere Christianity” than anyone in his generation.

“He was a magnet for a robust, contentful ecumenism grounded in the great truths of the Christian faith,” Mitchell said. “His courageous and unflagging efforts to stem the tide of cultural decay will be sorely missed. We have lost a giant.”

Colson and Dockery became friends shortly after Dockery’s inauguration as Union president in 1996. Colson had read Dockery’s inaugural address and called him, thrilled about the vision for Christian higher education that Dockery had cast.

In the years to follow, Colson became a vocal supporter of Union. The university presented him with an honorary doctorate in 2001.

In his foreword to “Shaping a Christian Worldview,” edited by Dockery and Thornbury, Colson wrote that “Union is a sterling example of a faculty and administration working together to bring full biblical integrity, not only to the curriculum, but also to every aspect of university life.”

Dockery said it was impossible to quantify or overstate Colson’s influence on Union University.

“If you think of a national leader who has provided affirmation, enablement, endorsement and encouragement for our work, one name jumps to the top of the list, and that’s Chuck Colson,” Dockery said. “He believed in our vision for the role of faith and learning, for the Christian intellectual tradition, for the influence of Christian worldview on the work of our campus.

“He lent his name to this institution with the establishment of the Colson Chair of Faith and Culture,” Dockery continued. “We could not have asked for anyone to be a better friend and supporter than he has been, and for that we are grateful. Students have come, donors have given and people have prayed for us because Mr. Colson affirmed the work of this place.

“His vast influence will be missed. Today we give thanks to God for the exemplary life and lasting legacy of Chuck Colson.”

Media contact: Tim Ellsworth, news@uu.edu, 731-661-5215

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