William Bradford Institute
for Study of the
Early Settlement of America

Home
Sermons
 
Back
 
A Memoir of Thomas Watson




Thomas Watson's Body of Practical Divinity is one of the most precious of the
peerless works of the Puritans; and those best acquainted with it prize it most.
Watson was one of the most concise, racy, illustrative, and suggestive of those
eminent divines who made the Puritan age the Augustan period of evangelical
literature. There is a happy union of sound doctrine, heart-searching experience
and practical wisdom throughout all his works, and his Body of Divinity is,
beyond all the rest, useful to the student and the minister. Although Thomas
Watson issued several most valuable books, comparatively little is known of
him--even the dates of his birth and death are unknown. His writings are his
best memorial; perhaps he needed no other, and therefore providence forbade the
superfluity. We shall not attempt to discover his pedigree, and, after the
manner of antiquarians, derive his family from a certain famous Wat, whose son
distinguished himself in the Crusades, or in some other insane enterprise;
whether blue blood was in his veins or no is of small consequence, since we know
that he was the seed-royal of the redeemed of the Lord. Some men are their own
ancestors, and, for aught we know, Thomas Watson's genealogy reflected no fame
upon him, but derived all its lustre from his achievements.

He had the happiness to be educated at Emmanuel College, Cambridge, which in
those days deserved to be called the School of Saints, the nursing mother of
gigantic evangelical divines. In Kennet's "Register and Chronicle," is a list of
eighty-seven names of Puritan ministers, including many well-known and loved as
preachers and commentators; such as Anthony Burgess, W. Jenkyn, Ralph Venning,
Thomas Brooks, T. White, Samuel Slater, Thomas Watson, John Rowe, Dr. W. Bates,
Stephen Charnock, Samuel Clarke, Nathaniel Vincent, Dr. John Collings, William
Bridge, Samuel Hildersam, Adoniram Bifield, followed by this remark "These are
most of them mentioned in the list of sufferers for Nonconformity, and appear
upon the registers to have been all of Emmanuel College, beside great numbers,
no doubt of the same society, who were forward preachers up of the unhappy
changes of 1641," etc. In the margin of the book is the following observation on
the foregoing: "It may not be improper to observe how much young students, in
both Universities, fell in with the prejudices of their governors and tutors.
This was the reason that this single College of Emmanuel, in Cambridge, bred
more of the Puritans and Nonconformists than perhaps any seven of the other
Colleges or Halls in either University." Such a fact as this should attract the
prayers of all believers to our seminaries for the sons of the prophets, since
upon the manner in which these institutions are conducted will depend under God
the future wellbeing of our churches. The Pastors' College, for the use of whose
students this work is published, earnestly petitions for a place in the
intercessions of the saints.

We are not at all surprised to learn that Thomas Watson enjoyed the repute,
while at Cambridge, of being a most laborious student; the great Puritanic
authors must have been most industrious workers at the university, or they never
would have become such pre-eminent masters in Israel. The conscientious student
is the most likely man to become a successful preacher. After completing his
course with honour, Watson became rector of St. Stephen's, Walbrook, where in
the very heart of London he executed for nearly sixteen years the office of a
faithful pastor with great diligence and assiduity. Happy were the citizens who
regularly attended so instructive and spiritual a ministry. The church was
constantly filled, for the fame and popularity of the preacher were deservedly
great. Going in and out among his flock, fired with holy zeal for their eternal
welfare, his years rolled on pleasantly enough amid the growing respect of all
who knew him.

Calamy, in his Nonconformist Memorial, says of him:- "He was so well known in
the city for his piety and usefulness, that though he was singled out by the
Friendly Debate, he yet carried a general respect from all sober persons along
with him to his grave. He was a man of considerable learning, a popular, but
judicious preacher (if one may judge from his writings), and eminent in the gift
of prayer. Of this, the following anecdote is a sufficient proof. Once on a
lecture day, before the Bartholomew Act took place, the learned Bishop
Richardson came to hear him at St. Stephen's, who was much pleased with his
sermon, but especially with his prayer after it, so that he followed him home to
give him thanks, and earnestly desired a copy of his prayer. 'Alas !' (said Mr.
Watson) 'that is what I cannot give, for I do not use to pen my prayers; it was
no studied thing, but uttered, pro re nata, as God enabled me, from the
abundance of my heart and affections.' Upon which the good Bishop went away
wondering that any man could pray in that manner extempore."
But the hand which of old had oppressed the church was again stretched forth to
vex certain of the saints. The most learned, holy, and zealous of the clergy of
the Church of England found that the Act of Uniformity would not allow them to
preserve a clean conscience and retain their livings, and therefore they
submitted to the loss of all things for Christ's sake. Thomas Watson did not
hesitate as to the course he should pursue. He was not a factious hater of
royalty, a red republican, or fifth monarchy-man; in fact, he had in Cromwell's
day been all too loyal to the house of Stuart; he had protested against the
execution of the King, and had joined in Love's plot for the bringing in of
Charles II.; yet all this availed nothing, he was a Puritan, and therefore must
not be tolerated by the bitter spirits then dominant in the Establishment. What
seeds of discord were sown on that black Bartholomew history has not had space
to record; yet the ultimate results have been fraught with results scarcely then
imaginable. Comprehension might have hindered truth; the crown rights of King
Jesus might have lacked advocates had monarchs and priests been more tolerant;
as it was good men were forced into a truer position than they would otherwise
have occupied, and the beginning of a real reformation was inaugurated. From
that commencement in suffering what progress has been made! Every day the cause
of the ejected gathers force and pushes on its adversary towards the brink of
the precipice, adown which all establishments must fall.

