Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Forgotten Heroes: Thomas Watson

For some time now I’ve felt this growing longing to know more of the breadth of the Christian experience – not just contemporary experience, but the grand story of how the Holy Spirit has been moving in God’s people for the past 2000 years. Of particular interest are the early church figures, for their proximity to Christ and the increasing similarity of our age to theirs, and the Puritans. The Puritans, though they’ve gotten a bad reputation, were magnificent in their desire to have their whole lives be living hymns of praise. They were adept at bringing the fullness of the heart, the body, and the mind all to bear in their faith.

The problem with the Puritans is that the great ones tend to be, shall we say, wordy – verbose – loquatious – they had a masterful command of the lexicon which they were not afraid to use – their works are well suitied for a weightlifting regimen or body armor for some of your rougher neighborhoods. Needless to say, they’re a little dense.

That’s why I’ve become enamored with the works of Thomas Watson, who lived in the 1600’s (roughly 1620-1686 -- this is the era of the English Civil War, the colonization of the Americas, the rise of the age of piracy, and fun stuff). He has all the passion and intellectual precision of his era, but he is wonderfully concise in his works.

I wish we knew more about Watson. We know he studied at Emmanuel College, Cambridge – which nurtured many of the great Puritan minds. He graduated with honors, and was known for his scholarship. From there he was Pastor of St. Stephens, Wallbrook, in the heart of London. During the English Civil War, he supported the monarchy, and spent time in prison as a conspirator with Christopher Love in restoring Charles II to the throne. His loyalty to the crown didn’t pay off, however. He, along with over 2000 nonconformist pastors, was ejected from his pulpit in 1662 because he refused to comply with the mandates of the Church of England at the time.

Thought he lost his livelihood, he continued to preach privately, and 10 years later, when Puritans were allowed to preach again, he rented the great hall in Crosby House where he preached for several years. Finally he died in Exeter.

One of the few surviving anecdotes tells of when Bishop Richardson came to hear Watson preach at St. Stephen’s. Richardson was quite pleased by the sermon, but more touched by the prayer afterward. He followed Watson home to give him thanks and said he earnestly desired a copy of his prayer. “Alas,” said Watson, “that is what I cannot give you, for I do not usually pen my prayers; it was no studied thing, but uttered as God enabled me, from the abundance of my heart and affections.” And the good bishop was amazed that any could pray extemporaneously in such a manner.

Though we know little of his life, we know the heart of the man from his books – one of the most accessible of the Puritans, he is both passionate in his theological precision, and concise in his practical application. His Body of Divinity is a classic explanation of the Westminster standards. But I find his great strength to be his practical works. They are practical, not in the sense that they offer 10 steps to successful sin management or victorious living. Rather, his works are practical in that they diagnose the great heart needs, and apply the truths of the gospel to these heart needs.

Two books to start with are (books that I like because they are short and easily accessible)

All things for Good – published originally as A Divine Cordial, this book came out the year after the Puritans were ejected from their pulpits. This was a dark time for those clinging to the faith of their conscience, and rather than writing a defensive polemic, Watson brought forth a book of comfort. “As the hard frosts in winter bring on the flowers I the spring, and as the night ushers in the morning-star, so the evils of affliction produce much good to those that love God.” (27)

The Art of Divine Contentment – Published in 1653, this treatise speaks volumes to our age of discontent. Watson reveals that such discontent is not new to our era – and that good Christians at all times have had to learn the secret of being content, as Paul talks about in Philippians ch 4. “Remember you are to be here but a day. You have but a short way togo; and what need is there for long provision for a short way? If a traveler has but enough to bring him to journey’s end, he desires no more. We have but a day to live, and perhaps we may be in the twelfth hour of the day. Why, if God gives us but enough to bear our charges until night, it is sufficient; let us be content.” (89)

You might also consider visiting the Thomas Watson reading room to get a better taste of his style.

Per some of my previous posts – I’m going to adapt this to be an article in wikipedia – and rather than purchasing these books, contact your library with the ordering information provided by these links and see if they’ll purchase a copy (it might even help if you have a reading group who will explore one of the books).

Soli Deo Gloria