A Biographical Outline of Richard Watson (1781-1833)

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This article is incomplete as part of an ongoing research project. It may be edited by the author at any time.

Biography & Significance

Richard Watson was born in Lincolnshire, UK and spent his life in the British Methodist Church. He entered the itinerancy in 1796. He served as the secretary for the Wesleyan Missionary Society from 1821 to 1825, and as Conference President in 1826. He published his disagreement with Adam Clarke’s view of the eternal Sonship of Christ in 1818. The first volume of his Theological Institutes was published in 1823 and was the first major Wesleyan theology since Fletcher’s publications in the 1770s. Watson is usually treated as the first Methodist theologian of the 19th century.

 The period in which Watson lived contributes to his significance. Spanning the first and second generations of Methodism, Watson found himself in the rare position of familiarity with the original Methodists (excluding John Wesley) and the next generation of Methodists. By adulthood the time was ripe for the systemization of Wesleyan thought. In the mid-1830s he authored the first major Methodist theology after the death of Wesley. His Theological Institutes became a standard throughout the century. Even today, scholars quote Watson as a major representative of Wesleyan theology. His theology was systematically organized and philosophically sophisticated. His scholarship and ability to engage the great minds of the age earn him the status of a major theologian.

“It is not the gracefulness of his action, the modulations of his voice, nor the harmony of his periods alone, that arrest the attention of his hearers, and make them listen to him with delight. In none of these, indeed, is Mr. Watson deficient; but he possesses other pulpit excellencies of a still higher order, which may be truly said to lay the basis of a solid popularity, and which confer upon the former a kind of crowning effect. These are a discriminating judgment, an understanding highly cultivated, an intimate acquaintance with the sacred writings, enlarged and liberal views of things, and a happy facility of communicating his ideas to others” (Jackson, Life of Watson, 142-143).

“Mr. Watson’s popularity and influence rendered him an object of envy and direct hostility in some quarters….Wherever he went his sermons and speeches left a most salutary impression upon the multitudes who were drawn together by the attraction of his name” (Jackson, 148). He was occasioned by mental embarrassments in the pulpit (Jackson, 148).

 “It was Watson’s systematic treatment of the theological motifs of Wesley and Fletcher…which proved to be the standard theological source in American Methodism for at least three decades following the early 1840’s [sic]” (Scott, “The Concern for Systematic Theology”, 278).

Compromiser or Innovator?

Robert Chiles says though Watson preserves the substance of Wesleyan theology, he compromises its spirit (Theological Transition, 49). Is this a fair assessment of Watson’s thought? Chiles writes, “Tending to be more preoccupied with the evidences for faith than with faith itself, he typifies the scholastic inclinations of second-generation Methodist theology” (Chiles, Theological Transition, 49). That Watson took an increased scholastic approach is not profound if one is relating Watson’s way of thinking with John Wesley’s. But such an approach was already familiar to Methodists through the writings of John Fletcher. Meanwhile, Watson’s preoccupation with the evidences of faith may be the product of the situation in which he wrote his Theological Institutes. It was simply no longer adequate to declare the authority of Scripture in light of the influence of Socinianism and early glimpses of Protestant liberalism. Furthermore, given the lack of a Biblical systematic presentation of moral agency—the topic that occupies the first two hundred pages of the Institutes—one is obliged to seek out the assumptions and evidences of Scripture on such a critical issue. 

“Watson solidified Methodist theology….” (Langford 44)

Timeline

Dates are approximate based on Thomas Jackson, Life of Watson.

  • Feb. 22, 1781 Born in Lincolnshire.
  • 1787 Entered classical studies
  • 1795 Began training as a carpenter
  • 1795 Conversion
  • 1801 First year in ministry
  • 1802 Began preaching in the open air
  • 1805 Became assistance secretary for the Methodist New Conference
  • 1811 Became acquainted with Jabez Bunting
  • 1812 Rejoined the Wesleyan Methodist Conference
  • Preached the funeral sermon for Dr. Thomas Coke.
  • 1814 Appointed to Hull
  • 1816 Appointed to Leeds; became missionary secretary
  • 1818 Publishes a pamphlet on the divine and eternal Sonship of Christ
  • 1818 Appointed to London west
  • 1823 Part one of Theological Institutes published
  • 1823 Articles on the direct witness of the Holy Spirit for the Wesleyan Magazine
  • 1824 Part two of Theological Institutes published
  • 1824 A Catechism of the Evidences of Christianity, and the Truths of the Holy Scriptures
  • 1824 Sermon “The Religious Instruction of the Slaves in the West India Colonies Advocated and Defended”

Recognition among Peers and Historians

See Jabez Bunting, “Funeral Sermon,” Sermon XXII, The Methodist Preacher or Monthly Sermons from Living Ministers, ed. Ebenezer Ireson, (Vols. 3 & 4; Boston: Kane & Co., 1833), 295-325.

H. C. Sheldon writes, “Among formal systems of theology, Watson’s Institutes have long been regarded as a compendium of Methodist teaching.” (Peters, 156)

Sheldon further wrote, “[the Theological Institutes] for a considerable period ranked as the unrivaled textbook of American Methodism.” (“Changes in Theology among American Methodists, 32)

“Of the Scriptures, and of Christian theology, his knowledge was so deep and comprehensive, that when he dwelt even upon the first principles of religion, an air of novelty appeared to be thrown over his discourses.” (Matthew Simpson, Cyclopedia, 903, quoting Thomas Jackson).