With many tears and lamentations the congregation of St. Stephen's saw their
shepherd about to be removed from his flock, and with aching hearts they
listened to his parting words. He himself speaking as one bereaved of his
dearest delight, and yet suffering joyfully the loss of all things, bade them
adieu, and went forth "not knowing whither he went."

In the collection of Farewell Sermons there are three by Mr. Watson, viz.: two
delivered August 17th, and the third on the Tuesday following. The first,
preached in the forenoon, is on John iii. 34. "A new commandment I give unto
you, that ye love one another." It discovers much of the spirit of the gospel,
particularly in recommending love to enemies and persecutors. The second,
preached in the afternoon, is on 2 Corinthians vii. 1. "Having therefore these
promises, dearly beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from all filthiness of the
flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God." In the former part of
it, he insists largely on "the ardent affections of a right gospel minister
towards his people." This head he closes thus: "I have now exercised my ministry
among you for almost sixteen years; and I rejoice and bless God that I cannot
say, the more I love you, the less I am loved: I have received many signal
demonstrations of love from you. Though other parishes have exceeded you in
number of houses yet, I think, none for strength of affection. I have with much
comfort observed your reverent attention to the word preached; you rejoice in
this light, not for a season, but to this day. I have observed your zeal against
error in a critical time, your unity and amity. This is your honour. If there
should be any interruption in my ministry among you, though I should not be
permitted to preach to you again, yet I shall not cease to love you, and to pray
for you. But why should there be any interruption made? Where is the crime?
Some, indeed, say that we are disloyal and seditious. Beloved, what my actions
and sufferings for his Majesty have been is known to not a few of you. However,
we must go to heaven through good report and bad report; and it is well if we
can get to glory, though v e press through the pikes. I shall endeavour that I
may still approve the sincerity of my love to you. I will not promise that I
shall still preach among you, nor will I say that I shall not. I desire to be
guided by the silver thread of God's word and providence. My heart is towards
you. There is, you know, an expression in the late Act, 'that we shall now
shortly be as if we were naturally dead;' and if I must die, let me leave some
legacy with you." Then follow twenty admirable directions, well worthy the
fervent perusal of every Christian. He closes them thus: "I beseech you treasure
them up as so many jewels in the cabinet of your breasts. Did you carry them
about you, they would be an antidote to keep you from sin, and a means to
preserve the zeal of piety flaming upon the altar of your hearts. I have many
things yet to say to you, but I know not whether God will give another
opportunity. My strength is now almost gone. I beseech you, let these things
make deep impressions on all your souls. Consider what hath been said, and the
Lord give you understanding in all things."

The last discourse, August 19th, is on Isaiah iii. 10, 11. "Say ye to the
righteous, that it shall be well with him: for they shall eat the fruit of their
doings. Woe unto the wicked! it shall be ill with him, for the reward of his
hands shall be given him."

After his ejectment, Watson preached occasionally whenever he could do so with
safety. Fines and imprisonments were insufficient to close the mouths of the
witnesses of Jesus. In barns, kitchens, out buildings, or dells and woods, the
faithful few gathered to hear the message of eternal life. Those little secret
assemblies were doubtless charming occasions for devout minds: the word of the
Lord was precious in those days. Bread eaten in secret is proverbially sweet,
and the word of God in persecution is peculiarly delightful. Little can we
realise the joyful anticipation which preceded the appointed meetings, or the
lingering memories which clung to them long after they were over. After the
great fire in 1666, when the churches were burned, Mr. Watson and several other
Nonconformists fitted up large rooms for those who had an inclination to attend.
Upon the Indulgence, in 1672, he licensed the great hall in Crosby House, on the
east side of then belonging to Sir John Langham (a Nonconformist). It was a
happy circumstance that the worthy baronet favoured the cause of Nonconformity,
and that so noble a chamber was at his disposal. Here Watson preached for
several years. Rev. Stephen Charnock, B.D., became joint pastor with him at
Crosby Hall in 1675, and continued so till his death in 1680. What two shepherds
for the flock! Men of such most extraordinary gifts and graces were seldom if
ever united in one pastorate. They both attempted a Body of Divinity, and the
goodly volume on the Divine Attributes was Charnock's first stone of a colossal
structure which he was not spared to complete. Our author was more modest in his
attempt, and the present volume shows how he succeeded.

Mr. Watson at length returned to Essex, where he died suddenly, in his closet at
prayer, as is supposed, about 1689 or 1690. The time either of his birth or
death is nowhere mentioned.

