1781 - 1833
As Missionary Secretary, Watson was an eloquent advocate of foreign missions. Although for a time he left the Wesleyans under suspicion of heresey and joined the Methodist New Connexion his Theological institutes (1829) was the most influential book in Wesleyan Methodism for half a century. He also wrote a life of Wesley and was elected President of the Conference in 1826.
A Wesleyan theologian, was born at Barton-upon-Humber, Lincolnshire, Feb. 22, 1781. Physically feeble, he had a precocious mind, and against poverty and great difficulties he bent his energies to the acquisition of knowledge. He enjoyed no school advantages after he was fourteen, having at that age left the grammar school in Lincoln. Wild and impious in youth, he was converted when about thirteen; commenced to preach when fifteen was received into the Wesleyan Methodist ministry in 1796; resigned under false imputation of heresy in 1801; entered the ministry of the Methodist New Connection in 1803; and was received again into the Wesleyan body, chiefly through the instrumentality of Jabez Bunting, in 1812.
He was active in the formation of the Wesleyan Missionary Society in 1813 (not formally inaugurated until 1817), and was made one of its secretaries in 1816, retaining the office for fourteen years. Besides attending to the duties of this office, he devoted himself to the theological training of candidates for the mission work. In 1826 he was elevated to the presidency of the Conference, and in 1827 he resumed the itinerancy in Manchester. In 1830 he declined an invitation to the chair of belles-lettres and moral philosophy in Wesleyan University, Conn. About this time Watson, who was strongly opposed to slavery and intimate with Buxton, Lushington, and other leaders in the antislavery movement, made some eloquent speeches in favor of Negro-emancipation. In 1832 he was again appointed to the secretariate of missions. But his comrades were falling. Clarke had died on Aug. 25 of that year; Stanley sank to rest Oct. 9; and Watson’s devoted colleague, James, passed away Nov. 6. His own dissolution was not far off. Disease had been gnawing at his vitals all his life; but with devotion indomitable he still wrote. He died, after intense suffering, Jan. 8, 1833.
Watson’s character was one of great beauty. His humility and piety never shone brighter than at the time of his greatest popularity; and sympathy, tenderness, and strength blended in a spirit purified by fire. How many felt the power of his presence! "A figure so tall and, thin is seldom to be seen, yet there was something majestic in his gait and manner, and, when his head was bared, the outbeamings of intelligence bespoke the genius.
He was a man of elegant taste, of a remarkably tenacious memory, great vigor of intellect, and unconquerable application. His mind was versatile, his sympathies universal. He was at home in theology, metaphysics, politics, and domestic economy. As a preacher, great things are spoken of him. Nihil tetigit quod non ornavit. "He soars," says Robert Hall, "into regions of thought where no genius but his own can penetrate." "He led his hearers into realms of thought of which they had previously no conception; and his tall and graceful form, his pallid countenance bearing marks of deep thought and of severe pain, and at the same time beaming with benignity and holy delight, served to deepen the impression of his incomparable discourses. The greatest charm of his preaching was its richness in evangelical truth and devotional feeling; and in those qualities it increased to the last" (Wesl. Meth. Magazine 1833, p. 151). "Watson had not the earnestness and force of Chalmers," says an elaborate and able article in the London Quarterly Review, 1854, 2, 192; "but he possessed much more thought, philosophy, calm ratiocination, and harmonious fullness. He had not, perhaps, the metaphysical subtlety and rapid combination, the burning affections and elegant diction of Hall; but he possessed as keen a reason, a more lofty imagination, an equal or superior power of painting, and, as we think, a much more vivid perception of the spiritual world, and a richer leaven of evangelical sentiment. Owen’s oratory seemed to be more flowing, spontaneous, and impassioned than that of Watson; but the latter exceeded Owen in stretch of thought, sublimity, beautiful imagery, and deep and touching pathos."
Watson gave the first systematic treatment of Wesleyan theology. His Institutes, though not the legal, have been the moral and scientific, standard of Methodist doctrine. Although the works of Profs. Pope and Raymond fill a niche in the temple of more recent literature, which, of course, the Institutes cannot fill, the latter work can never be superseded. The elder Hodge speaks of it as "excellent, and well worthy of its high repute among Methodists". In 1852 Dr. John Brown, of Edinburgh, characterized Watson as "a prince in theology, and the Institutes as the noblest work in Methodism, and truly valuable." The late Dr. J. W. Alexander says, "Turretine is in theology instar omnium - that is, so far as Blackstone is in law. Making due allowance for difference in age, Watson, the Methodist, is the only systematizer, within my knowledge, who approaches the same eminence; of whom I use Addison’s words, 'He reasons like Paley, and descants like Hall'" .
The Institutes have defects, however. Watson’s Exposition was written in sickness, left unfinished, and published posthumously. In the opinion of some, it is one of the finest specimens of such work in the English language. Although of ample yet modest learning, and eminently theological, it is beautiful and tender, and brings the heart nearer to God.
Watson’s influence has been great and enduring. His premature death was greatly lamented; but, "with an intellect so intense, mental labor so abundant and untiring, activity so incessant, and feelings so deep, we are not surprised that Watson fell a martyr to his exertions in the midst of his years" .