Methodism's First Systematic Theologian
Barry W. Hamilton
THE ARMINIAN MAGAZINE. Issue 1. Spring 2016. Volume 34.
Date Posted June , 2013
After the death of John Wesley in 1791, a new generation of leaders rose to prominence in the Wesleyan Methodist Church in England, figures that included Adam Clarke, Thomas Coke, Samuel Bradburn and Jabez Bunting. During this time, Anglican antagonists attacked Methodism from pulpits and in pamphlets. Amidst a throng of Wesleyan heroes came Richard Watson, a gifted preacher and author who defended Methodism against her enemies. Over the course of his lifetime,he made innumerable contributions to the young denomination and helped lead her through a tumultuous period known as Middle Methodism.
Born in humble circumstances in Bar-ton-upon-Humber in 1783, Watson did not immediately show promise as a church leader. Yet in time he became converted and sensed a call to preach. But his opportunities were limited, for his parents had apprenticed him as a furniture-maker. After he began to travel at around fifteen years of age, Watson served three or four circuits until he transferred to the Methodist New Connection. His habit of debating theology in front of rustic congregations backfired when village gossip branded him a heretic, and the young preacher found himself locked out of his charge. The bitter taste of failure lingered throughout his adult life and may have motivated him to achievement as salve for his wounds.
In his early adulthood, Watson developed an extraordinary talent for persuasive speaking. At first sight some churches judged him a mere boy, yet his pulpit skill carried the impression of divine unction. A precocious young man, Watson also displayed remarkable writing talents, particularly when debating theology and mustering British patriotism. Finding himself constricted in the New Connexion, Watson thought of returning to the Wesleyan Methodist Church; however, he knew some of his former colleagues had branded him disloyal. His opportunity appeared on a road near Manchester in 1811. He made a chance acquaintance with another young preacher returning home from his appointed station. This meeting became a turning point in the careers of both men.
This friendship became the catalyst that thrust Richard Watson into the top ranks of leadership. For his new friend was Jabez Bunting, the youngest person ever elected to the Legal Hundred and eventually the most influential leader in the Wesleyan Methodist Church. Bunting and Watson developed a symbiotic relationship: Watson needed a sponsor and protector to vindicate him from his youthful error and provide outlets for his extensive talents. Bunting was a strong-armed administrator who could effectively run an organization. But he needed a theologian as partner, a pulpit giant who could move congregations, a visionary promoter of missions, and an able defender of Methodist doctrine and practice. A keen observer, he knew he had met the right person on that road home. As one contemporary observed, Bunting never failed to provide opportunities and Watson was never slow to take them.
These two young men rose to the highest ranks of leadership in the Wesleyan Methodist Church, and their enemies assailed them even beyond their deaths. Yet Bunting and Watson made immense contributions to Methodism's legacy. Both served terms in the Conference President's chair; Watson wrote the constitution of the Wesleyan Missionary Society and served as its general secretary in its earliest years; he was particularly noteworthy at casting a vision for Methodist missions and raising funds for their extension; he kept up an extensive correspondence with missionaries and advocated for their preparatory education; Watson distinguished himself as a master preacher and at his death in 1833 was named the "Chrysostom" of Wesley-
These two young men rose to the highest ranks of leadership in the Wesleyan Methodist Church, and their enemies assailed them even beyond their deaths. Yet Bunting and Watson made immense contributions to Methodism's legacy. Both served terms in the Conference President's chair; Watson wrote the constitution of the Wesleyan Missionary Society and served as its general secretary in its earliest years; he was particularly noteworthy at casting a vision for Methodist missions and raising funds for their extension; he kept up an extensive correspondence with missionaries and advocated for their preparatory education; Watson distinguished himself as a master preacher and at his death in 1833 was named the "Chrysostom" of Wesleyan Methodism; he wrote several able defenses of Methodism, including a response to Robert Southey's unflattering biography of John Wesley; worked tirelessly for the emancipation and education of West Indian slaves; defended the doctrine of Jesus Christ as the Eternal Son of God against Adam Clarke's opinion that Jesus Christ became Son of God at his baptism (this might have encouraged young, unsophisticated preachers to regard Jesus the Son as less than the Father); and contributed monumentally to Methodist theological education, especially with the publication of his Theological Institutes.
Published in three parts between 1821 and 1829, the Institutes became a high-water mark for Methodist literature and a magisterial exposition of the doctrines of the English Reformation. Through their pages Watson set forth his version of what defined Methodism: the restoration of the New Testament gospel that the Reformers had intended but not completed. The Institutes sought to expound the doctrines of the Bible, the restored gospel brought to light in the Reformation. They were permeated by a deep loyalty to the British Crown and Constitution, and a conservative view of English society that included a ruling class of "betters. "This helped deflect any suspicion that the Methodists were closet revolutionaries who wanted to bring the French Revolution to England. The Institutes became a staple of Methodist ministers' libraries, including those who joined the Holiness Movement of the nineteenth century.
Today among people of the Wesleyan-Ho-liness tradition, the name of Richard Watson is scarcely remembered. Even the leaders of Wesleyan denominations rarely recognize the Theological Institutes as Methodism's first systematic theology textbook. Yet these obscure works educated several generations of ministers who transmitted its message of "holiness of heart and life."To Richard Watson and other spiritual giants like him, heirs of the Wesleyan heritage owe an enormous debt of gratitude.
Editor's note: See my review of Dr. Hamilton's major new work on Richard Watson in The Arminian Magazine 2015.