In the Life of Colonel James Gardner, there is this remarkable account: "In
July, 1719, he had spent the evening, which was the Sabbath, in some gay
company, and had an unhappy assignation with a married lady, whom he was to
attend exactly at twelve. The company broke up about eleven, and he went into
his chamber to kill the tedious hour. It happened that he took up a religious
book, which his good mother or aunt had, without his knowledge, slipped into his
portmanteau, called, 'The Christian Soldier,' written by Mr. Watson. guessing by
the title that he should find some phrases of his own profession spiritualised
in a manner which might afford him some diversion, he resolved to dip into it:
while this book was in his hand, an impression was made upon his mind, which
drew after it a train of the most important consequences. Suddenly he thought he
saw an unusual blaze of light fall on the book while he was reading, and lifting
up his eyes, he apprehended, to his extreme amazement, that there was before
him, as it were suspended in the air, a visible representation of the Lord Jesus
Christ upon the cross, surrounded with a glory, and was impressed as if a voice
had come to him, to this effect: 'O sinner, did I suffer this for thee, and are
these thy returns?' He sunk down in his chair, and continued for some time
insensible. He then arose in a tumult of passions, and walked to and fro in his
chamber, till he was ready to drop, in unutterable astonishment and agony of
heart, which continued until the October following, when his terrors were turned
into unutterable joy."

Mr. Watson published a variety of books upon practical subjects, and of a useful
nature, for the titles of which, see foot-note.

***

But his principal work was a
body of divinity, in one hundred and seventy-six sermons, upon the Assembly's
Catechism, which did not appear till after his death. It was published in one
volume folio, in 1692. and accompanied with a portrait of the author, by Sturt;
together with a recommendatory preface by the Rev. William Lorimer, and the
attestation of twenty-five other ministers of principal note in that day. For
many a year this volume continued to train the common people in theology, and it
may still be found very commonly in the cottages of the Scottish peasantry. Rev.
George Rogers, principal of the Pastors' College, has carefully superintended
the issue of this present edition, and in a note to us he writes: "I know of no
work with so much sermon matter within the same compass. In Howe, and Charnock,
and Owen, we must often read much before we are tempted to close the book and
think out a whole sermon, but Watson teaches us to make short work of it. The
whole may be utilised. On this account it would be, I think, of great value to
all our students who have pastorates. It is for their benefit, I suppose, you
wished the reprint. As several select sermons, which are usually bound up with
this work, will appear with his whole works, after a time, in Nichol's series,
they are not included here. This is a distinct work by itself and complete. All
editions extant which we have seen, abound in errors and imperfections. These
have been rectified, not entirely we fear, but in a degree as nearly approaching
to accuracy as in revision of another's composition could be expected. No
alteration of sentiment has been made, but every shade of the author's meaning
has been scrupulously retained. The style has been modernised, so far as could
be done without detracting from its own peculiar characteristics. Long sentences
have been divided into two or three, where it could be done without injury to
the clearness or force of the signification. Modern words have been substituted
for such as had become obsolete; Latin quotations restored to their correct
form, as far as their sources could be ascertained; and divisions of subjects
more perspicuously arranged. The whole, in fact, has been rendered more
readable, and consequently more attractive and intelligible, which in our
estimation far outweighs all the supposed advantages that could arise from
perpetuating the crudities and vulgarities, as they now appear to us, of former
times. By popularising ancient works, their readers are multiplied and their
meaning may often be more readily apprehended."

As it would be most uncandid to suppress any part of an author's opinion, the
chapter on Infant Baptism remains as it came from his pen; but our conscience
could not allow us to issue it without inserting a statement of our own views as
an appendix. *** We trust this method will commend itself to all; we knew not
what fairer and more honest course to pursue.


***The following are the titles of the principal works of Thomas Watson: viz.
Three treatises: 1. "The Christian's Charter." 2. "The Art of Divine
Contentment." 3. "A Discourse of Meditation," to which is added several sermons,
1660. This volume contains, besides the three treatises, the following, viz.:
"God's Anatomy upon Man's Heart," "The Saint's Delight," "A Christian on Earth
Still in Heaven," "Christ's Loveliness," "The Upright Man's Character and
Crown," "The One Thing Necessary," "The Holy Longing" or, the Saint's Desire to
be with Christ," "The Beatitudes, or, a Discourse upon part of Christ's Famous
Sermon upon the Mount," 1660, "A Body of Practical Divinity," etc., with a
supplement of some sermons, "A Divine Cordial" "The Holy Eucharist," "Heaven
taken by Storm," etc., etc.

[This footnote is included to allow the reader comparison with the books
available from Soli Deo Gloria and the . How providentially blessed we are to
live in an age when so many good books are available! Luke 12:48]

***Interestingly enough, George Rogers, the reviser of these sermons for the use
of Spurgeon's Pastors' College, and the principal instructor of that College,
was a Presbyterian minister who believed in infant baptism. The fact that they
could work together shows their mutual respect, but this paragraph shows that
each of them their theological position seriously. [It was also an endless
source of humour for them both.] May their cooperation be an example for our
time as well.

 

Promoting a Greater Understanding of the Discovery of the Americas