“Richard Watson…was the first systematic theologian in Methodism and its most influential spokesman for the first half of the nineteenth century. His Theological Institutes (1833) was not only important in British Methodism but was the primary theological text of the North American Methodist ministerial course of study. Watson solidified Methodist theology and set it forth in well-organized detail” (Langford, 44).

“To no other single agency is the continued doctrinal unity of Methodism so much indebted as to the extensive use of Watson’s Theological Institutes. In style it is grave, yet animated, and not inelegant. It is learned, yet not at all pedantic, and though treating of subjects that are sustained by the sacred sanctions of authority, yet is there an almost entire absence of dogmatism. And though, from the necessities of the case it is the farthest removed from light reading, yet to the interested student of the highest possible truths, its matter can not [sic.] fail to afford at once pleasure and profit. This great work has been the standard of Methodist theology for a full half century; and, in respect to the substance of Christian doctrine, it was never more thoroughly acceptable than at the present time. 

The second generation of Methodist ministers, reared under its teachings, have now possession of the pulpits of the denomination, who are sound theologians and able ministers of the New Testament, because they have made the thoughts and the arguments of the ‘Institutes’ their own” (Daniel Curry in Introduction to Miner Raymond, Systematic Theology [Cincinnati: Hitchcock and Walden, 1877], I.13-14.).

“Both in Britain and in America Richard Watson (1781-1833) was easily the single most determinative of the early Methodist theologians. So pervasive was his impact and so characteristic was his theological formulation that he is the obvious choice in the early period as the representative theologian whose work must be reviewed in detail” (Chiles, Transition, 42).

Literary Contributions to Methodist Thought and Life

  • 1800 An Apology for the Methodists
  • 1805 Memoir of Mr. William Bradbury of Manchester
  • 1805 Memoir of Mr. John Cash of Warford
  • 1806 First published sermon: Genesis 24:63
  • March 9, 1806 “A Sermon preached at Mount Tabor chapel…for the benefit of Sunday School”
  • 1818 The Divine and Eternal Sonship of Christ
  • Theological Institutes (1823-24; 1850); included in the Course of Study until 1882.
  • A Biblical and Theological Dictionary (1831)
  • The Life of the Rev. John Wesley (1831)
  • Exposition of the Gospels of St. Matthew and St. Mark (1833)
  • Observations on Southey’s Life of Wesley
  • Sermons, addresses, and correspondence (see collection below)

Inclusion in the Course of Study

Reprinted Publications

Collected Writings and Secondary Literature

  • The Works of Rev. Richard Watson, 13 vols. (1833—1837).
    • Vol. 1 – Containing the Life of the Author by Thomas Jackson (1834)
    • Vol. 2
    • Vol. 3
    • Vol. 4 – Sermons (1835)
    • Vol. 5 – Containing the Life of John Wesley, and Observations on Southey’s Life of Wesley (1835)
    • Vol. 6 – Containing Conservations for the Youth (1835)
    • Vol. 7 – Miscellaneous (1837)
    • Vol. 8 – Miscellaneous and Sermons (1836)
    • Vol. 9 – Theological Institutes (1836)
    • Vol. 10 – (1858)
    • Vol. 11
    • Vol. 12 – Institutes and Index (1837)
    • Vol. 13
  • Sermons and Sketches of Sermons, 2 vols. (1854)
  • Memoirs of the Life and Writings of the Rev. Richard Watson (Thomas Jackson, 1834)
  • The Life of Rev. Richard Watson, Stephen Wickers (2nd ed. 1845)
  • “Methodist theology in Great Britain in the Nineteenth Century: With Special Reference to the Theology of Adam Clarke, Richard Watson, and William Burt Pope,” Ph.D. diss. By Elden Dale Dunlap, Yale University, 1956.
  • “Rev. Richard Watson, 1781-1833: His Work and Religious Thought,” Ph.D. diss. By W. H. Littleton, University of Edinburgh, 1956.

Archival Information

  • The unpublished writings of Richard Watson have not been collected. 

Recommendations for Research

A modern biography has not been written on Richard Watson. There is a need for both a personal study of his life and a detailed study of his theology.

John Locke features prominently in the thought of Richard Watson, appearing on the opening page of Watson’s Theological Institutions. Some investigation of the influence of Locke’s thought on Watson would provide insight into the philosophical tendencies of Watson.

Watson makes much use of Paley’s thought on natural theology. Some study of the influence of Paley’s thought is needed with attention especially given to Watson’s doctrines of God and revelation.

Given the interest in the eternal generation of the Son, the time is ripe for a revisit of Watson’s opposition to Adam Clarke’s theology of eternal Sonship.

Recommended Reading

  • Chiles, Robert E. Theological Transition in American Methodism:1790-1935. Lanham, MD: University of America Press, 1983.
  • Langford, Thomas A., ed. “Richard Watson,” Practical Divinity: Readings in Wesleyan Theology, Volume 2. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1999:44-53.
David Fry
Senior Pastor at the Frankfort Bible Holiness Church. PhD in Systematic Theology (Trinity Evangelical Divinity School). MDiv in New Testament Theology (Wesley Biblical Seminary).