Biography of Thomas Watson

In recent years, there has been an ever increasing interest in the Puritans. The fluffy, spiritual junk food which fills the shelves of most Christian book stores is leaving many malnourished. People are craving the meat of the Word and are finding it in the rich and nourishing writings of the Puritans. The Puritan preachers produced deeply spiritual and eminently practical works based on the solid exposition of the Scriptures. They are being used by God to motivate modern readers to pursue greater excellence in their walk with the Lord. While some Puritan writings are like those of the Apostle Paul, “speaking in them of these things, in which are some things hard to understand” (II Pet. 3:16), many wrote with simple and profound clarity. Their works are well within the grasp of most readers. This is remarkable, considering they lived over three hundred years ago!Thomas Watson is one such individual. He is hailed as the most readable, understandable, and lucid of all the Puritans. His sermons, preserved in written form, are spiritual treasures rich in sound doctrine. He skillfully wielded the sword of the Spirit to excise the cancerous sins from even the most pious believer’s soul. All his known works have been reprinted and gladly received by masses of those who have come to love the spiritual depth of the Puritan Divines. It is my hope that as preachers, we will not just read and admire men like Thomas Watson, but learn from their example. Watson, “though he is dead, still speaks” (Heb. 11:4).

Thomas Watson’s early life is somewhat of an enigma. Virtually nothing is known of the date and place of his birth, his parents, or the circumstances of his conversion. One person aptly described him as a Puritan Melchizedek since he is “without father, mother, or genealogy.” The earliest information we have concerning Watson is from Kennet’s “Register and Chronicle” that lists Watson among other Puritans as educated at Emmanuel College in Cambridge.

While at Emmanuel College, Watson earned a Bachelor of Arts in 1639 and his Masters in 1642. Emmanuel College was an educational fountainhead of great Puritan ministers. It produced other notable individuals such as Thomas Brooks and Stephen Charnock. Many of them were Nonconformists, who protested the execution of Charles I and Cromwell’s treatment of King Charles II. While at Emmanuel College Watson had the reputation of being a very diligent student. His intellect is apparent in his writings. Watson’s works expose a profound grasp of the English language, as well as a solid understanding of Hebrew, Greek, and Latin. He quotes from the early church fathers as if they were the morning newspaper. His familiarity with the breadth of the scriptural canon is stunning. Cross-references from the entire biblical corpus are sprinkled throughout his sermons revealing a deep understanding of many texts obscure to most modern day Bible students. A solid understanding of history, botany, medicine, physics, the classics, logic, and various trades are revealed in his sermons. From the beginning of his ministry in London, he was recognized as a man of great learning. Today he is revered as one of the great pastor-theologians of the Elizabethan Puritan era.

Watson’s ministry had a great impact. He was first called to the pastorate at St. Stephen’s, Walbrook in 1646. He continued to minister there until imprisoned in 1651 by the Cromwellian Army because of his participation in Christopher Love’s alleged plot to restore Charles II to the throne. He was confined to the tower along with several other dissenters, but was released and reinstated in 1652 after he petitioned for mercy and promised submission to the government.

His ministry at St. Stephens, located in the heart of London, was profound. Charles Spurgeon describes his ministry with these telling words:

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.

After ministering at St. Stephen’s for sixteen years, the Act of Uniformity in 1662 caused Watson along with some two thousand other ministers to be ejected from their pulpits because their consciences would not allow them to submit wholeheartedly to standardized worship. Other “Acts” affected the Puritans, such as the Conventicle Act, which made it illegal for more than five non-family members to meet together in one place for worship. The Five Mile Act made it against the law for Nonconformist ministers to come within five miles of a city or corporate town except when traveling. These Acts were feeble attempts to silence the godly men, who understood they were commissioned by God to preach the Word. Watson continued to preach the gospel, believing that it was better to obey God than men. Watson, along with many other ejected Puritans, began ministering to obscure groups, in obscure places, always under the threat of being fined or imprisoned.

In 1672, after the Declaration of Indulgence, Watson obtained a license to hold worship services at Crosby Hall, since the London fire of 1666 had destroyed many of the churches. Three years later, in 1675, Watson was joined by notable theologian and Puritan pastor Stephen Charnock. One can only imagine the great spiritual blessing of having two of the great Puritan Divines shepherding the same flock! Charnock ministered side by side with Watson until 1680 when Charnock died during the time he was delivering his classic series of sermons on the existence and attributes of God. Watson continued at Crosby Hall until his health began to give way, and he retired to Barnston, in Essex.

As far as we can tell from his written sermons and a few select historical accounts, Thomas Watson was a master of the pulpit. His expositions of the Word were eminently practical. Frequent and lucid analogies, word pictures and striking parallelisms are found throughout his sermons. He had an exceptional but plain elocution which he used to drive the truths of the Scriptures deep into the hearts of his hearers. His mastery of the Scriptures, the sciences, and the English language, coupled with great spirit-filled giftedness, made him one of the clearest communicators of the Elizabethan Puritan era. On the back cover of one of his recently reprinted works the publisher says of Watson:

. . . a master of a terse, vigorous style and of a beauty of expression he could speak not only to win men’s understanding but also to secure a place for the truth in their memories. More than most of his generation he sought to follow the example of Christ’s teaching by employing all manner of illustrative material from common life, and with simplicity and charm he spoke words not easy to forget. Two hundred years after Thomas Watson’s death William Jay of Bath said that he could go to any one of his books and ‘find it ever fresh, pointed and instructive.’

Watson was also a man of fervent prayer. Hamilton Smith relates a telling story of Watson’s ability to pray:

Calamy, in his “Abridgements,” relates that on a certain day when Mr. Watson was in the pulpit, “among other hearers, there came in that Reverend and learned Prelate, Bishop Richardson, who was so well pleased with his sermon, but especially with his prayer after it 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 pen my prayers; it was no studied thing, but uttered as God enabled me from the abundance of my heart and affections, pro re nata.’ Upon which the good Bishop went away wondering that any man could pray in that manner, ex tempore.”

Many days of study in the Word and time in prayer equipped Watson to shepherd his flock with passion and conviction. His convictions concerning prayer are sprinkled throughout his works, especially in his sermons on the Lord’s prayer, which he gave as part of his exposition of the Westminster Shorter Catechism. In The Godly Man’s Picture Watson writes:

Prayer is the soul’s traffic with heaven. God comes down to us by his Spirit, and we go up to him by prayer. . . A godly man cannot live without prayer. A man cannot live unless he takes his breath, nor can the soul, unless it breathes forth its desires to God. As soon as the babe of grace is born, it cries; no sooner was Paul converted than ‘behold, he prayed’ (Acts 9:11). . . A godly man is on the mount of prayer every day; he begins the day with prayer; before he opens his shop, he opens his heart to God. We burn sweet perfumes in our houses; a godly man’s house is ‘a house of perfume’; he airs it with the incense of prayer; he engages in no business without seeking God.

Watson’s health grew worse while at Barnston. He eventually died in while praying to the Savior he had served so faithfully for many years. He was buried at the grave site of his father-in-law John Beadle on July 28th, 1686. Though Watson is absent from the body and present with the Lord, his works are a legacy that have continued to be a blessing to those who love sound, heart-searching exposition of the Scriptures. He was a master preacher who has something to teach us about preaching if we will take time to sit at his feet.