A Washington pastor who was a friend and mentor to Chuck Colson, soon after Colson became a Christian, has died. Doug Coe, who also led the National Prayer Breakfast for decades, passed away on Tuesday. He was 88.
Coe died of complications from a recent heart attack and stroke. A statement released by the family said, “Despite our personal sadness, we have joy in knowing that he is now with Jesus and at peace.”
Douglas Coe began life far outside the power center of Washington, D.C. Born in Oregon in 1928, he graduated from Willamette University in 1953, where he was active in the then relatively new ministries of Young Life, Intervarsity Christian Fellowship, and The Navigators. These initiatives put him in touch with key national leaders of these groups, including Young Life founder Jim Rayburn and Navigators President Lorne Sanny. Coe maintained these relationships for decades.
Another key relationship formed when Coe was an undergraduate: Willamette’s Dean of Men was a future U.S. Senator, Mark Hatfield. Hatfield and Coe remained friends until Hatfield’s death in 2011.
Coe came to Washington in 1958 to take a clerical job with International Christian Leadership (ICL), and began working with Billy Graham, among other well-known political and religious leaders. When ICL’s founder died, Coe took over the group and transformed it into The Fellowship Foundation, sometimes called The Fellowship or The Family. Under Coe’s behind-the-scenes leadership, The Fellowship became enormously influential in Washington. It remains an important network of Bible studies and prayer groups involving members of Congress and their staffers, along with other “inside the Beltway” types.
The Fellowship sometimes took criticism for its semi-secret nature. But Coe and others insisted that the gatherings be a “safe place” for elected officials and senior officials to have fellowship and accountability. And some defended Coe’s and the Fellowship’s secrecy as being in keeping with a Christian commitment to humility. Michael Cromartie of the Ethics and Public Policy Center said in an e-mail, “In a town where powerful people (and not so powerful people) are constantly trying to increase their name recognition and their ‘brand,’ Doug Coe was the ultimate humble servant of Jesus who never called attention to himself. He knew and ministered to famous politicians and people in positions of great power but never exploited those relationships for his own personal gain. It is a virtue rarely seen in Washington but I think it [is] why so many trusted him so much.”
That trust extended far beyond Washington: In 2005 TIME Magazine named Coe one of the 25 most influential evangelicals in the country.
One man Coe took under his wing in the 1970s was Chuck Colson. Raytheon Chairman Tom Phillips had helped lead Colson to Christ just before Colson entered jail for seven months in 1974. Coe wrote a letter advocating for Colson’s release, and was a key advisor to Colson in the months following his release from prison and in the early days of Prison Fellowship. According to a 2012 article in Christianity Today:
At the instigation of Tom Phillips, Colson was mentored by Doug Coe, an unorthodox but effective Washington pastor. He ran the National Prayer Breakfast and led The Fellowship, a ministry to influential movers and shakers. Few of them wanted to have anything to do with Colson. Nevertheless, Coe twisted some arms and formed a prayer group to support the Watergate sinner. These prayerful brothers became Colson’s lifeline of spiritual support (they included liberal Democratic Sen. Harold Hughes, the nine-term Republican Congressman Al Quie from Minnesota, and a former Democratic Congressman from Texas, Graham Purcell). Under Coe’s leadership, their theology was fuzzy but their love was great. Although the word Christian was not allowed to be mentioned, the brothers lived out Jesus’ commandment “Love thy neighbor” with exemplary commitment. Colson was a mixed[-]up soul in torment at the time, but his new brothers sustained him as he began his journey from self-centeredness and self-justification to Christ-centeredness and justification by faith.
The statement released by the family announcing Coe’s death asked friends to pray Coe’s favorite verse, Luke 10:2: “And he said to them, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few. Therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.”
The statement concluded: “Doug begged us not to make his passing about him, but rather continuously showed us how to make it about Jesus. Continuing that prayer would be the highest tribute you could give to Doug, and we know you will be together with us in spirit as we bid him farewell in this earthly life until we are reunited with him one day in heaven for eternity.”
Image courtesy of YouTube.
Warren Cole Smith is an investigative journalist and author as well as the Colson Center vice president for mission advancement.