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Thomas Watson (c. 1620 – 1686)


Thomas Watson

c. 1620 — 1686

Two decades ago my mother gave me Watson’s A Body of Divinity as a birthday gift. The book introduced me to the Puritan genius: mind and heart — the dialogue between theological learning and spiritual experience. Soon I had moved from Watson’s many volumes to the works of other Puritans, such as Richard Baxter, John Owen and Jonathan Edwards. I was awed at the prodigious output of men who preached several times each week, called on every family in the congregation (at which time they reviewed the family’s knowledge of scripture and catechism), and still managed to write thousands of pages by candlelight and oil lamp.

While the 16th Century Protestant Reformers knew they had to forge doctrine that did justice to the truth and reality of God’s search-and-rescue mission in Jesus Christ, the 17th Century Puritans knew the doctrine they had inherited was sound. Instead they were charged with applying doctrine; they made sin-infected hearts writhe under the scalpel of the gospel even as the same hearts, relieved of “pollution”, began to be whole.

Impressed by their ability and industry, I was overwhelmed by their capacity for suffering. The Church of England, enforcing ecclesiastical uniformity as a tool of political unity, persecuted them ruthlessly. In “The Great Ejection” of 1662 thousands of Puritan clergy were expelled from pulpit and manse, their families reduced to poverty as they scrabbled to feed their children. These men slept in barns, crept through fields, preached to clandestine congregations hastily assembled in a remote meadow or clump of trees before informers could betray them.

Thomas Watson was a Puritan giant. Surprisingly, then, his birthdate remains unknown. It is known, however, that he studied at Emmanuel College, Cambridge University. One hundred years earlier Cambridge University had been the site of electrifying gatherings of divinity students whom “Lutheran” ideas had newly seized and who would shortly find themselves leaders and martyrs in the English Reformation. Emmanuel College had long cherished its reputation as the “nursery” of those for whom the gospel was dearer than life.

Following his studies, Watson was ordained a Church of England clergyman and appointed to a large congregation in London. Soon he spoke and wrote in the typically Puritan idiom: pointed, poignant, pithy, and therefore always memorable. Ponder “The eye is made both for seeing and for weeping. Sin must first be seen before it can be wept for.” To read this sentence but once is never to forget it. Little wonder, then, that those who read others like it find their imagination lit up for the rest of their lives. “Such as will not weep with Peter shall weep like Judas.” Plainly either we must come to “godly grief” (2 Cor. 7:10), owning our inexcusable sin, or we are going to lament our having forfeited the One who could have been our Saviour. Watson’s condensation, “Such as will not weep…” is as haunting as it is indelible.

Sixteen years after he had begun his work in London, the government passed the Act of Uniformity. Since this Act mandated that all pronouncements and practices of the state church be adhered to (however unscriptural), many aspects of it contradicted Puritan convictions. Unable to endorse the Act, Watson had nevertheless always been loyal to the crown. Unlike virtually all his fellow-Puritans, he had protested the execution of King Charles I; and unlike them too he had supported Charles II. There was nothing seditious about him. Still, he refused to countenance a diluted gospel and a stifled conscience. His congregation, distressed at his eviction, listened in anguish to his farewell sermon from 2 Corinthians 7:1: “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.” Soon he too was preaching as often as his outlaw existence permitted. A few years later the government’s Act of Indulgence rescinded the strictures of the Act of Uniformity, and Watson “surfaced” in London where he ministered once more for several years, until he was found dead on his knees.

While Watson had many peers as a “heart specialist”, he had no betters. Exquisitely gifted with laser-like penetration of our innermost self, he could pierce layer after layer of self-deception, only to conclude with indisputable wisdom: “Christ is never loved till sin be loathed.” “Trust not in a passionate resolution; it is raised in a storm and will die in a calm.”

Were critics to pronounce Watson “negative” or “pessimistic” he would remind them that all real cures begin with accurate assessments. He would also point out that since God himself has said, “I the Lord search the mind and try the heart” (Jeremiah 17:10), the psalmist’s plea makes perfect sense: “Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! And see if there be any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.” (Psalm 139:23)

And yet to think Watson one-sidedly self-critical is to misrepresent him. He exulted in a salvation known and enjoyed now, and he insisted that the Christian’s manifest joy is as contagious as it is profound: “Cheerfulness is a perfume to draw others to godliness. As there is a seriousness without sourness, so there is a cheerfulness without lightness.” Realistically he recalled that love for God is never idle: “it sets the head a-studying for God, the feet a-running in the ways of his commandments.”

Watson’s caution sobers thoughtful Christians: “The sins of the wicked pierce Christ’s side; the sins of the godly go to his heart.” His wisdom strengthens us: “Trust him [God] where you cannot trace his footsteps.” And his conviction of God’s promise reassures us of a safe journey home: “You are called, and therefore are sure to be crowned.”

The Puritans were expert diagnosticians of the human condition. While the Jesuits, thanks to the Spiritual Exercises of their founder (Ignatius Loyola) have helped Roman Catholics for 450 years to come to terms with the ravages and rationalisations of sin, Protestants have in Puritan thinkers those soul-physicians from whom they, and the whole church with them, will continue to profit until all Christ’s people are “found by him without spot or blemish.” (2 Peter 3:14)